Getting Closer (Excerpt)

Getting Closer (An excerpt from The Hungry Heart by Fran Metzman)

The scent of earthy root coming from a pot of potatoes boiling on the stove invades my nostrils. I hear my mother’s heavy footsteps thumping on the tile floor behind me. The sound chills my blood. Turning my head, I see she is only retrieving eggs from the refrigerator. I then lift the heavy pot and drain the water, and the steam burns my eyes. Although I promise myself not to anticipate the worst, I am jumpy. 

Once the potatoes are in a mixing bowl, I blink away the sting of heat and add several tablespoons of melted butter, sautéed onions, and beaten eggs. I blend it all together in a mixer. Adding salt and pepper, I watch as the ingredients are pummeled into a smooth batter. The odor of melted butter wafts upward. The filling for the knishes is nearly done, and, so far, so good. No fights that draw blood have occurred – so far.

“You shouldn’t use electric appliances. The knishes have to be made totally by hand,” my mother says, making a depression in a mound of flour and breaking eggs into it.

My back stiffens. Without using the mixer I’d have to stay longer. “Your grandmother in Russia would have loved to have one of these mixers,” I tell her as I shut the machine off and jab my finger into the batter for a taste.

“What are you talking about? The woman couldn’t read and sold bread by the roadside. They had no electricity. What would she do with that machine?”

I ignore her comment and concentrate on the bowl as though I’m inventing a cure for cancer. I love knishes, those round flaky-doughed turnovers filled with seasoned pureed potato. When I asked my mother to show me how to make them, I’d hoped we’d use the opportunity to declare a truce. We’d gotten adept at shouting matches, but in the last year or two 

I could hardly face her. Our relationship was on the brink of total extinction, and I saw this as the last chance to rebuild an endangered species – mother and daughter.

At first, she seemed excited by the prospect of showing off her exceptional cooking skills. Now I see her expression has dulled. She’s cut me off again. I always feel like an orphan around her.

My mother has a different personality in the kitchen. Not that she’s nicer, but her obsession with food preparation seems to give her a purpose or something that resembles an agitated tranquility. She commands every utensil within her reach and any hapless human in her way. Parboiling, braising, steaming, sautéing, roasting and frying are sacred rituals. I hold out little hope that getting her to initiate me into her hallowed sanctuary will reunite us, but it’s the last ditch before I turn my back forever.

A tall woman, my mother has developed petrified slabs of flesh on her body over the years, kind of like the rings of a cut tree that tells its age. She lumbers when she walks, but in the kitchen, she moves like a musical conductor, strewing flour on the board as though bringing a violin section to a crescendo.

She rolls a ball of dough flat, each push forward seems calculated. It’s as though she must duplicate that motion exactly the same distance each time. I want her to stay hunched over the marble table, concentrating on her task because then I won’t hear her disturbing, foot-slapping rhythm that fills me with dread.

I follow her motions using my ball of dough. Finally, she folds the very thin sheet of dough over her rolling pin and holds it in front of my face. It is beautiful – evenly translucent and in the shape of a near-perfect oval. My sheet of dough has ragged edges and tears in the middle.

Carefully, she cuts sections of dough four by twelve inches and then drops dollops of potato filling down the line. As she folds the overlapping sides together and brushes beaten egg to seal the edges, she hums tunelessly. There are now three long puffed up tubes. Dipping her hand in a bowl of flour, she cuts off two inch sections with the side of her hand.

“I cut it this way because the dough sticks together naturally. Cutting with a knife makes it fall apart. You didn’t know that, did you?” She cackles. “I’ll bet you don’t cook at all. Do you know how to boil water?”

“No.” I smack the rolling pin against my palm. “How the hell would I know anything? You never let me in your precious kitchen.” I want to shout that whenever she gave me a recipe she conveniently left out the most important ingredient.

My mother claps her hands together, and a cloud of flour dust rises. “That temper of yours again. That’s why you’re almost forty and not married.”

“Knock it off,” I answer in disgust.

I want to kick myself for not controlling my anger. I wipe the sweat from my face with a tissue, and it feels like the temperature has risen to one hundred degrees in the kitchen. My mother never opens the curtains or windows in the summer time. She prefers to close everything out, even changes of seasons. I look around, checking the doors for the quickest escape route.

“I honestly don’t know why you bothered me about cooking. You don’t eat my food, and you never come for dinner,” my mother shouts.

Hop Down Memory Lane (Excerpt)

Hop Down Memory Lane (An excerpt from The Hungry Heart By Fran Metzman)

Abby knocked on Ellenora’s door, and the uneasiness she’d experienced during an earlier phone call from her friend returned. Turning the knob Abby found it was locked. Ellenora always kept the door open on the nights Abby came for dinner.

Every Monday and Friday night, Ellenora cooked a sumptuous meal in a tribute to her dear departed husband, and Abby was the lucky recipient of that acknowledgment. Today was the first anniversary of his death. It was to be special.

Abby wished that the celebration wasn’t for a memorial. It creeped her out even though she admired Ellenora’s devotion. Simply enjoying the company of her good friend over a divine meal would have sufficed. When she pressed her ear to the door and heard the shower running she decided to sit on a bench beneath the window and wait.

The Florida October day sent warm breezes past her ears as the wavering palm fronds made swishing noises. She thought about Ellenora’s husband, Allan, who had been in excellent health but died suddenly of a stroke. Abby had divorced two husbands, both verbally abusive men. Her friend had one good, long-term marriage, and when Allan died, she moved to Florida. Abby understood how sad it must feel with him gone forever.

Abby wanted to make Ellenora laugh as a way to work out her grief. Abby tended to use humor to ease emotional pain or, to be exact, cover up and hide from sensitive issues. She knew many of her own choices, not only in husbands who were both charming macho men, had been foolish. Risk taking was a habit she’d been unable to break, knowing she loved the adrenalin rush of each event.

Abby saw that the loss of Allan had carved a deep hollow in Ellenora’s life that she’d yet to fill. How do you erase forty years of marriage? Restless after Allan’s death, Ellenora had moved to a Florida retirement community where Abby lived, but still talked about the dream that she and Allan had about buying a small studio apartment in New York and a Florida condo for the winter months. Unrealistic as it now was, Ellenora seemed to be in a constant state of trying to reconcile the dream with the reality.

The door opened and Ellenora, hair still wet, silently let Abby in. Abby was used to these occasional despondent moods that passed quickly. The dense silence between them acknowledged that they both knew today was different. Ellenora walked to the oven, opened the door and seasoned the rosemary-encrusted rack of lamb with sea salt. Abby inhaled the heavy, meaty scent, but then she saw that Ellenora was on the brink of tears.

“I know this is a sad day,” Abby said, patting her friend’s shoulder, “but when Allan joins us tonight we’ll have a jolly time.”

“Allan would have loved your irreverence.” Ellenora gave Abby a half-smile and then went back to mashing the potatoes with a fury, throwing in more than the usual dollop of butter. 

“This was Allan’s favorite meal.” Ellenora’s voice had a tinge of harshness, something Abby had never heard before.

Abby put the wine bottle she’d brought on the counter and found the opener.

“Open it quick. I need it,” Ellenora said.

Abby popped the cork and poured two large glasses for them. “I suspect I’m going to need this, too. You really look agitated. Talk to me.”

Ellenora stopped beating up the potatoes and looked past Abby’s shoulder. “I know I’ve told you some things about my marriage, but not all.”

“Let it rip.” Abby raised her glass, her back stiffening a bit.

Ellenora hesitated. “I’d like to.”

“Shoot.”

Ellenora idly twirled the potato masher. “In the last fifteen years of my marriage the instances of closeness only happened at meals. Allan had shown little to no interest in the physical side of our relationship during those years.”

“You did tell me he wasn’t a live wire in the sex department. I didn’t know it was that bad. It must have been hard for you. We gals need to know we’re wanted.”