Forty-three: Food for Thought
The following Tuesday the road to the estate was finally opened and power restored. From school we were transported home, our luggage and bedding having traveled ahead of us.
The hot water and ready food at the apartment had been very convenient, but at no time since our early camping days with Aunt Sully and Uncle Bodie and Aunt Andersol had we had to share so little space with so many people.
It would be wrong to say that I hated them all; I merely hated being in the same room with any of them. The kitchen of the apartment held in every odor of food, from sweet cereal to a disgusting can of sardines that my mother ate when she came home from work late one evening, to the garlic cheese spread we had over sliced baguettes and the heavy cloying smell of maple-iced doughnuts. In the same way, the apartment as a whole smelled of shampoos and soaps and food and hairspray and Michel's feet. I spent as much time as I could outside on the balcony in a coat, just to get away from the scent of us, even though the time outside in the fresh sea air made the interior more smelly and annoying.
There was no more journaling for me: as we all grew more touchy, all I could think of to write about was how noisy, selfish, and grouchy everyone was; and had any of the rest read what I was thinking, there would have been hurt feelings and escalating insults; in such close quarters, there was no chance of expecting my writing to remain private. Aunt Andersol and Mother were always cold, so there was no question of leaving windows open at night to clear out the smells. By the weekend I was deeply resentful that they didn't just go out and buy electric blankets so that we could get fresh air at night. Kelsa came home from school one afternoon and popped a wad of bubble gum in her mouth, smearing the atmosphere with the hideous stench. Michel sneaked a can of tuna, and I a large clove of garlic. We followed her around breathing over her shoulder until she agreed to throw out the gum and brush her teeth. (In return, we brushed ours.)
In short, we were ready to go back to primitive living if it meant that we could get away from each other. How fickle and spoiled we were! When we were cold and had no heated water, we were ready to do anything for a bath, but once having the bath, we were agonized by the close quarters, and would have gladly traded the hot water for simple privacy.
When we entered the front door of the estate, I leaped upon Redell and hugged him, shouting, "I love this place!" He was genuinely taken aback by my display, which made me grab one of his hands and his waist and dance him around the foyer until his eyes became wild and he brushed desperately at the front of his suit.
"Welcome home, Owen," he mustered, and then turned away to welcome my sisters and Michel, conspicuously not offering them his hand, or getting close enough for another pounce.
"Dibs on the shower, Michel," I called, pelting up the steps to the cellblock, which had never seemed more welcome, its somehow dusty smell accentuated by the now active electric heat. I locked the bathroom door and showered, reveling in the removal of school-and-people stench. The towels hung on the side of the bath were dry, and clean, and sweet-smelling. In my drawers I found clean, dry, homey-scented sweats.
Clean. Dry. Doesn't stink. Space to get away from everyone else. Now if that wasn't home, what was?
I lay on my bed spread-eagled, reveling in the quiet and the solitude. My door was shut, in spite of my mother's commandment that our doors must be left open, and I did not care. I wanted to be alone, not hearing the rattle of maids or siblings, not waking to Michel kicking the wall in his sleep, or the girls bickering about who was taking up what amount of room.
This was heaven. Hot water, clean clothes, warm air, and no obviously strong smells. I was Home, and I loved it.
All of an hour and a half passed while I read a book without interruption, without noise, without someone trying to step over my legs, after which Marca pounded on my door.
"Aunt Sully's here!" she grated when I opened the door. "She looks like she's been crying!"
Oesha, Kelsa, and Michel were in Aunt Sully's study with her when Marca and I joined them. Staff had already started a fire in the fireplace, and she had a tray of toast squares with chicken salad and a pot of tea on a tray. "I can't stand it there," she was saying to Aunt Andersol. "He's gone and the place seems like a bunch of empty boxes without him."
She was referring to her house, obviously, and to Uncle John's departure to the East Coast.
"He filled the house when he was there. He was always with me. I never felt alone, I always felt safe, and ... I miss him so much. My poor, dear boy. I thought it'd get easier, but it hasn't. I listen for him all the time, but it's so quiet, and empty."
Wait, she wasn't talking about John, she was talking about Gabe.
I hadn't really thought about what she had been going home to after the week of cold water and no electricity; too wrapped up in my own hot water and city junk food, I just had assumed that she would be happy to bathe and not have to work on an emergency crew, get back to her usual existence. But it wouldn't have been her usual -- that would have been waking up to Gabe's kisses, walking with him daily, brushing him, playing with him ... she had always talked to him as though he understood what she was saying, and we could tell that he listened to her and tried to understand. He'd slept on her bed, whether at her home or here at the estate, and was only away from her during her work hours (except for those days when her bosses didn't have clients coming in, and then he was beside her desk), our formal dinners, and church.
She had dark circles under her eyes. "I can't seem to sleep -- every time the furnace turns on, I wake up. Every damn night I dream that he's somewhere and I should go find him, or I see him and run to him, and then he's not there. I'd rather commute from here every day than stay alone there for a while."
"He was a huge personality," Aunt Andersol said, hugging her. "I understand -- that's why I let him lick all my make-up off when I saw him. There will never be another dog like him. Remember when he knocked off your screen door and went after the mailman?"
Tears leaked out of her eyes while Aunt Sully laughed. "God, yes. I caught him by the fur around his neck just before he could hit that poor man. I'll never forget how white his face was as he handed me my package and walked away. I still wonder if he didn't shit himself and retire the next day. I've never seen him again."
"I'm glad Jesse called you today and said the road was open. This is the inaugural dinner for the sous chef taking charge. We'll see if she is up to Chef Crapcakes's standards, or can redeem herself by making food that tastes good. You know more about cooking than the rest of us, including my brother, though he may not think so."
"Yeah, I'm glad, too. But you have to admit, Bodie is better with fried stuff than I am. Bolder," she added, wiping her eyes with a tissue.
"Oh, right, but what real chef thinks fried chicken is good food? Or honest-to-God french fries? We haven't had french fries since we moved here, except at McDonalds, and those are about the same as Bodie's fries as the bottom of a shoe is like steak."
"That's what I'm saying," Aunt Sully said. "But maybe we could bribe her to occasionally serve his recipes ... do you think she can be bought?"
"I'm willing to guess that she can be, if she shows enough promise to merit a contract like Maledicci has," I put in. I had been talking to Redell about the chef's firing and now understood he had been under contract, and that we were responsible for paying him through the end of it, which would expire by early next spring. "Although, if I may be forward enough to state an opinion, I don't think that she should be offered more than a year's contract to start -- it seemed like once 'Dicci got his five-year requirement for the contract, he went from the man who was responsible for our culinary necessities to the man who thought our tastes needed to be educated up to his exotic -- and expensive fare."
"What's this?" asked Aunt Sully. "Have you been studying culinary arts?" She wiped her nose with the tissue and sat up straighter.
"No, Aunt, I have not, though I have spent an extraordinary amount of time watching television cooking shows while we were stuck at the apartment -- mostly so that I didn't have to watch the tremendously offensive entertainment channels or loathesome sitcoms -- "
"That means he hogged the TV if the rest of us left the room," Kelsa tattled.
"If you leave the room, you're not 'watching,' now are you?" I countered. "Anyway, most of the time the shows are pushing expensive ingredients to be used in what is called 'creative cooking' but I can't count on one hand the number of people who think certain spices and food combinations are really what they would prefer to have for lunch or dinner."
"You know a lot of food experts, do you?" my mother asked from the door, crossing the room to kiss Aunt Sully's head.
"I do not, revered Mother," I answered her. "But I've watched when our guests eat with gusto, and when they try to swallow food without chewing with anguished expressions on their faces, hoping not to be noticed."
"And then praise the combinations of flavors," Mother agreed, "leaving most of the food on their plates."
"It's what creative genius and cultivated tastes are all about," Aunt Sully added. "In fifteen years you all will be as thin as rails and be qualified to be taste-testers to the best chefs."
"No! I refuse!" Michel sputtered. "I will go to college and learn about food, and return to be the head chef here. You will all then become fat as ticks, and happy with pasta-induced endorphins, and pay me an exorbitant sum on top of my allowance and inheritance for the pleasure I give you at the table, so long as Aunt Sully can bear to pass on her recipes."
"I require a percentage," she said. "And you'll have to pass some tests."
"I know," Michel said, "I've heard it from you over and over. Pie crusts, home-made noodles, and barbecued mushrooms and bacon. I swear I can do them all."
Dinner was delicious, orzo pasta with a creamy sauce that included thinly sliced strips of spinach and chard, some sliced rare beef with horseradish sauce on the side, and deep-fried sweet potatoes sprinkled with vinagrette and salt. The soup before the main meal was chicken-based, but very clear with fresh mushrooms and parsley floating on the top, and the dessert was a lime sorbet.
"So far, so good," my mother said as she set down her napkin.
"Simple, yet worth asking for seconds," Aunt Sully observed.
"When do the seconds get here?" asked Uncle Bodie.
I waved to the server, Denise. "Some of us want seconds. Is this possible? And do convey our compliments to the chef."
"Yes, Sir," Denise said, and began to take orders for seconds of selected dishes.
She hadn't even blinked at my giving orders. A change was coming over the household, it seemed, and I was -- if not at the center, then at least an effective force.