(Read the other chapters here.)
Back home standing on my stoop, I didn’t feel the least bit guilty after the movie was over, and I decided to take the courtly gentleman who had been sitting across the aisle from me up on his invitation to join him at Teatro Tapas for a glass of sangria, a glass that quickly turned into a pitcher. An hour spent quietly listening as Lenny Aptowitzer told me how as a young man he had been made to endure unimaginable tortures in not one but three Nazi prison camps, and then reverently, when I asked how he had been able to keep his faith and he whispered, “My darling, true faith makes bearable what otherwise would be unthinkable.”
As I placed the key into the lock, I didn’t bother to survey the street as had become my custom, and couldn’t say if Miss Pauline or the yo-boys, or even splattered pumpkin were present. I no longer cared about mouse traps or locks, or whether or not Minnesotans liked crab corn fritters or preferred deli, or even whether foreclosure was once again imminent in my future because none of it mattered.
Stepping inside, I placed my keys on the mantle, and headed with my parcels toward the kitchen.
“Miss Estella, is that you?” the voice, rang out.
“Yeah!” I yelled, voice caught in my throat. “I’m back.” I felt stupid announcing this as though I was the guest, and she, Sherilynn, the host.
“What’s up?” I asked as I entered the kitchen, only to find Hank under the sink, just his socking feet and Levied legs visible, along with wrench, pliers, and a roll of paper towels, all within reach.
Sherilynn turned, closing the oven, the action sending a burst of meaty aromas into the air. She was wearing the Kiss the Cook apron Francisco had bought at a yard sale for those times he decided to burn or undercook what he laughingly called din-din.
“Well, when we got back, we saw you weren’t around, so I said to Hank, ‘Hon, why don’t we help out, and make supper so Miss Estella doesn’t have to bother.’ I saw that chuck roast in the freezer, and went at it. You didn’t have the taters; my pantry back home is pretty much lined with taters. Anyway, we got the taters, and, well… supper will be ready in an hour. And if your tummy’s rumblin’, and you want a little something now, there’s some cheesy broccoli soup. I’ll serve you a bowl, just have yourself a seat.”
Feverish, I put a hand to my face. Now, I knew how basketball players, football players, whoever players felt, when as Francisco would say the visiting team came to town and “showed their ass.” I didn’t know whether I should waylay this woman, get up in her smiley face and ask her who the hell she thought she was showing her ass, trying to make me feel small and lacking, in of all places my own “house.” Instead, I took the seat she had pulled out, and mumbled in a low and defeated voice, “Yes, that would be nice, but only a small bowl. I want to save room for some roast.”
“So, what’s going on?” I said, taking a spoonful of soup, “Why’s Hank under the sink?”
“Well, I went to start peeling taters and I’m so sorry, I flicked on the garbage disposal and nothing happened. So, I got Hank to look at it; he can fix near anything. Can’t you, hon?” The woman directed her attention to her husband, who grunted. Without reason this grated on me. The sight of this woman’s husband under my sink, tinkering away, endeavoring to make things right for me because his wife had requested that he do so. What had Francisco been good for? This woman had it, my ideal relationship: you tell your man what you need done, and he does it–a true partnership. And here she was flaunting it, the whole while doing her own Martha thing, better than I had been able to with aid of a $50,000 second mortgage.
“Well, seems you guys have really made yourselves at home – good! And, seeing how you’ve got everything under control, I’ll leave you to it. Call if you need me for anything. I’m a little tired, too much running around, I suppose.”
“Well, don’t you want supper?” Sherilynn asked, checking the roast again. “It’s almost done? I made brownies for dessert.”
“I’m not hungry. I ate while I was out,” I answered, my soup bowl cleaned, hopeful that this response, similar to the one they gave me for not eating when I had gone to the trouble, would provide me some satisfaction. It didn’t. “Enjoy,” I said, sounding like a sulky teen as I headed up the back kitchen stairs.
When I finally tiptoed back downstairs hours later, the kitchen, of course, was spotless and on the counter was a note in precise and calligraphy-worthy script letting me know that my “supper” was in the oven set to warm. Plate in hand, I was about to sit down when I remembered my guest from that morning. Then I noticed the small –over- written at the bottom of the note –“We noticed a critter, Miss Estella. So, we went ahead and got traps and caught him right off. I had Hank put some extra ones under the stove and sink. I’ll have him check’em before we leave. You shouldn’t have to bother with such – I know I don’t like to.”
I placed the note to the side and took a seat at the table. The meal not only smelled wonderful, but the display, roast slices fanned out, surrounded by new ”taters” interlaced with baby carrots, their green heads in tack, was an exercise in simplicity and sophistication that would have made even Martha proud. I picked up the fork and in what I knew to be niggardly, I half hoped it wouldn’t taste as good as I knew it would.
“Yum,” I moaned. I hadn’t seen Sherilynn standing at the stair landing, but wasn’t surprised when the woman cleared her throat making her presence known. “This is great, Sherilynn. Well, that’s obvious, the way I’m practically inhaling everything. You’re a good cook.”
“There’s plenty more. I knew you’d probably be hungry, running around can tucker a person out, but once rested, that hunger comes a callin’. It sure does. Remember, there’s brownies, too.” The woman looked down at the table, her hand on the chair opposite the one I was seated in. “You don’t mind, do you?”
I motioned for her to go ahead. “Sit, don’t be silly.” I would have preferred finishing my meal alone, but knew what little graciousness I had displayed since my guests had arrived, probably needed bolstering. If only to assure that their Trip Advisor rating didn’t dip below four stars.
“I’m sure the brownies are delicious, too. I can’t – I’m allergic to gluten.”
“You poor thing,” she said taking a seat. “That’s just terrible.”
“No big deal. Where’s Hank?”
“Hank’s up there snoring like the world’s about to end and he’s just got to get one last nap in before it does.”
“That’s men,” I said, wanting another piece of roast, but determined not to get up and go through the whole production of taking the roast out of the refrigerator, slicing and then microwaving it. No matter how good it was.
“Now, look there, you pretty much cleaned your plate,” she said, quickly standing up, making a move so stealth from table to refrigerator that before I could protest, thick slices of the warmed roast were set before me.
“Well,” I said, wiping my mouth with the napkin the woman had placed alongside my plate, “As they say, you done put your foot in it, Sherilynn, clean up to the ankle.”
This time we smiled at the same time, the first occurrence since their arrival. “Well, thank you, ma’am. That means a lot to me. I’m not known for my cooking. That’s not really my true talent,” she said, brushing the few crumbs on the table into her hands.
I doubted this. I would bet what little equity I had left in the house that the woman that sat across from me smiling pleasantly, her hair architected in big bowed curls, woke up each and every day of her life, probably since the wee age of five, thinking of ways food and its preparation could sustain and comfort her family.
I put down my fork, removing my napkin from my lap and placed it on the plate, ready to take it to the sink, when again Sherilynn trumped me, taking the plate quickly from my hand, washing and drying, and then storing it in the cabinet with its mates.
“The way you move around my kitchen, you’d think you’ve been in it before, Sherilynn,” I sighed, straining to keep the irritation from my voice.
“No, ma’am, it’s just one kitchen’s not too different from the next.”
I would have debated her on this. Glory’s kitchens hadn’t been like any other I had ever been in. The first, or what Glory proclaimed the “ramshackle atrocity” on Crown Place, was bought when she married my father, a painter – not house, as I always felt obligated to make clear. This was especially so when it came to those girlfriends who dared to enter, shaking their heads as they hugged themselves tight in order to squeeze past the big canvasses, climbing over steel beams appropriated from construction sites for his grand works, his masterpieces as he described them, arms flailing as he demanded them to “move out from underneath the sphere of impossibility” and to open their eyes to the work’s future existence. An impossibility my eyes had been first opened to as I sat in the free clinic waiting to get a tetanus shot after having stepped on a rusty can lid. What, to my father’s credit, would eventually become part of one of his more noteworthy works: Casualties for War, a tremendous installation composed of my bloody can lid and 200 others soldered and shellacked discs representing what he explained were reincarnated tin soldiers forever lost in the pursuit of war.
After his death, what I lost in way of creativity run amuck–and yes, a father bonded to me by blood, I gained with Pete, Glory’s second husband. Someone who—Glory claimed–didn’t know a home repair that didn’t deserve “time to breath.” So where with my biological father there was a functioning kitchen, a nuclear familiarity to be found amongst the chaos, with Pete, the kitchen cabinets were on the back porch, where they were to remain; the stove blocked the pantry entrance, placed there because the wall where it should have been, Pete hadn’t finished retiling, which left can goods stacked around the kitchen floor’s perimeter like vigilant culinary soldiers, each one in its place, but nothing as it should be. This was our family.
Looking over at Sherilynn, I thought of Lenny and the generosity of spirit he continued to display even after living through all he had, and I felt ashamed. Of course, there was no way she could possibly get that for me, kitchens, like families, are not all the same. But more importantly, it wasn’t her fault that she didn’t know this. Tired of being wretched, I smiled back at her and asked, “Now Sherilynn, what really brings you and Hank to B’more? ‘Cause I know it’s not only the world’s best crab cakes.”
to be continued…
Willett Thomas is the president of Write of Passage, Inc. She earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins. She has received artist fellowships from Blue Mountain Center and the Millay Colony. She was selected as a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation fellow for the District of Columbia, and is the recipient of the 2008 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange award for fiction.