Chapter Fifty-four: Not Ben's Favorite Weekend
Ben, Lolo, and Gloria were all sitting in the living room, reading, when the front door burst open and Philli leaped in, laughing, shaking her hair free of raindrops. "Why didn't I take an umbrella? It's pouring out there!"
She didn't wait for any reply, though, but instead hurried to the phone in the kitchen. Gloria heard her say, "I'm home, safe and sound. And soaked, just from the car to the front door." There was a pause. "Okay. See you tomorrow, around ten. Me, too." There was another sound, then Philli peeked around the corner. "I'm going to go dry off. Something smells really good out here."
Gloria looked at Ben, who stared back at her. "Did I just hear her giggle?" he asked, a little tension back in his voice.
"Sounded like it. If getting wet makes her that cheerful, we should hose her down every morning."
Lolo stifled a laugh. "I had an aunt who did that to my cousin when he came home smelling of beer. She would sit on the porch with the hose, waiting for him."
"Did it help?" Gloria asked.
She shrugged. "Eventually he stopped going home. My aunt said she was glad." She turned back to her book.
Who would my mother be reporting her arrival home to? Her boss? She's never done that before. And if it was her boss, would Philli be meeting her before work? Or does she have another meeting to discuss mortgages with someone who wants to know if she's home safely, probably so that he can be her realtor when she decides to sell our house?
Ben put his book down and went back to the kitchen. "Want some?" he asked Philli, who had come down the hall. "If not, I'm going to put it all away for the night."
"I'm starving," she said, hitching her shoulders around in an oversized cotton pullover. "How should I serve this stuff?"
"I got it, Mom," Ben said. "Rice, chicken, sauce." He nuked it for about a minute in the microwave, then set it on the table.
Ben hovered at her shoulder while she tasted it; Gloria cocked her head and listened.
"Oh my god, this is good! Great job, Gloria!"
"Not me," called Gloria. "That's Ben's work."
"Ben! This is fantastic! When did you start cooking like this?"
"This evening, as a matter of fact. Now I'm thinking about starting up my own culinary arts academy and charging outrageous tuition, thereby securing our financial future." He bowed to her. "But I have to be honest, although I figured out the chicken, Gloria provided the inspiration for that pineapple sauce."
"All I did was show him how to use cornstarch to thicken stuff," Gloria droned loudly. "He's an annoying little genius."
It wasn't completely true, but Gloria wanted her mother to focus on how clever her youngest was -- Ben in her good favor was most likely to find out what Philli was up to with her phone calls and her lack of presence in the Melton household.
Saturday was practically a throwaway day at work for Gloria; the soup was simple, with easily cooked chicken breast meat, and carrots and celery she and Susana had sauteed the evening before. The only thing about it Gloria didn't like was the lack of flavor in the broth -- the canned stuff barely tasted like chicken, and had to be fortified by a chicken base. But it wasn't her menu, or her preferences, but the Bakers.'
Same for the evening meal -- Gloria wouldn't have served pasta two days running (well, unless her brothers were lobbying for two days of spaghetti in a row) but the toughest part of the dish was cutting the prosciutto into tiny strips, which she set Susana to doing early in the day, largely so that she didn't have to direct Susana every ten minutes on what to do next. They used frozen peas in the recipe, which made Gloria scowl over her lack of knowledge; she realized she had never in her life dealt with fresh peas, only canned or frozen.
The sauce was easy; Maria had made her watch how the butter and flour had to be stirred so that it didn't turn brown. Then she added the chicken broth (once again the insipid stuff from the store), let it cook for a few minutes before adding the cream. The biggest challenge there was getting the sauced pasta onto plates in a timely manner, making swirls of noodles with a miniature pitchfork implement.
Sunday was another beast altogether. When Steve had brought her the rib roast on Friday for her to put in the walk-in refrigerator, she'd counted the ribs. "Steve, there's seven ribs here for six diners. Maria would be threatening you with her big wooden spoon. Are there six, or seven for this meal?"
"Six," he'd said cheerfully. "Rob said to make sure you and Susana had one to split for yourselves."
"Wow. Christmas bonus early." She'd laughed. "Or is that his way of assuring that we'll do a good job?"
Now the day was upon them. Following Maria's strict instructions, first thing Sunday morning, Gloria took the roast out of the cooler and set it on the counter next to the stove, to come to room temperature. Cakes and breads were sliced then, fruits and juices set out, cheeses and savory summer sausage on one platter, vegetables on yet another.
It was not quite the extravaganza of the usual Sunday feasts, but Gloria and Susana were busy prepping brunchy food treats. Around noon, Thomas showed up at the kitchen window with a phone. "For Miss Gloria," he announced. "Maria wishes to speak with you."
Perplexed, Gloria took the phone.
"You stressing about the rib roast?"
"Sure am. I know you said it would be easy, but that's a lot of meat to ruin if I don't do it right. How are you, by the way? I worry about you every three minutes if not more often."
"I'm fine. You gonna love the jelly me and Elsie make. Look, this roast, how much it weigh?"
"About eight pounds."
"Okay," Maria's voice came calmly, "you're going to cook it for about two hours. First, remember, 20 minutes at 450. Then you turn back the oven to 350. Set a timer, don't let Susa do it, she is about as good at numbers as she is about training lions. You got that much?"
"Yes, I have my notes. I'm just scared to mess up."
"The roast will take care of you. Use my thermometer, check at two hours, should read about 120, maybe 115. Pull him out of the oven and wrap foil around, nice and tight. Another fifteen minutes and he's ready to carve."
"How do I slice through the bones?"
"Don't worry about bones, just roll the roast off the bones, bones just fall off. Make sure that you save them for Asuncion in the dish room. She's worse off than you are, just trying to keep her family fed."
"I will. I miss you so much."
"You do fine. Your brother come home yet?"
Maria laughed on the other end of the line. "Maybe they have a cat."
Gloria blinked back some tears when she handed the phone back to Thomas, but thanked him, and turned to Susana. "Okay, at one-thirty, we put this bad boy roast into the oven, and may all the gods have mercy on our souls."
"What?" asked Susana, but shook her head and ambled back to the prep area to chop yellow onions into thin strips, not waiting for any explanation.
Ben met Gloria at the door, opening it even before she touched the handle. "How was it? Did you bomb? Was it good? Every time I've opened the refrigerator door, all I could think about was prime rib, and maybe my chicken was good, but prime rib is pretty much above that."
"Ben, pardon my language, but that rib roast was so fucking good that I have to believe that no restaurant we ever visited in our lives knew what the hell they were doing. I just about fell on the floor and had food convulsions when I tasted it. Here." She handed him a small baggie with a slice of meat. "Nuke that for no more than 15 seconds, add some salt. Staff lunch was chuck steak tacos, which weren't bad at all, but it's hard to believe that the meat came from the same kind of animal."
Gloria draped her coat over one of the kitchen chairs. "It's not raining, but the fog has come up so bad I had to run the windshield wipers. Shouldn't Lolo be home by now?"
"Yeah. Hence me hovering at the door. Does she have a cell phone? Should we call and make sure she's all right?"
"Hmm. All right, the mall stays open until eight during Christmas shopping season, I'd forgotten that. She didn't get home until eight-thirty last night ... let's give her an hour and then call." She hesitated, not knowing if she should add fuel to Ben's fire over where family members were. "Ben, did you see Mom this morning?"
He nodded. "She was up right after you left and dressed to kill by nine. Didn't tell me or Lolo where she was going, just breezed out the door at nine-thirty. I noticed she had a bag with her work shoes in it that she took with her."
Rubbing her fingers over her forehead to reduce the tightness that had suddenly made her head ache, she wished they still had cable TV, and that Ben could have been sucked into some dumb documentary instead of watching her for her reaction. "Maybe she's avoiding me in the mornings because I've been so bitchy about spending. I don't know."
"Come on, Gloria, don't treat me like an idiot. She's seeing someone, dating someone. I'm guessing it's that Joe Brady guy -- and what, it's been like six months and change since Dad died? What the fuck, Gloria, what the fuck is she doing?"
Ben's face was red with anger, and Gloria could not bring herself to tell him to calm down, everything would be all right. She herself had no clear idea what their mother was doing, had no words of wise comforting for him.
"I. Don't. Know," she said, her voice deep, broaching no argument. "You're pissed, I'm pissed, but the fact is, she's our mother, and she doesn't have to ask permission to do whatever the hell it is she does. She's her own person, and if you doubt that for one minute, just ask her, and she will, in no uncertain terms, set you right. In thirty seconds or less."
He shook his head, as if to clear it. "Go shower, you hog. I'll sample this meat, and tell the world if this is what I want for my birthday instead of Little Danny Angel's French fries."
Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2016-05-30
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.