Chapter Twenty Two: Right About On The Last Nerve
The cook poured the warm contents of the saucepan into a mustard dispenser, put the slices of poppyseed cake on the plates, and made a spiral swirl of icing on each slice. "No extra garnish today," she said sadly. "Should have had something on hand, something bright-colored. A strawberry slice would have been good, but strawberries were ugly at the store." Frowning a little, she stirred the cut-off scraps of chicken and turned off the burner.
Opening three cans of tomato sauce and pouring them into the ground meat, Maria stirred, added garlic powder, some red chili flakes, and onion powder. "Almost done," she said.
While the tomato sauce heated through and turned a slightly different shade of reddish orange, the cook used the kitchen scissors to slice open a bag of tortilla chips. While the chips were still in the bag, Maria crushed them with her hands into small pieces. She emptied the saucy meat into the huge bowl with the cheese and lettuce and tomatoes, shook the chips into it as well, and tossed it with two large spoons.
"There," she said. "Staff lunch. Taco salad. They love it, I make them beg me for it." She put it on the counter to the staff lunch room. Beside it, she put a large jar of sliced jalapeños and a slotted spoon. "Let's have some before those piggies eat it all." She took off her apron, draped it over the back of a wooden chair, and motioned for Gloria to follow her.
Dammit. How can I eat my sandwich if this woman is staring at me? The answer was simple: she couldn't. She'd have to try the taco salad and stuff it down her own throat. There was no way she could risk insulting the cook. This is probably considered similar to suicide.
She watched the cook heap a bowl with the salad, and followed suit, mounding it up in the middle so it looked like she was taking more than she really was. As she took the bowl to the table, she noted that Maria made the Sign of the Cross, shut her eyes for a couple seconds, made the Sign of the Cross again. Is she warding off poisoning? Gloria thought, then was ashamed. The woman had probably been saying "Grace."
What do they actually mean by "saying Grace"? Gloria wondered before she took a bite of the salad. She shelved the thought for later, as the taste of the concoction surprised her with how delicious it was. "Oh, peppers!" she said, and got up to put a few of the jalapeños on her bowl. Now it was a fact that Gloria immediately thought of how she would have made the salad: she would have used small slices of beef or chicken, white cheddar cheese instead of the artificially colored stuff; and while she might have tossed it with the sour cream, she would have garnished it with a few slices of avocado for each bowl, and had the chips on the side instead of in the mix, and had not only jalapeños to go with it, but salsa as well.
I don't doubt that the staff begs her for this. After yesterday's soup, a lettuce sandwich with a half a pickle would seem like heaven. And wait, no, not sliced avocado as a garnish -- guacamole would taste better with it. Garnish with a teaspoon of guacamole, maybe a dollop of guacamole with a narrow line of minced jalapeños ...
"Maria, the rest of the staff is right. This is really tasty. I could eat this every day, I think."
Maria laughed and seemed to preen a little. "You say that, but after three days you want Kentucky Fried Chicken."
Gloria laughed, too. "Not likely. Something about it disagrees with me. Maybe my brothers would."
"It's the oil they use. Too much. Coating of the chicken soaks up too much oil. More coating than chicken on most of it. Very bad for you -- your body is smarter than most."
One of the maids popped in, then leaned around the corner and called to someone out of sight, "Maria made taco salad! Hurry up, before Hector and Thomas come in here and hog it all!"
"Come on, let's get back to our kitchen," Maria said, standing, looking a little irritated. She took her bowl to the dishwashers' room and returned to her domain.
That afternoon, Gloria watched the cook prepare pork roulades, taking boneless tenderloin and filleting it into a sheet of pork; she painted it with olive oil, then spread a mixture of chopped dates, apples, and onion across it and rolled it up. "Use olive oil -- better for you," the cook told her. "And tie up with all-cotton kitchen string. These roulades are pretty enough that you don't have to brown them, so we wrap in foil to keep the meat juices in. Lower heat is better for pork. Cook longer, though. Your people get worms, you never work as cook again."
The meal's starch was rice pilaf from a box mix; the vegetable was asparagus spears. Dessert was apple pie, which Gloria observed with a critical eye. Maria, she noted, used a baking mix to make the crust rather than make it with flour, which she or her mother would have done. The result was a puffier crust. "Just like a bakery," Maria said, but did not seem particularly proud of the result.
It was the soup course that interested Gloria the most; canned chicken broth with strips of chard, thickened with a little corn starch and heavy cream, seasoned with tarragon. "I've noticed that you don't salt anything. The Bakers don't like salt?"
"They're into health things. Don't like salt, don't eat bacon, don't want butter on most things." She shrugged. "They miss out on a lot of flavor, but they sign the pay check, right? If I made a pie with mix instead of flour and lard, my husband would have beat me with his cane. Bakers don't want lard, don't want a crisp crust. They want chewy and gooey. So I give it to them. They call the shots."
At the end of the day, Gloria said goodnight to Maria. "See you Friday."
"You come, ready for work. I make you work hard."
Got to be better than standing around feeling like a slacker, Gloria thought. And wondered about the leftover chicken tips that Maria had bagged after they'd cooled. Future soup? Taken home for her own food on days off?
* * *
Ben greeted her at the front door when she came home. "It's the Eldest Sibling! The Chef-In-Training! The person who makes sure we have cookies to eat when we come home from school!"
"Did you take up smoking crack since I left this morning? You want cookies, you read the damn cookbook and make them yourself, if you think we can afford all the sugar."
"You used to make cookies," he said.
"I was trying to kill you and Will off," she countered, dropping her purse on the floor beside the back door and heading to the sink to wash her hands. "I'm off for two days," she told him. "I'll see what I can do to provide for your future foods, I promise. But it's unlikely to include cookies, which are groovy foodies, but which no one really needs."
"But I'm hungry when I come home from school."
"Really?" Gloria asked, inspired.
"Yeah. I feel like I could eat a -- "
"I'll make some vegetable soup. Inexpensive, healthy ... I'll use beef broth for it, or chicken, and throw some pasta in. If you're really hungry, you could eat that."
"That kind of stuff is for supper, not for after school, Glory, don't be a jerk."
"Then you're not really hungry, you're just a sugar junkie looking for a fix." She opened the refrigerator and looked at the containers of chili. "You haven't eaten yet?"
"No, I was waiting for you and Will. Mom had a bowl of it after she got up."
Gloria turned to him in concern. "What time did she get up?"
"Around three-thirty. I think she heard me come home and woke up."
She's sleeping a lot, Gloria worried. But then it does take time to adjust to a new schedule. "Okay. Will's going to be here any time, so let's get cracking on dinner. You picked up the chips?"
"Yeppers," he said, "and I grated the cheese already. It's in the fridge."
"You are the clever one, remind me to nominate you for the Nobel Prize next year."
"Well, Mom told me to before she left, so I'd have to decline it, but thank you for the thought. I'll do something to deserve the prize, and if you do nominate me, I'll give you a cut if I win."
Plopping a large container of chili into a pot, Gloria responded, "I want that in writing, please."
"Hey, by the way, Chelsea's mom called. She wants you to call her back."
Gloria frowned. "She left a message? Did you erase it? No? Then play it for me."
Ben tapped buttons on the answering machine. With a crackly tone, Chelsea's mother said, "Hi, I'm calling for Gloria Melton? Could you please give me a call at five five five, two two six seven? Thanks." Her voice sounded tight and annoyed.
Her heart sinking, Gloria thought that Chelsea was knocked up, indeed, and it was time to call in the courts and decide how much child support her minor brother could afford to pay. He had, after all, been dumb enough to tell his bimbo girlfriend that he had a full time job.
"Shit. Let's get this over with." She punched the number into the phone. The tone buzzed. The woman answered. "Hello, Mary? This is Gloria Melton. You left a message that I should call you?"
"Yes, I did," the woman's voice said with focused venom. "I spoke with my daughter about what you called me about, and she says she never had sex with your brother, so she can't be pregnant. I just wanted to tell you that you have no right to accuse her of such immoral behavior, and that you should be ashamed of yourself for jumping to conclusions like that about a young girl! What are you trying to do to ruin her reputation like that, don't you have any idea what that could mean if a rumor like that was sent out to the community? You have a lot of nerve, Miss, if you think that you can get away with starting rumors about -- "
She heard the woman gasp on the other end of the connection. Gloria decided that yelling at her brothers while her father and mother were out of the house had been good practice, after all, in spite of the aggravation. "I am truly glad that Chelsea is not pregnant. You have no idea how glad I am. Really, you have no idea at all. I have no intention of starting rumors; if my brother imagined that he had sex with Chelsea, I apologize for him with all my heart. I have to confess that I myself might have been misled by accidentally walking in on them in our family room, seeing her with her tongue down his throat and her right hand down the front of his pants. Maybe that wasn't the case and I just need glasses. I do sincerely hope that this conversation with you severs the connection between your horny daughter and my horny brother, permanently and to the betterment of all. Good bye, good luck, and get your daughter on the pill." She hung up the phone.
Ben gazed at her with newly respectful eyes. The garage door opened, and slammed. Their brother was home. "Why, Will, what perfect timing you have," Ben said quietly. "We were just talking about you!"
"Shut up," Gloria said to him.
"Yes, Ma'am," Ben said. "Not messing with you."