In the Sand Cage I
By mid-Afternoon of my first full day in Wakeful Heights (How I still loathe that name!) I realized how grateful I was for Subi's demand that we study together. Quite simply, it kept me out of my trailer. It was not that either Loraine or I were straying. Being out in the middle of nowhere closed off opportunties. It was not that Loraine was a bad housekeeper when she knew she had to hold up her end. She was not a bad mother. We had steak or pork chops and potatoes most nights, unless she was on a Rice-a-roni kick, and sometimes spahgetti or macaroni and meatballs. In her own way she was organized. Having a pitcher and Kool-aide on hand meant Douglas could have juice while we adults had coffee. She cared for both her sons well enough for me not to complain. If she wanted to go out, she hired a sitter, but out here of course there was no place to go.
That was the problem. Loraine was trapped, and being trapped made her miserable, and her sense of self-preservation told her a cat fight would not be worth the price of the amusement and relief from boredom it brought. Novels and phonograph records were the only answer, along with too many cigarettes. I told myself it could have been worse, but then again I understood all too well.
I was retched too. My dreams, which were not exactly nightmares while I was in them, left me awake with a lead weight of longing on my chest, and no it was not for Noelle, whom I missed. It was for there to be a hundred Noelle's or some bar where I could sit and watch people I did not know go by through the big, glass window while nursing a beer or a martini, and where those at my table or next to me at the counter were also strangers.
Studying for the County/State exam took the weight off my chest. What it did for Subi, I was not sure. An endless talk among the women was how each of them kept house. Remember, order is a feminine virtue, and Loraine was a member of the club. She got points for being patient with her boys and quietly pleasing me by taking care of her looks and not feeding me anything weird.
Claudia DelGrasso was fat, and cheerful, the sugar momma, the baker, the one to take indulgences in stride leaving both her children and husband happy. Constance Doty was the champion house keeper who ran a tight ship, which was both good and bad. Sharon Silverstein was good with chldren because she was half child herself. She won points for empathy and courage because she was so young. Subi was the idealist, career woman, and crazy one, as in there is always one. Children would settle her down, but in the meanwhile, what she cooked and her interest in vegetarianism combined with passable housekeeping skills (Only Constance really did more than the basics from what I gathered) made life hard for Richard Wolf.
Saturday morning was shopping day. That meant no studying until Subi returned. She, like all the women except Constance, left on the late, 9am bus, to Sparks, Nevada, an impossible hundred miles away. That meant I was at loose ends in the morning, drinking coffee while Douglas and Bradley had Kool-Aide and Puffed Rice with lots of sugar and the last of the milk. "Less to throw out," quipped Loraine, who has a very practical streak that leaves her bored. I can still sympathize. I cleaned up for breakfast, poured a second cup of coffee. We had plenty of sugar but no milk, no beer, and it was too early for anything stronger. I lit a cigarette and tried not to think about how isolated and bored I was.
I wondered how the lawyers handled it. When we traveled we talked, and half the talk was always bullshit, which doesn't surprise me. The talk was old and stale now. "Da i's dark," lisped Bradley. I opened the curtains and let in the hot desert sun. Who cared if it faded the furniture. I did not want to tell the bab,. that the bleak endless sky and brown sand left me feeling empty. "I'm worse than a woman," I thought sadly.
If I were Loraine I would put on a record or lie on the couch reading. If I were back in Scarsdale, I'd drive into the village or down to Central Avenue and get a Times. Here the nearest Times was over a hundred miles away. Loraine probably did not know where to get an out of town paper, and wouldn't bother to bring one back. She had Douglas with her, insisted on taking him. She confessed she'd forget to buy food for the kids if she didn't have Douglas with her. The supermarket was "a big, ugly refridgerator. Claudia loves it. She buys cake in the bakery and eats half of it on the way home. It's so disgusting. Sharon walks forever to the K-mart and brings back all sorts of junk. Constance and Subi make us stop at the library. That's not so bad. At least they have a nice bunch of paperbacks. Anything you want to read?"
I could think of nothing. Novels were not my thing. I got out my textbooks to study. Bradley nosed in to ask what I was doing. I looked for some sort of toy to give him. "This exam is for work. If I don't pass it, we'll have to go back to New York and live with grandma and grandpa."
Bradley smiled. "I hate it out here too," I told him.
Some time after 1pm, the late shopping bus returned and deposited four women and a huge pile of boxes and bags in the parking area. "This is so stupid," sighed DelGrasso. "You could have door to door service."
"And the courtyard wold look like a junk pit," replied Sharon.
"The kids couldn't play in the courtyard beause they'd always have to watch for cars," Constance explained as Doty moved in to assist her. I knew my part. "How much groceries did you buy?" I asked Loraine. There were three six packs of MIller. I brought two into the trailer. "You don't have to break your back," answered
Loraine, putting down a small bag of grocries on the floor. It was already sweating. She had cradled it under her arm to keep it from breaking. "What's in there?" I asked as my wife tore through the melting paper. "Frozen vegetables." She extracted a bag of french fries and another of Tater Tots. There were green peas, mixed vegetables, and even three boxes of spinach.
"Are you going on a diet again."
"Preventive maintenance," Loraine replied. "I'm going to get fat as a house out here."
I went out to get the last six pack of beer. I noticed Subi's pile of food largely untouched. She did not have a husband to help her yet. Neither did Sharon who was dividing up a very heavy bag between Caren and herself. Sharon had three styrofoam boxes. Subi also had boxes. Sharon did not touch the boxes but instead stuffed some of the items from the heavy bag into a pillow case and handed it to her daughter. The two walked in with a split load.
Pershing County Nevada
Turnips, Orzo, and Veal
I waited until the women and their daughters (I noticed it was mainly daughters) cleared the pile of grocery debris like busy worker ants make short work of piles of vegetation. Then I waited some more until I could sense quiet before I knocked on Subi's trailer door. She sat at the folding table that could serve six, old newspaper from who knows where spread like a cloth. In a plastic bag sat turnips, white bottoms, and purple tops for those that still had their skin, naked white and glistening for those denuded by Subi's vegetable peeler.
"Can't that wait?" I asked.
"My husband's arriving tonight," Subi answered. "I have to make him meat."
"That doesn't look like meat." I lifted one of the not-yet-peeled turnips from the dish. It's skin felt smooth in my hand. I don't think my mother ever made turnips. I examined the vegetable. What would I do if Lorraine gave me these to eat, I wondered. I guessed it would depend on how they tasted. I tried to think back to when Lorraine had last prepared fresh vegetables.
"The meat is in the fridge, second shelf," Subi interrupted my revery.
Subi finished another turnip and took an unpeeled one from the bag and began working. Nervously, I opened Subi's fridge. I was not sure what I'd find. A bowl of cherries stared out at me. There were small packages of vegetable of some kind, and and on the second shelf, something wrapped in butcher paper. Could that be the meat?
I picked it up. "Can I look?" I asked.
Subi nodded and kept peeling. "Are you going to use all those..."
"Turnips. They're in season year 'round not like rutabaga or parsnips." I did not know what rutabaga or parsnips were. "I need a lot of vegetables because tomato puree for the sauce only comes in big cans."
"Why not potatoes?" I asked.
"Cause I want to serve the meat with orzo...pasta like macaroni."
"Macaroni and turnips," I tried out the combination.
"You know I never saw anyone cook turnips in my life. My mother didn't even do that." I explained.
"Why not?" asked Subi. "My mom didn't do it either. She just made rutabaga."
"Another brassica root. Same family but it's yellow. Some people say it's milder. It's also bigger. I'd just need one or two rutabega instead of five turnips."
"Does your husband like turnips and rutabaga?" I inquired.
"Richard eats them, and everything is good in red sauce." Subi smiled.
I shrugged. I guessed I would get used to turnips if my wife served them, not that she would. I was still standing there with the meat in my hand. It was cold. It was not particularly a big roast. I estimated my family could eat it in one sitting, but if Lorraine stretched it with vegetables and macaroni...er uh...orzo, it might last two people several days. "You know," I told Subi. "Richard is a lawyer."
"Yeah and we're chemists."
"OK, but he's out of law school. You don't have to eat like this."
"It tastes better like this. When I was working, I deserved a good meal at the end of the day, something with an interesting taste."
"You sound like a man when you say that," I laughed, but Subi's remark made a weird kind of sense.
"Aren't you going to look at the meat?" Subi asked.
I pulled some of the butcher paper aside. The meat was some sort of rolled roast, that was not as red as beef. "This isn't pork?" I asked. I did not picture Subi as the kind who ate pork, not from what the other women said about her.
"Rolled breast of veal," Subi announced with pride.
"That is old school. You going to stuff it?"
"Too much work," she answered. She finished peeling the last turnip.
"What do you call that?" I asked as she took a nude turnip and began cutting it into small pieces, turning it expertly with her left hand and slicing off small chunks with her right, and then slicing the somewhat cylindrical middle. She had removed all the nude turnips from their bowl and thrown away the newspaper full of peels. Now she used the bowl for the slices.
"Potroast," she explained.
"You can make potroast with canned soup," I told her.
"Not as good that way," she answered. "Besides this is not hard." Subi took a second turnip from the bowl and began working on it. "Canned soup can be really salty and the vegetables taste of metal."
I smiled. Female fussiness makes me smile. A rolled breast of veal was a fussy thing when I thought about it. I picturesd Subi standing in line at the butcher counter telling the butchers just what she wanted how big, what cut, pleasee take the bone out....etc... I put the meat back in the fridge. "Can you please bring me the bag of carrots?" Subi asked. I opened the crisper. A five pound bag of carrots greeted me. "Oh shit!" I remarked.
"I'm not going to cut up all of them," she reminded me. "I need some for cole slaw and for other dishes."
"You buy cole slaw in the deli!" I told Subi.
"It's better made at home," she replied. "And it's not hard. It just takes a sharp knife and a peeler and a grater. You can change the recipe for whatever is in season."
I sighed and handed over the carrots. Subi peeled eight of them onto fresh newspaper. "Where did you learn all this?"
"At home and after I got married. There's no men in my family, so I'd help my younger sisters. They were concerned I wasn't domestic enough." Subi laughed. Cutting carrots went faster than radishes. Subi took a break to turn on the oven and get out a roasting pan. When the carrots were sliced, she unwrapped the meat and put it in the pan. "I think they did a good enough job with the fat," she sighed. "I begged them to trim it."
I stared at the trussed up piece of meat. "OK last chance for a taste," Subi called out.
"You eat raw meat!" I asked her.
"No, but raw vegetables are good. Want to see how sharp the turnips are?"
I shrugged and Subi handed me a couple of white slices. I bit into one. It was crunchy, but not my favorite thing.
She munched a slice and smiled. "Don't worry if it's a bit sharp. A lot of that cooks out." Subi opened a can of tomato puree. "Unflavored sauce base. My mother likes crushed tomatoes." I was about to ask why not tomato sauce but it was pointless. "OK, now we need some dried onion. She shook out the flakes, and some rosemary. William, can you get that for me? It's in the fridge?"
"Why?" I asked.
"To keep it fresh," answered Subi who pushed past me to reach into the fridge and pull out a small bag of something pine green with what looked like needles. "Want a taste."
Rosemary, the fresh leaves were bitter and medicinal.
"It's like perfume," Subi explained. "It turns sweetish when you cook it. It's nice that the supermarket hsa fresh herbs here."
"If you say so. Are we done yet?"
"This just goes in the oven and I wipe down the table and set the bowls to soak. Actually, they don't take long to wash. Do you mind?"
I shrugged. "It's easier than the lab. Not as much junk," Subi reassured me. Maybe she was right. We studied until the kitchen began to smell of tomatoey roast. Subi checked the potroast and then we went back to work. At some popeing she set the roast out to cool, and I realized I had to go home for supper.
"Well that was productive," I told her.
"We try...I can't believe Richard will be here any second."
"You have to clean up?" I asked.
"Not much," she answered. "It will be good not to be living alone again."
Pershing County Nevada