Comfort food, p.8
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       Comfort Food, p.8

           Kate Jacobs
 

  Almost.

  Alan Holt began talking as soon as they cut to commercial; there were twenty minutes left before the end of the hour and he was indescribably angry.

  “What the hell has been happening here?” he shouted as he saw the messy kitchen, the spills on the counter, and the haphazard group assembled around the island.

  “Some excellent reality TV,” Porter said drily.

  “I don’t know about this show...” said Alan. “But, look, in the spirit of everything but the kitchen sink, you might as well bring in Carmen.”

  "Why? ” asked Hannah, one of the few words she’d uttered all evening, too busy pretending to look into cupboards to avoid being seen on camera.

  “Because I said so,” replied Alan. “Who is this woman?”

  “My friend,” said Gus.

  “Well, here’s a new friend for you, then,” Alan said, pushing Carmen into the kitchen area as the commercial break drew to a close.

  “Hello,” Carmen said simply.

  “Your jacket crinkles,” responded Gus curtly, touching the silk shantung. Wearing noisy clothes was a real problem with a mike. A pro would know better.

  Carmen hesitated, aware she had only a lacy spaghetti strap top underneath.

  “And ten . . . nine . . . eight ...” Porter was counting down.

  Carmen hastily unbuttoned her jacket. “How about a little skin?” she said, just as the red light went on above the camera.

  “Welcome back, and look who’s joined us,” Gus said. “Because, just like you, sometimes I get a wonderful surprise guest. And tonight it’s Carmen Vega.”

  “Weren’t you Miss Europe?” asked Troy.

  “Miss Spain,” Carmen said through gritted teeth. “I was Miss Spain.”

  “Cool. Do you like basketball? Because coming up after our show we’re all going to watch the game.”

  Carmen didn’t know a thing about basketball but she hadn’t been a beauty queen for nothing. “Oh,” she said sweetly. “I think sports are all about the children. Just getting out there to cheer and shout. It’s wonderful. What’s next on the menu, Gus?”

  Gus was just about finished with the chutney for the salmon cakes when Carmen leaned in.

  “Let’s experiment,” she whispered, as Porter cued them back on air.

  “Gus and I were just talking and we’ve decided to mix it up a bit,” Carmen said to the camera while Gus used all her energies to prevent a scowl from forming. With a flick of the wrist, Carmen had ramped up the seasonings— a little more cilantro, some cayenne, and finally a touch of mint—and then put a clean spoon in to taste. But instead of bringing it to her own mouth, she held it out to Gus.

  “Mmmm,” said Gus, in a practiced voice, not actually paying attention. Tasting the food, after all, was the money shot in the world of food television. Then she actually felt the flavors hit her tongue: the heat of the cayenne, the fresh bite of the mint. “This is divine,” she exclaimed spontaneously.

  And, like a stampede of seven-year-olds waiting for goodies at a birthday party, Troy, Aimee, and Sabrina rushed over immediately.

  “Let me try!”

  “Oh, this is delicious!”

  “I chopped the fruit that went into this, you know. I did it.”

  Although the plating was a little—okay, a lot—sloppy, the group had set out a buffet of salmon cakes, fries, and Kobe beef sliders on toasty rolls by the end of the program.

  "It’s about being merry!” shouted Sabrina, a wee bit tipsy.

  “That’s right,” said Gus, looking intently into the camera. Could this be her final parting words to her viewers after twelve long years in food television? She took a deep breath, picked up a salmon cake in her left hand and a glass of deep red wine in her right. “My friends,” she said, “eat, drink... and be.” She took a bite. And didn’t stop smiling until they were off the air.

  Goodbye, audience, she thought. Goodbye, career. Hello, fifty. Happy birthday to me.

  Gus lay in bed all the next morning, tucked between her sateen sheets, pretendingto sleep. She ignored the phone, certain she was going to hear from reporters, from rivals, from Alan Holt. She pulled her heavy down comforterover her head.

  “I’m taking a snow day,” she yelled, her voice muffled by the fluffy blanket.She popped her head out when she began to feel too hot. Reluctantly she put a hand out to her phone, scrolled through the missed call log. It had been Porter interrupting her all morning. She dialed his number with resignation,waiting to hear the news.

  He got straight to the point. Cooking with Gusto! was officially dead. Kaput.

  Gus felt a lump in her throat.

  And then he dropped a bombshell.

  The CookingChannel had ordered seven episodes of an all-new, all-live program:

  Eat Drink and Be . . .

  Hosted by Gus Simpson.

  And Carmen Vega.

  oil and Water

  7

  What Gus craved Was a week off and a cozy beach cottage near a warm ocean: a chance to relax and savor the ratings victory. And also time to sort out this mess of being forced to have Carmen Vega as a cohost. She’d never had a cohost before, not even when she was a newbie to television and nervously flubbing basic quiche recipes.

  But there was no time for a vacation! There was the new show, Eat Drink and Be, to plan and a budget for a limited run of episodes from the end of April through September already sitting in the coffers. Alan was eager to experiment with showing first-run episodes throughout the summer, and he remained enchanted by his idea of trying out other programs between live episodes of Eat Drink and Be— packaging it as a CookingChannel smorgasbordof “destination television” with traditional taped shows, like the surfer chef, being sandwiched in between the brave new world that was apparently going to be the live Eat Drink and Be.

  On top of it all, they weren’t so far away from almost disappearing—the fear remained fresh—that Porter made it quite clear he didn’t feel in any way compelled to take up her Carmen issues with Alan.

  Which was annoying because Gus couldn’t seem to make her boss come around to her view: Alan had anticipated that she’d be upset and invited her to a delicious lunch at Craft, in which he patiently—paternalistically— listened to all the reasons why she didn’t like Carmen and absolutely, withouta doubt, no way no how, would Gus work with her.

  “I know,” he said after she’d gone on for several minutes, pouring more pinot noir into her glass. “That’s part of what makes it fun for the viewers— it’s rather spicy with the tension between the two of you.”

  Gus was taken aback. “Are you using me, Alan?”

  Alan leaned forward over his plate and looked at Gus with curiosity.

  “No more than you’re using me, Gus,” he said, putting his knife and fork onto his plate and signaling to the waiter. “I don’t pretend to be anything but what I am: a guy who’s worked his ass off to build a place in television. I’m no cook. But I like to eat. I like tasty food. And so do a lot of other folks. I saw a market and a way to sell a product. And now I see the potential for another good product.”

  “The Gus and Carmen Show? ”

  “Something like that.”

  “So it’s all about money, then?”

  Alan frowned and took a long pull from his red wine. He wiped his mouth with his napkin and pushed his chair a few inches away from the table, leaning back.

  “Gus, we’ve known each other a long time. And if you fell and broke your leg, I’d be the first person to bring you a casserole. I like you, Gus. I do consider you a friend.” He cleared his throat. “But it seems you’ve convinced yourself that you’ve been doing me a favor all these years. I guess, as the fellowwho signs your exceedingly large paycheck, that I have rather a different view.”

  An awkward silence developed.

  “So . . .” said Gus.

  “So,” repeated Alan. “You and Carmen will be great together, and on behalf of everyone at the CookingChannel, I want you to
know that we couldn’t be more thrilled about your new program. Shall we?” He dropped the napkin in his hand and stood up to leave.

  If it had been another day, a different conversation, the two of them would have shared a cab back to the studio, where Gus had an informal plan to meet with Porter and Oliver. But it would be too uncomfortable to sit together in the backseat now, making chitchat about the sunny April weather.

  “Oh, I have an errand to run,” she said stiffly, trying to come up with some task in her mind so she wouldn’t be lying. Gus never lied. All we have, she’d always told her daughters when they were young, is our integrity. And good manners.

  And so she thanked Alan for taking her to lunch, even as she choked on every word.

  Hannah Levine Sat at her desk, pouring half a pack of Sweetarts into her mouth. Crunch crunch crunch. As snacks went, it would do. Though it might need a chocolate chaser. The kitchen, spit and polished by a differentMerry Maid each Tuesday—Hannah called each woman “Merry,” as though it were her name—was merely the storage spot for bags of M&M’s, packets of Big League chewing gum, canisters filled to the top with candy corn.

  “You eat too much junk,” Gus said on the nights she popped by with a Gruyère and watercress sandwich or a bit of steamed lemon pepper sole and green beans. Before there had been Gus, with her coffee-and-muffin mornings and her evening surprises, there had been only candy and delivery pizza, the nagging fear that the delivery boy would say those dreaded words: Don’t you look familiar? Or: Hey, aren’t you that girl who ...

  “I need a little sweetness in my life,” Hannah would reply. Nowadays she ordered her candy stash off the Internet, and her pizza came frozen and delivered to the door in a box with cereal, milk, bread, maybe a little cheddar. It was still too much to go to the store, every turn into a new aisle another opportunity to be recognized. This much she had learned: hiding out was much easier when one stayed hidden. And Hannah made it a point never to leave home. She walked a well-worn path to Gus’s house every morning but she hadn’t been out in her own garage, let alone driven her red Miata, in ages. But that’s what one did in the Hannah Protection Program, of which she was the president and only member.

  “No one even remembers,” Gus had chided gently one time, trying to get Hannah to come to a cookbook launch party in Manhattan.

  “No one ever forgets a scandal,” Hannah insisted. It was difficult for someone who hadn’t been publicly embarrassed to understand the sting. That she could still feel it after all this time. Hannah could enjoy good day after good day if she followed her own rules: she stayed put, she never drew attention to herself, she never wrote about sports, she always used her initialson her articles—H. J. Levine—and never her full name. Because she’d once thought as Gus did, had hoped that no one remembered. And then found herself the subject of a “What Ever Happened To . . .” story on cable. This is what she had given up for privacy: dating (though she hadn’t ever had much time for that in her previous life anyway), shopping (clothes had always been sent to her so she’d never had quite the “malling” experience as a teen), and making friends (Gus was the persistent exception). In return she could breathe.

  Even so, she put in an appearance at Gus’s holiday and birthday parties, so sure of Gus’s power to protect her, so sure no one would dare to mention that she looked familiar. It would have been in poor taste to comment on her past troubles, of course. And Gus brought out the very best manners in all her guests.

  Hannah’s devotion to her only friend was strong enough that she had risked everything—her peace, her quiet, her safe seclusion—to help save Gus’s show. What had she been thinking?

  With trepidation she trolled online at her desk, every link a catch in her throat as she read the list of page titles on Google. A lot on Gus. Good, good. Nothing whatsoever about Hannah Joy Levine. Even better. She leaned back in her cushioned gray desk chair, careful not to tip over as she’d done more than once. And the floor was hard, still the original red oak, though worn in places and covered with a series of mismatched rugs. The room was designed to be an eating area though Hannah had never invested in table and chairs. Just a long L-shaped desk she purchased from IKEA more than a decade ago and two televisions mounted to the wall. All the better to watch the news, my dear, she told Gus the first time she let her inside. Hannahdidn’t want to forsake the world. She simply wanted to watch it behind glass.

  The carriage house had been Hannah’s first—and only—major purchase,other than a red sports car, which sat, its battery disconnected, covered under a sheet in the garage. A memento from another time. The compact home had been an investment, a cute little cottage that caught her eye as she drove to practice, her rackets stowed on the seat beside her. She’d bought it eighteen years ago, when she was still a teenager, never imagining that she would show up on the doorstep a short time later, with a suitcase and not much else. In all those years, Gus was the only neighbor who knew her. She didn’t mind. She liked it that way.

  Thinking about the past always made her anxious and therefore hungry. Hannah opened her bottom desk drawer, reached in without even looking. She had her candy stash memorized. Her eyes never veered from the CookingChannelWeb site message boards.

  “Who’s hotter: Carmen Vega or Gus Simpson?” read the title of one thread. Hannah smiled. In one fluid motion she flipped open her cell phone and pushed Gus’s number, while simultaneously ripping open a bag of peanutM&M’s. Her penchant for sweets had never fully impacted her figure: she’d always had a good metabolism, thank God, even at thirty-six years of age. That, and she’d put a treadmill in the guest room instead of a bed. Wasn’t like anyone was going to be visiting her, anyway.

  “Hey, lady, it appears you’ve set the foodie world aflame,” Hannah said to Gus’s hello. “You’ve apparently reached sex symbol status.” With surgical precision, she separated the blue candies from the other colors as she talked. It was a habit left over from long ago, when silly quirks, affected for their own sake, were indulged and entertained. The truth was that all the colors tasted the same to her now.

  “Thank God it’s you—I’m so mad I could poke out Alan Holt’s eye,” said Gus. “Did you eat lunch?”

  “Yes.”

  “I’m sure you did. You’re going to end up with a sugar problem—diabetes or whatnot. I’m not going to let this go on.” Hannah remained silent. It was true that Gus had once—just once—tried to clear out the goodies in the house. The result was the only fight the women had ever had and it left Hannah hysterical, crying on the kitchen floor. It was just that Gus couldn’t help herself: she always had to fix, fix, fix things until she thought they were just right.

  Mercifully, Gus launched right into sharing the details of her lunch with Alan, from the folds of the napkins to the talk of Carmen’s outfits for the show.

  “And I’m supposed to be in a meeting in two hours with Miss Spain,” she concluded. “I had to get away so I’ve made up an errand. I’ve gathered up a little gypsy salami, some smoked provolone, and a jar of black Puglian olives to drop off at the girls’ apartment.”

  “Bad idea.” Hannah slipped a candy into her mouth, only to suck and taste the coating. She’d never chew in Gus’s ear.

  “No, it’s great. Who wouldn’t want to come home to a loaded refrigerator? ” Gus’s breathing was a little louder now, the combination of fast walking, a loaded bag of yummy delights, and wearing a heavy winter jacket under the warming spring weather.

  “Gus, no good ever came of a parent letting herself into her daughters’ home without asking.”

  “It’s not like that,” said Gus. “Besides, Sabrina wouldn’t mind.”

  “Aimee certainly will,” insisted Hannah.

  “Oh, I’m at the building,” Gus said, her voice triumphant. “I might even have time to whip up some brownies while I’m upstairs. Won’t that be lovely?” Hannah knew her friend well enough to know she wasn’t really asking a question.

  The morning had been blissful: cl
ear and sunny. Well, at least it looked that way out the window. Sabrina hadn’t made it out of bed, save for one discreettrip to the bathroom. Her love was still new enough that she liked to pretend she didn’t need to use such things as toilets and deodorant. She’d brushed away her bad breath and shaved, but didn’t shower lest her boyfriendcatch on that her silky smooth bikini line was something other than natural. She’d snuck back into bed without disturbing him, treating him to a breakfast that had been a series of perfect nibbles: fingers and lips and eyelids and earlobes. Who wouldn’t love playing hooky for this? They’d had some juice afterward, returned for a long nap that spilled into the afternoon.Sabrina lay on her right side and watched her boyfriend’s chest rise and fall with his shallow breathing. She put some strands of her deep black hair against his light blond fur, marveling at the difference. He was beautiful.They were beautiful.

  The beginnings of a relationship were what she liked most, when every moment felt tinged with bright possibility, before all the expectation and obligation crept in. She placed her hand lightly on Billy’s white skin, staringat the princess-cut diamond glittering on her ring finger. He’d asked her last night. Soon enough they would find themselves looking at homes and buying sofas and discussing how a dinner fork should feel in a man’s hand. Sabrina had done all of that before. She’d had three previous engagement rings, all returned to the givers, of course. Two of them had been quite alike, in fact, round solitaire diamonds that twinkled and winked in the sunlight. They were more like gift certificates, rings to be exchanged when she and her fiancé of the moment went jewelry shopping together, to pick out somethingshe would like better. The other had been lapis lazuli in sterling silver. That was her very first ring, from Stephen Campbell, her very first serious boyfriend. They were barely twenty-one, had known each other since high school. He’d tried to insist she keep it. Gus made an even bigger fuss that the ring be returned.

  She wished she had it now. Not that she wanted to be with Stephen. She didn’t. She just wished she had some piece of her heart from all those years ago, something she could hold in her hand and say, Yes, this mattered to me. Some way to remember what she’d wanted then.

 
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