A delightful short story where a dreamer’s true intentions are put to the test by the one thing that can realize all he had ever hoped for…
by: Matthew Hernandez
Tom Croswell used to tell his massage therapy students to follow their dreams. But, amid the sound of lotion-slathered knuckles pressed deep into oily flesh, he found it more difficult to hear his voice with each day that passed. The profession chose him. It was stable, his family approved. They called him “professor” with a sly smile and a glancing punch. The profession was hard, but failure was harder, Tom sometimes thought to himself.
Nevertheless, on September 18, 2012, Tom took his own advice. He liquidated his sparse retirement accounts and emptied his piggy banks. He borrowed money from his family. Simple folks, they told each other in hushed tones that they wanted to support Tom and, well, worst case it was a gift. Tom leased a small two-room bakery on the bottom floor of an old asbestos-stuffed commercial building on Wabash. The building lay in dust from the trains passing overhead and the front windows rattled gently each time they clunked by.
He settled on the name “Tom’s Bakery” and ordered sleek brown and pink business cards adorned with his name and number. He spent hours on the phone with his head buried in catalogues ordering the supplies he would need. At night, with the main room’s lone overhead light casting shadows to the limits of the paned glass windows, he gradually ordered the stock and supplies that he would need. As the equipment and sugar and flour poured in during the day, he wrote checks, called customer service, and welcomed everything into the new space. His new space. With several days until he opened, he finalized the small printed menus and storefront window’s red stencil lettering, pausing with each passing train so as to not “schmear” as his mama used to tell him.
As everything filled into Tom’s bakery, Tom left empty counter space between the refrigerator and the oven. A mixer, he needed a good mixer. Without it, he would be sunk. So far, he had found only third-rate machines at marked-up prices. By this point, Tom’s seed money had been eaten up in chunks and dabs. A Le boulier would be great, a Centennial ideal. But beggars can’t be choosers. He would have to stretch what he had, do more with less. Tom eyed the catalogues, drooled over glossy photos, but kept one eye on Craigslist.
It was there, the morning before he was supposed to open, that he stumbled across the missing piece, a Centennial brand Deluxor industrial power stand mixer, advertised as gently used and powder blue — a hidden gem. An estate sale. Nearby. No refunds. Tom hurriedly scraped the remaining $1,000 from his checking account and called one of his old students, a large pimply man-boy named Geoffrey, to help. Together, they met on the sidewalk in front of a deceased Polish woman’s north side bungalow. This could be it.
Tom scrambled up a handful of concrete steps and through the front entrance’s unlocked screen door, with Geoffrey a step behind. As Tom entered, he saw a sickly middle-aged woman, the daughter, leaning into a cordless phone. Zapomnij, koniec! With the screen door’s slap of its frame, the daughter now looked up at him. Tom nodded. Her mouth opened to show blackened teeth and advanced gum disease in a smile. With a single word spoken into the phone, she pushed the phone back into its cradle.
“Can I help you?” the daughter asked.
“I saw an ad about a mixer.”
“Yes, my mother’s. This way,” she gestured and began to walk out of the living room. There was no one else in the living room, apparently no one else in the house. Tom stepped forward to follow the daughter. He looked back at Geoffrey, whose eyes wandered over the knick knacks for sale and whose feet remained on the entrance’s doormat. Tom turned back to catch up with the daughter. As he entered deeper into the bungalow, the air felt stale and he felt light-headed. Tom pushed his feet into the soft shag carpet and followed her into the home’s small kitchen.
The mixer was more beautiful than advertised. Classically curved and with a fine polish, but heavier than cement. Even in the kitchen’s dim overhead light, he could see its worth. The daughter did not speak much English. She knew virtually nothing about the mixer. An opportunity. Feigning disinterest, Tom prodded the mixer haphazardly.
“I’ll give you $500 for it.” He looked up to see her reaction. She only sighed. She looked sad. There was a pause. Tom held his breath.
“Can you take it now?” she finally asked.
Elated, Tom wrote out a check for $500 to the Polish woman’s daughter. Tom and Geoffrey carried the mixer into the bakery that afternoon. Once inside, they shuffled sideways with it, their feet shushing each other in the silence created in the physical strain between the two men, until they reached the bare counter space Tom kept empty in anticipation. They installed the mixer there and Geoffrey left with a glance of his watch.
Tom’s excitement soon turned to frustration as the mixer had come without an instruction manual. And, upon further inspection, the mixer was not even a Centennial but had something written in Italian. Maybe a Centennale? Nothing was in English. The machine’s ribs were tattooed with cryptic diagrams next to a black knobby lever. Tom sat there staring at the hundred-pound powder-blue mixer that would not move for him, would not dance. Basta! His parents had always warned him about Craigslist. No encounter could (or should) be so casual.
With the late-afternoon sun now soaking the space in orange, Tom glumly prepared for the morning. He would have to return to the Polish daughter that night and get his money back. How could he be so stupid? You should have tried it out. He could hear his father lecturing him. His sister’s teasing. He arranged the dishes, set the menus out, put away the flour. He hurried through these tasks with sadness. Without a mixer, he would be limited. The next day’s menu was already compromised. His first day of business had not yet started and he had already failed. The comments from friends and family tomorrow would sting. They would give him six months, at best a year.
It was with his head hung low and these swirling thoughts that Tom remembered something the Polish daughter had mentioned to him. What had she said exactly? The machine was difficult to start, it required some effort. One had to tilt the neck of the mixer back and caress the base from the opposite side, a single finger, preferably the index, inserted into the dark cavity that opened between the mixer and base. The machine would then “activate” was the word that she used. Excited, Tom dropped the bag of flour in his hands in a cloud of dust and touched the mixer now lovingly with both hands. He caressed it from the left and probed it from the right. After extracting only caked dough and sticky sweet sap, he cursed and tried again and again. Finding the gap, Tom threw his body into the machine until it awoke with a slow hum, the rotating whisks gently stroking the side of his beard with each turn.
Perseverance! He wished some of his former students could have seen him then. Persisting. Fighting. Like Morrie Childress. He envisioned Morrie there with him. Do you see now, Morrie? You can’t give up when the going gets tough! You have to push forward! He thought of Morrie’s failed marriage and bankrupt studio, which ended with Morrie’s swallowing a thousand pills of something or another. Himself again, Tom felt alive and happy and wise.
The mixer moved perfectly. Consistent rhythm. He could see she was forceful when necessary. Reliable. Everything that he needed. He was planning to head home and get an early night’s sleep, but felt the urge to test the mixer immediately. To see what she could do. He squatted next to the counter so that he could better see the machine’s settings in the overhead light. There appeared to be four different settings. The top one showed hands raised in the air, palms forward. The one below showed a man smoking a cigarette casually. The next one a pair of lovers intertwined. The final setting, a beautiful sunset over what Tom guessed was a Tuscan valley.
Tom gently engaged the lever and slid it from the first position into the second. The rotating slowed to a halt, the machine sighed. Tom made a mental note to purchase oil or some kind of lubricant. The mixer had obviously not been as well-cared-for as advertised. He put his fingers around the black knob once more and pulled it down and towards him, putting the machine into third position, the lovers intertwined. The motor jerked at first, but then the mixer began to move once again. With boyish excitement, Tom jogged over to the bakery’s sturdy yellow refrigerator and lifted a stainless-steel bowl of freshly-made dough from inside. He waddled over to the counter space next to the mixer and set the bowl down, the refrigerator door still open. He removed the saran wrap cover and plunged his hands into the metal bowl, coming up with fists full of whitish dough that he dragged into the mixer’s bowl. The mixer delivered blow after blow without even breaking a sweat. The mixer seemed to know where to push and where to pull, the location of each of the dough’s weak spots. Tom reached back into the metal bowl and carried more dough over, filling the mixing bowl to its limit. With a mischievous grin, he lifted himself up onto the opposite counter and watched as the mixer slowed and slowed, eventually powering its way out of trouble. Yes, it would do just fine. He would do just fine.
That night, Tom slept in waves and patches. He awoke thinking about the steps that his recipes would require, about the unfamiliarity with his refrigerator’s coolness and his oven’s heat. Having wrestled with these thoughts all night and morning, he leapt onto the cold hardwood floor of his apartment. He bathed, dressed, snatched his keys from their place, and walked out the door of his apartment and towards his bakery, “Tom’s Bakery.”
Tom inserted his key but, before he did, pressed his finger into the key’s ridge and felt a little pulse of heat pass through his blood. He gently pushed the door open, the small bells chiming against the glass. The noise outside quickly transitioned to stillness inside. He flipped the light switch on and quickly scanned the baking trays that laid ready for use, the sacks of flour resting near the containers of sugar, the printed menus stacked in their holder. And there sat the mixer, slowly twirling in near silence.
So foolish. How could he have left the mixer on? As he approached, the whisper of the machine turning and the sound of steel separating from sticky moist batter caused his heart to quicken and his feet to stand still. Tom could see that just inside the rim of the mixing bowl there was batter turning with raisins disappearing in and out of the mix. The heavy sweet smell of cinnamon now filled Tom’s nostrils. These were not ingredients he would have bothered to pull out the night before. Cinnamon raisin bread would not be on the menu for two weeks. For a minute, Tom watched as the batter swirled. As day broke, sunshine slowly filled the bakery interrupted only by the shadows of early commuters hurriedly walking past.
Tom quietly tip-toed towards the knife drawer. The drawer gently glided outwards as his hand felt for the largest knife he owned. With his eyes trained on the gently-shifting curtain separating the two rooms, Tom gripped the knife in his moistened right hand and quietly stalked forward. When he arrived, heart beating quickly, he yanked the curtain aside and thrust the knife forward. The room was empty. As with the rest of the bakery, aside from the mixer, the place remained as Tom had left it the night before. Puzzled, he turned back towards the mixer, placing the knife on empty counter space. The mixer continued on without distraction.
Surprise having turned to fear, now turned to wonderment, Tom approached the mixer and examined its controls. The black knob angled outwards next to the diagram of the smoker. Now standing upon it, he breathed in a heavenly mixture of cinnamon, butter, raisin, and sugar. Maybe even cloves? The smell reminded him of his Grandma Yonkers. She made the best raisin bread. Hunks of it freshly baking and cooling in the summer mornings for Tom’s pleasure. Among her repertoire, her raisin bread was Tom’s personal favorite.
Deep in memory, Tom stuck an index finger into the tide of raisin-speckled batter rising up to meet the beach of the mixing bowl’s rim and swiped a coalescing gob of it onto his finger. Under his nose, it smelled earthy and sweet. He placed it on his tongue. Delicious. Beyond delicious. He could tell it would be almost as good as Grandma Yonkers’ bread. He jabbed the knob upwards into first position with his palm and scrambled to unlock the mixing bowl. He spread the batter out and pre-heated the ovens. Tom prepared the rest of the day’s breads, pastries, cookies, and jam in time to open on schedule.
After Tom flipped on a neon sign just inside the storefront window and turned the plaque of wood hanging from a piece of rope and nail to the outside of the front door, he paced around the bakery. He transferred baked goods from the oven to cooling areas, and then to display. With the store now open, but empty, and everything in its place, Tom cut a small slice into the crust of the raisin bread. He had baked it well. Expertly. The crust was an icy mountain ridge, the interior a prairie of summer wildflowers. Tom pulled out a smaller knife and quickly diced the bread into chunks. He spread the chunks about on a plate. With a black sharpie and index card, he wrote “Free Sample” and “Secret Recipe Raisin Bread” before he crossed out the latter part and started anew. The sign now read “Free Sample” and “Grandma Yonkers’ Raisin Bread!” Soon, the homemade doorbell chimed noisily against itself as Tom’s first customer, a mousey brown-haired woman fresh off the train, stepped into his bakery.
“Morning,” she said with her head stooped forward and her eyes slowly scanning the display case that separated them.
As she looked at each of the items in the case, she gently rubbed hand sanitizer between her small hands. The antiseptic air wafted across towards Tom’s nose. He gazed anxiously at a spot near her, attempting to be the attentive, but not overbearing, baker. Tom tapped his foot gently. Then padded his fingers rhythmically against the rim of the glass case. Unable to wait any longer, he blurted out towards the woman, “anything interest you?,” but the sound of the pent up air exploding across his lower lip, to varying degrees, frightened them both. Finally looking up at Tom, the woman straightened her posture with a politely shy smile on her face and started to walk away.
“No, thank you.”
His stomach starting to drop, Tom blurted out, “have some raisin bread before you go. I baked it fresh this morning.”
Tom’s hand stretched outward with the plate full of moist bread, traces of steam escaping from the top. The young woman’s smile widened and she re-approached with one of her arms bent outwards, precariously, an arcade crane ready for retraction if it turned out the see-through window-box contained more school supplies than teddy bears. Tom’s hand was steady though, and the woman picked up a sample, popping it into her mouth before she turned towards the door. A pause. She then turned back towards Tom, a look of delight on her face as her jaws moved up and down and her cheeks moved side to side. She stopped and they both looked at each other, smiling brightly, Tom with his hand connected to the plate outstretched over the glass countertop, and the woman smiling stupidly at Tom.
The moment was broken only by a nod between the two, as she, this time quickly, stepped towards Tom and pawed another two (two!) pieces of bread off his plate. Her eyes then dropped down towards the sliding glass case, and orders tumbled from her mouth. A peanut butter cupcake, one loaf of rye, a dozen macarons. His first sale had been a success, a memory he would forever associate with the smile of the mousy woman. She left his store after ten more minutes and one more piece of raisin bread. Now alone in his bakery, Tom chuckled quietly to himself and looked down at the plate with pockets of bread missing, and then looked back towards the baby blue mixer.
The rest of the day followed a similar pattern, although Tom now stationed a portion of the raisin bread near the entrance. He tempted with another small plate of the bread on the counter. The remainder he stored behind the counter after several sample-shoppers almost sank his new-found strategy. By the time Tom’s parents strolled in that afternoon, and then his sister, all carrying wads of cash and plans of buying surplus baked goods out of goodwill, much of the bakery’s inventory had been sold and Tom had started on the next day’s menu. He shared laughter with his family, smiles all around. The fear of the morning had turned to exhilaration and finally exhaustion.
As he cleaned, scrubbed, abaked, and prepared for the next day, a tired but genuine smile remained on Tom’s face. That night, as he turned off the lights to the backroom and moved through the rest of the kitchen, he stopped in front of the mixer and gently touched it with his hand, before stooping down to kiss the blue polish of its stand.
The next day, Tom raised his sore body from bed. The sleep that escaped him the night before found him that night. Tom scrolled through the text messages on his phone.
“Honey, we’re so proud of you. We always knew you could do whatever you put your mind to. Can’t wait to come back for some more raisin bread!,” from his mom.
“Wow! Holy smokes son, can you bake. Gonna tell all the guys at the office to come by and buy some bread today.” His dad.
“Hey little brother. Awesome bakery, I love the set-up. The raisin bread was out-of-this-world. Everything else was a little dry, jk. So proud of you!” His sister Diane.
There were others. Acquaintances and friends. Tom basked in the glow of each message, eagerly finding each one more demonstrative in its expression of awe than the last. Tom cycled in and out of the messages, thinking about some of these people he had barely seen in years. Now so apparently intimate. Now so full of pride and respect. Overnight.
Tom hurriedly dressed in the small spotlight of his bedside lamp. He yanked one leg of his pants up and then the other. He buttoned his white collared shirt in the mirror, and greased back his dark black hair. As he looked in the mirror, he thought about the day’s menu. He thought about the mixer. The mixer’s raisin bread.
He was pretty distracted the night before opening, maybe he had tried something out and forgot about it in his exhaustion. Or maybe he had missed the person who had made it during his protective sweep. Maybe there was some former tenant who couldn’t bear to abandon the bakery. Tom had never gotten the full story about the prior occupant. Or maybe there was some nut job who lived in the building and thought it would be a fun practical joke. It was damn good bread though for a practical joke. Tom left himself a voice note on his phone, “call locksmith about the bakery.”
Arriving at the bakery that morning, he fumbled with the key to the front door, noticing the slightest shake in his hands. Giddy, he was giddy! The key gently clicked open the door’s lock and Tom pushed the front door slowly open, the chimes announcing his arrival to the dark empty space. Once inside, Tom heard the gentle purr of the mixer and smelled freshly-crushed pistachios. He eased the door shut and calmly reached for the light switch. The mixer was alone, moving, filled to the brim. He moved once again quietly towards it, saw the soft brown greenish pie crust moving gently, smelled hints of almond, saw the mixer’s knob next to the pair of entwined lovers. Tom bent his head closer in marvel. He checked the other room, no one was there. He inspected the kitchen’s cupboards and closets, freezers and crawl spaces, there was no one else there. As before, he placed the pistachio almond pie crust out for sample and watched a steady, buzzing flow of customers pass through his store, more and more cash being handed over the counter.
The next day was sourdough. A line through the front door. Standing room only. The following day, blueberry muffins. Tom ordered a newer cash register. The day after, strawberry shortcake. Ingredients he did not possess. Items not even listed on the menu. The mixer knew Tom’s customers better than he did. A blurb in local blogs. A new hot spot! Tom’s Bakery!
Tom no longer turned the mixer off. He left it in third position, lovers intertwined. The mixer knew when to start and when to stop. He trusted it. It was everything to him. He cleaned and oiled it daily. He started to talk to it.
“Celia, I was thinking maybe we would try to make something new tomorrow,” he would say to it, leaving cartons of blueberries and packages of currants nearby.
“Scones, Celia. What do you think about scones?” He would pause and smile at the mixer. The next morning, he placed freshly risen scones on plates around the bakery, more inside the display case.
“Celia, let’s do oatmeal cookies tomorrow. With raisins of course. And let’s do a double-batch.”
Tom planned the menu around Celia. Ordered supplies for her. Baked almost exclusively the fruits of her labor. He loved the mixer. Everything else he made didn’t matter, whether it was good or not. He found he could save money by scrimping on some of the other supplies, making things a little more quickly even. Didn’t really matter. People still bought them. Everything was a side dish to the main event.
Tom paid off his debts, paid off his family. When they came by the bakery, they tried to make eye contact with him while standing in line. Why show favoritism? So they generally stopped coming by the bakery, but the cash register was full and business was booming. The head of a local upscale boutique wanted to chat with Tom, see if there might be a partnership opportunity or was he interested in selling? No, no way. Well, maybe. He should hear him out.
“Let’s hear him out, Celia,” Tom suggested.
“This is a pretty tough business,” he reminded her.
“Who knows how things will be in five or ten years even, Celia?” Tom asked.
“Just think about what we could do with all that money,” he urged.
Tom called the man back that day and agreed to talk numbers. The man would swing by the following Wednesday to tour the bakery. When Tom entered the next morning, the bakery was quiet. He approached Celia, who was motionless.
“Celia, are you okay? What’s wrong? We have to open!” In a panic, he inspected her. The lever in its final position, a sunset over the hills of Tuscany. The machine felt cold.
He had gotten in a little later than normal that morning. He was scheduled to open in a couple of hours. He barely had anything to sell. Tom scrambled to put together a couple loaves of sourdough and to display the remainder of some day-old custards. As always, a line of customers snaked outside the bakery, but many left empty-handed. They asked him quizzically when Grandma Yonkers’ raisin bread would be back.
The morning’s silence repeated itself each day thereafter despite Tom’s pleading, his tears falling into the empty mixing bowl. Wednesday came and went with only a missed appointment. Business started to trickle. Tom was opening later and later, recycling recipes. The menu cards never had the right date. The mixer’s lever remained stuck in place.
He cleaned her over and over again. Caressed the machine. Attempted to activate it, like he had done that very first day when they were there alone in the bakery with so much promise, and fear, and possibility.
“Celia!” he shouted. He braced himself and tried to wrench the lever back upwards. It would not budge. His shoulder joint ached. He tried again but almost lost his footing. Nothing.
The bakery was soon empty most days. Some mornings, gazing out the storefront window into the morning light, he would catch the eyes of his first customer as she looked through the window and looked away, stepping quickly down the sidewalk away from it all.
Matthew Hernandez is an MFA student at Columbia College Chicago whose Fiction has appeared in Manzano Mountain Review, Hair Trigger, and Literally Stories.