Battle of the Goulash

The corn chips were innocent, simply a bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time. Calvin stood at the outer edge of the serving window, a long, rectangular cut-away and stared curiously into the church kitchen, his eyes flicking between his mother and Rain’s as they stared each other down in front of a pot of bubbling pasta, a bag of corn chips unopened on the counter between them.

“It’s a stand-off,” Rainbow said softly, her voice a beacon inside the racket of the church’s Summer Luncheon, the big event held at the culmination of Vacation Bible School week. The Gargoyle Queen had volunteered to make a pot of goulash for the luncheon and, out of nowhere, the Cave Troll had volunteered to help. Calvin and Rain had looked at each other in horror, the idea of their mothers working together at anything giving them both daytime nightmares. Calvin risked a glance at her, a devious grin squirming its way out of the corner of his mouth.

“Want to bet on who will win?”

Rainbow chuckled and reached for her pocket.

“I’ve got five dollars on the Cave Troll.”

“Of course you do,” Calvin snorted. “You actually like your mom.” He reached for his own pocket and thumbed a bill out of his money clip. “I guess that means I’ll have to bet on the Queen or it won’t be any fun.” Rainbow snatched the money from his hand and shoved it into her opposite pocket with her own bill, her authority in the matter very clear.

“Okay, the bet is whether or not the corn chips will make it into the pot.”  She raised a finger of importance here, punctuating her next words with it. “Declaring it the Cave Troll’s very own Texas Style Skillet or…” Rain opened her eyes wide, innocence oozing out. “That bottle of sweet barbecue sauce your mom is hiding in her purse goes in and it is called Gargoyle Goulash.” Calvin’s mouth rounded into a surprised O.

“How can you possibly know about the barbecue sauce?”

“You don’t worry about that.” Rainbow’s eyes skirted away from him. Calvin narrowed his own in suspicion. “It’s not important right now.”

“I have doubts,” Cal whispered.

“Shhhh, let’s see who will win this?” Rain fixed her eyes on the pair in the kitchen. Calvin followed suit, anticipation tightening his spine. The winner didn’t really matter, it was all about the drama. He smiled and waited.

* * * * *

“I can manage this just fine,” Margaret Thompson purred. “I’ve been making goulash for the church for more years than I can count.” She fixed Madison Starshine with a slightly haughty look. Her horseradish colored hair looked very much like a helmet in the harsh kitchen lights. “As a visitor you shouldn’t worry yourself with this stuff. Go enjoy the luncheon.” Margaret jerked her head toward the serving window with its open view of the rows of paper-covered banquet tables waiting patiently for the dinning to begin. Her subtle accent on the word visitor made it clear that she considered Madison an outsider.

“Oh pffft,” Madison, red-framed glasses perched high on the bridge of her nose, waved a hand at Margaret, her red and black, floral patterned sleeve drawing the eye like a stray bonfire flame. “No need to worry about me. I can find my way around. Take a break dear. I can get this finished up in no time. You go sit with the kids and rest.” Maddy’s tactical wave brought her close to the bag of corn chips. Margaret wasn’t having it though. Quick as a mongoose she snatched the chips from the counter top and turned to open the cupboard that held the church’s serving bowls.

“Here, let me set these out for you. I’m sure the children will love them.” Turning back to the counter with her faded green plastic bowl Margaret nearly collided with Madison who had stepped forward to save her chips.

“No, no, those are for the skillet.” Maddy grabbed protectively at the bag, managing to lock her pincer like grasp on the top. She pulled. Meg pulled back gently, demonstrating the strength of her own grip and letting her four inch height advantage speak for itself.

“What skillet?” Margaret looked suspiciously the small red-haired woman.

“The Texas Style Skillet.” Madison pointed with her chin at the pasta on the stove and the cooling fry pan of hamburger beside it. She gave a strong yank and the bag came flying at her as Margaret released it abruptly. Slightly off balance now she grabbed for the counter to steady herself, a deep flush rising in her face.

“Whoa there! Steady now.” Mr Tuuts, a church regular and notorious elderly bachelor came bustling through the back door of the kitchen just in time to scoop Madison up by the elbow. He stood smiling into her face, his droopy gray mustache quivering excitedly on his upper lip while exhaling fresh cigarette breath into her face. Madison struggled to keep herself from falling, her eyes darting to Margaret in alarm. Meg reached for the corn chips again, her lips curling into a seuss-like smile of glee. Maddy was using her forearm to brace herself against the ancient, Formica counter top, despite Mr. Tuuts grip on her arm, which left her grasp weakened. Meg plucked the bag easily from her grasp and, popping it open, upended it into the green bowl and shoved it out toward the edge of the serving window. Mr. Tuuts pulled firmly on Maddy’s elbow, forcing her to balance herself or wind up pressed against his boxy chest. “Got it?”

“Yes, yes.” Meg pressed forward and managed to nudge a surprised Maddy away from the stove. “You go sit down now. Mr. Tuuts is quite an interesting fellow to talk with. I’m sure you two will have lots of things in common.” The pasta was boiling with ferocity now. Meg turned the burner dial off and, using her backside to make more space for herself shoved Maddy further away. She opened the drawer where the hot mitts were kept. “Mr. Tuuts, why don’t you tell Madsion about getting lost in the woods when you were looking for the source of the mysterious lights?”

“Oooo, that’s a great idea!” The mustache increased its quivering rate. “I never found the ultimate source but I had an experience I’ll never forget.” Maddy glanced helplessly at the back of Meg’s head as Mr. Tuuts led her out of the kitchen door toward the nearest banquet table. The smell of cooked pasta followed her as Meg emptied the boiling pot into the colander in the sink.

* * * * *

Sitting beside Rain, his Styrofoam plate nearly licked clean, Calvin munched corn chips and smiled. Rain pushed her plate away with an empty expression. Calvin could see the bits of uneaten, sweet goulash hidden beneath pieces of ice burg lettuce from the salad bowl. Children of varying ages jostled around, squealing and laughing.

“I believe you have something of mine,” he whispered. Rainbow nodded in defeat and dug the two five dollar bills out of her pocket.

“Just to be clear,” she said, holding the bills away from him. “The Gargoyle Queen cheated. She nearly killed my mother with that letting-go-of-the-bag stunt.”

“I know,” Calving chuckled. “It would have been awful if your new dad hadn’t showed up and saved her.”

“Stop that! I have a dad and you know it.” Rainbow’s dark eyes glowered at him.

“Not for long,” he joked. “Mr. Tuuts is sweeping the Cave Troll off her feet.” He pointed with his head at the pair seated together at the end of a mostly empty banquet table. Madsion’s face was blank and shell-shocked, the look of someone who has given up and simply trying to survive. Mr. Tuuts, chest expanded importantly, pressed his hands down along his tweed vest for the hundredth time as he talked. “Pretty soon you’ll be a latch-key adult too.”

“Go to hell!” Rain hissed.

The sound of judgmental breathing right behind them brought Calvin’s laughter to a halt. He turned his head to see his mother standing over him, her face pursed in annoyance.

“Swearing in church,” she admonished. “And gambling too I see.” She reached out and plucked the two bills from Rain’s hand and shoved them into the pocket of her sweater. “I believe these are mine,” she stated. “I am, after all, the winner.” Calvin’s face drooped in surprise. Margaret smiled garishly at him.“Be careful where you place your bets children, that open serving window has a neat habit of amplifying sound.” She placed a hand on Rain’s shoulder and gave her an inquiring look. “I’m curious though, how did you know about the bottle of barbecue sauce?” Rainbow met her eyes and smirked.

“Give me my five dollars back and I’ll tell you.” Margaret pursed her lips and shook her head very slightly.

“Shifty,” she commented. “Cal, I think I’m starting to like this girl.” She laid a hand on Rainbow’s shoulder and squeezed gently.


(The Gargoyle Queen here)