Baby, It's Gold
An excerpt from the short story by Josh Lanyon
“No,” Rocky said. “Oh hell no.”
“Merry Christmas to you too,” I said. “And for your information, this wasn’t my idea.”
“Where’s Poppy?” Rocky peered past me into the rain, looking for my grandfather, Fausto Poppaof Poppa’s House. You’ve seen the program. Everyone’s seen the program. It’s America’s longest running cooking show. It’s been on the air longer than there’s been a Food Network.
I said tersely, “Poppy’s sick. He’s got the flu. Why else would I be here?”
Rocky drew himself up to his full height. Which is…my height, which is medium. Yes, he wears it better, although why assorted piercings and tattoos should make a guy look taller, I don’t know. What I did know was that his green eyes were level with mineand it was very weird to be this close to him again.
That’s how long it had been. Eight weeks since we last spoke. If spoke is the right word. We’d been speaking at the top of our lungs.
“Who knows with you, Jesse,” Rocky said. “Maybe you’re looking for fresh content for your blog. Or maybe you got some crazy idea to come by and peek in my windows to see who I’m banging this week.”
“Yeah right. Maybe I’m trying to steal your secret sauce recipe. Dream on. And I never peeked in your windows!”
“That’s right,” Rocky said. “You didn’t bother with shit like proof or evidence. How could I forget? Oh! Maybe you’re here because it finally occurred to you, you owe me an apology.”
I laughed. Loudly. The sound sailed through the pine trees and ricocheted off the surrounding mountains. Assuming there were mountains behind that ominous wall of cloud and mist. “Have you been hitting the eggnog? I’m here because if I hadn’t agreed to this, Poppy would have dragged himself out of bed and tried to drive up here. That’s the only reason I’m here.”
Here being the rain-slick deck of Rocky’s A-Frame in Big Bear. Big Bear or Big Bear Lake is a summer and ski resort located in the San Bernardino Mountains. It’s surrounded by national forest, which is not my natural habitat. But Rocky grew up here. His first real gig was prep cook in a ski lodge. He calls the cabin his “hideout.”
Warmth and the smell of woodsmoke and coffee wafted out from behind Rocky’s sturdy form. I shivered. There’s nothing like rain down the back of your neck to make you feel unloved and unwanted.
Rocky eyed me for a long, scowling moment. His curly brown hair was looking wilder than usual and he hadn’t shaved in days. Going for the whole mountain man vibe, I guess. “I don’t think this is a good idea,” he said at last.
“I think it’s a terrible idea,” I agreed. “But this is what the client wanted.”
“If there really is a client.”
I gaped at him. “If there really is a client? I hope you’re kidding because otherwise you’re delusional and that might freak out the network honchos.”
I was probably overdoing it. Anyway, I could have been talking to myself. Rocky held up a hand as though to tick off a very long list. “First of all, you can’t cook your way out of a paper bag.”
That stung. “I can cook. I don’t have my own show or my own restaurant, but most people don’t. I know my way around the kitchen.”
“You always knew where the door was, yeah.”
I curled my lip. “Forget the cooking gig, you should do comedy. So do I get my gear out of my car or are you canceling? There’s no refund for your friend. That needs to be understood.”
His blunt features tightened. Even the tiny gold studs in his eyebrows seemed to bristle. “Who is this supposed friend? I want to know his name.”
“Are you so sure it’s a he?” I asked slyly.
Rocky looked startled and then alarmed, and I laughed. Rocky is out. Out on TV and out in real life, but it’s surprising how many women see “teh gay” as a challenge.
Of course my laughing irritated him all the more, which I guess was kind of what I intended. He said stubbornly, “I’m still not convinced there is any friend.”
“I admit I can’t see why anyone would want to do something nice for you,” I said. “But you do have your fans, as we both know.”
His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t bite. He continued to stand there, scowling at me and thinking whatever it was he was thinking. Rocky’s the methodical type. Not slow, but never impulsive. He can’t be rushed. He doesn’t get mad easily, but once he is mad, he pretty much stays mad forever.
I stared right back at him. My gaze flicked to his full-lipped, sensual mouth. I made myself meet his eyes again. I read emotion there, but I wasn’t sure what the emotion was. Probably wariness, distrust, suspicion. Turnabout was fair play after all.
I said, “Okay, fine. And when your date shows up and there’s no romantic dinner for two, despite the generous fee he paid, you can explain why.” I turned to go.
Rocky said, “Just a minute.”
I turned back, shoved my hands in my pockets, rocked back on my heels like it didn’t matter to me one way or the other. My heart was pounding so hard I’m surprised he couldn’t see it beneath my jacket.
“Why would you agree to do this?”
I said, “I told you. So Poppy wouldn’t have to make a two-hour drive when he’s sick.”
“He could have asked anyone. He could have asked Louisa.”
Louisa is my mother. She’s the Louisa behind all those Bella Louisa Cooks books as well as the Beverly Hills restaurant.
“First, that would be disrespectful to you to just hand it off to anyone. As I’d think you would be the first to point out, given how highly you think of yourself. Even if Poppy could find someone on Christmas Eve. Which he couldn’t. Secondly, there’s no way my mom can leave the restaurant tonight. As you well know.” Christmas Eve at Bella Louisa’s is a major event. All hands on deck. Even Poppy makes an appearance. Rocky had helped to cook his share of holiday feasts back in the day.
I scowled. “What thirdly?”
Rocky watched me, waiting.
I drew a deep breath. “Thirdly,” I said, “maybe I wanted to do this” he began to shake his head in what looked like repudiation and I hurried to finish, “because there’s no reason we can’t be friends, right? I mean, even ifthoughthe other is over. We can be friends. It’s easier on everybody if we’re friends. And friends…cook for friends.”
“Not if you’re the one cooking.” But he was grinning that big evil grin of his like a cartoon red devil. Some people found it sort of charming. I used to be one of them.
“You really are an ass, Senate,” I said.
“Apology accepted,” Rocky said graciously, and beckoned for me to go get my gear.
Which I did, trotting back down the wet stairs and sloshing across the muddy clearing that served as the cabin’s front yard. I hadn’t brought much in the way of utensils or gadgets. I didn’t have to. Even Rocky’s mountain getaway had a fully equipped kitchen.
The rain had turned to sleet. It had a sloppy, slushy feel to it. Maybe weRockywere in for a white Christmas. Not that I was any expert, but they did get snow in Big Bear this time of year. I briefly considered what would happen if Rocky and I got snowed in together. If nothing else, we’d have plenty to eat.
I grabbed a bag of groceries in each arm and lugged my stuff back across the ragged yard and up the stairs. The front door was ajar, and I nudged it open with my boot and carried my supplies inside. The house was toasty after the wet cold outside.
“Hey,” I called.
There was no answer and no sign of Rocky, so I continued down the hall to the kitchen.
The cabin seemed unchanged. But then there was no reason it wouldn’t be. I’d been here a few times through the yearstwice during those brief months Rocky and I had tried to make the jump from friends to loversbut I hadn’t spent enough time to put my mark on the place. “Mark” being another term for a plate of scrambled eggs hurled against the wall. It’s that temper of mine. I take after my dad in my looksblue eyes and fair hairbut my temper is pure Sicilian. More eruptions than Mount Etna, my dad used to say about my mom. He found it funny back then. Later, not so much.
Anyway, the cabin was the same as I remembered: rustic but comfortable. All golden knotty pine and picture windows and space. There were a few Indian print rugs and the lighting fixtures were frosted glass and pine cone art stuff. The furniture was barnwood and leather. A tourist’s idea of how to furnish a mountain cabin, not the kind of thing Rocky had grown up with. Money had been scarce in Rocky’s family. His mom had been a waitress and his father a bartender. Having the dough to afford nice things meant a lot to him.
I dropped my paper sacks on the counter and stared out the rain-starred window. It was only about three o’clock, but the stormy sky was so dark that it could have been nightfall. The towering pines swayed in the wind like tipsy sentinels after a nip or two.
I turned back to the kitchen. It was the one room in the cabin where rustic charm took a backseat to convenience and stainless steel functionality. I took off my jacket and began to unpack the groceries, running over the menu in my mind. There was no dish that was too challenging on its own, but put them all together and… Well, organization was everything in a kitchen.
I dumped out the coffee that, knowing Rocky, had probably been stewing all day, and made a fresh pot.
I was putting the bottle of champagne in the freezer when Rocky said from behind me, “What are you planning on cooking?”
I couldn’t quite hide my jump, but I managed to say calmly, “It’s a surprise.”
“Well, always with you. But what are you hoping to cook?”
“Steamed mussels in white wine and garlic.”
His green eyes lit up. They almost glowed.
“Someone knows what you like,” I said.
“It’s practically the Feast of the Seven Fishes.”
We grinned at each other and for a second it was like old times. “You know,” I said, “you’d have been welcome tonight. We were friends a lot longer than we were whatever we were. Mama was saying yesterday it won’t feel the same without you there on Christmas Eve.”
“Let alone without you there.” Rocky’s gaze was curious.
“That couldn’t be helped,” I said.
“Because of this mysterious romantic dinner Poppy was paid a fortune to cook.”
Rocky snorted. He had changed his blue flannel shirt for one of red and white plaid, and he had shaved. He smelled of soap and aftershave. But then he believed he had company coming.
“Believe what you want to.” I turned away and began hunting for the bowls and pans and spoons I’d need. Rocky watched for a few seconds and I tried not to get self-conscious. I’d known him half my life, so it really didn’t make sense that he could make me nervous just by staring at me. But he could. In fact, that had been part of the problem between us. All those years of easy companionship had vanished like sugar in water once we’d tried to take our friendship to the next level. It had been a big disappointment to both of us, I think. We should have been great together. But somehow it had been worse than starting from scratch.
“So how’ve you been?” Rocky asked finally, going to the wine rack.
I shrugged. “Good. Busy.”
“I saw you won Saveur’s Readers’ Choice for best written blog. Congratulations.”
I glanced at him. “Thanks.”
Rocky studied the wine labels, selected a bottle, brought it to the counter. I moved away, filling a pan with water and turning up the stove burner.
Rocky poured a glass of white wine and leaned back against the counter studying me.
“We’re going to have sides? I’m impressed.”
“You’re getting it all. Starter to sweet. Okay? Poppy picked the menu.”
“So then he’s delirious?” Rocky’s expression grew earnest and concerned. “I had no idea he was so ill.”
I laughed, set a glass bowl over the pan of gently simmering water, and dropped in broken pieces of semi-sweet chocolate. I’d done some of the prep work at home so I wouldn’t run out of time or get distracted and forget some vital step. I’d figured Rocky would probably hover. Expecting a chef not to hover when you’re preparing a meal is like asking a boxer not to take a swing. I added the diced butter, a pinch of salt, and left the mixture to melt while I set about pressing sponge fingers into the walls and bottom of a deep earthenware dish. The dishlike practically every other piece of crockery in the placewas decorated with pine cones.
“Tiramisù?” Rocky asked.
I nodded. Did some more pressing. The sponge didn’t stick very well. I gave up and moved to the stove, gave the chocolate and butter a stir, checked on my coffee. I removed the pot, added sugar, swirled the mixture in the carafe. Some of the liquid spilled out the spout. Rocky opened his mouth, then closed it.
I remembered I had to add the Vin Santo and I hastily set the coffee aside to scramble for the winetrying all the while to look like nearly forgetting the wine was all part of my master strategy.
I found the wine. Rocky watched without a word as I dived past him to grab the corkscrew.
I got the wine open, and splashed some of it into the melted chocolate. Rocky cleared his throat. I stirred the chocolate and wine, glanced up at him.
“I got it.” I grabbed the coffee pot and poured the hot, sweet coffee over the sponge which was once again beginning to peel from the walls of the dish. I pressed the soggy sponge back into place, managing not to yelp at just how fucking hot the coffee was.
Rocky began, “Are you sure you”
“Nope. I got it.”
I snatched up a potholder and removed the glass bowl from the pan, drizzling chocolate all over the coffee-soaked sponge. Cautiously, I smoothed the chocolate out to the edges, trying not to tear the sponge to pieces. When I’d managed to cover the sponge with an even layer of chocolate, I set the dish aside to cool and wiped my forehead.
Finally the sponge was sticking to the walls of the dish, so that was something. I found the carton of eggs and snagged two small bowls. I cracked a couple of eggs.
Rocky made an amused sound. I looked up. “That you do with flair, I gotta say. Always.”
“Ha.” Me and Audrey Hepburn. But cracking an egg with one hand was one of my two party tricks. The other was flipping pancakes. Well, there was a third, but it had nothing to do with cooking.
I separated the eggs, whites in one bowl and yolks in another. I had Rocky’s full attention now. Well, I’d had his full attention from the start, but now I had his considering appraisal.
“Egg whites in tiramisù?” he asked.
“I know it’s not traditional, but this is the way my mama makes it.”
“I thought that might be her secret ingredient.”
“Unfortunately now I can’t let you leave this cabin alive.”
“With you cooking, my chances were only fifty-fifty anyway.”
“Okay,” I said. “Enough with the jokes about my cooking.” But it felt natural, comfortable, joking back and forth like we used to.
Rocky grinned back and swallowed a mouthful of wine.
I added sugar to the yolks and began to whisk the mixture. When the sugar had dissolved and the yolks were pale and fluffy, I mixed in the mascarpone and the orange zest.
“And to think they said it couldn’t be done.” I set the bowl aside.
“They were only trying to protect you from yourself.”
I ignored that, moving over to the sink and washing the whisk. I turned off the taps and dried the whisk with a paper towel. I was feeling a little more relaxed now that I’d nearly completed the most complicated of the dishes.
Rocky said, “No electric whisk. I’m impressed.”
“It’s all in the wrist.” I winked at him. “I’ve been practicing for you.”
Rocky’s cheeks reddened. “You’re the only guy I know who can turn the discussion of kitchen utensils into something filthy.”
“That’s wishful thinking on your part.”
He made a little face. “Maybe.”
I turned away before he could read my expression and added a pinch of salt to the egg whites.
“Did you want a glass of wine?” Rocky asked.
He poured me a glass as I began to whisk the whites.
I whisked and whisked until the whites formed stiff peaks. By the time I finished, the bowl looked like it contained a miniature snowy landscape.
“I’ve been good too,” Rocky informed me.
I looked up in surprise.
“Happy. Busy,” he clarified.
“I’ve got an offer to do a show in New York.”
“I know.” His gaze held my own. I said after a second, “Are you going to take it?”
He shrugged. “It’s a big opportunity.”
“It is. Yeah.” I put down the bowl and picked up my wine glass. “Cin cin.”
He nodded, sipped, and then frowned at his own glass.
I put my glass to the side and got back to work adding the whites to the yolk mixture, using a big metal spoon to gently fold them in.
Rocky made another of those privately amused noises.
“Nothing. Just…it’s weird seeing you standing in my kitchen. Let alone seeing you cooking something.”
“Hey, I cooked breakfast that last weekend we spent up here.”
“I sure as hell did. And I heard all about why butter was preferable to olive oil for scrambling eggs, and that my fire was too high and that I was overstirring.”
Rocky looked abashed. Momentarily.
I folded in the rest of the egg whites and then spooned the entire creamy mixture over my chocolate layer. I lightly smoothed it, set the bowl aside and hunted for the baggie with the finely smashed coffee beans. I sprinkled the crushed coffee over the top and used a peeler to shave a few slivers of the remaining chocolate. The final touch was to grate a bit more orange zest over the whole thing.
I stepped back, studied the results. It actually looked pretty good. Maybe a little lopsided, if someone was looking closely. But Rocky was looking at me not the dish.
So that was one down. Four to go. I smiled in wide relief at Rocky. “Okay, this goes in the fridge for two hours to set.”
Rocky said suddenly, a little harshly, “There is no mysterious Christmas Eve date, is there? It’s you. This was all your idea, Jesse. This whole thing is you. Admit it.”
I opened my mouth though I wasn’t sure what I was going to say.
The doorbell rang.
Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.