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July 08, 2024

Place Settings 17

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Seventeen: Confrontation

"Hi, Mom, how's it going?" Oh, God, here it comes. "No problem, I don't have to get up as early as I used to, but I'm awake. I was just thinking about going downstairs and making some tea, anyway." Like since you first got that job at the cleaning service, you ever got up before ten, and sure as shit didn't want to talk to me when you did. Well, here we go.

"Aw, thanks, Mom, but I've got this guy Steve -- you remember me telling you about him -- and we have only this one week a year off at the same time ... I am feeling the need to find out if he is the one, so I'm spending Christmas with him -- uh, actually for a few days, he was talking about going up to Napa the day after Christmas, but I'm cooking him Christmas dinner after I get off work." She listened as her mother suggested that she come and spend a few days with Joe and get to know him, spend time with Ben.

Yeah, like I want to come to your mini-mansion and look at your trophy walls. "No thanks, it's kind of a -- a get to know each other kind of vacation for us, figure out how close we want to be in the future, so we want to just be off together somewhere." Gloria sounded fairly reasonable to herself, but knew her mother was going to pressure her harder to come to the house in Turlock, and she was right.

And suddenly you want to study him and be the arbiter of whether or not he's suitable for me? "Nope, non-negotiable, sorry, Mom. Not Christmas week. I just found out that the actual Christmas season lasts until January 6, when the three kings arrive to visit baby Jesus, so we've got plenty of time."

Gloria held the phone away from her ear to lessen the volume of her mother's shouts. She waited a few seconds to allow her mother to catch her breath. "Hold on, Mom, you made your plans, made your assumptions, weeks ago, without consulting me, or my brothers. Don't fly into a temper tantrum because we've had to grow into the independent adult phase of life, and we found out we like it. Will and I helped keep a roof over all our heads, we're not children any more. And oh, by the way, you're welcome, from both of us, not that you ever said thank you for keeping us all off the streets. No, I don't know his phone number, he's never given it to me." A new round of shouts blasted through the receiver. "A liar, am I? Jeeze, listen to yourself, Mom. Look, I'm done with this conversation. Have as merry a Christmas as you can. Bye."

Poor Ben. He's going to end up jogging all the way to San Francisco to get away from that mood.

She went down the steps to the kitchen. I will have tea, at least that's one thing I didn't warp words over. Christmas Day dinner? More like party noshes, most likely, for her and Steve and Lolo, whom she would not have mentioned to her mother. And although Steve had hinted that they should go off to his favorite bed and breakfast in Napa, nothing more had come of the conversation. Great, Ben's supposed to come here to house sit while the cleaners do the floors. I wonder if she'll still let him come? Gloria rubbed her face while she waited for the water to boil. He'll call if he can't be here, but then what will we do about the floor people? Just call and cancel, and then have them tell us to stuff it when we want to reschedule? No, quit worrying, money is so tight no one is turning any work away. While her tea brewed, she took a boiled egg from the refrigerator and peeled it over the sink, cut it in half and peppered it.

Four bites and breakfast was done, and for another five minutes her phone had not rung. "Tea water's simmering," she nodded to Maria, who had entered the kitchen and was peering out at the dawning day. "Good morning."

"Big day today. Get fried chicken at work and nice clean floors upstairs. I don't know which I'm looking forward to more. I haven't made fried chicken in so many years ..."

"Are you sure you remember how?" Gloria chided her, grinning.

"My sons' favorite meal," Maria said. "I made it so many times it is like my DNA."

A crunching sound interrupted them: Ben's car pulling into the driveway. He parked beside Gloria's car, but did not get out immediately. His eyebrows rose as he poked at the screen of his phone. He tucked it away in his computer bag and made his way to the door.

As Maria opened the door, he bowed to her. "Good morning, Maria. I am here to sit in your house." He turned to his sister. "To you, a peaceful day. A message on my phone indicates that your morning has been less than good so far."

"I'm surprised you got out of Mom's house," Gloria said ruefully.

"Well, I went out for an early before-the-sun-is-up run, took a shower, and then hightailed it for the breakfast special at Coop's, so I missed the -- excitement."

Gloria turned to her housemate. "Mom called me this morning and insisted that I come for Christmas Day visit and dinner."

"Oh, boy," Maria muttered. "Bet that went over good. You going?"

"I am not. Hence Ben's phone message, which probably contains statements best left unrepeated." She sighed. "Yet another reason to be glad we aren't allowed to take phone calls at work unless it's an emergency."

"Gloria, take your brother up to your room to discuss. I eat my breakfast, and then we get to work."

"Come on, Ben. I still have a room in a barn."

"What?" Maria asked in surprise.

"It's a joke. About trying to live as simply as Will does."

"Oh, okay. Go."

In Gloria's room, Ben sprawled on his back. "I could just sleep all day once the cleaners are done, couldn't I?"

"Well, you're house sitting, but that doesn't mean you have a key, so you have to stay until we're home from work, if that's what you're asking. It's not my house to give you a key. What'd she say?"

"She said to come home and stay away from you. Fortunately I always turn my phone off while driving, so I missed that message, didn't I, when it was sent?" He twisted his mouth into a semi-smile.

"When it was sent, no doubt."

"I've turned it off again. And by the time I remember to turn it on again, the cleaners will be here and I will have no choice but to stay."

"Yeah, that's how it goes. Kind of screws over Christmas Day with Steve and Lolo and me, though. She is not going to allow you to come hang out, you watch."

"Yep. Gloria, I'm already tired of being her little kid again. The whole time she was working for the cleaning company and wooing Mr. Joe, she didn't give half a damn what any of the rest of us were doing. Now she's mad about Will, mad about you, and it seems like she wants me to -- like, be on her side, and I'm not. We were happy to be chipping in and living at the old house. God, I envy Will his mousey barn more and more every day."

"Not a lot we can do about it. Sorry."

"I signed up for online Advanced Placement classes. Count towards high school credits and college credits at the same time. Joe thought that was very entrepreneurial, so he vouched for me as my ... step-father. I didn't ask Mom. I should be able to complete almost twenty credits of college by this time next year."


"What else do I have to do? Watch more TV? Make friends my own age who don't know what it means to have to work to live and are just about as intelligent as the sparrows that fight over the bird feeder? What the fuck am I going to talk to them about? My computer business? That makes me a freak geek. About cooking, and what I've learned from television and you and Maria? That makes me a freak sissy. My brother, the ranch guy? That makes me a poor schlub with a sub-standard social class. I wasn't a popular kid when Dad was alive, but I didn't much care because I had Dad, and he believed in me, and it was enough." He rubbed his eyes, and Gloria knew he wanted to keep from crying again. "Shit. So I take classes like they were video games, and I'm acing every test."

"Ah, Ben, maybe after the holiday she'll cool down, and I'll come by and coo at her palace, and she'll ease up and let us hang out again. I'm going to have to leave in a couple minutes. Let's go down and you can assure Maria you're not going to rent out her rooms while we're gone."

He snorted. "Maybe I'll call Dick's Sporting Goods and buy a sleeping bag over the phone, have it delivered, and move in." Rolling off the bed, he preceded Gloria down the stairs.

"Maria!" He called. "What wonder are you cooking today?"

"Fried chicken for staff, can't wait. Pork loin with Dutch cherry chutney and quinoa for Bakers. Here is key for house." She held it out to him.

"You must not give me a key, I will not take the key. I am a subversive and devious boy, so I may not accept the key. If you place it behind the salt and pepper shakers on the counter, I will be able to search it out and use it in case of emergencies, but otherwise, I shall not have been given it, so I do not have to return home until you are safely back from work." Holding his hands up in a submissive gesture, he continued. "Then it won't be a lie when I say I couldn't leave because I wasn't given a key."

"Works for you, makes me look like a shit," Maria answered him, putting the key behind the condiments.

"But weren't you in a big hurry?"

"Gloria, move your feet! I am in such a big hurry, I didn't take the pork loins out of the cooler yet! They must come to room temperature before we put them into the oven!" She rushed out the door with a wink over her shoulder for Ben.

"Good job, Ben. Have as good a day as you can." Gloria followed her boss out the door.

"You encourage him, and he encourages you," she told Maria as they drove away. "Does this mean trouble?"

"No trouble. Well, maybe he get yelled at, you already get yelled at, but your mother -- psshh, I don't even know her name -- she will not yell at me because she doesn't know me, if she yells at me, it is, what you call it, assault. I call cops, no problem. She just have to call me crazy old lady cook in her head, I don't care. I like Ben, I like you. What is her name, anyway? I should know in case she call Bakers and accuse me of being nice to people I like."

"Her name is Philomena Brady. Most everyone calls her Philli. She was a good mother to us, Maria, and I guess I can't really blame her for marrying Joe. It wouldn't have been my solution, of course, but she saw it as a way out of a job she hated and a situation that scared her."

"And who can say you wouldn't have done the same thing," Maria nodded.

"Oh, I can. I had a boyfriend who would have married me in a second." Gloria shuddered. "I just -- when I thought about the possibility, it grossed me out and I ditched him so I wouldn't have him cluttering up my life while I did what I had to do to keep us out of a homeless shelter."

"See? You call me a warrior woman, but you been there, done that. I caved in and married when my parents found me what they thought was the perfect man. I was -- grossed out -- but I did it anyway. Don't get me wrong, I love my sons. But sometimes I wonder -- wish -- I had been a strong enough girl to say, No, I don't want to marry that man."

"Maybe it was just the thing daughters did back then?"

Maria was silent.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-03-22
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
12:47:55 PM
Okay. Now we know who the antagonist of this story is. Good ol' Philli, who's gone from being the suffering matriarch to the Queen B. This is not implausible. I have seen many situations wherein the person who started out with good intentions turned on a dime due to circumstances and became the problem rather than the cure. Now I just want to know how the kids are going to handle it. Are they going to restrict themselves to blood ties or become members of the family of their choosing?
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