After supper, Beth had cleared the dining tables and filled the sink with glasses, letting them soak while she began her preparations for the next day. Grabbing a trash bag, she’d hurried to the storeroom where she identified and discarded the rotting potatoes. Returning to the kitchen, she’d removed the spoiled vegetables from the refrigerator and added them to the trash bag. She gave the interior a quick wipe. No time for anything more thorough, but it was an improvement Back in the storage room, she sorted the remaining potatoes by size. Larger ones could be baked for another meal. The smallest would become home fries for tomorrow’s breakfast. She took them to the kitchen along with several large cans of chunk tuna.
. . .
Over the next two hours, she alternated between cleaning and food preparation, refusing to acknowledge the exhaustion that was threatening to overtake her. She had planned a breakfast of scrambled eggs, home fries and french toast. Gran had always used older bread to make french toast, explaining that it’s dryness helped absorb liquids better than fresh. Beth planned to use that trick with the last loaves of stale bread, saving the fresh for sandwiches. She added white sugar, cinnamon and the small box of brown sugar to a pot, filled it with water and set it on a back burner to simmer. It would make an inexpensive, but tasty, syrup for the french toast. She combined staples from the storeroom with the chocolate pudding and drink mix to create a rich brownie batter. She filled pans and set them in the oven to bake. Tuna salad was next. The tuna was packed in heavy oil and looked more like flakes than chunks. Beth drained and rinsed it, assessing the quantity. Not as much as she’d hoped for and she’d used every can in the storeroom. Still, mixed with finely chopped veggies and stacked on the remaining greens, it would make an adequate sandwich.
“Hey, girl. I brought your things. It’s almost time for lights out. I thought …”
Cassandra stopped and looked around. To the left of the sink, a pile of clean dishes sat air drying. More filled the sink and others waited on the counter at the right. The scent of chocolate filled the room and steam drifted from a pot on the stove. Beth sat at a work table, chopping onions and celery.
“Didn’t they finish the dishes?”
“Margaret didn’t assign anyone to clean?“
“No. And she said that Dorinda wasn’t here anymore.”
“Girl has no sense. Smoking a joint on the first day out. What kind of fool is she?”
“A fool that could have been helping me clean.”
“Someone should be helping. I’ve got to leave for lights out. But as soon as folks are sleeping, I’ll be back.”
Exhausted, Beth could barely nod her thanks.
She picked up the crate and headed to the door that Cassandra had pointed out earlier. It opened into a narrow hallway with three doors. The first held two faded green chairs, separated by an end table. A small TV sat in one corner on an overturned crate. A bathroom came next. Cramped, but private. The third room was the largest and held a twin bed, bureau, desk and empty bookcase. A porthole style window gave a glimpse of the outside. It didn’t fit with the long, slender panes that covered the rest of the building. She wondered about it’s origin, but had no complaint. Unlike the others, it did not have a single bar. A small clock radio sat on the stand. Probably added to help the cook awake early. Still, it would provide a source for music. She’d have to find a station later. A slender closet was more than adequate for her scant belongings. Though tired, the quick tour had lifted her spirits. She envisioned spending time alone there, then grimly reflected that she was apt to have little spare time. Jolted back to reality, she returned to the kitchen.
She finished the tuna salad and had started prepping the home fries, when Cassandra returned with three other residents. She assigned one to the dishes and sent the others to clean and prepare the dining room for the morning’s service.
“Tell me what to do.”
“Find lunch bags and set forty-one of them on the counter over there. Get the apples we bought. Wash them and put one in each bag. Then come back and help me with these potatoes.
Beth removed the brownies from the oven and left them to cool. The syrup had thickened and she turned off the flame beneath it. Cassandra joined her in preparing the potatoes. Soon the dishes were washed and the dining area was ready for the morning. Beth thanked her helpers and Cassandra cautioned them to be very quiet when returning to the living area. Cassandra stayed and helped Beth make small packs of carrot sticks for the lunch bags. Beth cut the cooled brownies and together they wrapped enough to fill the lunch bags. Cassandra eyed them longingly.
“Are you going to use the rest of those brownies for our lunch?”
“Yes, but there seem to be a few extras.”
Beth offered one to Cassandra and took one for herself. They sat for a minute, quietly enjoying the treat. When Cassandra left, Beth took a quick shower and headed to bed.
She lay back in bed and watched light streaming through her window. She was tired, but wanted to savor the moment. For the first time in over fifteen years, she would sleep in privacy.
Five hours of sleep was not nearly enough, but Beth was energized by her plans for the day. She started coffee, assembled sandwiches and put french toast into the oven to bake. Soon the home fries were sizzling and brown. When she heard voices in the dining room, she started the eggs. Before the service had ended, Cassandra arrived to help.
It occurred to Beth that Cassandra had missed the previous evening’s service.
“Won’t you get in trouble?”
“Don’t you worry about that, I’m covered.”
There was no time to say more.
This time the meal was not greeted with silence. Oohs of appreciation filled the room as the steaming platters were placed on the tables. Beth was grateful for an opportunity to sit. There was lots to do today. And the kitchen and dining area would need to be cleaned before she began. She finished her breakfast and left for the kitchen. Cassandra also rose and Beth saw her head to the table where Margaret and Pastor Bob sat. Soon residents came in for their lunches and she was pleasantly surprised to see many carrying trays of emptied dishes. She chatted with residents as she distributed the lunches. Their outpouring of appreciation gave her renewed energy.
A sudden chill came over the room. She looked up to see Lord’s Servant Margaret’s icy stare.
“Kelly and Judith have been assigned to cleanup duties. It has also been decided that Judith will work with you as a full time assistant. Lord’s Servant Cassandra will be supervising you.”
Her tone made it clear that she did not approve of this decision. Beth dared do no more than nod before Margaret turned and left. She had no desire to fuel Margaret’s hostility.
Cassandra brought an envelope from Pastor Bob with the day’s budget. They agreed to meet in an hour. Beth wanted to visit the food distribution center before heading to the grocery store. While the kitchen was cleaned, she made enough dough for a dozen loaves of bread. She had found both whole wheat and rye flours in the storeroom. If she could get a steady supply from the food distribution center, it could help to stretch her budget and provide better quality bread. She left the bread to rise and gave Judith instructions to clean the storage room.
The sun was shining as they headed towards the distribution center and Beth’s spirits were high. Still, there was a nagging question.
“How did you manage it?”
“Manage to get me the job. And a full time assistant too.”
“I reasoned with Pastor Bob.”
“Pastor Bob is just a man, honey. And men have big appetites. Now Pastor Bob has a real fondness for brown sugar. I just helped him see how he could satisfy that appetite.”
She paused and smiled coquettishly. “If you know what I mean.”
Beth knew. She stopped walking.
“Oh no, Cassandra. I never wanted you to do that.”
“It’s not the first time. Anyway, it’s no big deal. Hardly took any time at all.“
She gave a mischievous grin, winked and resumed walking. Beth remained where she stood, experiencing a mixture of surprise, dismay and amusement.
This time, she had to call for Cassandra to wait.
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