“Just where the hell have you been?” he demanded, slapping the maple arm of the sofa. “Last thing we knew, you’re tooling up I-95 in that there sportscar of yours, on the way to Philadelphia. That was—what? Eighteen, twenty months ago? And nothing from you since but a coupla lousy postcards saying you’re all right and not to worry! We just about went crazy! Your mother had a relapse over it. Look at her! Look what you done! I oughtta—”
Her mother gazed out the front window, pretending to focus on something happening in Patterson Park. Her gray lips worked silently.
“Well, look, Dad—all I can say is I was real upset over 9-11, and I needed to get away by myself and think things over. I’d just had it with Mom being sick, and you all calling on me for every little thing. I thought it was time Candy took over, and Mason. Why’s it always got to me?
“And look. You’re okay. Candy actually got a job to help pay her room and board here. And Mason’s off drugs for the first time in years.”
“Yeah, well—he can’t afford no drugs these days, can he?” snapped her father. “And Candy’s at Walmart. You call that a job? I made more money curing bacon at Esskay twenty-five years ago than what they’re paying her today.”
“But at least she’s got something going, Dad. She might not have gotten on her feet if I’d been around. She’s even cleaning the house.”
“Not like your mother did it! Used to be, you could eat right off the kitchen floor, it was so clean!”
“Dad—those days are gone. Nobody has time for that any more. Everybody’s desperate. Look, so was I. I was desperate to get away from everything, even you guys. Guess you could say I took off for my mental health.”
“Huh! And what’d you live on that whole time? Air?”
“Oh, I had a job for a big nonprofit in a town outside Philly. Public relations stuff, marketing—you know, the usual.”
“No, I don’t know,” he sneered. “That’s not work in my book. Bunch of fluff, in my opinion. And I suppose you were ‘Eleanor Preston’ again instead of your real name, huh? ‘Pryzbylewski’ just don’t cut it with them phonies.”
“And I rented out my condo, and I still got my rent from the house next door—”
“What? You mean that b*tch knew where you were the whole time and didn’t tell us?”
“I made a deal with her—I let her pay a hundred less a month if she kept me posted how things were going and didn’t tell where I was. She needed the money real bad. And I never worried once I knew Candy was pulling her weight.”
“So why’d ya come back if it was so great to be away? We’d got used to not having you around, if you want to know the truth. It got downright pleasant around here without your holier-than-thou act.”
Louella’s eyes watered up, maybe from the contact lenses. She couldn’t be sure.
“Dad, I’m forty-two years old now. It’s getting harder for me to get by. I just wanted to get back home, you know? That, plus they abolished my job.”
“Whaddya mean, ‘abolished’ your job? Don’tcha mean ya got fired? You wanna get right with us, ya’d better start speaking the same language we do.”
“All right, if it makes you feel better, I got canned, all right? Because my boss was a total fool and I made sure he knew I knew it. Because he was running the organization into the ground, and the board didn’t have the guts to confront him, and I couldn’t stand going to work any more unless I could be honest about how I felt.”
“Hah! And you think you know public relations. You don’t know nothin’ about suckin’ up, little girl. Well, when I was at Esskay, my boss was a liar and a thief, but I never said nothin’, kept my job near-on thirty years.”
“Well, I can’t do that, Dad. I can’t sit by and let some idiot ruin something good without taking a stand. There’s other ways of lying and stealing that aren’t so obvious, but cost a lot more. I made sure I did my job so well they’d never have grounds to fire me, so they just up and told me my job didn’t exist any more. Budget reasons, they said. But I knew different. They were cutting me from the herd, didn’t want me around any more. Bad for morale.”
Her father’s furtive eyes narrowed. “Does this mean you sued the bastards?” he asked eagerly. “Come on, ’fess up! What’d ya get out of ’em?”
Greed sure makes a person ugly, thought Louella as she prepared a white lie.