Chapter Fifty-nine: Third Party Information
By the time Philli had roused herself, Ben had been gone for almost half an hour. Gloria had celery and onions simmering in safflower margarine, and the bread for dressing was torn up. She was determined not to engage her mother in battle; Ben had used up all of Philli's patience the night before, and she knew that Philli had more combat experience than she did. Just leave it.
Just make small talk. We've been playing this game since I was in seventh grade. She doesn't want to hear what's on your mind, she just wants you off her case -- and vice versa. "Good morning," Gloria said, just above a whisper. "Not a holiday turkey today, but some good food, I hope."
"You'll make a good meal, I know," Philli said, greasing the wheels of family relationship herself. "You always do. Thanks for the tea water."
Gloria had put water on for Philli's tea when she heard her mother's shower rattle the pipes in the plumbing. "That's some hard core tule fog out there this morning. You can't even see what's across the street."
"I looked out. It's like the winter before you were born; the fog was so thick one morning that I tried to drive down the block to the convenience store to get some milk, and had to ride with my window down to see the center line. I had to keep my eyes on it, so I didn't get vertigo, because everything else was the same shade of gray, and I honestly couldn't tell if I was going forward or up." She settled into a chair at the kitchen table, dipping her head to inhale the scent of her tea. "I caught a nine-to-three shift today, filling in for one of the girls who thinks plonking her boyfriend trumps getting paid for work hours. Any overtime is the best time."
"Wow. How do you know she's plonking?"
"She told me. Her boyfriend had the day off, so she was going to spend the day with him, because otherwise, he'd be cheating on her. Hell of a world."
"Seems like your boss would be pissed if she just called off -- and I'm surprised Boss will pay you overtime to cover her shift." Gloria glanced at the clock. Only another half hour of chitchat and she was home free.
"Gloria, my boss has a hard time keeping all her schedules covered. Hiring workers and seeing them leave is like a revolving door. There are only five of us who were all there when I was hired. The girls come to work, get bored with the sameness, hate the hours, get a job with a fast food joint, and off they go. Most of them are young and it's their first job -- the five of us who have lasted are all over forty. We're the ones who know that cleaning up after kids is a lot worse than cleaning up after office workers." She chuckled, more relaxed than Gloria had seen her for a while. "And my boss knows we can use the money, so she's just happy to have the shift covered."
"Mom, I just had an idea -- if the personnel are so hard to keep, maybe Lolo could get in. I know she isn't really fond of the makeup counter, and that's seasonal, anyway." She put a stick of margarine in the microwave to melt in the one-cup Pyrex.
"I asked her, and she said she'd rather stock shelves at Walmart than ruin her nails cleaning. Said they were an asset she'd be stupid to risk." Philli went to the refrigerator and peered into it. "Any of this stuff up for grabs? How was your party, anyway?"
"Anything in there is fair game. The party, which was once again Ben's idea, was a blast. Steve brought shrimp, and wine, Lolo bought chicken, we took turns messing with the food, and played 'Kick Your Neighbor's Dog' after. I haven't laughed so much in ... a long time. It was nice." Nice? Right. It was the best night of my life so far.
"That's good. I'm going to take the chicken and make a salad for my lunch, then. And we're having mashed potatoes and gravy with the turkey, I hope?"
"Yes, ma'am. And dressing. And some mixed veggies. The supermarket had frozen vegs on sale for a ridiculously low price this week, couldn't resist them. Oh, I was going to let Ben have his meal when he gets home from school ... you'll be home by three-thirty, won't you?"
"Most likely. If I'm not, go on and eat. Just put the food in the oven and keep it warm when you're done." As she looked up from her spinach and leaf lettuce salad, she smiled. "Good morning, Lolo. You're up early and dressed to kill for a day off."
"Good morning. Victor Mogollon -- I used to work with him -- called me and told me one of the salesmen at his dealership is moving to Texas at the end of the month. He said the general manager is going to be in the showroom this morning for the ramp up of the big Christmas sales event, and thought I should bring around my resume and let them know I'm looking to get back into car sales." She put the kitchen apron on over her cream-colored suit and began to make coffee. "I've got to go to Office Depot for color copies and a sexy folder, then hit the library to research everything I can about this year's models in Toyota Land. And then Buicks, too, because I might as well stop at the GM dealer when I'm done with Toyota."
Philli squinted at her. "I would have thought that they'd all be downsizing sales staff with this recession."
"Victor says the owner has a lot of money in the bank and is just waiting for the smaller dealers to fail. Then he gets their business, and he -- and a few others in town -- they're certain that the rebound is going to come a lot sooner than the newscasters are reporting. The car dealers who are going to come out of this stronger than ever are the ones who have a staff of salespersons who can sell cars -- any cars -- to tentative customers." She hooked her thumb at herself. "That would be me. I just have to convince them."
Philli said, "Cool, Lolo. You go get them." She put her salad and an apple into her insulated lunch tote. "I'm off to vacuum carpets and empty trashcans." She grabbed her purse from the chair and walked out the door. "See you guys later."
Lolo looked at the closed door in silence for a moment. She turned to Gloria. "Maybe I shouldn't have said all that."
"Don't worry about it. Ben and I don't know what we should or shouldn't say at any given hour, either." She went to the stove, stirred the onion and celery, turned the burner off. Using a slotted spoon, she began drizzling the mixture over the bread pieces. "The longer this stuff sits, the better it will taste. I'll probably have eaten most of it by noon."
The older woman hung the kitchen apron back on its hook. "I'm leaving now. But I just wanted to thank you for including me in your party last night. I had a lot of fun -- this is probably the wrong thing to say again, and if so, I'm sorry. But I felt like you and Ben were more like family than what I grew up with, and I liked it." Her eyes began to well up.
"Don't cry, Lolo, you'll screw up your war paint, and you must go wage war for the sake of employment." She shrugged. "Go to war, come home to family. Ben and I feel that way, too, both of us. Don't know how that happened, but it has." She held out her right fist for a bump. "Knock 'em out."
Lolo returned the gesture. "All I need is for them to give me an ear. Adios."
The house to herself, Gloria sank into a kitchen chair, feeling boneless. Ben had the laundry under control, the shopping for the week was done, there was nothing more to prep until after ten. They'd cleaned the house for the party, so that wasn't on the schedule today, either. There were two carloads of Ben's stuff to take to the thrift store, but that was it. Aside from a minimal bit of cooking, Gloria actually had the whole damn day off. What do I do, put my head on my arms on the table and think about kisses all day? Good thing Steve's working, otherwise I know what I'd be doing all day.
The thought shocked her into standing and looking around the kitchen. I can clean out the fridge. Soapy water and no crises, that's it. Pick 'em up and put 'em back. She began to draw hot water into the sink.
At a quarter to ten, the doorbell rang. Gloria left the turkey on the counter and answered the door. A short, portly man in a suit smiled at her.
"Is Philli home?" he asked, a hopeful light in his eyes.
"No, she had a shift come open today and went in to work. May I help you?"
"Oh, I'm surprised she didn't call me. I'm Joe Brady. She left this at my house last night, and I wanted to return it to her." He held out a lightweight shawl.
Gloria looked at the soft woven shawl without the least bit of surprise. So Mom hasn't told you she hasn't told us about you. How interesting. Let's see what else he doesn't know she hasn't told us. She felt that what she was about to do was wrong, but leaving her kids in the dark was wrong for Philli to do, too. Two wrongs don't make a right, but who gives a shit. I need to know who this guy is. "Why thank you, Mr. Joe" -- aiming for the friendly, chummy address of a potential ally -- "won't you come in out of the fog for a cup of tea or coffee?"
He grinned broadly. "Don't mind if I do. Philli's told me so much about her kids, and I've been really looking forward to meeting them."
"Well, it's just me, Gloria, the oldest ... Ben's at school, and Will's off camping on a ranch outside of town watching over a friend's property." She led him into the kitchen, put a pot of water on to boil.
"That's sweet of him," Brady said. "Philli told me he took a job working the almond harvest to help keep your family in this home. That takes some ganas, I'd say. Aren't many young men who would do that."
"I agree. Will jumped into it with both feet and saved the day."
"And you, too -- your mom said you took on a grueling job as a cook for the Baker family." He folded his hands on the kitchen table in a manner that Gloria knew was a professional habit.
Watch what you tell, this guy is in real estate and looks for weaknesses in his clients, so he can make them buy what he's offering. "Yep," Gloria said in a confiding voice, "I was ready for any kind of grunt work, but what I got was a blessing -- the job of the dreams I never knew I had."
"Thank the good Lord," said Brady.
So he doesn't know that Philli has no religious affiliation. Emboldened by his ignorance, she kept things casual, but hmm, maybe 'business casual?' "Mom said you and she were talking about options for this property. We were almost to the point of just walking away from it in September, so all of us are really mentally invested in what needs to be done."
"Oh!" He raised his hands and then put them back on the table. "This is a great property, a good neighborhood. We need to negotiate with the bank, of course, and get the mortgage lowered, but after that, it will be worth more as a rental property than the mortgage payment. A win-win situation."
Gloria frowned. "Now there's a mystery to me. How do you get the bank to lower the mortgage?"
He smiled slyly. "You deal with someone in power, and present a long-term business plan. If you are in real estate like a gambler, always looking for big payoffs, they won't work with you. But if you have been honest with your buyers about what they can actually afford, your market is more stable, and the bank loves that. I've been doing this for twenty years. Slow and steady is my motto. My people stay in their homes, because they buy what they need, not the working couple with one kid who think they ought to buy a 3200 square foot home. I can do that, but only if I think that the family will actually be able to sustain the mortgage. Most of the time I don't, though, and your bank knows I'm not a risk."
"So many people lost their homes. That's a shame. No one was really expecting the economy to tank," Gloria said.
"Exactly. And to add to the instability of the market, unscrupulous realtors sold them ridiculously large and overpriced homes, and that benefits no one, not the families, and not the banks."
The phone rang. "Excuse me for a moment," Gloria said to Brady. She picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Gloria, I just wanted to --"
"Steve, are you okay? Is everything okay? Are we okay?"
"Yes, all okay, but what --"
"I'll call you back later and leave a message if I have to, but I must not leave a very important visitor, a friend of my mom. Later." She hung up.
She smiled broadly at Brady. "Sure hope the boyfriend can take a joke."
Brady laughed aloud. "I'm very flattered! You didn't have to do that."
"Sure I did. I can talk to him from five till midnight. I know you have a busy schedule."
"I do, and I should get going. When is Philli getting off shift?"
"Three or so. She might stop at the store on the way home." Or whatever it is she does with her off time.
"Okay, I'll call her then. You know, Gloria, it was really nice meeting you. I think the world of your mother -- she's the best thing that ever happened to me in my entire life."
Holy shit, this guy is nuts in love with her. She shook his extended right hand. "I'm glad to have met you, too, Mr. Brady. She seems to like you a lot." Not sure if that's really true, but I did use the word 'seems.'
"Call me Joe, Gloria. Tell Philli I was by."
"I will," she said, calling out the door. When it shut, she darted for the phone, punched in Steve's number. The ring went to voicemail. "Steve. It's Gloria. Please, please, please call me when you get off work. Or afternoon break. Or lunchtime. I'm so sorry I couldn't talk when you called, I had a -- crap, I don't even know a word for him -- in the kitchen and I didn't want to say anything in front of him. Hope I hear from you. Bye."
She hung up the phone and grabbed two handfuls of her own hair. "Ahhhhh!" she shouted, frustrated at her failure to connect with Steve the day after their first kiss. Then she looked at the turkey in the roaster on the top of the stove, awaiting its final procedures, looked at the clock, and pushed the pre-basted beast into the oven.