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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"

Going Hungry 37

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Thirty-seven: A Concern At Work

There were some concerns Gloria had at work, more than just the 'hope I can keep this job' concern, more than the 'please God don't let me make a fool of myself' concern; Over the past week, Maria had had several more instances when she left the kitchen abruptly, looking white and shaky. Thomas, the staff manager, brought a chair into the kitchen so that Maria could sit down now and then, and although Maria sputtered angrily at him, she did use the chair the last two times she came back to the kitchen. Circles had appeared under her eyes, and the little lines by her mouth had deepened. Gloria always asked, "Are you all right?" when Maria would return, and Maria always answered with a grumpy affirmative, but both of them knew that she wasn't all right, not by any means.

It was Tuesday; the salad was the usual vegetables: spinach, iceberg lettuce, grape tomatoes cut into quarters (they were into store tomato season, all the local ones gone until next May), cucumbers in little cubes -- not too many, as they were known to cause gas in several of the Bakers -- augmented by a little cheese. Today they were experimenting with the Baker taste buds, substituting crumbly cotija cheese for the usual mild cheddar or occasional parmesan, and the breads to accompany lunch were baguettes, heated briefly in the oven before cutting. The protein for the meal came from a large fish, and once again, Gloria was revolted that the head of the fish, as well as the tail, went into a stock pot to boil. "We have chowder on Friday, they say. No point in letting good flavor go to the landfill," Maria pointed out.

It was an easy and quick meal to prepare; Maria showed Gloria how to filet the fish without cutting off her fingers, and all that remained was to cut the fish into serving sizes, squeeze a little lemon juice over them, drizzle a little of the margarine on top, and put the filets into the broiler for a couple minutes. "We put the skin side down when we cook these. Bakers don't like to see the skin. I don't know why, maybe they think it's ugly. Me, I'd put the skin on top and let it get crispy."

Supper was equally straightforward: braised beef short ribs, with mashed potatoes and packaged gravy, and pan-fried asparagus. Dessert was to be a simple scoop of rainbow colored sherbet, with a sprig of mint at the side as a garnish.

They had begun browning the ribs when Maria clutched at her belly, and began walking towards the kitchen door. When the older woman staggered slightly, Gloria pushed the pans off the burners to the back of the stove, and ran to support her. They got as far as the door when Maria fumbled for the chair and sat down heavily. "Oh, no ... "

"Maria! Tell me! What's wrong? How can I help you?" Gloria pleaded, holding Maria's hands in her own.

"I get to the bathroom, I be okay," Maria muttered. "You help me get there, please?"

The humility in the cook's voice frightened Gloria as much as her pale lips did. She assisted Maria in standing, removing her apron, and helped her balance as she walked the short distance to the staff restrooms. Maria's color was returning even as she entered the stall with the brushed stainless steel rails, and she told Gloria to wait outside.

Gloria heard muttering that sounded like curse words, then, "Gloria! You there? You know where I keep my purse, yes? I have a blue bag there, you bring me that, please. I'm okay, I just have a mess."

As Gloria ran to get Maria's blue bag (she'd wondered about the blue bag, at first thinking Maria was smuggling food in it, then wondering if the other woman just liked having two purses, she felt a cramping fear in her chest. Maria had a mess? Did she have an issue with incontinence? But why would that make her go so pale, and weak? And she hadn't smelled like she pooped on herself ...

Gloria grabbed the blue bag and had a quick look in it. A pair of dark pants and a pair of underwear were in it, as well as about a half dozen sanitary pads, the wide overnight kind. That's not good. Has she seen a doctor, or is she the tough old woman who pretends there isn't a problem until she gets taken to the emergency room?

"Thanks," Maria's voice came as Gloria handed the bag into the stall for her. "You go back to the kitchen, get those ribs browned and in oven. I be out soon, I promise I'm okay."

"You have about five minutes and then I'm going to call Thomas," Gloria told her firmly. "I'll take care of the ribs."

"Lots of garlic," came the cook's voice.

"And onion," Gloria answered.

Back in the kitchen, Gloria put the pans back on the gas burners, turning the heat up to reheat the pans. She browned each set of two ribs, short and meaty little things, seasoning each with a lot of garlic powder and sprinkling a little dusting of flour on each before she put them in the big pans. As each batch browned, she removed them to a quartet of glass baking dishes. The smell of the cooking meat was heavenly, and Gloria wondered why she had never had this kind of meal before. "You doing good," Maria's voice said from behind her, and Gloria jumped. The cook did look considerably better than she had, but still looked tired. Thank God we've got two days off, Gloria thought. She looks like she could use a couple days of total rest. "Thank you," she told Maria, and went to the kitchen door and brought back the chair. She set it near the stoves. "You sit for a while, make sure I'm doing this right, please?"

Maria nodded, her eyelids hiding her eyes.

Gloria finished the browning of the short ribs, added some water and red wine to the pans, using the spatula to work the browning off the bottom of the big skillets. She poured equal amounts of the liquid into each of the baking dishes, then sliced thinly two large white onions. These slices she placed between and on top of the rib sections, put the glass covers on the baking dishes, and put them into the ovens at two hundred degrees. "At three, I'll set the heat up to three hundred."

"Good job. What's next?"

"I put the sherbet dishes into the chiller, and then ask you what's going on."

"Okay. Dishes first."

The sherbet cups were arranged on a tray; then Gloria spritzed them with water to make them frost up. Into the chiller they went, and the most difficult part of dessert was done.

"What's wrong, Maria?"

"Oh, not a big deal, just seems like it. I got some woman problems happening, need to get a hysteriectomy, my doctor says."

"A hysterectomy? Dang, Maria, that's pretty serious stuff, don't you think?"

"Nah. I go in, have it done, home in two days. But I have to rest for two weeks, can't work. You gonna have to cover me. I get you Susana to help you, but all she knows how to cook is Mexican. Her family lives on tamales half the winter, I think. You gonna have to watch her, she wants to put green salsa in everything. Anyway, we just got to get through Thanksgiving, then I take off and you take over. A couple weeks, that's all."

"You scare me with how pale you get," Gloria confessed.

"Ah, Glory, I'm sorry."

Gloria started. "That's what my family calls me. You never called me that before."

"Sorry," she repeated, though for the different reason.

"Don't be," Gloria told her. "I'm flattered to hear you use that name for me. No one else, though, okay? What can I do to get us through Thanksgiving?"

"You're doing great," the older woman admitted. "Maybe I need to sit down more. Doctor says standing makes me ... "

Suddenly Gloria understood the cramp and the paleness. "Makes you gush," she finished for the older woman. "Yes. My mother has that sometimes, but not so bad, or so often."

Maria looked relieved that Gloria understood. "Yeah. I get no warning, then -- whoosh. Pisses me off."

"I'll bet. Okay. You're going to sit when you can, let me do the standing. Do the Bakers know?"

She nodded. "They agree, after Thanksgiving I go. You okay with this? We get that dumb Susana in here the week before Thanksgiving to get her up to speed. She speaks English like an illegal, that girl. Hard to make her understand."

"I took Spanish in high school, so I can speak a little. Maybe that will help."

"Damn dumb Mexicans," Maria muttered.

"Today is easy food," Gloria noted. "What happens on Friday, I forget."

"Fish chowder for us, scallops for them. Scallops are hard to get right the first time. They taste like crap if you do them wrong."

"Oh, that's right! I saw that and knew I was in for it -- I've never made scallops in my life. I love them, but we never ate them at home."

"What's your brothers' favorite food?" Maria asked, deflecting the conversation.

"Spaghetti, hands down. They could eat spaghetti every day. Although I have to admit, your recipe for pulled pork made them crazy -- they couldn't get enough and I had to make them stop eating so much of it."

"Eh, that's teenage boys. All my sons wanted to do was eat, from the time they got home to the time they fell asleep."

"You must have done a lot of cooking," Gloria said, filling some time as the older woman stood up from the chair, not as steadily as usual, but determined.

"It's what you do," she said. "Sometimes it's all you can do."

"Yes," Gloria answered her. "I understand that now. About all I can do for my brothers is cook for them. Ben has been talking about staying home from school to take care of things, and work -- he's trying to start a business fixing computers, and Will -- he's just trying to keep in Mr. Van Duyken's good graces -- did some computer work for him yesterday! Both my brothers are good with computers. Ben might be able to cook some day, I think, but he isn't really into it."

"How's your mom?"

"I don't know," Gloria admitted sadly. "Maybe I'll see her tomorrow for a while and find out. She's getting real private about her work and life. None of us sees her much any more."

"Hard for moms and kids to tell each other what they're doing," Maria said, motioning Gloria to haul a bag of potatoes out of the vegetable bin. "Bet you didn't tell your mom what you were planning when you left the college."

She noticed that I dropped out, Gloria thought in surprise. "No, I didn't. She didn't want to know we were in tough enough trouble that Will and I would have to find work."

"See? So why do you think she has to tell you what she's doing?"

"She hates her job, that's all I know. She cleans offices. Will loved working the almond harvest, even how dirty it was, and I love coming to work every day, learning new cooking things and smelling good food. But it would be nice if she'd talk a little more to us about her job, even if she hates it."

"Bah, you feed people, that's good, your brothers fix things and work the harvest, that's good, all your mother does is clean up after people. She maybe thinks that's sad."

"Well, she gets paid more than any of us, and has health care benefits, too -- that means she protects herself, our house, and Ben. That ought to count for something."

"Ought to, but doesn't. Have to have a special mind to clean up after people and be okay with it. Be patient with her. I bet she's a proud lady."

Not too proud to share her husband with a whore, Gloria fumed with sudden anger. Maybe if she had had a little more pride, she'd have either cut off the dirty bitch's income from the family's paycheck, or put an end to a travesty of a marriage, with a big, fat alimony settlement. Maybe she should have been a proud enough lady to check the bills for herself, instead of just letting dear old cheating Dad slack off and stop paying insurance.

"Don't make that face, Glory, or else you have wrinkles that stay that way. Let's peel potatoes. That's always good for the heart."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2016-01-11
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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