GUMBO AT 6 ~ Morgan Golladay

The gumbo was served on my mother’s antique Bavarian china, inherited through her when my great-grandmother passed away 85 years ago. The pattern of little roses and a gilt rim were perhaps inappropriate for such a meal, but it was all I had that was matched and would easily feed the small gathering.  Our everyday dishes, from the local 5&10, were purchased over 25 years earlier, when Jason and I were newlyweds.  Through the years, they had broken, cracked, or gotten misplaced, and were replaced by mixed china from the local thrift shop. These everyday dishes were simply not capable of impressing Jason’s new boss, so the special place settings were brought out.

I truly hated to use them, for they required being washed by hand, towel-dried, and stored in the protective cases Mother had bought for them years ago. At least I had a serviceable silverware set that would go with the china. I had lucked into them at one of my favorite thrift stores when I had been searching for a replacement butter dish.  One look, and I knew that I just had to have them, even though they cost the entire week’s housekeeping budget. I invented three different ways to serve beans and rice that week, and they were all hits with my husband. I kept those recipes, and they were pulled out every time I needed to scrimp and save for a little something extra. Like this week’s gumbo.

My local grocery store had a seafood department that I visited weekly, looking for the bargain fish, the ones that were close to the end of their cooler life. Jason never complained, for he thought first of his stomach, second of his job, and, usually, lastly, of his wife. That was fine by me. 

The bloom on our romance had broken off quickly within a year of our marriage.  A kind, considerate, passionate man had gradually turned into a bitter and restless person I did not recognize.  By the time I had realized the depth of my mistake in marrying Jason, I had simply grown into a woman who would not give her parents any reason to believe they were right in their assessments of Jason as someone who neither would nor could give me the love and support that I deserved. So, I stayed married, enduring the small slights and neglect that Jason’s emotional inertia created.  

The valentines that had seemed an afterthought, the small bouquets of flowers that lasted only two days, the vacuum cleaner and crock pot gifts, the reluctance to give me any money to update worn out bedding, these signs of his love and devotion spoke for themselves. Jason’s attention was on appearances – how new was the car; was the tv the latest and biggest model; were his suits properly tailored; was the lawn the best manicured in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, I attended to my own manicures, bought housedresses at the thrift store, clipped coupons like a mad woman, drove a twelve-year-old car.

That Friday night when Jason trumpeted that his boss and his boss’s boss and their wives were coming to dinner at the end of the next week, I finally found the courage to tell him I needed $750 to make the house and myself as presentable as possible.  (After all, appearances matter!) And, I had boldly stated, I would fix a dinner that would be so memorable, Jason’s name would go down in company history. That was the best offer I could make, and he agreed.

Saturday and Sunday were spent in a fog of confusion. My local library had beckoned, and I wound up speaking at length to a staff member about cookbooks and recipes for a dinner party. Armed with half a dozen cookbooks, I spent the next 24 hours combing through them for the perfect menu to impress both Jason’s bosses and their wives. I was well aware that the wives were key to Jason’s plans; that impressing them would be of more value to Jason (and to myself) than what their husbands would think. Most men, by my limited experiences waitressing at the diner for the years before our marriage, were interested in quantity over quality. But I also knew that these two bosses had probably developed a more cultured palate than the factory workers and farmers I’d served at the Hungry Spoon.

It had been years since I had bought a new right-off-the-rack dress. I window shopped incessantly, and my afternoon soaps added to my increased fashion knowledge. A demure black dress, nothing too fancy or faddish, would prove serviceable enough for either dinner or a funeral. Retrieving my gran’s pearls out of the safe-keeping lambswool purse, I wore them constantly for the next week. Under my housedress and close to my skin, my body heat and physical presence would help this last family heirloom glow with an inner light. There was enough for a quick trip to the salon for a real manicure and small makeover. A slightly longer visit to the bank and everything would be ready.

I felt better than I had in years. And I was positive the Louisiana style gumbo would be a hit. Nebraska was off the radar as far as gumbo was concerned, but my grocer had an adequate selection of fish, and I had pointedly asked him for the ingredients needed for this special dinner.

The best recipe I found stated that the gumbo could actually be prepared several days ahead of time. Perfect. That would allow me to rest on Friday, get my hair done, and have everything spotless for guests. Jason had always insisted that I didn’t need to work, that he loved my being “his little housewife,” and that he could provide for everything I’d ever want. 

It hadn’t taken me long to realize his insistence was simply a ploy to keep me as a live-in caretaker. And then it took me no time at all to realize my dreams of continuing my education. I secretly enrolled at the local community college, taking a few classes at a time in business, economics, math, accounting. Even though I’d married right out of high school, I was still interested in things other than keeping house. I had made sure to use my maiden name, to avoid embarrassing questions from the teachers, or an argument from Jason. Working at the diner had given me a lot of hints about extending meals, and the money I had saved from the housekeeping budget provided me additional classes. It was very slow going, but I’d gotten my Associate’s degree in eight years. 

And the library had an excellent selection of books on finances, investments, and money self-help books. I had a rich, full life, even though I was living as a put-upon and put down housewife in central Nebraska. But that was about to change.

Thank god this was not the 60’s. I slowly built up credit at a local store, in my maiden name, of course, and was able to apply for a credit card. Couldn’t have done that 55 years ago. My secret life (behind my husband’s back) included a small savings account and an ever-increasing investment portfolio, all accumulated before our marriage. Jason believed everything I told him, for what did I have to hide? I was a dutiful and obedient wife, as far as he knew. And those quarterly bus trips to Des Moines to see an old high school best friend were an excellent opportunity to visit my accountant, banker, and financial advisor.

Back in the early 80s before we married, I’d heard of this company looking for investors for a new product – a personal computer. It was a chancy investment, I mean, who in their right mind would want some huge computer taking up space in their homes? Anyway, on a hunch I bought some shares from my small savings from tips at the diner. This was a start-up company, and the stocks was relatively inexpensive. And it paid off. That small investment soon doubled in value. Then it tripled. Stock split. More bonuses and dividends that were simply reinvested in the company, as I had been advised not to touch it, but to let it reinvest itself. I had somehow neglected to tell Jason about this investment, made as a young 20-year-old before we married. 

And, you know, today I am one of a small handful of original investors who have never sold their stock. That’s why I’m on this lounge chair next to you now. I never sold my stock.

Back to the gumbo night. Friday arrived, a cold rainy day. February can be a bit nasty in Nebraska, with any and most kinds of precipitation falling throughout one storm. This storm would be no exception. By evening the temperature would have fallen, and the rain turned to sleet and then to snow. A typical storm, and one that we were used to.

The table was set with the Bavarian china and my thrift store silverware. I hoped no one would notice the slight wear on the forks, being distracted by the sheer whiteness of the tablecloth and napkins. The roux in the gumbo was rich and dark, the sausage, chicken, and shrimp perfectly cooked, and the spices were balanced and married with the gumbo. Jason was in charge of the drinks. I’d finagled extra money from him for the liquor. Since I didn’t drink, I’d left the choice of mixers and booze to him, and we had enough left for a small bottle of a chocolate liqueur. Dessert would be a chocolate surprise, and I knew Jason would be quite astonished.

Everything was ready: table set; rice cooked; gumbo hot and spicy; me in my new black dress and pearls; Jason in a pressed suit and a starched shirt. The house was freshly cleaned, and Jason had bought an actual fresh bouquet of flowers, and they now graced the sideboard in the dining room. Ice and mixers sat on the sideboard, too, and Jason had been reading all week on bartending recipes and skills. A bottle of red wine, recommended by the clerk at the liquor store, sat breathing on the table. Very soft music played on the jazz station. Jason and I were both nervous, he for the obvious reasons of wanting so desperately to make a good impression, and me, just to get through this night of unnecessary tension. 

Promptly at 6, Jason’s guests arrived. Robert and Saundra Crawford had been picked up at the local Best Western, actually the best motel in town, by Jason’s new store manager, Samuel Green, and his wife Jennifer. “Call us Sam and Jen” were young Millennials and seemed to be close to 20 years younger than either Jason or I. Bob Crawford was an older man who sported a trophy wife draped over his arm. None of them seemed dressed for the Nebraska weather, and I wondered if perhaps I had made a mistake with the dessert.  

As I took their coats, I noticed that Sam had parked his SUV in the driveway. He would probably need that four-wheel drive tonight. Saundra, the trophy wife, seemed taken with the retro look I had captured in the living room, commenting on how well I had utilized various pieces of furniture, a mixture of Swedish modern and cottage style, with mission oak tables. I saw Jason’s ears begin to glow red, and simply thanked her for noticing. “It has taken a while to get the exact look I want, but I concentrate on comfort and line, which I can change the feel of with a few simple accessories.” Jason hurriedly took their drink orders, and I promised fervently to help assist Saundra in any way I could.

Having dodged that bullet, Jason served drinks and I passed the hors d’oeuvres, a simple shrimp dip, cheese, crackers, and olives. Jason kept glancing nervously at me, and I kept smiling reassuringly back. He could be such a baby! He’d been working for the Goodnow Tractor Company for over 25 years, and one would think he’d have more presence than he was showing. He’d been selling combines, harvesters, tractors, and silo equipment to some of the most hard-nosed men I had ever met, and he was a top producer for the company. 

Evidently the higher-ups wanted to keep him producing, rather than give him a promotion to manager. I had listened to him complain about Green for several months, and knew he resented being passed over for the manager’s position. Although I understood Jason was too hard-nosed concerning the management skills of supervision and teamwork, it hurt me to see him groveling to his new manager and the regional director. I had already made my plans to escape the drudgery of being a servant to an overbearing pipsqueak of a man, but I put on a brave face, just to keep Jason off-guard.

There was a lot of small talk about tractors, and many jokes it seemed none of the wives understood or liked. Drinks were over quickly, thankfully, and we moved into the dining room, where Robert immediately recognized the china pattern. It had caught him off-guard, reminding his of visits to his great-aunt when he was a very small child in Chicago. His face glowed with the warmth of a special memory when he said, “Great Aunt Mae always had a special cake when we would visit, one with raisins, nuts, and an old-fashioned icing. She always served it on plates like these, and I looked forward to visiting her, as much for the cake and kitchen aromas as for the extraordinary way she treated me as a very small lad.” He took me aside later and looked me in the eye when he said sincerely, “Thank you for this. I know it was unintended, but it has touched my heart.”

The gumbo was a smash hit. Jason acted as if he ate this well all the time, not letting on that he spent his money on flashier things. Robert seemed to be the only person who had ever eaten gumbo before, and his flashed both amazement and delight. Saundra, of course, parroted what her husband said, and Sam and Jen were quick to add their praise. Jason simply beamed, as if this were a regular occurrence in our home, rather than a one-time, blow-your-socks-off dinner to impress the boss and the boss’ boss.

I cleared the table quickly, noting that there were no leftovers. Jason would have a problem with his Saturday dinner. I served coffee and tea to let everyone’s dinner settle, and then brought out the dessert. A simple chocolate mousse with ladyfingers left Jason’s mouth gaping, while the rest of the table oohed and aahed over the lightness of the mousse and the delicacy of the ladyfingers. That definitely upped Jason’s standing in the eyes of his bosses. Not that he would ever become a manager, but he definitely felt the glow of appreciation coming from the people he had so desperately wanted to impress.

As the thermometer was dropping, we urged our guests not to dawdle over their goodbyes. Sam had started his SUV, getting everything warmed up for the slightly underdressed ladies, and Robert escorted them out, but not before firmly holding my hands and thanking me for a most delightful dinner, “one of the best business dinners I have eaten in many years.” I beamed, Jason wore a smug satisfaction on his face, and we closed the door as they drove away. 

Jason immediately took off his jacket and tie, draping them over the back of the sofa, and I went to the kitchen to begin the clean-up. An hour later, I finished drying the china and putting it back in the protective cases. The kitchen was spotless, and although there was no gumbo left, there was plenty of mousse. I hung my apron on the hook by the refrigerator, cast an appreciative glance over the sparkling counters, and walked into the living room, where Jason was finishing a highball.

“Well, that went very well! I think the ladies loved the flowers, and I couldn’t believe Crawford was so taken with the gumbo. I think I made the right decision, inviting them all over for dinner tonight. Just wish the weather had cooperated a bit more, but all-in-all, it was an excellent evening.”

“Dear, I’m a bit tired. I’m going to bed now. Can you get the lights when you come up? It’s been a busy week, you know. And the flowers were lovely. Everything’s tidy in the kitchen, and the coffee is ready for when you go in to work tomorrow morning, and there’s bread for toast on the counter. I may sleep in a bit. So, good night.”

I feigned sleep the next morning, not wanting to see Jason. As I heard his car leave, I threw on my comfortable clothes, pulled my packed suitcase out of the closet, and ran down to the garage. All of the Bavarian china was on the dining room table, where I had left it the night before. I quickly loaded it into the back of my car, grabbed my coat and purse, and got in the car. My friend, Becky, in Des Moines, was expecting me. 

All of my investment information was in a folder on the passenger seat, along with the new track phone and my passport. My old phone, now completely wiped of all data, was on the dining room table. It rested on a large manila file, which had the divorce papers in it and a note that all contact was to be handled through my lawyer. I had already cleared out half of our bank accounts, knowing that was what the lawyer recommended. I’d let Becky sell this car and keep whatever profit there was. I had already signed the title over to her.

My stock investments were out of Jason’s reach, having been made before we were married. I was now independently wealthy, and on my way to being a free woman. Jason would have to get his own dinner tonight, for I would be in Cancun, dining on succulent shrimp and salsa, a meal I looked forward to, for I would not have to cook it.