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Waters of Marah
By Sylvia Bambola
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2004 Sylvia Bambola
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDo not stare at me because I am dark, because I am darkened by the sun. My mother's sons were angry with me and made me take care of the vineyards; my own vineyard I have neglected. *SONG OF SONGS 1:6 NIV*
The minute security becomes more important than your dreams, you're in trouble. Gloria Bickford nibbled the cuticle of her thumbnail. At least that's what Tracy kept telling her.
But dreams rarely come true.
Gloria felt her cuticle tear, then absently picked up a napkin and swaddled her thumb. It was easy for Tracy to dispense wisdom, as though it came from the Encyclopedia Britannica. Tracy had green eyes and red hair. People with green eyes and red hair ruled the world. Or at least the world she knew.
But hadn't God promised? Hadn't His promise come to her like a sword of fire, piercing deep into the secret place where she guarded her dreams?
She glanced at her thumb-a digit of importance and dignity reduced to a comical pig-in-the-blanket. What a disgusting habit. On that, both she and Mother agreed. But it was the only thing. How long had she been doing it, anyway? Mutilating her fingers? She couldn't remember, it had been so long. Maybe she didn't want to. The habit was too frank a revelation. It showed that her courage was as fragile as a sparrow's egg. Would it shatter if Cutter fought her decision? She pictured his face, with its sneer. She of all people knew what lay behind it. Still ... there could be no backing down. And she couldn't let anyone change her mind, either.
Not even Mother.
Gloria released the napkin, watched it fall from her thumb and float to the floor. Then like nomads, her fingers roamed the tabletop, arranging the green ceramic salt-and-pepper shakers her mother had given her, aligning the small stack of paper napkins, removing a dried leaf from the philodendron that her mother swore spewed spider mites and fungus into the air. Finally, her fingers rested on the edges of the green jute place mats her mother had bought from Wal-Mart.
Green. She hated it. No, not really. She loved it in grass, on hills, on trees, but not in her kitchen. Peach, cream, now those were her colors. But Mother liked green.
What was she going to tell Mother?
The phone rang and Gloria jumped, yanking a place mat off the table. She stared at the black cordless, which looked uncomfortably like the head of a snake.
Gloria twisted the jute in her hands.
If she didn't answer, her mother might worry and come right over. Her hand lunged for the phone, toppling the shakers. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a chip fly into the air and land near her feet. Oh, great. How was she going to explain that to Mother?
"I can't believe what I just heard from Mrs. Press!" The sharp voice drilled Gloria's eardrum like a corkscrew, then pierced the brain, producing an instant headache. "You think husbands grow on trees? What in the world were you thinking? Sometimes, Gloria, you don't have a brain in your head."
"I've been trying to tell you I'm not interested in getting married, Mother."
"Why do girls who have few prospects always say that?"
Gloria's hand tightened around the phone. "What good are prospects if they're the wrong ones?"
"You want to be alone forever? It's no picnic, believe you me. Ever since your father died ... well, it's no picnic. You think I want the same for you?"
"Don't underestimate the value of security. That should be your goal. And you almost had it too. Virginia ... Mrs. Press and I just about had it arranged, but then you went and said something stupid and spoiled it all."
"But I don't love him, Mother."
"Since when has that stopped anyone from getting married? You think most people getting married are in love? If they were, why do half of them end up in divorce court?"
"I could never marry someone I didn't love."
"Gloria, wake up and see things for what they really are. You think because I was a beauty queen I had it easy? How many times do I have to tell you beauty pageants aren't all that different from real life? Everyone's trying to create perfection. To win something. But sooner or later the Preparation H wears off, and the bags begin to show. That's what you've got to learn. Everyone's got bags, Gloria, or sweaty feet, or ... But you live with it. A wise woman closes her eyes and lives with it."
"Mother ... honestly ..."
"It's certainly nothing like those romance novels you read."
"Didn't you love Daddy?"
"Maybe I shouldn't have named you after Gloria Swanson. How was I to know you wouldn't have any looks at all? That you'd turn out to be-"
"I'm sorry I disappointed you."
"No use crying over spilled milk. No use crying over something we can't change. Though heaven knows I've tried. Tried to teach you all the tricks I've learned over the years. But you still can't apply makeup to save your life, and your hair ... why do you insist on frizzing your hair?"
"I like my hair this way."
"You only like it because I don't. You've made it a war between us."
"No I haven't. Why can't I have my own-"
"Like I said, no use crying. I learned long ago life isn't pretty. But we all have to walk down that runway, Gloria. Do our acts, strut our stuff. We have to do the best we can with what we've got. And when you don't have a lot, you can't be choosy. You've got to settle. Though Cutter Press is hardly a booby prize. For heaven's sake, he's loaded! You'd never have to worry if there was money in the bank when you wrote a check. And that's nothing to snub your nose at. Security, Gloria. That's what you should be looking for. Believe me, plenty of women would jump at a chance to marry Cutter. All things considered, he's far more than you have any right to expect."
Gloria had already opened the cabinet near the refrigerator and removed a box of Domino sugar cubes. She flipped up the top, plunged in fingers, and pulled out a perfectly shaped cube and placed it on her tongue. Now she stood by the counter letting the cube disintegrate, letting the crystals crumble and float and sweeten the bitter taste that had filled her mouth. She couldn't remember when she first started using Domino cubes, but she was ten when her mother caught her and gave her a lengthy lecture on tooth decay and cellulite. Gloria covered the mouthpiece of the phone before she bit into the last of the chunks, then swallowed.
"You're all I've got in the world. I love you, and I only want what's best. But you've got to cooperate, Gloria. Give me a little help here. You've got to shake those cobwebs out of that head of yours and face facts. With your limited assets-"
"Mother, please, can't you leave me something?"
"You've got to take what comes along."
Gloria was back by the table and picked up the salt shaker. For a moment she felt like smashing it on the floor. "Looks and brains aren't everything."
"Try telling a man that. No, Gloria, you've got to stop fooling yourself. The only assets you have are youth, and you're not getting any younger-"
"I'm only twenty-eight."
"And you're a hard worker. For some men, that's enough. They're just looking for a wife who'll keep a nice house and put meals together."
"You mean like a maid?"
"And fortunately, Cutter Press is one of them."
"But I want more, Mother. I have hopes ... dreams ... I want to be loved." She looked at the gold-framed photo on the coffee table of Tracy and Tucker holding margaritas and each other and smiling, as though they also held the whole world in one of their Velcro pockets. Then she thought of the picture of just Tucker-taken on the sly from Tracy's castoffs. She had cut that one, trimmed it around the edges so it would fit in her wallet, then wedged it between her driver's license and VISA like a guilty secret. She wondered if most people carried secrets in their wallets, or only those who led small lives. Small lives didn't require large secret spaces.
"I want someone to love me for myself. Can't you understand that?"
"But you already have that. I love you. You're my daughter, for heaven's sake. Why are you looking for the whole pie, Gloria? Be content with one slice."
Gloria felt her chest constrict, felt the oxygen being cut off from her lungs as if someone had just shoved a plastic bag over her head. "I need more," she whispered.
"I've got a pan of chicken tarragon sitting right here on the cooling rack. I made it just the way you like. You know ... with those little egg noodles? I can't possibly eat it all myself. And I bet you haven't had a thing to eat. Why don't I bring you some? It'll make you feel better, and then we'll talk. You've got the jitters, that's all. I was nervous too, before I married your father."
Gloria placed the salt shaker carefully on the table and sat down. "Please don't bother. I'm not hungry, Mother."
"Nonsense. You're too thin as it is. The last time I saw you, you could barely keep those new green pants I bought you from falling off your waist."
"You bought them a size too big, Mother. I keep telling you I'm a-"
"We can't have you looking like a scarecrow at your own wedding, now, can we?"
Gloria didn't bother pressing the off button but just laid the phone on the table. The dial tone droned like a muffled air-raid siren, warning her that soon the bombardment would begin. She slid as far down into the chair as she could without falling off and thought of God's promise.
* * *
Gloria lay on the couch surfing channels, trying to forget her mother's visit and the last three grueling hours she had endured. She stopped when she saw Big Bird and Kermit the Frog. She couldn't remember the last time she had seen Sesame Street. Big Bird was listening to Kermit sing "It's Not Easy Being Green." She wondered why Sesame Street was on so late, then realized it was a documentary on children's programming. Suddenly, Gloria began to cry. Actually bawled like a baby. Frogs. She hated them.
But was that anything to cry about?
* * *
Gloria faced the mirror, brushing her teeth with the new generic toothpaste she had bought from Sam Hidel's grocery and thinking how incredibly late it was for her to be going to bed. In the background she kept hearing the word frog-as if a voice were calling from a distant street or trickling through the air vent of a large high-rise.
She was sure it was her imagination and concentrated on making small circular motions with the Oral B. Her teeth were so perfect it was impossible to tell she once had an overbite.
Gloria shook her head. All these years, and she still had trouble understanding what an overbite had to do with frogs. But the kids at school had seen a connection. She had hoped the teasing would stop after she got braces. Then she had hoped it would stop after the braces came off. Then she stopped hoping.
Gloria rinsed her toothbrush and slipped it into a twelve-ounce paper cup tucked in the corner of the vanity. Even after she turned out the light, she stood in front of the mirror listening and wondering why she wanted to start bawling all over again.
You hear a thing long enough, and you begin to believe it.
* * *
Gloria counted ten names on the list. Nine doctor offices and one hospital. She pulled out ten glossy cream folders from the slotted bin in front of her and spread them over her desk. A garnet logo cut the folders in half: Medical Data Corp. Gloria ran her fingers over the slightly raised lettering. Verdana, 36-a good choice-clean, bold, but with a hint of class. She would have used burgundy, though, in mirrored letters behind the garnet to make it more striking.
If it were up to her.
Tracy said she had a keen eye for color. A flair. And Gloria suspected it was true. She could put colors together better than some, but she'd stop short of calling it a flair. Though the yearbook editor had allowed her to design the cover of her senior yearbook-huge navy letters, mirrored in tan-their school colors, all placed on a solid background of Cape Cod gray. Nobody had ever done that before. And everyone said it was one of the best covers they ever had.
Gloria smiled and slipped the Company Overview into a folder pocket, followed by five different product information sheets. Too bad her mother's best friend didn't own a print shop instead of a medical software company. She'd much rather be doing layouts, creating balance between objects and text, coordinating colors, choosing fonts, cropping photos.
"That's right. The Medical Management System is compatible with nearly all network architectures and hardware platforms, including Novell, Windows, AIS, and OS/2."
Tracy was making her pitch in the next cubicle, and just by Tracy's voice, Gloria knew she'd have to add another folder to the pile.
"Naturally it supports EDI standards ... yes, state of the art, no other practice management system touches it. What? ... oh, no problem. We can automatically back up your files off-site ... sure you can outsource billing and claims processing ... right ... and create your reports in any format ... oh, it's soooo easy ...."
Gloria could tell by the sound of Tracy's voice, the way it rose and fell, then vibrated in the air like a musical note, that Tracy was getting ready to close the deal. The skin of Gloria's arm prickled. It was like listening to Andrea Bocelli sing Il Mistero Dell' Amore.
Tracy was an artist.
Sometimes, Gloria called her a con artist, but that was only when she was miffed or-God forgive-her excessively jealous. But Gloria had learned to live with her jealousy just as some people live with asthma. It was a chronic condition that needed medicating, and calling Tracy a con artist now and then was part of that prescription.
When Gloria no longer heard Tracy's voice, she peered around her cubicle. There she was, with her headset draped around her neck, coming straight toward her. Gloria didn't know why Tracy bothered wearing the headset because she never used it. Instead, Tracy always held the phone. Said it was more personal that way.
If Tracy was anything, she was personal.
And that was the core of Gloria's jealousy. It didn't come from meanness or any desire to see Tracy hurt. It had more to do with heroes and admiration and wanting to be someone you were not.
Someone else entirely.
Excerpted from Waters of Marah by Sylvia Bambola Copyright © 2004 by Sylvia Bambola. Excerpted by permission.
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