Chapter Three: Maria, the Wolf
Good morning, I really like this sitting in the dark. I wake up at five in the dark, pat my way past the walls until I get to the bathroom with its red night-light, then back through the dark to my rocking chair here, crouching like a wild animal waiting for breakfast to walk by my cave.
See, I make myself laugh. I must be a wolf. Bears don't laugh, lions don't laugh. But a lot of pictures of wolves, they look like someone just told them a joke, or maybe they just thought of a joke they want to tell someone else. Thank you, God, for making me a funny wolf. Thank you, God, for getting me healed up. I am very grateful that You give me this new life, this feeling good ... like I didn't feel since I was a girl. I can't believe I was so sick for so long and just ignored it, just thought it was part of getting old. Thank you, God, for Martha Baker, who made me go see a doctor. But why was I so stupid for so long, God? Why didn't I want to feel better?
Never mind, I think I know.
God, I feel so good I want to do everything, do it all today. You help me figure out what I have to do first, please. I know, You say, go to Mass, old feel-good woman. Come see Me there. I will, I will. Uh oh, that was the upstairs bathroom. That means Gloria is awake, too. Hey, thank you God for sending me Gloria to help me. You find me that one assistant I can actually stand being around, not like Susa or Debbie, or that dumb boy Jacky. Yes, Lord, forgive me for thinking of how stupid they were. Maybe they were just stupid like I was stupid.
Stupid, I try not to make that my word of the day. Well, here I go, get a couple swallows of tea before I leave, I have time for that.
Now how'd she get downstairs so quiet I didn't hear her? I hope she doesn't think I'm always going to be following her around, being nosy. "This your quiet time?"
"No, I was afraid I was going to wake you too early."
"I been up since five, sitting, talking to God. Makes me feel holier than like I was some bad kid, sneaking around the house in the dark. You need more hot water?"
"No, I'm good. You feeling okay, waking up so early?"
"I feel great, Gloria. Feel so alive I don't want to stay in bed a minute longer, feel like I wish it was already spring so I could dig a garden. I think about getting some new chairs to sit out on the porch after work in the summer. I think about getting you and Steve taking me to Best Buy and helping me pick out a new TV. Elsie told me every night she stayed here that I was a stingy cave woman to have such an old-fashioned TV and crappy cable."
"You never told me you watch TV. You said you didn't have the time for it, didn't you?"
"Well, I didn't. I come home from work, sit in my chair and fall asleep until it time to go to bed. After this operation, I got lots of time. And in the hospital, I watched TV, see that cooking channel, probably learned fifty new things while I sat on my hind end waiting to come home."
Gloria smiled. "You might not want to let Steve take you TV shopping -- he'll want to get you all the latest gadgets, and you'll come out with a home theater, a cell phone, and a blue tooth headset so you can talk on the phone while you work in the kitchen."
"You think I'm going to turn into Susana? No way, you're my entertainment while we're at work. Hey, I have to go comb my hair so I don't scare the priest at church. See you later."
That Gloria, she doesn't go to church. Doesn't know anything about church. I don't even know if she believes in God. How can people grow up and not know about God? Even on a dairy, Mae and Pae made sure I knew more about God than I did cows.
That's like saying I had a choice. I was a girl, so I wasn't going to stay with Pae's dairy, I was either going to get married or go to the convent. Two choices, that was it. Enough school to read the Bible, enough math to balance a checkbook. Either pray for a vocation as a sister, or learn housekeeping to make a husband happy. Oh, boy, that was fun. Especially since Mae and Pae only spoke Portuguese at home, and school was in English.
Poor Teacher Miss Cardoza! Stuck teaching thirty kids from six years old to eighteen, everything in English and Portuguese and Spanish, dairy kids and farm worker kids. Miss Cardoza had a choice of husband or nunnery or teaching. Some days I could tell she wished she made a different choice.
God, forgive me for not wanting to be a nun. I know it's holy and good, but I didn't want to go be a nun with a Mother Superior telling me what to do, I wanted my own home.
You made me work for that home, didn't You? I thought Pae was bossy, I didn't know Bedencourt was ... I don't want to speak ill of the dead, Lord, you know how he was. Didn't get my own home until he died, You, God, rest his soul if he ever gets out of Purgatory. He wasn't a bad man, not like a murderer or a bank robber, but he was one mean, fat, jackass tyrant. Right, I'm supposed to be going to church. And here we are, and there's Elsie. I'm going to go in and ask you to forgive me for not trying harder to forgive that man I married.
Sunday brunch at the Bakers always included chicken. Maria could understand that -- there was something beautiful about a row of perfectly roasted chickens on a platter, a golden color on the crispy skin that matched the golden crust on the French bread that also always accompanied brunch. Maybe it was that golden brown that made the base for a beautiful picture, and then all the other colors added to it were accents. Red from wine and pomegranates (from Maria's own tree) and beets, green of salad in dark green spinach and parsley, light green of iceberg lettuce and brussels sprouts; orange from the mimosas every guest sipped, and yams. A long white platter of navel orange slices, pinker cara cara orange slices, dark red of blood orange slices; a line of freshly cut pineapple chunks and another line of green kiwi fruit slices. (Maria hated peeling them, they were kind of slimy to touch, but with a sprinkle of coarse sugar, the sliminess wasn't so apparent.)
More colors on the crudites plate: orange again for carrots, green again for celery, white and purple for cauliflower, black for whole pitted olives. Neutral colors on the bread platter, from the white of the inside of the French loaves, to tan Jewish rye, to dark brown pumpernickel.
But that was just the main table setting. Every half hour, another tiny course was served, and today, by special request, a pasta dish that Gloria had invented on the fly the day before Maria returned to work after her operation. Maria watched over Gloria's shoulder as Gloria carefully sauteed finely chopped onions and crushed garlic ahead of time, to reheat and sizzle with the diced tomatoes and fresh basil just before serving over little turbans of angel hair pasta, dusted on the top by grated pecorino romano cheese. "You a genius for coming up with this one. I think the Bakers would eat it every day if they weren't so afraid of getting fat."
"It's ridiculously delicious for how simple it is. Maybe it was a good thing that Susana let the pasta course burn, after all. It was the quickest thing I could think of for a replacement dish -- and it kept me from killing her on the spot for ruining the course and throwing her mutilated body and her damn cell phone out the back door of the kitchen. I'm just glad the Bakers liked it so much." She washed her hands and carried the prep bowl with the shrimp to the counter.
"You do shrimp, I start threading the kebabs on skewers. Not many cooks can step up and turn a mess into a miracle. You, you're better than you know. I never would have thought of having fresh basil in the cooler, but you did. Now every time they taste the pasta like that, they'll think of you, and tell themselves how lucky they are to keep you."
I tell myself how lucky I am every time that girl walks into the kitchen, too. How do things work out like that? When I met her, her first interview, I thought she was just going to be a little spoiled girl who never worked in her life, someone who got her teacher to kiss the Bakers' asses. Didn't think she'd last any longer than the others. But then I liked how she was trying to take care of her family, and she sure did learn quick.
Only thing that worries me about her is that Steve is in love with her. He tried for days to get her to notice him, and finally got her to look at him. They get along good, treat each other with respect. I can see the look in his eyes, he's thinking about marrying her. Then where does that leave her and her job? Is she going to pass up getting married to a nice man just to be a cook's assistant? This is a problem women have: you only get to have babies for a short time -- unless you are one of those freak Hollywood women who do test tube stuff and have babies when they're old enough to be grandmothers -- and having babies takes up almost all your time. I know, I had four of them, and between raising boys and keeping house, there was no time left over at all for other jobs. So you have babies while you're young, and then play catch up twenty years later to try to find a career, or you go for your best work when you're young and then what? Try to find a man who likes older women, good luck with that.
At least that damn Bedencourt left me and the boys a good inheritance. I got the house, and sold off some of the land for a savings account -- he was so mean to the boys that they told him to shove his dairy up his own ass, and so stingy to his own brothers and sisters they didn't want anything to do with him. I put up with him because I was married to him, until death did us part. Then the pastor told me the Bakers were fed up with their Bay Area cook -- called himself a chef and made food they didn't like. Fed up? Yes, I'm the wolf, laughing at my own jokes. Bakers wanted a cook, someone who could work out a menu with them without bringing Thai seasonings and sea snails into it. I could do that. I did that.
Of course, now that Gloria has that pasta dish, I'll bet the Bakers are going to want more than just macaroni and cheese, or spaghetti in meat and tomato sauce. This week I'm going to get a pot at the garden center, and put it outside the kitchen door to grow some basil. I've never used it much, but it sure does smell good ...
Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-12-14
Image(s) are public domain.