Chapter Fifty-three: Fair Sailing
Making seafood chowder with Lolo the day before, focusing on the recipe, directing the unsure helper, made kitchen duty with Susana seem easy and relaxed on Friday. The macaroni and cheese had been a piece of cake, so to speak, Gloria drawing on her own recipe and offering a vinaigrette dressing for the accompanying salad to break the salty yumminess of the casserole. She did not follow Maria's instructions to use orange cheese in the mix; white cheddar graced the pasta, with an orange cheese and margarine-crumbled-cracker topping as it baked.
Steve had blown into the hall outside the kitchen before lunch was served. "Do I get a taste, or do I have to wait for staff gruel?"
She'd brought him a tiny ramekin of pasta and cheese, not commenting.
He tasted it, rolled his eyes and sighed. "This is better than Maria's," he whispered. "But don't tell her I said that."
"I wouldn't. Bakers can tell her if they agree."
He had looked into her eyes, but she could not tell what he might be trying to communicate. Then he simply said, "See you later," and disappeared around the corner.
He should have kissed me for that dish. Wonder if he's any good at kissing?
"You were a lot more relaxed today than you were on Tuesday," Susana said at the end of the day while they put kitchen implements back on the shelves. "Smoother."
"Ah, well ... some issues at home got resolved, but mostly now I know that you and I can get this job done, and done well."
"Thanks, Gloria. Have a good evening."
Looking around the now silent kitchen, Gloria examined the equipment again for any misplaced items. There were none. The only thing that's not where it should be is Maria. She shut the door to the kitchen and left.
When she got home, opening the front door caused an avalanche of food fragrance to wash over her. Ben was at the oven, opening it and testing chicken for doneness with a meat thermometer. "Hey, Sis," he said as she dropped her purse by the door. "These are done, according to Mr. Handy-Dandy here. Do you trust him?" He waved the meat thermometer at her.
"Yes. What are you up to? I made enough of that chowder to last for a couple meals."
"Well, about that ... it was so good that Mom and/or Lolo hit on it for breakfast. I had some when I got home from school. There's not even three servings left, so I went and picked up a big package of chicken thighs -- they were on a killer three-day sale, 99 cents a pound. Found this recipe online. They smell pretty good, if you ask me."
"Not going to ask you. I'm surprised you're not eating them straight from the oven. Did Will call today?"
"Huh-uh. He's probably still afraid that Mom will answer the phone. If I was to plan ahead for food for Mom and Lolo when they come home from work, what would I make to go with this?"
"Well, Lolo's working at the mall, so probably she'd eat at the food court there ... Mom ... I haven't seen her eat anything when she comes home from work, not this shift, or the late one she had before. Which is most likely why she had chowder for breakfast. Maybe for lunch, too. Macaroni salad would be a safe bet -- put some peas in it for a vegetable component. Or even pasta in a white sauce, that reheats pretty well. Put some pepper into it to brighten up a plate with the chicken. Wait, no. The orange juice we got yesterday -- squeeze some lemon into it, chop some canned pineapple, hit it with some cayenne, and thicken it with corn starch. Make some rice."
"Shit, yes, I'd eat that right now. Wouldn't have thought of the cayenne with pineapple -- I loathe canned pineapple, but with the pepper ... too bad we don't have any jalapenos, bet that would be good, too. Let's do it. Speak up, coach, how do I make rice?"
"I can do that, Ben, it's not hard work."
"You doing it doesn't teach me crap, Gloria. Sit on your fat white ass and tell me how."
"What I'm about to tell you is how to stuff your fuzzy red head up your own ass," she replied, glad to bicker with him.
"Oh, please do," he said evenly. "I'll get extra credit for that as a Science Fair project next spring."
"Salt, butter, rice, water. One part rice to two parts water. Use the middle pot on the right hand side in the cabinet beside the stove. Yes, that one. It has a lid, you'll need that, too. You know, I've only ever made rice with that pot. I rely on that pot. I'll probably steal it from our mother when I get my own house."
"How much, Queen of Thieves?"
"For you and Mom and Lolo, probably a cup of rice is enough, give you each a big portion and some left over for soup." She leaned on the table and put her feet up on an adjacent chair.
"Soup, yeah. That's why I cooked up so many pieces -- I figure soup, sandwiches, this rice thing, cold out of the fridge ... It'll keep us alive, and save you some effort."
"Today felt so easy -- not many of the Bakers are home these next two weeks, so the only pressure point coming up is a standing rib roast on Sunday. Never did that before, but Maria says it's embarrassingly easy. Throw a pat of butter in there, and a couple shakes of salt. That's it, when it starts to boil, put the lid on and turn the heat down to Low. Set the timer for 20 minutes -- you're almost done."
Ben stirred the rice, looked over his shoulder at her. "Standing rib roast. Have we ever had that?"
"'Embarrassingly easy.' If that turns out to be true, I'm going to be seriously pissed, as in 'why have we not been eating it for Christmas and birthdays?'"
"Dunno. I've only ever had it in restaurants. I didn't know you could actually make it at home. Do you want me to get the pineapple, or can I continue to sit here on my fat white ass?"
"Make sure the rice doesn't explode or anything, I'll get the pineapple." He rummaged in the pantry cupboard and emerged with a dusty can. "Still in code -- for about another month. Now what?"
"Get the glass measuring cup, drain the pineapple juice into it. Squeeze a half lemon into that, do you think we'll ever use all the lemons the Simmons are giving us? Add some orange juice until you have a full cup. Cornstarch is up above the counter, left hand side, yellow container. One tablespoon to one cup of liquid is usually good. Whisk it up. Use that little saucepan, the one that Mom always uses for her tea. Medium-low heat, it will thicken when it boils, and if not, we'll add more orange juice and cornstarch." A yawn split Gloria's face.
While she instructed Ben on how to chop the canned pineapple to make it easier to eat, a part of Gloria's mind examined her current sleepy and relaxed state. I feel ... content.
The fury that had entered her life when she found out about Lolo and her father was gone, at least for the moment. The predatory Lolo had proved to be a creation of her own imagination; the real Lolo had been seduced by the unrelenting charm of the man that Gloria and her brothers and everyone he encountered had idealized. She and Lolo and her mother were all suckers together, falling for a guy who knew how to mesmerize anyone he talked to. She could no longer blame Lolo for reacting to him in the same way her family and his co-workers did. Loved him, wanted to do anything for him. Releasing her anger, her desire for revenge, her hatred, she felt lighter, freer, as though some chafing collar had been dropped from her neck, as though some crushing pressure had been lifted from her brain.
But then a strange thought surfaced. What would they do with Lolo in the future? She had lost her job, lost her apartment. Her family -- at least her brothers -- had odious attitudes, what were the Meltons to do, say "Hey Lolo, you loser, go back to your hog brothers and their women-hating ways?" Probably part of the reason Lolo couldn't resist her father was because he didn't despise women. And so, in any version of good conscience, could they kick Lolo out into this dead end economy and tell her to figure out her own destiny, yeah, the man of this house loved you and supported you in your luxury apartment and we befriended you for a while but now, go rot in some slummy gang-dominated apartment complex in the neglected part of the city?
Gloria didn't think she could do that, not any more, not after seeing the mirror image of her own grief over her father's death reiterated in Lolo's eyes. She loved, she lost. We loved, we lost. We're not different.
"It's raining again, hear it?" Ben asked from the stove.
"Really?" Gloria went to the slider and opened it. Drops were beginning to fall, faster and heavier by the second. "Was that in the forecast? I don't remember seeing that." She shut the door.
"It was not. They said maybe showers tomorrow morning. Here, taste this, more cayenne? I just dusted it a bit."
She licked the sauce off the back of a spoon. "A hint more, I think. I can taste it, but barely, and it needs more to overcome that sweet pineapple. The texture is great, though."
Ben pushed the pineapple chunks off the cutting board into the sauce, added a gentle couple shakes of cayenne. He stirred it gently. "Now let's try it over some of that chicken, see if it works."
Cut up on a small dish, the chicken thigh was drizzled with the pineapple-orange mixture. Ben and Gloria took a bite of it. Ben began to laugh. "That's good, that's snakebite damn good. I love dark meat chicken, but I think I have to have this sauce with it forever."
Gloria chuckled, knowing the surge of triumph that comes from producing a delicious dish. "It's fantastic, Ben. Listen, when the timer goes off, take the rice off the burner, stir it up so it looks fluffy, and then cover it again. Ten minutes and it's ready to eat. I want to take my shower; to me I smell like onions and codfish."
"Gotcha. Go de-stink, Skink."
It just wasn't the same without Will. She could trade insults and snarky comments with Ben, but Ben was almost seven years younger than she was. She was more worried about him and how he was doing than she had been about Will. Will deserved every affront she could muster, and only four years younger, could pretty much keep up with her, due to his natural obnoxiousness. That Will was gone made the house seem unusually empty, and when Gloria passed by Will's room -- now Lolo's room -- she missed peeking in and being disgusted by his lack of tidiness. Couldn't stand how he was when he was here, can't help but wish he was still a slob in residence. With a heavy sigh, she pushed into her bedroom, shut the door, and took off her clothes.
After showering, she returned to the kitchen.
Ben was still in there, tinkering with the chicken. "Is this what's going to make me a chef like you, hanging around in the kitchen, wondering when people will be home?"
"No, dipweed, because I'm not a chef. I'm a cook's assistant. Hanging around in the kitchen waiting for people to come home is what is going to make you a control freak or a nanny."
He turned to face the dark window of the sliding glass door into the back yard. "I don't like being alone. It's not that I panic or anything about it, but I don't like it. I don't like the dark, I don't like the alone, I don't like not knowing where the rest of the family is."
"I understand, Ben. I don't know what Mom has up her sleeve, and I miss my favorite whipping boy Will. I can't make as many jokes off you as I did with him."
"He was easy, and satisfying," Ben nodded.
"Eat your chicken and stuff and try to relax. Want to put a movie in the DVD?"
"Don't you want to eat?" There was a tone of isn't-my-cooking-good-enough in his voice."
"Brother, I have just come home from a day of cooking. And I did it well enough that what I tasted, and re-tasted, is going to make me fat as a hippopotamus. Basically, I've cooked all day and stuffed food in my mouth all day."
"Yet another reason for me to follow you in your footsteps and become a chef."
"I'm not a chef, dammit. Stop it with the 'chef' thing."
There was a gentle knock at the door. Ben leaped to open it. "Lolo! You live here now, you don't have to knock. Are you hungry? I tried a new dish."
Lolo looked to Gloria for confirmation, as though to say, Do I live here?
Observing Lolo's impeccable warpaint, exquisitely exotic and perfectly applied, Gloria said, "Do you want to sample Ben's most recent experiment? Or have you already eaten?"
"No, I just got off work. I don't eat at the mall, the food there gives me the ... it upsets my insides. Ben, do you mind if I shower first, and then taste your experiment? I know it smells delicious."
"No problem, Lolo. It'll keep warm."
When they heard the bedroom door shut, Gloria turned to Ben. "Have you ever seen Lolo without makeup and high heels?"
"No. She look different?"
"Yes, very. Don't gasp."
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