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June 17, 2024

Going Hungry 31

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Thirty-one: Working, Not Just Watching

"What's up?"

Ben waved her to follow him. They went out to the garage, and through the door to the side yard. With a flourish, Ben waved at a little roof with a metal handle on one edge. The roof was shingled a dark gray color, neat even lines matching up. He lifted the handle, and the whole roof came up on hinges attached to a redwood four by four at the back.

"Oh my god," Gloria exclaimed. "How did you do this?"

"It's those boards left over from the fence. My after-school project, as it were. We had the nails, and the box of shingles wasn't real expensive. I used some of the money I had from before Dad died. He used to make sure Will and I had money stashed away for what he called 'Crazy Man Stuff.' See? The apples fit right in there, and there's enough room for potatoes, too, if we need it."

"And all the dirt ... "

"Behind those bushes," he explained, pointing at a tall pittosporum. "If we move, I can just shovel it right back in. But I especially call your attention to the hinges. Not only did I get them on right -- with a little help from a website do-it-yourself thing -- but also I cleverly figured out how to anchor the post in the dirt on either side. And the bottom of the bin is raised a little, to allow circulation of air and drainage if any rain gets in, which it shouldn't. You have a genius for a brother."

"You're brilliant. But you shouldn't use up your Crazy Man money like this -- not to mention why didn't Dad give me any Crazy Woman money? -- how much did you spend?"

"Only about ten dollars. I already paid myself back, anyway." He shut the lid and they began to walk back to the garage. When he saw Gloria frowning at him in puzzlement, he grinned and blushed. "There's a couple places around the high school where kids always throw their soda cans and water bottles. I took some garbage bags down there and got enough at the recycle place to pay for the shingles and made about fifty cents profit, too."

"You're amazing. Why didn't I see the bags of cans?"

"You're hardly ever here, and we hardly ever use the garage except as a place to put junk we don't use any more. Will noticed, but Mom even came out here to get a jug of laundry detergent and didn't see them."

"You have your house key?" Gloria asked him as he walked back through the house. "Books?"

"Yes, and yes."

"Then have a good day at school, fool."

"You have a good day at work, jerk."

Laughing, she shut the door behind him. At least that's two of us who went out the door with a smile.

Plenty of time was left for Gloria to draw up a small shopping list. Bread, two loaves. Butter, two of those, too. Macaroni. Fresh fruit. Kikkert Poultry for eggs. It was a short list, just the necessities until Wednesday, when the sales flyers were out, and Gloria could plan out the week's menu. She left the list on the counter by the tea tin, where her mother would see it. And then it was time for her to collect her own keys, settle the hairnet on her curly hair, and head out the door herself, for the next learning experience, the next busy day of forgetfulness, during which she could, and should, leave the worries behind and focus on work.

"We start with the lamb chops today, get them ready. You earn your keep today. Thirteen guests, twenty six chops. Come help me carry them."

Gloria shivered in the big walk-in refrigerator, carrying a tray. Maria put two packages of meat on the tray, which they took to the meat prep counter where Maria used a knife to cut the strings of the packages. "Get that prep bowl, bring it here. Now, this knife is very, very sharp. Careful, careful.

"Here's what we do: cut around the chop here, now scrape all this fatty part off, so the bone looks pretty clean. Like this. Is called 'Frenching' and Bakers like lamb chops like this, less fat. Let's see you try."

Gloria tried to be as confident with her cuts as Maria did, but the chop was slippery as well as freezing cold. She managed to get the bone clean enough, but she knew she was taking far longer than Maria had.

"That's good, just like that. Don't hurry too much -- work quick as you can, but don't try to keep up with me, okay?"

"Okay. Just check on me now and then and make sure I'm doing it right, please."

They cut and scraped and cut and scraped until the smell of the raw lamb chops began to take up residence in Gloria's sinuses and purchase its living room furniture. She could not smell anything else. The smell filled the world. There was nothing more that she would be able to taste today, or season properly, today, and maybe for the rest of the week. No wonder her mother had never made lamb chops. They were a pain in the ass.

Gloria was on her last chop when Maria snorted in annoyance. "What is this? Stupid Steve screwed up again. I tell him twenty-eight lamb chops, he brings back thirty-two lamb chops. Last week he brings back four big cans from Costco of their shitty vegetable soup, tells me what a bargain he found! Idiot! I use them, all right, make the staff soup with them so he has to eat it! I'm surprised someone on the staff didn't kill him in his sleep!"

"I heard one of the ladies say it tasted good," Gloria offered.

"Oh, that's right, that was the day you started working here, I'm so sorry! You must have thought I was a lousy cook to serve that!"

"The bread and butter helped ... "

Maria threw her head back and laughed. "Now that's how you be polite! Well, you get a reward. Nothing we can do with four chops for us to put back. We eat like the Bakers tonight."

"So you make the shopping list and Steve does the shopping."

"Yes, unless he keeps making mistakes. Then I have to waste a day teaching someone else how to buy." She opened the wraps drawer and brought out plastic bags, then directed Gloria to bring the white food processor over to the counter. "Chopper blade, please. Don't drop it on your foot -- cut your shoe off."

Into the processor she measured about a teaspoon of salt from the palm of her hand, a little pepper, a small can of tomato juice, and about ten cloves of garlic. She turned the machine on, and Gloria watched the cloves puree into the tomato juice. While it spun, she drizzled extra virgin olive oil into the mix.

"Okay, open bags." She poured half the marinade into one bag, and half in the other. "Now chops," she ordered, and they began shoveling the chops in. Pressing the air out, they sealed the bags, and put them in a large stainless steel bowl. "You have any back problems?" the older woman queried. At Gloria's head shake, she said, "Good. I hold door for you, you carry back in cooler."

They turned water on in the sink until it was steaming hot, then used scouring pads and antibacterial soap to scrub the meat prep counter, rinsing it over and over when they were done.

"Now you do salads, I cut cheeses. You even get to use the special knife today."

Gloria set to work immediately, making the salads as they had every other day. Apparently the Bakers were not interested in salad innovation at their lunches. Gloria could understand that. She liked spinach and lettuce and tomatoes herself, though she did like some cucumbers in there as well, if they were available.

Although she kept an eye on the wicked serrated tomato knife so as not to cut herself, she also watched what Maria was doing with the cheese. Using a wire cheese cutter, she was making long loops of some hard cheese; she cut thin strips of another one, and using a small mixer, beat a soft cheese into a spread. Gloria saw her add some spices to it, jealously wished she were hovering at the older woman's elbow to see what they were.

The salads were done, on their trays and in the chiller. Gloria washed her hands again, pleased that she had at least been able to make the salads all on her own without supervision, and without criticism. "Do we have bread to cut?" she asked Maria, pleased again to be able to say "we."

"Yeah. It in the big cupboard, two whole loaves of French bread. You know how big to cut them. Then we got to get staff soup on."

Gloria was mostly done with the first loaf when Maria took over for her. "Please, can you get the pot with the broth and the chicken out of the chiller, Gloria. I do this. You want to season the soup? You're going to have to eat it, remember!"

That was odd, she thought. I know I wasn't doing the bread wrong. Maybe the cold is getting to her in the walk-in. She made two trips; one to carry the soup and the other to retrieve the leftover rice from Saturday's feast. "Will we put something into it besides the rice?" she asked.

"Two blocks of the frozen broccoli, it's in the big freezer on the left, right beside the corn. Broccoli makes it good for us. Strong. Vitamins."

Gloria looked at Maria intently. She'd sounded ... not strong, but a little weak, as though she were out of breath. However, the woman was working along at pace, so Gloria got the broccoli, and dumped it in its frozen blocks into the now warming broth and chicken. The rice would be added last, as it was already cooked; too long at a simmer, and it would swell and fall apart. She tasted the broth. It tasted like nothing, not even of the chicken that had soaked in it over night. How to season it?

Salt, of course, but not too much -- people could add their own. Definitely garlic powder, pepper, onion powder, some ground thyme -- she was distracted by the sight of the bag of garlic cloves that Maria had used for the lamb chops. She hadn't put it away (which was odd) and Gloria looked at the peeled whole cloves in the bag with envy. What a time saver that would be, to buy garlic in a big bag like that!

"Does Steve get this garlic at Costco?"

"No, he get that at SaveMart. Over by the tofu junk."

"Are you all right?" Gloria said, walking over to Maria. "You sound like you're hurting."

"I'm okay. You watch things while I go to the bathroom, okay?"

The older woman almost staggered out of the kitchen, and Gloria half-followed her in concern. But the soup was on the boil, and the bread had to be put on several platters, two small ones for the Baker's table, one large one for the staff. As Maria went out the door of the kitchen, Gloria glanced at the clock and began bringing the lunch salads out of the chiller and setting them on the serving window. She brought out the cheese platters, too, all three of them, admiring how Maria had staged the various cheeses. There should have been some kind of garnish on them, though. Something bright and contrasting. The pomegranates! Feverishly she cut one open and began shelling the deep red pips into a plate. The juice had stained her, so she washed her hands yet again and quickly rinsed and dried the pips on paper toweling. She sprinkled a few across each cheese plate. There! That looks beautiful!

The staff whisked away the salads and the cheeses, and it was time for Gloria to check the soup. The broccoli had thawed, and yet still looked bright green in the soup. She added the rice, which thickened it considerably, and tasted. It was still rather insipid.

Maria re-entered the kitchen, looking a little better. "Salads out? Good. Breads, cheeses, too? Good. You doing good. I like you."

"Should we add some bouillon to this?" Gloria asked her, offering a spoon with a taste of the soup.

"No bouillon, it all salt. Use this, paste chicken base. It is good, trust me. Drop by half teaspoons, taste, and see where it is good. I love this stuff. Beef flavor good, too."

Gloria did as told, and after a few dollops, tasted the chicken, the broccoli, and a really good chicken soup for lunch.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-11-30
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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