(Another chapter in the continuing series about Luna City, Texas: Richard, the so-called bad boy chef, fleeing certain professional and human disasters, has been offered an opportunity to manage the Luna City Café.)
Mindful of Dr. Wyler’s admonition – to appear at the Luna City Café at 10 AM, clean, sharp, sober and dressed, Richard Astor-Hall did not overindulge; that evening, he had a glass or two of the rather nice Texas chardonnay from the bottle in the tiny fridge, which the Gonzalez housekeeping ladies had thoughtfully placed there, along with some milk, a package of bacon, a box of teabags and another of sugar cubes, half a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread. The wine and bread went splendidly with the caldo. He whiled away the remainder of the day trying on the castoff clothing – which generally fitted him well and had the additional and supremely attractive virtue of being clean – and reading Larousse Gastronomique, while wondering what it was that Dr. Wyler had in mind. It was an amazingly restful afternoon and evening, unmarred by the constant buzzing and beeping of his cellphone.
He woke with the sunrise – no, it could not possibly be anywhere near 10 AM – the sunrise was a mere pale primrose band, just above the wooded horizon. Richard dressed hastily in a pair of board shorts and a tee-shirt chosen totally at random. The tee-shirt had FBI written in large letters across the chest, and something below it in smaller letters. Looking out across the deserted campground, he watched a brief pale mist rising like smoke from the river, and noted that one of his erstwhile hosts was out in the goat field, towing a small cart on spindly bicycle wheels. From the manner in which the goats – large and small – were gathering enthusiastically around the cart, Richard assumed that it must contain something which they wanted to eat … and wanted to eat, very much.
He went hastily across the campground, and leaned over the haphazard combination of fence and spindly hedge which enclosed – not very efficiently – the goat pasture.
“Oi!” Richard shouted, and the man with the cart looked up, distracted from the herd of goats, jostling each other for his urgent attention. “I’ve got to be at someplace called the Luna Café at ten of the morning … can you tell me how to get there from here?”
“Better yet,” his informant called back – it was Sefton Grant, in his customary at-home working attire of battered cowboy boots and nothing else. “I can take you there, as soon as I’m done with the kids. We have a regular delivery, mid-morning. When you are ready, just come to the yurt. You can’t miss it.”
“I hope not,” Richard said, but only to himself; a yurt, here in the highlands of Texas.
Twenty minutes later – after affirming the time through the medium of the television set, and having a quick and unsatisfactory cup of tea, Richard switched off the television set. The picture it broadcast was black and white and grainy in the extreme, and the lead story seemed to be a breathless update regarding a fugitive celebrity. The celebrity wasn’t him; Richard didn’t know whether to be relieved or slighted by the lack of interest. He also didn’t know whether to lock the Airstream caravan or not … nothing in it was his personal property at all, strictly speaking, save the chef’s jacket which he was taking with him. Roman Gonzalez had commented that no one locked their doors in Luna City. Richard did make certain that the door was closed all the way, to preserve the delicious coolness inside. Three steps away from the shelter of the metal awning, in the full glare of the morning sun – and it was already hotter than a brilliant English summer day in Bickley.
He walked down a small and winding path that seemed to lead back into a grove of monumental trees – tall trees, with massive trunks and small and dark green leaves. There was musical sound of chimes coming from that direction, and the regular flashing blades of a small windmill at the apex of a weathered metal-frame tower. Cloth banners fluttered from here and there, some of them faded, some of them bright. He passed by a vegetable garden, surrounded on all sides by a tall metal-mesh fence in a surprisingly good state of repair, and … even more surprising, a line of whitewashed square beehives. And in that way, Richard came upon the eccentric and colorful establishment which housed the Grants, their assortment of livestock, and the occasional visiting kin or former commune members. A number of small structures – a metal-sided garden shed, a chicken run and coop made of reclaimed doors and windows, an even more rambling greenhouse constructed of even more reclaimed windows, an Indian teepee, another ancient caravan, with wheels long decayed, a water tank on tall stilt legs, and a towering pile of cut firewood, scattered throughout a half-acre stand of oak trees.
All these structures orbited around the central sun of a towering fabric-covered yurt. Overhead, the windmill turned with a slight metallic clatter, and chickens wandered freely, scratching industriously in the dirt and leaf-mast. A tall white llama looked at him scornfully, and then wandered away – to Richard’s relief. A most extraordinary vehicle sat before the yurt’s single entrance. The front half, all the way back to the first pair of doors looked like – and was, by proof of a large, circular Volkswagen logo adorning it center front – an ancient VW bus. But the back half had been replaced by an open truck bed, and the whole adorned by random free-hand graffiti in brilliant spray-painted designs. It was impossible to tell what color, aside from rust, that this contraption had been originally. Sefton Grant – now more conventionally clad in jeans and an old Grateful Dead concert tee shirt – was loading the back of the bus-truck with flats of eggs, and a box of garden produce. Judy Grant emerged from the caravan with a large jar and a small brown-paper bag in hand. She was dressed – or more accurately – undressed in the Grants customary manner.
“Good morning!” she greeted Richard, and Sefton dusted off his hands on the seat of his jeans. “Up with the chickens, I see – but not as early as our chickens! Seftie-dear, these are for the Abernathys, if you can drop them off as well. And don’t forget – supper tonight is Lentil Surprise. Mr. Hall, you’d be welcome to join us.”
“Got it, Judikins,” Sefton replied, with a notable lack of enthusiasm, as he turned to Richard. “Sure – Judikin’s Lentil Surprise is … unforgettable.” As the combination van-truck bumped down the unpaved dirt track, and Richard tried to keep himself more or less steady in the passenger seat with the aid of a tattered seat-belt, Sefton added, “Yeah, and I wish that she would go ahead and forget the recipe … but wish in one hand, and cr*p in the other; see which hand fills up first. That’s what the damned stuff tastes like, too.”
“My sympathies,” Richard offered. “I’ll consult Larousse Gastronomique, and see if there is some tastier surprise one can achieve with lentils.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Sefton answered. “As soon as I drop all this off, I’m driving over to Karnesville and grab a double-bacon-cheeseburger at the Dairy Queen.” He winked at Richard and added, “Keep my secret, ‘kay?”
“My lips are sealed,” Richard assured him. The motley van-truck emerged from the dusty farm track, and onto a narrow paved road – which, within a few hundred feet, went from pastures and cultivated fields – of something, Richard wasn’t the least certain – to scattered houses, surrounded by ragged lawns and gardens ornamented with items like planters made from inside-out truck tires.
“This is the short-cut into town,” Sefton explained. “Straight on to the right, there’s the high-school … and one block past the lone oak, there’s Town Square.” Sefton carefully edged the van-truck around a gargantuan oak, sprouting inexplicably from the center of the road.
“Singular place to have an oak tree,” Richard commented, and Sefton replied,
“Well … folks around here, they loved these big oak trees. When they platted out the town, the story is that Old Antonio Gonzalez swore that if they cut down any of the big old oaks, than town would only last for as long as the stumps rotted. They’d already lost the railroad, through Bessie Wyler running off with an engineer on the GH&SA. Ol’ Antonio, he knew his curses, so they say, and folk hereabouts didn’t want to take a chance of them sticking. Ah … here we are. A mountainous pile of capitalist-pig enterprise, but … hey, we do what we can.”
Richard regarded the pleasant tree-grown square with mild pleasure. This was so much better than what he had half-expected. When Dr. Wyler mentioned that the Café was on something called Town Square, Richard had automatically assumed some barren and charmless concrete square rimmed with geometrical shop-fronts in brutal Bauhaus modern style, all plate glass windows, a few discouraged sapling trees with uncomfortable bench seats underneath them, and a fountain; a plain geometric shape with a formless metal turd in the center. The aspect before him was the complete antithesis of that dismal late 20th century urban vision; a sweep of lawn underneath the heavy branches of ancient oaks, crowned with a tall domed bandstand in the center, and late Victorian storefronts on three sides, all lavishly ornamented with balconies, window pediments and colorful brick and tile work. The building on the fourth side of the square took up the entire block and sat a little way back from the sidewalk. A playground – with swings and slides, and yellow squares marked out on the paving for games – made the letters across the porch reading “Luna City Unified School District” entirely redundant. Sefton turned to the left, and drove around two sides of the square, before finally parking. Gold block letters on a pair of tall old-fashioned shop windows spelled out Luna Café & Coffee. A number of tables surrounded by chairs were arrayed in the shade of a hefty wooden awning which covered nearly all the sidewalk.
“This is it,” Sefton announced, rather unnecessarily. “And you said ten? I see Doc Wyler is already waiting for you.”
Yes, there was the old veterinarian, sitting at a table just inside. Richard sighed inwardly. He had not felt quite like this since he was at school and summoned to the headmaster’s study. He took up the folded chef’s jacket and sauntered inside, assuming a confidence he did not really feel. Two women and another young man shared Dr. Wyler’s table, but otherwise the place was empty. A small ice-chest sat at their feet. The younger woman was the sandy-haired young woman with her hair in cowgirl plaits – the girl who had been at the campground the day before. A handbag large enough to be a briefcase hung from the back of her chair. Richard did not want to recall the embarrassing moment of that previous meeting. The older lady, impeccably turned out in an old-fashioned rayon shirt-dress with matching hat, gloves, and handbag, looked as if she just come from a fashion-magazine shoot for a publication featuring vintage clothing for the geriatric set.
“Ah … good of you to join us, Mr. Astor-Hall; take a pew – you’ve already met my financial advisor, Jess Abernathy, I think. This is my business associate, Leticia McAllister, and Christopher Mayall – a good person to know.” Dr. Wyler rose, and gestured Richard to a chair, whereupon the young man stood, stuck out his hand and said, “Take mine – I gotta get back to the Icehouse. Just call me Chris, Mr. Hall.”
“I think I owe you for groceries,” Richard said, and Chris Mayall shrugged. He looked to be about Richard’s age, gangly and smooth-faced, the light-brown color of excellent café-au-lait. “Pay when you can,” he replied. “I know where you live. Miss Letty, you promise you call me when you’re done, and I’ll come get you,” he added, and to Richard’s utter astonishment, he leaned down and dropped a brief and chivalrous kiss on the back of Miss Letty’s raised hand.
“You’re a good boy, Chris,” Miss Letty replied, and Richard wondered if his eyebrows were up in his hairline already. He took the seat indicated, and Dr. Wyler got straight down to the point.
“Your papers say that you’re a chef, son – Paris-trained and all that. Well, we here in Luna City may live in a bitty little town in the sticks, but we got newspapers, TV and the internet, too. We heard tell that got yourself into a pickle in your life … well, we here in Luna City, we’ve got ourselves a situation, too. This here little enterprise is crying out for lack of a good chef, since those bastards at Mills Farm …”
“Language,” Miss Letty interjected in a warning tone of voice.
“Sorry, Miss Letty.” Dr. Wyler didn’t sound particularly contrite. “See here, Mr. Hall – this place is the heart of Luna City. Sit here long enough, you’d see everyone you know in town. It’s the only place to get a decent cup of coffee without driving to Karnesville … and the only place aside from the Icehouse, and Pryor’s Good Meats BBQ where you can get a bite to eat. The Icehouse does hot grill sandwiches in the evenings, and Pryor’s is only open on weekends. We can only get along for so long on Costco cinnamon rolls and Little Debbie cakes. Hell, if that’s what people want, they can get it at home, or out at the Icehouse. You told me that you liked cooking for folks? I’d consider offering you a position straight off the bat, but Miss Letty is the skeptical sort and don’t know you from a hole in the ground. So … we thought we’d ask you to audition. Fix us a lunch.”
“Sole meunière,” Miss Letty announced. “With a green salad, and everything scratch made.”
Richard gaped at them, and Dr. Wyler indicated the ice chest at their feet.
“There’s two pounds of New England sole filets in there – I had ‘em flown in overnight on ice. Butter, parsley, lemons. Everything you need is in there or back in the kitchen. Sefton just brung in the salad greens, so – if you want to acquaint yourself with the kitchen facility, give yourself an hour and a half. Dazzle us with your Paris-trained brilliance, and the job is yours. And,” he added, with a faint touch of menace. “I’ve et meals at five-star places and in Paris in my time; don’t even think you can fool this ol’ Texas cowboy.”
“You might also want to reconsider your shirt,” Jess Abernathy murmured. It was the first time she had spoken.
“It says FBI,” Richard answered, utterly baffled. “I thought the FBI was something you Yanks were in favor of…”
“Do not, if you value your possible future career here,” Jess Abernathy replied, with an edge in her voice that one could have sliced carpaccio on, “Refer to us as Yanks, or even Yankees …”
“My Grandfather Arthur Wells was a Confederate man,” Miss Letty put in. “And he would have called you out for insult, on that account alone – although likely he would have made allowances for a foreigner.”
“Read the small print,” Jess Abernathy sighed. “Really – so many of my clients could have been spared by reading the small print.”
Richard looked down at his own upper abdomen, baffled by not being especially skilled at deciphering upside-down lettering. “So, what does it say?” he asked, being fairly certain that he did not want to hear the reply.
“Female Body Inspector,” Jess answered. No … not an answer that he wanted to hear. Good thing he had the chef’s coat with him. In silence he put it on and picked up the ice chest, while Miss Letty nodded in grim approval.
“Lunch will be at 11:40 precisely,” he said, silently committing what he had left of his soul to his Maker, knowing that the two geriatrics at the café table likely had first call on his mortal backside.
Now, to investigate the mysteries of the café kitchen, behind the door at the back; he had to admit, not bad, not bad at all. There was only the one gas range, but it was a massive one, with ten burners and two ovens. The refrigerator – a three-door model – was equally massive. Walk-in freezer – very good; he tested the door. Alas, the freezer was nearly empty. So was the refrigerator, save for two flats of eggs and the box of vegetables which Sefton Grant had placed within. The racks of dry storage was a little better; oh, good. The array of pots and pans, not quite so good, but … eh, he could deal with it. A massive Hobart mixer – Richard felt his spirits rising. Pastries and breads; he always liked making them, and that was one of his strong suits. Cinnamon rolls … Dr. Wyler had mentioned commercial cinnamon rolls. The commercial dishwasher was humming away, so there was proof already that someone was minding the shop.
“I can do better,” he said, aloud.
Knives … that was sad. Nothing had a good edge. Where to begin? Find the knife sharpener. And within another ten minutes, Richard was agreeably lost, swimming in his own element, doing that which he loved best. Not even the pretty, dark-haired young woman who came in with a tray of dirty cups and plates to feed into the dishwasher could entirely break his adamantine concentration.
“You the new cook?” she asked, interested. “Your coat says Carême – I’m Araceli Gonzales, and boy, am I glad to see you! I’ve been holding down the fort since the last guy quit, and I’m about run off my feet.”
“Chef,” Richard corrected her.
“Chef Carême … that’s a cute name – you’re new in Luna City, aren’t you?”
“I am but recently arrived,” Richard agreed, absently. “Araceli, my darling, your devotion to duty is doubtless appreciated. And now would you be so kind as to set three places for luncheon at the table by the window?”
“On it, Chef Carême,” she answered, with a becoming show of enthusiasm.
“Thank you, Araceli … and if there is such a thing as proper linen napkins in this establishment, please use them. Fine food deserves the best.”
“If there isn’t, I’ll find them,” Araceli promised. “Say, Chef Carême … you talk a bit like that TV chef that my grandma likes. Are you related to him?”
“Probably not,” Richard answered, concentrating absolutely on properly browning the butter. Oh, yes – it was coming together nicely. And service for only three and the same entrée? Piece of cake; he set the browned butter aside, and went to explore the food storage shelves and the refrigerator again. Olive oil, lemon juice, a dash of Dijon mustard and a quick grind of pepper; the salad greens wouldn’t need much other than their own exquisitely fresh selves. “Gilding the lily,” Richard said to himself. Alone in the kitchen, he liked talking to himself. Sammi once asked him why he did that; his reply of “Because it’s the only chance I have of an intelligent conversation,” was not received well. Just as well they had broken up. Sammi was spectacularly gorgeous, but wit had never been her strong suit.
Alone in the kitchen, absorbed in the moment: that was where he liked to be. Providing food was not just one of those needed things; it was an art, a calling, and at that moment, Richard realized how he had been so badly distracted into becoming something else … a clown, fretting and strutting upon a stage. No, never again – here, in this neglected café kitchen in a small town that no one had ever heard of – this was the pure, unfiltered experience of creation and skill, merged together. Everything else prepared and in readiness – lemons sliced, parsley chopped; Richard opened the last package in Dr. Wyler’s ice-chest; the filets of sole were excellent; fresh, nearly odorless, and expertly trimmed. His spirits rose again, and he became wholly lost in the simple art of haute cuisine … the portion-sized fillets dipped into milk and then dredged in flour. 11:35 of the clock; Araceli arrived in the kitchen, panting slightly from exertion.
“There weren’t any cloth napkins, Chef Carême … so I took some funds from the register, and went and bought some at Abernathy’s.”
“Good,” Richard hardly heard her. “Wine, damn it … only lunch, but wine! A nice white: Crisp and not too sweet. God … I miss having a good sommelier! That bitch Sammi ran away with him, poor chap; he doesn’t know what he is getting into …”
“Dr. Wyler is on it, Chef,” Araceli assured him. “He has a bottle that he brought with him.”
“Open it,” Richard commanded. “Let it breathe … glasses! White wine glasses … God!”
“I already put them out,” she replied, slightly reproving. “You shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain, Chef Carême. It’s not approved of, around here.”
“My dear Araceli, you would hear worse in any high-class kitchen in the capitals of the world,” Richard replied, feeling slightly waspish and out of the mood, even as he said it. For some reason, Araceli reminded him of someone … oh, yes; Berto and Abuelita Adeliza. They must be related. He turned the sole fillets, and viewed the delicate brown and mottled crispiness of their top sides with relief. “Plate the salads. If we are going to work together, you must know how I want things done.”
“And how do you want things,” Araceli ventured. “Since we are not in the capitals of the world?” Richard fixed her with the ferocious glare which on many previous occasions had reduced kitchen and wait-staff to hysterical tears and screaming death threats.
“Perfectly!” Richard barked.
With aplomb, Araceli straightened her shoulders and glared back at him. “Whatever you say, Chef Carême; Perfect it will be, then.”
“I like you, Araceli,” Richard replied, obscurely pleased that she hadn’t crumbled. “You have something resembling a spine. Here – we have hungry guests. See to them.” He plated the three portions of sole, sprinkled each with a careless dash of chopped parsley, a little dab of brown butter, and a judicious squeeze of lemon, and Araceli carried them away on a large tray. When she returned, the tray under her arm, they both watched from behind the kitchen doorway.
A sudden question popped up in Richard’s mind, and he whispered,
“Araceli, you speak Spanish, do you?”
“Well, of course,” she replied with heavy sarcasm.
“What does ‘Él tiene un buen culo’ mean?”
Araceli giggled. “Nice ass. Not the donkey sort … They like your fish, I think,” she breathed. There was no need for either of them to hear the words, the attitude and what they could see of the faces of Jess, Miss Letty and Dr. Wyler said it all.
“Of course,” Richard replied. “It was perfect … Ah; the Doctor wishes a word with me.”
Wiping his hands on a towel, he approached the table. “I trust that your meal was satisfactory?”
“Don’t be such a snot,” Dr. Wyler grunted. “Of course it was – only the best damn meal I’ve set down at at years. You’ve got the job. Sit down; I’m getting a crick in my neck looking up at you.”
Richard obeyed – not that he had been in any particular doubt. Jess Abernathy took out a manila folder from her briefcase and pushed it across the table at him. “Everything you need is in there,” she said. Dr. Wyler continued,
“I can’t authorize hiring more staff until the Café turns in more of a profit, so if you can manage with Araceli – more power to you. The place has always done breakfasts. Coffee and pastries at mid-morning, hot sandwiches and soups for luncheons; not much call for suppers, but if and when demand justifies it, I suggest Friday and Saturday evenings only. Most folk here have jobs, and prefer eating supper at home during the week. Jess has given you a monthly budget to get started with on that basis – just bare bones. Includes your salary, too. I know it’s not what you’re accustomed to, but …”
“I’ve already made up my mind to take it,” Richard answered.
“Good. Araceli!” Dr. Wyler bellowed and she popped out of the kitchen.
“Another glass for Richard here – I want to drink a toast to the management with the last of this.”
And with that, Richard Astor-Hall became a Lunaite, a mere thirty-six hours after arriving.