Chapter Forty-one: Countdown to Solo Flight
"No, no, no, you go over to the staff lunchroom and eat," Maria said, shooing Gloria. "Maybe your buddy Steve will see you and sit and talk."
"Maria, he's not my buddy. I don't know anything about him."
"And how can you, if you sit in here and eat? You have your lunch break, it's part of your agreement. Go meet staff. Maybe Susana shows up, you can find out just how stupid she is. Maybe Steve shows up, and you can find out more about him."
"But you said he's an idiot."
"You never said that about your brothers? See, I know you do. All young men are idiots, when you get to be my age, you know this. Go."
Gloria took off her apron and hung it up by the door, feeling even more nervous than she had her first day. Back then, she had been nobody, a new hire that might not last the day. Now she was Maria's assistant, and there was no doubt that she and the older woman got along and were proving a good team. I'm being shoved out the door like a new little kid on the block whose mother wants her to get outside and play, make friends. It was a unusual experience for her; she and Will and Ben had been in the same school district, in the same schools since kindergarten, and when they had moved to their current house, they had all been in high school (well, not Ben) and had a coterie of friends mobile enough that there was not a question of being sent out to play and make new acquaintances. Thus she made her way to the staff lunchroom for only the second time since she came to work for the Bakers.
Two young women were already eating at a table, heads practically touching as they whispered urgently. They were obviously having an impassioned conversation, and Gloria didn't want to interrupt it. She collected her bowl of the good fish soup and a small handful of oyster crackers. Over top she sprinkled a little salt and quite a bit of pepper. She made her way to another table.
As luck would have it, the next person in the door was Steve, talking on a cell phone and carrying about ten pages of paper. He stopped when he saw her, finished his phone call. As he put his phone in his pocket, he approached her. "May I sit with you, or am I bugging you too much?"
"That would be nice," Gloria said, feeling her cheeks burn. "You're the only one on staff besides Maria and Thomas whose name I even know."
"We'll remedy that," he said with his gentle smile. "I'll be right back."
To Gloria's relief he sat across the table from her, and not beside her. He tapped his stack of papers. "This is actually the proposed menus for the two weeks Maria will be out. You and she will have to go over it and make sure you're comfortable with all the dishes. My God, this is good chowder! Great job!"
"I can't take credit -- I've never made fish soup before in my life. Working with Maria has been an education, I have to admit."
"You must be learning fast then, because she's happier than she's ever been since I've known her."
"Really? That's good to know. How long have you been here at the Bakers?"
"Two years. I managed to get in on the strength of a family connection and a master's in Business Administration."
Gloria goggled, she couldn't help it. A master's degree? To be part of the house staff?
"You look surprised."
"I am." Thinking fast, she said, "I'm an innocent. I've never spoken to someone with an MBA before, either. That's a lot of new for one day."
He laughed. "Have you met Susana yet? She's scheduled to start training with you and Maria Monday, did Maria tell you that?"
"No," Gloria answered, "But Maria thought I might meet her today."
"Susana!" He waved at a young woman. "Come over here to eat. This is Gloria."
Susana brought her dishes to the table even more timidly than Gloria had. She held out a hand. "Hi, Gloria, I'm Susana."
She had a bit of an accent, but certainly not more of an accent than Maria had. Perhaps Maria was even more prejudiced against Mexicans than Gloria had thought. "Steve says you're going to start working with us in the kitchen on Monday."
"Yes. Back into the fire," she said. "I helped Maria after the last assistant left, until you came."
Gloria didn't know whether to say, "I'm sorry I got the job" (and she wasn't) or "What are you talking about?" (in regard to her 'back into the fire' remark) but instead chose to be optimistic. "Then you already know a lot about procedures, that's great!"
The woman shrugged. "It was hard."
Steve continued to wave over staff members and introduce them to Gloria, until she was sure she couldn't remember anyone's names but Susana's. Everyone was friendly, upbeat, and congratulatory about the quality of food ... except Susana, but Gloria could understand that, if Susana had been passed over as Maria's assistant, she supposed.
"How was it?" Maria asked when she returned to the kitchen.
"A little overwhelming, all the names to remember, but nice overall. Did you rest while I was gone?"
"I did. I went and talked with Mrs. Baker for a little, got to put my feet up on a footstool. Good thing I don't fall asleep. What do you think of Steve?" Her face was expressionless.
Why is she asking me about him? Gloria thought. "He was ... polite at all times," she said. What else could she say?
Maria laughed. "Poor Steve, that's all you can say about him. He must be an idiot."
"He said he has the menus for the two weeks you'll be gone."
"Good, good. I asked that they don't piss around too long with them," she grumbled as she walked away.
Gloria stared at her as she waddled into the pantry. She couldn't believe her ears. Surely she didn't mean that she said "piss around" to the Bakers?
At the window to the staff's lunch room, Steve appeared again. He waved his papers at Gloria, who nodded at him and went to get Maria. "Steve's here with the menus."
"Here, you take these over to the meat prep area," she said, handing Gloria two bottles of white wine. "Let's see what we come up with over here."
When Gloria returned to the window, her hands had begun to sweat. This was her menu, her meals, for which she would be responsible. It was too early, too soon. She wasn't even out of her probationary period -- was it fair for them to expect her to do this? But it was the job, and she needed the job, and so she would do the best she could. Much of it would hinge on Susana's ability to hustle, because Gloria surely didn't have the ease of habit that Maria did.
The Friday fish days were the most frightening -- Gloria still didn't have a lot of experience cooking fish. The first Friday was a macaroni and cheese dish, she thought she could handle that lunch with no problem, and the supper was fish chowder. That was simple, now that she'd seen how Maria did it. She wouldn't have the fish stock -- was there such a thing in stores? What about clam juice? That she knew was available. Her mind was racing. The second Friday was equally simple: toasted cheese sandwiches for lunch, and broiled fish for dinner. Toasted cheese sandwiches? She could make toasted cheese sandwiches to knock their socks off!
Come to think of it, why am I not encouraging Ben and Will to have that more often? They love it, and even if they eat three sandwiches each, it's not very expensive.
"Gloria?" Steve's voice said, bringing her back. "What do you think?"
"I think I can do it. Most of these Maria has taught me. The fish worried me, but they're simple, it seems. The week after Thanksgiving, only half the number of people will be dining ... "
"Advent, that's why the Friday meal is simple," Maria supplied. "Fridays a time of fasting for Bakers. One full meal, other food not as much. Also, Mr. and Mrs., sons and their wives, daughter all go off to the coast week after Thanksgiving."
"Winemakers consortium," Steve added.
"That takes a lot of the heat off. It won't be much different from cooking for my family, and I've done that for years." As long as Susana doesn't screw up. Susana's attitude at lunch was beginning to scrape something in Gloria's subconscious.
"I am by the phone on Monday, and all two weeks, so you can call me when you want to cry," Maria said, nudging her in a friendly manner.
"I'll give you my cell phone number, too," Steve said. "I'll be more sympathetic than Maria, I promise."
"Oh, you!" Maria scooped up the papers and swatted him with them. "Get her a copy of these so she can worry about them ahead of time!"
As he left them, smiling his strangely sweet smile, Gloria turned to Maria. "How can you be by the phone if you have to be in the hospital?"
"I go to the hospital Friday morning, Glory. They in a hurry, damn them. Probably go home Sunday. Let's get this white sauce going, then we do dessert."
Maria's condition was more serious and more critical than she had been letting on. Gloria was suddenly scared, not for her own job performance, but for her co-worker's health. "But -- Maria -- once you go home, do you have someone to help you? You can't just go home and take care of yourself! I can come by after work -- I can make some meals for you over the weekend and bring them by ... "
Maria turned to her with genuine fondness. "No, now, don't worry. My friend Elsie from church is coming to stay with me, take care of me. Old ladies from church can't wait to cook for me, show me they know better than I do. Elsie's Italian, probably wants to put ten pounds on me with lasagna. We should make her teach us how to make Italian pasta."
"I'd like that," Gloria said, a little less worried.
"Now, the white wine cream sauce. Bakers are funny. They don't like butter, because it's fatty, but white wine cream sauce -- they don't care about the fat in cream, because it tastes too good. Super easy, though. You get to like this one, you get fat as a tick eating it on pasta."
"Thanks for the warning."
"We take wine, heavy whip cream, same number of cups. We cook down the wine with some garlic powder, some onion powder. Pinch of salt. When half the wine is gone, Bakers don't get drunk on it but the flavor's good. Add the cream. Let it simmer until it gets nice thickness. That's it. Too easy. Downfall of Rome, I think." She stirred the pot. "Just get it thickened over the heat, and it's good to go. We can keep it warm on hot plate until supper.
"Scallops and angel hair pasta take the same amount of time, almost. Both cook real fast. Green beans take longer, when we start cooking supper, we do green beans first."
As Gloria cut the washed green beans into bite-sized pieces, Maria sat on her chair and looking too pale, lectured. "Main thing is, get all your pans and knives and food set out first. You start cooking, you got no time to go look for stuff. Susana will help you, but she doesn't know how to organize. Maybe her mother drop her on her head when she was baby, I don't know. You going to have to keep an eye on her every minute, keep her busy.
"She don't think ahead, don't understand how to think ahead. You got the menus, you have to make a list of what has to be done when and make her prep on time."
"You do it all in your head," Gloria noted.
"I been doing this since you were a little girl. I don't know how not to do it."