An excerpt from The Storyteller
On the second Thursday of the month, Mrs. Dombrowski brings her dead husband to our therapy group.
It’s just past 3PM, and most of us are still filling our paper cups with bad coffee. I’ve brought a plate of baked goods – last week, Stuart told me that the reason he keeps coming to Helping Hands isn’t for the grief counseling but for my butterscotch pecan muffins – and just as I am setting them down, Mrs. Dumbrowski shyly nods toward the urn she is holding. “This,” she tells me, “is Herb. Herbie, meet Sage. She’s the one I told you about, the baker.”
I stand frozen, ducking my head so that my hair covers the left side of my face, like I usually do. I’m sure there’s a protocol for meeting a spouse who’s been cremated but I’m pretty much at a loss. Am I supposed to say hello? Shake his handle?
“Wow,” I finally say, because although there are few rules to this group, the ones we have are steadfast: be a good listener, don’t judge, and don’t put boundaries on someone else’s grief. I know this better than anyone. After all, I’ve been coming for nearly two years, now, since my mother’s death.
Today, our facilitator, Marge, has asked us to bring in mementos. “That’s disgusting!” says Jocelyn, another group member. “We weren’t supposed to bring something dead. We were supposed to bring a memory.”
“He’s not a something, he’s a someone,” Mrs. Dombrowski says.
I step away as they start to argue and head for the bathroom down the hall. Staring into the mirror, I pull my hair back from my face.
The scar is silver now, ruched, rippling my cheek and my brow like the neck of a silk purse. Except for the fact that my eyelid droops, skin pulled too tight, you might not realize at first glance that there’s something wrong with me – at least that’s what my friend Mary says. But people notice. They’re just too polite to say something, unless they are under the age of four and still brutally honest, pointing and asking their moms what’s wrong with that lady’s face.
Even though the injury has faded, I still see it the way it was right after the accident: raw and red, a jagged lightning bolt splitting the symmetry of my face. In this, I suppose I’m like a girl with an eating disorder, who weighs ninety-eight pounds sees a fat person staring back at her from the mirror. It isn’t even a scar to me, really. It’s a map of where my life went wrong.
As I leave the bathroom, I nearly mow down an old man. I am taller than him - tall enough to see the pink of his scalp through the hurricane whorl of his white hair. “I am late again,” he says, his English accented. “I was lost.”
This man is a new here; he’s only been coming for two weeks. He has yet to say a single word during a session. Yet the first time I saw him, I recognized him; I just couldn’t remember why.
Now, I do. The bakery. He comes in often with his dog, a little dachshund, and he orders a fresh roll with butter and a black coffee. He spends hours writing in a little black notebook, while his dog sleeps at his feet.
“You are Sage?”
“Yes,” I say.
The awkward silence grows between us like yeasted dough. “This group. You have been coming a long time.”
I don’t know whether I should be defensive. “Yes.”
“So you find it helpful?”
If it were helpful, I wouldn’t still be coming. “They’re all nice people, really. They each just sometimes think their grief is bigger than anyone else’s.”
“You don’t say much,” Mr. Weber muses. “But when you do…you are a poet.”
I shake my head. “I’m a baker.”
“Can a person not be two things at once?” he asks, and slowly, he walks away.
My boss, Mary DeAngelis, used to be Sister Mary Robert, a nun. One Easter, when she heard the priest say He is risen she had a vision. Six months later, she opened Our Daily Bread at the Foothills of the Our Lady of Mercy Shrine in Westerbrook, NH. It was a fair-weather shrine; business dropped off dramatically during New England winters. Which was Mary’s selling point: what could be more secular than freshly baked bread? The only catch was that she had no idea how to bake.
That’s where I come in.
I started baking when I was twenty years old and my father died unexpectedly. I was at college, and went home for the funeral, only to return and find nothing the same. I stared at the words on textbooks as if they had been written in a language I could not read. I couldn’t get myself out of bed to go to classes. I missed one exam, then another. I stopped turning in papers. Then one night I woke up in my dorm room and smelled flour – so much flour I felt as if I’d been rolling in it. I took a shower but couldn’t get rid of the smell. It reminded me of Sunday mornings as a kid, when I would awaken to the scent of fresh bagels and bialys, crafted by my father.
He’d always tried to teach my sisters and me, but mostly we were too busy with school and field hockey and boys to listen. Or so I thought, until I started to sneak into the residential college dining hall kitchen and bake bread every night.
I left the loaves like abandoned babies on the thresholds of the offices of professors I admired, of the dorm rooms of boys with smiles so beautiful that they stunned me into awkward silence. I left a finial rail of sourdough rolls on a lectern podium and slipped a boule into the oversized purse of the cafeteria lady who pressed plates of pancakes and bacon at me, telling me I was too skinny. On the day my academic advisor told me that I was failing three of my four classes, I had nothing to say in my defense; but I gave her a honey baguette seeded with anise, the bitter and the sweet.
My mother arrived unexpectedly one day. She took up residence in my dorm room and micromanaged my life, from making sure I was fed to walking me to class to quizzing me on my homework readings. “If I don’t get to give up,” she told me, “then neither do you.”
I wound up being on the five-year-plan, but I did graduate. My mother stood up and whistled through her teeth when I crossed the stage to get my diploma. And then everything went to hell.
I’ve thought a lot about it: how you can ricochet from a moment where you are on top of the world to one where you are crawling at rock bottom. I’ve thought about all the things I could have done differently, and if it would have led to another outcome. But thinking doesn’t change anything, does it? And so afterward, with my eye still bloodshot and the Frankenstein monster stitches curving around my temple and cheek like the seam of a baseball, I gave my mother the same advice she had given me. If I don’t get to give up, then neither do you.
She didn’t, at first. It took almost six months, one bodily system shutting down after another. I sat by her side in the hospital every day, and at night went home to rest. Except, I didn’t. Instead, I started once again to bake – my go-to therapy. I brought artisan loaves to her doctors. I made pretzels for the nurses. For my mother, I made her favorite – cinnamon rolls, thick with icing. I made them daily, but she never managed a bite.
It was Marge, the facilitator of the grief group, who suggested I get a job, to help me forge some kind of routine. Fake it until you make it, she said. But I couldn’t stand the thought of working in broad daylight, where everyone would be staring at my face. I had been shy before; now I was reclusive.
Mary says it’s divine intervention that she ran into me. Me, I don’t believe in God; I think it was pure luck that the first Classifieds section I read after Marge made her suggestion included an ad for a master baker – one who would work nights, alone, and leave when customers began to trickle into the store. At the interview Mary didn’t comment on the fact that I had no experience, no significant summer jobs, no references. But most importantly, she took one look at my scar and said, “I’m guessing when you want to tell me about that, you will.” And that was that. Later, as I got to know her, I’d realize that when she gardens, she never sees the seed. She is already picturing the plant it will become. I imagine she thought the same, meeting me.
Baker’s hours can do strange things to a brain. When your workday begins at 5 PM and lasts through dawn, you hear each click of the minute hand on the clock over the stove, you see movements in the shadows. You do not recognize the echo of your own voice; you begin to think you are the only person left alive on earth. I’m convinced there’s a reason most murders happen at night. The world just feels different for those of us who come alive after dark. It’s more fragile and unreal, a replica of the one everyone else inhabits.
I’ve been living in reverse for so long now that it’s not a hardship to go to bed when the sun is rising; and to wake when it’s low in the sky. Most days this means I get about six hours of sleep before I return to Our Daily Bread to start all over again, but being a baker means accepting a fringe existence, one I welcome whole-heartedly. The people I see are convenience store clerks, Dunkin Donuts drive-through cashiers, nurses switching shifts. And Mary, who close up the bakery shortly after I arrive. She locks me in, like the princess in Rumplestilskin, not to count grain but to transform it before morning into the quick breads and yeasted loaves that fill the shelves and glass counters.
I am already well into making the one hundred pounds of product I make every night by the time I hear Mary start to close up. Rinsing my hands in the industrial sink, I pull off the cap I wear to cover my hair while I’m working and walk to the front of the shop. I hear a bark, and realize that the bakery isn’t empty. The one lone customer is Mr. Weber, from my grief group, and his tiny dog. Mary sits with him, a cup of tea in her hands.
He struggles to get to his feet when he sees me and does an awkward little bow. “Hello again.”
“You know Josef?” Mary asks.
Grief group is like AA – you don’t “out” someone unless you have his permission. “We’ve met,” I reply, shaking my hair forward to screen my face.
His dachshund comes closer on its leash to lick at a spot of flour of my pants. “Eva,” he scolds. “Manners!”
“It’s okay,” I tell him, crouching down with relief to pat the dog. Animals never stare.
Mr. Weber slips the loop of the leash over his wrist and stands. “I am keeping you from going home,” he says apologetically to Mary.
“Not at all. I enjoy the company.” She glances down at the old man’s mug, which is still three-quarters full.
I don’t know what makes me say what I say. After all, I have plenty to do. But it has started to pour, now, a torrential sheet of rain. The only vehicles in the lot is Mary’s Harley, which means Mr. Weber is either walking home or waiting for the bus. “You can stay until Advanced Transit shows up,” I tell him.
He nods in gratitude and sits down again. As he cups his hands around the coffee mug, Eva stretches out over his left foot and closes her eyes.
“Have a nice night,” Mary says to me. “Bake your little heart out.”
But instead of staying with Mr. Weber, I follow Mary into the back room where she keeps her biker rain gear. “I’m not cleaning up after him.”
“You invited him to stay,” Mary reminds me.
“I don’t know anything about him. What if he tries to rob us? Or worse?”
“Sage, he’s ninety. Do you think he’s going to cut your throat with his dentures?” Mary shakes her head. “Josef Weber is as close as you can get to being canonized while you’re still alive. Everyone in Westerbrook knows him – he used to coach kids’ baseball; he organized the cleanup of Riverhead Park; he taught German at the high school for a zillion years. He’s everyone’s adoptive, cuddly grandfather. I don’t think he’s going to sneak into the kitchen and stab you with a bread knife while your back is turned.”
“I’ve never heard of him,” I murmur.
“That’s because you live under a rock,” Mary says.
“Or in a kitchen.” When you sleep all day and work all night, you don’t have time for things like newspapers or television. It was three days before I heard that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.
“Good night.” She gives me a quick hug. “Josef’s harmless. Really. The worst he could do is talk you to death.”
I watch her open the rear door of the bakery. She ducks at the onslaught of driving rain and waves without looking back. I close the door behind her and lock it.
By the time I return to the bakery’s dining room, Mr. Weber’s mug is empty and the dog is on his lap. “Sorry,” I say. “Work stuff.”
“You don’t have to entertain me. I know you have much to do.”
I have a hundred loaves to shape; bagels to boil; bialys to fill. Yes, you could say I’m busy. But to my surprise I hear myself say, “It can wait a few minutes.”
Mr. Weber gestures to the chair Mary had occupied. “Then please. Sit.”
I do, but I check my watch. My timer will go off in three minutes, then I will have to go back into the kitchen. “So,” I say. “I guess we’re in for some weather.”
“We are always in for some weather,” Mr. Weber replies. His words sound as if he is biting them off a string: precise, clipped. “Tonight however we are in for some bad weather.” He glances up at me. “What brought you to the grief group?”
My gaze locks on his. There is a rule that, at group, we are not pressed to share if we’re not ready. Certainly Mr. Weber hasn’t been ready; it seems rude that he’d ask someone else what he himself isn’t ready to share. But then again, we aren’t at group.
“My mother,” I say, and tell him what I’ve told everyone else there. “Cancer.”
He nods in sympathy. “I am sorry for your loss,” he says stiffly.
“And you?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Too many to count.”
I don’t even know how to respond to that. My grandma is always talking about how at her age, her friends are dropping like flies. I imagine for Mr. Weber, the same is true.
“You have been a baker long?”
“A few years,” I answer.
“You are very good at what you do.”
“Anyone can bake bread,” I say.
“But not everyone can do it well.”
From the kitchen comes the sound of the timer buzzing; it wakes up Eva, who begins to bark. Almost simultaneously there is a sweep of approaching lights through the glass windows of the bakery as the Advance Transit bus slows at its corner stop. “Thank you for letting me stay a bit,” he says.
“No problem, Mr. Weber.”
His face softens. “Please. Call me Josef.” As he walks out of the bakery he squints into the bright beams of the bus.
I notice that Mr. Weber – Josef – has left behind the little black book he is always writing in when he sits here. It is banded with elastic. I grab it and run into the storm. I step right into a gigantic puddle, which soaks my clog. “Josef,” I call out, my hair plastered to my head. He turns, Eva’s beady little eyes poking out from between the folds of his raincoat. “You left this.”
I hold up the black book and walk toward him. “Thank you,” he says, safely slipping it into his pocket. “I don’t know what I would have done without it.” He tips his umbrella, so that it shelters me as well.
“Your Great American novel?” I guess.
He looks startled. “Oh, no. This is just a place to keep all my thoughts. They get away from me, otherwise. If I don’t write down that I like your Kaiser rolls, for example, I won’t remember to order them the next time I come.”
“I think most people could use a book like that.”
The driver of the Advanced Transit bus honks twice. We both turn in the direction of the noise.
Josef pats his pocket. “It’s important to remember,” he says.
In a town the size of Westerbrook, which was derived of Yankee Mayflower stock, being Jewish made my sisters and I anomalies, as different from our classmates as if our skin happened to be bright blue. “Rounding out the bell curve,” my father used to say, when I asked him why we had to stop eating bread for a week roughly the same time everyone else in my school was bringing hard-boiled Easter eggs in their lunchboxes. I wasn’t picked on – to the contrary, when our elementary school teachers taught holiday alternatives to Christmas, I became a virtual celebrity, along with Julius, the only African-American kid in my school, whose grandmother celebrated Kwanzaa. I went to Hebrew school because my sisters did, but when the time came to be bat mitvahed, I begged to drop out. When I wasn’t allowed, I went on a hunger strike. It was enough that my family didn’t match other families; I had no desire to call attention to myself any more than I had to.
My parents were Jews, but they didn’t keep kosher or go to services (except for the years prior to Pepper and Saffron’s bat mitzvahs, when it was mandatory. I used to sit at Friday night services listening to the cantor sing in Hebrew and wondered why Jewish music was full of minor chords. For Chosen People, the songwriters sure didn’t seem very happy). My parents did, however, fast on Yom Kippur and refused to have a Christmas tree.
To me, it seemed they were following an abridged version of Judaism, so who were they to tell me how and what to believe? I said this to my parents when I was lobbying to not have a bat mitzvah. My father got very quiet. The reason it’s important to believe in something, he said, is because you can. Then he sent me to my room without supper, which was truly shocking because in our household, we were encouraged to state our opinions, no matter how controversial. It was my mother who sneaked upstairs with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for me. “Your father may not be a rabbi,” she said, “but he believes in tradition. That’s what a parent passes down to their children.”
“Okay,” I argued. “I promise to do my back-to-school shopping in July; and I’ll always make sweet potato-marshmallow casserole for Thanksgiving. I don’t have a problem with tradition, Mom. I have a problem going to Hebrew School. Religion isn’t in your DNA. You don’t believe just because your parents believe.”
“Grandma Minka wears sweaters,” my mother said. “All the time.”
This was a seemingly random observation. My father’s mother lived in an assisted living community. She had been born in Poland and still had an accent that made it sound like she was always singing. And yes, Grandma Minka wore sweaters, even when it was ninety degrees out, but she also wore too much blush and leopard prints.
“A lot of survivors had their tattoos surgically removed, but she said seeing it every morning reminds her that she won.”
It took me a moment to realize what my mother was telling me. My father’s mother had been in a concentration camp? How had I made it to age twelve without knowing this? Why would my parents have hidden this information from me?
“She doesn’t like to talk about it,” my mother said simply. “And she doesn’t like her arm to show in public.”
We had studied the Holocaust in social studies class. It was hard to imagine the textbook pictures of living skeletons matching the plump woman who always smelled like lilacs, who never missed her weekly hair appointment, who kept brightly colored canes in every room of her house so that she always had easy access to one. She was not part of history. She was just my grandma.
“She doesn’t go to temple,” my mother said. “I guess after all that, you’d have a pretty complicated relationship with God. But your father, he started going. I think it was his way of processing what happened to her.”
Here I was, trying desperately to shed my religion so I could blend in, and it turned out being Jewish was truly in my blood; that I was the descendant of a Holocaust survivor. Frustrated, angry, and selfish, I threw myself backward against my pillows. “That’s Dad’s issue. It has nothing to do with me.”
My mother hesitated. “If she hadn’t lived, Sage, neither would you.”
That was the one and only time we ever discussed Grandma Minka’s past, although when we brought her to our house for Chanukah that year, I found myself scrutinizing her to see some shadow of the truth on her face. But she was the same as always, picking the skin off the roasted chicken to eat when my mother wasn’t looking; emptying her purse of perfume and makeup samples she’d collected for my sisters; discussing the characters on All My Children as if they were friends she visited for coffee. If she had been in a concentration camp during World War II, she must have been a completely different person at the time.
The night my mother told me about my grandmother’s history, I dreamed of a moment I hadn’t remembered, from when I was very tiny. I was sitting on Grandma Minka’s lap while she turned the pages of a book and read me they story. I realize now that it wasn’t the right story at all. The picture book was of Cinderella, but she must have been thinking of something else, because her tale was about a dark forest and monsters; a trail of oats and grain.
I also recall that I wasn’t paying much attention, because I was mesmerized by the gold bangle bracelet on my grandmother’s wrist. I kept reaching for it, pulling at her sweater. At one point, the wool rode up just far enough for me to be distracted by the faded blue numbers on her inner forearm. What’s that?
My telephone number.
I had memorized my telephone number the previous year in preschool, so that if I got lost, the police could call home.
What if you move? I had asked.
Oh Sage, she had laughed. I’m here to stay.
The next day, when Josef Weber comes into the bakery at 4:30, I bring out a small bag of homemade dog biscuits for Eva, and a loaf of bread for him.
“I saved you the best one of the night.” I know it’s a good loaf. You can smell it, when an artisanal bread comes out of the oven: the earthy, dark scent, as if you are in the thick of the woods. I glance with pride at the variegated crumb.
Josef closes his eyes in delight. “I am lucky to know the baker personally.”
We chat – about the weather, about Eva, about my favorite recipes. We chat, as Mary closes up the bakery around us. We chat, even as I dart back and forth into the kitchen to answer the call of various timers. This is extraordinary for me, because I don’t chat. There are even moments during our conversation that when I forget to disguise the pitted side of my face by ducking my head or letting my hair fall in front of it. But Josef, he is either too polite or too embarrassed to mention it. Or maybe, just maybe, there are other things about me he finds more interesting. This is what must have made him everyone’s favorite teacher, umpire, adoptive grandfather – he acts as if there is nowhere else on earth he’d rather be than here, right now. And no one else on earth he’d rather be talking to. It is such a heady rush to be the object of someone’s attention in a good way, not as freak, that I keep forgetting to hide.
“How long have you lived here?” I ask, when we have been talking for over an hour.
“Twenty-two years,” Josef says. “I used to live in Canada.”
“Well, if you were looking for a community where nothing ever happens, you hit the jackpot.”
Josef smiles. “I think so.”
“Do you have family around here?”
His hand shakes as he reaches for his mug of coffee. “I have no one,” Josef answers, and he starts to get to his feet. “I must go.”
Immediately, my stomach turns over, because I’ve made him uncomfortable – and nobody knows better than me what that feels like. “I’m sorry,” I blurt out. “I didn’t mean to be rude. I don’t talk to many people.” I offer him an unhemmed smile, and make amends the only way I know how: by revealing a piece of myself that I usually keep under lock and key, so that I am equally as exposed. “I also have no one,” I confess. “I’m twenty-five, and both of my parents are dead. They won’t see me get married. I won’t get to cook them Thanksgiving dinner or visit them with grandkids. My sisters are totally different from me – they have minivans and soccer practices and careers with bonuses and they hate me even though they say they don’t.” The words are a flood rushing out of me; just speaking them, I am drowning. “But mostly I have no one because of this.”
With a shaking hand, I pull my hair back from my face.
I know every detail he’s seeing. The pocked drawstring of skin flapping the corner of my right eye. The silver hatchmarks cutting through my eyebrow. The puzzle-piece patchwork of grafted skin that doesn’t quite match and doesn’t quite fit. The way my mouth tugs upward, because of the way my cheekbone healed. The bald notch at my scalp that no longer grows hair, that my bangs are brushed to carefully cover. The face of a monster.
I cannot justify why I’ve picked Josef, a virtual stranger, to reveal myself to. Maybe because loneliness is a mirror; and recognizes itself. My hand falls away, letting the curtain of my hair cover my scars again. I just wish it were that easy to camouflage the ones inside me.
To his credit, Josef does not gasp or recoil. Steadily, he meets my gaze. “Maybe now,” he replies, “we can have each other.”
The next morning on my way home from work, I drive by Josef’s house. He lives at the end of small cul-de-sac, and I am parked at the curb trying to concoct a reason that I might be dropping by when he knocks on the window of my car. “So it is you,” Josef says.
He is holding the end of Eva’s leash. She dances around his feet in circles. “What brings you to my neighborhood?” Josef asks.
I consider telling him that it is a coincidence, that I took a wrong turn. Or that I have a friend who lives nearby. But instead, I wind up speaking the truth. “You,” I say.
A smile breaks across his face. “Then you must stay for tea,” he insists.
His home is not decorated the way I would have expected. There are chintz couches with lace doilies on the back, photographs on top of a dusty mantel, a collection of Hummel figurines on a shelf. The invisible fingerprints of a woman’s touch are everywhere. “You’re married,” I murmur.
“I was,” Josef says. “To Marta. For fifty-one very good years and one not-so-good.”
This must have been the reason he started coming to grief group, I realize. “I’m sorry.”
“I am too,” he says heavily. He takes the teabag from his mug and carefully wraps a noose around it on the bowl of the spoon. “Every Wednesday night she would remind me to take out the garbage can to the curb. In fifty years, I never once forgot, but she never gave me the benefit of the doubt. Drove me crazy. Now, I would give anything to hear her remind me again.”
“I almost flunked out of college,” I reply. “My mother actually moved into my dorm room and dragged me out of bed and made me study with her. I felt like the biggest loser on earth. And now I realize how lucky I was.” I reach down and stroke Eva’s silky head. “Josef?” I ask. “Do you ever feel like you’re losing her? Like you can’t hear the exact pitch of her voice in your head anymore, or you can’t remember what her perfume smelled like?”
He shakes his head. “I have the opposite problem,” he says. “I can’t forget him.”
“Her,” Josef corrects. “All this time, and I still mix up the German words with the English.”
My gaze lands on a chess set on a sideboard behind Josef. The pieces are all carefully carved: pawns shaped like tiny unicorns, rooks fashioned into centaurs, a set of Pegasus knights. The queen’s mermaid tail curls around its base, the head of the vampire king is tossed back, fangs bared. “This is incredible,” I breathe, walking closer for a better look. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Josef chuckles. “That is because there is only one. It is a family heirloom.”
I stare with even more admiration at the chessboard, with its seamless inlay of cherry and maple squares; at the tiny jeweled eyes of the mermaid. “It’s beautiful.”
“Yes. My brother was very artistic,” Josef says softly.
“He made this?”
I pick up the vampire and run my finger over the smooth, slick skull of the creature. “Do you play?” I ask.
“Not for years. Marta had no patience for the game.” He looks up. “And you?”
“I’m not very good. You have to think five steps ahead.”
“It’s all about strategy,” Josef says. “And protecting your king.”
“What’s with the mythical creatures?” I ask.
“My brother believed in all sorts of mythical creatures: pixies, dragons, werewolves, honest men.”
I look up at him. “Maybe,” I say, “you could teach me what you know.”
Josef becomes a regular at Our Daily Bread, and I spend hours at his house, learning chess. He teaches me to control the center of the board. To not give up any pieces unless absolutely necessary, and how to assign arbitrary point values to each knight and bishop and rook and pawn so that I can make those decisions.
As we play, Josef asks me questions. Was my mother a redhead, like me? Did my father ever miss the restaurant industry, once he went into industrial sales? Did either of them ever get a chance to taste some of my recipes? Even the answers that are hardest to give – like the fact that I never baked for either of them – don’t burn my tongue as badly as they would have three years ago. It turns out that sharing a memory with someone is different from reliving it when you’re alone. It feels less like a wound; more like a poultice.
Two weeks later, Josef and I carpool to our next grief group meeting. We sit beside each other, and it is as if we have a subtle telepathy between us as the other group members speak. Sometimes he catches my gaze and hides a smile, sometimes I roll my eyes at him. We are suddenly partners in crime.
Today we are talking about what happens to us after we die. “Do we stick around?” Marge asks. “Watch over our loved ones?”
“I think so. I can still feel Sheila sometimes,” Stuart says. “It’s like the air gets more humid.”
“When my mother was in the hospital,” I say, “her rabbi told her a story. In Heaven and Hell people sit at banquet tables filled with amazing food, but no one can bend their elbows. In Hell, everyone starves because they can’t feed themselves. In Heaven, everyone’s stuffed, because they don’t have to bend their arms to feed each other.”
I can feel Josef staring at me.
“Mr. Weber?” Marge prompts.
I assume Josef will ignore her question, or shake his head, like usual. But to my surprise, he speaks. “When you die you die. And everything is over.”
His blunt words settle like a shroud over the rest of us. “Excuse me,” he says, and he walks out of the meeting room.
I find him waiting in the hallway of the church. “That story you told, about the banquet,” Josef says. “Do you believe it?”
“I guess I’d like to,” I say. “For my mother’s sake.”
“But your rabbi –“
“Not my rabbi. My mother’s.” I start walking toward the door.
“But you believe in an afterlife?” Josef says, curious.
“And you don’t.”
“I believe in Hell…but it’s here on earth.” He shakes his head. “Good people and bad people. As if it were this easy. Everyone is both of these at once.”
“Don’t you think one outweighs the other?”
Josef stops walking. “You tell me,” he says.
As if his words have heat behind them, my scar burns. “How come you’ve never asked me,” I blurt out. “How it happened?”
“How what happened?”
I make a circular gesture in front of my face.
“Ach. Well. A long time ago, someone once told me that a story will tell itself, when it’s ready. I assumed that it wasn’t ready.”
It is a strange idea, that what happened to me isn’t my tale to tell, but something completely separate from me. I wonder if this has been my problem all along: not being able to dissect the two. “I was in a car accident,” I say.
Josef nods, waiting.
“I wasn’t the only one hurt,” I manage, although the words choke me.
“But you survived.” Gently, he touches my shoulder. “Maybe that’s all that matters.”
I shake my head. “I wish I could believe that.”
Josef looks at me. “Don’t we all,” he says.
The next day, Josef doesn’t come to the bakery. He doesn’t come the following day either. I have come to the only viable conclusion: Josef is lying comatose in his bed. Or worse.
In all the years I’ve worked at Our Daily Bread, I’ve never left the bakery unattended overnight. My evenings are ordered to military precision, with me working a mile a minute to divide dough and shape it into hundreds of loaves; to have them proofed and ready for baking when the oven is free. The bakery itself becomes a living, breathing thing; each station a new partner to dance with. Mess up on the timing, and you will find yourself standing alone while chaos whirls around you. I find myself compensating in a frenzy, trying to produce the same amount of product in less time. But I realize that I’m not going to be of any use until I go to Josef’s house, and make sure he’s still breathing.
I drive there, and see a light on in the kitchen. Immediately, Eva starts barking.
Josef opens the front door. “Sage,” he says, surprised. He sneezes violently and wipes his nose with a white cloth handkerchief. “Is everything all right?”
“You have a cold,” I say, the obvious.
“Did you come all this way to tell me what I already know?”
“No. I thought – I mean, I wanted to check on you, since I hadn’t seen you in a few days.”
“Ach. Well, as you can see, I am still standing.” He gestures. “You will come in?”
“I can’t,” I say. “I have to get back to work.” But I make no move to leave. “I was worried when you didn’t show up at the bakery.”
He hesitates, his hand on the doorknob. “So you came to make sure I was still breathing?”
“I came to check on a friend.”
“Friends,” Josef repeats, beaming. “We are friends, now?”
A twenty-five year old disfigured girl and a nonagenarian? I suppose there have been stranger duos.
“I would like that very much,” Josef says formally. “I will see you tomorrow, Sage. Now you must go back to work so that I can have a roll with my coffee.”
Twenty minutes later, I am back in the kitchen, turning off a half dozen angry timers and assessing the damage caused by my hour AWOL. There are loaves that have proofed too much; the dough has lost its shape and sags to one side or the other. My output for the whole night will be affected; Mary will be devastated. Tomorrow’s customers will leave empty-handed.
I burst into tears.
I’m not sure if I’m crying because of the disaster in the kitchen, or because I didn’t realize how upsetting it was to think that Josef might be taken away from me, when I’ve only just found him. I just don’t know how much more I can stand to lose.
I wish I could bake for my mother: boules and pain au chocolat and brioche, piled high on her table at Heaven. I wish I could be the one to feed her. But I can’t. It’s like Josef said – no matter what we survivors like to tell ourselves about the afterlife, when someone dies, everything is over.
But this. I look around the bakery kitchen. This, I can reclaim, by working the dough very briefly and letting it rise again.
So I knead. I knead, I knead.
The next day, a miracle occurs.
Mary, who at first is tight-lipped and angry at my reduced nightly output, slices open a ciabatta. “What am I supposed to do, Sage?” she sighs. “Tell customers to just go down the street to Rudy’s?”
Rudy’s is our competition. “You could give them a rain check.”
“Peanut butter and jelly tastes like crap on a rain check.”
When she asked what happened, I lied. I told her that I got a migraine and fell asleep for two hours. “It won’t happen again.”
Mary purses her lips, which tells me that she hasn’t forgiven me yet. Then she picks up a slice of the bread, ready to spread it with strawberry jam.
Except she doesn’t.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” she gasps, dropping the slice as if it’s burned her fingers. She points to the crumb.
That’s a fancy term for the holes inside bread. Artisanal bread is judged on its variegated crumb, other breads – like Wonder (which is barely even a bread, nutritionally) have uniform, tiny crumb.
“Do you see Him?”
If I squint, I can make out what looks like the shape of a face.
Then it becomes more clear: A beard. Robes.
Apparently I’ve baked the face of God into my loaf.
The first visitors to our little miracle are the women who work in the shrine gift shop, who take a picture with the piece of bread between them. Then Father Dupree – the priest at the shrine – arrives. “Fascinating,” he says, peering over the edge of his bifocals.
The door flies open and a reporter with frizzy red hair enters, trailed by a bear of a cameraman. “Is this where the Jesus Loaf is?”
Mary steps forward. “Yes, I’m Mary DeAngelis. I own the bakery.”
“Great,” the reporter says. “I’m Harriet Yarrow from WMUR. We’d like to talk to you and your employees.” While she interviews Mary and Father Dupree I ring up three baguettes, a hot chocolate, and a semolina loaf. Then Harriet sticks her microphone in my face. “Is this the baker?” she asks Mary.
The camera has a red light above its cyclopean eye, which blinks awake while filming. I stare at it, stricken by the thought of the whole state seeing me on the midday news. I drop my chin to my chest, obliterating my face, even as my cheeks burn with embarrassment. How much has he already filmed? Just a glimpse of my scar before I ducked my head? Or enough to make children drop their spoons in their soup bowls; for their mothers to turn off the television for fear of giving birth to nightmares? “I have to go,” I mutter, and I bolt into the bakery office, and out the back door.
I take the Holy Stairs two at a time to the little grotto at the top of the hill. It’s an area nobody ever visits – which, of course, is exactly how I like it.
This is why I’m surprised when I hear footsteps. When Josef appears, leaning
heavily on the railing, I rush over to help him. “What is going on down there? Is someone famous having coffee?”
“Sort of. Mary thinks she saw the face of Jesus in one of my loaves.”
I expect him to scoff, but instead Josef tilts his head, considering this. “I suppose God tends to show up in places we would not expect.”
“You believe in God?” I say, truly surprised. After our conversation about Heaven and Hell, I had assumed that he was an atheist too.
“Yes” Josef replies. “He judges us at the end. The Old Testament God. You must know about this, as a Jew.”
I feel that pang of isolation, of difference. “I never said I was Jewish.”
Now Josef looks surprised. “But your mother –“
“---Is not me.”
“I did not mean to offend,” he says stiffly. “I came to ask a favor, and I just needed to be certain you were who I thought you were.” Josef takes a deep breath and when he exhales, the words he speaks hang between us. “I would like you to help me die.”
“What?” I say, truly shocked. “Why?”
He is having a senile moment, I think. But Josef’s eyes are bright and focused. “I know this is a surprising request…”
“Surprising? How about insane---”
“I have my reasons,” Josef says, stubborn. “I ask you to trust me.”
I take a step backward. “Maybe you should just go.”
“Please,” Josef begs. “It is like you said about chess. I am thinking five steps ahead.”
His words make me pause. “Are you sick?”
“My doctor says I have the constitution of a much younger man. This is God’s joke on me. He makes me so strong that I cannot die even when I want to. I have had cancer, twice. I survived a car crash and a broken hip. I have even, God forgive me, swallowed a bottle of pills. But I was found by a Seventh Day Adventist who happened to be passing out leaflets and saw me through the window, lying on the floor.”
“Why would you try to kill yourself?”
“Because I should be dead, Sage. It’s what I deserve. And you can help me.” He hesitates. “You showed me your scars. I only ask you to let me show you mine.”
It strikes me that I know nothing about this man, except for what he has chosen to share with me. And now, apparently, he’s picked me to help him carry out his assisted suicide. “Look Josef,” I say gently. “You do need help, but not for the reason you think. I don’t go around committing murder.”
“Perhaps not.” He reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a small photograph, its edges scalloped. He presses it into my palm.
In the picture, I see a man, much younger than Josef -- with the same widow’s peak, the same hooked nose, a ghosting of his features. He is dressed in the uniform of an SS guard, and he is smiling.
“But I did,” he says.