Thursday, August 17, 2006

Vegetative State

If you’re a fan of a structured blog I suggest looking elsewhere today. I know where I’m going, but we’re definitely taking the scenic route.

Back when I was in my twenties, young, heedless and had a metabolic rate worth noting, I rented a house with a friend. It was a reasonably spacious house in a decent neighborhood, which meant that within days we had extra people living there.

First came my housemate’s boyfriend, a charming man I was pleased to welcome.

Then came my housemate’s college friend in for a few weeks, followed by another college friend who arrived with his girlfriend. These last two proceeded to live out scenes from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” on a regular basis. I’d be sitting on the couch watching television and the man would slouch in and sit next to me. Within a minute or two, his girlfriend would stomp in and sit on the other side of me. A tense silence would ensue.

“Quinn,” she would finally say in an artificially bright, loud voice. “If your boyfriend was smoking so much pot that he could no longer maintain an erection, but still demanded fidelity from you, wouldn’t you find that…odd?”

Separately, they were lovely people. Together, they had the same effect as mixing chlorine bleach with ammonia. They stayed with us for a very long time, which in this case meant “more than one evening”.

We had a parade of other guests from my housemate’s many orbits: people from his hometown, people he knew from college, people he had briefly taken a shine to at a nightclub. [After one especially excessive weekend, I created a new rule: “You can certainly choose to have sex with strangers, but you cannot bring them into our house -- there’s the possibility they might bludgeon us to death in the night and I cannot make small talk with a stranger waiting in line for my own bathroom.”]

At least twice a month and always on a Saturday, our landlord would drift by to look around. He always arrived at some insanely early hour like 11 a.m. Why was he there, you might ask? His answer would have been that we were the first people to rent his mother's house after she died and he was fairly certain we were depressing its resale value with each passing hour. My answer is that he was only marginally interested in our slovenly ways until the day he stopped by and spotted the girlfriend with the awkward rhetorical questions. She happens to be six feet tall, blonde, British and built like a showgirl. The landlord was not leading the sort of life where he'd meet women like this, and certainly not women like this who were forced to be pleasant to him while wandering around in skimpy cotton pajamas.

We saw quite a bit of our landlord while he tried to see quite a bit of her. He would arrive at the front door, and we would shuffle the current overflow of roommates out through the back door. It was a French farce with unshaven, undressed, hung-over people.

One Saturday, the landlord took me aside and informed me that we were piggish heathens. I'm sure he assumed we flung dung at each other for sport. I was about to defend myself by saying I cleaned up after myself but it’s hard to keep a household of eight tidy, when I remembered how he didn’t know we were a household of eight. He had rented to a household of two. I kept my pie hole shut. Another morning, when pajama girl was not around to distract him, he launched into a tirade about how we weren’t caring for this palace we had been offered at a reduced rate. He was clearly angling for a rent bump when something occurred to me.

“Yeah, speaking of the house,” I injected. “Where are those smoke detectors you promised to install every month since we moved it?”

A few slightly more polite versions of “Slob!” “Slumlord!” “Slattern!” “Legally liable slumlord!” passed back and forth, and with one final forlorn glimpse towards where Showgirl’s cleavage should have been, he was off. The next Saturday he didn’t arrive, but the housekeeper he hired did.

The first thing I noticed was how tiny she was. I’m 5’3”, so I rarely notice that about anybody, but this adult human female was no more than 4’6”. I smiled at her politely, asked her name, asked it again, pronounced it badly, pointed her towards the kitchen and went off in search of the appropriate supplies.

Having located a bucket of cleaning stuff and a stepladder (so she could clean above the countertops), I trotted out my horrifying Spanish to walk her through the basic assignment. After a few faltering phrases, I learned something surprising and significant: she didn’t speak a word of Spanish. She was born and raised in Mexico (had been living there the previous week, I’d wager) but was from a part of the country so remote they exclusively spoke an indigenous language which predated the Spanish conquistadors by at least a millennium. Her ancestors were using a viable calendar when mine viewed lichen as both a blanket and a main food group. But the wisdom of her ancestors notwithstanding, we shared no common language besides shortness.

I was reduced to pointing and smiling to indicate things which wanted cleaning, and pointing and frowning at things which didn’t. Six hours later the lower two-thirds of the house looked significantly better. I was excited to see the kitchen wallpaper actually had a pattern. I paid her and sent her on her wee-footed way.

Over the next few weeks, I came to grow fond of her, even though I stopped attempting to pronounce her name as it seemed to make her flinch. Actually, quite a few things about our house made her flinch.

As many times as I pointed to my housemate’s bedroom door and frowned darkly, one morning she opened that door and saw something which caused her to fly down the hall into the kitchen, open the fridge door like a shield and organize the beer bottles for an hour or so.

I tried to stay out of her way as much as possible. Being as it was mid-afternoon on a Saturday and everyone else was probably asleep there were no witnesses, so I can only imagine her expression the day she chose to dust the five-foot high stack of gay porn tapes next to the television. I tried once to explain how everything boy-on-boy belonged to other people in the house, but that’s a really complicated concept to convey with hand gestures and hopping.

It is a testimony to her work ethic that she continued to come to our filthy house of iniquity every Saturday, reaching up on tiptoes to ring the doorbell. I would offer her a warm smile and hot coffee as a reward for her continued efforts to Pine-Sol the Prince of Darkness’s flophouse

One week, I had gone to the grocery store to pick up basics (paper towels, beer, band-aids), when my eye saw the vegetable aisle and I thought, "VEGETABLES! I could cook a vegetable! I could cook and eat a vegetable! I could stop courting scurvy and eat a vegetable!"

I bought a butternut squash because I had a good soup recipe somewhere. I brought the squash home and placed it in the kitchen. I then ignored it for several days, except when I would come into the kitchen for a paper towel, a Band-Aid or a beer. Then I would think, “Well, look at me, being all mature and buying a vegetable!” If smugness prevents scurvy, I was in fine shape.

Saturday came, and my small friend arrived right on time. She headed toward the kitchen; I headed toward the den so I could remove the collection of Salty Seaman magazines I had seen strewn about the couch. I had just tossed them into my housemate’s bathroom when the cleaning lady came out of the kitchen, carrying the squash. She looked perplexed.

“You like…squash?”

I remember this moment clearly, and not because it was the only English I ever heard her speak. For years afterwards, at long stoplights, I would look back on that sentence and try to determine the deeper meaning. It was either:

1. “‘Squash’…is that the correct English word?”, or
2. “People who are going to hell like squash, too?”, or
3. “Even in my pueblo -- where in the dry season we eat grubs and crickets -- we turn up our noses at something which requires a hacksaw to open and offers four ounces of actual flesh.”

Which, shockingly, takes us to the point of my story:

About three months ago I signed up for a farm collective. Once a week, I get a box of mostly organic vegetables and fruit grown from local farms. The price is about the same as if you'd bought the goods in the grocery store but the money goes directly to the farmers, a group of people I feel honored to support. You don’t get any say in what you get from week to week, but I like the challenge of that. I have plenty of recipes for all the major and many minor vegetables, it allows me to pester Daughter into eating unfamiliar things. And an increase in vegetables in all of our diets cannot be anything but a Good Thing.

But there is this one little problem. Each week, I tear through the box smiling in delight at the still-warm cantaloupe, the brilliant spinach leaves, the last of the summer's aromatic basil, some luscious heirloom tomatoes. But there, in the bottom of the box filling an entire bag is…the squash. We’re in squash season, which I am starting to fear never ends. Summer squash. Patty pan squash. Crookneck squash. Zucchini, squash. Squash in every size, shape and color but blue, and every consistency but toothsome.

I have used every recipe I can find to make squash go away. I have attempted to hide it in other things (Hint: Zucchini bread, yes. Squash bread, no). I have eaten it for breakfast the day before the next farm shipment arrives, because I know there’s a new batch of the little darlings on their way to me.

And all I can hear is that little Aztec voice in my long-ago kitchen.

“You like…squash?”


Blogger take vienna said...

I do like squash, though maybe not in those quantities. That was a lovely diversion.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Paula said...

Those tv chefs who make "spaghetti" out of squash fool me every single time. I can't tell you how many times a 12 pound spaghetti squash has sat on my counter, been axed open, steamed for hours and shredded into a small plateful of "noodles", tossed with pesto and then put in the fridge after a bite or too because the flavor was so not worth the effort. I'm not good enough at mind control to repeat some kind of mantra to myself while eating to make me believe that the nutritive value makes it taste better.

I do, however, like a baked Hubbard mashed and slathered with butter enough to get out the toolbox once or twice a season.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Judy said...

I love squash, but really, enough is enough.

I feed them to squirrels. They love them. They carve them with their teeth, then burrow all the way inside. The added bonus is that more squash grows up all over your yard the following year.

Animals love me. People, not so much.

1:13 PM  
Blogger HaJew said...

Very funny. Well done. Sometimes in a good joke/story the set up is funnier than the ending.

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Quinn.. Do you remember many, many years ago you were getting a cell phone with LA Cellular? I was in charge of approving people's credit for the phone account. When I saw your name come up, I thought "WOW Quinn Cummings from FAMILY!" so I set a $200 deposit since I knew you would call me to have it reduced and I would get to talk to a star!

Well, I'm sorry about that. I was 21 at the time, so you understand...

2:32 PM  

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