East on St James

by Rick Beck

Chapter 5

Rattle Those Pots and Pans

Thursday morning Lucille was busy cleaning every surface in the kitchen.

Keith went into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and Dury stopped in his office first.

"Good morning," Keith said. "I'm Keith and you are Lucille."

Keith spoke in a friendly voice, still buoyed by his successful doctor's visit.

Lucille's eyes narrowed on him as he poured two cups of coffee.

"I was wondering who I was. I know why I'm here," she said suspicion in her voice.

"Morning, Lucille. I see you two have met," Dury said, picking up the coffee cup Keith put in front of his chair.

"Uh huh," Lucille said, going back to her cleaning, muttering to herself.

"I go into the office this morning. You can come along if you like, Keith. We'll see what Leo has to offer today. I had his pastrami once; pure New York City."

"I make a wicked chicken and dumplings. I was thinking that would be a nice change of pace if you enjoy chicken. Guaranteed to melt in your mouth."

Lucille's mouth hung open with the mere mention of the new man cooking for Dury.

"I been trying to get that man to eat for years," Lucille said under her breath.

"You can come along. We'll stop by the grocer on our way home for what you'll need," Dury said. "We'll get out of Lucille's way."

"You ain't never been in my way," Lucille said. "You suit yourself, but you better get yourself some of indigestion while you're at it."

Lucille leaned back into the oven with her soapy cloth in time for the word indigestion to belch out of the hollow space.

"Be nice, Lucille. Keith will be staying with me for a while. He made the most delicious lasagna. I'm sure there's enough in the fridge for you to have it for lunch."

"Yes, there's plenty for you to lunch on it. There are a couple of pieces of garlic bread wrapped up on top of the dish the lasagna is in," Keith said.

"Oops! I forgot to write something down. I'll be back in a minute. We'll finish our coffee and go," Dury said, heading out of the kitchen.

"Where you from?" Lucille's suspicious voice demanded, after she stood up from her oven cleaning to look him in the eyes.

"North Carolina. I've been all over," Keith said, still trying to sound upbeat.

"You look like you been all over, and you don't sound like you're from North Carolina. Mr. Dury tell you that's where I'm from?"

"No ma'am. He mentioned his maid was Lucille. That's all I know. I'm just here for a couple of days," Keith said.

"Uh huh," Lucille said. "You better not be pulling no funny business on Mr. Dury. He's a nice man. You'll be minding your manners you know what's good for you."

Dury came in putting his suit coat on. He picked up the cup of coffee and drank what was left.

"That was very good coffee, Lucille," Keith said, finishing his coffee, not giving into Lucille's suspicion.

"Yes, it was, Lucille. I guess I don't say that enough. Everything you do is done well and I know how lucky I am to have you."

"You feeling all right, Mr. Dury? You don't need to be telling me that. I'm here because I was here before Miss Beverly passed and I wasn't leaving you without help. You pay me fine. You treat me fine. You don't have to go thanking me for doing my job."

"Yes, I do, Lucille. I have to thank you because you deserve to be thanked. I'm lucky to have you."

"Well, thank you for thanking me," Lucille said.

"Keith, let's get rolling. We'll be back in a few hours. Think about that lasagna. I can guarantee you, you won't be disappointed."

"Uh huh," Lucille said as the two men headed for the garage.

"Lasagna and chicken and dumplings aren't exactly from the same menu," Dury said, after Keith had begun preparations, putting everything they bought out on the island counter.

"Southern cooking was what I learned first. There's a story behind my chicken and dumplings. I never write recipes down. When I first left home, my first ride set me off in the back country. I was almost ready to go home after I waited another hour for a car to come by.

"That man set me off across the street from a rather old restaurant. Being hungry, I went to the back of the place and knocked. A big old black woman came to the door."

"'What can I do for you?' she asked, holding a spatula in her hand.

"I'm looking for a job in a restaurant. I'll wash dishes, bus tables, cook if you need me to," I told her. "I was bold as brass, but I was hungry.

"'Come on in here,'" she said, sizing me up as I stood in her kitchen. "'You know how to stir?' she asked.

"Yes ma'am," I said.

"'You stir this here pot. I'll get you something to eat. You are frightfully skinny, boy.'

"I stirred and then I did dishes, after clearing tables that were in the front of an old wooden counter that sat in the middle of the room with no real reason for it to be there. It's where she collected money for the meals."

"'Come over here and sit," she said, after a time. She pushed a plate of chicken and dumplings in front of me with two huge wedges of corn bread swimming in butter. This is her chicken and dumplings," Keith said, looking to see if Dury was at all interested. "As close as I can come to it."

"There must be more to it than that, Keith. I've eaten a lot of food in my time, but I never knew how to recreate any of it," Dury said. "You don't write it down?"

"No, I learned by eye. I watched everything she did and what went into a dish and when to put it in."

"You must have quite a memory," Dury said.

"She hired me. I watched her like a hawk. She could make a pot of collards taste like the best food you ever ate. I don't know how she did what she did to get that kind of flavor out of food, but I wanted to learn. Especially I watched her every time she made chicken and dumplings, each Thursday and sometimes on Sunday."

"She taught you how to cook?" Dury asked.

"Not so much that. She'd get the stuff ready and I'd do the stirring and pot watching. She'd know right when something was done, and she was never wrong. At first I was only in the back of the place, saving her from walking back there to tend to the things that were cooking. She might have a dozen different things cooking. She'd say, 'turn them beans down, Keith, and turn off the kale.'

"I didn't see the customers. I'd hear them talking and laughing, but I was always busy. That suited me fine, but one day she was feeling poorly. She told me to collect the money at that counter.

"All she had was an old cigar box with loose change and a lot of ones in it. She carried it home every night. She'd tell me what to collect, and I collected it. I knew my math pretty well, but she knew the change faster than I did. Some folks would say they'd pay next week on payday, and she'd say it was okay.

"As good as that food was, it never cost more than a buck to eat there. I never saw her in a new dress or wearing new shoes. She wore two flowered aprons over whatever old housedress she wore to work. She'd pick an apron each morning when she started cooking.

"About a week after the day I collected the money, this old bent black man came into the place. 'Henrietta, someone told me you got yourself a white boy working down here. I told him he was crazy as a June bug. He said I should look for myself. Sho' 'nough, you got yourself a white boy back there. I don't believe it.'

"She was sitting up in a chair beside the counter. She looked at me kind of funny like. She says, 'I'll be damn. He is white. Boy, why didn't you tell me you was white?'"

"The subject never came up," I said, playing along, as that black man looked right at me.

"Everyone cracked up. I guess I'd been working there six months by than. I don't recall another mention of what race anyone was but that once. We were just people to me. I'd never been happier."

"Henrietta began to sit a lot more after a time. She trusted me a lot more with the food. Always making sure I was doing right but letting me do things without her standing there to be sure. I had most of it memorized after a year.

"You talking about Henrietta George?" Lucille asked from just inside the kitchen, where she stood listening to every word Keith said. "Where was this restaurant where you worked for that black woman?"

"Tarboro. Just outside Tarboro. It was the colored section. That's what Henrietta called it."

"You were the white boy working at Rattles?" Lucille asked.

"That was me. 'Rattle those Pots and Pans was how Henrietta woke me up each morning. I slept in her storage room. She brought me a quilt and pillow. It was the only level spot in the entire place. People didn't come there for the architecture."

"I moved to Tarboro over twenty-five years ago. I kept house for the mayor and his wife. Nice folks. I ate at Rattles from time to time. I saw that white boy in Henrietta's kitchen. That was you?"

"That was me. I don't suppose there were other white boys working for her. I'm a little older than that now."

Lucille looked at Keith closely before admitting, "You could be that boy. You got taller too," she said. "You ain't as pudgy either."

"I was still growing at the time. That was my first job. I didn't even need to make up stuff about what I could do. She wanted a hand right that minute, and I was it. Nice lady. She treated me better than my folks treated me.

"I've never known anyone who could make food taste the way she did," Keith said. "I can duplicate her dishes but I can't make them taste like she did."

"Like her son?" Lucille said as she considered it a memory she had of that time.

"I'd say she treated me like I was her son. She didn't take me home with her, but I was white. That kind of thing could get a lot of folks in trouble in those days. Maybe I just felt like she treated me that way, because I wanted to believe it," Keith said, not certain what Lucille was saying.

"People said Henrietta had one son, Kenneth. He was lynched when he was seventeen. Henrietta had no use for white folks, especially white men. I was told that before I went there to eat the first time. Then I hear she has a white boy working for her," Lucille said in careful words.

"Her son was taken from her. Another boy about the same age knocks on her door. A good woman would want to see any boy her son's age got better than her son got," Dury said. "I'd say Keith may have been more like a son to her than anyone ever knew."

"She never once raised her voice to me," Keith said. "If I spilled something or made a mess, she'd go right to straightening it out. Never fussed. She always wanted to know if I was comfortable and sleeping okay. Boy did I gain some weight working there," Keith said. "I was fat as a tick."

"She sure surprised everyone in Tarboro. I guess she was finally able to forgive what they did to her boy. Maybe in a way you were a gift to her sent at the time she needed you," Lucille said.

"No one ever told me that," Keith said. "Lynched that nice lady's son? That's terrible," Keith said, processing the new information about the woman who hired him.

"It's what went on down here," Dury said. "Black men were the target of white men who wanted to put fear into black people to keep them with their own and afraid to go where white people went."

"That would do it," Keith said, still surprised.

"I never knew it in my day," Lucille said. "I was always given respect. I knew about the old days. You learned those things from your mama before you turned ten. 'Be careful around white folks. Don't look one in the eye. Nothing to see there. Just be respectful and scarce if you know what's good for you.'"

"Why do that? All the people who ate at Henrietta's were regular people. It didn't matter what color anyone was. Don't make sense to me?"

"None at all. People do stuff because they can, Keith."

"Makes me sick at my stomach thinking of what that woman went through," Keith said. "She never told me."

"I never saw it. Henrietta was the only one I knew of who'd had a relative lynched, but people talked about it in whispers in Tarboro. No one came right out and confronted anyone with the way things were once. We were better off to leave it alone."

"I'm glad I didn't know it then. It would have changed the way I saw her."

"Will you let me have a taste when it's done?" Lucille asked. "The chicken and dumplings?"

"It'll need to simmer a couple of hours before I put the dumplings in, but sure, I'll let you taste it. I'll fix you a bowl. Now it isn't exactly like Henrietta's, but it's gotten closer over the years."

Dury sat listening, always being surprised at how small the world really was. What Dury knew was that the kitchen was filled with a wonderful smell. It had been a long time since he looked forward to eating at home. Keith had been able to wake up his appetite and he looked forward to each meal Keith prepared.

Lucille finished dusting and vacuuming the other side of the house. Before she was ready to leave, Keith put a bowl with chicken and dumplings on the table for two, placing a napkin, spoon, and fork for Lucille to use.

Lucille picked up the bowl and brought it up to her nose. She closed her eyes and smelled as if she was inhaling a fine perfume. She picked up the silverware and put it on the center counter by a stool she sat on when she ate. She dug into the depths of the bowl, savoring the steaming spoonful, digging into the bowl once more, as Keith anticipated her reaction.

"I can see Henrietta sitting in her rocking chair behind the counter. I can taste her in this food. It's not exactly like hers, but Henrietta is in here all right. It's quite good even if it isn't exactly like hers. You were that white boy."

"I was afraid I might be deluding myself, daring to think I could ever do to food what she could do," Keith said.

"It doesn't seem possible we'd end up in the same kitchen all these years later," Lucille said. "The Lord works in mysterious ways."

"I've been all over, Lucille. I just started out in North Carolina. I cooked in Wilson after Tarboro. After Wilson I caught a ride with an eighteen wheeler and I cooked at the 76 truck stop outside of Atlanta. I cooked in Athens and Waycross in Georgia. I've been all over. I've watched a lot of cooks cook. None did I watch more closely than Henrietta. She taught me what it meant to cook."

Later, after Lucille finished her final chores, she came back into the kitchen to speak to Keith.

"Do you want to take some with you for later?" Keith asked.

"No, but I'd like the recipe for the lasagna. I'm sure my husband will enjoy it. It was delicious," she said. "I didn't know where you came from earlier. I spoke out of turn. Now that I know who you are, I'm embarrassed by my conduct."

"You were looking after Dury's best interests. Can't find fault in that, Lucille. He is a fine man and you don't need to apologize for looking after him."

Keith jotted down the ingredients for his lasagna and the steps involved. Lucille tucked it into her purse, making eye contact with Keith before she left.

"You sure you aren't an angel, Keith?"

"Me, I'm no angel," Keith said. "What makes you say a thing like that?"

"First you're sent to rescue Henrietta from the work that's too much for her to do by herself anymore. I haven't seen Mr. Dury happy since Miss Beverly passed. He's smiling and talks like he's happy again. The only thing that's changed is you've come here."

"Thank you. I worry of being a bother to people. That certainly makes me feel good, Lucille, but I'm no angel."

Lucille went on her way to wait for her ride home.

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