The first strange thing was the tooth. Of course I was used to hearing jokes about putting my heart into my work; blood, sweat, and tears, etc. My mother never got tired of telling me that love was the most important ingredient of all, which is of course bullshit. But a tooth? It was the first day I opened the bakery after the funeral—my wife’s mother. Seventy-seven years old, brain cancer. We’d gone to Baltimore for the burial and stayed a week. Kathy wasn’t taking it well. She crawled into bed the day we got back to Mississippi and didn’t get up except to eat a sandwich and use the bathroom. Then the nightmares started bolting her awake every night, shaking. I offered to stay home with her—she’s a sixth grade teacher, off for the summer—but she said no, of course you have to get back to work, I’ll be fine.
On the Day of the Tooth—as I later came to think of it—Cheryl, the hairdresser from next door, had purchased a loaf of sourdough but came swinging back through the glass doors not ten minutes later.
“Look look look,” she said, holding out the remains of the bread on its paper sack.
Teri, the counter girl, drawled, “Well, yuck,” and I turned off the mixer and came down to the cash register and peered down at a gold tooth shining in the crumbs.
“Your tooth came out?” I said. This would be bad for business, is what I was thinking.
“Not my tooth,” said Cheryl. “I don’t have any gold teeth anyway.”
“Well, yuck,” said Teri again.
“I’m really, really sorry about that,” I said. “I have seriously no idea.” Could it have been in the flour? That was the only explanation. I took the tooth and the crumbs to the back and returned with a warm baguette. “On the house,” I said. “I can personally guarantee there’s no teeth in it.”
“Hmm,” said Cheryl, and took the baguette with a frown.
“That’s just weird is all,” said Teri.
“It is pretty weird,” I said.
A baker’s hours are long. As long as you think they’re going to be, they’re longer. When I opened three years ago—the only artisan bakery in this north Mississippi town—I expected twelve-hour days, but I did not expect ninety-hour weeks. “You’re working big-time lawyer hours,” Kathy pointed out, “and making a shit salary.” I corrected her: “I’m making no salary.” But I was happy, and she was happy for me. We had no children and had never wanted them. We lived fine—not great, but fine—off of her teaching salary.
Gradually, the bakery began making a small profit: ciabatta buns for wedding receptions, pizza Wednesdays. There were a decent number of regulars, mostly Europeans who taught at the nearby university and missed the bread of their childhood. I hired Teri to work the front counter. I hired a culinary student as an assistant baker, but he didn’t catch on; he saw only the technique, not the alchemy. He let the sourdough over-proof a few too many times, and so I let him go. I work better alone anyway.
And of course, mistakes happen every day. Sometimes I don’t even know why—maybe the air was too humid, or too dry. Maybe I used too much steam, or too little. It’s easy for a loaf to sink like a brick, or puff up and collapse. It’s not so easy for a gold tooth—a molar, from the looks of it—to emerge from an otherwise perfectly baked loaf of sourdough. I considered calling the flour company in North Carolina and complaining.
And then I didn’t. I thought: It’s a fluke. There’s no chance of something like that happening again.
I wanted to tell Kathy about the tooth, but she was asleep when I got home, curled up in a light blanket at the far edge of the bed, her breathing calm and deep. It was August and muggy; the ceiling fan chugged. I felt her forehead: cool, no fever. Strewn across the living room were the contents of the two boxes we’d brought home from her mother’s house—photos and toys, some old newspapers. I left them there. I cleaned the cup and plate she’d left in the sink and crawled into bed beside her.
The next strange thing was the rabbit. The day after the tooth incident, a twelve-year-old kid came in with his little sister for ciabatta after their judo class as they did every Tuesday, both wearing those white bathrobe-looking outfits. The little girl had a green sash; the boy’s was brown. They were always very polite, calling Teri “ma’am.” I sometimes stepped out from the back to make a joke about karate-chopping the bread, and this time the boy grinned and pulled it out of its paper sack and went Haya! and kapow, just chopped the thing with his hand. His sister shrieked and clapped. A ciabatta is soft, not exactly breakable, so really he just made a big dent in the middle, but when we’d stopped laughing we realized that one side of the loaf was moving, and then a gray little paw poked out, followed by a gray bunny.
“OMG,” said Teri, in a way that first made me think she was saying something in a foreign language: Oemgi. Japanese for small rabbit hops from bread.
The kids were staring at me like I was a wizard. Teri seemed to be hyperventilating. We watched the bunny’s face and ears twitch. It had a cute little white tail. The girl caught it as it was about to hop off the counter.
“Here,” I said, grabbing a to-go pizza box. It was just the right size; you could close it and still hear the bunny skittering around in there. “This is for you.” I gave them a bunny-free ciabatta, too, squeezing it first to be sure.
“Thanks, mister,” the kids intoned, like they were hypnotized, and then backed away and out the door, grinning so hard their little faces looked like they’d break.
“That,” I said to Teri, when they’d gone, “was not in there when I took it out of the oven.”
“I didn’t do it,” she said, defensively. “I need this job.”
“I know you didn’t,” I said. “But maybe we just both need to be a little more aware of quality control in the future.”
That night, the living room was even more of a mess: a couple of her mom’s high school yearbooks, some baby pictures of Kathy and her sister. Her parents’ wedding photo, both Mom and Dad wearing goofy grins and horn-rimmed glasses. A snow globe of the Grand Canyon, from some trip back in the 1980s. There was no plate in the sink. No cup. Kathy was flat on her back in our bed, arms out to the side, but she was breathing in a peaceful kind of way. “Honey,” I said quietly, and nudged her. “Did you eat anything today?”
She mumbled something and pulled the sheet over her head.
“Honey?” I tried again.
“Stop it,” she said. “Sleeping.”
The next morning I called Teri and told her to open the shop and sell the day-olds but to close when we ran out; I was taking the day off. At a little after 8:00 AM, I woke Kathy gently, pulled her from bed, watched her grumpily stomp around and pull on her robe. We sat across from each other at the kitchen table.
“I know this has been hard on you,” I said to her. “But you need to take care of yourself. Or let me take care of you.”
“I’m fine. I just need to sleep, dammit.”
She drank a little of the coffee I put in front of her; then she went out to the living room and sat on the floor in her pajamas with the photos and the toys and the newspaper clippings. I went quietly into the study and worked on the accounts, called Teri to see if anybody had found any more anomalies in the bread. “By anomalies,” she said, “do you mean like an eight-track cassette of Earth, Wind & Fire?”
I said yes, that would be an anomaly.
“I’d forgotten all about eight tracks.” She sounded delighted. I did not think delighted was the way she should be feeling, so I said, sharply, “What happened? Did someone complain and did you give their money back?”
And she said not exactly, but that Marsha from Regions Bank came in for a day-old whole wheat and then when she asked for it sliced that’s when Teri discovered the anomaly. They had a good laugh about disco music and then Teri sliced her up a loaf of day-old rye, even though Marsha made it clear that she had really been hoping for whole wheat.
“Just close up now,” I told her. “Just go on home.”
I could hear Kathy saying something, so I went out into the living room and she was pacing, her robe flapping open, shouting into the phone: “But we could have at least had a going away party! We have going away parties for people who fucking retire or move to fucking Florida, but not for this?” I knew she was talking to her sister Roberta even before she said, “She was my mother, too, and I think we should have had a goddamned party.” Then she flung the phone across the room, where it bounced off the television set with a thwack. When she looked at me, her eyes were red-rimmed and furious. “I’m awake. Are you happy?”
I told her I wasn’t.
“Go feed your damn mother,” she said.
When customers ask me for my “recipe,” I play along. “Flour,” I say, ticking off on my fingers. “Salt. Water.” Sometimes they get annoyed with me: No, really, don’t be coy, and I say I’m not being coy, that’s what bread is. But it’s also timing. Think of a party, I might say, if anyone cared to hear me explain it. You can arrive too early, when no one is mingling or dancing yet. You can arrive too late, when the food is gone and everyone’s drunk and tired. What you want to do is arrive at the perfect moment so you can have a great time. For bread, the perfect moment is when you’ve fed your mother starter and the dough begins to rise and bubble. When the dough doubles in size, you shape the loaves. When those double, you bake. Mess up the timing, and you arrive at the party when everyone’s looking for their keys, saying goodbye.
I have filled trash bins with loaves that were hard and flat as baseball mitts. Sometimes I never figure out what I did wrong, or why the bread wanted more than I could give it. So when Kathy told me to go take care of things at the bakery, I went; and when I came home an hour later she was asleep, as I knew she would be, curled up on the living room floor, mouth open, eyes fluttering behind her lids as she dreamed and dreamed.
The next morning, the dough looked good. It felt good. It folded and rose as it should; it baked up brown and lovely. I poked a knife into every loaf, carefully. And so I was not only perplexed but frustrated—infuriated, really—when Teri called out, “What the?” as she was slicing the rye for the ham and cheese lunch special.
She was holding up a noisemaker. She put it to her lips and blew and the curly cootie-tongue flew out and screeched. “This could be fun,” she said, because she saw the look on my face. “People might buy these on purpose?”
I grabbed the rye and swooped the rest of the bread off the shelves onto the floor while she leapt back. “Go home,” I told her, and she said, “You’re just having a bad week,” as she pulled off her apron. When she’d gone, I flipped the Open sign to Closed and set about slicing every loaf I’d already baked: the Kalamata olive, the rosemary raisin, the baguettes. It was a waste, a horrible waste, surely there couldn’t be anything else, could there? Was I really such a terrible baker that pretty much anything at all could end up in my loaves?
And then I pulled on a foil scroll rolled up in a rosemary raisin, and a banner unfurled: Bon Voyage! it said, in sparkly purple. And another, in gold: Good luck on your new adventure!
And one more, in solemn black and white, rolled up in a loaf of rye: We will miss you.
It’s not exactly true that Kathy’s mother died of brain cancer. She had brain cancer, yes, and it certainly would have killed her, which she was well aware of. She’d had headaches. She’d fainted in the nut aisle at Safeway, knocking out a tooth. There were tests. And then she sent an e-mail to Kathy, Roberta, and their father, her ex-husband:
Hey guys, no point putting us through all that crap again (you know what crap). I’m going to take care of things on Tuesday. The house deed is in the credenza.
Love, Mom (Judy)
Kathy called right away, of course, and her mother said, “A bottle of pills. Some vodka. Easy breezy.”
“But, Tuesday?” said Kathy. It was Sunday. “That’s so soon.”
And then her mother said on second thought, it was a beautiful day and she was feeling great, why wait for another headache?
I told Kathy I’d be the one to call 911, and she said, “But it’s what Mom wants. Roberta and Dad agree.” They’d all been through this long before I met Kathy, with her grandmother. A long, terrible death. That night, Kathy and I went out with some friends and drank a lot of martinis, and I was so drunk I don’t remember getting home. The next morning we were woken by Roberta, calling from Baltimore to tell us Judy was gone.
“Your dreams are turning up in my bread,” I said to Kathy that night. She was snoring quietly on the living room sofa. “This is why you aren’t waking up from nightmares anymore.”
She snored on.
I sat on the floor and sorted through the photos and the clippings and toys. Kathy and Roberta and their mother with a little gray rabbit. (Fletcher, someone had written in pencil on the back.) Judy at the Baltimore zoo, hugging herself in front of a boa constrictor cage. Photos of Kathy’s young parents on a dance floor under a disco ball. The whole family wearing Mickey Mouse ears. There was an ancient Barbie, wearing a pea-green dress that smelled vaguely of vomit.
Until Kathy had dreamed her way through this, there was no telling what might turn up in my loaves. Boa constrictors? Mouse ears? I called Teri and told her I was closing the shop for the near future. I told her I understood if she needed to look for another job.
She wasn’t happy. “Is it the anomalies?” she asked, and I said it was.
At first I was curious, and I cut each loaf carefully open: a summer sandal, a hermit crab, a Christmas ornament. But I soon realized there was no time for this. Some of the loaves were moving; some seemed to be singing. I heard the ocean in one, a roller coaster in another. I ran the oven night and day, losing track of all time except the time that mattered: bread time. The proofing, the rising, the baking.
It was, I admit, my best work. I’d never baked such perfectly crispy sourdoughs, such gorgeous ryes, or ciabatta that seemed light enough to float—and one of them actually did float. I ran out of space in the front room so I got a step ladder and stacked the loaves to the ceiling, then piled them up against the back wall, and on top of the mixer, leaving only a tiny path to the proofing table and the oven.
And finally there was no room for that anymore. I took out the last batch of twenty-four sourdough and stacked them all around me and above me, until all I could see was darkness, and all I could touch on all sides was bread, and I knew—at last—that Kathy was dreaming of me.