"It was okay. Steve came over again this evening, we made a fire, as you can see, and talked."
"Well, good. Is Ben home? Did Will call?"
"Ben's in his room, after a profitable computer job, but no, Will hasn't called."
"Dammit, I wish he hadn't had to give up his phone service." She put her purse and phone on the counter. "I'll be right back. Gotta hit the bathroom."
Gloria walked over and looked at the phone on the counter beside her mother's purse. Holy shit, that is a top of the line phone. No way we can afford that beauty. She longed to pick it up and play with it, but only gave in to one of her impulses. She dialed their home phone, but shut the cell off without picking up the wall phone receiver.
Philli returned to the kitchen. "Sorry to miss your turkey." She picked up the shawl that Gloria had left on the back of a chair. "So you got to meet Joe, I hear."
"Yes. Why, yes, I did, Mom, do you want to tell me what's going on in your life?"
Philli sighed. "It's taking a turn for the better, Gloria, finally."
"You left your cell phone on the counter. Only it's not the cell phone you had when we discontinued service on ours. And it works."
"Joe gave me the cell to use, because he was worried about me working late. He wanted me to have a way to call for help in an emergency."
Gloria frowned. "Joe gave you an iPhone so you could dial 911?"
"Yes, he did. Look, Gloria, let's wait until both the boys are home to discuss this. Will should be checking in now and then, anyway ... don't you have his phone number?"
"No, he's using Salvi's mother's phone, and I don't know what her number is. Will going out there to live was as big a surprise to me as it was to you. But why do we need to wait until both Ben and Will are home?" Gloria had a strange and sickening feeling beginning in her midsection. Pieces were starting to stick together and form a picture, one that Gloria didn't really want to look at. Her mother's sudden cheerfulness in spite of a job that for months she'd complained about how much she hated. The makeup, the nice clothes, the lunches out and dinners out and days off spent with 'friends.' And the secrecy. If everything was wonderful, why keep it a secret from her kids?
"Let's not wait. What's going on? I mean, I met Joe Brady today -- and he seems really nice, and he's just working away to get our mortgage payment reduced, and he said you're the best thing that ever happened to him, which is sweet as can be, but what does this all mean?"
"Oh, Gloria, for god's sake. I'm dating him. I thought we'd wait to talk about our relationship until Christmas or so, but I can tell you're not going to let it alone. You get that rabid bulldog look in your eyes and won't give up, no matter what. Maybe it's better that we do talk about it, and get done what needs to be done. Joe has asked me to marry him, and I accepted his proposal, gladly."
Gloria's jaw sagged. "But -- it's only been -- you're going to marry him?" While her mouth stammered, her brain raced in confused directions like an Escher print. Joe Brady was short, kind of rotund, balding. Gloria had felt like a giantess before him when she had met him. Why would her mother be attracted to a dull-looking man like that? And it had barely been seven months since her father died. What happened to the grief? What happened to respect?
Staring at her mother's eyes for a clue to this mystery, she found one she didn't want to face. There was a coldness to Philli's eyes, a shuttering. She was closing Gloria out. "You aren't in love with him, Mom, are you?" she murmured, feeling like she was on a life raft, being pushed away instead of rescued.
Philli looked away from her daughter. "He's a very nice man, a very good man. I like him a lot as a friend -- and I think that's more important than emotional highs and hormones. Love? I love how he worries about me. I love how responsible he is." She pressed her lips together, lowered her voice. "And I love that I'm the only one he's in love with, Gloria. Yes, I really do love that."
You're marrying him for his income, Gloria thought unkindly. "What did he say, 'let me take you away from all this?'"
Philli stared out the back window at the dark, overgrown garden in the fog. She smiled a little. "Yep. That he did. And he thinks you and Will and Ben deserve a college education instead of scraping along at minimum wage in dirty jobs. While you're grumping about him, he's already concerned for your future."
"I can't believe you're going to do this," Gloria whispered.
Abruptly her mother rounded on her, "Why not? Tell me, why not? I can't go on living like this, Gloria! I hate seeing my children suffer and go without! Look at you, what kind of a future do you think you're going to have as a cook's assistant? What's Will going to do when Van Duyken gets tired of giving him made up jobs to do, or when he gets hurt and can't work like an animal any more? I just can't take this any more, I don't want to be a cleaning woman until I'm old and gray and useless. For god's sake, look at me! I'm forty-four years old, what kind of future prospects am I going to have?"
Gloria opened her mouth to try to refute what her mother was saying, but had no words at all to use. It was possible Will could continue to work for Van Duyken for years, but he'd never make a living wage doing that kind of work. Nor would she as Maria's assistant. And Ben, what of him? What if he wanted to have a normal life, too?
"Come on, Gloria! We're finally on the upswing again! Joe's got an enormous house outside of Turlock, with six bedrooms, most of them with their own baths -- you and Will and Ben won't ever have to share a bathroom again, and you can go back to school ... and Will can get enrolled and start having a real life again ..."
For a moment, she felt defiance rise and wanted to tell her mother to go ahead and do what she wanted, but to not assume that they were going to go along with her ridiculous plan. But she didn't know how Will would feel -- wouldn't he just heave a big sigh of relief, throw his dirty farm clothes in the trash, and bless the cable company for getting his HBO back? Sure, he'd said he loved what he'd found, but would that last once the spring heat set in?
Making ends meet had been pretty difficult, with less food on the table, and no time for friends and fun. Gloria wanted to think about why she was so angry, so full of disbelief, so disgusted. "Okay, okay. This is just a surprise, that's all. I just thought we were ... " she let her voice trail off, shook her head. "I'm going to go to bed, another tough day tomorrow."
I just thought we were a team, Gloria completed her thought silently. That's what hurts.
She turned from the kitchen to go back the hallway, and rounding the corner, nearly ran into Ben and Lolo, who must have heard the entire conversation. Lolo's eyes were filled with tears and she looked like an abandoned dog. Ben's face was red with taut fury, and Gloria had no words of comfort or calm for either of them. Sorry, team. Game's over. She walked past them in silence.
And a team they had been, watching out for each other, sharing their money and effort to keep their team alive, not fighting any more, or being mean to each other -- there had been too little time and too little resources to waste on anger or recrimination. There was no "little brother" or "old maid sister" or "dumb ass lazy brother." And ultimately, no "dirty slut Lolo." Instead they had been people who had grown together, willing to do anything they could to beat the cruel tricks of fate and fortune.
Willing to do anything, and wasn't that just what Philli was doing? But the anything she was choosing would put her and Ben back under the umbrella of good health insurance, back into the world of travel and culture and goodies under the tree at Christmas. A clean solution, a faultless one.
Marriage to a man you don't love. What a thought. What a way to dump the whole rest of your life.
And although her mother had couched it in terms that suggested she was doing it in order to take care of her kids, Gloria didn't believe it for more than an instant. Neither she nor Will nor Ben would ever have encouraged her to hook up with some little bump of a man just to get to his money. Sure, he owned his own business and it was doing very well, but Joe Brady ... No, it wasn't for her kids. Philomena Haggin Melton was looking out for Number One. That she could potentially do wonderful things for her kids from her sharing Joe Brady's bed went far in assuaging her guilt over marrying the man for his money.
As she shut her bedroom door, Gloria remembered that there were many places in the world still where people married not for love, but to make alliances that would benefit families; that such had been the case for hundreds and hundreds of years. Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be done, after all. But her heart didn't believe it.
In the dark, she sat on her bed with her knees pulled up to her chest, hugging her legs. Joe Brady's conversation came back to her. "We need to negotiate with the bank," he'd said, and now she understood. He hadn't meant a generic or representational 'we' -- once he married Philli, he'd be co-owner of the property, in a perfect position to take over and get things done.
They're going to turn this house into a rental. And just like we started doing when we thought we were headed for a homeless shelter, everything we have has got to go. She and Ben had pared down their personal effects, thinking they would be moving to an apartment. Now ... moving to some stranger's house, in another city.
Turlock, a half-hour away from work, adding an hour to her work day, an hour off time spent with Steve. Her mother would be at home, no longer working at cleaning offices, all her time devoted to entertaining herself, caring for Ben -- like she'd been interested in that lately -- and nagging Gloria to quit her job and go back to school.
School! Ben! He'll have to change schools, won't he? Well, at least he'll be sixteen in a few days and be able to legally drive, so he can keep his computer business contacts. God, he looked furious, though.
She could have rapped on Ben's door and enlisted him in some kind of strategy as to how they were to proceed, but she had no heart for it. Suddenly they had no leeway for new approaches, and no matter how clever they'd been for the past months, Ben was still a minor child, and would have to do what his mother wanted him to do. Philli was back in the engineer's seat, driving the train, taking her passengers back to a world they'd lost.
* * *
"Get the salads in the window," Gloria shouted to Susana, who had begun eating the olives she'd spilled on the counter. Scraping at the bread to remove the excess margarine from the cheese sandwiches, she focused all her attention on the correct spread of the fat, trying not to think malicious thoughts about the need to retrain Susana at everything after two days off. The grill sizzled as she put the bread slices down; she moved them a little to distribute the margarine evenly. Cheese next, top slice of bread. Flip, sizzle, slice in half, put on a warmed plate beside a tiny bowl of shrimp in a mixture of guacamole sauce and tomatoes. The last ones went onto the tray in the window, and Gloria wiped her brow with her sleeve. Two more lousy days after this and I can relax. "Go get some lunch, Susa. I'm going to clean up a little." And enjoy a few moments in the kitchen without having to ride herd on you, she thought. God, what a morning. What a horrible night.
"Hey, Glory girl. How you doing?"
Gloria whirled around to see Maria striding in the kitchen door. "Maria!" She ran to her to hug her, carefully, thrilled to see her boss looking so well. "Are you back?"
"No, no, not yet, I come out to see if you have all our stuff put away where it belongs, so I don't make you into a salad on Monday."
"Everything is where it's supposed to be," Gloria told her. "I've made sure of that."
"Gloria, what is wrong? You have circles under your eyes like a drug addict." Maria tilted Gloria's chin up with one hand.
Gloria's voice caught, and came out hoarsely. "I -- I didn't sleep much last night. Mom came home and we ... talked. At least, she did. Maria, she wants me to quit my job and go back to school." She coughed and rubbed at her eyes, trying to keep from crying.
"Of course she does. That's what mothers want for their kids, it makes everything seem safe and good like America. How does she think you can do that and pay for the house? Isn't that why you and your brother got jobs?"
"She's getting married," she whispered, unable to use her voice for fear of how it would sound. "He's wealthy. She wants us all to move into his house so none of us have to work any more."
Maria's eyebrows drew together. "Wait, what? She marrying already?"
Nodding, Gloria put her hand over her mouth, stifling what threatened to become a sob.
"Okay, okay. Don't cry on the food. Don't cry where rest of staff can see you. Come with me, we go outside. Cold and shitty foggy, but we can survive, yes? Yes." She guided Gloria outside the back door to the kitchen.
The icy damp air washed over Gloria's face, cooling her skin, flowing down her constricted throat. "She doesn't understand -- she hates her job as a cleaning woman, she just wants to go back to how things were -- but we don't -- I don't -- I can't --"
"Easy, easy. No, you can't. You been woman of the house, why would you want to go back to being girl of the house, once you got that power in your hands, you don't want to have Mama hand you a twenty dollar bill and say, 'Go see a movie, Honey, make you feel good.' It's not normal for a woman to become a child again. Now you just have to figure out how to do what you want to do with your life, all the rest of your life, and you have twenty minutes left on your lunch break to do that."
Gloria looked at Maria, saw the concern -- and the amusement -- in the older woman's eyes. "I looked at rooms for rent this morning, the newspaper ads. I can afford a couple of them, so I have to go see them after work. It's just -- I thought we were all good with how far we'd come ..."
"Listen, Glory. Maybe I lied to you when I told you before my operation that I didn't need you to come help me. Maybe I need your help for a couple days before I get back to work. Elsie can't do too much, she's an old woman, too. What you think, you pack some overnight bags and come help me out for a couple days. We talk, figure out what you can do, what you want to do, what you can help me with. What you say?"
"I'd say yes, but I'm worried about my brother Ben. He was so angry last night when he overheard my mother's plans ..."
Maria reached out and gripped Gloria's arm. "He's what, almost sixteen? He's a man, but he's still your mother's boy until she lets him be a man. He has to decide what he's going to do -- you can't challenge his mother for his custody or his happiness. He's not your boy, not your baby."
"He's my brother," Gloria said, teeth gritted to hold the tears back.
"So you help him when you can, you tell him he's stupid when he is, and you love him no matter what. You tell me how smart he is, what, were you making that up? No, he's going to figure out what he has to do, you have to trust his smartness."
In the cold air, she had a revelation. Ben would do what Ben would do, no matter what their mother wanted, just as Will had. Whatever lapse in judgment Philli was going through, she had managed to impart to her offspring a sense of determination that had enabled them to survive, on their own terms. Maria was right; Ben was intelligent enough to find his path, and once he found it, Ben would not want Gloria to save him, he would want Gloria and everyone else to get out of his way.
"Okay, I'll come over after work."
"Don't stop to argue with your mother."
"She'll be at work when I get home."
"Don't stop to try to talk your brother out of his tree. He don't want that."
"I think you're right ... he was gone from the house by the time I got up this morning, left a note that said he was going to walk for a while before school. He didn't want to talk to me about things." She shivered. "Let's go back in before my fingers fall off."
Steve was in the hallway outside the kitchen, peering in. "Hey, lady, aren't you coming out for lunch today? Wait, what happened? Are you all right? Maria, is she all right?"
Oh, damn," Maria replied. "Now I suppose I'm going to have to put up with you outside of work, too."
If she thinks she's going to have to put up with him, then she's not thinking of me staying at her house for just a couple nights. Son of a gun, the old girl is on top of more than just the menu and the Bakers' cookies. Maria's house had been fairly large, she remembered from her visit there. If she did rent a room from Maria, they could probably get by without being underfoot for each other. And yet there was also a buzzing of ideas like a hive of bees waking up, all the tricks of cooking she might cajole out of Maria, maybe shopping for the household, even the intriguing idea of learning how to run a household in an old-fashioned way ... unexpectedly, Gloria felt a leap of optimism, a sense that although her future was different from what she'd expected only a couple days ago, it was full of potential, loaded with hope, ready to be met with anticipation, not dread. "If he makes a mess in the house," Gloria said to her boss, "we can feed him outside in the yard."
Maria laughed loudly, swatted Gloria's shoulder. "See you tonight. I got to go dust out a room for you. Oh, wait, I make Elsie do it, I'm too frail and weak, that's why I need your help."
"You're moving in with Maria ..." Steve sounded confused as he watched Maria leave.
"For a couple days, anyway," she said. "Maybe longer, I don't know, but I kind of hope so. We'll see. It's a long story just since last night ... could we get together, maybe Sunday night, have a beer downtown? I need to have a long talk with Maria about what's been going on, do some cook-and-apprentice bonding."
He tilted his head quizzically. "Sure. Uhh, can I drop by the kitchen and kiss you before I go home tonight?"
She smiled. "I would truly like that. You're going to have to wait until service is done, though."
"I'll sit in my car out in the lot and read wholesome newspaper articles until you flag me outside the door."
"Not too wholesome, Steve. That's my last break, so I'm going to want the full fifteen minutes of kissment."
He smiled, reddening, then grinned, and with a wave, hurried off to the Bakers' offices.
Gloria raised her voice. "Susana! Time to chop up the green beans and potatoes!"
* * *
A battered, multi-colored Corolla was parked at the curb in front of the Melton house. With a whoop of delight, Gloria stopped her car in the driveway, and ran for the house, slamming the car door behind her. She tore open the front door to find Ben and Lolo sitting at the kitchen table with Will. "Will!" she yelped as he stood to greet her with a bear hug and a kiss on her head. Looking up at his face, she said, "Holy crap, Will, you're taller!"
"Yeah," he answered with a grin. "And my pants are getting shorter. I had to pull some money from the last deposit for a couple pair of jeans. Sorry about that."
"I never missed it. We've been doing pretty good."
"Really?" Will drew his eyebrows together. "That's not actually what Ben's been telling me."
"I told him everything I knew about Mom's plans," Ben said grumpily. "Not that you told me everything you found out."
"There wasn't that much to tell. Joe Brady is a nice, chubby little man who thinks the world of our mother, and wants to make sure she -- we -- don't ever have to worry about finances again." She turned to Will again. "Is this some kind of mental telepathy thing that made you stop by tonight?"
"No, Ben called me, needed to talk."
Gloria stared at Ben in outrage. "You little jackass, you had his phone number all along and didn't let any of us know it? I guess you have your secrets, too, don't you?"
"I didn't want you hens pestering him all the time. If there'd been an emergency, I'd have coughed the number up."
Will took over the direction of the group with surprising ease. "We've been talking about what this change is going to mean for us -- you and Ben, especially. I'm happy where I am, and no way am I moving to fucking Turlock just because Mom wants her boy back under her wing. I'd suffocate." He looked at Ben expectantly.
Ben nodded. "I'm going to play the insulted youngest child card to the max, and since I'll have my driver's license, will insist on finishing out the year at my current school. And then next year, I'm going to lobby for a boarding school that focuses on tech and business administration; there are a couple that guarantee entry into college -- I think that's an angle Mom will go for, so I don't run off into the wilderness like Will."
"What about you, Gloria? How do you want to handle this? I mean, you've been pretty much running the show since September, I know you've got to be pissed off at moving to Turlock, back in the lap of luxury."
She shook her head at how much older Will seemed, how much more in control than he had been, how comfortable he was with himself. "You know, I've got the job I never knew I wanted so much. I'm not giving that up. Not sure exactly how I'll do it, but I've got the beginnings of a plan, thanks to Maria. I'm going to go stay with her for a few days, help her out while she finishes getting well after her operation."
Ben winced. "You're not coming back, are you?"
"No, not if I can help it. Maybe I'll end up renting a room from her. We'll see. But no, I won't be coming back if I can help it. I'll be around to pick up the rest of my stuff if this works out, but that's it. And I need to get packing right now, Maria is expecting me."
Will stood. "I need to get back, too. Promised I'd bring wood into the porch before the rain hits tonight." He held out his arms for another hug. "Stay strong, Sis. When we're all in our thirties we'll laugh about this."
"And swear about it, too. Be safe, Will."
"I'm out, also. Computer thing, only take a half hour, but I'll say so long to you two deserters and catch up with you when we can." Ben joined them for a three-way hug.
Yet when they parted, Lolo was no longer in the room.
* * *
One last thing.
Gloria carefully loaded folded blouses and slacks into her duffle, put her makeup and shampoo into a plastic bag. Her laptop she slung into its travel sleeve, not because she would need it at Maria's, but because she would not leave it behind to be taken hostage. What I don't want to be without has to go with me. She put the stuff in her car, along with the payment book for her auto loan, and the last auto insurance bill. She was ready.
Going back inside the house, she rapped on Lolo's door. "Lolo, come out. I need to talk to you." She walked back to the kitchen.
Lolo appeared silently, looking haggard. ""Yes?"
"Sit down, I wish I had time for a glass of wine with you, but I don't."
"I know. I just felt -- like I needed to give you kids some space." She sighed, a resigned sound. "I think I need to find a room to rent, sooner than later."
"Yeah, you do ... now that Mom has come out of the closet with her scheme, she's going to want to move fast. Here, I wrote these leads down this morning -- some of them might be okay. If it doesn't work out with my boss Maria, though, I'll be fighting you for them." She pushed the paper across the table to Lolo.
"Thanks," Lolo whispered, barely audible.
They sat in silence for a long minute.
"I'm going to miss you," Gloria said finally. "I hated your guts when I first heard about you, wanted to beat the shit out of you for invading my life. But I came to understand ... how much you loved Dad. And then how could I continue to hate someone who loved the man we all loved so much?"
Tears began to fall on the paper under Lolo's hands.
"And once I stopped being blinded by my anger, I got to know a really beautiful soul, one that I don't want to forget, don't want to lose."
The older woman stood up, walked to the kitchen counter, and swept up some tissues from the box under the cupboards, mopped at her face.
Gloria pursued her, took her shoulders and turned her. "I want to stay in touch with you. You became part of our family here, and that is not just some empty words. And I need you -- I need you to stay in touch with Ben, Lolo. He's going to be adrift and pissed off like only a teenaged boy can be when he thinks his mom has let him down and his brother and sister have gone off to do their own thing." Lolo broke down into sobs, and Gloria pulled her into a close hug. "Promise me."
"Philli is never going to let that happen, Gloria, you heard the resentment in her voice. She was okay with me while your dad was alive, at least she acted like that, but now ... she'll never believe I won't go after Joe, she doesn't want me in her son's life ..."
"You're important to him, and I know you love him. Jeeze, he looks like our dad more than Will or I do."
At that, Lolo crumpled, and Gloria held her tight, Lolo's head against her shoulder. "Listen, listen, he has email, you have email, he can drive and you can drive. Philli can't keep you and him away from each other. Just get together when you can, keep it quiet. But he needs you. Don't forget that."
The weeping woman stepped back, honked her nose into the wad of tissues. "I'll have Ben give you my email. Please get out of here before my eyes swell shut and I lose my cosmetics job before Santa brings all the smelly perfumes to the chubby rich ladies at the mall."
"Vaya con Dios, Lolo." Gloria scooped up her purse and opened the front door. She turned one last time before she left. "Love you, hermana."