The sky had taken on that sickly olive drab tinge he had known so well a lifetime from now. The hurried crowds coursed through the streets of the city, always passing through, never stopping, never noticing the ugly tilt of the atmosphere, the way even the light and fluffy clouds seemed to be magnetized toward a pinprick of swirling darkness. They’d never seen it as he had, never had to battle it, never had to watch it swallow their worlds.
He was tired. Despite the polish on his patent shoes, despite the natty press to his suit, an ache resonated from his bones. The sun, shining hotly on the tarred rooftop, was unable to warm the exhaustion and resignation out of his body. It felt as though he’d stood here a thousand times, more than he could hope to count, staring up at the budding disaster opening its maw an intergalactic stone’s throw from the home he could never abandon. And yet he had no concrete memory of ever before doing what he knew he was going to do.
An intense wave of déjà vu swept through him, originating in the depths of his stomach, echoing until he felt a twinge of nausea. Though today was the first that he had physically climbed the stairs to the top of this building, the first time he had stared up at the shimmering blue sky with an eye toward disaster, every cell in his body was groaning with recognition.
A vibration from his belt pulled him to the present, his monitor calling him to duty. He sighed and clicked the pager off, ready to carry out his daily existence until he was forced to act against the coldness above him.
He opened the door to the stairwell, giving one last hard look to the first inkling of the black hole that would consume his planet, knowing that his every attempt to deflect it had failed.
It wasn’t easy to lose an entire world. Oh, sure, a red sandal or a hair tie every once in a while. Some people even managed to lose their cars in parking lots and their homes in freak accidents of nature. But your entire planet? An object almost 8000 miles in diameter wasn’t likely to be found in a beat up cardboard lost-and-found box under some receptionist’s desk. Tacking posters to telephone poles with photocopied images of the blue and green swirl’s likeness probably wouldn’t do a whole lot of good, either.
It started on a Sunday. Sundays, Gloria decided, were definitely the bloodiest day of the week. Sure, Mondays were depressing, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays mind- numbingly boring. Fridays were just experiments in exhaustion and disappointment. She couldn’t recall the last Saturday she hadn’t slept through. But Sundays, O Holy Days, Sundays were the worst of all.
Sundays, she went home for dinner with the family.
“I don’t know why this is such torture for you every freaking week,” Benny sighed. “It’s not like they throw knives at you.”
Gloria mashed the radio preset buttons in sequence. Nothing but synchronized commercials. She and Benny lived ten miles from her mother’s house, but the trip was never long enough to provide her with enough escapist tunes.
“They throw knives, it’s just you can’t see them. They looooove you.” She flopped back in her seat, giving up on the radio and knocking a week-old coffee cup out of the console. “Well, crap,” she commented.
Benny laughed and fished the empty cup from under the brake pedal. “They love you, too. It’s just normal family stuff, okay? Like when my family teases me. Your mom doesn’t really think you have a bad job and a diseased uterus.”
“Shriveled,” Gloria reminded him. “I said shriveled, not diseased.”
He patted her thigh, smiling his sweet, boyish smile at her, the one with crinkles and blue eyes and those little bitty sexy freckles. She wiggled her almost-too- tall-for-compact-cars frame around in the passenger seat and kissed his cheek. “I’m glad I have you, anyway. I can’t wait till we get married and move at least 500 miles away.”
His hand squeezed her leg reassuringly, but his smile faded. A public service announcement from the electric company filled the little car.
“So hey,” Benny said loudly, covering the awkward silence, “I saw your dad yesterday, grabbing coffee at the Frontier.”
“What, no heart-attack-on-a-plate cinnamon roll?”
“Nah, looks like he’s trimmed down some.”
“Did he remember who you were?” She attempted a derogatory chuckle, but it was painful. “Hell, did he remember who I was?”
“Christ.” Benny exhaled in frustration. “Your entire family is not made up of monsters.”
“True. There’s my sister.”
“Okay, your mom’s kind of bossy and your dad can’t concentrate for two seconds on anything or anyone outside a laboratory, but you’re their kid. They love you.”
Gloria refused to respond, tired of how this conversation always went. She went through the radio dial again, a futile effort. Thankfully, Benny let it drop.
Before the commercials ended, they pulled into her mother’s driveway, chugged up the steep slope to the top of the drive and stepped out. Her mother’s house, evidence of the benefits of multiple divorces, was a sprawling hacienda in the Albuquerque foothills, its solar windows glinting gold in the setting sun. It was not home to Gloria, much as the five childhood interval houses had merely been places to rest her head and stay out of a stepfather’s way.
She settled her Sunday skirt awkwardly on her hips, knowing it showed her knobby knees, and let Benny take her hand to drag her bodily to the front door.
“There you are!” her sister hollered from the front door, a trio of children winding around her feet like hungry cats. “We were starting to get worried you’d gotten lost.”
“I tried,” Gloria mumbled, pulling her face into what she hoped was a happy smile as an ever-plumping Annie pulled her into a bear hug.
“I’m so glad you managed to drag Benny here this week.” Annie gushed, sucking Benny into her gravity of warmth. “Mom got this idea into her head you two had broken it off and Glor’ was just making it all up — stop licking your sister, Matty — so we wouldn’t fix her up with any more lawyers.”
Annie’s laughter echoed around the large foyer, bouncing off the sautillo tiles and cavorting to the viga-beamed ceiling. Gloria couldn’t help but laugh back. Where she’d gotten all the bitterness and insecurities, her older sister had developed into the personification of a hug.
“Well, if it isn’t Miss Gloria,” her mother’s voice wafted through the foyer, seeming to gain in reverberation and recrimination as the words fell over all of them. “Late again to the family dinner.”
Evelyn propped herself regally on the back of her white sofa, for which four dozen bathed and pampered baby goats must have given their lives. Her pink silk robe, her “day dress,” fluttered about her spinning-class shaped skeleton like day-old butterflies.
Even Annie’s kids –- 4-year-old Matty approaching the world by taste, 6-year-old Allie with her nose permanently stuck in a book, and 2-year-old Jack who held the world record for drool volume in an hour –- fell utterly silent and stared at their grandmother in awe, peasants caught in the light of a fearsome fallen goddess.
Gloria started to stammer out her weekly apology, and in her stumbling somehow toppled the vase on the hall table.
Benny, his reflexes honed by months of practice, deftly caught the pottery. He smiled his woman-melting smile, directed its full heat on Evelyn, and actually had the gall to hug her. No evil befell him.
“It was my fault, Ev. I just couldn’t get my mascara straight.” He winked his long black lashes at her.
Evelyn waited a moment for the power in the room to shift back to her realm. Annie held her breath, Gloria rolled her eyes, and finally, thankfully, Evelyn laughed, sharp as breaking glass.
She patted Benny on his beloved cheek and swished her stilt-like legs to the dining room. “Well, let’s not waste the caterer’s efforts. It may be cold, but it likely won’t kill us.”
“Can’t say the same for her,” Gloria muttered to Annie, who stifled a giggle.
“Gloria,” Evelyn snapped, and though her back was turned, Gloria could see her blood red lips thin and her hawkish eyes narrow. “How are your applications going?”
Gloria closed her eyes and let her head drop. Annie gave her a pat on the back. “Buck up, soldier.”
A childish murmur rose from around her feet, and Gloria opened her eyes to find Allie staring owlishly up at her.
“I know Peter Pan, Aunt Glory,” Allie whispered urgently. “If you want, you can sleep over at my house, and when he flies over tonight we can run away to Neverland and be little kids forever. Grammy Evlin can’t come,” she added, pushing her pink glasses solemnly up her nose.
Gloria laughed for the first time in a month of Sundays. She folded up her towering frame to child’s size and hugged her niece. “I might take you up on that, Al. Just don’t let Grammy hear you call her that, ‘kay?”
“Coming, Mother,” Gloria sighed.
“I can’t keep telling you this every time I see you, Gloria,” her mother began, taking her seat at the head of the heavy, ornate, Mexican-style dining table. “If you don’t get that advanced degree, you’ll never be anything more than a secretary.”
“She’s a social worker,” Benny interjected gently.
“Social worker, secretary,” Evelyn waved her manicured nails. “It’s all paperwork. Do you want to fill out other people’s forms the rest of your life?”
Gloria gritted her teeth, and girded herself for her weekly three-hour lambasting, the motherly storm that somehow spared everyone but her.
Later, lying in their queen size bed, her head throbbing, the familiar frustrated tears fighting to emerge, she buried her face in Benny’s chest and whispered, “I swear, you’re the only reason I don’t stab her in the eye before turning a fork on my own soft parts.”
For once, Benny failed to laugh.
Five days later, Gloria stared down at three piles of paper sitting menacingly atop her government-issue gray monster of a desk. The first was a large stack of other people’s paperwork: processing documents for foster children, reports of possible domestic abuse, in-home evaluations. The second was more colorful, with better spelling: various applications to local colleges in anthropology, psychology, and history, all subjects she’d expressed interest in at one time or another, all applications her mother had requested on her behalf.
The third stack wasn’t really a stack, just one final paycheck and a formally apologetic letter. Budget cutbacks, they had to reduce the workforce, she didn’t have enough seniority, clout, degrees, experience, yada yada yada. What it really boiled down to was she was just a paperpusher earning virtually no money, but if they “let go” of her and everyone else like her, the city could afford to build a spaceport or downtown canal system.
Gloria let her head drop to the desk. The government had even taken an extra chunk off her last payment because she’d been in the hole on vacation days. The grand total came to $103.42. It wouldn’t even pay her half of the bills for a week.
Too tired for tears, she gathered the handbag’s worth of personal items from her desk and trudged out of the office five hours earlier than normal. She briefly stopped by her friend Terry’s cubicle, only to discover the normally effervescently cheerful butterball staring at the same form letter she herself had received.
“You too, huh?”
Terry looked up with a start, mascara-streaked tears rolling down her face. She swiped them away. “Happy Friday, right?”
“Want to go get a drink?”
“Who’s buying?” Terry joked wetly, waving her own stunted paycheck.
“We can order water.”
Luckily, the Up All Night Café was open even in the middle of the day. Not so luckily, Sean was behind the counter.
“Late for lunch or early for tea?” he belted as soon as he saw them. “Haven’t seen you ladies in a while. Did you miss me?”
“If I promise to, will you leave us alone?” Terry jabbed.
“’Cause I haven’t heard that one before,” Sean grinned, running a clammy hand through his shaggy red hair. “Nonfat lattes again today? Or are we feeling adventurous?”
“Two waters,” Gloria replied before he could start the drip. She sat down heavily at a table.
Sean glanced from one to the other, back and forth, attempting to glean the problem telepathically before finally resorting to old-fashioned, unreliable speech. “What’s going on?”
“Got any job openings?” Terry asked. Even her bleached-blond kinky curls drooped.
“Oh, wow.” Without another word, Sean set two large mugs under the espresso machine and set them flowing. He emerged from behind the counter, setting the two foamy full-fat lattes on the table. “On me.”
Gloria offered a genuine smile of thanks, which she was sure she would later regret in the form of a dozen deflected date requests. For the moment, however, Sean went quietly back behind his counter, leaving them to mope in peace.
Four free lattes and half a dozen pee breaks later, Gloria staggered up from the table. “I think my head is going to pop off,” she commented, her words tumbling out quicker than her brain could process.
“Can you OD on caffeine?” Terry groaned.
“If you can, I have. I’m going home. Will you be okay?”
“Honey, I’m married.” Terry glanced slyly at her. “After the apocalypse, it’ll be the roaches and the married folk. We survive.”
Gloria gave her a fortifying hug, waved at Sean before he could corner her, and went home. It was close enough to quitting time, maybe Benny would be home already.
She trudged home to their super modern, brand new downtown loft, whose only benefit as far as she was concerned was that it offered her a walking commute to work. Otherwise, it was completely Benny’s baby — she’d wanted a quiet old adobe in the valley, where they could have a dog, or maybe a goat. But today, she was just glad it afforded her the opportunity to avoid the broken down car she was sure the universe would have inflicted upon her.
She climbed the three flights of stairs, wary of getting on an elevator should it get stuck while she had to pee so badly yet again.
She unlocked the bright white front door, calling out, “Benny, you home, baby?”
She heard a thump and a groan from the bedroom.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to surprise you. I just have to pee, then I’ll explain ever…y…thing.”
Despite the cries of her bladder, she ground to a halt in the bedroom doorway.
Benny was home, but he wasn’t the only one. The thump she’d heard hadn’t been a surprised Benny stumbling or dropping something. It had been the top of the girl’s over-dyed head thumping Gloria’s headboard.
They were having such a good time under the sheets they hadn’t even noticed her. Either that or they were using teamwork — and their belly buttons — to open a jar whose lid was stuck tight.
“This isn’t tragic,” Gloria said out loud. “It’s just so…so…cliché.”
Forgetting her biological urges, she backed out of the apartment. She went back down the stairs and outside into the end of the week as the traffic flowed out of downtown to the neighborhoods and suburbs, as the pool halls and pubs began to collect their patrons for the evening.
She counted all she had lost that day, and when the total was whittled down, she found she had only $103.42 to her name. No car, no job, no home, no bed, no warm lover. Just one last paycheck — and her family.
She reluctantly dialed out collect on the payphone, then slumped on the curb to wait for her mother. She knew only that it couldn’t possibly get any worse, and at least the world still turned beneath her feet.
Before morning, she would have lost even that.