Chapter Two: Afternoon Wedding
Two o'clock on a Saturday afternoon.
Frantic prep in the kitchen all morning, getting lunch ready, doing as much as could possibly be done before the big meal at five-thirty: carrots julienned into bright orange toothpicks, tiny onions quartered into heated (but not cooking) butter substitute, chicken breasts rubbed with olive oil, parsley, and garlic. Cranberry and orange juice mixed for the special drink to be served with dinner; white wines put into the cooler to chill, sauvignon blanc, and chenin blanc (for those who preferred a sweeter flavor). Raspberries set to rest in mounds of freshly zested lemon rind.
Maria reserved making the vanilla custard for herself, not quite trusting Gloria to do it perfectly, much to Gloria's relief. She'd never made custard from scratch in her life, and until she snatched quick peeks at Maria's procedure, had had no idea what making a custard entailed. Even after the mixture had been cooled and carefully spooned into delicate little cups, Gloria was unsure of what all was in it.
Taking two hours off from work so soon after the Bakers had waived the remainder of her probationary period made her nervous. She worried that they might see her as being ungrateful for the generous gesture, even though it was not her choice for her mother to remarry in the first place, or to hurry into that marriage before Christmas, or to agree to a marriage ceremony in a church in a town down the highway with a reception in the church hall afterwards. Had Gloria her own wishes, they'd still be living in what had been the Melton household in local Modesto, holding the fort together with hard jobs and teamwork -- but she couldn't go whine to the Bakers about her mother's sneaky little romance; one of the reasons they liked her was because Gloria appeared steady, responsible, and respectful.
Damned if you do and damned if you don't. Not particularly familiar with the city of Turlock, Gloria had allowed enough time prior to the wedding to drive there from Modesto and get lost, then find her way to the community church in the suburbs. Pretty place, she thought as she pulled into the parking lot of Church of the Savior. Looks like a little country club.
The Melton family had never been churchy; Sundays were big dinner days in the week, that was all, unless it was football season, when her father and her brothers ate snacks all day and shouted at the referees on the television screen, then went out into the street and tossed a football back and forth as an excuse to eat more goodies after halftime.
Will's patchwork Corolla wasn't in the parking lot. Did he get the monstrosity painted? Wouldn't the elder son be standing in to give his mother the bride away?
Entering the church, Gloria stopped and took in her surroundings. There were lines of pews in a half-circle that seemed to go on forever, like a small stadium, and in the nearly empty seating, she saw her brother Ben in the second row from the boxy pulpit on the the stage.
He was wearing a new three-piece suit with a teal-sprayed carnation boutonniere in the lapel. He looked up at her as she approached the front of the church. "Oh, you actually came. Kudos to you." He was pale and looked tense.
He likes this less than I do, and that's saying a lot. "Ben, how's it going? Should I sit here with you, or somewhere else?"
"Please sit here with me, so that I don't feel like the last real human on earth. Mom wanted to have Will give her away, but they had a big phone fight, and so I get to have the ... honors."
"Ben, I'm so sorry."
"Mom finds happiness, and all I can think is 'Screw me.' Maybe I should find a new job."
"How'd you know Mom and Will had a fight?"
"Overheard her shouting, called him later to find out what that was all about. He said he told her he wasn't going to pretend that this wasn't a betrayal of our father's memories, and she didn't need him to 'give her away' as she marched herself off to her new man all on her own." He frowned. "He's just damn lucky he's out of the house and on his own and can do that. I still have to live with this mess, and for a few more days -- until Christmas vacation starts on Wednesday -- I have to put up with Mom driving me to and from school."
Gloria slid into the pew beside him. "Good thing you put in all that practice time driving on your learner's permit while she was at work."
"I still can't tell if she knew I was driving by myself or not. She makes me drive while she nags me about school on the way up, and then makes me drive home while she moans about how busy she is. But she was kind of casual about it, you know? Like she was sure I could handle it."
"Hard to say -- she stopped talking to me about the time she met Joe, and she was so pissed that I moved out, she's hardly spoken to me since."
Ben looked at the stage with the pulpit, to see if he was being observed. "Here's what I don't understand: Will's against this marriage, you are, too, and so am I. If you were a parent, and all your kids were against a remarriage, wouldn't you at least take a little while to get your kids used to the idea, or maybe reconsider the idea? Why would you go full steam ahead and marry a couple weeks later?"
"You're asking the wrong person," Gloria said. "I've been wondering the same thing."
"I don't know a lot about female reproductive anatomy and its workings," Ben said wryly. "Is it possible that our mother has gotten herself knocked up?"
Gloria clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a harsh cackle. "I don't think so ... but that would explain the hurry, wouldn't it? What do you think, Ben, are you going to be the household babysitter in about nine months?"
"You're a jackass," he told her sincerely. "At this moment, I hate you for introducing that idea into my to-this-day innocent mind."
"Innocent? You're as innocent as Bonnie and Clyde. When Joe asked Mom about the root cellar you dug on the north side of the house, you told me you pretended you didn't know anything about it."
"All I did was shrug. That is probably not admissible in court as evidence. She didn't know about it; how was I as a minor child supposed to know about it? Just because I took the bags of apples and potatoes out of it before he did a walk-through of the place doesn't mean that I knew anything. Maybe Dad, or a previous owner dug it. Who knew?"
"I don't know anything about our family any more ... I have this weird disconnect with Mom -- for a while I thought she was out of her mind with grief, and then I thought she was a hero for taking a night job as a cleaning lady to keep us in our home, and then ... I thought she just -- no, forget it, I'm not going there today. She's marrying Joe Brady, and neither you nor I can stop it, even if we don't understand it."
More people began to enter the church. Ladies from the cleaning company where Philli had worked, office workers from Joe Brady's company; people who had worked with Philli before she was laid off from the drug store, well-dressed men and women who might have been Joe's realtor team.
"No Lolo?" Gloria asked Ben.
"Mom invited her, but she has to work all day, and since she's only been there a little more than a week, she couldn't ask for the time off. She said to tell you she misses you. Misses us all living together."
"So do I, although I feel like a got the winning hand in the breakup. How's she like being back in car sales?"
Ben grinned. "Loves it -- says she's their top salesman already. No one else can keep up with her, and her boss has been dropping hints that their dealership will be up for some kind of award by the time the year closes out."
"I bet she's good at it. She must have been, if Dad wouldn't deal with any other sales rep but her." Of course there had been other reasons, but Gloria was not about to tell Ben that Lolo had been her father's mistress. Not ever.
"I promised her that once I get my license, I'll take her out for breakfast before the dealership opens. Maybe you can meet us somewhere before you have to go in to work."
Philli appeared from a door behind the stage podium, looking about, smiling, then disappeared again.
"Surveying her new kingdom," Ben groused. "I can't remember when she looked that pretty, she must be triumphant with this conquest."
"No, I guess she's just happy," she answered, not wanting to fan the flames of Ben's anger. And she's taking more time to look beautiful, more of an effort than she had for a long time. She was Mom to us, and wife to a man who was unfaithful. Now she's got a lover, and her kids are all but grown. Maybe happy it is, after all.
The organist began to play songs that you would only ever hear at church, and the minister took his place at the podium. He nodded to Ben, who left the pew to meet his mother back at the main doors. Joe Brady appeared near the minister, beaming radiantly.
She's happy, he's happy. Why am I still resentful?
It was a question that bothered her even as she greeted people at the little reception in the church community hall after the ceremony. Yet knowing of her resentment in spite of the happiness allowed her to greet Joe and Philli with sincere congratulations; she would not let her strange anger spoil their day. She had to admit that she had never seen her mother look so lovely; Philli had chosen a teal dress that showed her figure and set her dark red hair aglow.
Fortunately, Joe's staff were clustered around the couple, so Gloria was able to give her mother a quick hug, shake Joe's hand with a friendly shoulder pat, and duck out.
Ben blocked her way as she made for the door. "You're leaving already?"
"Got to, Ben. Dinner service begins in about half an hour. I'm sure Maria would be cool with it, but I'm not. It's my job to be there." She poked him in the chest with an index finger. "And yes, I'm glad I have the job as an excuse. Call me when you need to, after eight ... and on Wednesday we'll both be off and we can get together and catch up, if you want."
"Yeah, let's do that. Mom's taking me down to the DMV that morning, but I should be a licensed driver by afternoon."
"Scheduling a play-date with my brother. This is crazy. I agree with Lolo, life seemed a lot simpler when we were all together. See you soon, Buzz-head."
"Flake," was the best he could muster as she left.
The question of resentment still was nagging her thoughts as she and Maria sweated through the last few preparations for dinner. When the tray of custards with raspberries and lemon zest cleared the kitchen window, she turned to Maria.
"Mom's happy, her new husband is happy. Any insights you can offer as to why I still feel mad about her getting married?"
The older woman shrugged. "What do I know?"
"Everything," Gloria said wryly.
Maria laughed. "Who tell you that?"
"You told me, when I took this job, I think."
"Eh, you and your mother ... hard times come, you step in and steal her thunder when she doesn't know what to do, get your brothers taken care of, keep your house taken care of. Just when you all have to work hard but can get by, she steps in with her rich man and steals your thunder. You both thunder-stealers. I think it's in your nature."
"Well, I won't steal your thunder, you can count on that, although I hadn't thought of what I was doing as taking over the Melton household ... well, maybe I did. See, you make me think."
"You already steal my thunder, Glory-girl. That pasta dish you made the day before I got back -- "
"It was just angel hair pasta with tomatoes and basil --"
"Oh, sure. It just make the Bakers fall down and worship you. Wasn't even on the menu."
Gloria, flustered, stammered out, "I had to do something! Susana let the stuffed shells burn under the broiler! It was quick, easy, and ... "
"And you saved the day with your quick thinking." She chuckled and flicked a dish towel at Gloria. "That's why I tell the Bakers to quit fooling around and drop the probationary time. Someone who can think on her feet like that is worth gold coins. Is the same with you and your mother. Both of you want to save the day, you just have different ways of doing it. Someday, both of you will look back and laugh at nearly being out on the street."
"I'll take your word for that, for now."
"Come on, time to do what we can for tomorrow's Super Brunch Day."