Chapter Thirty-two: Who Do You Pray To?
"That soup was very, very good," Maria told Gloria, to Gloria's delight.
"There's about a quart of it left, do you want to take some home with you?"
"No, no. Left-over lunch food we leave for the service crew. They are all part-time, low pay. Bakers say we provide staff with one meal a day, that's very kind, but people still get hungry. They take home leftovers. Some people are too proud to take the food, but some don't mind -- some of it better food than they can afford."
"Should I put it in another container?"
"Just leave it in the pot. They'll take care of it. Now we make some fun food. You know how to make hummus?" She got another bowl and blade assembly for the food processor from the cupboard.
"No, I don't even know what it is, sad to admit. I had some on an appetizer platter in a restaurant when I was out with friends, but it was too spicy for me." Gloria hoped that the next day's staff lunch would not be hummus-based.
Maria chuckled. "Not too spicy here. Bakers like the garlic, I tell you that, but not a lot of hot stuff. You can get hummus at the store, but it's cheaper and tastier for us to make it. Go get us four big cans of chickpeas and the orange can of tahini from the pantry, please."
By the time she got back to the vegetable prep table, Maria already had a lemon squeezed into a bowl, and her little bottle of garlic juice at the ready. While Gloria opened the cans, Maria drained the chickpeas and dumped them unceremoniously into the food processor. "This is what hummus is made from. You never ate? Too much McDonald's tastebuds! Here, eat one, they not poison."
Gloria obediently did so, and found it mealy and flavorless.
"Now the tahini. No, go ahead, taste just a little. A cook has to know what things taste like."
"Hmm. Kind of like bad peanut butter. It's from sesame seeds?"
"We put them together, with a little lemon juice, some garlic juice ... a little salt, a little dribble of olive oil ... " She turned on the food processor and let it demolish the ingredients. When the mixture was uniform in appearance, she stopped the machine, opened it, and invited Gloria to taste it.
Gloria's eyebrows raised. "That's ... like magic!"
"Hummus is one of those things you add any kind of flavor to. Some like spicy, add peppers. Some like veggie, add cooked yam or carrot. This is basic flavor. We put this in four shallow bowls, so only three or four have to fight over the plates. What would you garnish with to make them look pretty?'
As Gloria spooned the tan-colored hummus into white bowls, she thought about color. "If we had some sort of flower garden, I'd say a nasturtium blossom ... "
"Oh, you know about those, too? If you here next spring, we plant some for us. But we don't have them now. What else?"
"A curl of carrot cut with a vegetable peeler? That would give the color -- oh, some slices of black olive! That would be pretty, wouldn't it?" Too bad she couldn't do this at home -- her brothers might not appreciate the beauty of food, but she'd bet her mother would.
"Good! We do that. Black and orange, make the Bakers think of Halloween, maybe they give us candy. I'll get the olives, you cut them. Maybe we should put some bowls of olives out, too. Once they see them, they want to taste them, I bet. Then we start on flatbreads. Don't tell me, you never made them, right?"
Grinning, Gloria shook her head 'no.' Thomas interrupted, rapping his knuckles on the door frame from the hall.
"A phone call for Miss Gloria, from her brother Ben," he said quietly.
"Oh, no!" Gloria gasped, looking at the clock. He should be home from school -- had he been in an accident? Had his bike stolen? Locked himself out of the house? Been beaten up? She glanced at Maria, saw her frowning a little. She's thinking, this is how it starts, and Gloria is going to spend more time on the phone than in the kitchen ... She took the portable phone from Thomas' hand, feeling terror like a sickness. "Ben? Are you all right?"
"What? Yeah, I'm all right, kind of mad, but all right. Mom's gone. She wasn't here when I got home from school, she doesn't have her phone with her, and we need those groceries! Where's the money that Will left for food? I know I'm not supposed to drive by myself, but I can use Dad's car and get to the store, I think. And where the hell is Kikkert's for the eggs? Do you think it's all right, Glory?"
"Yeah, Ben, it's ... okay. The money is in the third drawer down in the kitchen, in a jar. Take seventy, but don't spend it all. And don't worry about Kikkert's for the eggs, I don't want you on the freeway alone. Be careful! Yep, bye." Gloria handed the phone back to Thomas, who had walked down the hall to give her some privacy, and then walked back. "Thank you, Thomas." Her eyes felt a little teary, with relief, perhaps, as she rejoined Maria.
Maria had brought out her rolling board and the big plastic jar of flour, and yet another clean bowl for the food processor. She didn't look at Gloria, and Gloria felt as though she'd made a mistake in taking a call. "I'm sorry about that. My brother didn't know where I've been keeping the grocery money ... my mother was supposed to get some groceries today, but she was gone when my brother got home from school. He wanted permission to go to the store and use our father's car -- there was no bread for Will's lunch tomorrow -- " she felt her voice seize up as though she was about to sob.
"We get Bakers' supper ready, then we talk, okay? Now you go outside, stand there, and let the air go in your heart. Take five deep breaths. You're a strong girl, you tell those big trees that. Say a prayer. Then come back in, we make bread." Maria gave her shoulder a little push. "Go. I wait."
Stepping outside the kitchen door to the porch, Gloria let herself examine how she felt. Like Ben, she was a little angry. They needed more from their mother than a mere paycheck. They needed another team player, and Philli didn't seem to be much interested in the Game of Staying Alive. What could she be thinking, taking off and letting her kids fend for themselves, ignoring the grocery list ... wait. Maybe she'd been gone because she was shopping, and when Ben got back, she'd be there with all the same things he did. That had to be the explanation, that would make it all better, make the anger drop away, make them feel more like she gave a shit whether or not Will had enough to keep his freckled ass going ... but Philli had been leaving the house every day before Ben got home, with no explanation of her absence.
She took the five deep breaths, looked at the trees. They were enormous sycamores, looking greyish greenish yellow and dusty in the late afternoon light. They had seen booms and recessions, births and burials, good hearts and rotten people, and they still kept on growing and putting leaves out in the spring. Amazed at how the image of the trees put her heart right, Gloria mentally whispered to them, "I'm strong, too." And then what, Maria had suggested she say a prayer.
The Melton family did not go to church, did not discuss religion, except to angrily sputter about Muslim extremists and how they had ruined air travel for everyone. The only religion they knew was to "be nice." They did not believe in Hell, although Gloria now wished there was one for that dirty whore that her father had been having an affair with. Heaven, for them, was just where people go when they die. They didn't think about sharing this Heaven with the drug dealers and serial killers and arsonists; they thought about the actual state of an afterlife not at all. Surely they would be happy, with all wrongs righted and crippled people made whole -- and maybe all the bad people would just not be anywhere any more. Poof! They'd disappear, out of existence, and leave the nice people to continue to live nice lives in Heaven. That there might be a punishment to be avoided by obedience to God was simply not in their mind set.
If pressed, they would probably have become defensive, and said that the rules set down in the Bible had been written down by men, so they wouldn't really be the rules of God, would they? God was a Cosmic Muffin, benign and smiling like the heat of the sun in late spring, when everything grows and reaches out to the light and heat. A Cosmic Muffin is never mad or angry. A Cosmic Muffin looks down upon the good and the miserable and smiles like a WalMart yellow face, ignoring the rapists and the robbers, because they would be no more. And the Cosmic Muffin didn't worry about what nice people did and didn't do, because they were ... nice.
Thus Gloria didn't really have much prayer to offer, and just said, "Make sure Ben gets home safe."
It was enough. It was what she wanted to happen, that could happen. The futility of hoping that her mother was handling this new state for the family was not worth begging the smiling Cosmic Muffin about. With a last look at the trees, Gloria returned to the kitchen, eyes dried of tears.
Maria searched her face intently. "I'm all right," Gloria said. "We kids are just ... trying to get used to all our new jobs and responsibilities. Ben can get the groceries we need until I can go on Wednesday. Taking Dad's car ... freaked him out, I think. Now, we're going to make flatbread?"
"Yes. You want to write down the recipe for your family? Is pretty easy, good and tasty. Get your pen and paper, I have seen you take notes sometimes. Got it? Okay, here we go.
"Six cups of flour, four teaspoons of baking powder, a teaspoon of salt (I would use two, but Bakers don't like salt much, think it give them heart attacks) -- we stir with the machine." Here she punched the buttons and watched the dry ingredients blend for about twenty seconds. "Then we add half cup of olive oil, while the machine stirs. See how it changes already? Now two cups of water, add slowly. Rainy weather, all you need are the two cups. Hot, dry weather, maybe two and a half, sometimes three. You want it to all ball up after about forty five seconds, see how it clumps up and goes round and round? It's done. Now we do with it like we did with the noodles, dump it out, flour it down, and let it sit. Now, get real butter from the refrigerator, three sticks. Put it in saucepan on low. We add some pepper, some onion powder, some of the lemon juice. Let all melt.
"We use these," she continued, pulling three silicone ice trays from the cupboard. "We make little pats of seasoned butter in the chiller. The little butter pat seasons the lamb chop and adds some fat to lean meat. Super lean meat is tough, taste strong, not nourishing. Bakers don't understand that, but I take care of them anyway. Don't tell. Just take care of them."
"Yes!" Gloria said. "We bought a roast, thinking we could cut it up for steaks, and it was so hard to chew that we thought we were eating rubber. It was just too lean, and we overcooked it. I was fourteen then, trying to learn how to cook. I wonder if something like this would have helped it."
"Maybe. Some of those dark, lean cuts, you have to use oil -- just a little -- to make them good. Always have to be on the rare side, though, when you do that. Heat makes them flex their muscles." Maria pantomimed a weight lifter flexing his arms, showing her teeth.
Grateful in heart, Gloria took the ice trays to the freezer with their half-teaspoons of herbed butter, smiling at Maria's pose.
"Hey, Steve, you back already?" Maria's voice called.
"I am, Chef Maria the Sublime, bringing everything you asked for. Steaks, gorgonzola cheese, fish, chickens, fresh almonds, potatoes, ribs, green beans without rhyme or reason, a bag of flour ... "
"Shut it, man-boy. I know what I put on the list and if there is more or less than I want, you are going to hear about it. Why did you get four more lamb chops than I asked for?" Maria rounded on him angrily.
"I thought maybe your apprentice would like to have a taste, too." Steve the Shopper leaned past Maria and gave a limp wave in Gloria's direction.
"You keep screwing up and you're going to be polishing mirrors instead of shopping," Maria told him with growing antagonism.
"Chill, Lady of the Kitchen. No need to get wild on me." He leaned and waved one more time at Gloria.
When he disappeared, after loading the groceries into their appropriate chambers, Gloria turned to her mentor and said, "I promise you, I did not invite that."
"I am afraid that he is what you call 'an idiot.' Our question is, can we work with an idiot, or is he too much of an idiot to work with?"