Chapter Nine: The Interview
I hope I don't say anything stupid and blow this chance, Gloria thought as she pulled her car into a spot beside her former teacher's red Prius. She imagined screwing up, tripping and falling face down as she walked in the door, or suddenly belching while she was being introduced, or having one of those brain fade times and be unable to call any information to mind. How long have you lived in this area? they would ask, and she would blurt, Since I was in my mommy's belly! Want to see my bellybutton? It has "Made in Modesto" stamped on it!
She turned off the engine and got out, locking the door, although she doubted that there were marauding car thieves hanging around the Baker house. She was fairly confident in her appearance, wearing khaki slacks freshly pressed, a white blouse of her mother's choosing ("Trust me, honey, you don't want to wear one of those jinky too-tight little girl shirts to an interview"), and a rust-colored linen blazer that she put on only after she got out of the car. The reddish blazer emphasized the dark brick of her hair, which was tied back and wrapped in a low chignon, the ends of the curls pinned under with bobby pins. Her mother had made sure the hair was perfect; Gloria had abruptly felt five years old again, with her mother drawing her hair into a pony tail for kindergarten.
And she grimly thanked her father, wherever his soul was (if there was such a thing as a soul) for the trick of using anti-perspirant on the palms of her hands to keep them dry, and not sweating. "Here's a trick," he'd said to her before her first date. "Any time I have to meet anyone who might have to touch my hands, I use a little antiperspirant, rub it in really well. No sweaty palms, see? And if your hands aren't sweaty, you won't feel as nervous, I guarantee you." He'd been absolutely right, about her confidence on her first date, and about her state of mind now.
She greeted Dr. Armbuster with a handshake. "You look great," the older woman said. "Let's go and meet Dan Baker and his wife Martha, and the cook, Maria."
"Okay," Gloria replied. "I'm as ready as I know how to be."
As they approached the french doors, a young man in white shirt, black pants, and a dark blue tie opened the doors and welcomed them. "Thank you," said Armbuster, and entered the house. A man rose from a wing-backed chair to greet her. She walked over to a woman who remained seated in a matching chair. "Hello, Martha, how are you? It's good to see you again."
Gloria had never actually seen anyone use formal manners, let alone a butler who opened doors for people. The man rises to greet a woman, but a woman remains seated and lets the guest come to her, she remembered, inwardly vowing she would never sit on her own ass and make people come to her to say hello. That's stupid, and rude, too. Nevertheless, she waited peaceably, silently, until Dr. Armbuster gestured her forward.
"Mr. Dan Baker, this is Gloria Melton, one of my former students."
"Hello, Mr. Baker, I'm pleased to meet you."
"This is Mrs. Baker," Armbuster said, turning to the woman. "Gloria Melton," she repeated.
"Mrs. Baker, how are you?" Gloria said, gently taking the woman's outstretched hand. At that moment, another woman entered the room, a woman dressed in dark polyester stretch pants and a turquoise top that did nothing for her dull complexion. Her gait was almost a waddle, the muscles of her face slack. A faint moustache crawled across her upper lip. Yet there was some kind of confidence in her, a core-deep surety that Gloria immediately labeled arrogance. Gloria buried the judgment deep, to the heels of her shoes, and imagined rainbows and fluffy kittens. The woman seated herself without being asked to do so.
Mr. Baker turned to her. "Gloria, this is our cook, Maria Bedencourt."
Gloria walked forward and extended her hand. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mrs. Bedencourt," for she could see that the woman wore a wedding band on her left hand.
The woman's handshake was limp, and she mumbled something unintelligible. Rainbows and kittens, Gloria thought, and kept her face pleasant, even though Maria didn't bother to meet her eyes at all, dismissing Gloria as though she was a leaf blowing along the ground. She already has someone else in mind for the position, Gloria decided. Well, that's the breaks. At least I got the chance to see the inside of the Baker house, which is something I never thought I'd do.
"Are you single, Ms. Melton?" asked Martha Baker.
"Yes, I am," Gloria answered pleasantly. And a virgin, thank you, I have no illegitimate babies, or even a hot and heavy boyfriend. Why would they care if I was single? In case the cute butler and I would run away together? In case I'd put my spouse ahead of my job? She added nothing to the statement. Once again she remembered her father's advice: "Don't offer any more information than you're asked in your first interview. Employers hate candidates who tell them more than they wanted to know."
Maria Bedencourt had to be there for a reason, Gloria reasoned. She must be a very clever woman to disguise her observation as disinterest, and her capability as a fat-butted, slack-jawed, ill-dressed...
"And you have some experience in kitchens?" Mr. Baker queried.
"Yes sir. I've been cooking for the family since I was about twelve years old," Gloria said. "My mother taught me about cooking basics. When she found that I enjoyed the kitchen far more than she did, she turned over most of meal preparation to me."
"And what about school, Miss Melton -- are you still pursuing a degree?"
Gloria shook her head gently. I pursued it, but it got away. "Not for the foreseeable future, I'm afraid. The current economic situation has put a strain on our family that requires that we work as hard as we can. Some day in the future, I would like to return to school to get my degree, but a degree is not a priority for me at this time."
The Bakers chatted about the climate, about cooking rapidly becoming a lost art, about Gloria's family, offering condolence for her father's death the spring before. Then Mr. Baker rose, thanked Gloria for her interest in the position, and it was time for her to leave. Dr. Armbuster walked with her as far as the door, then bade her goodbye also. Maria Bedencourt never bothered to acknowledge her exit at all.
Gloria drove slowly home, glad that the drive was on surface streets instead of the freeway.
No one was home when she got there; she changed clothes into comfortable baggy flannel pajama pants and a loose top with a shirred bodice. She wasn't going anywhere else for the rest of the day.
Her cell phone rang. It was Damon, wondering where she had been for the past week, sounding hurt and affronted that she hadn't called him after all his voice mails and text messages.
"Damon, there's been a lot of family crap that came up this past week, really heavy stuff about my father's death. I just haven't been feeling like being very talkative, you know?" Saying 'you know' at the end of a sentence was not really a question -- it was a way of politely saying, Get off it, I don't want to talk about it, drop the subject, would you and just pretend you know what I'm talking about because I'm not going to tell you.
"Glory, I understand. Do you want to go out for something to eat this evening, take your mind off things for a few?" He used her family's nickname for her, even though she had never invited such familiarity. It was just exactly that which convinced her that far from loving him, or even liking him, she had somewhere along the line begun to positively loathe him.
"Is something wrong, Baby?"
"Don't call me 'Baby.' I'm not your baby. I haven't been a baby for something like nineteen years. I hate it when men call women 'Baby.' Damon, I think we're done, okay?"
"What do you mean? Your mom there waiting for the phone, or what?"
My god, you're stupid. Why the hell did I ever go out with you for more than five minutes? She decided to cut the conversation, and the quasi-relationship, short. "No, Damon. I'm too busy tonight, I'm too busy for at least the next four hundred years. Don't call me again. Good-bye."
Thank god she had never given him the number of the house land line. Once this cell was cut off, she would never have to talk to him again. And sure enough, the cell phone began to ring again almost immediately, the caller ID showing Damon's number. Gloria thumbed the button for "Ignore" and the ringtone stopped.
Will's in the orchards, Mom's at work. No note, no voicemail to tell where Ben is. Am I making supper for me, or for four? Ah, who gives a shit. What's doesn't get eaten will be leftovers for lunch, or breakfast, or whatever.
She measured white basmati rice into a pot; the family had as one, years ago, voted to make basmati the rice of preference, with its popcorny smell and tender, firm texture. Water, butter, salt. She got the cutting board from the counter in back of the coffee maker, took the package of chicken out of the refrigerator, and began cutting the boneless skinless fresh chicken breasts into bite-sized cubes. The chicken in the stainless steel prep bowl, Gloria took the cutting board to the sink and and washed it. Next, she chopped half a yellow onion into fingernail-sized bits, and tossed the pieces into a wide skillet with extra virgin olive oil. While the onion sizzled, a bundle of asparagus was sliced and put in another prep bowl, waiting its turn. On a whim, she went out to the garden where her mother had a few baby clumps of chard and cut a handful of the leaves. With kitchen scissors, she snipped the washed chard into small shreds, which joined the asparagus.
She added the chicken to the skillet on the stove, added minced garlic, then got a can of chicken broth from the pantry. Whisking almost two tablespoons of cornstarch into the broth, she set it aside for when the chicken was cooked through. While the cooking began, she pondered what else to put into the mix. She had no mushrooms, and Ben hated both celery and water chestnuts. There was a partial bag of frozen broccoli in the freezer; that would have to do.
Soon the rice was ready for a stir and to be put aside to set for ten minutes. Gloria added the broth and cornstarch mixture to the just-done chicken and onions, hovering above the skillet until it began to boil and thicken. She stirred it to a saucy consistency, then added the frozen broccoli and covered the pan. She set the timer for six minutes. At three minutes, she'd add the asparagus and the chard.
Supper would be ready at six in the evening. Whoever showed up would have perfectly done broccoli and asparagus; whoever didn't would get reheated stuff. It would have been nice if Mom had put today's shift on the calendar. But maybe she didn't know. Gloria was sure that today's food would reheat most satisfactorily. It wasn't the first time for the dish, although she had never used the chard before. She watched the timer click to 'three' and added the asparagus and chard and recovered the pan.
No one else was home yet. She sighed, and set the table for herself, pouring a small glass of white whine, a sauvignon blanc. What do you know, she thought, dinner alone is far better than dinner out with that dumbbell Damon.
She served herself some rice with a rich mound of vegetables and chicken over it. It was beautiful, and tasty, and she enjoyed the quiet of the house just as well as the flavors.