Chapter Eighteen: The Motherless House
She wished her mother was home to hear her rant. The boys would listen, of course, but they really didn't have any idea of what she would be talking about.
If her mother was at the table, Gloria would shriek, "SHE USED PACKAGED GRAVY! PACKAGED! BIG BAG OF GENERIC BROWN GRAVY! AND SHE DIDN'T EVEN MIX IT WITH THE BROWNINGS IN THE ROASTING PAN!!!!"
Philli would have understood her outrage.
It had been like a Stephen King novel. Maria the cook had opened a cabinet and pulled out an industrial-sized packet of "brown gravy," a substance which bore no resemblance to real flavors at all. Mixing it with water, she produced a gluey concoction on the back burner of the stove, and poured it into a trio of small gravy boats, and served it with the slices of beef roast, and mashed potatoes, and sugared yams.
Gloria was appalled. Beef roast wasn't a big deal, but if you wanted one to taste good, it had to be marbled with fat, or (in the case of tri-tip) have a layer of fat on top to keep things juicy. Maria knew that, she had rubbed olive oil into them. But shouldn't she have put some potatoes or onions beneath them to add moisture?
The crackly brownings on the bottom of the pan had been handed to the dishwashing staff to go down the drain. Gloria gaped at that like they were gold earrings tossed into the garbage. What if those had been in that horrid soup today?
The semi-box cake had been sliced thinly, then slathered with a couple spoonfuls of canned cherry pie filling.
With a triumphant look, Maria had handed Gloria a plate with the dessert on it. Gloria tasted it, and had to praise it. It was very, very tasty, somehow homey, somehow exotic.
But the ends of the roast had gone into the food processor, and then into a container. Oh, god, I hope she doesn't put that in with the fish.
Gloria's first night after her first day of her new job was spent missing her mother. Ben was sweet, and sassy, of course, offering her unhelpful questions she could have asked Maria the Cook, but he didn't really have any idea what an afternoon of little work but much outrage could do to a person's soul. Gloria was exhausted, disillusioned, disgusted.
And now confused. Her mother had made no provisions towards the boys' supper. According to Ben, she had awakened about three in the afternoon (so she had told Ben) and had been groggy when she did get up. "You guys can do leftovers," she said, "and then maybe I'll whip up some masterpiece tomorrow." But there were no leftovers to speak of, as Ben had finished off the last of the spaghetti sauce in a sandwich -- which wouldn't have been enough for them all, anyway.
Will was not yet home, so she dug around in the freezer and found a bag of pre-cooked shrimp. Will didn't necessarily like shrimp all that much, but Gloria found an inspiration in Maria's cuisine.
She put a pot of water on to boil, and measured out maybe three servings of macaroni. Several handfuls of frozen shrimp she put in a colander and ran cold water over it.
In a saucepan, she put a couple bouillon cubes, a cup of water, some salt, a three-fingered pinch of brown sugar and two tablespoons of cornstarch.
The water did its job thawing the shrimp, so she cut it up into small pieces. A cup of milk with a little more cornstarch went into a small saucepan on the stove, and when that was heated, she added some butter.
Vegetable. What could she feed Will as a vegetable? Spinach. There was some of the bag of spinach left. Gloria snipped it into tiny slivers with the kitchen shears and threw it into the sauce mixture just as the door to the garage slammed. Perfect timing.
By the time Will was out of the shower and coming out to the kitchen in pajama wear, the macaroni, the bouillon mixture, and the pasta were ready for him. The hard-working brother was ready to be served.
"What's this? Shrimp? I hate shrimp," he said, shoveling the shrimp and macaroni and spinach combination onto a plate.
Gloria watched him in irritation until he took a bite of the dish.
"And you know what I really hate?" he asked.
"Having to wash your fat face and brush your teeth?" Gloria countered.
He covered his mouth. "No, I hate having to tell you this tastes really good."
"Don't worry about it. I know you're desperate." She turned away so that he could not see her smile.
"How'd the first day go?" he asked.
"Easy. I just can't believe the woman who is the cook is employed. My god, she's sort of competent, but she bakes from mixes and packaged gravy!"
"What's wrong with that?" Will asked, elbowing Ben away from snatching pieces of his supper.
"Wrong -- it's not wrong, I guess. But this is the Baker Winery people. I thought they'd have better taste. I mean, they own a winery and all."
"Maybe they like the taste of packaged gravy."
"Cut me a break," Gloria began heatedly.
Ben chimed in, "Don't we always have that packaged pork gravy when we do meatloaf?"
Gloria sputtered, at a loss for words for a moment. "Yes, but that's because it ... sort of offsets the onion in the meatloaf, and ... and"
"You asshole. We're not supposed to have to have good taste, we just have to know what tastes good."
"You da Tuna," Ben intoned.
"You're an idiot," Gloria informed him with ease of repetition.
"She's an expert on idiots, too, so you better listen to her. Knows everything there is to know about being an idiot." Will picked up his plate and took it to the sink to rinse.
Gloria watched him, puzzled. "You're not going to have seconds?" she asked, wondering if it had tasted bad to him after all.
He looked a little ashamed. "It was good, Glory, honest. But Salvi brought a bunch of tamales his grandmother made for us, and he didn't want to have to take any home ... she made a shitload of them."
"Great, can I have the rest of that macaroni?" Ben opportunistically wheedled.
He sat down with the rest of the mixture and began to eat with relish.
The boys were right about things tasting good and not worrying about whether it came from packages and mixes or not. She had just thought that someone employed full time as a cook for a rich family would produce something better. The soup had been a total gross-out, and she didn't look forward to having it again in the future. It had been ominous to hear the other staff member praise the food. If that was considered good, what was the usual fare?
She shelved the direction her thoughts were taking and engaged her brothers again. "Could you two idiots help me figure out a menu for the rest of the week? We have stuff in the freezer we need to use up, but it all has to thaw ahead of time, and I'm getting home too late to do a lot of cooking. It'd be nice if I could cook up in the evening something to have the next day."
"What did Mom do today?" Will asked. "How come she didn't cook anything?'
"She was kind of grumpy, and looked depressed about something," Ben said. "After she had her tea, she read the newspaper and watched television for a while, and then said she was going to meet a friend and catch up on life."
How odd, Gloria thought. There was nothing wrong with having a friend to go talk to, but to neglect the boys to go meet someone just didn't seem like what her mother would be likely to do.
Will shrugged and yawned. "Come on, let's go see how we can make Gloria slave away after she slaves away all day."
The three of them trooped to the freezer in the garage. Will spotted a package of hamburger. "How about some chili? We haven't had that in a while, and it's easy, isn't it?"
"No tortilla chips to go with it, though. I guess I could run to the store tonight ... that would do for tomorrow. I have Wednesday and Thursday off, so I can pick up vegetables at the fruit stand then." Gloria stared into the frosty depths of the freezer, looking for inspiration.
"Give me a couple bucks and I'll get the chips on the way home from school tomorrow," Ben offered. "There's a Quik-Mart on the way."
"Deal!" Gloria said. "There's a whole chicken in there -- while I'm out I'll get some cheap bread and make chicken and dressing for Wednesday."
"Heh," Ben said. "I remember this chick at school saying that some girl in our class was fat because she was poor -- and could only eat cheap starchy foods. Mexican food, she was telling me, is mostly rice and beans. I was thinking to myself, lucky Mexicans. I could just about live on Spanish rice and refried beans."
Will frowned. "Salvi and Alfredo aren't fat. They're skinny."
"They're working their asses off, though, aren't they?" Gloria commented wryly. "Your fat gut is starting to disappear, too, I noticed."
"I have to wear a belt now," Will admitted with some pride. "Or keep hiking my pants up all the time."
"Well, we have the beans in the chili, save the frijoles refritos for next week. Chili, chicken, what for Thursday?"
"What's that?" Ben poked at a big lump of meat.
"Lamb. A whole leg of it." She was suddenly inspired. "What if I use some of that in the chili instead of hamburger, and then make up lamb and flatbread with the rest of it on Thursday. We can have spaghetti on Friday -- that ought to hold you guys for a day or two."
"Good." Will slammed the lid of the freezer shut. "Now let me piss around with my computer for a bit before I have to go to sleep."
"Your girlfriend called today," Ben said, watching his brother's face.
"Ah, shit. What did she want?"
"Your freckly body, I suppose. She told me to tell you to call her."
"I told her I was working all day every day for a while. Why is that so hard for people to understand? I had like five voicemails from Dave this past week, seven from Chelsea, three from Brent Oldmeyer -- and I know I told all of them about having to work." He shook his head in disgust and then brightened. "Maybe Chelsea's ditching me."
"That's a good thing?" Gloria asked, surprised.
To her greater surprise, Will blushed red. "Might be."
Ben's eyebrows went up. "What's up with that? You had Chelsea just about picking out matching towels and bedsheets."
"I did not, you asshole. Get lost, will ya?" He turned and went into his room and shut the door.
Ben and Gloria looked archly at one another. "Does Pete Van Duyken have a sister?" Gloria asked.
"I don't think so," Ben said, looking back over his shoulder at Will's door. "Maybe he met this guy Salvi and has decided he's gay."
"Why don't you go back there and knock on his door and ask him about that? I'd love to see you get dribbled all over the house." She snapped her fingers. "Just like that I forgot what I was doing. I have to get that lamb out and thaw it in the microwave if I'm going to make chili with it."
"See, Will was right. You do know everything about being an idiot." He howled with laughter even as she yanked on his curly hair.