Chapter Thirty: The Heart of the Kitchen
"This brother of yours says he has not been fed yet, even though it is going on ten o'clock." Maria was watching Ben slice thin strips from the turkey breast.
"He's probably lying, Maria. I'd bet he's eaten half the leftovers in his kitchen, and just wants a second breakfast before his first lunch," Gloria said as she hung her damp coat over a chair.
"Fine. I ate something around five before I went running, but I was honest as I was not fed after that." He plied the big knife carefully, aware of Maria's scrutiny.
"Keep the tip of that knife on the cutting board, don't lift it," she grumbled at him. "You slicing, not chopping."
"Yes, ma'am." He put the knife down. "I have to know, even though I'm glad as h -- glad as can be about the news -- why is Lolo moved in here? We knew she lived in a dirty hole, but ...?"
"Someone tried to break into her sleeping room this morning. Bashed the door in, she used her sofa as a barricade, they slashed all the tires on her car, we pulled up not long after the police arrived, and brought her back here. She's safe, and at work. We don't have to worry about her again, and we have her back like we had her at the old house."
Ben shook his head, anger clouding his features. "I told you it was no good, her living in that slummy place."
"You were right," Maria said, tapping his shoulder. "Now she out of there, no more worries for her. Let it go. I bet no one knew it would turn out like that, so let's just focus on the glad that she is safe. And the knife."
"I love this knife," Ben said, resuming his slicing.
"What is it with you two and knives? It run in the family?"
"I don't think so. Dad barbecued but never cooked in the kitchen, and when he barbecued, he went straight from the plastic packaging to the grill. And Mom, well, her knives were kind of ... good for chopping potatoes, mostly."
"Shoot," Gloria said, "I didn't know knives could be so sharp until I got hired on at the Baker's."
Ben raised his eyebrows at Maria. "We, the younger generation, know to appreciate the technological advances that produce sharper knives."
Maria brayed laughter. "You younger generations lost sight of sharp knives because you never had to break down a chicken or a lamb -- or a steer, you should see that sometime, a work of art, with the butcher using only a few cuts with his knife to carve up the beef."
"A work of art? Seems like it would be kind of gruesome."
"No! Butcher kills the animal, bang! He gone, and then maybe you be scared of blood when they hoist up the legs, let the blood run out into a clean bucket, but after that, they take off the hide, and all you got left is beautiful meat and feet and tail and horns. Our butcher used to take the whole head, get the meat from it and sell the skull for extra profit, and Mae would use the neck muscles for a special dinner that day, so rich and tender."
"Tell us about the sides, and how the meat was cooked," Gloria murmured. "A food dream would be good today. Hear that rain?"
"They say is going to rain all day," Maria answered. "Mae would melt some of the fresh fat in the pan, toss the neck meat in flour and salt and pepper and cayenne, sprinkle a little more flour in the fat, and then cook the neck meat in it. Get a little brown, but not much. Add water, make some gravy, give it more salt, serve it over rice or potatoes, with green beans or winter squash."
Ben assembled his sandwich with the last of the rye bread and the turkey, with lettuce and mayonnaise and a quick squeeze of a lemon. "I'd say that story made this sandwich a let-down, but it wouldn't be true." He took a bite. "This is magnificent. I am one with the sandwich. We are the pinnacle of peace."
"Sit down," Maria admonished. "Don't hover over the counter like the hyena guarding his bones."
"Yes, Ma'am." He pulled out a chair and sat, still chewing the first mouthful.
Maria put a napkin on the table to his left. "That's the last of that turkey."
He wiped his mouth. "And I think I ate most of it," he admitted. "What can I get for you as a compensation for eating up your food?"
She shook her head, waved her hands. "Didn't mean it to sound bad. Been a long time since I had a teenaged boy at this table enjoying eating everything up. Feels good to this old woman.
"Is different than cooking for the Bakers. There, it is for style and for the table. Here, it is for the heart and the taste by the tongue. Both are good, but until Gloria comes here, I wasn't cooking for hearts, and I missed that."
"Mom likes the seafood restaurant not too far away, so we end up going there a few times a week," Ben stated. "I don't think the food is all that good, but Mom likes it, and I eat all the leftovers. Douse them with lemon and chili peppers, it's okay. But that's a point. The restaurant cooks for the money, not the heart, and you can tell that. Gloria cooked for the taste -- now granted, some times she missed by a mile -- but food hasn't been the same since we moved to Joe's."
Gloria snorted. "Probably her ulterior reasoning for trying to get me to move in with them. I was cooking for us for years when she didn't really want to. Well, except for turkeys. She guarded the secret of her Thanksgiving feast completely. I know how to make her version of stuffing, but the whole turkey -- "
"Just wrap the back end in foil until the last twenty minutes," Maria put in. "Bet that's what she did."
"You know, I bet it is. The legs were tender but not at all dry, and not as dark as the skin on the breast. That makes sense." She sat at the table. "Ben, you could cook for the hearts, I think."
"Uhhh, I'd most likely be cooking to make our mother look bad, not out of love. I'm not mature enough mentally not to be a dirty big brat. Also, I can't take on another regular job in the household. This computer business is keeping me jumping. There are lots of little computer businesses out there, and a couple big-box places that service computers, but I don't have a shop to rent, so I undercut the hell out of their prices. And I can go to people's homes, they don't have to drag their computers to some place and leave them there. I've only been working with software, but I'm wondering if I shouldn't go into computer parts as well. At least the simple stuff, like memory upgrade installation and power cords, like that."
"Heh," Maria huffed. "You ask me if I need compensation for food, but you don't tell me you need compensation for computer advice and cable TV advice and house sitting for us while we're at work ... I think I'm still very big in your debt."
Gloria's phone chimed. "Steve!" she said happily. "No, wait, it's ... Will?"
"Hey, witch-head. Are you busy?"
"No, not really -- you have a new phone? What's up?"
"I'm sitting outside in the rain, seeing Ben's car here and wondering if I can crash the party."
"Will!" Gloria cried, and ran out the door to greet her brother trotting through the rain to the porch.
Ben opened the door and motioned them in. "Come on, ya drip. Wipe your feet, straighten your tie, wash your hands. Ya'd think you were living in a barn."
"Shut your face, twerp, or I'll dribble you all the way to the street and back in the mud."
"Good to see you, too," Gloria said. "You have the day off?"
"Pretty much. No backhoe work, no orchard work, no online classes -- I finished what I need for an accounting certificate, just waiting on the process. It was either sit in my room in the barn or get off the ranch for a while. The cat wanted in with Carmen, but Ariana's really been getting on my nerves lately and I didn't want to insult the family by telling her to leave me alone."
"Sounds juicy, you must tell us all the sordid details."
"Hey, Will, good to see you again. You need some lunch? We have pork roast to make for sandwiches; your starving brother eat up all the turkey. Sit down, sit down. Gloria, hang up his jacket, what you thinking?"
"I'm thinking I don't want to touch it," she said. "Will, this thing is filthy. What are you doing, wallowing in the dust to take a bath, like the birds do?"
He shook his head, drops of water visible on his hair. "Backhoe work is damned dusty, Gloria. I've got this one jacket and I didn't think to beat it out in the barn before I came."
"Big jacket for a big man," Maria said. "I got some dark clothes to wash, this would make a proper load. We can do that, make you stay for more than a couple minutes. Gloria and Ben, make your brother a sandwich."
Gloria and Ben looked at each other.
"If either one of you say, 'Poof, you're a sandwich,' I'm telling you, you'll regret it."
Maria laughed loudly. "You guys are too much. You don't ever stop, do you? Here, give me jacket."
"Thanks, Maria, you're going to too much trouble ... but the rain makes it pretty hard -- dust you can shake off, but once the rain hits it, it just cakes into the fabric."
"Like I say, we do this for you so you stay longer. Your brother and sister don't see enough of you."
"That's working both ways. It's good to see you all, and good to have a whole day off. I was tempted to just go back to bed and sleep all day listening to the rain, but ... I don't sleep all that much any more ..."
"Taste this, brother." Ben held a thin slice of salted pork out on a knife.
Will rolled his eyes up. "Maria, that's so good I'm going to cry."
"Your sister made it, not me."
Will turned to his sister. "Really? Really? I take back every mean thing I ever said to you. Or at least I wouldn't have said every mean thing I said to you if you had made this when you were cooking for us. Or maybe I needed to say all those mean things because you didn't."
"Mom's culinary instruction didn't include big-ass juicy pork butt, because she didn't know how to do it, either. I just found out a few days ago, because I was thinking about the pork roast we had at Aunts' house when I was little. You were too young to remember, so young that most of it was in your hair."
"Was I in a high chair?"
"No, in Mom's lap. Aunts didn't have a high chair."
"Yes, I would love a sandwich of that. With all my heart."
Maria chuckled. "See? Cooking for the heart."
While Maria went to put the jacket and her other laundry into the washer, Will watched Ben and Gloria move about the kitchen. "It's so peaceful here," he said. "Carmen and her daughter Ariana are always bickering. And you don't even live here, Ben, but you act like you're at home."
"Not 'at home' like we were when we lived at the house," Ben said. "But Maria makes me feel like ... I'm welcome. Not that Mom doesn't, but she always has an agenda. Maria doesn't."
It was the same sandwich Gloria had made Lolo in the morning. "Here you go, brother. Maybe this will convince you to visit more often."