Thirty-five: Food Gone Bad
Thunder was still crashing and lightning still flashing as we ate dinner by the light of candles. We could see little of each other in the dim glow, just turns of face and hand as we ate the small pieces of fried salmon and the undercooked rice. There was plenty of salad, but it was an unsatisfying meal. We put it down to adventure and roughing it, and spent Sunday evening before the fire in the big fireplace in the grand study downstairs, all of us.
I thought of our collection as 'all of us,' but when Mother and Aunt Andersol fell asleep on the long couch, draped with blankets, Uncle Bodie, with furrowed brow, gestured to Aunt Sully. "Are the staff warm, too?"
She motioned for him to stay where he was, his arms around Mother, his feet touching his sister's knees. She hooked a finger at me and John, and headed for the staff's wing.
I think it's important to note that although it was fall, Port Laughton was in no danger of freezing in October. Our maritime climate kept us cool in summer, but quite moderate in winter. We needed some heat in the house, but even if we had none, we would not have perished from the cold. At the time the house was built, the fireplaces would have provided enough heat for all -- back then people wore layers of clothing: long under-stuff, thick skirts, wool suits, shawls, capes -- you get the picture.
Anyway, when we reached the common quarters for staff, we found a crowd sitting around the largish room, playing cards or checkers or just chatting with each other. There was a woodstove there, radiating heat. Although the common area was only one storey, there was ductwork from that room to their personal areas upstairs.
I had never been in that room before, strange though that may seem, as I had lived in the house for fourteen years. Staff quarters were simply off limits, as they ought to have a haven from us ... Were we 'bosses' or were we 'parasites' or simply 'employers?' Looking around, the place seemed homey and comforting, with area rugs on a flagstone floor, and wide tables with bare wooden tops. A magazine rack stood against one wall, with more magazines than I had access to; several morning staff people jumped to their feet as we entered after knocking, scurrying out of sight in their lounging wear or pajamas.
"You all warm enough?" asked Aunt Sully. "Sorry to intrude."
"We're good," said Philomena. "Did you need something?"
"No, thank you. We were just worried you might be in discomfort. See you in the morning, all."
We returned to the study and the big fireplace. Before we all went to bed, Kelsa begged some conditioner from Aunt Sully, who supplied her with a half-bottle of the stuff. "Hide it or lose it," she told Kelsa. "You know how your sisters are."
We were feral in the dark, who knew what lengths we would go to in order to survive? I felt an almost irresistible urge to stalk Michel in the lightless hallways and make him scream. Later, I decided, once he had grown used to the darkness and was no longer so skittish.
The morning introduced yet another barbarism -- we had no hot water. I awakened to Michel's shouts of outrage from the shower, and the girls in the hallway complaining that water was cold. Aunt Sully came down the hallway in a thick robe, her hair wet. "Stop your screeching! We have no hot water, and all your histrionics are not going to warm it. Take a sponge bath, or tough it out. But shut up, your mother is still sleeping."
"Can't someone bring us some warm water?"
"No. We've got four propane burners and a limited supply of camp propane bottles."
"Then how are we supposed to wash?"
"Shivering, like I did. Look, a cold shower won't kill you."
"When is the power coming back on?"
"Don't know, it's still high winds and freako rains out there."
Michel screamed like a little girl through most of his shower, that being his way of toughing it out. I was determined to take my shower in silence, no matter how cold it was, just to make him feel like a sissy. Clenching my teeth and pretending I couldn't feel it got me through with nary a scream, but it was cold, and no one in the world could tell me convincingly that it was bracing or at all necessary.
Yet putting my clothes on made me feel suddenly very warm, even in the barely-heated air. I ducked into Dad's office, and pulled out my journal.
Do we really need the heat that we've become accustomed to? Do we really need to bathe every day? Nannie gave us baths every single day before dinner time -- but was it necessary or was it convention? Can you actually tell when someone has bathed only the day before, rather than just before this day's dinner? What was it like in your day, Dad?
I thought it might be good to ride out and have a look at the wind damage, but by the time I got downstairs I understood from the views from the windows that it would be out of the question. The thunder had abated, but the wind and rain had not. Looking out the front window of the study, I could see sheets of rain pouring down, rippling in the wind. There was a river of water pouring down the front drive, and the wind was making it look like it ought to be peaking in whitecaps.
In front of the fire, Aunt Sully was helping Kelsa with her hair, gently teasing the pick through her kinky curls, blotting the ends with a towel to keep them from dripping onto the back of her sweatshirt.
There was a strange rhythm to the process, one I had never noticed -- which is not surprising, as I was unaccustomed to paying attention to my sisters' hair -- my aunt's white hands plying a tortoiseshell-colored pick to the ends first, gradually working upwards through the wet brick tones of Kelsa's hair, again and again until the whole gnarly mess of it was hanging in heavy curling strands.
"Now turn around so your back is to the fire, and don't fiddle with it," ordered Aunt Sully. Michel sat on the hearth, as close to the fire as he could get, shivering, until Oesha and Marca appeared, like greedy cats, and pre-empted his spot. There was enough heat for all, of course, but it was a power-play by our older sisters; we were used to it.
A few minutes later, Dolores informed us that breakfast was ready, so we left the comfort of the fire for the little dining area. We sat down and were served scrambled eggs, with a bechamel sauce dribbled over them.
The peppers and onions diced into the mix were completely at odds with the weather outside, as was the texture of the eggs, which felt slimy to the tongue. Somehow I had expected a hearty breakfast, in view of the storm raging outside. This dish made me think of summer mornings when there was no school and nothing more pressing than waiting to see if lunch was better.
John came in and sat beside Aunt Sully. "How come you're not eating?" he asked.
"Taste it," she replied in a low voice.
"Not bad. I've eaten stuff that was worse."
"Good. You can have mine."
"And mine," said Kelsa.
"You baby, just pick the peppers and onions out of it."
"Shut up, Marca, you'd eat dog shit with ketchup."
"Drop it, that's disgusting to say at the table," my aunt reprimanded.
Beside me, Michel whispered, "Please, Chef, sir, may I have some dog shit with ketchup instead?"
My stifled snicker was enough to set him off giggling.
"You have no taste at all," Oesha said. "Pureed escargot with salsa and ranch is served at all the finest restaurants in France."
I ate my serving, thinking of how I would describe each bite. Horrendous. Glutinous. Ill-presented. Poisonous. "Perhaps the next time we can just have a nice dish of onions, without the rest?" I asked in a conversational tone.
"Oops, we forgot to say grace before we ate," Michel noted. "Dear God, we thank Thee that this sustenance which Thou hast provided has not killed us dead on the spot."
"Amen," we answered.
"Michel!" shouted my aunt.
"May we be excused?" I asked, standing, having choked down the loathsome repast.
"Yes, please!" she said emphatically.
As we left, I poked Michel. "And please don't let me forget to thank Chef for my very first case of heartburn. These precious moments should be commemorated."
There was nothing to entertain us then except our own selves. Oesha and Marca took up their place on the hearth, looking at magazines; Michel and Kelsa and I stopped by Redell's office to tell him how awful breakfast had been, and pester him for details about how the road would be cleared. When Aunt Sully and John showed up (my aunt still glaring at us), we went upstairs to visit Mother, only to find that both she and Aunt Andersol were still sleeping.
The day was very dark again, low gray clouds roiling across the sky as the rain poured. We put coats on and went out on the back porch to watch the storm. Water had pooled in the garden and lawn in places; the raindrops splashed four inches high as they hit the walkway to the gazebo. As the day before, we began to hear rumbles of thunder. We counted the seconds between lightning and thunder until there was a bright pinkish purple branch just up on the ridge above the house, and a deafening peal of thunder less than a second after -- we bolted back into the house, which seemed almost warm compared to the outdoors.
Mother had come downstairs while we were out, and had taken up her favorite post on the couch, swathed in a quilt. She had faint dark circles under her eyes as she greeted us with a lackluster smile.
"Mom, are you all right?" I said, kneeling beside her.
"I'm fine. Just a little stressed with this no electricity thing." She reached out and touched my face, tousled my hair a little. "I hope you can run this place better than I have."
"We're fine, Mom," Kelsa said. "We're all safe and warm enough and the power will come back on soon."
"Your hair is lovely today, Kelsa. What did you do differently?"
"Aunt Sully helped me pick it through, that's all. I haven't even combed it."
"Well, it looks great."
"Really?" She jumped up and ran off to find a mirror that wasn't too dim to see herself in.
"Owen, what is Chef making for lunch? I didn't eat this morning."
"Duh," I said, "most of us didn't. You're fortunate to have missed it."
"I didn't miss it, it just smelled dreadful and tasted worse. Bodie ate my share."
"I don't know what's on the menu for lunch. We've been outside on the back porch for a while."
"In this? You're a crazy bunch. Come on, let's go see what Chef has planned." She gathered her quilt around her shoulders and we went to the kitchen access door.
I opened it and was assailed by a noxious scent. My mother clapped her hand over her nose. "What is that?" she blurted with ill grace.
The chef turned to us, bowed, and said, "Beef slices seared in Cajun spices, wrapped around green beans and gruyere cheese."
"Cajun?" said a voice behind us. Redell had appeared in silence. "Why would you make food with Cajun spices when you know that the entire family hates Cajun?"
"One must make do with the pitiful implements one is given to ply one's trade," he said haughtily to Redell. "I cannot hope that you would understand."
"What's the staff eating?" Redell pressed.
"Chicken salad on bread. Canned chicken. Store bread."
"Sounds great. Throw this stuff out and bring the family chicken salad on bread for lunch."
Mother had ducked under Redell's shoulder and exited the kitchen doorway, still holding her hand over her nose.
"Throw it out?" Chef shouted. "Throw it out?"
I was amazed at how purple his face had become.
"Or eat it yourself, let whoever on the staff likes Cajun eat it. Don't serve it to the family."
"I take requests from you; I do not take orders from you, nor do I serve my employers diner food. If you had any regard for my trade, there would be power in the kitchen."
"There's no gas for the generator, Benedicci. There's no way to get power in here."
Benedicci? I'd never heard his name before.
Benedicci sputtered. "Your filthy jeeps and tractors have precedence over the kitchens? There is plenty of gas, just no respect for food."
"Thank you for the information," my mother said from behind Redell. "You're fired."
Redell smiled. "You're fired."
Poison us once, shame on you, I thought. Poison us twice, shame on us if we don't fire your avante garde Benedicci-Borgia proclivities.