How to make crisp fried bread

Her long fingers pulled and worked the white dough into a soft flat disk, stretching the center with her knuckles just before laying it down onto the rolling boil of oil, her fingertips perilously near, almost touching the hot oil, what had blackened the hands of her predecessors, girls accountable to no one who drifted through the front door, answering a help wanted sign posted by the owner whenever his hired help daydreamed on the job, accidentally cooking her fingers like a lump of dough, rendering herself as useless as when she first entered the shop, Frankie’s Portuguese Bakery on B Street, one block off the waterfront, a local spot for kids wandering around at night, for couples on a late night walk.  Anybody could drop by, filling up on something warm and sweet.

As the dark of the ocean rose and covered the sky above, lights blinked on, bright and scattered as stars, constellations of shop signs, each lit window a vitrine of curiosity, the endless fascination of miniatures, drops of color as deep as wine, crystal wings nestled in velvet.  The girl in the window did not look out into the street.  Her eyes held a downward gaze, her long arms moving in time with transformation— puffing up, a crisp finish, sprinkling of sugar—the golden pastry slid onto a paper plate, almost collapsing under its sweet goodness, suggesting satiety even before the first bite.  Each pastry was different, as if molded in sand or spun from glass, showing off the dappled or brinded patterns of homemade treats, as varied as colorful playthings on the beach.  A tall boy balanced his in one hand as the other dug into a pocket for coins.  A woman pinched off a bit and pushed it into her baby’s mouth.  

What made it a solitary job was the rhyme and rhythm of taking up a lump of dough, stretching, cooking, lifting it up, resting it, shaking sugar all over it.  (During an especially busy summer Frankie tried to double his production by putting two girls in the window, identical twins, thinking they could work as one, Farturas Perfeito for Four Hands, a nice idea that quickly fell apart, ending in argument and worse yet, cooked fingers.)  Frankie learned a lesson that summer:  what kept people returning for more was the girl in the window, the allure of a living picture in a frame.  Take a girl.  Put her in a window.  Call the blue black of night from the deepest waters.  Cast stars around her.  Who could wish for anything more?  Even the long line of customers going down the street and around the block was afterthought, the tail of a comet, emanating from a simple notion, an idle wish lacking in specificity, the bowl wanting its mush. 

If she took a break, no one stepped in to take her place, the vat bubbling, waiting.  Frankie watched the customers, recognizing his ex-wife, ex-buddy with her.  He knew they dreaded seeing him but couldn’t stay away for long, the other shop making fake fried bread, small starved looking things, stamped out of a contraption that allows no tunnels of air inside, no play of possibility into soft or puffy or crisp.  His ex thought she knew everything about him but in fact knew hardly a thing worth knowing.  She was his first girl in the window, her fingers burnt black by lapses in love.  His own heart was a blackened hollow, consumed by its alternations of boredom and hunger, starting and stopping without going anywhere.  He would like to start over with his ex, back to that rainy day when there were few customers and plenty of time.  He wanted to invent something simple and good, a tasty treat, establish a new shop at the other end of town. 

Returning from a cigarette break, the girl in the window picked up where she left off, working the dough into nearly perfect fried bread for fishermen and tourists. 

To everyone’s surprise, the girl stayed on for many years, eventually growing silvery and bent, still able to maintain the steady rhythm and circular motion of the arms.  When Frankie’s heart gave out, he left everything to her.  With a sharp eye for possibility, she hired a girl to take her place.  Although not as busy as before, Frankie’s continues to blink its lights on B Street, a snug station against all kinds of weather. 

The new girl was exceptionally pale with long arms and intelligent hands.  She learned quickly, turning out one golden pastry after another.