“Does Shade run this all by herself?” I asked as we began to dig in the food.
“Yep, it’s her kitchen,” Fabio answered with a mouth full of rice. I saw him eying my fish. He wasn’t trying to be overly obvious, but he wasn’t hiding it either. I smiled and moved my fish to his plate.
“I owe you,” I said. Fabio nodded his head as he stuffed another spoonful of rice into his mouth. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be getting enough food for a while. It didn’t really bother me, anyone who could help me forget was worth it.
We ate in the relatively quiet atmosphere of the cafeteria. There was talking, but it was all subdued and very cordial. Not what I expected at all. Fabio informed me Shade wouldn’t allow raucous behaviour in her cafeteria. I looked back at Shade and wondered how she could possibly stop a ruckus if it started. Everyone just seemed to accept her iron rule here.
I was watching Fabio enjoy his fish at the end of the meal. Enjoying was an understatement. He was in ecstasy. He savoured every bite, and his eyes glossed over. His joys were simple and this was one of his favourites.
“So, what are you doing here, Frank?” Shade had sat down next to us without me noticing. I jumped a bit in surprise. I figured I would stick with the lie I started with.
“Financial problems,” I answered. I wondered if I smelled as bad as Fabio. If so, Shade didn’t seem to mind. She just looked at my face as if trying to figure out something. Her dark eyes seemed to penetrate past my lie and I sensed she didn’t believe me.
“You’re not buying Fabio’s freedom of the streets crap are you?” Shade smiled sweetly at Fabio as she said it. Fabio was still lost in his second fish and seemed oblivious to the teasing insult. For some reason I didn’t feel like lying to her again. There was something about how she presented herself that just made it feel wrong.
“Right now, yes,” I answered honestly, “it’s kind of refreshing.” Fabio was nodding as he relished another mouthful of the fish. He was more aware of the conversation than I gave him credit for. Shade rolled her eyes and gave me an expression just short of disgust. I suddenly wanted to take my answer back and try again.
“You owe Fabio?” Shade asked, nodding toward the fish monster.
“Yes,” I answered quizzically.
“Then you take his five days,” Shade said as she rose, “I’ll see if I can change your mind. Be here tomorrow morning at nine; don’t be late.” Shade headed off before I could respond. I was shocked by the authority she just assumed she had. Fabio smiled with a mouth full of fish.
“We’re even,” Fabio said, obviously pleased with the turn of events. I looked after Shade, her skirt swinging from side to side as she headed toward the serving line. She walked with authority that no one seemed to question. She inspected the line, and was pointing out things while workers hustled to make everything right. Not what I expected at all.
It was a chilling morning, doubly so since I had to leave the shack, my new abode I share with Fabio, before the sun was above the buildings. I made it to the City Kitchen well before nine or at least Fabio said I would be early. I was stamping my feet on the steps, and hugging myself when I heard the door begin to open.
“You’re going to have to collect better clothes if you want to make this your lifestyle,” Shade said, while waving me in. “You’re early,” she commented.
“Don’t have a watch,” I responded as I stepped into the warmth. It was the first time I had needed a watch since I threw it in the river. She locked the door behind me and started walking to the dining area expecting me to follow. I followed like a dog.
“The door to the right,” Shade instructed while pointing to the far wall, “leads to a shower room. There is a wash basin to wash your clothes and a dryer. Clean up, and we’ll get started in about an hour.” She turned, and headed back toward what I expected was the real kitchen area. She left no room for dissent.
“What if I say no?” I asked. Might as well find out how this all works. I wasn’t used to feeling like someone’s slave. Shade turned around and looked at me with a calm glare.
“If you’re not clean, you can’t touch the food,” Shade stated firmly, “if you can’t help, we won’t like each other.” Her hands found her hips and she stared at me. I almost came back with a smart-ass remark, but couldn’t find the courage. She was very imposing for such a petite woman.
“Clean it is,” I said cheerfully. I really didn’t want Shade’s ire. I had a strange feeling it would be a costly thing to behold. Shade just turned and continued on her previous path.
The shower room was large. I guessed the building must have needed it in its prior life. It was set up like one you might find in an old dormitory. A row of sinks, a hall of toilets and a large, open shower room with five shower heads. In the sink portion, there was a utility basin with an old dryer next to it. I followed Shade’s instructions.
I stripped down and threw my clothes in the basin. There was detergent above the faucet which I used to scrub the clothes. The water turned a nasty shade of tan as I washed. I guess five days in the same clothes does that. I rinsed the clothes as best I could and went to toss them in the dryer. The dryer held a towel that I guess was meant for me. I exchanged the towel for my clean, but wet, clothes and put the dryer on a one hour cycle.
Above one of the regular sinks was a set of hotel toiletries sitting on the metal tray below the mirror. The tray held a cheap plastic-wrapped toothbrush and comb, along with a small bar of soap, a tiny toothpaste tube and a mini shampoo. I didn’t recognized myself in the mirror. My thick dark hair, which hadn’t been combed in five days, was disheveled, and it stuck out in strangely. I was sporting the beginnings of a sparse beard, and I was shocked to see some of it coming in grey. I had never had grey hair before. My face was basically filthy with streaks of oily dirt where I had wiped it with my dirty hands. I had aged ten years in five days. Dolapo would have been pissed.
I grabbed the soap and shampoo and headed to the shower. I scrubbed myself thoroughly and then repeated the process a couple more times. I closed my eyes with my head under the warm shower and tried to see Dolapo again. She was there, missing the perfection I could once see. I hated losing that perfection, but it wasn’t ripping me apart as before. I knew I wouldn’t be jumping off any more bridges. I also knew I wouldn’t be returning to my old life. The mirror convinced me Fabio didn’t have the answers either. I owed him five days, so that’s how long I had to figure out things. At least Shade had my day planned for me. I really didn’t want to think any more.
I dried off, combed my hair and brushed my teeth. I felt slightly more normal. I lost a little portion of the freedom Fabio had tried to instil. It was replaced with a desire to do something. I just wish I knew what that something was. I looked at my scraggly baby beard and wished I had a shaver or shaving razor at least. I didn’t like the grey hairs, Dolapo would have hated them. I remembered trying not to shave on Sundays.
It was just a lazy thing, to make Sunday a do-nothing day. Dolapo nixed it almost immediately. I remember her sitting me in a chair, then straddling me and shaving me herself. We made love like teenagers that day, me promising never to not shave and her promising to shave me personally if I reneged. The memory brought a mixture of tremendous love and horrible sadness. A potent mix that always caused tears. I wished I had a razor.
I spent another twenty minutes with my memories while I waited for the clothes to dry. I washed out my towel and exchanged it with my clothes in the dryer. I set the dial for thirty minutes on the dryer and fired it up. I walked out a clean man.
“A bit better,” Shade commented as I entered the dining hall. She was obviously waiting for me to emerge. “Let me see the hands,” she ordered. I held out my hands with a small roll of my eyes. She ignored my eyes and looked closely at both sides of my hands with special attention to the nails.
“Take the chair off the tables,” Shade ordered. I assumed she had accepted the cleanliness of my hands since she didn’t make me rewash them. “Tuck them under, equidistant apart. Don’t move the tables, they are exactly where they belong. Meet me in the backroom when you’re done.” She headed off with a purpose. I looked at the legs of the tables and the north sets of legs were lined up perfectly on a tile line. The northeast leg of each table was on a tile corner. Shade may be a perfectionist.
I lowered the chair and tucked them under and scooted them to make sure they were equally spaced. I walked around when I was done and adjusted a few, so the chair lined up with the tables in the same rows. I rechecked each table to make sure it hadn’t moved. Then I went into the backroom. I had no idea how Shade got me to be so anal about tables and chairs.
I walked into the backroom, one of the cleanest kitchens I have ever seen. All the stainless steel sparkled and everything seemed to have a place. There were no utensils or pots and pans lying out. Even the tiled floor looked spotless. Shade was sitting on a stool, working with a set of papers. She looked up as I walked in and pointed to an apron and scarf that had been laid out on the counter. I donned both.
“That’s the hand wash,” Shade said, as she pointed at a small sink along the wall. “Push the lever with your leg and wash your hands. Before you touch any food or anything that will touch food, you wash your hands. Tissue paper is in there next to it.” She went back to her papers, making notes on one of them.
I was a little surprised not to see anyone else working. I moved over to the sink and washed my hands. It seemed a little over-the-top since I had just gotten out of the shower. I guess I touched some chairs, but I assumed they were strictly sanitized like the rest of the place. I was drying my hands with the paper towels when Shade looked up again.
“There are tomatoes over there in the store,” Shade said and pointed to the large steel door, “they are on the left side, second shelf. Bring out two baskets and set them on the floor by the sink.” She indicated the large sink with the high curved faucet. She then went back to her papers. I started to walk toward the store and decided my silent obedience was a bit much.
“By the way, good morning, Madam Shade,” I said with a tiny bit of smart-ass. I kept moving toward the store so she couldn’t find fault. Shade surprised me by looking up briefly with a smile.
“Good morning, Frank,” Shade replied and returned to her work. I guess authoritative regimes could be cordial. I found it pleasing to make the great leader smile — my little bit of rebellion for the morning.
I hauled the two baskets of tomatoes out to the sink. They were a bit heavier than I had thought so it took two trips.
“Place the baskets properly, then, wash your hands again.” Shade didn’t look up from her work this time. I sighed as I placed the baskets properly and washed my hands again. Shade rose from her work and washed her hands as well. “We never allow our skin to touch the food,” she instructed as she dried her hands, “We always use latex gloves; I’m guessing you will want the large ones.” She pulled a pair of small, disposable latex gloves from a rack mounted on the wall next to the sink. I grabbed a pair of large.
“Start washing the tomatoes.” Shade’s motions were practiced as she blindly grabbed a metal sieve from the wire shelf above our heads. “Both baskets need to be prepared. Rinse, core, slice then chop. She walked off to grab some more tools for the job as I began rinsing the first batch of tomatoes.
Shade returned with a cutting board and a pair of small clawed spoons. She deftly maneuvered, with her feet, a wheeled garbage can over toward the sink. “Touch the garbage can and you need a new set gloves,” she warned. She retrieved a wet tomato from the large metal sieve and showed me how to take out the small hard core at the top with the clawed spoon. The core went into the can and the tomato onto the cutting board. We started cutting the tomatoes together. She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.
…to be continued