Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Ocean is Mine: Chapter 1

This is the story of a woman, living almost long enough to fulfill the promise “You can have it all.”

 Wellington, titled Duke, Prince, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, Baron, and Prime Minister all in one lifetime, might have been born to privilege, but used personal alchemy to shape greatness in himself and in those beneath him. Marjorie, studying his portrait, was sure Wellington’s dark eyebrow had risen high into his forehead when judging the men under his command.  “Though they were the scum of the earth,” he had announced after reviewing the troops, “it is really wonderful that we should have made them to the fine fellows they are." Clearly, Marjorie thought, this grand man with a soldier’s posture, and a pink sash across his chest, had more going for him than pedigree in order to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.

Last Thursday, Marjorie snuck away, taking the train from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, to the National Gallery in Washington D.C where Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington hung on loan from London. She had stood an especially long time in front of the painting, taking note of the contrasting strokes of light and dark that caused the Duke of Wellington’s flesh above his brow to demand her stillness.

Lead white paint had been reported as one possible source of Goya’s madness. The portrait proved sanity was a small price to pay for greatness. The titanium white sold today promised artists a poison-free product that couldn’t, regardless of technique, leap off a canvas in such a powerful way. The University of Pennsylvania had taught her the words of Wellington, but it was Goya who gave Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington a voice. Her runaway hours studying the craft of her artistic ancestors had left her thinking about using lead paint.  It would be worth it.

The plan was to see as many paintings as she could, while still making it back in time to pick Fred up at his office by 6:15. Really she had it all organized, 3.5 hours of travel in each direction and one hour at the museum. Marjorie had parked her brown Lincoln Continental in the lot right next to the station to avoid any complications. If it hadn’t been for Goya’s spell, her plan would have worked.

Fred had to call a cab after a long day, and was screaming even before the door closed behind her.
Yes, she knew what time it was. And, yes, she appreciated that Bessie had stayed late to put the children to bed. It wouldn’t happen again. She had gone to get her hair done, it’s not easy keeping this red looking so natural the way he likes, the salon had run late, and then the car, that huge car that was too big for her to manage anyway, had broken down. There wasn’t a phone booth, gas station or person in sight, and she had to wait, wait for a stranger, a hippie, with a beard,  beads and a guitar. By the time she was describing the beads' colors, Fred had slammed the door to his den. She never got to show him the heel of her shoe that she had broken off to explain why she couldn’t walk for help. The shoemaker, Tom, had made that easy repair for her in the past.

Now, The NBC Nightly News with John Chancellor was droning from her small kitchen television, something about Vietnam. First the weekly body count, then good news; the lowest number of American troops in Vietnam in five years, only 45,000 men. It was just a number.

Marjorie standing with her hair in curlers mincing
shallots at the kitchen sink overlooking the swimming pool was thinking about calling Sparkling Pools to clean and cover it for the winter. Irv and Evelyn were coming for dinner and this recipe was a way to say sorry to Fred for her tardiness last week. He deserved better. He devoted his time to work and making things right for her and the children. The least she could do was pick him up on time.

Tuna casserole was not going to cut it tonight. At the last couples’ dinner party Evelyn had served a cream of cucumber soup, Coquilles Saint-Jacques a la creole, and a meringue concoction for dessert, Le Vacherin. Evelyn had taken an actual real-life-in-person class with Julia Child. Marjorie had wanted to vomit from the richness and the pretense. Fred, on the other hand, went out and bought Child’s The French Chef Cookbook, “illustrated with photographs from the most widely attended cooking course ever given in America.”

Leafing through the cookbook Marjorie had landed on Veau Sylvie-named by Child as Veal for a King. This veal split lengthwise, stuffed with slices of ham and cheese, then re-formed and tied would be perfect for Fred. Why would a meal for a king so closely resemble being hung and quartered--tied and split?  Eat it as a threat to your subjects? Or do you eat it to overcome the fear of what your subjects would do to you, after all in Veau Sylvie you were re-tied before baked.

Fred had insisted on Corinthian columns to frame the entrance of the house they had built five years ago on a two-acre lot that was once the orchard of the estate owned by the Campbell Soup family. The orchard of an actual estate was royalty in this Main Line suburb.

Fred’s dental practice made the wishes of poor boy who grew up to make over 100,000 dollars a year possible, so the architect carried them out.  Four pillars lined the entry to their house. “I’d like a studio,” she had said to the architect. Before the blueprints were complete she had space in the attic, with skylights to bring in natural light, a space away from noise and distraction, enabling Marjorie to explore, when other demands didn’t get in the way, the unending combinations of her palette.

She had started to write her grocery list for the veal when the pages of the cookbook flipped to a different recipe. The evening would be coming down in rank. Tonight she’d be serving not for a king but for the Duke-Beef Wellington. Marjorie smiled at the chance to continue thinking about the whites, and light Goya had used to enliven the Duke and reveal the psychology of the man behind the uniform.

She read out loud “This is a mushroom duxelles with wine and fois gras which bakes around the meat.” She had been around Fred enough to know what fois gras was, but she hadn’t a clue to what a duxelles was. Following instructions with the accompanying photographs and “tips from Julia” would make the night a success.

Irv and Evelyn would arrive 7:30 exactly. Irv, already balding at the back of his head, shared the dental practice with Fred and exhibited a meticulousness she learned was common among oral surgeons. With the children at her parents for the night, she had enough time to cook the beef and make the pastry shell, top and bottom. She had already done 20-25 minutes in the middle level pre-heated 425 degree oven. She lowered the thermostat to 375 degrees and baked the beef another 20-25 minutes. Julia cautioned to use a, “a meat thermometer reading of 137 degrees for rare beef.” The celery braised.

Marjorie’s make-up was on, her nails done. The top layer of pastry that would swaddle the beef had chilled in the refrigerator for two hours. She had rolled it into a 16x10-inch rectangle. From the bottom section she cut a three-inch strip to decorate the top of the pastry. She had placed the large rectangle flat on a baking sheet lined with wax paper, then covered it with wax paper, and a damp towel. Once placed in the refrigerator, Marjorie had cut the long strip into a fleur de lis to freeze for the top of the pastry. Julia had suggested cutting them into leaves. Marjorie took creative license.

She’d dress by 7:00 so the Beef Wellington would be assembled and in the oven for its last roasting at 7:15. Fred was skeptical. Bessie would have stayed and made it all run smoothly. Marjorie wouldn’t hear of it. Bessie needed a night off. She could do it quite well herself. For insurance, Fred smeared pate on toasted crackers and filled the Belgian endive with softened camembert.

In front of the mirror of her dressing room, Marjorie teased her hair going for a natural and full look that she held together with Hidden Magic hairspray. She slipped into a black lace push up bra that returned her breasts to the size they were before babies and put on her black lace jump suit showing off her figure.  Two children had not stolen her waistline. Evelyn had to squeeze herself into a girdle, the bulge above the girdle line always showed through her clothes revealing a truth that no reinforced front tummy panel could hide. Marjorie imagined Evelyn pushing into the girdle much like trying to put paint back in a tube.

She was au natural with black lace undies being the only thing between her and the pantsuit. Behind her ears she dabbed Interlude perfume. “You’ll get stains on your skin if you keep doing that,” warned Fred. He might be right. Her habit continued anyway. Marjorie returned the perfume bottle to her dresser and read, “like love must be experienced.”

The house smelled like a fantasy. Perfume, beef and pastry floated through the rooms. Gold hoop earrings finished the look. Fred organized the liquors and mixers, putting cherries for Manhattans and olives and onions for the gin in Lalique crystal bowls he had brought back from his last dental conference he and Irv had attended.

“I’m running only a little late. I have it Fred. I’m assembling the pastry and voila it will be ready.” The swinging doors to the kitchen muffled her last words.

Fred welcomed Irv and Evelyn into the family room. “Drinks? Can you handle a double Evelyn?”
“Not this early, Fred, give me a chance.”

“Hey what are you trying to do to my gal here? Doesn’t she look wonderful? Give him a twirl dear show Fred your new look. Halston, what do you think Fred? Only the best for my gal.”

“House smells delicious,” Evelyn said sipping her Manhattan. “I think Marjorie is going to out do me tonight.”

“She does try Evelyn. But this is not really her thing. Liver and onions I’m sure would be delicious but she’s gone a bit overboard tonight and we may just have to stave off hunger with the pate.”

They settled into the leather couches accented with soft orange and green throw pillows talking about the children and their private school tuition. For the Thanksgiving Day parade, they could all go together, and if the weather were harsh they could watch from the windows of their office on the 19th floor.

With no sounds from the kitchen Fred suggested Evelyn take a drink to Marjorie. It would be quite a while before she was finished he assured Evelyn, and although she’d never ask for help, a little company would be appreciated.

To her surprise, Evelyn found Marjorie with a streak of flour in her hair holding  the most perfectly, just lightly browned Beef Wellington toped with fleur de lis setting in a mushroom jus ready to be served.

More to Evelyn and Marjorie’s surprise when they returned within minutes to the family room, was seeing Fred with a Manhattan in hand, and Irv with a martini, bent over a small coffee table, kissing lip to lip.