William's Day

By Londa


William stretched out the early morning stiffness in his arms, grunted softly, and poured a bucket of water into his second largest pot.

"So, ladies, ready to start breakfast?" he asked the five large steam pipes that were solidly anchored to the red brick wall. He often talked to his pipes, and had years ago named each one. The largest one on top was Jessie, under her was Mable, Sweet Sue, Carmen, and Betty Davis. He considered them to be his coworkers. In his first weeks as cook, he had just balanced his beat up pots and pans on top of Jessie and hoped they wouldn't get knocked over and spill. All those pipes carrying steam heat under New York City put out plenty of heat and were more than up to the task of cooking food for the whole community.

Over the years brick ovens were built up around the pipes, and ingenious scrap metal doors fitted into the bricks. On top of the oven, of course, more scrap metal served as stovetop or grills.

William carefully put the pot of water on the stove to boil for tea. It being Wednesday, he filled his largest pot with water for the oatmeal. While he was waiting for the water to boil he set up the two trays that were to be carried to the sick children he knew would not be allowed to walk to the dining room. He opened the storage bins and set out a cookie tin of brown sugar, and another one of raisins on the dining room serving table. His warming table was a simple metal shelf over a good sized pipe that ran the length of the dining room.

Predictably, Mary was the first to arrive for breakfast.

"Mornin' Mary." William called out without even looking up from the pot of hot tea that he set gently down on the warming table. "Oatmeal's done. But I'm only going to bring out one bowl. You have to eat it before I let you have any for the sick kids."

Mary made her protest face. It was an old argument. William blocked the opening to the kitchen with his hands on his hips. Without a word Mary sat down and William ploped down a steaming bowl of oatmeal in front of her.

The usual breakfast sounds drifted into the kitchen as William sliced a basket of onions very, very thinly. He felt the texture of food was important and very thin onion slices were one of his favorite tricks.

Before his dishwashing team showed up, William had already put together the sandwiches for the work crew that would be too far away to come back for lunch. As he stirred onions in the sizzling butter he ate spoons of oatmeal that he had topped with peanut butter. Kitchen work just gives a person food quirks. He toasted the stale bread for the soup topping in his largest oven.

"Thanks for the sandwiches!" Vincent said as he packed them in a cloth shoulder bag. He sniffed the onions. "I sure am sorry to miss your onion soup! "

"I'll save you some for dinner," William whispered, "as long as you don't tell anyone." William knew even small favors for Vincent were good for bringing in a whole cart of food from Catherine.

William sprinkled handfuls of flour over the onions and butter to make a strong paste. One minute of heating the flour was enough, and he counted out the seconds in his head silently, "One thousand one, one thousand two…" The kitchen clock was broken. Then he poured two buckets of water into the pot. He was glad the dishwashers had brought in enough water. As he was adding the salt and thyme he discovered Mouse standing in the kitchen doorway. Mouse was not allowed in since he had been found "improving" his best oven that resulted in a smoky explosion.

"No, I don't have sweet corn for your raccoon!" William said automatically. "It's not even in season."

"Ok good, ok fine. How 'bout cookies?"

"Those are for the concert tonight. But if you fix my clock, I mean, really fix it so it tells time, I'll give you two."

Mouse scurried away with the clock as William carefully blended the butter and flour into the water. Slowly the brown on the bottom of the pot from the slightly burnt onions rose and lent its color to the soup.

Jamie arrived just before lunchtime to help serve. "Hey, William. I saw the Con Edison crews when I was out on patrol. It looked like they were inspecting the steam pipes. How come they never find yours?"

William chuckled as he bent down to take the toast out of the oven. "We have a few tricks up our sleeves." He handed three trays of toast to Jamie and she started breaking them into small chunks. "For one thing these babes date back to the 1880's. We keep them well maintained so the crews don't need to. The maps of the pipes are not all that accurate due to their age, too. Then there's Dave, one of our helpers who happens to be on the Con Ed crew. He sends word when they might be close by. And we have a bit of fun with the guys who are more determined than most. For a while we had signs up warning there was danger of radiation. Then Dave started meeting the crews long before they got here. He would have a clipboard and documents that showed my pipes had just been inspected by a crew an hour before. Last year, Dave fit me up with an old uniform, hard hat and all, and we did it together. I pretended to be angry that they were late and Dave and I had to do their work for them. I might'a threatened to complain to their supervisors. Jamie, you better get out to the dining room, and don't forget to sprinkle this Romano cheese on that toast. Remember…"

"I know, I know," said Jamie, "Put on the toast JUST before they take it to the tables. Soggy croutons are not croutons at all."

William sat down for the first time that day and ate two bowls of soup.

Mary arrived with all the children so William knew no trays were needed. Father joined them and told the children a funny story about the time Pascal had tried to play the cello when he was too short for his feet to reach the floor.

William trusted Jamie with the dishwashers, and took a nap on a cot in the store room. He dreamed fitfully about making dill flavored pudding. He woke with relief and found no one around. The kitchen was cleaned and even the floor was swept. The leftovers were all sent to helpers. His hidden small pot of onion soup for Vincent was safe. No one ever looks in the wood crate that has turnips stenciled on it. It looks like it's screwed shut, but the screws are too short to hold the lid down. Every kitchen needs a hidey hole.

William called out to his pipes, "Ladies it's baked ziti night!" He rubbed his large hands together, and made the red sauce, and boiled the pasta. Three of the older children arrived with two wagons of beets with their dark green tops still on.

"Thanks," William said as the children left the beets in the store room. "Hummm…I better cook those beat tops before they wilt. The beets can wait for tomorrow. 'Gonna be a messy day then. I should wear something black."

Just as he was putting the trays of ziti in the oven, Mouse showed up with his clock. It ran backwards.

"Tells time, backwards time. Just as good."

William gave him the cookies anyway. He could tell the time of day by the sounds in the tunnels. Pipe Betty Davis was occasionally used for messages and he enjoyed the sound of it. It was like Betty was talking to him. Today she was reminding him about the concert tonight.

William washed and boiled the beat tops with olive oil, salt and the last of the garlic. He mixed dough for tomorrow's sandwich bread. On a whim he added some dill. He knew better than to bake the bread before dinner. The smell of it baking would drive over a dozen people to the kitchen door to ask for it. Better to bake it when dinner was all over. He put the pot of dough on a shelf above the ovens to rise with a damp dish towel over the top.

Vincent was slightly muddy when he arrived just before dinner time. William had his soup already reheated.

"This is the best soup in this whole city." Vincent said in thanks. He ate while standing in the kitchen holding the wood bowl in his wonderful clawed hands. William looked at the claws closely and wondered if they would be be good for slicing cheese.

"You better leave the serving for Rebecca, so you can get cleaned up for the concert." Vincent said as he nodded at William's shirt that was splashed with sauce and coated with flour.

"You got a point there." William took a fast shower, and changed into a white shirt. Then he hurried back to his kitchen to bake the bread.

The kitchen felt so calm when it was scrubbed clean. Rebecca had saved a huge serving of ziti for him on a metal plate that was made to use while camping. With many years of experience he rolled the dough into small round balls that would bake faster than the usual big loaves. Once they were baked they would double in size, maybe more. Not until he got the bread in the oven did he pause to eat his dinner. He sat on an empty upside down water bucket so he could open the oven with a foot and keep an eye on the bread. He had a fresh coat of flour on his shirt, but who could tell? It matched. He left the baked bread to cool off high on a rack in the storage room. He put a basket of apples on the serving table just in case he got late night visitors, the hungry kind. He locked the storage door to keep his bread safe.

As he left the dining room, he could hear he was late for the concert. The tunnels were empty except for himself. The pipes were silent. The music was faint, but growing louder as he got closer to Father's chamber. He wasn't like Father or Vincent, he could never remember the name of the music, or the composer, but he just liked it. He slipped silently into the very back of the crowd, sat on the floor, and felt the music smooth out every ache in his back and neck.

People he knew were talking to him about old times. There were about eight Winterfests all lined up one after the other. He was warm from his friendly pipes. "Jessie," He called, "Wake up my beauties! It's almost time for breakfast!"

William woke up and found himself on eight pillows still on the floor in Father's study. There were several hand crocheted blankets carefully tucked over him. He rubbed his hands on his face. Maybe he could get to his own bed for an hour or so.