Comfort food, p.6
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       Comfort Food, p.6

           Kate Jacobs
 

  “You’re joking?”

  “Gus, Ina Garten has an amazing range.” Porter shrugged his shoulders. “Everyone has a gimmick but you. And good food well prepared is snoring boring. Nobody’s tuning in anymore.”

  “But I have a contract,” Gus sputtered.

  “Contracts have a way of biting you,” Porter replied. “You know that part where it says you get a bonus if the ratings jump by ten percent? It also has a clause that the contract can be canceled if the ratings drop by the same percentage.”

  “I haven’t read the contract since I signed it years ago . . .” Gus sighed. She never thought things would go this way.

  But Porter had saved the best for last: the show’s budget was being slashed in half. And Carmen, the gorgeous Beauty Foodie Queen, had been spotted coming out of the president’s office at the CookingChannel studio the week before. And he wasn’t getting a straight answer from anybody.

  Gus shot daggers with her eyes, her mouth full of chocolate.

  “I figured we had more time to get things on track but it’s not looking good—for either of us,” Porter said, a wan smile on his face. “Give me somethingfresh, Gus. It’s the only way I can save your show.”

  Of all the unexpected things to happen since moving from Oregon to Manhattanas a new college grad more than a decade ago, Troy never anticipated that he’d end up being dumped by the girl of his dreams while remaining on stellar terms with her mother. Who does that? It simply wasn’t normal. But it was true: Troy Park had a far more loyal friend in Gus Simpson than he’d ever had in her fickle daughter Sabrina. Gorgeous, sexy Sabrina, all glossy black hair and dewy blue eyes, forever dressing in lollipop colors. She was an eye-catching one, that girl, the type of woman who glided into any room and immediately demanded attention without saying a word. There was a certain sweet vulnerability to the young Miss Simpson, a softness that appealed. She was light on her feet and rather cheerful, in fact. Sabrina was unlike any woman he’d ever met.

  Which was all the more ironic since Troy had always made it rather a point of honor to roll his eyes whenever a pal confided, over a fifth or sixth beer, about being hit by a thunderbolt. About falling in love.

  And then it happened to Troy.

  He’d just left his advertising job to work full-time on his entrepreneurial venture. It was a little sooner than he’d imagined and he wasn’t completely ready. But the timing for the product was right and his father had encouragedhim to go for it. It’s always better, his father had said, to work for yourself.Then you know that you can always trust the boss.

  His parents had worked side by side, growing apples and pears in their acres of orchard. Oregon had good soil, his father said, that’s why they moved there after arriving as newlyweds from South Korea, both working in a restaurantoperated by another immigrant family until they could finally put a down payment on the land they so desperately wanted. Troy was five when the Park family moved into the compact farmhouse on the property, and his mother’s excitement as she unpacked boxes, his sister Alice strapped into her high chair so she couldn’t crawl through the dust, remained vivid in his mind. His mother had not stopped smiling even as she washed the floors.

  His father had walked him by each and every tree on the Park family farm that very night, carrying him after Troy’s stubby five-year-old legs could go no farther.

  “Focus on what you want,” his father said, “and never lose sight of your goal. Then you must take a chance.”

  Now Troy had started FarmFresh, a vending company that specialized in supplying custom refrigerated machines with fresh fruit, bottled water, and yogurt. Carrying on the Park family tradition.

  And, because he was his mother’s son, he wanted to spiff up his offices. There was no denying that he’d been entranced by Sabrina from the moment she walked into his rented office space. He’d heard about her from the new wife of one of those beer buddies—she’d just done over their new apartment—and the newlyweds were ecstatic, driving Troy crazy with their insatiable need to discuss roman shades and the importance of choosing the right hardware for the bathroom vanity. “Sabrina is such a talent and just the right price because she’s starting out,” he’d been told. “Plus she’s the daughter of that entertainer-cook lady on TV. Only Sabrina doesn’t do kitchens.”

  Good enough for Troy as he didn’t have a kitchen in his office. But he had enthusiasm: all the eagerness of a young businessman in receipt of his first major influx of cash, ready to outfit his workplace in a style befitting his business philosophy, his hope for the future, his wit. By which he envisionedsome combination of Scandinavian design, earth tones, ergonomic chairs, an office dog, and a wall-mounted basketball hoop. Perhaps even a banner of his college team, the Oregon Ducks, placed just so on a wall behind his desk.

  “That’s absolutely fantastic,” Sabrina had said, smiling, as Troy had detailed his wish list in that initial meeting. She had a pedicure of shimmeringcoral and showed a good amount of smooth leg all the way up to a lime-colored sleeveless tweedy dress, its nubbly texture practically begginghim to rub his hands on her. (Likes green is what he’d written in his PDA; Troy made a point of noticing the small details when he was interestedin a woman.) Then she pulled out a design board with hardwood and carpet samples and some fabric swatches. A much more conservative look. Mature. “What’s neat is that we’re going with something entirely differentfrom dot-com fabulousness and I can’t wait for you to see it,” she said, and never stopped smiling the entire time she talked. Sabrina was unlike any other New Yorker he’d ever met: she looked happy instead of seriouslydetermined, and she owned not one stitch of black clothing. Even her walk was upbeat, more of a skip than a stroll. Sabrina made everything seem . . . lighter.

  Quite without planning, their meetings had led to dates. (Well, withoutplanning on Sabrina’s part, that is. Troy had gone out of his way to set up reasons for them to meet, had feigned interest in desks and carpets and made a point of shopping with her, followed up with coffees and dinners and movies.) And soon enough they were inseparable, the tall, broad-shouldered Asian-American man from Oregon and the bright-eyed, dark-haired smiling girl from New York. Troy humbly, even happily, accepted his much-deserved ribbing from the chums he’d mocked over the years. He let Sabrina sell his black leather couch on Craigslist and wrote her a check to redecorate his overpriced apartment in the Meatpacking District. He made a point to spend time with the Simpson ladies, enjoying lazy Sundays up at Gus’s house in Westchester while she tossed together a sumptuous roast beef dinner, even going so far to ingratiate himself as to set up an ill-fated double date between his business partner and Sabrina’s sister. In Troy’s mind, Aimee was the anti-Sabrina, all dourness and disgruntlement. To his surprise, his business partner dated Aimee for several weeks before they parted ways amicably.Some people had strange taste, that was for sure.

  But all of that was mere detail in Troy’s quest to make himself indispensableto Sabrina. He wanted her to need him. But for all of her cheeriness and laughter, Sabrina remained mysteriously unlike any of the girls he’d known before. She was remarkably unperturbed if he failed to call on time, for example. Or he could spend an entire long weekend with her and then not get a reply to his “had a great time with you” email until Wednesday. It was maddening.

  Of course, they’d had all the proper conversations in due course—just the nuts-and-bolts sexual history, no need for the hows and how-was-its—and Troy, so convinced of their particular and unique bond, hadn’t even been alarmed to learn that Sabrina had been engaged to more than one man in the preceding three years. It made perfect sense when she told Troy that those relationships just didn’t feel right and that she’d brokenthem off; perfect sense, of course, because clearly she’d been waiting for Troy.

  So, to his way of thinking, he hadn’t had any warning on the day Sabrina called him from Gus’s house and said she would be taking the train back to the city and would he meet her at their favorite brunch spot? He remained confused
when she told him she’d stopped off at her apartment to collect his toothbrush and his clothes. He felt numb as she handed over a paper Whole Foods bag with his shirts, neatly folded one atop the other, and his toothbrush,wrapped in tissues, sitting on top of the pile. The bag still had a faint scent of fruit. Then she said it.

  “You’re a great guy, Troy. Let’s be friends.”

  And she didn’t stop smiling the entire time.

  After that, Troy was more than ready to say goodbye to the whole lot of Simpsons. He’d never, in all his thirty-four years, been dumped before. (Eleni Dicoupolous from eleventh grade did not actually count, in his opinion.) It’s not that Troy had been a player; he’d had a number of perfectly nice girlfriends with whom he’d had perfectly nice relationships. They all pretty much ran their course. But with Sabrina it had been completely, inspiringly different. Somehow all those stupidly popular song lyrics finally made some sense.

  But there was a teeny little glitch in his quest to cut all ties with Sabrina. Because Gus Simpson believed a fresh fruit vending business—with machines in airports, in schools, in workplaces—was a thing of brilliance. And a few months before the breakup, back when he imagined Sabrina was going to become Mrs. Park soon enough, it hadn’t seemed unusual at all when Gus approached him to buy a stake. After all, she’d simply been investing in her daughter’s future, and what entrepreneur couldn’t use extra funding and the backing of a popular CookingChannel TV host?

  Exactly.

  Now he was stuck with regular inquiries from Gus—and she was on her way over for yet another visit. He’d never expected her to take such an interestin how things were going. And not merely with his company.

  Troy opened his bottom left drawer and pulled out a yellow nerf ball, one of several nesting in his desk. With precision he tossed the ball high into the air, up and on its way across the room, waiting to see it swoosh through the small net. Once Sabrina had taken herself out of the picture, Troy went out the very next morning and put basketball hoops in every office and a pool table in the conference room. With a wooden board on the top it worked rather well for meetings, in fact.

  He kept his eye on the yellow nerf ball as it began its descent . . . and landed right on Gus Simpson’s beautifully coiffed head.

  “Oof!”

  “Oh, Gus, I’m so sorry.” Then Troy grinned. “You make a great defense. Game of Twenty-one?”

  She walked into his office and put down her handbag, took off her wintercoat and shook off a few snowflakes.

  “No, thank you,” she said, looking him up and down. She continued to stand. “You seem a little thin.”

  “Just been working on my six-pack abs.”

  “Uh-huh. Well, the bags under your eyes don’t exactly send that ‘picture of health’ image.”

  “Been working a lot.”

  “You should come to dinner soon. Sunday?”

  Troy stood up and walked around his desk, then pulled out a chair. Gus finally sat down.

  “I’d come by, Gus, but I have a feeling that Sabrina might be invited, just like the last two times.”

  “Oh, I told you that was a mistake.”

  “Once is a mistake. Twice is stupid—on my part.”

  “Well, a mother knows, Troy. The two of you had something special.”

  The black-haired man crossed his arms and leaned in to Gus, his jaw clenched.

  “I’m not in the mood, today, Gus. We’re bidding on a major contract and I don’t have time to listen to the wild and wacky tales of Sabrina Simpson’s romances.”

  “But, Troy, it’s just that she’s dating some Billy fellow who’s completely wrong for her—”

  “Not my problem.”

  “It is your problem. You’re perfect for Sabrina. And you love her!”

  “I stopped loving your daughter the day she handed me my ass in a paper bag.”

  Gus looked startled. Then she laughed.

  “Troy,” she said quietly. “You are a terrible actor.” She gazed at him for a few moments in silence. “Now what about dinner?” she asked.

  “No.”

  Sighing, Gus held up her hands in defeat. “Okay, that’s enough for today,” she said. “I’m actually here for some help.”

  “Gus!”

  “Not about Sabrina.”

  Troy moved around to take his seat behind the desk. “All right then, I’m at your service. What do you need?”

  “For you to put on your adman’s brain and reinvent my show.”

  Troy made a hooting sound. “I’m an entrepreneur now. And you’re an icon of food television, Mrs. Simpson.”

  “And about to be booted off the air if I don’t make things fresh, accordingto my producer.”

  “You’re kidding me.”

  There was none of her daughter’s smiliness in Gus’s face as she stared directly at Troy. Just worry lines across her forehead. It was clear that the graceful woman in his office was very, very troubled.

  He let out a sharp intake of air. Then he opened a drawer on the right side of his desk—mercifully free of nerf balls—and pulled out a yellow legal pad.

  “Let’s brainstorm. Quick meals?”

  “Been done before.”

  “Rare ingredients?”

  “Iron Chef.”

  “Okay, okay, okay, maybe we don’t need to be completely original. Just a new take—a twist on what you’ve been doing,” puffed Troy. “What about a live show, Gus?”

  “Emeril’s live.”

  “True. And it’s worked for him. He’s a guy with a famous catchphrase: Shazam!”

  “That was Captain Marvel. Emeril says ’Bam!’”

  Troy nodded thoughtfully. “What’s your catchphrase?”

  Gus appeared displeased.

  “I don’t have one.”

  “Methinks perhaps we’ve isolated our first problem.”

  “So you think viewers will start tuning in because I’m live and say ‘Wham!’ instead of ’Bam’? ”

  He shook his head. “Uh, no. Gus, you’ve gotta stop taking this all so personally.No one said there’s anything wrong with Gus Simpson the person. The issue is Gus Simpson the personality.”

  Gus looked as if she was about to cry.

  “I’m just myself!”

  Troy smiled. “No, you’re not. You’re your best self. You’re too damn perfect.”

  “I’m not understanding what you’re suggesting, Troy.”

  “We need to up the risk. Put you on the spot. See a hair out of place. Add some novelty.”

  “Novelty? I don’t like where this conversation is heading.”

  “People get bored with the same-old. It happens with work, it happens with entertainment—think of the classic second-season sitcom drop-off— and, at the risk of seeming to mention your youngest, cruelest daughter, it happens with relationships. With boyfriends.”

  “So . . .”

  “So go back to your producer and tell him you want a show that airs live.”

  “But I don’t want a live show!”

  “And no more of these chef guests creating froufrou dishes. Not unless they’re on their own reality shows and have Q-ratings.”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “You want hot guests and cool food,” mused Troy. “Or maybe it’s cool guests, hot food. Yes ... that could be your tagline! Cooking with Gusto!: Hot food. Cool guests.” He began writing on his yellow pad, had trouble getting the ballpoint to run.

  “This doesn’t sound like my show at all,” insisted Gus.

  “Exactly.” Troy opened and closed desk drawers quickly, searching for a pen before his slogan fell out of his head. Without thinking he blindly reached into his bottom left-hand drawer and pulled out an orange nerf ball.

  “Hey,” he said. “What do you think about basketball?”

  6

  Gus grabbed the remote control and settled herself in front of the TV in her large family room, joined by her cats Salt and Pepper. She had never watched a basketball game—nor
heard of March Madness—before that afternoon in Troy’s office several weeks ago. Well, maybe she was aware of the college basketball championships, in the way she also knew the name of Kelly Clarkson even though she’d never watched American Idol. (She was much more of a Beatles fan, maybe with a little late disco thrown in.) The details—of sports, of pop music—floated about in the air somehow, headlineson her Web browser when she went to check her email or magazine covers at the newsstand that she glanced at.

  The funny thing was, she’d been fully prepared for Porter to nix Troy’s idea when she brought it to him, imagined his response: “You? And NBA stars making party food on live TV as you get ready to watch college ball together? That’s insane!”

  Instead, Porter formed a tent with his hands and began tapping his fingertipstogether.

  “Would you wear a cheerleader costume?” he asked, raising one eyebrow.

  “Good God, no!” Gus was horrified.

  “Just trying.” Porter winked.

  “I’ll tell Ellie you asked me that,” Gus said in a fake threatening way. Porter had been happily married for thirty years and had nothing more than a healthy, mostly professional, appreciation of Gus’s figure. “Seriously, though ...”

  Porter spoke slowly, turning his thoughts in his mind. “What I like is that your approach is fairly off-the-wall. A complete departure for Gus Simpson, which should get us some media buzz. We might alienate a few longtime viewers, but we’re definitely going to attract a younger crowd, maybe even some men in the eighteen-to-twenty-four range.” Porter began nodding vigorously.

  “And what appeals to advertisers will appeal to Alan Holt,” finished Gus. “Thank you, Mr. Watson.”

  “Thank you, Mrs. Simpson.”

  They were hopeful but aware of the urgency. Both of them needed this episode to succeed; there were no plans in the works to tape any more episodesof Cooking with Gusto! until this program aired live and the ratings were in.

 
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