Chapter Fifty: Late Lunch
"I think what surprised me most about Will moving out of the house was that I understood why he was doing it," Gloria told Steve over their hamburgers and fries at Little Danny Angel. "We three have known each other for nearly sixteen years ... we've fought and called each other names, stole each others' stuff, pranked each other, tried to pass off our own chores onto each other. We still loved each other, of course, but we loved because that's just what you do when you're brothers and sister, not what you feel so much. And I can honestly say that I had no idea that Will had a brain, much less what kind of thoughts were in it. Now, in just a few months, I know he's smart enough to do whatever it takes to survive, and he's got a big heart, too." She shook a fry at him. "See, we three thought we were going to suffer badly when the finances tanked -- thought our world was ending. But instead, we just changed -- became different people with very different perspectives on life. Will has turned into this -- young man who doesn't want to be told how to live and what to do."
"That does happen, you know, to just about everyone." Steve's eyebrows arched and his eyes sparkled.
Tease me, will you? "Not to me. I have no intention of becoming a young man just to fit in with 'everyone.'" She sipped her beer, let the quiet bar realign the conversation. "We all grew up, began to figure out how to live in a real world instead of just hanging around waiting for it to happen. Will said he wanted to be free of Mom's expectations for him ... and I know the feeling so well. I was supposed to get a degree and a job and get married and have kids and hold the job and get my own house and invite the family over for Fourth of July and take my family to Mom's for Thanksgiving, the whole TV suburbia thing. I don't want to do that. I didn't want to do that, but I didn't know I didn't. Until I suddenly couldn't follow that path, and got this job with the Bakers."
"Here's to that," he said, holding out his mug. "You were the ideal person for the job."
"Thanks. I hope so, because I sure do love it. Though I'll love it more when Maria's back. She is the bomb."
He shook his head. "Every other one of her assistants I've known about hated working with her. I'd like to be a fly on the kitchen wall and watch you two, see why you both are so happy with each other."
"Because we would both swat you."
"No, I'm serious. Thomas said the Bakers simply couldn't find an assistant that Maria could put up with, or who could put up with Maria. Most of the time Maria worked alone ... but this time she had to have someone to help her. Could that be it?"
"I think she'd have been more resentful knowing she had to have help, so I don't think that's it. Maybe it's because I like cooking -- no, love cooking -- another thing I didn't realize before -- and I'm not in the job just for a paycheck and nothing more."
"Rob and Vanessa Baker were still raving about yesterday's burgers this morning. Maybe I should have connived another visit to your house and had you make one for me."
"Too late. I made a pair of them for Ben just before you picked me up."
"Be honest. This place makes a mean hamburger, don't you think? Or are yours better?"
"They make better fries than I've managed ... tell you what, if the Bakers ever ask for them again, I'll make one for you."
"Deal. If Rob has any say, it'll be soon."
Hmm. He didn't kiss me good night, or even shake my hand, Gloria mumbled over in her mind, walking up the driveway towards the house. Is that a relief, or a disappointment? She let herself in the front door, dropped her purse on the floor out of habit, and took off her coat. Ben was sitting in the kitchen, looking at his fingers splayed out on the table. "What's up, punk?" she said to him.
"I'm trying to decide whether staying out here waiting up on everyone is polite, or obsessive. At least Will used to come staggering in the door after nightfall, unlike the rest of you, who can't seem to come home until nearly midnight."
"What are you talking about, Gum-head? It's barely ten."
"Mom only got home around nine -- some 'lunch out' that is -- Lolo dragged in at nine-thirty looking like the zombies had got her, and now you, dinner-and-a-movie until ten and some. I've been all alone since you left. Is that any way to treat a baby brother?"
"Oh, shit, I forgot that you're still teething and needed a pacifier. My bad." She opened the refrigerator and peered in. "Jeeze, I wish I'd have splurged for some olives or some pickles," she said. "But no, not a single damn nosh to be had. How am I to put on extra pounds without snacks? And did you or did you not tell me that you had two computer calls this evening, so you weren't alone like a lost orphan?"
"Yeah, I did. Made forty dollars, too, it's in the money jar. Chump stuff, just cleaning up files to optimize performance, downloading some better programs."
"Damn, Ben, that's some good money for an after-school job."
"Beats the shit out of mowing lawns. Listen, the rain's starting. I wonder if Will and Salvi's roof patching worked."
Gloria opened the slider door to the patio, marveling at the tapping of the rain, the sign of winter. "I love that sound ... right up until February. Then I can't wait for summer. What'd we have, just a measley two rains in November?"
"Something like that. Weather report says we're going to be rainy for the next four days, though. Green things up. Gloria, do you know who the friend is that Mom went to lunch with?"
That was a sudden turn. "No, I don't."
"When she got out of the car, the interior light came on. It was some guy with dark hair."
"Well, did she say anything about where she was all day?"
"Nope. She said, 'Hey, son, is your homework done?' and pinched my cheek and went off to her room. She smelled like she'd been to a steakhouse."
Gloria sighed, her good feeling about her time with Steve fading as she noted the tension in Ben's voice. "Ben, I'm not going to ask her about him or her day. I'm sure she's still pissed about Will not telling her what he was doing, and she's just too prickly with me when I question her. She'll tell us if she wants us to know. And frankly, if she doesn't want us to know, then I don't want to know."
"He's not one of her co-workers. Her boss only hires women, Mom told me that when she first got the job."
"Still not going to ask her. I took the heat for Will, I'm not doing it to feed your curiosity."
"Then I will. I'm the one she doesn't get mad at."
"See? I knew you'd figure it out. Fish chowder sound good for supper tomorrow? We're almost to the bottom of the freezer -- most of what's left is pork chops, freezer burnt beef roasts and tilapia. I figure the tilapia and the bag of shrimp ought to make a good mix."
"As long as we have toasted cheese sandwiches with it. Soup doesn't keep me from getting hungry in the evenings."
"What kind of soup?" Philli's voice asked from the doorway.
"Hey, Mom," said Gloria, by way of greeting. "Seafood chowder."
"That sounds good -- good rainy day food." She looked at Gloria with a steady stare that carried a load of warning. "Do you mind making enough for Lolo as well as us? She has the day off tomorrow."
There was no way she would get into a fight with her mother with Ben present, and there was no way that she could be inhospitable to a guest in their house, even if the guest was a stupid tramp. "Of course not. I'll just do the same amount as usual, and if Will shows up to mooch, he can have some of Ben's share."
"Speaking of Ben -- as though he actually was present to hear his food being given away," Ben said, lowering his eyebrows at Gloria, "Ben has a question for you, Mom."
"Ask away, if you actually are here." Philli smiled, enjoying the play.
"I saw you come home. Who was the dude who was driving?" His tone was light, non-committal, carrying none of the edge he'd shown Gloria minutes before.
Gloria watched her mother startle, almost imperceptibly, and hesitate just a fraction of a second. "He's Joe Brady, of Brady Realty. We clean his offices every week."
Neither Ben nor Gloria said a word.
Philli sat at the table, clasped her hands together and looked at them. "I've been talking with him about ways we can sell this house without losing our shirts, my dears. It's very undervalued compared to the mortgage we're paying on."
"I remember you telling me that back in September." Sure you are. Just talking about mortgages and selling this house, but not talking to me or Ben about it. When we've all been pooling out money to keep this house. This house. There hasn't been any mention of moving to an apartment, has there?
"He says that there are so many foreclosures that the banks can't really handle all of them, so a lot of people are renegotiating their mortgages, getting lower payments, and in some cases having less to pay back."
"So it's like the banks are rewarding people for staying put, and not dumping another property on them. You know, that makes sense," Ben nodded. "The city has rules for how you have to keep up a property -- like the ones about not letting your weeds grow taller than your kneecaps -- and I doubt that a bank wants to hire gardeners and carpenters to keep up a property no one can buy anyway."
Philli stood, seemingly satisfied by the conversation. "Well, if you don't mind, I'm going to change the sheets on Will's bed so Lolo can sleep in there. She and I will still share my bathroom, but at least she won't have to listen to me snore. If Will comes crawling back missing his DVDs, he can just sleep on the floor." She left the kitchen.
Gloria watched Ben's face as he saw their mother walk away, but couldn't read his expression. A grimace she could have understood, a frown, a nose wrinkled in distaste, a blush of anger. But there was nothing. Then he turned to her, and his eyes were cold. "Right. Nine hours of mortgage education. Who does she think she's kidding?"
"Somebody, I guess. But not you, and not me."