Licton Springs Review

Our Daily Bread By Melissa Davidson

It’s 11:45pm, time for our eight-hour shift baking bread at the Comfort Soup Kitchen. Robin and I put on our jeans and our t-shirts. She covers her straight, red hair with a blue bandana knotted at her nape. I do the same with my red bandana. The bandanas and the old jeans and t-shirts are the uniform of the women of The Center for the Houses of Hope. It is Evangeline’s job to go to the thrift stores once a month to sort through the sour smelling clothes, the cast-offs of others who don’t appreciate what they have, and bring back what she’s selected for the rest of us. Everything is laundered and doled out to us: the skirts, the jeans, the sweaters, the shoes too tight or too loose. My jeans are soft, a hole worn into the pocket, and a dark stain at the knee. I try not to wonder who has worn them before, what they kneeled on to make this small stain.

The walk to the soup kitchen is short and the August air, even in the middle of the night, is humid and close. Robin is usually yawning the whole way to the kitchen because she is a morning person and can’t get used to these hours. Tonight she is as alert as I am. We are both watching the street, walking faster than we normally would. In the past couple of weeks there have been problems. Two of the younger women have been taken in front of the kitchen. Both times in the morning, on the way into their shifts, shiny black vans slid to a stop. Large, muscled arms reached out and pulled them in, and the vans sped away. We’ve been warned that there are phases when this happens. After Olivia and Lyric were taken, Iris made a special trip to our house to talk to us about it.

Of course those weren’t their given names, any more than April is mine. Renaming isn’t a rule in the Rule Book, but everyone here seems to do it. Who doesn’t want to name themselves? Who didn’t grow up wishing they were Tiffany or Jennifer instead of whatever their parents happened to choose? Studies show the name you are given has an impact on how you grow up, how you’re treated. And if that didn’t turn out so great, and you’re given a second chance, why wouldn’t you rename yourself a name that encapsulates all your hopes, the squeaky clean freshness, the bud of a new beginning? Some girls go a little wacked trying to get it right, as if that new name is the key to fixing everything. There are certain trends: The women of the Bible (Ruth, Sara, Rebecca, Hannah), flowers (Lily, Rose, Violet, Daisy), Greek goddesses (Gaia, Athena, Aphrodite), names you wish your parents had given you instead of the one they did (Tiffany, Jennifer, Brittany), and, lately, unusual words for names (Poem, Wish, Delight). Some of these, like Misty Rose and Sunny Dream, sound like porn names to me, but I don’t mention that. It’s not the type of thing April would bring up.

We make it to the kitchen without a sign of any kidnapping vans. The sidewalk leading to the back entrance is stained and foul-smelling even in the dark emptiness. In the morning, the unfortunate and lost will start to congregate here, waiting for the door in front to open. Some will even come in the early morning hours as the smell of the bread we bake drifts out into the dusky alley. The dining room with its cracked sticky floor and the rickety card tables is dark.

First, we each warm a bowl of leftover soup in the microwave for our dinner. Outside, cars pulse by and occasionally someone is shouting or singing, once banging on the door. But we are safe back in the kitchen, our golden light not visible to those out on the street. The soup is thin and bland. This time it’s vegetable. I can see more of the limp, pale carrots waiting shriveled in the refrigerator, next to the tomatoes and zucchini in such abundance now, gone soft and rotten, then donated to our kitchen. Later in the morning, about the time we are leaving and our loaves of bread are scenting the air piled in crisp golden loaves on the shelf, Ginger will arrive and dump these rotten vegetables into her tasteless broth. She makes the same mistake my mother always did, adding too much rosemary to a base that was only water. She doesn’t sauté the onions and allow them to marry to the broth.

The first days that I came to bake the bread, my eyes darted by habit over the pantry shelves and the inventory in the cooler. I took note of the fruit-flies swirling away from a questionable basket on a high shelf and the layer of dust on the spice rack. Then I stopped. I didn’t show Ginger her mistake. It seemed best for me, in keeping with Rule Three, to become my newer better self. April doesn’t make soup or chateaubriand or cardamom-poached pears.

I used to disdain those who made the bread. In culinary school, I barely passed the baking module. All that fussiness, the delicate care of proper ratios and temperatures. Just to make bread, a filler food, something to sop up the sauce. For April, the humbleness of that started and ended with pushing out fifty loaves of bread every night, night after night. I learned that when I became the bread, the silken flour, the bubbling yeast, the rising and the punching back down, that I didn’t have to remember anything that came before.

Tonight is a good night. The latest batch of flours donated to our cause is weevil-free and halfway fresh. Such a blessing. The high humidity outside makes for some fluffy loaves of bread which will be appreciated by the many diners missing some of their teeth. I worry about them when we get donations of flour that is gritty. Just as I always suspected, any blind fool who can follow directions can make a loaf of bread. But what I didn’t know until I came here was that bread really is the staff of life. Some get by on only this bread and that drink of dishwater Ginger calls soup. And elsewhere, the part that really gets me, all those bread baskets sent back with one bite taken out of one roll, the whole thing tossed into the dumpster for the rats. At Le Cuisine, under my watch, all those day-old Panini and the leaves of bib lettuce that wouldn’t curl into the perfect boat shape were discarded while the hungry lingered at the perimeter of our privileged gastronomical country club.

We leave the kitchen as Daisy and Charmain are coming to open up. Our bandanaed heads nod as we change posts. We are weary in the early morning, as weary as our out-of-date attire. April likes not worrying about if she is dressed right, if she fits in. April likes being like the other women. The old me, the one I no longer name, would not have been caught dead dressing like this. She would have spent the $140 for the properly distressed jeans and felt the guilt like the worst hangover afterward. The attempt to keep the balance, to keep her foot in one world and her conscience in the other would have driven her crazy.

The ladies are in the common room knitting to the fluctuating rhythm of Mary Martha’s vocalizations on the CD player. Our founder sings out about the praise and glory of a new day. Even though this new day is already hot, the women are knitting as fast as they can to make soft scarves that all the children and the street people will need this winter. The piles of yarn, the reds, the greens, the blues, shine out like neon lights against the drab backdrop of the white vinyl floor, the pale skin, and the laps of faded denim. I will wash my face and join them until I go to bed at four. I like to sit with them and listen to Mary Martha sing or Rachel read from the Book of Rules and Meditations. I like to knit! Never thought I’d say that. I like the way the yarn slides through my hands, the way the stitches build and cling to each other until I’ve made a swatch fit to warm someone’s neck, to provide comfort. I know it won’t be lost on the ungrateful, the unneedy.

Iris pulls me aside in the hall before I can get to the bathroom. Our house mother Ruth lives with us, but Iris, who works directly for our founder Mary Martha, checks in several times a week. Her closeness to Mary Martha awes and scares me. While Ruth is one of us, Iris is someone else entirely. She has the same radiance as Mary Martha, what I take to be the same wisdom (of course not as all-encompassing as our great founder), and a certain fresh sweet smell that suggested something other than thrift store jeans, yeast, and Lysol.

“April. Good morning.” Iris’s delicate head with its closely cropped but elegant graying hair turns side to side, and when satisfied that no one else is near, she leans toward me, her voice lowered. “We have a special request of you. An assignment of sorts. A reward, yes. A promotion to show appreciation for your good work.”

I’m confused because I haven’t done anything special. I’ve baked the bread every night. I’ve kept my room clean and read my book. I’ve learned to knit and made the scarves with the other women. I haven’t snuck out to get candy and certainly not cigarettes or alcohol. I’ve been good, yes, but so have most of the others.

“Mary Martha would like you to be her guest at her home so that she can explain your new job.” Iris is quivering with the honor of delivering such an invitation. Mary Martha? I can’t believe it. She comes to us once a week to bring her good word and offer us guidance, but for me to go to her home and have a private meeting with her? Unthinkable! Iris can see my answer on my face. She hands me a paper grocery bag. “Quickly now, get all your things together and meet me in front in ten minutes.”

“But won’t I be coming back?” I think of Robin, the other women, and the scarf of soft pink wool that is one-third complete. I am tired and dirty. I have doughy grease on my skin where my sweat mixes with the flour from the bread I have baked all night.

“There are wonderful things in store for you, April. Always look forward. Forget about the past.” I am a bit shamed then because Iris has had to remind me of Rule Four. We all know better than to look backward, to dig up things that should be allowed to settle, and here I am all set to do just that.

“Ten minutes,” I say and unfold the bag.

The grocery bag is plenty big enough because I am already wearing half my wardrobe. I have another pair of jeans and a t-shirt, one sweater and a sweat suit for sleeping in, a few pairs of underwear and socks. I own nothing else. I need nothing else. It’s more than what I came here with. I used to have so much more. It’s amazing how everything slides away when you don’t appreciate it. How all that bounty runs straight through your fingers.

At Le Cuisine most of the staff were bankrupting themselves on blow. I thought I was so smart because I didn’t go that way. Instead of doing the nose candy, I did our financier’s husband. He had black hair, shiny as oil, and pale, pale skin. He was lean and soft spoken. He didn’t know excess. I admired his ability to chew a spiced prawn at length, to request the smallest cup of soup which he would sip. And perfectly so, the one-and-only thing he could not get enough of was me. Or so I thought. I had everything for awhile, and then I had nothing. Now I am thankful and grateful for the blessing of a grocery bag with clothes in it.

Robin comes in before I leave, and I’m glad to have a chance to say goodbye. Her long red hair is slicked back, dampening the collar of her blue sweatshirt. She sees the bag in my hand and her eyes grow wide.

“I’m leaving, Robin,” I start but she interrupts me.

“Your family?”

“No,” I answer. “I have a new assignment, some kind of promotion. But that’s all I know.”

“I don’t like this.” Robin squeezes her eyes shut. Her hands are shaking. “First, the people in the vans snatching Olivia and Lyric, then Candace transferring out. Something isn’t right here.”

“Enough of that, Robin. Just forget about it. Everything is fine.” I’m ready to go now. I don’t want to leave her upset. “Have faith. Always look forward, forget about the past.”

Iris is waiting in an SUV. I climb in and set the grocery bag at my feet. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in a car. Not since I left my own down in Lincoln Park, the tabs expired and the gas tank empty, the last of my pottery collection in the trunk, too heavy to carry, too difficult to sell. We drive past the Comfort Soup Kitchen and I’m stricken suddenly as I think of my shift tonight. “Who will make the bread?”

Iris smiles. “You’re so responsible, so dedicated. No wonder Mary Martha wants to reward you. All will be taken care of. There will be bread for the homeless tomorrow.”

I haven’t been anywhere other than the soup kitchen in so long. Each city block is a riot of colors, signs looming, and people walking in groups to the same beat. On each corner I can see the ones who would come to our kitchen, who would eat the bread and Ginger’s meager soup. Their cardboard signs and dirty faces are the same as those that camped in the streets near Le Cuisine.

I thought the financier’s husband saw them too. When he lay naked in my bed on my Egyptian cotton sheets, I petitioned him for a program to take the excess from the restaurant and donate it to them. We could open the back door and share our waste that would be so valuable to them. He laughed at me, twisted a hank of my long hair in his fingers and tugged the way he thought I liked it. I slapped his hand away, wanting only to talk about my idea. He suddenly had to leave.

“This job that Mary Martha has for me,” I turn to Iris. “Will it make a big difference for the homeless?”

She turns up the air conditioner, and I shiver, having grown accustomed to the heat of the kitchen, the ever-dense hot air of the house. “Of course. Of course. Mary Martha has a project, and you will be instrumental to its success.”

We drive on the silver bridge over the river, and I look down and see the boats and the sun flashing off the hulls. On the far side the trees are lush in the heat and the grass in the yards deep green and trimmed neatly. The few trees around the soup kitchen are carved with profanities and always smell of ammonia from the urine. The grass grows in ragged clumps between the gravel and the littered soil. I close my eyes and think of my room and its twin beds with the matching brown blankets, the clean white floor, and Robin with her damp hair reading her meditations before falling asleep.

Last week Robin said that if the men in the vans came for her, she would go willingly. I reminded her that she could go anytime she wanted. She paused for a long time. “But I have nowhere to go. I wish my family would come looking for me. I wish I knew they wanted me to come home.”

“We’re your family and you are home,” I said, wanting to stop the tears that were coming to her eyes. We know this kind of talk is unproductive. It distracts us from our real purpose: feeding the poor of our city, knitting scarves and raising money for the needy women all over the world.

“Almost there,” Iris’s voice drew my eyes back open. We were passing the park where I used to fly kites with my brother, driving up the hill with the tree-lined boulevard where my mom said, not resentfully but matter of fact, the rich folks lived. “I’m sure you’re tired. After you meet with Mary Martha, we’ll let you get settled and get a good night’s rest.”

The driveway is wide and paved in cobbles; the house looms up behind it, covered in brick and ivy, copper gutters gleaming, so many windows winking in the sunlight. We pull off to a side drive, and I follow Iris into a door tucked next to a boxwood hedge. My grocery bag crinkles against my stained floury jeans. I blink up at the towering height of the brick, feeling gritty and sleepy. Inside it is cool and smells of vanilla and roses like my mother used to grow against our fence. At the end of a long carpeted hall, Iris opens a door.

“This is your room. Wait and Mary Martha will meet with you.”

There is a thick rug woven in greens and browns lying over a satiny dark wood floor. The full sized bed is thick and high and covered in a summer weight antique quilt. Gauzy curtains veil down from either side of the large window. Outside is a tree, an alder tree that covers half the window. I set down the bag and sit in the leather chair. There is a chef’s coat hanging on the closet door. The fabric is white and crisp. I don’t have to touch it to feel it against my skin, to begin to smell onions and lemons on my hands.

The floorboard creaks and Mary Martha is standing there smaller than I remember her from the meetings. She is wearing tailored pants, a pearl necklace, and lipstick. My hair is lank and my hand rises to smooth it when I see her. I am wishing I had my shower and my other pair of jeans, the ones without the stain. But these are indulgent thoughts, thoughts of someone who would break Rule Six about vanity, and since I am not that someone anymore, I banish the thoughts and smile at Mary Martha.

“Welcome April,” Mary Martha’s voice is softer than when she is preaching to us.

“It’s my honor to be here,” I stand and realize I am taller than she is.

“Sit, sit. The honor is mine. I’d like to reward you for your good service and ask a favor of you. I’d like you to share your good talents with me. Tomorrow night, I am having a dinner for some very important guests. If all goes well they could make a big difference for all the girls, all the needy women that we try so hard to help. Will you help me?” She is asking me kindly, yet rhetorically.

“Yes, Mary Martha,” I wonder what it is I could possibly do.

“I need you to design a menu and prepare it. The same caliber as when you were the chef at Le Cuisine. Something fabulous for these important guests. Can you do it?”

But Rule Four, forgetting the past? Rule Seven, forsaking your evil indulgences?

“Follow me and I’ll show you the dining room and the kitchen.” I tread behind her in my dirty cast off shoes to a sitting room with a fireplace, its stone chimney reaching up two stories. There is a gold and azure tapestry hanging on the paneled wall.

“I want this to be top notch. There’ll be six people total. I’m thinking six courses.” The dining room is intimate, painted a deep gold with sconces lining the walls. There is a sideboard of deep rich wood laden with a silver tea service and a large bowl of frilly white camellias. The table is covered with a white linen cloth starched as crisp as the chef’s uniform. Six chairs, six china plates, and the gobletsÑone for water and two for wine. The silverware laid out in the traditional pattern, the forks for salad, meat and desert. “Canapés of course, just something light, then a soup to start.” She fans her hand at the table. “Of course I have other china and silver if this doesn’t suit you. Iris can show you what I have tomorrow after you’ve worked up your menu.”

Next the kitchen. Mary Martha’s heels click against a floor of immaculate Italian travertine. Wide granite countertops and a sea of stainless steel appliances. The gas stove and the double ovens are an easy rival to the one’s I used at Le Cuisine. On the counter is a block of Wusthof knives and for the first time I think of my knife, my 10.5” drop-forged Global chef knife, my faithful companion. Did I leave it at Le Cuisine, never to return for it? “Next a salad, but something unique. Salads can be so boring. An entrée, no seafood or chicken. Pork or beef, I think.”

Mary Martha has flung open the door to the refrigerator, and my eyes sting with the sight of the fruits and vegetables: clutches of gently-curved, blemish-free hari coverts, a pile of glistening juicy champagne grapes as purple as amethyst, and prized heirloom tomatoes. I reach out and touch one, and the flesh is firm and ripe with just the right amount of spring. “Then a cheese tray followed by dessert. Nothing flaming please.”

Before the pantry door is opened, I detect the distinct earthy fragrance of Italian white truffle. Inside there are rows of spices: whole vanilla beans, hand-picked strands of saffron, and a whole container of fennel powder. There are endless jars of dried beans, grains, and flours. “So that gives you an idea of what I have for you to work with. If you need something else, Iris will take you to the market and the butcher tomorrow. I know you are good with the bread, but I’ll spare you the extra work if you want to have Iris pick up something from the artesian bakery I use. There’ll be a selection of wines. You can meet with Armand, the sommelier, in the morning. No food allergies that I know of. Nothing banal. I’ve eaten at Le Cuisine and expect that standard. Work up your menu tonight. I’ll review it before Iris takes you to the market in the morning.”

Mary Martha escorts me back to my room. I sit in the leather chair for twenty minutes, watching the birds, nuthatches maybe, creeping headfirst down the trunk of the tree. The sun is shining and it is so quiet. I see a row of cookbooks on the shelf. Provided for my inspiration maybe? Cookbooks, huh! I was writing my own cookbook. What had the financier done with the draft I had completed? I know I won’t be cracking these cookbooks open. On the next shelf is a row of Mary Martha’s books: The New Philanthropy, Our Daily Bread, Meditations for a Simple Life. A row of her CD’s: Mary Martha’s Song and Prayer, Songs for Times of Trouble.

The air conditioning is blowing and I am cold, so I crack open the window letting in a pleasant burst of hot air and birdsong. The nuthatch is startled and flies away, but higher up in the tree I can hear the sparrows trilling joyfully. When was the last time I heard birdsong? At the house we have crows and ravens that caw and tussle in the street, fighting over French fries and ketchup packets. I pick up the notebook and pen from the desk and settle back into the chair.

Canapés - something to entice - buckwheat blinis topped with velvety rich seared foi gras and salty king salmon roe in briny bursts. Then a soup, my chance to redeem all those bowls of dishwater that I failed to correct. A savory broth of free range pullet and saffron, those amber strands infusing the liquid a warm orange. The salad, a crispy mound of peppery arugula, tossed in a Meyer lemon vinaigrette. I’ll toast some macadamia nuts from the pantry, and there was a ripe wheel of Maytag blue cheese in the refrigerator.

My stomach growls for the first time in months and months. There is a knock at the door, and a woman in a gray linen dress has a tray. It is two in the afternoon, but the smell of coffee exhilarates me. I haven’t had it in so long. I gave it up with the cigarettes and the booze. And little sandwiches with turkey and crisp cucumber. Cookies soft and chocolately. One bird outside the window, a dove, is cooing. The breeze blows in and brings that sweet smell of roses.

Suddenly I can’t stand my skin, my dirtiness. All these rules I’m breaking. The tall paneled door in my room leads to a bathroom with a claw-foot tub and granite floors. There are soft white towels monogrammed with a flourished MM. I soak and add oils smelling of eucalyptus and tangerine. I see myself at Le Cuisine - my hands chopping celery, carrot and onion, and the mirepoix sizzling in the pan.

The entree will be a crown roast of pork and quince chutney. The quinces are in season now, and if I’m lucky, I’ll find fresh beet greens. And, of course, the starch will be a truffle risotto, my signature dish. Others in the kitchen were jealous of that risotto. They were jealous of a lot of things. They must have reveled in my fall. But everything they said I was I’ve proven I’m not. Unstable, immoral, unkind. April is not any of these things.

I dry myself off and put on my clean jeans and t-shirt from the grocery bag. Back at the desk I thumb through the Almanac of Cheeses. The cheese tray will need four to five selections. Two soft, one medium and two hard. Maybe a local brie. I’ll talk to the cheese monger at the market. With the girls at Mary Martha’s I’ve been solid, solid as can be. If not half dead. I’ve forgotten about birdsong and coffee, about garlic and chocolate.

The dessert: it must have chocolate and liquor. Something baked. A Grand Marnier flourless chocolate torte, drizzled with lavender crme an glace, the only dessert I came out of culinary school with a decent handle on. There’s nothing like a good meal to tantalize the senses, make you feel really alive, in good spirits, and ready to tackle the world. My mouth is watering. I could eat an entire roasted chicken, a whole pecan pie. From the window comes the sound of splashing. I lift the pane so I can lean out and crane my head. I see the corner of the swimming pool. Mary Martha is there, sunning herself in a lounge chair, in a black bikini with her pearls around her neck. A man is swimming toward her, his skin is brown and glistening. His hair slicked back and he lifts himself out of the pool. He strides toward her and bends to kiss her on the neck. I hear laughter as the pool water falls from his hair to her face.

I smell the rosemary of my mother’s soup and see my brother’s kite lifting above the trees. I hear Robin say, “I wish my family would come looking for me. I wish I knew they wanted me to come home.” I think of the walk down the long hallway to Mary Martha’s kitchen, the coolness of the air, the clean smell of mint and the sultriness of the rose bushes. And the treasure inside the pantry and the refrigerator. All that bounty, all that waste.

Tomorrow, tomorrow. I’ll be at the market fingering the hard smooth quince and pressing dimples into the fresh avocado. I’ll sample the camembert and the chevron that the cheese monger offers me. Iris will be right next to me each minute. When we are in line, I will remember that I forgot to get the bundle of lavender. I will run back for it before Iris can stop me, but then I will run past the lavender and the canned soups and toward the birds and the sunshine. Then when I have done that, as soon as I am able, I will go for Robin. I will pull her away, and when she is safe, I will tell her, without shame, that I am Renee Louise Hardy.