Chapter Fifty-five: Spice of Life
"Hey, Witch-head, it's me."
"Will!" Gloria gasped. "How are you? Are you all right?"
Laughter at the other end of the line. "I am, Sis, I'm more all right than I've been most of my life. Is Mom home yet?"
"No, she won't be home until about ten-thirty or so. Where are you calling from? Can you call her back then?"
"Carmen lets me use her phone, since I live here. I don't have a lot of phone calls, you know, so it's not a problem. Not calling back late, though, so you can let Mom know that I'm doing fine, still getting paid daily for my grunt work."
"Does your barn room leak? They're calling for downpours after midnight tonight."
"Nope. In fact, the first time it rained, the sound of the water hitting the roof was so sweet that I went to sleep in seconds. It was like a drug, dude, I never knew that it would sound so good. I never heard the rain on the roof before."
"I think that's the wonder of insulation," Gloria said drily. "You can't hear the sound of the rain on the roof, but you also don't cook yourself in July when the temps hit 115."
"We'll see. So, how is everyone?"
"Mom is cheerful and busy, Lolo hates working the cosmetics counter at Macy's, Ben is bitchy and getting bossier by the day, and I'm fine, just missing Maria at work -- who asks if you have mice in your room in the barn." So much I wish I could talk to you about, so much I have no intention of dragging you into.
"Mice! How did she know about the mice? They aren't bothering me, but they're everywhere. Fortunately Carmen has three cats -- all female, she says they're better hunters. Listen, this is so cool, at night, when the cats are shut in the barn -- not in my room, you know, just out where the tractor is -- Carmen puts a little bit of food out for the coyotes. She says they'll eat every mouse they can smell out. And owls! Mr. Van Duyken has owl houses up on poles all over his orchards, so barn owls will nest there, and eat up the rabbits and mice and rats and squirrels!"
"Owl houses! I thought owls nested in trees."
"Guess they like a little roof over their heads when they can get it. You doing okay at work, with Maria gone?"
"I am. It's been an easy menu, not a whole lot different from cooking for all of us when Dad was with us. Just more formal. I've got three more days before Maria comes back, then I can just relax and take orders and not worry about anything."
"Is that Will?" squeaked Ben over Gloria's shoulder.
At her nod, he grabbed the receiver from her hand. "Will, you shithead, how you been?" Then he laughed, hearty laughter that spoke of relief and affection.
Gloria realized that she didn't need to hover around the phone to hear her brothers' conversation -- and there was a tiny pang of regret that she wasn't included in their talk. It wasn't really jealousy, not really sadness, but suddenly she missed the times she and her brothers had sat around the table to eat and talk this past fall, understood how sharing a meal builds bonds if the diners are invested in each other's wellbeing.
Yet it hadn't been like that all their lives; in the times of plenty, she and Will and Ben had all been eager to eat, but more eager to leave the table and go away from each other: go to their rooms for computers and phones, go downtown, go to the mall, go to friends' houses. Go, go, go ... anywhere but home, which they'd thought would always be there if they needed it, and they certainly didn't want to need it.
Until they came so close to losing it -- and they were still far from being in good financial shape -- and then they were able to appreciate the physical and emotional comfort a family home could provide.
She stirred the spaghetti sauce Ben had made, got a spoon and tasted it. More oregano, a bit of sage. He's nailed the garlic, though. Ben, too, must have been missing company over food, because he hadn't cooked any pasta yet to go with his sauce. Maybe he was hoping Will would pop in, the way we all thought he would. She added the spices, let the pot simmer again.
Ben snapped, "Here, Gloria, talk to him. I have to get a notebook and pen."
"Hey, brother. Do you miss home at all?" It was a mean question to ask, but it was the looming interest in her mind.
"No," he said bluntly. "I miss you and Ben, and Mom ... but I wish I could show you how I'm living here, and have you appreciate it like I do. I don't miss being cooped up in the house, don't miss fences around everything, don't miss Mom trying to hammer me into a career hole I don't fit. The other evening the moon was so bright I went for a walk around six-thirty out in the new section of the orchards where the trees are little. I didn't even need my flashlight, and everything was black and shades of bluish light. Moon, and stars, and the mountains to the west, a few dots of light from other farms -- it was fantastic, Gloria. I felt like I was ... like an artist, painting with what I could see. Two hours later, when I got back, Carmen didn't ask me where I'd been, what I'd been doing, who I'd seen, she just smiled and said, 'Una noche magnifica, sí?' Can you just try to imagine that?"
"Maybe, but I miss you. Ben does, too. I guess I understand. I've got the next two days off, and feel like I miss the Baker kitchen already. I'm a different person there, and I like who she is."
"That's it, you hit the nail on the head. I like me here better, too."
Ben puffed back into the kitchen and put his laptop on the counter. "Gimme the phone, I have to pick what's left of Brother's brain."
"Do you need a microscope?" Gloria asked loudly so that Will would hear her.
She moved away, reasonably content with what Will had had to say. As Ben's words rapidly escalated into full-blown computerese, with him typing on the keyboard with his left hand while writing in his notebook with his right, phone tucked between his shoulder and his ear, she went to her room to change clothes and shower, leaving the sweet scents of cumin and cinnamon drop into the hamper and shower drain.
The dinner menu had been boneless leg of lamb and flatbreads, her first solo roasted leg. She hadn't been a stranger to lamb, by any means, but she'd never attempted to roast the whole thing. With a Greek cucumber and yogurt sauce, chopped tomatoes and onions, the slices of medium rare lamb tasted like heaven wrapped in the freshly cooked flatbread. She wished that they could afford lamb so that she could replicate the dish at home. Maybe for some holiday ...
Steve had stopped by the kitchen on his way home. "Care to get together tomorrow evening?" he'd asked.
"I'd like that," she'd replied, "but I have some concerns. My brother Ben has been alone every day until I get home after seven. To me, he seems a little edgy about being on his own lately, you know, since Will moved out."
"Okay. I understand. We could drag him along with us, have some dinner out, maybe? He's a nice guy."
"Let me ask him. I'll give you a call later this evening, how's that?"
He nodded and started to turn away, but came back to the door. "Are we ... becoming an 'item?' So to speak, of course."
Gloria had chuckled. "I think we're two items that maybe get along very well."
He'd grinned. "Got it."
What do I do about him? Anything? Should I run him off, or should I find a way to juggle boyfriend and co-worker? "Hey, Ben, did Will tell you about moonlit walks and mice?" she asked her brother, who was tasting the spaghetti sauce again.
"What? No. He said digging holes with a backhoe is better than playing in the dirt when he was six. Van Duyken has an empty field for him to practice in, because he wants him to dig holes for a new orchard, and the holes have to be precisely spaced. And he used the backhoe to bury one of Van Duyken's goats that died."
"Shouldn't they have eaten the goat? Was it diseased?"
"Dunno, he didn't say. I've never had goat. Maybe it's awful. Did you add something to this sauce?"
"I did. A little sage, and more oregano. Hope you don't mind ..."
"I don't mind, but it tastes better and I'd like to know how much you added."
Relieved that he wasn't insulted, Gloria told him, "A pinch of the sage, and about a tablespoon of oregano."
"That much -- no wonder it tastes better. I just used a little sprinkle of it. You want any pasta? I'm ready to gnaw on my own leg if I don't get some din."
"No, thanks. Make extra, though, and I'll eat it for breakfast, or Lolo can have it when she gets here." She slid into a kitchen chair to watch her brother putter at the stove.
"Don't be ridiculous, Madam. When guests arrive at Chez Melton, I only serve them freshly cooked spaghetti, none of that heat-it-up-in-the-microwave stuff." He drew water from the sink and put the pot on the stove.
"Don't forget to salt the water," Gloria advised. "Ben, what do you think of Steve?"
"He's a nice guy -- the good role model type. You getting serious about him?" Ben measured out about a third of the box of spaghetti.
"I don't know ... I really like him, and I haven't seen anything I object to ... but I have reservations about falling for a man I work with, you know?" Like my little brother would know about falling in love. Why am I even talking about this? "He wants to get together tomorrow evening, and I do, too, but I told him I want to spend time with you. Would you like to go to dinner with us?"
"Not really -- sounds too much like Oh, let's draw little Ben out of his shell and show him a good time to me." His back was to her as he tucked the pasta into the boiling water, so Gloria was unable to see what expression was on his face.
"Sorry, Ben, I wasn't trying to babysit you or anything cute like that. I've just been missing Will and you, feel like the family is drifting apart ... " Will's gone and Mom's living in another world.
"I know what you mean," he said pointedly, setting the timer. "I think I've seen Mom for about ten minutes since last week. Hey, why don't you ask him over here -- for a dinner party? Lolo's working an early shift -- she was complaining about that last night -- so she'll be home at dinner time. It's Mom's day off, but I think it would be fun for her, too.""
"A dinner party? You mean with cloth napkins and stemware and a white tablecloth? Are you serious?" Gloria could not imagine trying to impress Steve with a formal dinner.
"No, I'm sensible. I mean party as in, we all pitch in together and make a meal that we really like. After we eat, Lolo and I can clean up and you can sneak out on the back patio and neck with Steve."
"You're an ass," she told him tartly. "But also maybe a genius. That sounds like it would be a lot of fun. I'll call Steve and ask him if he'd come over ... what kind of food should we make, though? Tacos? Chicken and mashed potatoes?"
He grinned his widest, most wicked smile, rubbed his hands together.
"Standing rib roast."