There were those who said Major Clive Willis had served at the White House since Ulysses S. Grant. That the man was old and an old school Southern gentleman there was no doubt. He was of medium height with bright white hair, faded blue eyes and the ramrod straight spine one associated with dancers or the military. He was technically retired from the U.S. Marine Corps, which is where he began his White House service and why he kept his title. It was generally accepted that the only way he was going to leave the White House was feet first.
“Good morning, Major,” Sharon said, pleasantly. “How can I help you today?”
“Good morning, Miss Wheatly,” he replied, his Southern drawl lengthening with his displeasure. “I was not aware that we have any foreign dignitaries on the schedule in the immediate future.”
“Next month, I believe,” Sharon replied. “The reception for the new Nigerian ambassador. But that’s not why I’m here.”
“Oh, come on,” Solly growled, getting up. “The woman can come down here and consult with me on a dinner party she’s having, can’t she? Last I checked, it’s a free country.”
Major Wills looked at both women, nodded and left.
“You better get him off my back, too,” Solly grumbled softly to Sharon. “He is getting on my last nerve. I bet you anything, if I could’ve just talked straight up to Ms. Jerguessen or the President, we wouldn’t be having no problem with me not knowing what he’s taking for his own cooking. And I’d rather be talking to you about them foreign dignitaries than him any day.”
Sharon nodded. “I’ll tell Ms. Jerguessen about your concerns. But you’ve got to stop threatening to fire everybody. This is the White House. It’s due process.”
“But how am I-”
Sharon cut her off. “You can write them up. I’ll make sure you have the forms. And they will get read, and not by Major Wills. Okay?”
“Okay. But what are we going to do about the president? It’s awful hard to plan when you don’t know what’s going to turn up missing one day to the next.”
“Isn’t there someplace in the main kitchens down here where you can stash stuff?”
Solly frowned. “Hell, no. It’s too crazy and cramped down here. There’s barely room for the pastry station. Last big dinner we had, we were plating the salads in the hall. I tell you, if this weren’t the White House, I would not be here.”
Sharon thought. “It’s a pretty crazy place to work. Tell you what. Can you stick around ’til, say six-thirty, seven tonight?”
“Think so.” Solly looked over the schedule pinned to the bulletin board at the back of her office. “Ain’t nothing scheduled and the president usually likes his dinner around then, anyway. Lessee if he sent down his order yet.” She glared at the computer on her desk, then hit a couple buttons. “Nope. Nothing yet. He might be planning on cooking hisself tonight, but Major Goop says I still gotta be around, just in case.”
“Let me send an email or two.” Sharon began pressing buttons on her Blackberry. “I’ll give you a call as soon as I get an answer.”
Sharon hurried back to her office, texting as she went. June was delighted that it looked like things were resolved. Mark agreed to meet with Solly in the upstairs kitchen at 6:30 and invited Sharon to join them, which Sharon was hoping he would.
Solly, of course, already had clearance for the upper floors of the White House, since she or whichever of her cooks was on duty usually used the upstairs kitchen to prepare meals for the president and his sister. Sharon had to wait for an escort, and at 6:25 precisely, Major Wills showed up at the door to her office to take her upstairs.
Mark arrived at the same time and dismissed the major for the evening The major glanced at Sharon and left with a slight smirk on his face. Sharon started.
“Don’t worry about him,” Mark said. “It doesn’t matter what he’s thinking, he’s not going to say anything about it.”
“Still,” grumbled Sharon.
“Let me put it this way, the Major hinted that my predecessor had some preferences that would have totally blown his moral compass image and not a hint of it leaked.”
Sharon rolled her eyes. “Are you sure said Major didn’t make some rash assumption?”
Mark chuckled. “I, uh, found some independent confirmation in the desk.”
Solly was waiting for them in the kitchen.
“Mr. President, this is Yasmin Sollette,” Sharon said, beckoning Solly forward.
“Oh, just call me Solly,” she said, blushing.
“Solly, it’s about time we got to meet.” Mark pushed forward and grasped her hand. “I tell you, I have been thoroughly enjoying your work. The food is just fabulous. I’d love your recipe for that gumbo you made the other night.”
“That’s gumbo – a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”
Sharon cut in. “We do have an issue to work out, sir. As I mentioned in my email, Solly has been rather frustrated by the way certain ingredients have been disappearing.”
“I am so sorry, Solly,” Mark said, charm oozing from every pore. “I had no idea. I just saw all these cool ingredients.”
“Apology accepted, sir.” Solly blushed again and let out a little giggle, then collected herself and grew stern. “I wouldn’t have minded so much if I’d’a known what was going on.”
“We are definitely going to have to establish some boundaries here, aren’t we?” said Mark, relaxing a little. “By the way, where are you getting that pure lard? That stuff is wonderful!”
Solly grinned. “I got an organic pig farmer down in Virginia that renders it. Cain’t really sell it, cuz of all them FDA rules, but I got some pull. I’ll get you some.”
“So I suppose, then, the issue is primarily about storage,” said Sharon. “Shall we lay out whose stuff goes where?”
Mark pulled off his suit jacket and loosened his tie while he and Solly went to work re-organizing stock and deciding what could be shared, what needed to be kept separate and how to tell when Solly was stashing something for an upcoming event or meal. Then there was the debate over who would actually cook dinner, with Solly insisting that it was, in fact, her job to do the cooking and Mark countering that after the grief he’d caused her, cooking for her would be the least he could do. Then Solly said that if he wanted to do some penance, he could play sous chef for the evening, to which Mark agreed.
Fortunately, there wasn’t an issue over the knives. Mark’s had always been kept in a special butcher block. But Solly did have to send a page downstairs for hers. In the meantime, she stood over Mark, nodding as Mark expertly minced a shallot.
“You got the technique down, but you are slow,” Solly observed. “Good thing you got this president job, cuz you wouldn’t last five minutes in a real kitchen.”
Sharon, who had been invited to stay for dinner, laughed.
Solly glared at the refrigerator, then called downstairs for some pork tenderloin, and a variety of mustard, turnip and beet greens. The ingredients showed up within minutes and Sharon was put to work, as well.
Solly saw to slicing the tenderloin into paper-thin slices, while Sharon washed spinach and mesclun for a salad. Mark washed the other greens and chopped them down for steaming, then chopped a couple small mushrooms. Solly slid slices of tenderloin into a frying pan with a little bit of butter and oil and had much of the meat ready in a few short minutes. To the pan, she added another bit of butter, then sauteed the chopped mushrooms, shallot and some garlic that Sharon had chopped. A dollop of Dijon mustard went in with a little chicken stock from the fridge. Under Solly’s direction, Mark plated the steamed greens on a platter then arranged the tenderloin slices while Sharon dressed the salad with a little olive oil and red wine vinegar.
The only other conversation going while the food was being prepared was what wine to serve with the food. Mark finally won out, and pulled a New Zealand sauvignon blanc from the refrigerator.
The meal, itself, was filled with laughter as Solly told horror story after horror story of kitchen mishaps. As Solly remarked to Sharon later, “I know he’s the boss and all, but I really like that he can be a friend, too. Know what I mean?”
“Yep,” Sharon replied, smiling to herself as the two rode down in the service elevator.
“He ain’t bad in the kitchen, either,” Solly said. “Slow, but not bad.”
“Amateur,” said Sharon.
Solly chuckled. “Yeah, but that’s a good thing. Keeps me employed.”
Sharon’s Blackberry buzzed. “What?” She burst out laughing. “It’s the boss. He sent me a shopping list.”
“I think we’re going to get along,” Solly said, grinning.
Mark, for his part, finished washing the dishes under the baleful eye of a member of the housekeeping staff. He wasn’t supposed to be cleaning anything. But old habits died hard and his paternal grandmother had always insisted that he take responsibility for cleaning up after himself. That meant he made his bed the second he left it in the morning and when he cooked something, he washed the dishes, all of which irritated the housekeeping staff no end.
He was also feeling rather pleased with himself. He’d been wondering how to invite Sharon upstairs for dinner. With Solly around to aid and abet, it wasn’t likely to cause scandal. Not that Solly would sell out. Mark paused. He hoped Solly wouldn’t sell out. He scribbled a note to check on her salary.