By S. Jean DeFelice
Godliness lives in the big rectangle of Ella’s kitchen. Its linoleum shines so much so it is blinding. A metal stove clock ticks faintly. The lights are off and pale afternoon sunlight illuminates fine dust particles in the air. On countertops lie only the necessary: flour and sugar tins, glass salt and pepper shakers, a folded dish towel. Ella enters her kitchen, glancing with worry at the empty driveway outside the window shut tight. It is one p.m. and she is home alone.
Ella is thirty-five and lithe with a petite frame and a delicate figure showcased by smooth skin. A few years later, people who could remember her said she resembled Nancy Reagan. But her face is an oxymoron and droops. Creases in her skin emanate downward, with all of the lines radiating the general shape of the fixed frown on her mouth. Ella’s brown, sparsely lashed eyes express alternately surprise and heavy-lidded sadness. Her lips are full but are a tangle of creases and don’t hold lipstick. She habitually pads them together, feeling their dryness, opening and closing them like a suffocating fish as she speaks quietly with a sleepy, fearful drawl.
Her feet pad when she walks, resonating the silence she tries so hard at. And her graceful hands drag along behind her, grazing and touching objects in her home lightly. This light touch is critical for the family tradition of making monkey bread, a sweet, yeasted treat served on holidays and for celebrations. In the Pennsylvania Dutch region of Appalachia, her family made monkey bread, passing the recipe through generations by word of mouth. Ella never referenced a recipe book, even knowing there were countless published recipes available.
Today it is important to get this batch right. If it comes out, the shape will not collapse under gravity. The small, irregular chunks of dough, each dipped in egg, rolled in cinnamon-sugar, pressed together and set to rise for two hours, will maintain the shape of the pan. The sugar will have formed an even glaze when turned from the pan, not burned and not too liquid, a rich molasses-brown-colored sauce covering the bread and seeping into the creases between the individual pieces of dough. When it was really good, her family ate in unashamed silence, pulling the warm chunks apart, lapping them in the pool of cinnamon-sugar sauce.
“Well, El’, you wouldn’t be making monkey bread today, would you now?” the checker had asked earlier at the grocery store, winking at her while scanning the usual items: a cake of yeast, cinnamon sticks (that she grinds into powder), light brown sugar, flour, a half-gallon of milk, butter. And a special addition: a bundt pan shaped like a rose. The checker said those pans had just arrived. She had a feeling Ella would be buying one.
“How’re Will and the kids?” the checker continued, absently ringing up items but listening for Ella’s response with scrupulous attentiveness.
“Well, we’re all so busy,” Ella explained, drilling into the depths of minutiae of what her husband and each of her children were doing, leaving out the core confounding fact that Will, usually full of life, didn’t talk to her much lately, unless to confirm a meeting.
“That is so much. I do not know how you do it all!” The checker shook her head, ending their exchange.
Ella and Will were each ordained with the cushion of coming from prominent families. While Will was at peace with his standing, Ella identified with a distant Appalachian heritage on her mother’s side based on anecdotes her grandma had recounted when she was a young girl. She clung to them as though envisioning her childhood was spent in a lean-to cabin on an ancient mountainside. Her mind eschewed the reality that her father had been a coal company executive. And her father worked alongside Will’s father. There had never been hardships or poverty in her family. Will and Ella’s union was a source of pride and surety for the town, a small-scaled manifest destiny that infected everyone concerned with stature, balance, and righteousness. Member-centered activities such as the country club, church, bridge club, boards and fundraising committees comprised their relationship.
Ella existed for others, crossing their mind only when they wondered with shining eyes what she could do for them. The more Ella persevered with their draining though quiet schedule, the more lines and creases appeared on her impressionable face. She could not conceal this, no matter how pleasant and accommodating her personality was. No one in town spoke of it unless whispering that it must be genetic, superstitiously moving off the subject. Uncomfortable resentment habitually bubbled up and forced Ella to exercise her greatest strength: trying harder.
The batch of monkey bread was perfect. Flipping the pan onto the serving plate was always unpredictable. But it was gorgeously intact. The cinnamon-sugar sauce spread over the petals the rose-shaped pan had formed. After the telling first few minutes, the bread held its shape and did not collapse—a plump, doughy rose. Windows couldn’t be opened to let fresh air into her conditioned home, so the scent of cinnamon was trapped inside the house. When her family arrived they would be welcomed by this heavenly scent.
Ella sets out dessert plates and glasses for the ice cold milk. She folds flowered napkins and cascades them in a row. She changes. She sits. She wipes the counter one more time.
The door breathes open with a gnash. Ella sits at the kitchen table tired but folding her hands up over her elbows, a stance she has mastered, appearing relaxed but never fatigued.
“I am here to get the rest of my things, that’s all!” Will hollers in an exasperated, hopeless tone. After muffled banging and crashing in a remote part of the house, he is gone. Ella watches him slam himself and his belongings into his car and tear out of the driveway, thinking it is such a violent way to leave.