The Summer Kitchen
Here is what I think of when I remember our time in California.
I was twelve and it was summer and the power got shut off. I followed Mom as she walked through the house flipping switches and pressing the power button on the TV. After the boys’ room, she stopped suddenly in the hall. “Fuck,” she muttered and then she closed her eyes and put a fist hard to her forehead for a long moment before calling, “Meg?” She hadn’t realized I was there.
“Yeah,” I said.
She turned. “Oh,” she said. “All right, well, come on.”
We pulled two coolers from the basement and rinsed them out with the hose, then coasted the Chevette down the winding hill to the Woodacre general store and Mom paid for bags of ice with coins and sweat-soft dollar bills. Back home we took what we had—milk, butter, American cheese, a cellophaned mound of ground beef—from the fridge and dug them into the white frozen hunks.
“Grab that chicken,” Mom said to me, and we went outside where she dragged a rusty old barbeque from the shadows of the carport into the afternoon light of the driveway. She cleared the junk from the workbench we never used in the year and a half we’d lived there and placed upon it her two cutting boards. I was the oldest and was allowed to bring her the knives. The boys, Ben and Garrett—nine and seven—did what was asked of them, but quickly retreated to the back corner of the carport, where Garrett watched Ben work his Gameboy and awaited his turn, which as often as not, never came.
We lived in the woods of Marin Country that year, having moved from Chicago ostensibly for a job my father got. That job didn’t last long, three months, and I soon got the impression that it was never meant to last longer, that he’d misrepresented the opportunity even to Mom, brought us across the country on false pretenses. I never got all the details, only the broad strokes which came via the nightly arguments between my parents. It could be my father thought we might become wealthy just by being around all that Marin wealth, as if success were a mere product of proximity, and I guess sometimes it is, but this didn’t prove to be the case for us. After a couple months on the dole, my father took a low-paying position doing the books for a horse stable in Nicasio and Mom started working a few nights a week at a bar. It was never enough, and there we were, a gaggle of water-treading foreigners in one of the most wealthy and strange places in the world.
The house we rented sat atop a hill, at the peak of a curve in the road as it looped back down the other side. The road had two names that changed right there at the apex, so that as you drove it you went up one street and down another. There was always some confusion about which side of the peak the house sat on, and so it ended up having two addresses, one for one street name and one for the other. We got mail for each. Whenever someone asked me where I lived, I never quite knew how to answer.
In the carport, Mom scrubbed at the rusted barbeque grill with a sponge and then with a metal spatula. I followed her into the shadowy house where she ran the tub faucet over the grill, rust and blackened old bits of meat leaving a ring around the bottom curve of the porcelain.
Back outside, a screen door banged and Evelyn, the neighbor from across the street, came our way. Mom and Dad, as far as I knew, had scarcely ever spoken to her, and we children never. She was stout and wore a great wool Navaho-style poncho draped over her front and back, as if the temperature—near ninety, it must have been that day—were of no concern. Her long gray and black hair was parted down the middle. Our father had told us that she was heir to a massive fortune, that her family had a name and that they owned a national chain of clothing stores. He said this with such awe, such bald envy, that even as a child I could detect the disappointment in his own life that permeated the words.
“A barbeque,” she said, crossing the street.
“Hello,” Mom said. We children, scared of Evelyn for vague reasons, stayed to the back of the carport. “Our power’s out,” Mom said. “Is yours?”
Evelyn turned back to her dusty old clapboard two-story. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Though I might have just not noticed.”
“Probably not,” Mom said. “I just want to be sure. If it was just us.”
Evelyn’s eyes turned to the prep station Mom had rigged on the old workbench. “A summer kitchen then,” she said in a delighted tone.
“Sorry?” Mom said. A Midwesterner. Apologies in her nature.
“We had one growing up. A little spot out back for cooking when it got too hot to cook inside. This was back in Pennsylvania.” She stepped closer. “Chicken,” she said.
Mom nodded, pulled open the bag of charcoal, and dumped the briquettes into the metal basin.
“I’ve got some beautiful veggies, if you’d like them,” Evelyn said. “I won’t get to all of them. Andrew brought them home from god knows where. Bags and bags. Tomatoes. Asparagus. Mushrooms.”
Mom looked up at her. “We couldn’t.”
“You’d be doing me a favor. Really. I’m not going to get to them.”
“Well, I guess if you’re sure you won’t use them.”
“No, no,” Evelyn said. “What am I going to do with seven pounds of cremini mushrooms?”
“Seven pounds,” Mom said. “Boy.”
“And the tomatoes—probably twelve pounds.”
“It’s completely ridiculous.” A breeze came through and for the smallest moment the heat was broken. Evelyn’s face rose into a smile. “I know what we’ll do,” she said. “We’ll jar them. It’s so silly I didn’t think of it. I was just going to give it all away raw, but how much nicer to have jars of beautifully done veggies. Have you jarred before?”
“I haven’t,” Mom said.
“We’ll prepare everything out here and then use your kitchen for the jarring. Mine is a wreck. We’ll do it all this afternoon and divvy up the spoils. What do you say?”
Mom had a smear of charcoal down her jawline, and it lifted into her cheek as a smile came across her face. I wondered how long it had been since she’d smiled like that. I knew part of it was the food. We could use it. But now, looking back, I wonder if it wasn’t more about the prospect of doing something new, something productive.
“Okay,” she said. Then she turned to me. “Give her a hand, Meg.”
Evelyn led the way across the narrow road without any regard for what danger might come careening around the blind curves on either side of us—not that too many people had occasion to come up to the top of our hill. Still, I scurried to keep up with our neighbor.
Evelyn’s house was bigger than the one we lived in, and probably older. The exterior was clad in dingy white boards and the roof in green-black shingles. The yard abutted the woods and there was nothing there, no fence or stone wall, to mark the line between the domestic and the wild. The patchy grass simply grew higher at the edges and shrubs appeared and then trees and then you were somewhere else. A rickety bamboo birdcage had been left to roll in the grass at the behest of the wind. Next to the storm door, leaning up against the house, was what looked to be the weather-worn husk of an old china cabinet, the glass missing from its doors. We made our way to the front of the house and Evelyn hoisted herself up three stairs and held the screen door open for me.
“I’ve been meaning to clean up,” she said as I crossed the threshold.
What I found inside was not trash, per se, not plates of rotting food and baskets overflowing with used tissues, but rather a breathtaking accumulation of things. They entryway was taken up by stacks of boxes, so many that the door opened just enough for Evelyn to shimmy through sideways. In the front room, chairs, perhaps eighteen or twenty of them, had been flipped and stacked and piled along the far wall. Three tables took up the rest of the room, their surfaces crowded with towers of books, loose papers, and more unmarked cardboard boxes. Rolled-up rugs sat beneath the tables and at least two were laid out flat, one on top of the other. The curtains drawn, a dim yellowish light permeated the space.
We came to the kitchen and Evelyn said, “Bit of a mess,” not quite to herself, not quite to me. Most of the cabinet doors were open, displaying cityscapes of cereal and instant rice boxes, towers of cans. Flies bumped into the window above the dish-filled sink. She said, “Andrew—my son—he works so much and I depend on him to help me tend to the house.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I like your house.”
“You’re sweet,” she said. Then, “I might have a seat for a moment.” She gingerly made her way to a chair at a small round table in the corner. The table, like the counters and everything else in the room, it seemed, was crowded with papers and books and kitchen utensils.
“What does your son do?” I asked.
“He’s an artist. A sculptor. He uses objects he finds around. I guess there’s little confusion about where this interest comes from.”
“He lives here?”
“Oh, yes. He’s my baby boy. I’m not letting him go without a fight. I take care of him and he takes care of me. But he sometimes stays at his studio in San Anselmo. A wonderful work ethic, that boy. I don’t know where he gets it. I’ve never been one for work myself. Not work in the way most people think of it anyway. But my family hasn’t had to worry too much about that sort of thing for a couple generations now. We’re very wealthy.”
I turned and looked at her, but her face betrayed nothing beyond slight fatigue.
“You own stores?” I said.
“I don’t own a thing except this house and all this junk. My grandfather opened a shop back home in Pennsylvania and started making clothes and selling them. Mostly clothes for rural people. Work clothes. Denim and wool and the like. It was a small operation and then it got bigger. It was already a good size company for decades when all of a sudden, god knows why, youngsters started wanting the clothes. This was fifteen years ago or so. It just got trendy, I guess is the word. The most ridiculous thing you can imagine. Now it’s something completely different. All geared towards teenagers.”
I knew the brand, of course. Everyone did. It was a status symbol, especially the jeans with the logo patches stitched conspicuously onto the back pocket. People had even started counterfeiting those patches and selling them to kids who couldn’t afford the clothes, but no one was ever fooled, and if you got caught with the fakes, well that was far worse than not having the right clothes in the first place. You’d get accused of trying.
Evelyn said, “My family has almost nothing to do with the company anymore, but the money still comes our way.”
“Do you wear the clothes?”
“I suppose I have a few things here and there. But not generally, no. They’re made for skinny little things like you, not fat old ladies like me. Do you like them, our clothes?”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’ll see what I can do to get you some.”
I tried to suppress the joy alighting on my face. How tired I was of feeling the shame of the tacky old Goodwill clothes and the white sneakers from that aisle in the Thrifty. “Thanks,” I whispered.
She said, “Your family doesn’t have a lot of money, is that right?”
A rush of heat burned through my limbs. I wasn’t so naïve to think people didn’t know we struggled. The few friends I’d been able to make there had been to our house and seen how sparsely it was furnished. They’d snacked on our soft, generic foods. But no one ever said anything, not directly to me anyway. But from Evelyn it didn’t sound how I’d so many times imagined this sort of thing might. It wasn’t taunting or insulting. She said it as if it were just a matter of natural fact. We didn’t have much money. Simple.
“We have more than some people,” I said, and I felt proud of this answer. Thought it made me sound worldly.
“Not many around here,” she said. “This is a cruel place to be poor, I imagine. Even the broken old hippies like me have money. That’s how we can be broken old hippies. It’s a luxury. Just like Andrew being an artist. He’s never sold a thing. I think he’s a fine artist, don’t get me wrong, but he doesn’t need to worry about being a successful artist. Not in the way most do.”
“Did you ever work?” I asked. She’d been so blunt with me I felt I could return the courtesy.
“No. My parents had it in their heads that I was going to be some kind of scholar, I think. I don’t know where they got that. Instead I moved out here when I was sixteen and started living the life. Golden Gate Park. The Height. This was just when all of that was getting started. The scene. My parents of course did not like that one bit. They even cut me off, but once I was eighteen I had a legal right to the family money, no more or less than anyone else.”
“I can’t wait to work,” I said.
She grinned at me softly. “I just bet you can’t.” She used the table to lift herself to her feet. “Your mother probably thinks we got trapped in this jumble.”
The vegetables had been loaded in a dozen or so paper bags on the floor on the back porch. We got the first load and made our way back to where Mom and the boys were still in the carport. Mom gave me a look, relief—we had been gone a while and she worried—and apology for sending me off with this strange woman in the first place.
“Oh these are lovely,” Mom said.
“Just the start,” Evelyn said and Mom beamed.
“There’s more?” Mom said “Boys, help, will you.”
Ben was still working the Gameboy. “I’m doing this,” he said.
“Now,” Mom said. “And when you’re done you’re giving your brother a turn on that thing. I don’t care.”
After we’d lugged all the vegetables over we went back for Evelyn’s jarring supplies—boxes of jars and lids and rings, as well as an enormous blue jarring pot, which the boys swung between them.
Mom tended the coals and Evelyn went into the house and boiled the jars. When everything was ready, the tomatoes came first. Mom and Evelyn sliced them into two-inch rounds and grilled them on aluminum foil with oil and salt and pepper. They pulled the skins off between thumbs and forefingers and slid the aromatic slop into the jars. They did the same to zucchinis, maybe thirty of them. Occasional winds would push the smell of the smoke and veggies into the carport and there it hung, a delicious pollution.
Then the pickling began. I’d never even thought about how a pickle happened, and now here I was slicing cucumbers, asparagus, carrot, even cauliflower, and pushing them down into those Ball jars. That workbench was strewn with Mom’s generic spices and with hand-labeled glass canisters from Evelyn’s kitchen. Mom let me top the jars with vinegar, the pungent snap of it stinging my nostrils and making me think of Easter. Evelyn must have thought the same thing because she said, “Eggs!” and went back to her house and retrieved two dozen brown eggs. We boiled them inside and peeled them and the boys slid them from their hands into the jars. We were already hot and exhausted by the time we started jarring, when the steam filled our shadowy kitchen and the sweat fell down our faces and Mom told us one by one to go outside. When I did, the air chilled my skin. It must have been a hundred and ten degrees in the house, and yet I couldn’t wait to get back. Evelyn taught us to listen for the suction pop of the lids, all of us giggling each time one sealed.
By the time we were finished it was nearly sunset and jars covered every inch of counter and table-space in our kitchen. The boys were especially taken with the pickled eggs, which floated there in a green translucence like something from a sci-fi movie.
“Well,” Mom said.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so much food,” Evelyn said.
“Fifty-fifty?” Mom said. “I can have the boys lug yours over.”
“Oh, I’ll just take a couple.”
“Of course not.”
“I don’t have the room for much more than that,” she said. “Meg, sweetie, help me here. Tell your mother what a mess my kitchen is. It’s wall to wall, floor to ceiling junk. You all keep this.”
Mom didn’t say anything for some seconds. Then, “You’re getting the best ones then.”
They put one of each variety into a cardboard box and I was sent to bring it back across to Evelyn’s house.
I didn’t notice the other car now in the gravel drive and went right into through the front door. Andrew, who I’d seen a number of times from across the street, was there in the front room wearing cut-off jeans and no shoes or shirt. He seemed to have been rummaging through one of the boxes atop the sofa when he turned and saw me.
“Hello,” he said, a bemused smirk angled across his face.
“I was sent over,” I said.
“Alright,” he said, shrugging. He was good looking enough to make me nervous. Handsome and rich and half-naked. Some kind of life that guy had.
“What have you got there, more clutter for Evelyn’s little museum of crap?”
He came over and peered into the box, then took a jar, throwing off the balance of the box. He didn’t seem to notice me adjust the weight on my arms.
“Oh,” he said. “The veggies.”
“We jarred them,” I said.
“Yeah I see that,” he said. “All of them?”
“I think so.”
“Jesus. That must have taken all day.”
I smiled. It had.
He took the box from my arms and wedged it onto what must have at some point been a dining table. He said, “I’m surprised. My mom gets ideas, all these plans, and almost none of them end up getting done. At first she said she was going to do it all herself and then just bring them over to your house all sneaky in the night. This is better. That never would have happened. It all would have just rotted.”
I understood then what Mom had probably known for hours. That this had been a ruse. Evelyn hadn’t been stuck through some circumstances with pounds and pounds of food, but rather that she’d bought them for us, her poor neighbors. I felt equal parts shame and gratitude.
Andrew slipped on a T-shirt and a pair of sneakers and accompanied me across the street and we found Mom and Evelyn and the boys loading up another box full of jars. “Come on,” Mom said, “we’re making deliveries.”
“Your mother’s idea,” Evelyn said, resigned.
Mom took the boys down one side of the street, and Evelyn, Andrew, and I did the other. We placed one jar on the walkway to each house. On the pickled veggies we’d stuck notes that said Do not open until next year! We made it to the bottom of the hill and then huffed our way back up, our box empty. Mom came back carrying Garrett. Ben slumped his shoulders and dragged his feet, exaggerating exhaustion.
Soon the sun was gone and my father got home. We were inside, sprawled across the sofa and floor. “What is this?” he said, walking in. “The power? I paid the goddamn thing. I paid it.” And then he saw Evelyn and Andrew on the couch. I could see his body stiffen. His face fell in shock and embarrassment. I felt sorry for my father right then. It was always so important how other people saw him.
Mom held up a hand. “Tomorrow,” she said. “Just, tomorrow.”
We got out all of our candles and Evelyn brought over some more. We carried most of the jars down to the basement and lined them up on a shelf. In the candlelight they looked beautiful and elemental. Those we kept upstairs we let Dad and Andrew open, all of us cheering each popping lid. We spent the evening sweating and drinking cold tap water and draping crimson tomatoes over sliced white bread slathered in mayonnaise.
A month later we were evicted from the house. Leading up to it Mom and Dad fought terribly, worse than ever. Even in their silence they fought. But after the notice came, the screaming stopped. It was done. The boys and I were allowed one bag each for clothes, books, toys. Mom and us kids crammed into the Chevette and drove away from that house, from the woods, from California. Back to Chicago. Dad stayed behind. We watched him standing in the doorway of that house that was never really ours. The boys cried. I suppose I did, too. There was talk of reunion, of us returning to California when Dad got his work situation together, but I knew that the family as we’d known it was finished. The four of us moved in with my grandfather—Mom’s dad—in a yellow-brick house on a busy street in Edison Park on the north side of the city. This had been my great-grandmother’s house and all of her furniture was still there. Mom and I shared her old bed.
I never saw Evelyn again, of course, and she’s surely gone from the earth by now. She never did have a chance to get me any of those jeans like she said she might. Every time I pass by her family’s clothing store at a mall, I think of her and what she’d done for us that day.
There were still a few jars in the basement when we left, and on more than one occasion when family provisions in Edison Park were low, I wondered about them, how good they would taste. I hoped Dad had at least remembered them when he packed up the rest of our stuff. Or maybe it would be better if he hadn’t, if the next people to move in just found them there. Most likely they would have thrown them out. I know I probably would have. Some strange jars of food. But maybe they didn’t. Maybe it was a young couple, just married, flush with anticipation for what was to come, and maybe they took the chance—what the hell?—popped one of those tomato jars open some night and ate them all by candlelight.