Friday, May 4, 2012

The Soldier Who Came to Dinner, Chapter 4.



I gingerly emerged from my hiding-place in the back of the house, that chamber of horrors whence I had been divested of all my humanity, my clothing, my hair, my dignity and my manhood; and allowed my friend to lead me into the kitchen.  The boy’s aunt regarded me with hands on her hips; her face was one of approval.  “Good to see your friend has decided to join the world of the living.”  She nodded.  “I see my nephew shaved your hair and beard off.  Are you more comfortable now?”  I nodded to reassure her; still unsure of myself.  I felt very much naked and defenseless.  

“Well, are you hungry, soldier? We were just discussing what to do about supper.”  My stomach still felt like an empty abyss.  I was all too conscious of its various quakings and tremblings and groans.  I cleared my throat.  “Ahem…may I have some water, please?”   “Why of course! I’ll get you a glass honey.”  She opened up one of her many dark-stained wood cupboards and extracted a vessel for me to drink from.  She twisted a knob and a steady stream of clear water poured out of the spigot poised over the inset bowl in the counter-top.  She then walked over to a large upright box that appeared made of pocelain and opened up the front of it, which swung open on unseen hinges.  I was startled to see many different containers of what must have been food stacked inside this box.  Steam or water-vapor poured out of it, I felt a draft of cold air.  It seemed this was how they kept their food from spoiling.  With a cold box inside the house!  Incredible.  She opened up a small drawer and extracted two tiny blocks of ice, which she dropped into the drink.  She then closed the door on the giant ice-box and offered the glass to me.  I gulped it down without a moment’s hesitation.  I had never drank water so clear and pure or chilled before.  “Very good. Danke”  I thanked her most graciously and returned the glass she had offered.  “Now if you want more, this fridge dispenses cold water and ice cubes.  Push these buttons here.”  I drew closer and saw one was labeled Ice and the other Water.  Truly spectacular!

So leaning against the counter, the boy’s aunt said, “So would the guest be so kind as to help me prepare dinner?”  My friend interjected on my behalf and said, “Uh…actually, I was wondering if we should have a cookout on the deck.  My friend really likes to eat food cooked over a fire outside when the weather’s nice. Reminds him of camping.”

“…Alrighty. I was going to order a pizza but I guess we can do that.  Sorry my husband is not home from work yet, so I’ll go out and fire up the old grill.  Be a dear and grab the hot dogs and rolls and condiments.  And get some drinks to bring out. Pop cans are in those boxes.”  She gestured at some brightly colored boxes stacked in the corner.

I confided in my young friend, silently so she could not hear.  “What is a ‘hot dog’?”   “Oh,” --he said-- “Sausages. Like your German bratwurst. It’s just what we call ‘em.”  Imagine my relief to learn they were not made of cooked dog meat!  

I saw the boy’s aunt leave the house by sliding open a glass panel, which she shut behind her.  She stepped out onto the back porch and uncovered what looked like a round metal cooking-pot by lifting off a very large round lid.  It was shiny and black, not dull like cast iron.  I noticed the pot was on three thin metal legs.  Reaching beneath it, she extracted a paper bag and poured out some black stones into the pot, and hinged down a metal grate over them.  Then she picked up a can and poured some liquid on to the stones. She then pushed a button underneath the pot, I heard a snap and the stones went up in flames a foot high!   So this was how they cooked with a bon-fire. 

I watched with keen interest as she stirred the charcoals with a metal rod and then closed the lid.  White smoke escaped through a hole in the top.  Watching the fire suddenly made me ache for some boiled coffee.  I asked my friend how I could go about boiling some water, to make that elixir of life that was the staple of every soldier’s diet; that had revigored me after many a long march. 

“You want to drink coffee this late?  …Well, yeah I guess.  You guys live on coffee and whiskey pretty much all the time.   I could heat some water up on the stove.  Like you, I prefer the old-fashioned way to using the micro-wave.”  So many curious words, and wondrous time-saving devices.  I could only speculate what a “micro-wave” was or how such a thing worked.

 “Time to teach you how we cook on a modern stove, my friend. Should only take a few minutes.  It’s quicker than a fire, she’s got an electric cooktop. Only thing is, you gotta be careful to turn it off when you’re done. You won’t see anything burning.  But believe me, you’ll feel the heat. Don’t lay your hand or rest your arm on it or anything. You’ll be sorry.” 

He led me to a boxy affair that was set into the counter-tops and cabinets.  It was made of some highly polished surface like the cooking-pot outside.  I noticed knobs and a glowing display of some kind on a panel above it.  The top of this stove was smooth, with no evidence of a griddle or indeed, anything to mar its surface.  My friend turned a knob, and a small lamp was lit.  A circular area roughly eight inches square on this smooth and featureless top of the stove began to glow a soft red, which gradually brightened to orange.  I could feel heat rising from this “hot spot”, despite there being no evidence of flames!  Where did the heat come from?  He placed a very shiny teakettle into the “sink”, and let some water pour into it. Then, covering his hand with a thick glove of some kind, he placed this kettle-full of water directly on top of the glowing spot.  

In no more than a minute, it began to boil and whistle!  I remember trying for hours just to get a fire going and then another hour to boil some water.  What marvelous wonders there were in this kitchen!  Then, he removed the kettle and poured its steaming water into a pot with a handle made of some hardened, black tar-like material.  He asked of me whether I had any coffee beans and a means to grind them.  “Let me fetch my haversack.” 

I left the room and went back in the bath-room where my haversack lay undisturbed on the tile floor. Fortunately I had a poke sack full of some of the finest coffee beans shipped to me from home, which were sent to us from a plantation down in Mexico.  I also had in my victual effects a poke sack of about six ounces of raw sugar.  And of course, my old tin dipper.  I hurried back to the kitchen with said effects, and readied my coffee.

I explained to my cohort that we did not like to grind our coffee beans, but rather boiled them whole in the water.  I demonstrated by drawing the string tightly of my poke-sack, then tying it in a knot so no beans would escape.  I then carefully dropped it into this hot water, which was now bubbling furiously.  I told him it had to sit for no less than an hour.  I would have to keep stirring it with a wooden spoon. 

“Very well,” my friend said.  “So you know how to use the stove now. Don’t touch anything else unless I show you how to use it.  Okay?”

“O-K”  I responded with the mysterious acronym.   He left me in the kitchen to join his Aunt on the back veranda. I stood there before the stove, watching the pot boil on its invisible fire, stirring slowly with the spoon and humming a camp tune softly to myself, feeling much more at ease.

I glanced out the window at the two figures talking on the back veranda with their backs turned to me.  I remembered with no great enthusiasm the problem of my lice-infested clothing.  It had been a long time since I had boiled my shirt and socks.  If this was the only means of heating water, it would be quite an inconvenience to do it on this stove.  I did not see a bucket or any such vessel of sufficient size.  It occurred perhaps I could fill the tub in the bath-room with water and thus cleanse my clothing in that way; perhaps if I let the water out of the wall run very hot. 

After the space of about an hour my coffee was ready.  Instead of trying to pour the pan into my cup (having burned myself rather severely before around the campfire) I scooped some liquid with my tin dipper.  Raising it to my lips, and taking in deeply of the rich aroma….perfect!  I then reached for the knob to turn it to the “off” position. 

Having made sure that the stove was no longer hot, I decided to examine some of the other fantastic devices in this contemporary kitchen.  I walked over to the large porcelain ice-box and saw it said “Frigidaire” on it.  So that must be what it’s called.  Frigid Air. Makes sense I suppose.  I pulled the shiny handle and the container swung open.  The door appeared quite heavy.  Inside were all the various food and drink containers.  I could ascertain the victual contents of many of these containers by the pictures on them.  There was an opened can of peaches, a carton of orange juice, a clear bottle of lemonade, and a container of milk, with a cow on it.  And various condiments which appeared to have something to do with the preparation of vegetables.  I extracted the jug of milk to pour some into my coffee.  It had been quite a long time since I had enjoyed cream in my coffee of any kind.

Replacing the container and closing the large white ice-box, and sipping from my tin cup, I then moved to a smaller black box with another handle on it.  I pulled that handle, and the entire front of the box swung down. Inside were dishes, plates and bowls and cups in racks of some kind.  And a bin full of silverware.  I shut the door and noticed some more labelled buttons and knobs on it.  Curious.  Then, I moved across the room to another black box, which said something along the lines of “General Electric Large Capacity Microwave Oven”  There was another handle on it; the front must have been a door.  This must be the micro-wave device my young friend told me about.  I curiously opened the door.  It appeared to be a featureless white box  inside.  There was a circular dish or plate of some sort on the bottom, and another one of those lamp lights inside that turned itself on when I opened the box.  I closed it again and it latched tightly. The light went out.  There was an array of buttons which appeared printed on the outside of this box.  A bunch of numbers were displayed in a glowing window, with two flashing dots.  This looked as if it were measuring time; a clock of some kind.  Experimentally, I tried touching a few of the buttons.  New numbers flashed across the screen and then letters. “Please close door and push start to cook food”  I found the button labeled START and pushed it.  The thing made a strange noise and then the light inside turned on.  I saw the dish rotating slowly around as the strange thing whirred and blew air at me from somewhere behind it.  Then I pushed the STOP button.  I opened up the door, and felt a faint heat inside.  It felt strange on my skin.  As the door was open, I noticed small instructions printed on the inside of the door.  With different cooking times for various types of food.  I decided to experiment.  I noticed my coffee was getting cold, so I placed the cup inside this ‘microwave’ and closed the door, latching it tightly shut.  I noticed a small buttoned labeled reheat.  I pushed it and the device whirred to life again.  I saw a counter rolling backwards with each second.  I watched the liquid carefully for signs it was beginning to boil.  Then something happened I did not expect.

There was a loud sound, and sparks started to jump off the metal in my coffee cup!  The inside of the microwave started to glow.  The cup started to rattle.  Smoke or steam of some kind was coming out from around this door!  Frantically, I fumbled with the buttons and hit STOP. It had no effect.  The microwave started to spark from behind.  Then, my eardrums were assaulted by the shrillest, most piercing scream I had ever heard.  I clapped hands over my ears and yelled as I felt it was boring into my skull.  SCREEEEECH! SCREEEEEECH!

A frightful commotion ensued, as my friend and her dear aunt came barging into the room and saw the mess I had created.  This black box was on fire and sparks were leaping out in all directions, and….that blaring screech inside my ears!  I cowered in the corner as my friend and aunt started to shout unintelligible words at me.  I saw him pull a thin black wire out of a socket in the wall while his aunt reached for a cylindrical bright red tank with a black nozzle and a fire symbol printed on it.  She continued to yell as she pulled a red pin out of this tank, and squeezed the handle.  A stream of curious white foam sprayed out all over the microwave.  It steamed, but the fire went out.  My friend sternly grabbed me by the arm and yanked me to my feet.  He essentially threw me out the back door and slammed it behind him.   I stumbled out into the back veranda as I heard the frenzied shouts from inside.  It sounded like a heated argument.

I felt an awful sensation in the pit of my stomach as I came to the realization I could have burned the entire house down.  I sank to the ground and held my head in my hands, and began to weep.  What a pathetic creature I was.  The screaming inside the house continued for some time. Then it died down and became low voices.  A long discussion.

Then at length, I saw the door open and my friend, ashen-faced, approaching me.  He sat down beside me.  He pressed a plate with a sausage on a bun on it into my lap.  “Here, eat.  You need to eat something.  We need to have a talk.”  I glumly nodded, still teary-eyed, as I hungrily devoured the blackened sausage.  He rubbed my back as he could see I was very upset.

“Didn’t I tell you not to touch anything in that house without permission?”

 “Yes you did tell me….I’m sorry sir.” 

“Maybe it’s my fault. You were just curious.  I didn’t explain to you how that thing worked.  I should have.  You see, how it works is there’s an invisible beam of light that scatters all over inside that box, and heats up the food by expanding little pockets of water trapped inside the food.  I forgot to explain that if metal is in there, it reflects this light beam and because of how it works, it could start a fire.  I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to yell at you, we were just scared. You didn’t know any better.”

I had lost my composure at that point.  More than anything, my dear readers, I wanted to go home. This was just too humiliating.  I had no shred of dignity left within myself.  I began trembling and sobbing into my friend’s shoulder uncontrollably for a few minutes, while he did his best to comfort me.  I felt like a terrible mindless bumbling idiot.  I was unfit to live or function properly in this society.  I felt as if I was an outsider, scorned and rejected for my careless and clumsy ways.  I tearfully asked him if I would be thrown out of the house and driven from this lovely home, having nowhere else to go.

My friend sighed and said, “Well obviously, we can’t leave you alone in the house.  Now it so happened that my aunt’s microwave was very old, and she needed a new one anyhow.  So later, we’ll have to go out and help her pick out a new one.  I talked it over with her, and she knows your story now of where youc ome from.  I understand you must feel very out of place here, and scared, confused and alone.” 

I nodded, still sniffling.

“Well, we talked it over, and we think the best thing for us to do is take you back where you belong, so you can find your way home.  But we can’t do anything about it today, because the battlefield and park are closed.  You’ll have to spend the night here, since we know you can’t go anywhere else.  We’ll figure out what to do in the morning.  But for now we should take you out of the house and off my aunt’s hands for awhile.  Let her clean the place up.  I told her I want to take you out to dinner at a fine restaurant and get a good meal in you, and then maybe take you to see a show.  Would you like that?”

I told him I would very much like to leave this place where I had been so thoroughly humiliated, and never darken her door again or trouble her with my idiotic foolhardyness.  He told me to cheer up, and that things would work out for the best and I should not be so down on myself.  “Come on, I’ll go get some things and then I’m taking you out, after I make sure I’ve got enough money.  You come inside and just go wait by the car in the garage. I’ll charge my phone and get ready.  Just give me a few minutes.”

I obeyed him and went back into the house, and obsequiously apologized to my hostess.  She just gave me a firm squeeze tightly to her bosom, saying “Oh, don’t worry about it deary. That microwave was fifteen years old. It was an accident waiting to happen. If not to you, then it would have been me.”  She gave me a peck on the cheek and told me to just have fun and behave myself.  I assured her that I would try my best not to cause any more trouble.


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