The Right Seasoning (an excerpt from The Hungry Heart by Fran Metzman)
Charles Sampson’s life ran on the juices of his stomach while his wife, Rose, was alive. Food had fulfilled him, rounding his belly and marking events in his life, much like keeping a diary. Rose’s death six months ago changed everything. Now food tasted like dust in his mouth, and he’d lost thirty pounds.
As he paced his small box of a living room, he noticed the worn blue carpeting and the washed-out beige wallpaper with the edges curled away from the wall. It occurred to him that every room in his house had been neglected for years with the exception of the gleaming white-tiled kitchen equipped with state of the art appliances.
He recalled watching Rose’s sensual movements as she prepared meals, and hungered for her. At mealtimes, his robust wife became a svelte, stunning movie star. Even lovemaking often took place in the kitchen – on the table, and even more exciting, on the hard, cool floor.
A week ago, he’d spoken to his manager about taking time off. During the discussion he’d been unable to focus on his boss’ physical presence as he droned on and on, the words flapping out of his mouth like sheets on a clothesline.
“Take some time off, even a month, Charles,” his boss had said. “Grieving takes a long time.
Charles felt grateful that no mention had been made of his recent shoddy accounting work, something that distressed him. Numbers now bunched up before his eyes, swimming like a huge school of minnows. He had lost his bearings since Rose passed away. She alone had grounded him with the magical world she’d created with her culinary skills.
Whenever he entered his home the aroma of fish steaming in wine sauce or the blipping sound of a thick pot of pea soup on the stove aroused him. He had to compose himself before entering the kitchen as they always ate first. Once he saw Rose behind the butcher block smiling at him, their home instantly became insulated from the frenzied outside world. His love for his wife was like chocolate mousse slithering down his throat.
“Time off will help get your head on straight,” his boss had continued blathering, cocking his head as he stared at Charles. “You’re only forty-six, and you have to get on with your life.” Then he patted him on the shoulder and left.
Easy advice, Charles thought. Loneliness had brought him to the edge.
Everything filled him with dread – blue skies, sunshine or mannequins in store windows. He walked in as straight a line as he could, fearing that zig-zagging across the street might cause him to drown.
He recalled Rose’s meat thermometer that registered the stages of doneness. How nice if he had such an instrument to gauge his emotional health on any given day so that he’d know when to stay home and when to go out.
When Charles was twenty-two fresh out of college, he had joined the Riche and Sumner Accounting Firm. He had approached his work in a plodding but meticulous way. Any semblance of a personal life had gone on hold. His lunches had consisted of slapped together salami sandwiches and his dinners purchased from supermarket salad bars.
He labored at his job for ten years, his sparse social life never bothering him. At that point, he began leading investment seminars, and that’s when his life turned around. He met Rose. Her job was to check in clients. Although not attractive in the traditional sense, Rose had intelligent black eyes, a well-proportioned shape to her thick body and a crooked, sweet smile that stunned him. Her dark, shiny, black hair hung loosely down to her shoulders. At the end of the seminar she had stood very close to him. The room shook.
“You were quite dynamic up there on the podium,” she had commented. He immediately asked her out.
They went to one movie and a restaurant afterward. Then she invited him to her apartment for dinner. Never before had his uninspired palette been so delighted. His enthusiasm encouraged Rose to cook dinner every night from then on. Charles experienced a spiritual uplifting like never before in his life. Four months later, he proposed. Only the fear of scaring her away stopped him from proposing earlier.
For the fourteen years Charles was married to Rose, her exquisite meals propelled his life into discoveries of distant new stars in an unending universe. Rose had given special meaning to the numbers on his spreadsheets. Halfway through a work day morning he’d unwrap his wife’s home-baked anisette biscuits and dunk them into hot coffee. The semi-sweet, sopping cookies fell apart in his mouth like a gentle kiss. Then he’d go back to work like a demon.
Lunch happened promptly at noon every day. Out came the Italian loaf of crusty bread filled with the buttery-soft, buffalo-milk mozzarella topped off with sautéed, red peppers. By the end of the day, he felt energized knowing dinner time was fast approaching. The nights Rose prepared cheese gnocchi in a blush sauce and tender veal paprika for dinner called for champagne and a bubble bath together.
All new accounts were celebrated with a rich creamy rum cake that melted like silk scarves fluttering across his tongue. All the edibles came out of gleaming shiny copper pots and cast iron skillets. He had the notion that these sumptuous dinners coated their vital organs like a buffer against disease and that they’d live forever.
At times, Charles felt blessed they had no children to disturb their tranquil, exquisite world. He tapped his now flat stomach as he recalled Rose’s thick, competent hands chopping, slicing and dicing from a large collection of herbs and spices grown in her garden. The scent of oregano, marjoram, basil and parsley dogged his dreams, but since Rose’s demise the pleasant dreams turned into a repetitive nightmare of a four foot tongue, lashing at the tasteless air.