2016 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Winner
I’d left love behind in West Philly. My job then was baking bread for a brewpub every day before it opened for business. My boss was named Troy. His hero was David Lynch, and he wore a medallion necklace with a pentagram on it. He talked so often about how much he hated women that I never really believed that he did. I did believe he hated me because I didn’t really look like one—a woman.
But I did what he said, hating him back, yet wanting to please him. In the early mornings we formed the dough and baked the bread. Then I bleached the cutting boards and swept and mopped the kitchen after the baking was done. Then he would come around with his flashlight while the bread crusted over in the oven, and he’d point out all the places where he saw dust. His hair was wet-looking and stringy, and I’d look at his roots while he squatted and pointed and told me how corners attract dirt.
Meanwhile, the smell of bread, the taste of it. We’d split a loaf, slice it, and the steam would bloom up. We’d devour it. I’d bring out some butter and salt from the walk-in fridge and we’d stand in that kitchen, facing the empty bar and two-tops, eating our prize in silence. This was our communion, a religious moment, and there was nothing to contemplate but bread, and the soft inside was hot enough to burn you, and the crust could cut up the roof of your mouth.
Then I’d drive home. I’d circle my neighborhood, looking for parking, craving sleep, late afternoon, the sky turning orange. In my dreams I baked bread, ruined bread, ate bread. It went like this. Soon it would be early morning again, and I’d be trying to remember where I put my car so that I could drive back to the kitchen to bake bread, to make the kitchen dirty with flour again.
Troy’s new motorcycle was always parked in the gravel lot outside the brewery, and he’d sit on it with his arms crossed, waiting for me. Maybe he wanted me to see him on it, to have this picture of his manliness, his loneliness, lodged in my memory. Together we’d go inside. Ice water and salt and yeast. Punching down pans of dough, weighing, turning the dough, balling it, throwing it into cast-iron pots and shoving the pots into the blistering oven. We were always burning our hands and our arms.
It was maybe August, and I’d just been dumped. She’d left me for her ex, my biggest fear all along. So this was vindication. I would drive past her apartment after work and fantasize about putting a rock through her bedroom window. That was my anger, something to hold and throw. My sadness was more nebulous, more consuming, more ordinary. I missed saying good morning. I missed scrambling four eggs instead of two. I missed bringing her bread in a brown bag. Now before work I ate my eggs while looking out my bedroom window, just empty, just missing.
Then one morning I came in to work late. I hadn’t been able to sleep and then I’d slept too long. What had kept me awake? The always available thought of the two of them together. I pictured them in various positions—positions I felt we had invented. It had started to drizzle and people were driving like they were scared. In the car I spilled coffee on myself, burning my wrist, glad for the feeling.
Troy was already inside. I walked through the door, and he picked a brick of butter off the counter. It was soft and started running down his wrist and onto the floor, nice butter, and he was standing there smiling at me. Do you know what this is? he asked me, and of course then I knew what I’d done.
I said sorry to the floor, hating myself for having left it out all night.
He asked me to follow him outside and I did, not caring what he was going to do to me. The rain had picked up a little. The sky looked swollen. I thought he might yell into my face or fire me.
Instead he told me to get on the back of his bike. I’d never been on one before. He wiped his greasy hand on his jeans. I swung a leg over the bike, my body sliding up against his. He smelled like a bar rag, and I knew he was probably somewhat lit. He turned the key, and the engine made my jaw rattle. He said over his shoulder that he didn’t have an extra helmet. Fine, I said. I didn’t know what part of him to hold. I grabbed his soft gut, and we rolled off the gravel and onto the street. The rain had brought out the smell of pavement and made oily rainbows on the road. I didn’t think about the butter, I just felt the failure in my chest. He told me to lean with the bike. His voice got sucked up by breeze.
We roared onto Route 30, and my stomach bobbed into my throat, wind-induced tears coming down. I held onto him, my fingers laced. We were moving fast but his body was still. His hair in my face, his warm and damp back smelling of yeast and ammonia. He took a left turn on red. I thought, All right if I die. I thought maybe this was my punishment, my life in his hands. Or maybe he just wanted what I wanted, too, which was company. We were approaching her apartment. It had been a special kind of love. I was always terrified it would end. I told her never to call me, and then I was outraged when she didn’t. The rain moved horizontally. Troy accelerated and I prayed that I would die right there in front of her building, something gruesome so she could see more literally what she’d done to me. But before I could complete the fantasy, we’d passed her intersection, and we were pushing fast through the wind that we were simultaneously creating, doubling the speed limit now, scaring squirrels from the curb so that in a panic they actually ran into the street.
It was morning, but it was very dark, and I felt very dirty. Away from us the oven was growing very hot, and as the bike leaned in a direction away from her home, I leaned with it, because he told me to, because I followed orders, because I was obedient.