by R. Passov
I had hand-written a simple essay: My father is in prison, my mother works, welfare helps and I got a 1310 on my SATs. The letter of acceptance from UCLA was short – we’re happy to let you know….
The hill leading to the main quad of the UCLA campus is terraced into three landings by flat, wide brick stairs built in the late 1920’s, depression-era stimulus. By the time I got there, Bel Air, Beverly Hills, and Westwood surrounded that hill.
An old Daily Bruin lay on the ground. Past the comings and goings of Bruin Life, blond and blue, basketball, tennis and good teeth, I found a classified ad: Wanted, cook for a professor’s family, free room and board, walking distance to campus.
I can cook, I thought. Walking distance was a plus. I found a payphone, heard age in the voice that answered along with an English that came from afar and was invited to interview.
I found the house a few blocks into the hills above Sunset Blvd. Dr. Mommarts was tall, slender, newly old, easy. His white-blond hair fell uncombed. His soft brown eyes, protected by wild eyebrows. He spoke with an accent, in proper English, yet his words lacked edge, one ending after the next began.
He assumed I would not have responded to the ad without having knowledge of cooking. I got a brief tour of a modern one-story home anchored by a single hallway whose wall was a long stretch of glass, rimming a flat yard. “Here’s the kitchen,” he said. There were two rooms, one with a sink, counter space, stove, oven. And a second with cabinets, a second sink and a wide wooden table. “And the preparation room.”
From the kitchen we walked down the hallway, past the end of the windows, to a small room with a single bed and a dresser, located near to a bathroom. “Here’s where you’ll stay,” he said and that was it. I was a cook.
He asked what I was studying. I said I was a freshman, which seemed an answer. He wasn’t surprised when, instructed to get my things, I said I already had them in the car. I cooked two sunny-side up eggs and toast. It may have been a Sunday.
We ate together, sitting on stools in the kitchen. “What will you make for dinner?”
“That will be fine.”
“I’m the department chairman, of Physiology,” he said. “I work with fast muscle fiber.”
His disinterest in me felt polite. After the first day, our routine was simple: Two eggs, toast and coffee. Sometimes lunch, never dinner.
I felt at home.
Several days had passed when another person showed up. By then I knew my boundaries. I could frequent the yard, the kitchen of course, as well as my room, but I was not a guest of the house. The other person had a greater freedom. He was in his late 20’s or early 30’s, slight, olive skinned, black hair.
Dr. Mommarts ignored the new person, and I followed. During our breakfasts, our time together, he remained kind, gentle, yet formal. He told me he was from Norway then smiled as I struggled to image its place on a globe.
A few more days passed, then the Doctor said his wife would be returning. On Saturday. He looked distant, almost sorry.
I was in my room when I heard commotion. The silent man in the robe met the Doctor’s wife at the door. I would never know her first name, just Mrs. Mommarts. She was tall. Thick black hair came from under a rust colored scarf. A wide blue scarf wrapped around her neck. She wore a fitted robe like the manservant.
From her glance I knew I was a disappointment. Dr. Mommarts’ smile turned weak. I retreated to my room.
The manservant called me to the kitchen.
“Richard,” Mrs. Mommarts asked, “I can call you Richard, correct?”
“I’m having a dinner party tomorrow. I’d like dinner served at 6:30, in the yard. I have a menu for you.”
She gave me time to look it over – Tabbouli salad, a prime rib roast, cherries jubilee – and instructions on how to find the butcher, to which she had called ahead.
Why not confess, I thought. It’s clear she knows. Instead, I slunk to the hall phone and called an ex girlfriend who laughed but knew what Tabbouli was and promised to help.
When I returned from the butcher, I could feel the distance the Mrs. had orchestrated between the Doctor and me.
“You don’t know how to cook these items, do you?” she asked with such directness.
“No,” I answered.
She smiled. “Well,” she said, “Tabbouli is a salad from my homeland” and then told me that it’s easy to make. How to chop tomatoes, boil grains, how much salt to add and the most important part, to make it first so that it could cool in the refrigerator.
“I’ll help you make the Tabbouli. But I will make the Cherries Jubilee.”
And then she added, “After the dinner, you will have to leave.”
The Doctor had entered the kitchen and though he stayed behind his wife, protecting himself from whatever pleasure he may have gotten from my company, he managed to say, “Please join us for the dinner.”
* * *
We sat on smooth benches that wrapped a large circular table whose wooden slats had been sanded to a gentle softness, giving the feel of fine velvet. The night was warm. Light from the open house added yellow to the early evening blue but didn’t steal the stars. We had the light to see a smile.
The Tabbouli was a luxury of ripe tomatoes, flaked with parsley, sleeping in grain. The moisture, luxurious. The salt divine, just enough to pull the freshness across your tongue. And resistance, so the flavors lingered.
The roast rested on the long ends of a line of bones. The quite manservant ran a knife along a skewer of metal, making the soft rasp of slaughter. He cut the meat from the bone, creating a bread-loaf of rare muscle from which he carved one-inch slabs, each rimmed with fat.
I could cut my piece with only a fork. I wanted to eat before anything was taken away, before I got full, so I could have more. Instead I followed the pace.
We, they, eat and talked, one by one either sitting back after a bite or pushing a plate slightly forward. A young woman, shiny black hair and dark eyes, worked in the Doctor’s lab. She said she could isolate fast muscle fibers. I could feel her close to her goal, less willing to share.
“I’m not there yet,” she answered someone’s question.
Dr. Mommarts smiled as though she were his.
Then a young man talked of stars, of something called a black whole, of a giant dish in Puerto Rico and the millions of years that light crossed time.
The dish, 1000 feet across, resting on its back, I knew. Knew Intelligent Life in the Universe, had my dog-eared copy in my room. I could listen. I could do more.
Another man said look for life. He went on. A dolphin could be used to try and understand a different intelligence, an intelligence that may be further than ours, yet bounded by an incredible harmony with its surroundings, a protective harmony. I understood. Swim, evolve, get sleeker, faster, keener but with never the need to make fire.
I knew the book he had reached into, knew Carl Sagan, knew I.F. Shklovskii, saw the pictures, black and white and the few in color – amazing color – galaxies stretching away from each other by the greatest mystery, strung out as if a fierce wind had passed, others a frozen explosion, and still others caught in an endless twirl.
I understood the colors, the reds, blues and yellows, the colors we can’t see; a view of both the end and the beginning. A view beyond our reach yet posing all questions.
Mrs. Mommarts was not part of the dinner. She brought the discussion forward when it lulled, kept her eye on the manservant, seeing that every glass was full. She worked the evening.
But perhaps only to keep her husband in his milieu. I didn’t know his history, whether he was truly incapable or just the opposite, had seen so much, done so much that then was his time to be free.
The conversation went past when the evening became cool, as if we weren’t aware we were outside. Just ideas, discussion, polite laughter, the only violence being the occasional exclamation – just nonsense, someone said, just nonsense and then laughed and laughed again.
There was good that night. A simple good, something in the world that had worth just because it was there. That seemed attainable. Just learn, I thought, learn and learn and then go to dinner and let your mind run free and people will laugh, the food will be good and the nights, long, easy and cool.
* * *
That night I chose my major. But like the physicist who choses astronomy, I wanted discovery and yet to be guarded by a vast distance. I wanted to remain that way for life but Sagan would write our footprint on earth is desperate; we need others to come to us with answers. And, I was to learn, the present is indifferent to the search for our beginnings.