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Loaf

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Walter entered the kitchen. It was a mess. Dirty dishes rose above both sides of the sink. Piles of encrusted cat shit filled the litter box. Bloated trash bags and grease-stained pizza boxes were stacked by the closet. The fridge contained milk, butter, eggs, and a liter jug of ketchup. The black cherry yogurt was two months past its expiration date. The dusty shelves of the cupboard had seen better days as well. Intimations of cobwebs were everywhere.

The rest of the house wasn’t much better, but that’s another story for another day. Walter looked out the window to the backyard. The trees were leafless, the weather cold. The skies possessed a sickly, moribund pallor, as if the sky might somehow fall from the sky. The birdbath had frozen over.

With a sigh and a shrug, Walter crouched low and clutched the large metal bowl in the bottom cabinet next to the stove. The side of the bowl had a small indentation from one time it had been unceremoniously dropped and hit the floor with a splash. Although scuffed and scratched by the passage of time, the bowl still retained the sheen of a well-kept object.

Rather than washing or removing any of the dishes in the sink, Walter instead moved some from one side to the other, then ran the faucet until the water was at the perfect temperature and splashed a few cups into the bowl. He blindly swept his hand across the overhead cabinet until his fingers found a packet of yeast. He tapped the granules into the water and watched them dissolve. Then, he added salt, sugar, flour, and oil. He didn’t measure anything because he didn’t need to. He had done this so many times before that he could tell by sight and feel the proportions were what they needed to be.

After mixing the ingredients into a homogenous glob of wet dough, Walter reached into the bag of flour and gripped a handful. With the speed and flash of a blackjack dealer, he sprayed a thin layer across the counter. Walter dumped the contents of the bowl onto the counter and began to knead. His powdered fingers were thick and strong, the nails clipped down to the flesh. First, he gathered the dough together like God first forming the sun. Once the disparate wet strands became one, Walter pressed on them with his knuckles, added another dash of flour to the counter, then flipped the loose beige ball of dough onto its other side.

He continued this delicate yet forceful massage for several minutes, passing the time with an indiscernible hum that stubbornly refused to become a song. Once the dough had soaked up the remaining residue of flour and turned into a compact but pliant orb, he scooped it up with one hand and lowered it back into the lightly greased metal bowl. He covered it with a white cloth towel and then disappeared into the other room for an hour-and-a-half.

When he returned the dough had risen and nearly doubled in size. He flicked a cigarette out the window, rinsed his hands, then punched down on the dough, upon which he gently extracted it from the bowl and placed it again onto the counter that had been pre-dusted with flour. His hands — those of an artisan more than an artist — worked the dough until it was in the shape of a loaf.

Walter found the loaf pan in the storage tray beneath the oven and switched the dials to begin preheating. He greased the pan and then laid the dough down in it like a newborn child. Covering it once more with the white cloth towel, he returned to the living room. The sound of a needle drop preceded the polyphonic birth of cool jazz. Walter played the record in its entirety, rising from his recliner only when the needle slipped off the vinyl platter and the house resumed its silent vigil.

He slid the pan into the oven, made sure the dial was set to the right temperature, then went back into the living room to play another record.

Meanwhile, the heat interacted with the yeasty dough and a fragrant odor soon wafted through the air of the house, masking the stale stench of cigarettes and the damp whiff of neglect. The top of the dough gradually became a hardened crust, deep golden brown in color.

Piano chords mingled with the zig of a trumpet and the zag of a saxophone. A bird landed on the icy rink of the birdbath, chipped a cube with its beak, then flew away.

Walter came into the kitchen with the strands of his hair still dripping wet. A touch of lather lingered by his ear. He sat on his haunches to inspect the finished bread. Doubling the white cloth, he reached into the oven and pulled out the loaf. He tapped the pan’s sides with the butt end of a butter knife and then flipped it over onto a wire rack he kept by the empty fruit basket.

Later, wearing a turtleneck sweater beneath a gray blazer and with pomade in his hair, Walter’s shined shoes tapped on the linoleum floor. He removed the serrated bread knife from the wood block and cut the loaf into slices. Half he put aside on the counter. The other half he wrapped in waxed paper.

He threw on his overcoat and carried the bundle of bread in gloved hands out the door. He walked down the hill, crossed the wooden bridge above the creek, then turned left onto the gravel road that led to the cemetery where his beloved remained at rest.

The world was quiet aside from the humble shuffle of Walter’s shoes cutting through the snow-swept grass. Walter’s face twitched when he stared down at the slate of chiseled stone that marked the beginning and end of Teresa’s life. He had to take a moment to calculate how many years had gone by, even if it felt like nary a day had passed.

“I brought you something, dear,” he said, kneeling stiffly. He unwrapped the wax paper and took a slice of bread. He broke off several chunks and tossed them onto the frozen ground. The wind howled and the surrounding birch trees shook loose a flock of birds, who circled the skies and then landed. One took a tentative hop towards a chunk of bread. Walter took a few steps back and admired its crest. The mockingbird chirped, and his friends gathered to join the feast.

“I thought you would like the company.”

More birds descended from the surrounding forest, a multi-hued conference of color, wisps of turquoise and plumes of orange, black-bodied ravens, and yellow songbirds. A cardinal landed on the tombstone with a nibble of bread in its mouth. Walter didn’t need to imagine the taste.

The steam of his breath masked the shadow of a smile. As a younger man, Walter would have stomped the earth to spook the birds into flight. Instead, now, he lingered, humming something that resembled an old jazz tune.


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