"The Cook"

By Tunnel Writer

2nd in the Background series

 

He walked through the door and let out a long sigh. His hand was shaking at the notice he'd received.

"Oh, there you are, son. I was wondering when you'd be home," his mother said as she wiped her hands on her apron.

He didn't dare look at his mother. He knew he'd lose his courage to tell her.  "Ma, this arrived today," he whispered as he handed over the letter.

Her smile quickly disappeared. "A draft notice?" she questioned as tears welled in her eyes.

"Yeah, ma. Looks like I'm going to Vietnam."

She looked up at her son and saw him as the little boy he used to be. She pictured him playing cops and robbers with his little brother. She reread the letter. "Says here you are to report to the recruiting office in two days. Oh, I wish you didn't have to go. I already lost your dad and your brother. I won't survive if I lose you as well." She turned to hide her tears.

"Ma, don't cry, please," he said as he reached out to her.

She quickly brushed the tears off her face.  "Apple pie. That's what we need," she said sadly as she walked to the kitchen.

*****

A few short days later, he was standing at the airport saying goodbye to his mother.

"NOW BOARDING."

"I have to go now, ma. I'll write you as soon as I can."

She clung to her son and sobbed.

"I'll be all right, ma. This war will be over by Christmas and I'll be home."

His mother just nodded as she shoved a brown paper grocery bag at him. "For the trip," she managed to say with a lump in her throat and tears in her eyes.

He gave his mother one last hug before getting in line. 

He grabbed a window seat and waved at the big window where he knew his mother would be waving. He waved until he couldn't see the window any longer.

Once they were in the air, he decided to open the bag. Sandwiches, cookies, rock candy, fudge, brownies, and a slice of pecan pie. He smiled as he closed the bag. There was enough food to feed a family of four for two weeks.

He had just put the bag away when another boy plopped down next to him. "Name's James," the young man said, smiling.

"William, but you can call me Will."

"Did ya get a summons or did ya volunteer?" James asked.

"Summons," William replied.

"Same."

Will and James fell into a long but comfortable conversation. It wasn't long before Will heard James' stomach growl. He smiled and offered a sandwich out of his bag.

"Thanks, man. I should've packed a lunch, but I was so nervous, eating was the last thing on my mind."

*****

Thirteen weeks later…

Will lay on his cot, thinking.  Am I really here? Is this a dream? Can I really be on the other side of the world?

His mind flew back to boot camp. Shots, physicals, the bad food, and the horrible haircut. But here he was in the middle of nowhere, and scared out of his mind. Thank goodness for his friend James. It was a relief to have a familiar face at his side, and they were both relieved they'd been shipped off together.

"ATTENTION!!"

William scrambled off his cot and stood up straight.

"One of our cooks has gone home. I need a volunteer to take his spot. Step forward if you have cooking experience."

William took a deep breath and stepped forward.

"Report to the kitchen at fourteen hundred hours," the stern man said to William.

William saluted and waited until the officer ended the salute before putting his own arm down.

"What in the heck do you know about cooking?" James asked.

William smiled. "My ma taught me everything. She always sings or hums as she cooks and bakes for newlyweds and new parents, and she dances as she bakes holiday goodies for the neighbors. 

“Two years ago, new neighbors moved in next door. It was quickly discovered they were Jewish. She did some research and offered to cook for them during Shabbat. She learned how to cook Kosher, and delivered food on Saturday. The children loved when she made and decorated Hanukkah cookies in the shapes of dreidels, Stars of David, and menorahs. She even asked to look at a dreidel, because she wanted the Hebrew letters to look perfect. She'd always made sure some were hand delivered every night before sundown.

“The worst was when she'd quietly and solemnly bake casseroles. That was when she was baking for a family that was grieving. No lively music, no dancing, just a few tears and a prayer on her lips as she chopped vegetables."

William smiled fondly at a memory before continuing. "I was five or six when I asked my ma why she was always cooking for others. Ya know what she told me?"

James shook his head as he listened intently to William's story.

"She said, 'Feeding people is how I show them love.' 

“You could always tell what kind of mood she was in by her cooking. If she was depressed, cakes, cookies, and candy lined our counters. Angry? Spicy foods. Happy? My favorite dishes were on the table. If she needed to talk to me about something, it was always chocolate chip cookies with hot chocolate. That was what was on the table the afternoon she had to tell me about my pop's death."

James reached out and squeezed Will's shoulder.

"I inherited a bit from her. When my brother died in a drowning accident, it was me who made dinners for ma. I had to beg her to eat, and refused to leave until she did. Yeah, I learned how to put love into cooking."

*****

Over the weeks of cooking and serving meals, he saw it all: the sadness in those who were homesick, the fear of those getting ready to be shipped to the front lines or transferred. They were the ones who always passed addressed letters, addresses, and precious mementoes to him to mail home "just in case I don't make it back." The worst was the hollow eyes of those coming back from battle. These were the ones who saw death around them. Some even lost best friends who were standing just two feet away.

Some faces he saw at breakfast never appeared for lunch. 

He put his all into cooking and serving food. Each meal could very easily be their last.

"Hey, Will," James said sadly.

"Ah, James, you're almost late for breakfast."

James let out a long sigh. "I need you to hang onto this for me," James said as he handed William an addressed envelope. "It's for my pop. If I don't come back, make sure you mail it."

William swallowed the lump in his throat. "I'll mail it for you," he managed to say, a little louder and more gruffly than he meant.

"Thank you, Will. Oh, and thank you for being my best friend, and my brother. Promise me that if you make it home, you'll go visit my dad. I've told him all about you, and he hopes to meet you one day."

"James, after we get home, we'll BOTH go visit your dad. I'll cook you both a meal you'll never forget!"

James smiled sadly. "I hope I can hold you to that. I better go. The chopper arrives in an hour to take us out of here. Take care and be well, my friend."

William could only nod.

James walked to the door.

"WAIT!" William yelled.

James turned around.

William crammed some food in a bag and walked over to him. "In case you get hungry."

James smiled as he took the bag. 

William reached out and pulled him in for a hug. "Take care of yourself."

"I'll try," James answered.

William could only stand there as he watched his best friend walk out the door.

 

At lunch he started hearing bits and pieces of a rumor that was being passed down the lunch line. Surprise attack. Only three survivors. A man died a hero.

By dinner the rumor was confirmed.

The enemy was hiding where the chopper landed. They open fired on the men. Fifteen men died. James, in spite of being shot three times, was able to help three men to safety before succumbing to his own injuries.

William's face grew ashen and he fell into a chair. "James…dead?" The letter James had given him at breakfast felt like it was burning through his pocket, and burning his skin. He pulled the letter out and stared at the address: NYC. "I can't mail this. I have to deliver it in person."

 

A month later…

"Have a seat, private."

William wasn't sure why he was summoned, but he knew it couldn't be good news.

"We have just been notified that you're being discharged."

"I'm going home?"

"Yes, it seems as though your mother passed away."

William sat up in shock. "Ma!?!"

"You leave at 1600 hours. So sorry for your loss."

Five days later, William found himself sitting on the couch, staring at the addressed envelope on the coffee table. "GO TO NEW YORK" was screaming in his head.

Why not? The house will sell without problems. Everything I want to keep can fit into two suitcases. Ma didn't leave much money, but it's enough for a bus ticket. Why not? What's keeping me here? Nothing.

William quickly packed his suitcases and grabbed his mother's money out of her secret hiding place and, before he knew it, he was standing in front of the address that was on the envelope.

"A barber shop?" Will questioned.

He walked inside.

"Take a seat, I'll get right with ya. Lucky for you it's a slow day, so you're next."

"Um. I'm not here for a haircut. I'm here to give you this." William held out the letter.

The barber took the letter and immediately closed his shop.

"How did you get this?"

"James gave it to me," William whispered.

"You're William, aren't you?"

William nodded.

"I'm Louis, but everyone calls me Lou. Jimmy wrote me and told me all about you. Have a seat. I want to hear everything."

William sat down and his emotions took over. Through tears he told Lou everything about his goodbye to his ma, meeting James, boot camp, and ended by telling him why he was there.

"Son, where are you living?" Lou asked softly.

William shrugged. "Haven't gotten that far yet."

"Well, I think I know the perfect home for you, but you'll need to be approved."

"I can't afford anything. I barely had the money to come here."

"Now hold on. I didn't say anything about money. I've heard you're a good cook and that you can make food stretch. That's an important asset. I live right upstairs. Go on up and make yourself comfortable. I'll be right back in a couple hours."

William went up to the modest apartment. He sat there for a few minutes until he noticed the stove in the corner.

 

A couple of hours later, Lou and another man entered the apartment and the smell of food cooking greeted them.

"William, this is Jacob and he has a perfect proposition for you!"

 

The End