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Irenia

On the second of February, a Friday, in the thriving northern California coastal town of Mercy, the day dawns icy and clear after three days of rain.

Toby, the tall young UPS driver, arrives on his bicycle at the UPS depot on the south side of Mercy, flirts with Teresa the depot manager over a quick cup of coffee, and gives Domingo a hand loading the big brown UPS truck with packages large and small.

“Hey I’ll bet these are Philip’s cookbooks,” says Domingo, the nephew of Juan, Celia’s brother-in-law, Celia married to Nathan, Nathan and Celia close friends with Philip and the gang at Ziggurat Farm.

“Ten boxes from… Primero Press,” says Toby, reading the label on one of the heavy boxes. “Must be.”

“Veronica can’t wait to get one,” says Domingo, getting out his wallet and handing Toby a couple twenties. “If they open a box when you’re there, could you get me one and have Philip sign it? To Veronica.”

“I’ll try,” says Toby, pocketing the money. “I want one, too.”

Ziggurat Farm is usually one of Toby’s last stops of the day, but because he’s eager to see Philip’s new book, he asks Teresa if he can deliver to the farm first today.

Teresa hands Toby a couple twenties and says, “Get me a copy, too.”

*

Meanwhile, Philip is driving the kids, Arturo, eleven, Henri, ten, and Vivienne, nine, to Mercy Montessori, this being Arturo’s last year there, after which he will enter the public school system for Seventh Grade since there are no other choices in Mercy save for home schooling, an undertaking the farm adults cannot imagine, though even the excellent Montessori School is of questionable educational value to their very bright children.

“I’ll pick you up at Nathan and Celia’s after your piano lessons,” says Philip, pulling up to the school where several other vehicles are disgorging children.

“Don’t forget Irenia is coming for supper and spending the night,” says Vivienne, speaking of the kids’ new pal. “She’s very much looking forward to your cooking, which we’ve told her all about.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” says Philip, resisting the temptation to say How could I possibly forget when you remind me every fifteen minutes?

“Her parents are bringing her at five,” says Arturo, repeating what Philip has now been told at least ten times. “We’re hoping you’ll make something yummy for a before-supper snack.”

“Those stuffed mushrooms you made for Thanksgiving would be ideal,” says Henri, opening his door.

“Stuffed mushrooms would be ideal,” says Vivienne, coming around the car to the driver’s window. “With maybe a little more melted cheese than usual. Irenia especially likes cheese. Perhaps you could get some of that Swiss kind we love. The Emmental.”

“I shall endeavor to get some from my friends at Ocelot,” says Philip, nodding graciously to his daughter. “See you at Nathan’s at 4:30.”

*

Back at the farm, Andrea is in the cottage where she and her husband Marcel and their son Henri live. She is sitting at her desk in what was previously Lisa’s massage studio and is now the headquarters of Ziggurat Farm Productions, Philip’s cookbook the first of those productions.

“We’re expecting copies today,” says Andrea, speaking on the phone with Ramona at Crow’s Nest Books, one of Mercy’s two bookstores and the only one that sells new books. “Did you try ordering through Ingram?”

“I ordered a few copies from them,” says Ramona, who thinks Philip is the most charming man she’s ever met, “but you’ll make so much more per copy if we buy directly from you.”

“I appreciate that,” says Andrea, who was a sous chef for twenty years and has been a farmer for ten, but never a seller of books until now. “I just want to confirm the other way works.”

“I’ll let you know as soon as those copies comes in,” says Ramona, who was thrilled by the advance copy of the cookbook Andrea showed her. “But for now I want to get seventy copies from you to make a big display, and I’m sure we’ll need more for the book signing.”

“I’ll bring you seventy copies as soon as we get them,” says Andrea, a message appearing on her computer screen saying an email just arrived from the New York Times. “Toby usually delivers here at the end of the day so I probably won’t get books to you until tomorrow.”

Ending her call with Ramona, Andrea opens the email from the New York Times where, purely on a whim, she sent one of the three advance copies of the cookbook she got from Primero Press, the outfit handling printing and distribution of the print-on-demand edition of the book.

Andrea…Thanks for sending Philip’s Kitchen. The Raul Neves intro is a real coup. I gave the book to Sara Granderson, one of our cookbook reviewers, and she went bonkers. She showed it to Mark Jacobs, the Sunday supplement food editor, and he loves it, too, and wants to feature Sara’s review and the Neves intro in an upcoming supplement. Can you send pics of the farm and Philip in his kitchen, and if possible a pic of Philip with Raul? Probably run in 3-4 weeks. Congrats.Titus

*

Lisa, Philip’s wife, is in the farmhouse with Marcel, Andrea’s husband, and Michael and Daisy who recently bought the house and three acres contiguous with five-acre Ziggurat Farm. Michael is an ornithologist and Daisy, eight months pregnant with her first child, is a novelist.

They are in the midst of a conversation about Mercy Hospital—Michael wondering if it might be wiser for Daisy to have the baby in a big city hospital instead of in Mercy’s humble country hospital.

“Celia worked at Mercy Hospital for thirty-five years and says it’s a great place to have a baby,” says Daisy, who is much less anxious than Michael about the impending birth of their child. “Just not major surgery.”

“I loved having my babies there,” says Lisa, remembering the sweet and competent Mexican nurses who assisted the Nigerian doctor who delivered Arturo, those same nurses assisting the Australian doctor who delivered Vivienne two years later. “Celia’s daughter Calypso is a nurse there and she helped with the birth of both Arturo and Vivienne.”

“Andrea loved having Henri there,” says Marcel, remembering the moment of Henri’s birth. “They’re very nice about letting the father be in the room for the birth.”

“Then I shouldn’t worry,” says Michael, laughing nervously.

“We’ll be fine,” says Daisy, who has thoroughly enjoyed her pregnancy so far. “I know we will.”

At which moment, Andrea rushes in and says, “The New York Times is going to run a rave review of Philip’s cookbook and do a big spread with pictures in a Sunday supplement.”

Having delivered this momentous news, Andrea bursts into tears and Marcel and Lisa rush to embrace her.

*

At morning recess on the playground at Mercy Montessori, a spirited soccer game is underway with Arturo and Vivienne leading one team, Henri and Irenia leading the other. Arturo and Vivienne and Henri started playing soccer as soon as they learned to walk, Henri’s father Marcel a former professional soccer player, and Irenia, tall and graceful with long raven black hair, grew up playing rough-and-tumble soccer in the Russian community in San Francisco.

The other kids on both teams play with zeal, but are not great ball-handlers. Thus the Ziggurat Farm gang and Irenia dominate the game—Irenia scoring the winning goal by shoving Arturo aside and striking the ball so hard the diminutive goalie dives out of the way to save his life.

“I’m pretty sure knocking me down like that would get you a yellow card in a refereed game,” says Arturo, speaking to Irenia from where he’s lying on the ground.

“I see no referee,” says Irenia, giving Arturo a hand up.

And a moment later the game is forgotten—Arturo and Irenia listening to Mr. Arbanas droning on about the founding of Rome, Vivienne and Henri bored to tears by Mrs. Pembroke reading aloud in her sing-song way about settlers traveling west from St. Louis in covered wagons on the Oregon Trail.

*

Philip has yet to hear the news about the New York Times review because he doesn’t carry a phone and because after dropping the kids at school he went to Ocelot to deliver lettuce and green onions from the Ziggurat greenhouses and had an unusually long conversation with the famous Raul who is usually too busy to talk for long.

From Ocelot, Philip went to the food co-op to buy supplies for tonight’s supper, after which he dropped by Nathan and Celia and Delilah’s for tea and conversation, and then Delilah, the kids’ piano teacher and the illustrator of Philip’s Kitchen, did some sketches of Philip for a drawing she’ll create to go with the review of his cookbook scheduled to run in the weekly Mercy Messenger before his book signing at Crow’s Nest Books a few weeks hence.

At last he arrives home where upon entering the farmhouse he is greeted with hurrahs from Marcel and Andrea and Lisa and Michael and Daisy in honor of his impending New York Times triumph and the arrival of ten boxes of his glorious new cookbook.

“Wonderful,” says Philip, holding a copy of Philip’s Kitchen: exquisite recipes from Ziggurat Farm. “Please forgive me for not getting too excited about the news from New York. After what I went through with my first cookbook, I think I’ll wait to celebrate until the review is a fait accompli and not merely a promise.”

*

Which sentiment turns out to be prescient, for when Andrea returns to her office after lunch she finds the following email.

Andrea…Turns out we never review self-published books. Editorial policy. So I regret to say we won’t be running a review or featuring the book in a supplement. Titus

Crestfallen, Andrea returns to the farmhouse, gives the news to Philip and Lisa, and bursts into tears again.

“Don’t be sad,” says Philip, sitting beside Andrea on the sofa. “It would have been nice, but it’s not how things usually work in the upper stories of the media pyramid, save by accident once every thousand blue moons. But we’ll be fine. We don’t need to sell a million copies. Right? What’s our break-even number?”

“A thousand,” she says, still crying. “But it’s so unfair.”

“I used to think that, too,” says Philip, getting up from the sofa to put a log on the fire. “But now I think it’s just the way of the human world, which has never been a meritocracy, however much we wish it was.”

*

Boris and Maria, Irenia’s parents, bring their beautiful daughter to the farm at five o’clock, and Philip and Lisa insist Boris and Maria stay for the hors d’oeuvres and a drink—Boris gregarious and friendly, Maria quiet and self-conscious about her minimal command of English.

Arturo and Vivienne and Irenia each gobble several of the baked Cremini mushrooms stuffed with Philip’s special sauté of minced onions, chopped Kalamata olives, minced garlic, and finely grated carrots, topped with melted Emmental cheese, after which they race off to Vivienne’s bedroom where Irenia suggests she teach them how to play poker, so that is what they do.

Boris is fifty-six, tall and broad-shouldered with curly gray hair and a big stomach. Maria is fifty-four, short and stout, her once black hair now white. They sit side-by-side on the sofa in the living room, a plate of stuffed mushrooms on the coffee table in front of them, each with a glass of the farm’s excellent cabernet, and Boris eats seven of the stuffed mushrooms in quick succession, while Maria has one.

“I never had such good food before,” says Boris, downing his entire glass of wine in a single gulp. “And this is best wine I ever had.” He says something to Maria in Russian.

“What did you say to her?” asks Lisa, smiling at Boris.

“I said now we know how heaven will be,” says Boris, laughing. “Best food and best wine.”

“I love your food so much, too,” says Maria, smiling and nodding. “I cook pretty good but not so good as you.”

“I’m glad you like the food and wine,” says Philip, refilling Boris’s glass. “I’d love to give you a copy of my new cookbook. We just got copies today and it has the recipe for the stuffed mushrooms.”

“We’ll give you some wine to take home, too,” says Lisa, who finds Maria and Boris delightful.

“We can pay you,” says Maria, nodding anxiously.

“No, no,” says Philip, bringing them the book. “It’s our gift to you. We’re so glad to get to know you. Our kids love your daughter. They’ve been looking forward to having her over for weeks now.”

“She’s a good girl,” says Boris, downing his second glass of wine. “We move here because…”

Maria whispers in Russian to Boris.

“Yah,” he says, nodding. “We are very happy she like your kids, too. In city she was… how do I say this…” He lowers his voice. “The men were coming after her. She was only ten, but tall and beautiful as you see… so now we are here and is better for her and… yah, we are happy she like your kids.”

“Because she’s still a child,” says Lisa, who escaped the slums of Buenos Aires when she was ten and the men were starting to come after her. “She’ll be a woman soon enough. Let her be a child while she can.”

Maria says something in Russian to Boris.

“She is very smart,” says Boris, translating for Maria. “We want her to go to college and go beyond us. We came to America when I was forty-three and Maria was forty-one. I’m mechanic. I fix cars and trucks. At Mercy garage. I think maybe I fix your truck. Bent axel. Yah?”

“Yes, and you did a great job,” says Philip, beaming at Boris.

“Good,” says Boris, nodding in thanks as Philip fills his glass again. “Maria is seamstress. She can sew anything. We lose two children in Russia and did not think we could have another, but when we came to San Francisco we have Irenia. Was miracle.”

He bows his head and weeps. Maria puts her hand on his shoulder and smiles at Lisa and Philip. “Sometimes he cry when he have wine.”

“We’re so glad you’re here,” says Philip, moved to tears. “Would you like to stay for supper?”

Boris looks up and says, “No thank you. We don’t think Irenia want us here for tonight. So is more special for her. But maybe other time.”

“Many other times,” says Philip, handing a copy of his cookbook to Maria.

She looks at the cover, a pen and ink drawing by Delilah of Philip in his kitchen.

“Is beautiful picture,” says Maria, looking at Philip and Lisa. “You are first people to ask us…” She turns to Boris and says something in Russian.

“You are first people to invite us since we come to Mercy two years ago.” He sips his wine. “You make this wine, Philip?”

“Marcel is our wine master,” says Philip, going to get a couple bottles for them. “Henri’s father.”

“Tell him for me,” says Boris, calling after Philip, “he is genius.”

*

Moments after Boris and Maria depart, Marcel and Andrea and Henri arrive, Henri hurrying off to join the poker game while Andrea and Marcel eat the last of the stuffed mushrooms and Andrea gulps down a glass of wine a la Boris and says quietly so the kids won’t hear her, “Fuck the New York Times.”

“I’d forgotten all about that,” says Philip, refilling Andrea’s glass. “Never gave it another thought.”

“Wait until you see the display of your books at the bookstore,” says Marcel, clinking glasses with Philip. “You come in the door and it’s like the pyramids of Egypt. Three pyramids of Philip’s Kitchen.”

*

When supper begins, Irenia proves to be as talkative as the very talkative Arturo and Henri and Vivienne, but she falls silent when she begins to eat. Occasionally she looks up from her meal to gaze around the table, a puzzled expression on her face, and she continues in this way until her plate is empty.

“Would you care for anything more?” asks Philip, speaking to Irenia as he speaks to the customers he waits on at Ocelot. “There’s plenty of everything.”

“I would like to learn to cook like this,” she says quietly. “Will you teach me?”

“Of course he will,” says Vivienne, nodding confidently. “He teaches us. So whenever you come over he’ll teach you, too.”

“I am amazed by this food,” says Irenia, looking from one person to another. “Yet you all seem to think this is just ordinary.”

“It is not ordinary,” says Marcel, looking at Philip. “It is extraordinary and I’m grateful to you for reminding me of what Philip does for us all the time.”

*

Vivienne and Irenia are sharing Vivienne’s bed, both of them fighting sleep because they love being with each other.

Irenia: Have you ever kissed a boy? Not your brother or Henri, but someone else?

Vivienne: Julio Martinez kissed me at a barbecue last summer. Twice.

Irenia: Did you want him to kiss you?

Vivienne: No. We were playing hide and seek and he and I were hiding in the barn together behind the wine barrels and trying not to giggle when Arturo came in looking for us, and he just suddenly kissed me. I was so shocked, I just froze and then he kissed me again.

Irenia: On your lips?

Vivienne: Yes.

Irenia: Did you like it?

Vivienne: No. It was ucky.

Irenia: How old is Julio?

Vivienne: He was eleven when he kissed me and I was eight. Now he’s twelve and I’m nine. But I still don’t want him to kiss me. Have you ever kissed a boy?

Irenia: Yes.

Vivienne: When?

Irenia: In San Francisco. When I was ten.

Vivienne: Who was he?

Irenia: His name was Dimitri. He was eighteen. He would talk to me at the bus stop when I got off the bus when I came home from school. We rode the city bus to school in San Francisco. I didn’t talk to him at first, but he was there every day and he seemed nice, so I talked to him. And then for a few days he walked me home. And then one day he gave me a box of candy. Not a candy bar. A whole box of chocolates. And when I took the box from him, he put his arms around me and kissed me on the lips and pushed his tongue into my mouth.

Vivienne: How dreadful.

Irenia: I tried to get away from him, but he wouldn’t let me go until I screamed and people came running and then he let me go.

Vivienne: What a terrible person.

Irenia: He said he loved me and wanted to marry me. He even came to our apartment and asked my father if he could marry me.

Vivienne: But you were only ten. Was he insane?

Irenia: I don’t think so.

Vivienne: Then why would he do such a terrible thing?

Irenia: Why did Julio kiss you?

Vivienne: I suppose because he likes me.

Irenia: Yes, they like us. Whether we like them or not.  

*

In the morning, Vivienne and Irenia and Arturo make omelets and hash browns with Philip supervising, and Henri and Andrea and Marcel come for breakfast.

At meal’s end, Henri and Irenia do the dishes with Marcel, after which the kids put on their rain gear and go to deliver a pot of soup to Daisy and Michael.

As they walk along the path from the farmhouse through the nascent forest to Michael and Daisy’s house, Irenia says, “I love my mother and father, but I would rather live here with you.”

fin

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