Thirty-six: The Primitive Life
Redell suggested that we have our lunch in the study, by the fire; I think he wanted us as far away from Ex-Chef Benedicci (I decided to write a story about him and call him 'Maledicci') as possible. We didn't mind at all, since the small dining room was very dark, and considerably colder.
Aunt Andersol and Mother once again huddled on the biggest couch; Oesha and Marca and Kelsa sat cross-legged on another, keeping their feet off the cold floor.
After the slop we'd been served for breakfast, the chicken salad on bread seemed very delicious. Michel, Marca, Uncle Bodie and I had seconds.
Lights flashed in the upstairs hallway, revealing a lantern and a flashlight carried by one of the staff leading Grandmother, who was wearing a calf-length mink coat and a long green velvet dress. I jumped up and mounted the stairs to offer Grandmother my assistance. "You look magnificent," I told her.
She descended regally, slowly, and entered the study. "Do not look at my feet," she ordered. "It is too cold for high heels." Her sheepskin slippers did look a bit odd, but under the circumstances, perfectly suited. "The chicken salad was delicious; I am told I have you to thank."
"You're welcome, although it was Redell who got things organized."
"Philomena tells me that you fired our little chef."
Mother frowned. "He was unconscionably rude to Redell, and if you had smelled the atrocity he was about to serve us for lunch ..."
Grandmother chuckled. "She also told the contents of the atrocity. It is for the firing of him that I thank you. From the very bottom of my heart."
Looking relieved, my mother said, "You didn't like his cooking, either? Why didn't you say something? We could have been rid of him months ago!"
"I thought you guys all liked his cooking." Aunt Andersol giggled. "Why do you think I always went to such great lengths to avoid his dinners?"
"You know, I think he's been getting worse since he started going to his 'Culinary Seminars' about five years ago. I know he's been getting more and more arrogant, and his meals have been more about presentation than nourishment."
"Or about digestion. The very old, as I am, need care to be taken in feeding us."
"Or about palatability," Michel said loftily. "Perhaps the man accidentally tasted a hot soup that has burned the tastebuds off his tongue."
"Maybe a frying pan fell off a shelf and hit him on the head and gave him delusions."
"When we get a new chef, may we please, please, please give him or her a list of forbidden foods? Starting with fried yam patties? I've hated them since before Dad died."
"The question is, how are we going to get him out of the house? This storm is ridiculous -- I can see at least four trees down along the lane and the road, and work crews can't go out in this! By the way, don't forget that some of that gas we siphon has got to go for chainsaws. Good thing John knows how to siphon gas, because I sure don't."
"Something I never learned," Uncle Bodie said.
In the next few moments, I learned something that surprised me, though thinking back over my life, it shouldn't have. We heard the door to the porch slam; faint voices from the mud room reached us, then footsteps approaching.
My mother went pale. "It's Sully. Oh, shit."
Aunt Andersol's eyes were wide, Uncle Bodie moved to sit close to Mother protectively, and Grandmother Claire folded her hands in her lap and looked at them. My siblings weren't alarmed, but their eyes were all trained on the door where Aunt Sully would appear.
The French doors opened. Aunt Sully and John stood there, hair wet, their sweatshirts soaked almost to the hems. Both of their faces were smudged liberally.
The silent scene spoke volumes, and I wished I had a notebook nearby, wished the scene would end so that I could race to my journal and write down what I saw happen. Uncle Bodie, Aunt Andersol, Grandmother Claire, and my mother ... were all afraid of what Aunt Sully was going to say about the firing of the chef. My brother and sisters weren't afraid, per se, but they were ready to bolt if a fight was in store. John wasn't afraid, either, but he was definitely nervous.
My mother owned the estate, but all of them saw Aunt Sully as The Boss.
Aunt Sully looked absolutely steamed, her eyes the bright green that often preceded an outrage. Memories piled up in my head, all saying, What? You never figured this out? My red-haired aunt lecturing us about table manners, and instructing Nannie about what she expected, her investigation into our school problems and solutions, the many weekends that seemed so much more at ease when she was here ... the issue with the cows escaping their pasture, my fencing lessons, the bridge of Grandmother's affection for her, the understanding that if we were doing what was right, we kids proudly wanted her to notice, and if we were doing wrong, she was the one we hid from ... Her eyes took in the demeanor of everyone in the room.
I found myself grinning broadly. Standing from the hearth, I said, "Dear Filthy Aunt, may I loan you some soap?"
Her tense shoulders relaxed a little, and she smiled with half her mouth. "No, but you can make sure I get some of that chicken salad in about fifteen minutes. Stay away from the back of the house, I'm going to shower out in the rain."
"What?" Mother cried. "Are you serious?" She turned to look at her sister.
"Yes, I am! It's cold out there, but the rain is a lot warmer than the well water we're piping into the bathrooms! Philip rigged one of the downspouts for me, near the corner of the house." She reached over and tugged my mother's hair. "The timing sucks, but Benedicci had to go."
"We'll get by, and now maybe you'll be able to cook for us sometimes."
"I want to take a shower in the rain, too," Marca interrupted.
"You need one, you oozing pustule," Michel sneered.
The pillow she threw at him missed, nearly hitting the fire screen, but he was off and running through the house, laughing like a loon, before she could untangle herself from the blanket on her legs.
She narrowed her eyes, but settled back on the couch beside her twin. The fact was, she was getting a little too old to chase and wallop a cheeky little brother. Not that she couldn't catch him -- she was hellishly fast on her feet, a value to her soccer team -- but she was changing, mellowing with age? biding her time? Michel was still storing up punishment for himself, I believed, but Marca would choose a time when he was unsuspecting. I chuckled to myself, thinking that Marca might even wait until his first date to extract her revenge. Or she's going to steal his toilet paper. Note to self, since I share that bathroom with him: keep an extra roll of TP in my closet.
"Mom, can I?" Marca asked Mother.
Mother looked worried, as though she thought that Marca would turn into a nudist overnight. Aunt Andersol patted her feet. "I'll supervise. I might want to take advantage of the outdoor shower myself. The tapwater in the bath is like ice."
"Goody," Oesha added. "Me, too."
"Ah, we've gone from wishing for the storm to stop to praying that it continues long enough for us to all get clean! The primitive life of the aborigine!"
"Oh shut it, Owen," she said. "Ice cold showers are probably good for you at your age."
"Speaking of cold showers, why aren't you pining that you can't call Eleanor Roosevelt with the phone lines down?"
"No phones, no phone number, Marca. Ours is merely a casual friendship, based on her not being at all like you."
"I like her," Kelsa put in. "She's funny, and nice, and not snotty like a lot of the girls in school."
"I like her, too," Grandmother surprised me by joining in. "She is bright, and personable, and able to hold her own in strange company, which is unusual in a girl so young."
"Unusual? Grandmother, we can, too!" Kelsa squeaked.
Grandmother glared at her. "All five of you are freaks of nature, suited only for strange company, and not for the rest of your society."
It sounded like it could be an insult, but it was unfortunately true. But then, Grandmother despised general society, so maybe it was a compliment. We were saved from further puzzling by Aunt Sully's return. She was clean, and looked exhilarated by her shower. I moved from the center of the hearth so that she could sit there and let her hair dry.
"The good news is that we got the generator going," she began.
"Great! Then we have lights and hot water on the way!" Uncle Bodie observed.
Aunt Sully shook her head slowly. "The bad news is that the generator was installed in the shed in 1968, and barely works. We can run one of the stoves in the kitchen, and the walk-in freezer. Those have to be the priorities, sorry. And the freezer is the most important.
"When we can get into town and get gas and buy additional generators, we can add on, but even if we get the trees cleared from the lane, Reich Road is flooded, and city crews won't be able to open it until the water subsides."
"You weren't down to the road?" Mother sputtered.
"No, but Maida was. He slogged across the field after the thunderstorm to check. Said he'd seen worse in India."
"Take this one," Grandmother Claire gestured at me, "and do a quick inventory of the food in the freezer. We need food that will get us through this time, not artistic inventions designed to impress political pests who have not the least bit of sensibility about them. Let us meet here later and agree upon a menu."
As my aunt rose to her feet, Mother said, "Thanks, Sully. I don't know what I'd do without you."
Aunt Sully grinned. "Learn to cook?"
We headed for the kitchens, now fumigated of the wretched Benedicci-roach.