“Why are you washing those dishes by hand, Hailey?” Luna leaned against the kitchen counter as I began scrubbing the plates from that evening’s gathering. The peach chutney was particularly sticky, but luckily the rest of the food was fairly easy to clean off of the tableware.
I wiped the sweat that was beading up on my forehead away with the back of my sleeve. “Dishwasher’s broken again,” I muttered, feeling guilty telling my landlord about what would certainly become an inconvenience and unwanted expense for her. I had been renting this half of the duplex for the past twelve years, first from Luna’s mother Clara, and now from Luna, who moved in to the other side of the house when Clara passed away at almost one hundred. Luna was now eighty years old, and I hated burdening her with anything.
Luna swallowed the last of her pinot noir and grabbed a sponge to wash her glass. “I’ll get it fixed. No problem. You don’t need to be washing dishes, especially on Wednesday nights when we all invade your kitchen.”
I cleaned the remnants of spicy slaw off of the last plate and packed up extra leftovers for Luna. “Here you go. Plenty of chicken, waffles, chutney, and slaw for tomorrow. What did you think? Was it better with sweet or spicy?”
She took the bag from me and wrapped me in a tight, warm hug. Luna was your favorite old aunt but without the familial baggage. “Both. You nailed it again. You sure you don’t need any for your lunch tomorrow? Guidance counselors don’t get catered meals, I know that much.”
No, we did not. “I’m all set, Luna. I’ve got plenty here.”
“Well,” she said, half-believing me. “Get some sleep. Five o’clock comes early,” she said in her heavy Maine accent. “Good night, Ava,” she called to my thirteen-year-old daughter, who was still awake in her bedroom, supposedly doing her homework. I placed my bets on her watching something unrelated on YouTube. I pushed her slightly ajar door open and walked in.
“What are you up to? It’s already past eleven. You need to go to bed.” I wasn’t sure how Ava got through her school day and daily basketball practice on such little sleep. As a counselor at the high school she would attend the next year, I saw exhausted students in my office all the time who could barely function with probably more sleep than Ava got on a regular basis. I needed to be better at parenting in just about every aspect.
“Mom, we need to talk,” she said, with a seriousness that wasn’t entirely unusual for her, my eighth grader who acted – most of the time – like a twelfth grader. This tone often meant that she had gotten a B rather than an A on a paper or test, which I would then laugh off and tell her there were far worse things in life. Sometimes this gravity was reserved for telling me of some kind of drama between her teammates, or that one of her classmates had gotten in trouble for sending inappropriate texts. Although I would always listen when Ava solicited my attention, I had learned not to be overly concerned. I did, however, wish she would relax a bit. I hated seeing her carry so much of the world’s weight on her small shoulders.
“What is it? I’ll give you exactly three minutes and then you need to go to bed. So do I.” I yawned dramatically for effect so that she knew I meant business. As is I would imagine with single mothers and their teenage daughters everywhere, she knew that I was full of shit and rolled her eyes at me. I stopped myself from rolling them back at her.
“I did something,” Ava said quietly, shutting her laptop. Her expression was grim. My heart began to race a bit. What did she do?
“What the hell, Ava? You’re gonna scare the piss outta me.” I felt my usual steady demeanor slip away as panic seeped into my body. Things had been fine for so long. Not easy, but fine. Max was never coming back, or if he did, it wouldn’t matter. We didn’t need him. We were fine on our own. Better, in fact. When Luna eventually passed, the house would be mine. Other than something tragic or unexpected, we really had nothing to worry about. What the hell did Ava do? “Did you steal something? Vape? Did you vape, Ava? Didn’t we talk about how stupid that is? Didn’t I show you those pictures of that kid in Boston’s lungs?” That was definitely what it was. We were catching students in the bathrooms almost daily. Even good kids like Ava made mistakes. Like I said, my parenting needed more attention. I let out a big sigh without realizing what I was doing, disappointed in myself more than anything or anyone else.
“Mom!” Ava almost yelled, grabbing hold of my knees that were across from hers as we sat cross-legged on her bed, facing each other. “That’s gross. No, I didn’t vape. You’re so dramatic sometimes.” She reached over to the nightstand next to her and handed me a folded piece of paper. Her report card didn’t come out for another couple of weeks, so I couldn’t imagine what this could be. I unfolded it with both trepidation and urgency, unsure that I fully wanted to know what was inside while also feeling such intense curiosity.
It was a flyer for a cooking contest that was happening in nearby Portland at the Westin hotel in two weeks. I wasn’t sure what I expected to see, but this certainly wasn’t it.
“You want to cook?” I asked Ava. This made no sense. “You never want to help out on Wednesdays, or really any other time. You ask me to make you toast. No offense, honey, but you burn things in the microwave. But if you want to….” I didn’t want to discourage her, but this would be an undertaking.
“Not me, silly,” she said. She held up her cell phone and reversed the photo image so that I was staring at myself. “You’re up, Mom. You’ve got this….”
“Good afternoon, Ms. Lafonte,” a young woman said as she approached me in the small waiting room for contestants at the Westin. I stood up slowly, trying to ignore the pain in my left hip and the aching in the soles of my feet. It had been a long day already, working my way through two preliminary rounds of cooking and trying to charm the judges. I still wasn’t sure why I had agreed to enter the contest, but looking into Ava’s hopeful eyes that night after all the ladies had left, I knew that saying no would be giving up on everything I had always tried to model for her. But at this moment, I was having serious doubts as to what I was doing there.
“Please call me Hailey,” I said, plastering an energetic-seeming smile on my face and trying to not feel forty.
“I’m Marie,” the woman replied, leading me into a small room that could have doubled for a storage closet or my tiny guidance department office at the high school. I sat down opposite her, quite used to petite spaces. “As we informed all of the contestants this morning, we ask a few questions of the three finalists before the championship round, you know, so that we can have a little banter with the judges and make things a bit more interesting for the crowd. Will you have any friends or family in the audience today?”
“Just my daughter, Ava. She’s thirteen. And my friend Luna. She’s my next-door neighbor.” Like literally, on the other side of the wall.
“So, you’re single?” Marie asked, scribbling what seemed like a ton of information onto her clipboard. What could she even be writing? I had given her next to nothing.
“Um, yes, for many years now.” I didn’t want to volunteer any more than I had to. Max was not deserving of a millisecond of mention.
Marie was flipping through papers now. “And what’s the, um, WNCC? Is that like a wink?”
It’s the one thing that keeps me sane, I thought to myself. “It’s the cooking club that I lead every Wednesday for my friends in Freeport,” I replied. “It’s been meeting for many years now, really since Ava was a baby. It’s evolved and changed over time, mostly because my friends wanted to learn how to cook lots of different things.” Marie wrote furiously, so I continued explaining. “How it works now is that they give me ideas, I pick one of the meals and assign them each a grocery item to bring, and I teach them how to cook it on Wednesday nights. And I always make sure there’s enough for them to bring some home for the next day or the freezer.”
Marie nodded and continued to write, not looking up. “That’s lovely. And what does the WNCC stand for? I’m guessing the W is for Wednesday?”
I swallowed and paused, knowing how this would sound. “It’s the, um, Wednesday Night Chop and Chug. It was the Wednesday Night Cooking Club, but the girls changed it as a joke awhile ago. But we really don’t drink much. They bring what they want to drink, but most of them only have a glass of wine or two.” The last thing I needed was to portray us as a bunch of alcoholics wielding meat cleavers. “Anything else I can help you with here?” I desperately wanted to change the subject.
“Umm…” She flipped through more pages. “Any professional cooking experience?” she asked, and my back stiffened. I wasn’t going to tell her about my acceptance to culinary school, and how my parents would only pay for college if I agreed to become a teacher. A stable, secure profession for a girl.
“No, I’m a high school guidance counselor. I used to be an English teacher. This is just for fun,” I said matter-of-factly, as if it wasn’t fun at all. I often laughed at stoic New Englanders, and here I was, being one. I likely wasn’t earning any points with Marie, but it felt too late to win her over at that point. “That all?”
She looked me over from head to toe, making me feel increasingly uncomfortable. The room had grown warmer, and I was already sweating from cooking on the clock all morning. She looked back into my eyes and shook her head slowly. “No, I think I have everything I need. It’ll be about twenty minutes until you go back into the cooking arena. Good luck to you.”
I stood up and walked back to the waiting area, feeling more uneasy than I had all day. I was taking Ava’s door off of its hinges when I got home. Probably taking her laptop away, too
“Welcome, friends, neighbors, and Mainers to the famous Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, on beautiful High Street in the foodie capital of New England, Portland, Maine!” announced an older man in a bowtie, sitting at one end of the stage, between two gray-haired women. A camera crew was filming him, them, and the three of us who were contestants sitting at the opposite end of the stage. “My name is John Fairweather, and I am one of three judges for this afternoon’s championship round of the annual Maine Cooking Classic. To my left is Anna Gratham, and to my right is Bethany Smith.” Both women waved politely at the camera. “Today’s event will be broadcast on Maine Public Television in the coming weeks, and we thank them for their partnership.”
I tried to take understated deep breaths to calm myself but not make it obvious to my opponents. To the left of me was a woman who had to be pushing eighty-five years old, and to the right of me was a much younger-looking man, with tattoos covering his arms and several earrings. I felt very out-of-place between them, but what even would be normal for this event that I had never heard of before Ava handed me the registration confirmation two weeks earlier?
Anna Gratham spoke up next. “I’d like to introduce Connie Gray. Connie is a grandmother of twelve who lives in Gorham. She’s a home cook who makes all of the cookies for her church’s bake sales and after service fellowship every Sunday. As a regular churchgoer of St. Joseph’s, I can attest to how good they are.” How was that even fair? A biased churchlady judge? I tried to maintain my composure and widened my smile. “Connie, what are you most excited for today?” she asked.
Connie turned to both me and the man on the other side of me and smiled sweetly. She then looked back at the judges. “To beat the pants off of these two,” she answered matter-of-factly.
There was silence, and then nervous laughter from the judges and crowd. I forced a small laugh and glanced at the other contestant, who looked perplexed and didn’t even attempt to react. I was relieved not to be the only confused person on the stage. Bethany Smith then addressed me. “Next to Connie is Hailey Lafonte from Freeport. Hailey is part of a women’s drinking club that meets every Wednesday – “
“No, it’s a cooking club, it’s not a drinking club – “ I tried to save this. Marie. I spotted her off stage, staring at her clipboard. I wanted to hit her over the head with it.
“But you do drink at it, dear,” Bethany said in the most condescending, scolding tone. “It’s the Wednesday Night Chop and CHUG, after all.”
I couldn’t do much more to recover. “I’m happy to be here,” I said simply as my face got hot and most likely very red.
John Fairweather took over from there. “And last but not least, this is our leader going into the final round, although all scores are wiped clean, as none of these cooks have competed against each other yet. Joe Cashman lives right here in Portland and is a prep cook at Sparkler, one of the hottest restaurants in our ever-growing food scene. He is a self-proclaimed former workaholic who became a cook after his previous company burned to the ground! Joe, how did that affect you?”
Joe slicked his hair back with his hand and looked around nervously. “I got divorced and three tattoos and started chopping vegetables for a living. Anything else you want to know?” He was kind of a jerk, but these judges (and their minions, Marie) were being fairly ridiculous, so I couldn’t blame him.
John Fairweather looked taken aback. “Oh, I think that’s plenty, Joe. Let’s get started!”
The next ninety minutes were a blur. There were three rounds with judges’ comments in between, but no scores allocated until the end. I crafted a salad course, managing to integrate the “challenge item” of bananas by making the most delectable caramelized chips to serve as croutons. Chocolate was emulsified into a mole sauce and drizzled over a main course of butternut squash empanadas. Finally, bacon was both crumbled into a doughnut batter and sprinkled on top of the coffee syrup that was pooled onto the plate adjacent to the fried confections. It was challenging, sweaty, and incredibly stressful. It was also some of the best work I had ever done in any kitchen, including my own. I was very proud of myself.
The three of us stood before John, Anna, and Bethany, awaiting their decisions. My comments had been excellent, as the judges seemed to appreciate the flavor combinations that I had developed and the precision in which I plated my creations. Joe’s work was gorgeous, and I knew that he was my stiffest competition. Connie’s food was simple and fairly pedestrian, as you might expect at a bingo potluck or on the snack table at the local blood drive. Joe and I took things to a much higher level, and I anxiously awaited hearing which one of us had won.
John Fairweather looked at the scoresheets in front of him one last time. “Contestants, we can’t thank you enough for feeding us today. I am sure that I speak for Anna and Bethany when I say that we are stuffed to the gills!” He let out a belly laugh, and the crowd politely laughed along with him. “But now to the matter at hand. There is one thousand dollars on the line in this competition, provided generously by the sponsors listed in your program, ladies and gentlemen. And for our second and third place winners, a free month of coffee from the local Java Shack. Everyone is a winner here today!”
I glanced at Joe, who was soaked in sweat and shifting back and forth in his sneakers. I spotted crows’ feet next to his eyes and deep wrinkles along his mouth. Maybe he was older than I thought. I also needed to stop looking at his mouth. He caught my eye and I looked back at the judges.
John continued. “We have an unusual situation going into this announcement. It appears that Hailey and Joe have tied! That’s right, tied!” Five hundred dollars? I could take that. Luna wouldn’t have to pay for the dishwasher. “But according to our contest rules, that means that we have to examine the early rounds.” What? What rules? I had never seen any rules. “And although Joe was the leader going into the championship round, that was based on overall scores. Connie actually had considerably more points in the dessert round, probably due to those amazing cookies! And since the dessert round was what caused Joe and Hailey to tie today, we are awarding first place to Connie! Congratulations, Connie Gray!”
It was surreal and made absolutely no sense. While Connie celebrated with the judges, Joe and I finally looked at each other and took the coffee cards that we were handed. Dumbfounded, he gestured to the off-stage area, and I followed him. There was a small couch that we both sat down on and didn’t say a word for several minutes, stewing in our sweaty confusion.
“That was the most jacked up thing I’ve ever been a part of,” he said, shaking his head. “What the hell was that?”
“I don’t know. It seems like it was rigged from the start. That they just wanted to give their friend the prize.” I felt stupid and exhausted.
Joe looked down at his coffee card. “Would you want to go get free coffee together sometime?” he asked, somewhat shyly.
Just as I was about to formulate an answer, a man ran backstage to where we were sitting. “Joe, what the f – Oh, hi there!” he said when he saw me. “Hailey, is it? You were unreal. I’m Charlie, the executive chef at Sparkler, where Joe here works. Would you want to come in for an interview? I think you could be an amazing part of our team.”
“Um, sure,” I said, taking his business card. “I’ll drop you a line tomorrow.” I felt a bit dazed, but why not? As I told my students all the time whether it be for jobs or colleges, it never hurts to go to the interview.
“OK, great. Good job today. Both of you. That was so stupid,” Charlie said, walking away, leaving us alone again.
Joe sighed. “About that coffee. How about it?”
He was cute, and I hadn’t gone out on a date in almost a year. “When I ace this interview,” I replied. “I might be your boss. If I decide that’s what I want to do.” I was in awe of my own confidence at that moment but tried not to show it.
Joe smiled for the first time that day, and I swear I saw him wink. “I’m totally willing to be fired by you. I’ve seen you make bacon doughnuts.”
“One course at a time. I think dessert can wait awhile.” I stood up. “I’ll see you at Sparkler. I need to go find my daughter.” I gave him a half smile, then walked offstage to where Ava and Luna were waiting for me, shaking their heads and reaching for me with outstretched arms.
Jenn Bouchard’s debut novel titled FIRST COURSE will be published by TouchPoint Press in 2021. Her short story “Brat” was published in the BOOKENDS REVIEW on April 3rd.