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July 15, 2024

Place Settings 25

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Twenty-five: Food for Thought

Maria came back to the kitchen, ready to take over the turkey. "I think that's good on the browning. Now we put him in the oven, check his fever in about forty minutes."

Ben returned. "This is taking longer than I thought it would. He had to call someone to bring an adapter box to use. When did you say you got cable here?"

"I don't remember, Ben. My husband put it in to try to keep the boys at home in the evenings." She raised her brows. "Didn't work. They were too busy chasing girls."

He smiled, but pursued the topic. "But wasn't this a farm back then? Where did they go to chase girls?"

"This was all dairy and farm land, from here to Turlock, just about. All the farms had dirt roads through the fields and fenced grazing pastures. Gandara farm had five girls, Nascimentos had three girls and three boys. Took my sons a hour to get there, but they didn't care. They just had to go."

"Sounds like Will, out there in the orchards at night. You'd swear he was in heaven, the way he describes it." The sound of the television burst into the room. "Hey, look at that! Cable!" He rubbed his hands together. "And now for the internet! Ladies, bring me your computers."

While Ben bore down on George the cable man, Gloria checked her phone to find the photos of Lolo's Dump, and sent them to Steve with a text asking if he knew of anyone who had an affordable apartment or room that was better than the house on Timber Street. "There, I've sent Steve a text, and he can let me know when he comes over -- Ben took me this morning to show me the horrible place our friend Lolo is living, and we've got to help her find some place decent," she told Maria.

"Can I see or is it too private?" Maria asked, frowning.

"Here, this place is right out in public, on Timber Street, past Carver and all the warehouses in there. See?" She turned the phone so that Maria could look at the place. "I'd have gone to see the room in that house if you hadn't taken me in."

"That's not a house, that's a ... not a pig sty, no farmer would let any animal stay in that mess. Your friend lives there?"

"She's renting a room in it with an attached bathroom. She has her own door, so at least she doesn't have to look at all that junk and garbage every time she comes or goes. But the whole neighborhood kind of looks like that, all the windows have those ugly bars on them."

"Lolo lived with you and your brothers, though, right? She and your mom were friends or something."

"Yes. Lolo is a car salesman, and her dealership closed a few months ago, so Mom let her stay in our house; first, she had her sofa in Mom's room, but then when Will moved out, Mom moved her into Will's room." Gloria sighed. "We were happy with the arrangement." At least we were after I stopped blaming Lolo for my father's waywardness.

"We were all contributing to the upkeep of the house, and doing okay, and feeling like a team ... and then Mom up and decided to marry Joe Brady and yank the house out from under us. Hence me, in this happy kitchen."

"No wonder Lolo looks so sad, living in that rat hole. She seemed nice when she was here."

"She is nice. Can't cook worth a darn, but she was a great housemate, and Ben got really attached to her."

"Hmm, why is that, you think?"

Gloria shrugged. "Mom was working evening and night shifts, I worked until seven, Will worked until after sundown and then moved out -- Lolo was the one who was most often there when he came home from school, she was working part time at that point. She'd have been his first sounding board when he'd skid in the door from school, and she was there with me in the mornings before he'd leave for school.

"And she just likes him, just as he is. Ben's a likeable kid, even as a sister I can say that. He took Dad's death so hard, we all wanted to protect him and love him a little extra ... when someone is that vulnerable, you want to mother him, and once Lolo met him, I think she could see that in him, and had a lot of sympathy for his sense of loss." Oh, boy, did she ever. I sure hope Maria doesn't read minds.

"George the cable man is going to go sit in his truck and eat his lunch while he waits for his buddy to get here with the right parts for the cable box," Ben interrupted. "He said the smells from the kitchen were driving him crazy. I can agree with that, myself." A loud rumble from Ben's innards cut short his compliment, and he looked, chagrined at Maria. "Excuse me, that was rude."

"Now I know I am a success. Let's check the temperature on this roast, see how much longer we need." She opened the oven and plied the thermometer, releasing a cloud of turkey-oregano-garlicky goodness. "One sixty, not high enough for me, but this will be done in about fifteen or twenty minutes. Should have got Steve to pick up a head of lettuce, forgot to tell you and Ben about that."

"I'll text him again," Gloria laughed. "And tell him what you're making. That'll speed him on."

"Ever since Elsie was here, cooking Italian stuff, I want oregano in everything, I think. She gave me Italian poisoning. Lots of pasta, lots of garlic -- she tells me it's good for my immune system so I shouldn't eat small portions. I think she just wants me to get fatter than she is. Wonder if we shouldn't get the Bakers some Italian poisoning, too -- you got them started with that spaghetti and tomatoes thing. 2008, the year we go Italian, what you think?"

"I think we're both going to get fatter. Talk to Martha Baker and find out what kind of Italian dishes they like, though. We don't want to over-cheese them or anything."

Ben's phone made a little pipping sound, and he excused himself from the kitchen to take a call, saying, "It's Mom. Be right back."

"You kids and your phones. How do you get anything done without someone calling you?"

Gloria nodded. "Some people can't. I know Susa made me want to throw her phone into a sink full of dish water. She just couldn't get it through her head that she had to turn it off or ignore it. Ben at least uses his for his business, and to let Mom know where he is. Mine is just a cheap one by comparison, and I use it to keep in touch with Steve, mostly. I doubt that I'll use it much at all once we have internet service."

"That's right, Ben was telling me about getting the news on his phone. So the phone is hooked up to the internet but the house isn't?" Maria looked confused.

"Yes," Gloria said. "People are predicting that phones will become more popular than computers soon, just like laptops got more popular than the big desk- top computers were." She shrugged. "I think I like the bigger screen of the computer, myself. I've never been able to text with my thumbs very fast, but I can type fast in instant messaging."

"Wait, what? You lost me." Maria folded her arms.

"With my computer, I can connect with Ben or Steve -- or I will be able to -- with a program ... a kind of service ... that allows us to have a typed conversation, either just he and I, or with Will, too, if he's on his computer. It's how I learned to type, really. If you want an interesting conversation, you have to be able to get the words out there quickly."

"Another thing I never learned how to do," Maria grumbled. "Didn't need a typewriter in a dairy. Am I going to have to go back to school to use this computer?"

Gloria smiled at her. "Just about all the school you want is available with the computer. Including how to type."

Ben, looking out the front window, put his phone in his back pocket and called, "Steve's here! With lettuce!" He went outside to greet his sister's boyfriend.

"I still have questions about you guys and your Lolo friend," Maria said to Gloria. "But I'll leave that for later. Go get your man and give him kisses."

"Maria, something smells fantastic!" Steve cried as he came in the door.

"It's a little something for sandwiches," she said, gesturing for him to put the grocery bag on the table.

"Maybe it will taste awful, and I'll have to save all your lives by eating it all myself," Ben offered.

Maria checked the temperature of the roast again. "One seventy-six, good enough for the government, good enough for me. We take him out and let him sit for ten minutes. You want toasted rye, or plain?"

Toasting the rye bread added another layer of wonder to the aroma of the kitchen, and the four of them sat at the table and wallowed in the comfort of warmth and good food and friendship. The turkey was juicy, the lettuce and mayonnaise messy.

"We don't make this for the Bakers, I think," Maria said, mopping her hands with a paper napkin. "They wear good clothes all the time, eat like they was having a photo taken at any minute. We make this for them, we have to get those big lobster bibs for them ahead of time."

Gloria nodded, her mouth full. This is how it's supposed to be. People around a table, eating good food, content with each other's company.

Sometimes it had been like that, before her father died. On holidays, mostly. Easter Sunday, with a ham perfuming the house since noon, Fourth of July and burgers and hot dogs and friends littering the back yard. Other times, not so much. Her father would work late many days, and then have only a bite or two of what Philli or Gloria cooked. Ben and Will would drift into the kitchen, glom down enormous portions, and then head back to their rooms or into the living room to bicker over what should be on the television. A lot of the time, if she was doing the cooking, Gloria would sample the food repeatedly until she was too full to sit down and eat a full meal, especially if Philli was working an afternoon or evening shift at the drugstore.

Suddenly, Gloria realized why the Bakers put such emphasis on their table. They're a business as well as a family, she thought. They need times each day to touch base with each other and know what their family is thinking, what they're doing, a time to be in a kind of solidarity with one another. A kind of reminder that they're all in the winery business together. The formality of their meals, unheard of in the Melton family (and many others) was a reminder to them, twice a day, that they were all working together for a common goal.

Would that have made a difference to Philli and her kids if they had been able to do that with each other when they had been so worried about money this past fall? If they had had even one meal a day when all of them were together, would things have been different; maybe Philli wouldn't have seen digging Joe Brady's gold to be the perfect solution ...

That was some childish wishful thinking, though. There was no reality in it. Will had to be out the door from dawn to dark, and Philli's shift as a cleaning woman precluded an evening meal with her daughter and youngest. They had done what they could, and keeping food available for the going and coming family was the best they could manage. A communal meal might be optimal, but only for those with the leisure to break off whatever they were doing and sit down together and eat.

Had that always been a privilege of the well-off? Gloria cast her mind back at her childhood; except at holidays, it hadn't been the case. There had always been things to do, hockey practice for the boys in season, hated piano lessons for Gloria until she was old enough to rebel and refuse. Parent meetings at the school, business dinners out for Dad -- how many of them had been with Lolo, and not business? -- Little League and Scouts and really, any excuse not to sit down in the kitchen and take an hour away from all else and watch each other eat food to keep body and soul together, a human activity, a human necessity.

And in keeping with that thought, wasn't that communal meal, that drawing together of a family around food something that got lost when people in families weren't able to keep up with their cost of living? If you were living in a village where you tilled your small farm and bartered your vegetables for a chicken or a new pair of pants, you came in from the garden or field and ate your stew with your family, but in hard times, you either starved together or went off to the city to find a factory to use up all your time, until the father and sons and daughters and mothers hardly ever saw each other and forgot how to communicate, how to give and take, how to be grateful for the food they had and for each other.

"You okay, Gloria?" Steve's voice brought her back from her thoughts. "You looked like you were a million miles away just now."

She grimaced. "I was just thinking about how wonderful this is, to have people you love sharing food around the table, and how our family -- " she gestured at Ben, "-- didn't do that, except a couple times a year."

"I like that 'love' part," mumbled Steve.

Ben nodded. "I agree. It would have been nice to spend more time with Dad, I feel like my memories of him are slipping away, like watching a fancy cruise ship pass by."

"It's the 'love' that's the key," Maria said, pushing her chair back away from the table and picking up her plate. "Believe me, you don't want to do this every day with fights and anger making things ugly, ruining good cooking."

"I'll wash, Maria," Steve offered. "You can pace and make the cable guy nervous."

"And I'll dry. I want Steve to tell me about the Sonoma place."

Maria threw her napkin down on the table. "What am I, a woman with no brain? That cable guy, don't let him leave. We need to know how to run cable up to the front bedroom upstairs so it can be our extra parlor!"

"Which bedroom?" Ben jumped to his feet and turned to the stairs.

"Up the stairs, turn left, go straight," Maria said. "Go see, it's open."

Ben went up the stairs two at a time, and they could hear his footsteps in the hall receding, then coming back. He scurried down the steps and out the kitchen door to the side porch.

"I think they carry enough spare parts that they'd be able to get a line up there," Steve said. "Whether or not they have to get authorization from the main office before they can start the work is the big thing."

Ben returned with George, who hitched at his belt and followed Ben up the stairs. The clumping of boots echoed Ben's footsteps. In a few minutes, they came back downstairs. "We can run a cable up there, no problem. But we'll have to drill a little hole in the wall. You still want to do it?" he asked Maria.

"Yes, please. Sorry I don't think of it ahead of time."

When the installation was done, they all went upstairs to look at the new cable bracket in the wall. "There you go, we have an upstairs living room. You got your space, I got mine, or vice versa, or whatever you call it," Maria said.

"Maria, our friend George here needs your signature, and also praises again the fragrance of that turkey roast."

Maria wrote her name in legible cursive handwriting. She handed the clipboard to George, tilted her head towards Ben. "You didn't let him sell you anything, did you?"

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-05-24
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
12:54:02 PM
This is a very lively chapter, with everyone contributing to the pace and Gloria's reminiscences of family life with meals and without adding a nice touch to all the goings-on in the house. Gloria, I think, is beginning to realize that the plain and simple family life offers more than the outside world can ever give. A family is being formed here, little by little, piece by piece.
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