Chapter Thirty-five: Adjusting Again
Will had joined Ben in whining about another vat of spaghetti sauce for their meals the next week.
"No, no, no," Gloria had told them. "Look at this flyer -- I never realized the Wednesday sales flyer arrives in our mailbox on Tuesday, because we're all such shits about going down to the mailbox. It's only because I'm trying to keep up on the bills that I've gotten better at it. Anyway, pork this week is ninety seven cents a pound! You guys like pulled pork sandwiches, right?"
"Well, yeah, who doesn't? You know how to make that stuff?" Ben was incredulous.
"It's so easy even Will could make it. You don't even have to be able to read to do it."
"You must be feeling good to be such an asshole, Glory."
"I am, and you must be, too, to stay up past eight-thirty."
"We're just clearing trimmings now," Will said, "putting them in big piles for burning. I rake trimmings away from the trees, the dude on the tractor -- they call him Gonzo, but his last name is Gonzalez -- haven't figured that one out yet -- Gonzo has this humungo fork on the front of the tractor and scoops up the branches and stuffs them on the burn pile. Not hard work, not like working the shaking."
"I'm glad you're not working so hard, Will, really. You've lost a lot of weight just in the past few weeks. Time for a bit of rest, I think."
"Shit, it's not like I didn't need to drop that belly. I don't ever want to get that flabby again, so don't go all 'got to feed my little brother up' kind of crap."
"That's right, sister. Send the platter to the baby brother first. I never have been fattened up."
"And you never will. We're planning on selling you off to a Caribbean cruise line as a cabana boy, so don't get fat, and do start working out."
"Wait," Will interjected, waving his long arms. "I wanted to be the cabana boy. It's not fair. I didn't get to go to college, I was going to major in Cabana Boy."
"Life can pass you by, just like that," Ben said, snapping his fingers. "And I managed to sell that Batman comic of yours for five bucks, so be grateful for what you got."
"No shit, did you? Cool. What about the others?"
"Nada. I'll do the spread again closer to Christmas. Money's tight all over."
And indeed it was. In the Central Valley area, business after business was folding. The people who had got almost terminally stung with the housing market's drop, the ones who had bought the big, big houses with the little down payments had also bought big sports utility vehicles ... the operative word in the booming time had been Big. Big house. Big car. Big debts, but who cared, they also had Big Bank Deals -- they bought the house at a ridiculously low entry interest rate, assured that the boom would continue and the balloon payments would either never materialize or their income would increase to swallow the payments. Then, four months, six months into the mortgage they were invited to refinance, as the market value of their home had increased amazingly, so they did, and with the refinancing, had been able to buy the second SUV, the boat, the time share in Tahoe, the Alaskan cruise, the new dining room table and chairs and hutch and sideboard ...
Businesses began to fail. Jobs were lost, at first just a few, but then with an avalanche. People could no longer afford the payments on their cars; they watched them towed away. The new furniture went out on their driveways, sold for a fraction of what it had cost, the sellers hoping to get enough to stay in their houses another month. House after house, automobile after automobile was repossessed. People fled, their income gone. Specialty stores, which had relied upon disposable income, found there was none to be had, and disappeared.
People stopped buying new cars.
People who had cars that they could no longer pay for simply stopped making payments. The Meltons were among them. Time would pass before they were required to tough it out, but that time was running short.
What did people do when they couldn't all afford to have cars? Did they all live within walking distance to work? Was there enough public transportation to get them where they needed to be at any given time? How the hell did they manage ten bags of groceries if they had to take a bus?
It was November. The house payment had been made again, they had another month in the house, thanks to Will's work, Philli's and Gloria's jobs. The money that remained was enough to fund the payments of one car. One. Out of four.
Their father's car was the first that they decided to drop, skipping even a partial payment due on the first. Then at the end of December it would be Gloria's. In January, Will's. Until then they'd send in token partial payments, hoping that the bumper crop of repossessions would keep the lender sending threatening letters for a while before the tow truck showed up.
"It doesn't matter much to me, since I'm not going to have a job much longer any way," Will said.
There was a bus that ran to the end of the lane at the Baker's property, its regular stop farther down Scenic Road, not a horrible walk for Gloria, just adding another two hours to her day, another two hours that she couldn't be home and taking care of things. She didn't like that, but she could live with that.
"So what do we do with the cars? Just continue to use them until the tow truck picks them up and drags them away?" Will asked.
"Yeah, I guess so. But we have to have a plan before then. We know I can ride the bus and get to work and back. I'll take along a book about cooking, it'll be like studying for a course. It's not a problem for me."
"I think Salvi would pick me up if I'm still working when the convertible goes, if I pay for his gas. Dammit, I hardly had any miles on it at all. Hey, here's an idea! If Mr. Van Duyken doesn't need me any more, I fill my car up with gas one last time, and take off down the coast. When they come to repossess it, I'll be long gone, and they can spend weeks tracking me down. I'll go to jail, so you won't have to worry about feeding me for a few months, at least. What do you think?"
"I'm ignoring that, it sounds too good to be true. We've got to have a car, there's no way around that. But the up side of mom's new hours is that we'll still have access to the car in the mornings, so we can still get groceries, or go to the bank." Gloria wanted to hurry on with the conversation, before Will realized that in another two weeks, he would be eighteen, and eligible to sign up for military service. It wasn't so much that she was against the military; it was just that she didn't want to see her brother go off to a foreign country and possibly get killed by people to whom a white, freckled face was a visage of evil. And most of all, she didn't want to be put in a position of feeling glad that her brother had joined the military because it meant more food for the rest of them. "The point is that we have another month in this house, and if we can just keep on, we know we can survive."
Ben, who had been riding a bike to school for years, had no comment, nor did he rub in his lack of contribution to the Melton family debt. Had life continued in the way it had before his father's death, he would have received a car of his own in less than two years, when he graduated.
From the outset, in which Gloria had desperately sought a job, and the present, in which Gloria desperately loved her job, a fundamental shift had occurred. At the beginning, she had been willing to do almost anything to gain some money to keep her family in their home. Only a few short weeks had passed, and now she was willing to endure most anything to ensure that her job was intact and that her family was intact, wherever they might have to live ... as long as she kept this job, which had changed from ordeal to ... blossom.
I love my job, she thought in the darkness, waiting for sleep. The smell of food cooking, making beautiful plates, the clean kitchen -- it's less like a job than it is a gift. She could have been forced to go from part time job to part time job, maybe two at a time ... Ben reported the local news he read from the newspapers at the library; businesses were still reporting hundreds of applicants for posted job openings, even part time ones. On the strength of being a good student in a community college class -- wow, who would have thought back in tenth grade that being a good and polite and upbeat student would be so valuable? -- and paying attention to her mother's instruction in cooking, she had found a plum of a job.
She herself could have gone to the military recruiter and signed up for the Army or the Air Force -- maybe even the Navy -- when she heard that they were going to have problems keeping the house. But if she had, yes, she might have been able to send money back home to her family, but would her mother have had the schmaltz and discipline to cut off all the unessential drains on the household?
As of last week, the cable television was no more. It was strange to come home and see the screen of the TV dark, hear no background yatter of football or sitcoms, finding Will asleep on the couch, Ben reading a book or doing homework at the kitchen table. Her mother had been angry when she found out that Gloria had cancelled the cable package, finding out only after the fact when she came home one evening and had no television. She had called the cable company the next morning to report no service, and found out that the account had been cancelled. At least she hadn't tried to get it hooked up again, which would have been an additional expense on top of the monthly bill they could no longer pay, and at least she hadn't called Gloria at work to yell at her. Instead, she had left a very nasty note on the kitchen counter, which made Gloria cry at the injustice of it all, but did not make Gloria regret the cancellation one whit.
They had the house for at least another month. That was the thing to remember, the roof over their heads and no one having to sign up with the Army in order for the rest to stay in the house.
That her mother seemed to be growing more distant with every day that passed was regrettable, but there was little Gloria could do to breach the rift. Philli hated her job, Gloria loved hers. Philli resented that tremendously, and rebuffed any attempt that Gloria made to draw her into the Melton team game.
It's not my fault that she hates her job, Gloria thought to herself. She was so proud at first that she landed a full time job with benefits. Would we really be better off if I hadn't found a good job? Would she be happier if I'd had to take a position with that horrible residential care place that smelled so bad and couldn't keep their openings filled? Why isn't she just happy she has a job and that she and Ben have medical insurance?
I love my job, that's what I have to remember. Even if Dad was alive, I'd want to have this job.
In the morning, her mother would probably sleep in, and it was her day off, and not only were potatoes on ridiculous sale this week -- ten pounds for ninety-seven cents -- but chicken was thawing in the fridge, and along with the daily learning curve that accompanied every day, Maria had taught her a way to cook chicken that beat the pressure cooker all to hell as far as taste and texture was concerned. Thinking of the moist, delicious chicken, and knowing she didn't have to pack up her clothing and books and things to move, she shut her eyes, and fell asleep.