Chapter Four: A Thunder-stealer's Morning
Thunder-stealer. The words came to Gloria in the dim dawn, bringing her fully awake. She looked at the clock on the bedside table, pressed the button on the top that made the face light up. Six. She used to get up at six to make Will's breakfast, give him enough food to get him through the first half of his day. She didn't need to get up this early, but thinking about being called a Thunder-Stealer drove away any ideas about going back to sleep.
It's in your nature, Maria had said. Was that true?
In grade school, she had felt a need to get the highest score possible on a test, to earn the teacher's smile and her parents' approval. Was that how one became a thunder-stealer? When her brothers got to be of a sassy age, she always needed to be one step ahead of them -- it was the best way to assure their respect, to make sure they weren't putting little lizards or grasshoppers in her room to make her scream.
When she had learned of her father's negligence about his insurance payments, she hadn't been trying to out-do her mother, but Mom had seemed incapable of rising to the task of keeping her family out of a homeless shelter, so Gloria had stepped up and brought her brothers out of childhood and into a collusion of survival. Surely you can't be stealing someone's thunder when they confess that they're fresh out of thunder to begin with?
Well, she was in Maria's house now, renting an upstairs bedroom, and she worked for Maria, and learned from Maria, so she had damn sure better not steal any more of Maria's thunder.
Maria's house was quiet, except for the intermittent furnace fan. What to do until Maria is up and about? On Sunday mornings, Maria had explained, she got up around seven, and groaned her way off to church in a matter of minutes for a seven-thirty service. From church she went straight to work. Gloria had until about eight-thirty to shower and make breakfast.
She felt her way in the dark to the bathroom, hoping that the sound of the commode flushing upstairs wouldn't wake Maria up ahead of time.
After brushing her teeth, she stopped in the hallway and listened. No sound in the house. She padded down the solid hardwood stairway and poured water from the Brita into a pan, began to heat it for tea. The little light over the stove was enough for her to get around.
Thunder-stealer echoed through her mind again. Today's menu included her pasta dish that the Bakers had loved so much. She smiled a little, remembering how they had sent for her, calling her to the table to congratulate and praise her about the flavor and presentation. The recipe was something she had found online while taking advantage of the free wi-fi at the library. Olive oil, finely chopped white onions, crushed garlic, diced tomatoes and fresh basil, sizzled in the pan, the pasta tossed in a little more oil, and freshly micro-planed pecorino romano cheese dusted over the top -- it was a simple dish with a flavor to bowl a diner over. The real trick for today was calculating how much to make -- not a serving per person, for the Sunday meal was an all-day food fest with many little dishes, but just enough to have maybe four forkfuls, with some topping left on the dish to dip a bite of Italian bread.
Have to make enough to have a little bowlful for me in the kitchen. So, so good, so, so easy.
She stirred the tea bag in her cup, trying not to clink the spoon. As she sat down at the oak table in the kitchen, she heard a step in the next room. Shit, I woke Maria.
"Hey, you need private time?" asked Maria in a low voice.
"No, I'm so sorry I woke you!"
"You didn't wake me. I been up since five. I worry that I wake you."
Gloria stood. "Tea?"
"Yeah, hot tea and lots of honey. What wakes you up so early?" Maria's hair was tousled.
"I woke up thinking of Will, thinking of how we all lived together, thinking of today's menu. And then I thought of a quiet morning before the bustle in the Bakers' kitchen. What about you, why are you waking at five?"
Maria rapped her knuckles on the table. "Heh," she snorted. "I feel good. I don't think I felt this good for years. Not even since I was a girl before I was married. Too scared to feel good then, never felt this good after."
Gloria left that statement alone, not wanting to open any personal business before they had to go to work, and not knowing why getting married would be scary. And not wanting to know why Maria would have felt bad after marriage. Too much information was not good on a Sunday morning before an all-day feast to be served.
"New TV, I get the cooking shows. What they call that, continuing education?"
"Or job security. See what's popular now on TV, make sure the Bakers are happy. That's our job."
Maria swallowed down her tea in a couple gulps. "That will wake me up. I'm off to church, see you in the kitchen."
She rose and left, her housecoat swishing behind her.
Everything is different. The Meltons had been affluent and clueless, then on the verge of homelessness and full of fears, then gripping their knives in their teeth and storming the world, and now ... peaceful, safe, where they needed to be. Will was in his Wild Kingdom, their mother all secure and rich. Gloria had a nice place to live, a good job, and a man in her life that she really liked and wouldn't mind knowing better. Steve and I, I said to Maria about TV shopping, as though that was the most natural, normal thing in the world.
She shook her head, a little intimidated by how stable her relationship with Steve seemed. What about the other people in my life?
Ben was trapped, living with his mother and a man who might want Ben to call him a stepfather. Gloria shuddered at that. And what of Lolo? Where was she staying? Could she possibly afford an apartment after just getting a job? Gloria had been looking into renting a room in the city after her mother's revelation that she and Joe would be turning the Melton home into a rental, and found few openings. Modesto's housing market was tighter than Spandex exercise shorts, and it was a landlord's greedy dream come true. How would Lolo manage a rental as well as the storage rental for her furniture from her previous apartment? Ben said she had found a room, and was content with it; he wasn't pleased with the area she was living in, but they'd had no chance to talk enough for Gloria to know what he was unhappy with.
But she had a job, and she and Ben and Lolo had roofs over their heads, so they were safe.
And that begged another question: Is 'safe' enough?
It would have been nice if Gloria and Ben and Will and Lolo could have gone on living together, some place new, their teamwork keeping them afloat and happy, but Will liked being off on his own, and Gloria and Lolo could not afford to rent a house, or even an apartment together. But they wouldn't have been happier if they could have had a new apartment, not with Ben gone to Turlock to live with his mother and Joe.
'Safe' had to be enough. For now, anyway. And honestly, a year down the road, what would any of them think made for happiness? After a year and a half of grieving, might not Lolo move on and find a new lover in her life? Might Gloria throw practicality to the winds and hook up with Steve in a more significant way? And maybe the girl next door to Ben in Turlock (if there was one) would suddenly preoccupy his thoughts and arouse his hormones. There was no way to tell what the future was going to bring to any of them.
'Safe' would do, until the passage of time unfolded.
I'm a lot more than safe. I'm luckier than I ever thought I could possibly be. She stood and walked over to the sink with her teacup. Light was growing outside, revealing a dim, foggy day. White Christmas. Just white in the sky and not on the ground. I wonder what it would be like to have snow lying on the ground for months out of the year, snow flying from the clouds every couple of days? I suppose I could write to my aunts and see if I could go to Colorado to live, experience real winter ... She snickered soundlessly at the prospect. Her mother had simply refused to ask her sisters to take them in when it seemed they would lose the house last September. "Number one, Nedda and Gwen are about as weird as they come, both of them convinced that men are evil and that exposure of any body part except for face and hands -- and ankles in the summer -- is disgraceful. Maybe it's because we were all redheads, but I doubt it. They were little freaks of nature when I was ten, and their freakiness only amplified with age. When I met your father, just about all they did was hiss and gasp about how he lived in California. They never would visit."
"What was wrong with California?" Gloria had asked. "We have oranges and lemons and winter ends in January."
"It's a hotbed of illegal immigrants and loose morals, according to them. 'Hotbed' was actually the word Gwen used." Philli's expression had abruptly changed. "Maybe they were right about the morals, after all," she'd said, and walked away.
Yeah, Dad pretty much proved them right about the morality, even though they never knew the truth. But Mom didn't invite them to this wedding, and maybe that's because there wasn't much about morality there, either. I don't even know if she's told them she's remarried or not. Remarried that quickly after her husband's death? We kids couldn't accept it readily, so what would Nedda and Gwen think? No, I'm not going to try to move to Colorado, not even for a single snow season, not even if I wanted to, not a chance I'd put myself in a position of trying to explain this past year to my aunts.
Nearly Christmas, Gloria knew that in a month, leaves would begin swelling buds. Aunts Nedda and Gwen would be looking at snow until the end of April, if they were lucky. The idea of snow was somehow romantic, exotic, but in reality, Gloria could hardly wait for weather warm enough to walk and sit outside.
She finished her tea, and washed out her cup in the sink.
"You drive safe," sounded Maria's voice from the front door, just before it clacked shut.
Gloria listened to the car pull away from the house. Time to make some breakfast so that she was sharp when she hit the Bakers' kitchen floor. An egg, scrambled. Sundays were such an extravagance of food, a simple egg cooked with some kind of fat was plenty to start the day. Thinking about the day's menu had made her ravenous, so that what she really wanted this morning was a sizzling rare steak, two over-medium eggs, a salty, onion-y pile of crispy hash browns, and whole wheat toast with butter and jam. Don't think about it, just make the egg, just put it on a plate, just eat it. When you get to the Baker kitchen, there will be warm French bread, orange juice, and more bacon than you can shake a stick at. Turkey bacon, oh well, but bacon, nonetheless.