Previously published in StreetZine
Juggling at least a week’s worth of mail in one arm, she dug into her purse with her free hand. A stick of gum that had worked itself out of the wrapper, some loose change, and a used tissue greeted her fingers before she finally felt the jaggedy metal of her parents’ house key. Wiggling it into the lock, she could hear the tinny sounds of the baseball game escaping through the rusted and patched screen of the family room window.
“How are you, Pop?” she asked, closing the door behind her. A crack of a bat snapped out of the speaker. The picture with the tiny men who swung and missed danced across the television’s glass surface.
“I should complain?” he said.
She dumped the newspapers, sale flyers, and various credit card offers on the entry way table and flopped onto the rust colored sofa, smiling at her father’s way of answering a question with a question. Easily satisfied, she envied the way he could block out the world. It takes a man of particular strength to block out what he had endured for the past fifty-two years.
“Mona!” A voice sliced into her ears with the quickness of a paper cut. “Mona!” It sliced again.
She tried to deny anything audible had clawed its way out of the kitchen and penetrated the awkward heat of the indoor summertime baseball game her father was staring through.
“You know she won’t stop,” her father mumbled.
“Yeah,” Mona said. “I know.” She picked at the soft velour, which had grown thin in places like a balding man’s scalp.
“You’re going to make her keep calling?”
“I suppose not.” But her feet stayed stationary, her bottom stitched to the patchy velour.
“Just go already. The sooner you go in, the sooner you come out.”
“Easy for you to say. You don’t have to go in there.”
“No? You think not? I went in there fifty-two years ago. I still can’t find my way out.”
A sharp laugh barked out of Mona’s chest. He was right. Poor Pop had been stuck in her mother’s world for more years than he had ever had without it. Poor, poor Pop.
“I’m coming!” Mona snapped, cutting off the incessant bleating bouncing through the house.
“She’s your mother, Mona.”
“Yeah, Pop, I know. You’re just lucky I love you.”
“Don’t I know this?” her pop said, with a wise shrug of his shoulders, his eyes never leaving the men circling the diamond.
Hoisting herself from the copper colored scalp, Mona schlepped to her mother’s lair.
Leaning against the doorframe, polished smooth with generations of hands and hips, she watched her mother jagging between the stovetop and kitchen table, the loose skin on her neck echoing each plodding footstep. Something on the stove was bubbling in the Depression era Dutch oven, its stink revealing cabbage. The same curtains from Mona’s childhood had been pushed askew to let in the late morning sunlight, which glinted off the refrigerator; the only one she had ever known. She wondered what might have taken up residence behind the behemoth. No one ever moves their refrigerator to clean behind it. Perhaps there was an entire colony of dust bunnies squatting back there with a mouse king stoically doling out the law of the shadow-land. There were definitely some lost elementary school art projects alongside. Mona recalled one squeezing its way into that sliver that lurks between the counter’s edge and the side of the “ice box,” as her mother still called it. Before Mona could save it, it had slipped into oblivion. She had been upset because it was a piece she was particularly proud of, a drawing of their cat, Torpedo. When she had started to cry, her mother had made an awkward attempt to comfort her, patting her on the back, but when Mona wasn’t immediately calmed by the gesture, she had told her to quit her sniveling and get to washing the dishes.
Her mother dried her swollen fingers on a faded, rick-rack trimmed, floral apron, sewn from the curtain scraps and stained with the history of countless meals so fiercely her many rings clicked together. Without looking up she said, “What? You don’t come when I call you now? You can’t hear me? Maybe you have gone deaf? Maybe I should call Dr. Grossman, and he can get you in to have your ears tested?”
“I heard you, Mother,” Mona said, stifling a sigh.
“Then what? Why did it take you so long to come when your mother called for you?”
“I was talking to Pop.”
“Oh, well, you were talking to Pop. Well, then, heaven forbid I should disturb you while you are talking to Pop.” She rolled her eyes turning toward the stink-pot on the stove.
“Mother, what are you cooking over there? It’s smelling up the whole house.”
“Well, excuse me for trying to make a home cooked meal. It’s cabbage soup.”
“Ma,” she said shortening the term to the mono-syllable she used to covey annoyance, “Why do you still make that stuff? You know no one likes it.”
“Since when does no one like it?” Her mother feigned surprise, knowing full well that literally no one in the family, including herself, could stand that cabbage soup recipe, if you could even call it a recipe. It was more like a pot of leftovers boiled into a frightful slop. Mona swore she made it just to torture Pop. And Pop, being Pop, would eat it without complaint. Even when he hated something, he ate it. This is a man who grew up during the Depression. He lived through it with painfully vivid distinction. He was not born at the end of it. He did not lament about how he grew up “during” the Depression just to try to evoke sympathy like her mother seized every chance to do. Pop was a man who started working when he was seven, seven, to try to help earn a few pennies so they could eat dinner most nights. Pop was a man who would go to school as a boy having eaten no breakfast, taking no lunch, and come home hoping that his dad had managed to find an odd job that day so they could maybe eat dinner. Pop never had the luxury of turning down food, if there was any, simply because he didn’t like it. Pop still ate whatever was put in front of him because Pop never forgot what it was like to be hungry.
Not willing to continue the ridiculous charade any further, Mona changed the subject. “So, what is it you needed, Ma?”
“Well, I just figured you would want to come in here and help me make lunch.”
“Sure, Ma, what do you need?” Pulling her eyelashes out one by one was preferable over being in the same kitchen as her mother.
Although Mona had attended culinary school, and was the Executive Chef at one of the finest restaurants in the city, her mother refused to accept that anyone on this entire planet, or anyone that had come before her, or anyone that would come after her, for that matter, would ever be able to come close to being half the culinary artist she was. And when her mother asked someone to help her in the kitchen, she just stood over them, degrading them, belittling them, pointing out everything she thought they were doing wrong, driving off even the most eager home sous-chef. Her cousin, Marjorie, refused to even set foot in any kitchen where Mona’s mother was present after a particularly stressful batch of spaghetti sauce.
While her mother had been an amazing cook, and part of Mona’s inspiration to attend culinary school, the truth was, ever since Mona had moved out a decade and a half ago, her mother had given up. She rarely cooked anything with effort or taste anymore; hence, the cabbage soup.
“I need you to slice the onions and the tomatoes for the sandwiches,” her mother said. Mona pulled a knife from an oily knife block that hadn’t been cleaned in so long dust had settled into the grease-caked exterior, giving its surface a fuzzy nectarine-like quality. Choking back a gag, she reached for a decaying sponge and turned on the sink.
“What are you doing? I already washed the tomatoes.”
“I’m cleaning off your knife block, Ma.”
“What? Are you saying I have a dirty kitchen, now? That I can’t keep a clean house?”
Sighing as she twisted off the faucet, Mona replied, “No, Ma, I just thought I would clean it for you. It looks a little—dusty is all.”
“I know how to clean a house, Mona. What do you think I’ve done for fifty-two years?”
Doing her best to avoid the bait of the inescapable bear trap, Mona asked, “How much onion do you want?”
“Just slice the whole thing. I’ll put the rest in the soup.”
Rolling her eyes, Mona chose not to fight that one. Cabbage and onion soup. Poor Pop.
She placed the knife against one end of the papery skin, close to the root, and hadn’t even had a chance to apply pressure, when her mother interrupted. “What are you doing? Don’t you know how to cut an onion?”
“Yes, Ma, I know how to cut an onion.”
“You do it like that, the whole thing is going to come apart. You’re taking off the root.”
“I know, Ma. This is the way I do it.”
“But it will come apart.” Her mother furrowed her greying brow, exasperated at her daughter’s onion-ignorance.
“Ma, the whole thing is going to come apart anyway—when I slice it. Just trust me, I know how to cut an onion.”
Muttering under her breath, her mother turned back toward the kitchen table and continued laying out the placemats, even though they weren’t going to be used until dinner. The placements also matched the curtains and were trimmed in that same rick-rack as her apron. How much of that fabric did she buy? It must have been on sale—in 1976. Mona was willing to bet there was still at least one scrap, too small to be used for anything, lurking in her mother’s sewing room upstairs. The woman never threw anything out. In fact, once, Mona had tried to throw out those very placemats her mother was laying on the table after discovering a hoard of brand new ones in the linen closet. When she had tossed the historical artifacts into the trash, and pulled out some new ones, her mother didn’t say anything. That had surprised Mona, but she learned later, after she had left for the day, her mother called around to all her siblings to tell them what a terrible thing Mona had done. Throwing out those “perfectly good” placemats like money grew on trees, never of course mentioning the six brand new sets she had crammed into the linen closet in the hall. Her mother had then proceeded to fish them out of the kitchen trash can, wash off an additional layer of food stains, and now, every other Saturday, she flaunted their return in front of Mona’s face, daring her to try again.
Placing pressure against the onion again, the knife refused to budge. Mona wasn’t surprised. The knife probably came over on the Mayflower. She tried a sawing motion and was able to make slow progress through the onion.
“Ma, when was the last time you got this knife sharpened?” She knew better than to ask when the last time her mother had purchased a new knife had been.
“There’s nothing wrong with that knife. Your Aunt Lorna gave those to your father and I as a wedding present.”
“Yes, I can tell. When was the last time you had it sharpened? Dull knives are dangerous, you know.”
“That knife doesn’t need to be sharpened. You just don’t know how to use it.”
“I know how to use a knife, Ma. I use one every day.”
“Well, if you knew how to cut an onion, you would have no problem with the knife,” her mother said.
Breathing deeply in an attempt to stuff down the heat she could feel creeping under her skin, Mona hacked up the onion as best as she could with the blunt length of metal. Moving the slices aside, she reached for one of the tomatoes. As she began the sawing motion once again, the tomato skin refused to yield. The blade was so impossibly dull she was succeeding in doing little more than crushing the fruit.
Mona banged the knife down on the kitchen counter. Her mother, who had moved on to searching for the tattered wicker paper plate holders she purchased when Mona was in high school, gave a dramatic start.
“What’s with all of the banging? You don’t know how to cut a tomato either?”
“I need a knife, Ma. A knife—preferably one with a sharp blade. Not some relic used at the Last Supper.”
“Mona Marie!” her mother said, pressing her hand to her chest as if Mona had plunged the edgeless blade directly into her heart. She hated any reference to the Bible that was used any other way than piously.
“Ma, just get me something I can cut a tomato with. Please,” Mona begged.
“I’ll just cut the tomatoes myself if you can’t handle it.”
“Never mind. I will make this thing work.” Mona waved the excuse of knife above her head.
“Knock that off before you cut someone,” her mother said.
“Cut someone? I can’t even cut a tomato with this thing, and you are afraid I will cut someone? The only thing I’m going to cut is a bunch of sloppy tomatoes!”
“Well, they wouldn’t be sloppy if you knew how to cut them.”
“Ma, I am a professionally trained Chef! I know how to cut a tomato!”
And that was it. The firing of the starting gun of resentment. Her mother could not stand the fact that Mona earned a living, and a very good one, as a “cook.” She was so afraid that Mona might actually be better at the one thing in her life that she had truly excelled at herself, had been known for and complimented for, and, most importantly, had been proud of, that she would do anything in her power to make sure Mona could never feel proud of her own culinary success, at least not in her presence anyway. Mona swore her mother set up little moments like this to rub it in her face.
“Oh, well, excuse me. How could I forget? You’re a professionally trained Chef. Never mind the rest of us who have been cooking longer than you have been alive. Never mind all of the dinner parties I hosted, all of the people who used to call, begging for my recipes, asking me to cater their children’s First Communion luncheons, engagement parties, baby showers. Never mind the blue ribbons I won at church for my strawberry rhubarb pie and elderberry jam. Yes, let’s never mind all of that because Chef Mona Nassa is here. What could us idiots know?”
“Do you want me to cut the tomatoes or not?” Mona snapped. She had come over this afternoon for lunch with the same intention she came over with every other Saturday. She was going to be cool. Remain calm. Not let her mother get under her skin. And she had failed, like she did every other Saturday. Nothing on this earth could make Mona’s blood boil quicker, and hotter, than her mother. If it weren’t for her Pop, Mona supposed her bi-monthly visits would be reduced to once every other month. Six times a year, plus holidays, would be more than enough mother-daughter time.
“If you think you can,” her mother said with one last jab.
Mona smashed the blunt blade through the delicate tomatoes, mangling them into chunks rather than slices. She snatched four pieces of bread from the open bag on top of the microwave. The microwave that she had given her parents several years ago. The microwave that her mother refused to use. Turning to the brown behemoth, she flung the door open. It hit the wall and bounced back, connecting with Mona’s hip. Ignoring the rattling of the countless, mostly empty, condiment jars that threatened to jump from the door shelves, she yanked open the deli drawer and removed the plastic wrapped turkey slices. Tearing open the bag, she slapped two sliced of meat onto two slices of bread, whipped on the onions and sloppy tomatoes, and smashed on the top slices of bread. She didn’t even bother with any mayonnaise or mustard from the condiment jungle on the fridge door. Plunking the sandwiches onto paper plates, she stomped out of the kitchen, leaving her mother to make her own lunch.
When she entered the family room, Pop was still staring at the diamond. She thrust the deformed sandwich at him. Without looking, he reached out and took it.
“She loves you, Mona.”
Biting hard into her sloppy tomatoes, Mona sighed. “Yeah, Pop, I know. I know.”
Joie Gibson is a graduate student at Southern New Hampshire University where she is studying English and Creative Writing with a Concentration in Fiction. With a passion for short stories, and small moments in time, Joie’s stories focus on uniquely female experiences and relationships. She lives in Fort Worth, Texas with her wonderful husband and two cats where she works as a Policy and Procedure Writer and Editor. Additionally, Joie is the Contributing Short Story Writer for StreetZine in Dallas, Texas.