Chapter Forty-nine: Breaking the News
Will said, "I'm going home." A room in a barn is 'home' -- not here. And Ben envies him. And in some respects, so do I. Gloria had come to understand that this house, the one she quit school for, got a job (albeit a much better job than she had initially visualized) to save, this place she took her showers and prepared food for the household and put her curly red head on a pillow, was not her house, not really her home. She was at best this house's manager, paying the bills and keeping the shelves stocked; at worst, she was a mere daughter, eating up utility bills with her bathing and laundry and heat, taking up room.
She'd made a quiet examination of Will's room after Ben shut his door. Will had taken no furniture with him; some of his clothes were gone, and he'd stripped his bed of linens, taken them to the laundry room. His pillow was gone. His winter coat and all his sweatshirts were gone, his conservative 'school shirts' were gone, too. Ah. He's going to make sure Van Duyken likes the way he looks. Jeans all gone. Computer and headphones gone, but not his CD player.
What was remaining? Stuff his parents had bought him. He'd left it all behind, pretty much. Comics in boxes, sports equipment, CDs, DVDs, sports coats. Took with him only what he felt he needed.
What do I really need? Unlike Will, Gloria did need a daily shower and hair products, otherwise she'd be showing up at the Bakers' looking like an electrocuted witch, smelling like yesterday's entree. She did need access to a laundry and an iron, because her appearance was important. She did need decent work clothes and shoes.
But she didn't actually need her computer, as her email was non-existent, and Facebook -- as though she actually used it any more -- was accessible through the public library computers. All the clubby clothes were superfluous, all the high heels, really. Some day she'd probably want to go out and party again, but what she currently had would be quite out of fashion by then, so there was no point in keeping them. Yes, she had her collection of favorite books, but again, the library would have them on hand; she didn't need anything in that bookcase, especially the textbooks from her college courses, except maybe for the Accounting class.
Okay, Will, my brother has pulled ahead of me in growing up. Who'd have thought that lazy giant turd would figure out anything about life?
Returning to the kitchen, Gloria passed the time inventorying the shelves and refrigerator -- it was, after all, Tuesday, and tomorrow was shopping and food-prep day. Lolo came in the front door about about 9:45, smelling of perfume and body creams, looking exhausted. "Just going to shower and go to bed," she said apologetically.
Do it while the thermonuclear blasts are still in the future, Gloria thought uncharitably, smirking to herself that Lolo's roommate Philli was probably going to rant for hours about Will's defection. Payback is hell, Lolo, you whore.
About an hour later, Philli came home, carrying a bag from Ellis Bakery and a vase with a Christmassy arrangement of red and white carnations and roses and pine. Smiling, she put the flowers on the table. "Joe Brady, the guy who owns Brady Realty, thought we needed a bit of early Christmas cheer, so he bought us both bouquets because we do such a great job with his offices. Do you know, he was staying late tonight because he's so busy -- he says he's buying up properties like mad! He feels that now is the time to invest, while the prices have bottomed out, and the economy has nowhere to go but up."
"Beautiful flowers, Mom. It's been ages since we had any kind of flower arrangement in the house." Gloria felt more tired than Lolo had looked, not relishing what she'd have to do to her mother's cheerful mood. "Is there anything I can get you, Mom? Are you hungry?"
"No, kiddo, Mr. Brady got us Chinese on our break. I'm stuffed."
Wait. Flowers and food, both? "Okay, then. I need to talk to you."
"Oh, I know it's late for Will to be up, but I got him one of those darling little cakes for his birthday. He's looked forward to them every year since he was ten. Is he still awake, do you think?"
"Mom, what I need to talk to you about is about Will. Here." She put a glass with ice in front of her mother, measured a shot of vodka and poured it over the rocks. Topping the glass with lemon-lime soda (Ben had furnished his personal hoard of soda with a generic brand), she said, "Have a sip, it's been a long day."
"What's up, Gloria, don't shit me around." The drink was untouched.
"I didn't see it coming," Gloria said, trying to excuse herself from the fury to come. "I had no idea of what he was up to. I keep telling myself that it could have been worse -- he could have joined the Army and gone to get himself killed in Afghanistan. At least he didn't do that."
"What are you talking about? What has he done? His car's in the driveway, I saw it."
"He's worked out a deal with his co-worker, Salvi. Salvi's gone to pick citrus down South until mid-January, needed someone to stay and take care of his mom. Will said he'd do that, and in return, Salvi got him a junker car to drive so we can stop paying on Will's car." There, that put things in the best light, didn't it?
"Just like that? He didn't even tell me about it?"
"He didn't tell me or Ben about it, either. Not until tonight -- I've been trying to remember if he made any hint of a mention of it before, and I can't think of anything."
"Well, where the hell is Salvi's house?"
"I don't know. Somewhere out on Van Duyken's farm, but that farm stretches from Highway 99 to God alone knows where."
"Are Salvi's family illegals? Please don't tell me Will is hooked up with some kind of Mexican drug cartel."
At a total loss for information or words, Gloria just shook her head. "I can't believe Will would do that."
"Thank you for the drink," Philli said, and took a hefty slurp of it. "Nice. Perfectly balanced. Well, here's to getting older and having your kids do stuff you'd never wanted them to do." She took another sip. "He buggered off and left you to tell me what he was going to do, didn't he?"
"That's my middle child, always the side-stepper, always ready to avoid the consequences. I hope he's a little more responsible about Salvi's mother's house than he was here, or she'll kick him out and let him sleep in Van Duyken's barn." Another sip. "Kind of an extended sleepover, until January."
"I'm sure he'll be stopping by, for mashed potatoes and for Christmas cookies ... "
"Does that mean we're on a closer timetable to get out of this house?"
Gloria was taken aback by the bend of the conversation. "No, he's going to continue to work for Van Duyken -- he's learning to use a backhoe, and will keep giving us most of his pay." We're getting out of this house?
A door down the hallway opened. Ben made his way down the hallway, stretching and smiling. "Mom! Glad you're home. Nice flowers, smells like Christmas."
"Will didn't tell you about his stunt in advance, either, Ben?" Philli's voice took on a little edge.
"No, Mom, he didn't. He raved about how cool it was to dig giant holes with a backhoe, he waxed positively poetic about piling dirt up with a front-loader, but he said nothing about moving out to the ranch." He kissed her cheek.
"Don't even think about going into farm work," she said irritably.
"Not. I'm all about the computers. They don't drop cowpies and they don't have bees to do their dirty work, and they are not dusty, at least not if I have anything to do with them." Ben slid into one of the chairs, looking calm and relaxed. "I smell cake."
He's good. He is the innocent, the obedient, the unopinionated perfect son. No arguments, no drama, no conflict. Wonder what's really in his head? Gloria sat back in her chair and admired Ben's ability to make even a hard blow something gentle and easy. His calm acceptance of Will's move went farther than any argument Gloria or Will could have made.
"Happy Will's birthday. You get his cake by default. But only a piece of it tonight -- the rest of it we girls can fight over in the morning. When you come on house shift after school, if there's any left, you can have it." She emptied her glass, making the ice rattle, then set it down abruptly on the table. "And you, girl, I was so caught up with thinking about Will and his birthday, I forgot you were on your own at work. Are you glad to have Maria out of your hair, and how was your day? You look tired."
Gloria chuckled. "Maria isn't in my hair, she's in my brain. I've become her, and keep my temporary assistant on a leash so tight she has to ask permission to exhale. But it's going okay, even good so far. The Bakers -- it's the younger generation mostly this week -- wanted hamburgers, so I made them like that restaurant in San Francisco, Ziggy's, does, thin and fried super-fast."
"Oh, my god, I haven't had those since -- since we took you to San Fran to celebrate your twenty-first birthday. I didn't know you could make them, you've been holding out on me."
"On us," Ben said, scowling. "We never even eat hamburger without me thinking about those burgers at Ziggy's."
"I didn't know I could, honest. Maria told me to use a burger mold she has to make them uniformly sized, but I just weighed out a quarter pound and rolled it flat, tested cooking it in the morning, and it was fantastic. Juicy, yummy, Susana thought I was a magician. The Bakers thought so, too. I do believe I've secured my future there."
"Let's have some for breakfast."
"No. We don't have buns, we don't have tomatoes."
"Okay, then, for supper. I did my grocery flyer homework this evening, lettuce is on sale for a buck a head at Save Mart starting tomorrow, and tomatoes are only 98 cents a pound at the Grocery Outlet."
"That makes it easy, okay, let's do it."
"I'll be out for a few hours around noon, but I'm looking forward to thin-burgers for dinner. Lolo won't be here, but she doesn't eat beef anyway, she only does chicken and fish." Philli tapped her glass twice on the table. "Bartender, how about a refill?"
"Can do," Gloria said, standing. "You want pretzels with that?"
"Do we have pretzels?"
"Then I want them, or you can give me the drink for half price."
"That, I can also do. Half of nothing is within this bar's budget."