Chapter Seven: Odd Thoughts
"Maria said I should come keep you company while she's out of the kitchen," Steve said, leaning on the door jamb. "Something wrong?"
With heaps of sliced bread rubbed with olive oil and fresh garlic mounded on the counter, Gloria waved him in. "I don't know. Nothing's wrong with me, really. Just some odd thoughts surfacing. Hey, have you ever tasted fresh ground pepper on cantaloupe?" She washed her hands, took a slice of the cantaloupe and dusted it with the pepper.
"What? Are you serious?" He took the piece from her, and ate it. "That's weird -- I wouldn't have thought it would taste that good. Is that for our lunch or the Bakers?"
"Bakers. We get vegetable soup and chicken salad. They changed the menu this morning; I guess they're still full from yesterday. They just wanted a cheese plate and fruit to go with their salads." On each little bowl of cantaloupe, Gloria placed three large seedless grapes, cut in half, and a tiny sprig of parsley. "How was your weekend?"
"Okay. Went to Napa, stayed at a bed and breakfast at Romelin's Winery, got to talk shop with the owner. He said that this is the worst Christmas season they've ever had -- people aren't traveling, aren't buying wine like you'd expect before a holiday."
Gloria nodded while assembling salads. "Kind of makes sense -- you don't want to think of travel when you're facing possible layoffs and foreclosure. I only get to read a newspaper a couple times a week, but when I do, it just makes me sick. We came too close to that happening ourselves."
"How about your weekend? How was the wedding?"
"Nice ... Joe looked like he died and went straight to heaven. Mom was gorgeous. Will didn't go." She washed her hands again, turned back to the bread slices. "I'm glad I went, to see them happy, and to keep Ben company for a while." Two big sheet pans for the bread, into the oven they went to toast for a few minutes.
Steve looked thoughtful. "There's a lot you're not saying, I think."
"You're right. But what I'm not saying is not anything I should be saying while I'm at work, if you know what I mean."
"Why don't you come over to my place after work?" he asked.
"Not tonight, though I thank you for the offer. Steve, I'm sorry. I just feel like I've got a major sulk coming on, and I don't want to inflict my foul mood on you."
He shrugged. "Offer's open-ended. If you feel a need for company, I'm around. Here's Maria, back from her skullduggery. See you at lunch."
Maria squinted at him as she passed him. "You don't even kiss your girl when you leave her?"
"Not when she has a chef's knife in her hands, I don't. I only kiss unarmed women."
Taking a wide tray from a shelf, Gloria began to load salads onto it. Thirteen perfect salads; the next tray was thirteen little dishes of cantaloupe with their attendant salt-cellars. Maria hauled two platters of various cheeses out of the walk-in, and Gloria piled an assortment of freshly cut breads on large matching bowls. One last tray with six pots of jelly and six butter knives was whisked away from the window by staff.
"Okay," Maria said, pulling down the sliding door of the pickup window, "this is what I find out. Thomas caught Susana in an empty office with her feet up on the desk, talking on her phone. She is fired. She been warned about her phone, she got written up twice for using her phone on company time, now she and her phone get to spend more time together."
"I heard her tell Thomas it was an emergency call," Gloria said, uncertainly.
"Susana never figured out Thomas is fluent speaking Spanish. He knew what she was saying on the phone. Then I go see Martha, we talk a little." She straightened her shoulders and wagged a finger in the air. "I'm not going to let a lazy little girl try to set Bakers against their good staff. Now we have to figure out who to train as our backup. Let's get some food ready for us."
* * *
Gloria was glad that she could share a ride with Maria to and from work. Not only did it cut down on gas costs, but on a night like tonight, it was so good to be able to lean her head back and shut her eyes, and not worry about traffic lights or fog.
They pulled into the driveway at seven-thirty, and Gloria, suddenly relaxed and weary, nearly oozed from the passenger seat. "You get the shower first," Maria told her, "I want to call Elsie and talk with her about Wednesday. We're going to go to the Tracy Mall and the outlet stores, see about hot old woman clothes for midnight Mass."
The laughter that bubbled up was welcome, too. "All right. Say hi to Elsie from me."
The upstairs hall bathroom was Gloria's; Maria had another one to herself downstairs, beside her bedroom. After having shared a house with her mother and brothers and Lolo, the idea of communal living was not at all foreign. In fact, there was something comforting about knowing that another human being -- with whom one could get along -- was near at hand, in case of emergency, in case of loneliness, in case of just enjoying company.
A quick shower, hang up pants, put blouse in hamper. Soft jeans that had become downright baggy since last summer, an oversized slouchy flannel shirt that had once been her father's ... such comfort.
Earlier, while she and Maria had put the finishing touches on the Bakers' evening meal, it had occurred to Gloria that she didn't have anyone in the world to whom she could try to convey the waves of feeling she was experiencing lately. The friends -- the girls she had thought were friends -- had leapt out of her life like the proverbial rats leaving a sinking ship when they heard about the possible foreclosure on the house. Gloria's about to get poor, eww! Her brothers? Not likely -- Will had gone from being Dumbass Brother #1 to I'm the Man Keeping Food on the Table in one sunburnt, dusty day, and then faded out into a world of his own choosing on the farm and the orchards. Ben was just too young yet. He hadn't been over the trauma of his father's death when the sky started falling, and though he had pitched in to make their team a success, he was still the kid, and yes, he had a lot of emotions tossing him about, too, but Gloria couldn't vent to him and increase his discomfort living with Philli and Joe. He was stuck there.
Lolo? Forget it, no way in hell was Gloria going to rant about her mother to her father's mistress, no matter that they had become friends, no matter that Lolo was more like family than -- well, Philli was.
There's the crux, right there. The feelings that Gloria had, revolved around Philli having somehow betrayed the family, about having spurned what her family had been able to accomplish. At a gut level, Gloria was furious at her mother, because her mother simply did not care what her kids would think of her marrying Joe Brady as a solution to their problems. What had she thought of how they would react? Had she visualized her sons and daughter jumping up and down and patting their hands together and shouting, "Oh, boy! We get to have Christmas presents after all"?
And when she encountered Ben and Will and Gloria's horror at what she was doing, did it give her any pause, did it make her think twice of her choice? It hadn't. Not at all. Full steam ahead, straight to the heated swimming pool and never having to work again in her life. I'll keep tossing you treats and shiny toys and soon you'll see it was all worth while.
She hadn't, in point of fact, abandoned her kids. She and Joe would have been thrilled to have them live in the big house in Turlock. Joe was in love, and anything that belonged to his beloved was more than welcome. But although Gloria grumbled to herself that Will had gone feral, when you looked closely, so had she. And Ben, though caged, was as wild as his brother, and would break out as soon as he could.
Meltons: the Wild Breed. Maybe she should write a book. Too bad, she had no one to read it. To just about anyone else, it would simply be one young woman whining about the situation in which life had placed her. Not even a life-threatening one, thank God.
And that's what knocked Steve also out of the running as a confidante. Being angry about her mother's remarriage -- wouldn't that just say to a confident, intelligent young man that his girl (if indeed his girl she was, and she wasn't completely sure about that in the first place) was neurotic, and maybe he ought to look for companionship elsewhere? No, not Steve. Besides, the deepest thoughts of her heart were out of place in a developing romantic relationship.
Well, there's another avenue just spattered with land mines. Try as she might, she could not see a real personal relationship with a man who had weekends off while she had mid-week days off. He was pursuing a career with the Baker winery, and she was an assistant cook who was not at all interested in not being an assistant cook. Sure, his kisses crazed her to the point of wanting to tear off all her and his clothes and howling with passion ... but she'd watched too many of her high school friends spin like dervishes along that path, and finish up used and humiliated because the intimacy of sex revealed all too many clay feet of their partners in lust.
I do have health insurance now, she mused, so I could go on a birth control program. Yeah, sure. She could just see herself going to the doctor and saying, "Doc, I want to fuck like a bunny, so prescribe me some pills so I can do it without a care in the world." Not madly me.
I wonder if I'm abnormal.
That's probably the question I should ask my doctor when I get around to seeing a doctor.
That left Maria as the only person on her list of contacts that she could possibly discuss her feelings with.
She could tell Maria about all the anger she felt towards her mother, the worry about Ben, the uncertainties about Steve, the unfairness of the world, and the untidy state of her toenails ... but she knew what Maria would say. She'd say, "Your mother going to do what she wants. Your brother is going to do what he wants. The world is unfair to everybody. Steve is either an idiot, or he's not. Go trim your toenails, it's the only thing you have control over."
Gloria sat on the edge of the bed with the paper bag she used for trash in front of her, and began to trim her toenails, smiling at the thought of how little control people have over anything. I am your master, she said to the toenails as she clipped them and put them carefully into the paper bag. People cannot be put into chutes to channel them into the behavior we want. Ugh, unless you were a Nazi and were killing people. Regular people do what they want to do.
She dropped the clippers before she finished the left little toe. This is only one week away from Christmas. What are you going to do when Mommy wants her kids in her house for the holiday?
She could do what Will had basically done about the wedding, just say no, this is your shit, you clean it up, and Gloria knew that's what Will would do about Christmas as well. Will was The Great Evader. Got him out of taking the trash out in the evening as a teen, got him out of an ugly confrontation with his mother when he moved out. But Ben ... the thought of him stuck alone on Christmas with his mother and her new husband ... Gloria's guts wrenched.
People do what they will do, she thought. What do people have to do?