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May 20, 2024

Going Hungry 21

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Twenty-one: The Second Annoying Day At Work

Mindful of Ben's gripe about his mother not being awake to see him off to school, Gloria was up at six to cheer Will on in his efforts, with a bacon and egg breakfast with toast. Ben got up earlier than usual to join them.

"Did Chelsea call to screech at you again last night?" Ben asked nosily and tactlessly.

"I don't know. I turned off my phone before I went to bed. If she did, I didn't want to hear it." He pulled the phone out of his pajama pocket and spun it over the table to Gloria. "There. You can check messages for me, or flush that damn thing down the toilet. I don't want to hear from that stupid bitch ever again."

"Let's hope," Gloria said fervently. "But that brings up yet another dire situation. We're going to have to let the cell phones go dead."

"What?" Ben asked, puzzled. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, we're paying over a hundred dollars a month for phones. Basic landline is only twenty. Eighty dollars is like thirty-five pounds of hamburger, or forty pounds of Raley's chicken breasts -- when they're on sale -- or eighty pounds of whole chickens at Save-Mart when they're on sale. Try eighty loaves of store brand bread. We use two loaves a week. That's eight loaves a month ... that's like ten months of bread. Got it?"

"Got it," said Ben. He spun his phone across the table to her, too. "The only thing I use it for is to make sure Mom knows where I am, and since I don't have any cash, there's not a lot of places I can be. Well, and texting, but that's stupid, anyway, and I only was doing it to be cool."

Gloria pushed it back across the table to him. "You've got two weeks left before they go dead. Keep it on you until then for emergencies, and let's hope we don't have any."

Will went off to work, Ben went off to school. There wasn't any point in Gloria trying to go back to sleep -- she had to be on her way to work in less than two hours. She tiptoed back the hall to peer in through her mother's open bedroom door. She saw the mass of rusty curls spilling across the pillows, and noted a slow rise and fall of her blankets. It's a bitch when you check on your mother to make sure she's home after spending the night out. And to make sure she's still breathing. There was a faint smell of cleaning solution in the room, something Philli would not ordinarily have tolerated. She liked rooms to smell pleasant, and had always dribbled lavender oil into the trashcans in her rooms to make them nice. She's got to start dumping those clothes into the laundry room, or the garage like Will. She'll hate waking up to that smell.

Gloria invaded her brothers' bedrooms, making their beds and tossing clothes into the hampers. Laundry day was going to switch from Saturday to Wednesday. All the household crap was going to have to be done on Wednesdays and Thursdays from now on.

Funny. She had been irritated at having to do her brothers' laundry every week for years. But she'd done it, because it was something that she could do, and her mother wanted her to being doing something around the house. She was an indifferent gardener, and they'd had the service to take care of that. And as for the big housecleaning each week, they had had the maid service for that task, as well. Now, faced with a second day of surly Maria's substandard cooking exploits, the laundry duty seemed like a treat. Gloria wondered how on earth she was going to survive the job as Maria's assistant. It was like she was selling her soul to have to imitate the culinary atrocities the woman inflicted upon her employers. How the hell had she got that job, and how the hell did she hold it?

She spent about twenty minutes picking through the tangle of her hair, then showered, and heavily conditioned the mess. Maybe she should cut the stuff off, she pondered. But when she got out of the shower, and ran the pick through her hair, there were long ringlets of dark red against the pale color of her shoulder, and she knew that some day she would find someone who would go nuts at the sight. She smiled, thinking of some such future day, and dressed for work.

Maria was once again at the sink, washing her hands when Gloria arrived at work. "First thing, always wash," she said, gesturing to the sink with her head. "Den apron. Always clean apron every day."

Gloria stepped to the sink and washed her hands. As she dried them with a paper towel, she turned to see Maria holding out a stiffly starched apron of immaculate white. "Thank you," she said, putting the big apron on. It stretched from above her breastbone all the way past her knees, and she felt a little like a child playing dress-up.

"Today you still watch," the cook warned her.

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Today's menu they ask for chicken. We give them chicken." She opened the refrigerator door and brought out two plastic trays of boneless, skinless chicken breast portions.

"Do you make up the menus?" Gloria asked.

"No, no, Thomas makes them with Baker and his wife. Sometimes they have funny ideas about food, I have to look them up in a cookbook. Mostly it's just easy food. Chicken is easy, you'll see."

She started with a big basket of Roma tomatoes. "We use Roma tomatoes because they cut up pretty, no mushy."

They also have no flavor as well as no mushy, Gloria thought, but kept her mouth shut.

"Dice them this big, always." She demonstrated, making cubes of tomato very accurately near three eighths of an inch on a side.

Gloria watched the pile of diced tomatoes grow, wondering what would be done with so many of them. There had to be nearly three quarts -- could they form the basis for a pasta sauce? For the dinner this evening, that could be plausible, but not for lunch. A tomato sauce for pasta would have to simmer for hours. Gorgonzola cream sauce over farfalle, with fresh tomatoes and basil chopped into it, she fantasized, then snapped back to the present to try to catch what the cook was mumbling.

"... get a good deal on them from the farmer up the road. Then they let him sell their wine at his shop in town for nice profit."

So perhaps there were a lot of tomato dishes while the harvesting season was on them. What kind of knife is that? She had only just really noticed it; it hadn't caught her eye the day before. It was about the length of a butter knife, but had a curved, serrated blade less than half as wide as a butter knife. It cut through the tomatoes without the least bit of crushing. Gloria lusted for it, or one like it for her own kitchen, with more desire than she had yet felt for any man. "That's a very useful knife," she commented, hoping she was not breaking some code of conduct by talking.

"You like this? You going to have to be real careful, it cut you so fast you don't know it happen until you bleed all over the place. But is only good for tomatoes. Tomato knife. Last assistant cut herself with it every time she try to slice tomatoes, I think." Maria shook her head slowly in disgust.

"Is that why she doesn't work here any more?" Gloria asked as humbly as she could. She was very curious about her predecessor -- especially since she didn't want to make some same mistake and get booted out the door.

"Ah, she was stupid. She could not learn."

Great. I hope I can manage to figure out what this woman means by 'learn.'

The cook waddled to the refrigerator again and took out two heads of iceberg lettuce. "This? This gets cut up into pieces this big," she said, demonstrating with the peculiar plastic knife. "Bigger than that, guests look goofy trying to stuff salad in their mouths. Smaller, it look like you trying to use left over taco lettuce."

Once again, she shoved the vegetable over to another heap on the butcher block island. Her next trip to the refrigerator produced a big bag of pre-washed spinach. No knife for this; she produced a pair of kitchen scissors. "Always cut off the stems of spinach. No one wants to eat that. Looks like snot if it's cooked, hard to eat in a salad." Back to the refrigerator she went, this time to carry to the island two large jars of quartered artichoke hearts. "Here," she said, "I show you a trick."

After putting twenty-eight artichoke pieces on a long strip of waxed paper, she produced a jar of cloudy liquid, and a bottle of Louisiana hot sauce. And an eyedropper, much to Gloria's surprise. "Fancy people love artichoke hearts. Gourmet stuff. But here, I make them love them better. Smell," she commanded Gloria, holding out the opened jar.

Gloria's sinuses exploded with the scent of unadulterated garlic juice. It was overwhelming, and yet captivating. It could flavor salad dressings like magic, turn lamb into a promise of heaven, elevate a medley of vegetables in bouillon sauce to knighthood, and drive away vampires and reduce blood pressure to boot. "Oh, where do you get this?"

"Gilroy Garlic Festival. I go buy a couple cases every year. Now watch." She took the Louisiana hot sauce, and dropped a single drop on each of the artichoke hearts. The orangey liquid made a bead on each piece. Then she took the eyedropper and dropped one drop of garlic juice on top of the hot sauce. The weight of the drop spread both liquids over the top of the artichoke heart. "You like artichoke?" she asked Gloria.

Gloria nodded. She did like them, and put the hearts in salads from time to time; but while she and Philli liked artichokes boiled and nibbled with mayonnaise, salt, and pepper, the boys would not eat them, so they only got them on rare occasions.

"You get one, I get one," Maria said with a twinkle in her eye.

Gloria put a quartered artichoke heart into her mouth and bit into it. There was a zing! to her tastebuds that made her gasp with delight. She shut her eyes and chewed. That trick alone was worth taking the job. When she swallowed, and opened her eyes, Maria was watching her with amusement.

"That was so good. So, so good." She thought of superlatives, like excellent, and fabulous, and phenomenal, but she suspected the word "good" would carry more weight with the cook. "Thank you, I would never have known how to do that."

"Now we make salads." Maria didn't acknowledge the compliment, but Gloria saw the corner of her mouth quirk in a little smile.

One of the other refrigerators had many shallow shelves. From it, Maria collected small, low sided bowls. These she placed on the butcher block island, thirteen of them. Into each, she sprinkled iceberg lettuce, topped it with the small pieces of spinach, and a heaping tablespoon of chopped tomatoes. Two artichoke hearts garnished each plate. "Back into that ice box to chill."

From beneath one of the brushed stainless steel counters, she brought a very large stainless steel bowl. All the rest of the lettuce, the few bits of spinach, and the pile of cubed tomatoes were dumped into it, and bowl set aside.

Potatoes came next, cut into small cubes that reminded Gloria of hash browns. They were put into a pot and rinsed, then put on the back burner of one of the stoves.

Maria put three large skillets on two of the stoves, cut a small pat of margarine into each, then turned the gas on low. The bags of chicken she brought to the butcher block. "Always cut up vegetables first," she said, "then meat. More healthy."

Of each chicken breast portion she removed from the bags, she trimmed the edges, so that each piece was identical to the others, nearly rectangular in shape. When she had thirteen of them, she put the pieces into the three skillets, and covered the skillets with their respective glass lids. The leftover pieces went into another skillet, uncovered, hitting the hot pan with a low sizzle.

While the chicken filets poached, Maria opened two cans of cranberry sauce, the kind with whole berries. "They getting eager for Thanksgiving," she said. "It's okay. Cranberries are good vegetable."

The cook returned to the big bowl of iceberg lettuce and tomatoes. Into it, she dumped a container of sour cream, and folded it gently. Yet another skillet was brought out, and from the refrigerator on the left, a bag of ground meat, already cooked. She emptied it into the skillet. "Always smell, make sure the meat has not gone to bad." She sniffed it. "See? Smells good, safe to eat."

Assembling a food processor for grating, Maria brought out a large block of orange cheese, and shredded it. She dumped the shredded cheese onto the lettuce and tomatoes and sour cream, then hurried back across the kitchen to check the chicken. "See little cut I made in the chicken pieces? When the juice is white, the chicken is done." She turned the burner down and looked at the clock over the door. I got a few minutes. Time for the salads. No soup today."

Two of the staff had already shown up at the window, with large trays in hand. Maria took the trays and hustled to put plates on them. Gloria took the initiative and held the refrigerator door open while Maria removed the salad dishes, as the door kept trying to close on her.

As the staff sped away with the salads and their delectable artichokes, Maria dragged cookie sheets out of the storage cabinets, and began loading the pieces of chicken onto them. She clicked on the broilers in two ovens. The chicken pieces she liberally dashed with paprika, which made Gloria feel queasy. Maria shoved the cookie sheets under the broilers, and then turned her attention to the potatoes. "These done," she said, and pulling a huge colander out from under the counter, put it in the sink, and spilled the potatoes into it.

No, not the potato water! Save it for the damned soup! What was the woman thinking? That water alone could have made that horrid vegetable soup more palatable!

One of the servants appeared with a stack of plates, using insulated mitts to carry them.

"Put them down, almost ready," Maria said imperiously. She went to the refrigerator once again and brought out, to Gloria's astonishment and renewed disgust, a squeezable bottle of margarine. From the cupboard over the stove she scooped dried parsley.

The margarine, the pot of potatoes, the cranberry sauce were all ready. Faint crackling sounds were to be heard from the broilers. Maria brought the trays to the counter and began serving.

A chicken breast portion went first, then a small heap of potatoes. The potatoes were treated to a sprinkling of dried parsley, and then a zigzag line of margarine, which began to melt immediately. On top and to one side of the chicken breast, Maria spooned the chilled cranberry sauce.

Lunch was served.

"See why I need an assistant?" Maria said to Gloria.

She hurried again to the fridge, and pulled out a bundt poppy seed cake from the local Save-Mart. Quickly, she cut it into half-inch slices, then found a carton of plain vanilla icing and knifed half of it into a saucepan over low heat. To that she added some heavy cream, not a lot, just enough to thin the consistency. She stirred it with a small whisk, mixing it and warming it.

The poppy seed cake she put into the microwave on the lowest setting for warming.

A maid arrived with thirteen dessert dishes, looking bored.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-09-21
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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