Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "The Only Real Stumbling Block"

This poem was written outside the regular prompt calls.  It belongs to the Shiv thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

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The Only Real Stumbling Block

[Monday, April 25, 2016]

"Are you sure this is a good idea?"
Shiv hissed, fidgeting with his cuffs.
The new shirt still felt stiff and scratchy.

"I'm sure," Tolli said calmly. "You've done
cotillion. I think you and Ruth will get along
like a house on fire, but if I'm wrong about
that, then you can pick any restaurant
in town for tomorrow's supper."

Shiv gave him a calculating look.
"Even the Palace of Atlantis?"

"Even that," Tolli said, "though we
were saving it for a special occasion."

Shiv thought about that. "Yeah, okay,"
he agreed. "That one should be special."

They'd gotten a teleporter to bring in
seafood from all over the world,
and it was attracting attention
from all colors of the cape.

Meanwhile, Portside Park was
a fancy little cluster of apartments,
some with shops and stuff underneath
to make a promenade, and green space
connected by wide paths edged in gardens.

It was the kind of neighborhood that Shiv
usually couldn't walk through without
someone asking why he was there.

Tolli and Simon strolled along like
they belonged there, though, and
nobody bothered them even though
most of the residents were white.

When they headed into a building,
a lady at a desk told them, "Ruth says
go on up, supper is already started."

Upstairs, the door of one apartment was
propped slightly open with a doorstop,
and delicious smells came from the crack.

Shiv's nose twitched. "What is that?"

"I have no idea, but I can't wait
to find out," Tolli said firmly.

"Smells like squash?" Simon said
as he opened the door for them.

"Hi, Ruth, we're here," Tolli said
as the three of them went inside.

Shiv couldn't help staring.

A woman with short blonde hair
sat in a wheelchair at a custom kitchen
that had a sink and stovetop set low
so she could reach them, and
open shelves holding all kinds of
cooking equipment and supplies.

One set of shelves had been
rolled out from under the counter
to serve as an hors d'oeuvre stand.

"Help yourselves, boys," said Ruth.
"The deviled eggs are all ready."

They weren't just yolks mashed
and blobbed back in the whites.

Some had asparagus tips poking
out the top, others had sprigs of dill
under some sort of fish, okay and
those looked like bits of bacon.
Others had tiny salads on top.

Curious, Shiv sampled one
to be polite, and the flavor
exploded over his tongue.

He grabbed two more,
different ones, and he
loved them just as much.

"Don't fill up," Tolli whispered.

"Tolliver Finn, you know the rule!"
Ruth scolded, waving a spoon at him.

"Yes, ma'am, but Shiv is new to
this kind of dining," said Tolli.

"So?" she said. "You let
people eat what they like,
and you don't pester them."

Oh yeah. Shiv liked this lady.
She sounded like a boss.

"Now then, I'm Ruth, and
this is my kitchen," she said.
"You can eat whatever you want.
We'll be having several other things,
in stages, so think about your appetite."

"I'm Shiv," he said. "I uh, don't fill up easy."

She smiled at him, sharp and bright.
"Then you have a lot to look forward to,"
she said. "Who wants to help cook?"

"I can," Shiv offered. "Just you'll
have to tell me what you want done."
Tolli and Simon volunteered too.

"I'll show you," Ruth said.
"Tolli, put the potatoes on."
She pointed him to a recipe.
"Simon, get the salad rings on
plates, we'll need them in a minute.
Shiv, I need another avocado
peeled and sliced like this."

Her hands danced with
the knife, laying out slices
of the pale green fruit.

Shiv followed along,
just a little slower.

"Now we fold these
into the salad, gently,
like so," Ruth said.

Simon had set up
the plates with rings.

"Spoon the salad into
the rings, then tamp it
carefully with a glass,"
Ruth said. "It's okay
if it slumps a little when
we lift the rings -- we just
want it centered nicely."

The salad actually stuck
to itself pretty well when
they took the rings off.

"Now we add the shrimp,"
Ruth said, opening a tub.

She positioned them
precisely, and then added
tiny dots of the green sauce.

The entire plate made a statement,
with shrimp tails arranged on top
of it like little pink commas.

"It's framing," Shiv said abruptly,
"like when just a few bits poke
out the edge of a picture."

"Ah, another artist, I see,"
Ruth said, smiling at him.

"I, uh ... kind of," Shiv said.

"Shiv is taking art classes
in Omaha," Tolli said lightly.
"I believe the last was oils?"

Shiv wrinkled his nose.
"I do not like putting sand in
oil paint," he said. "I thought
it'd give me grip, but it just
gave me a headache."

"Well, that's no fun,"
Ruth said. "Let's sit
and eat our salads while
those potatoes cook."

The dining table was
a huge glass slab held up
by a pedestal. It looked
fragile, but when Shiv
tapped it curiously with
a fingernail, it barely
made any sound at all.

"That's slamglass," Ruth said.
"I have grandchildren who visit."

"Good idea," Shiv said. "This
is the first glass table that I
ain't afraid of breaking."

Then they dug into
the salads, and Shiv
forgot all about the table,
because the food was amazing.

There were mango slices in with
the avocado, and tiny tomatoes, in
some sort of herb pesto brightened
with onions and hot peppers.

Most of the salt seemed
to come from the shrimp,
so it all tasted fresh.

"I never woulda thought
to put avocados with
mangos," Shiv said,
"but this is delicious."

"Sometimes you have
to do the unexpected
to succeed," Ruth said.

Tolli laughed. "Well,
you've got that down,"
he said, then explained
to Shiv, "Ruth was head cook
long before it became common
for women to do things like that."

"Good on you," Shiv said,
then polished off his salad.
His stomach grumbled.
"Uh, sorry. I'm still hungry."

"Ready for the next course?"
Ruth said, waving at the kitchen.

Everyone agreed they were.

"Sit tight, this one is already
in the oven," Ruth said.

She rolled to the kitchen,
then came back with a tray
balanced gracefully on her lap.

There were acorn squash halves
stuffed with mixed wild rice, dotted
with green and orange vegetables.

Eagerly Shiv took one and dug in.
He hadn't been expecting comfort food,
but the squash made it look nice.

"Ruth, you've outdone yourself
all over again," Simon said.

"It's the contrast," Ruth replied.
"If everything is fancy, folks get
overstimulated. Something homey
in the middle helps to balance
the more elaborate parts."

Shiv had to agree. Also,
half a squash full of rice
made a great way to fill up,
since most fancy food came
in much smaller portions.

It was warm and creamy
and chewy, with mushrooms
adding a rich savory note.

Shiv wondered if he could
duplicate it. Probably not.

It'd be fun to try, though.

By the time they finished
the stuffed squash things,
something in the kitchen
was chirping for attention.

"The potatoes are done,"
Tolli said as he got up.

"I'll put the filets on the grill,"
Ruth said, rolling to the kitchen.
"Who wants to do the green salad?"

"I can probably do that," Shiv said,
and she handed him the recipe.
It was just some mixed greens,
a shaved radish, and lemon zest.

The greens were a riot of red and
green lettuce, baby spinach,
and what looked like herbs.

The red and white radish slices
really popped out against them.

Meanwhile Tolli and Simon were
mashing potatoes with onions
and a bunch of other stuff.

Ruth turned over the steaks,
which smelled mouth-watering.

They plated the mashed potatoes first,
then Ruth squished a steak on top
and covered it with diced red onion.

The salad made a brightly colored
heap of leaves beside the steak.

Shiv loved the contrast of
the different colors and shapes,
and didn't even know why.

"I got this," he said, lifting
the platter with a practiced twirl.

Simon chuckled. "He works
in a jazz joint," he explained.

"So you've said," Ruth replied.
"I see he's quite skilled."

Good thing Shiv had
a lot of practice with
not dropping things,
because that was
so freaking weird.

People just did not
compliment him like that.

"So, what it's like?" Ruth said.

Shiv set the platter carefully
on the glass tabletop.

"It's nice," he said.
"Blues Moon has
a lot of live music,
sometimes dancing,
and the restaurant
serves soul food."

"What he's leaving out
is that they have a range
from healthy to indulgent,
and he's the bargain shopper
at the markets," Simon added.

Shiv felt his cheeks heating.
275 "Cook does all the work."

Then he cut into his steak
because they wouldn't expect
him to talk with his mouth full.

It was tiny, no bigger than his palm,
but thicker than most meat was.

The taste was rich and sweet,
with a salty tang from the bacon
wrapped around it, and the meat
was so tender that he could
almost cut it with a fork.

The onions and radishes
made a bright zing that
cut through the fat nicely.

The stuff underneath
the steak hardly tasted
like mashed potatoes to
him -- maybe more like
sour cream and chives.

It was good, though,
silky smooth in a way
that made Shiv close
his eyes and roll the stuff
over his tongue in search
of more hidden flavors.

"I like the naked salad,"
Tolli said. "The lemon zest
makes an interesting touch."

"Yeah, me and Gray had
naked salad at an Indian place,"
said Shiv. "They put this stuff,
uh, shadrasa masala on it,
just spices, no dressing."

"Minds me of a place where
they put fresh ginger and basil
on the steaks, now that was
really good," said Simon.

"I'm glad you're enjoying
the food," said Ruth.

"You always do something
memorable with it," Tolli said.
"Shiv's like that too, I never know
what he'll fix but it's always good."

"He got the first responders hooked
on avocado fudge," Simon added.

"Gray's better'n I am," Shiv said.

"Well, he's had more practice,"
Tolli said. "You're still learning.
Cooking is like dancing that way."

"Oh, you dance too?" Ruth said,
looking Shiv up and down.

"Yeah, I learned for the wedding,"
Shiv said. "Tolli and Simon
taught me and my sister Luci
about wheelchair dancing."

"Then maybe we can take
a turn or two around the floor if
we're at the adaptive dance studio
together some time," Ruth said.

Shiv squeaked. "Me? What for?"

"You're interesting, and I've already
danced with all the locals," Ruth said.
"I am sorry that I missed the wedding.
One of my nieces got married that day."

"We know, and we missed you, but
there's no getting everyone to come
to any event," Tolli said smoothly.

Shiv's fork squealed against
the plate as he tried to scrape up
the last juices from the steak.

He put the fork down. Making
noise with it was bad manners.

"Shall we set up dessert, then?"
Ruth asked, looking around.

"Yeah, we're done," Shiv said.

They went to the kitchen, where
Ruth brought out tiny tartlets.
"Simon, give the coconut cream
a bit of a whip to fluff it, would you?
And I'll need a mango sliced thin."

"Hey, watch this," Shiv said.
He used a knife to peel one,
but then gripped the hard seed
with his superpower and used it
to slide the soft fruit away.

From there it was easy to make
almost paper-thin slices of mango.

"That's perfect, Shiv, thank you,"
Ruth said. "Now, if we curl these
a little, they look like yellow roses."

"Yellow for memory," Shiv said.
He'd seen it in florist windows.

The mango curls did look
a lot like flowers atop the tarts.

Ruth blobbed coconut cream
on top of each tartlet, and then --

"Fire!" Shiv squawked, jumping back.
His spine whacked against a cabinet.
That was gonna leave a bruise.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Ruth said. "Haven't
you seen a kitchen torch before?"

"I uh, wasn't expecting it,"
Shiv muttered, looking away.

"Would you like to learn how
to use one?" Ruth offered.

"What, me?" Shiv squeaked.

"The only real stumbling block
is fear of failure," Ruth said.
"In cooking you've got to have
a what-the-hell attitude."

Shiv laughed. "Sure,
why not," he agreed.

"You cook, so you're used
to handling dangerous things,"
Ruth said. "Do you have
your fire safety cert?"

"Uh, yeah, Cook gimme it
a while back," Shiv said.

"Then come give this a try,
it's not hard," Ruth said.
"You hold the torch like this,
and squeeze here to turn it on.
Don't aim it right at the tartlet,
just go a little above the top."

Tentatively Shiv tried it,
then realized it was a lot
like misting in graffiti.

After that, the motion
was familiar, and he had
no trouble toasting the top
of his coconut cream.

"Thanks," he said as
he handed the torch back.
"That was really fun."

They took the tartlets
to the table and sat down.

Shiv poked at his, watching
the parts unravel into each other.

The lime filling was eye-crossingly sour,
but the coconut cream cut the acid
just enough, and the mango
added a rich contrast to it.

The crust was some sort of
crumb thing that practically
melted in his mouth.

Everything had been
so different from the way
Shiv usually cooked, or even
ordered in a restaurant, but
it was all so wonderful.

"Wow, that is really sharp,"
said Tolli. "Wakes you right up."

"I've had key lime before, but
this is a little different," Simon said.

"It's kefir lime," Ruth said. "Juice,
zest, and shreds of the leaf too."

"Complicated, but good," Shiv said.

"I'm glad you liked it," Ruth said.
"Tolli and Simon thought you might
enjoy the cuisine, without having
to go to a fancy restaurant."

"Yeah," Shiv said. "This was
really interesting. How come you
have guests cooking, though?"

"I like cooking with friends,"
Ruth said. "I don't always do it
this way. With a bigger group, I
serve everything at once, or else
have an assistant help with staging."

"Guess that makes sense," Shiv said.
"Hey, do you got a favorite knife
that you wish would stay sharp
but it never does? I could
make it permanently sharp."

"And flexible?" Ruth said.

"Like a fillet knife?" Shiv said.
"Yeah, I done Gray's earlier."

Ruth brought him a knife
in a narrow wooden case.

Its metal was delicate,
silky and resilient when
Shiv picked it up.

He wove his power
through the steel,
refining the fine edge
to stay perfectly sharp.

Then he set it back
in its protective case.

"There you go," he said,
nudging it toward Ruth.

"Thank you," she said.
"That's very generous."

Tolli and Simon insisted
on doing the dishes, and
apparently knew where
things were supposed to go.

That left Shiv to talk with Ruth,
and she asked about shopping
for Blues Moon, so he could just
natter on about vegetables and
fruits rather than talk about himself.

By the time the little party wrapped up,
Shiv was yawning, and still stuffed.

"So what do you think?" Tolli asked.
"Did you enjoy yourself, or am I
on the hook for buying supper
at your direction tomorrow?"

"I had a great time," Shiv said.
"Thanks for bringing me. It wasn't
anything familiar, but it was good."

"We thought that you might like
learning some new things about
food, and Ruth is such a spitfire, she
seemed a good match," Simon said.

"Yeah," Shiv said, then shook his head.
"I can't believe she asked me to dance!"

Tolli chuckled. "Well, that's Ruth for you."

"I think I want to try the trick with the rings,"
Shiv said. "I like stacked salads, and I
didn't know how they held together."

"I've seen it before," Simon said.
"If you want them to hold really well,
stack early and stick them in the fridge
for half an hour before serving."

"I'll try that too," Shiv said.
"Worst that can happen
is that everything falls apart."

"That's the spirit," Tolli said.
"The only real stumbling block
is fear of failure, and you definitely
have that what-the-hell attitude."

"... and maybe buy myself
a kitchen torch," Shiv said.

Simon cracked up laughing.

* * *


This poem is long, so its notes appear elsewhere.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, family skills, fantasy, fishbowl, food, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing

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