For Love of Fresh-Baked Bread – a story by Darrell Petska

                                                                                                  

 For Love of Fresh-Baked Bread

“You could do more,” the visitor told Wilbur Crane of Crane’s Bakery, a landmark in the city for years.

Wilbur sensed he was dreaming. They were seated at a table in the bakery’s coffee nook, overseen by a black-and-white print of an old man saying grace over bread and a framed portrait of the Crane family: Wilbur, Clara, and their two sons—neither of whom cared to put in the hours the bakery business required.

Dreaming Wilbur squinted through his glasses, trying to make out the visitor’s features, and made a mental note to improve the coffee nook’s lighting.

“You could do more…”

The alarm clock tore Wilbur from his dream and sent him shuffling down to the kitchen to help Clara, who already had bread loaves in the oven.

Around sunrise, Wilbur noticed a man staring at the fresh-baked bread Clara had just set out. The window-shopper then joined another man toting a stuffed plastic bag, as they settled on the steps of the public library.

Twenty-four hours later, the same individual stood before the bakery window, eyeing the fresh loaves glistening in the light. Noting the man’s appearance, Wilbur grabbed a plump Italian loaf and stepped outside.

“I have plenty,” Wilbur said to the man, who accepted the loaf, then hurried across the street to share it with his companion.

The next morning, the man appeared still again, gazing through the window at the fresh-baked loaves. This time, Wilbur motioned him inside: “Take one, and free coffee’s over there.”

The man left, clutching a bread loaf and a cardboard tray with coffees. Wilbur watched the two men settle on the library steps, divide the bread and sip coffee. The scene cheered Wilbur, so much so that an idea came to him: why not give back to the community by donating bread to the homeless shelters?

Clara, the business mind of their operation, reminded Wilbur that their margin remained thin, but when Wilbur recounted his nighttime visitor’s suggestion to “do more”, Clara relented.

“Wilbur, your heart is one big cream puff!” she laughed, kissing him on the forehead. “But who will do the deliveries?”

He found his solution the next time the two men appeared. Wilbur waved them inside and asked them to take a seat in the nook.

The window-shopper introduced himself first: “Conrad.” His companion followed, shyly: “Richie,” eyes lowered toward a plate of cinnamon rolls Wilbur had placed before them.

“That’s me: Wilbur,” he pointed to the family portrait hanging above them. That’s my wife, Clara, who baked these delicious rolls, and those are our two sons. Now, here’s the situation,” he continued, “we could use some help.”

The two men looked at each other. “How do you mean?” Conrad asked.

“There’s an efficiency upstairs, behind our apartment. It sleeps two in a pinch—our boys shared it. There’s a private entrance. You could live there in exchange for helping around the bakery, making deliveries, maybe even a little baking if you’re inclined.”

“It’s a deal,” Conrad said. “’Right, Richie?” The latter nodded agreement.

“Maybe you want to see upstairs first, or talk this over?”

“No, it’s a deal.”

Wilbur confessed to Clara what he had done when he stepped back into the kitchen. Clara left off kneading some dough, began to say something, then sighed. “Wilbur, you amaze me sometimes.”

Conrad and Richie took readily to their new situation. Freshly groomed, and coached by Wilbur and Clara, Conrad helped with maintenance and deliveries while Richie demonstrated an aptitude for baking.

As for Wilbur’s hazy dreams, the visitor returned now and then, always suggesting Wilbur could do more. “What more?” Wilbur always asked, but he never received an answer.

Months passed, then a year. Aided by Richie’s skill in the kitchen, the business became profitable enough that both Conrad and Richie could draw regular salaries.

One morning, while his aches and pains kept him late in his bed, Wilbur had another brainstorm: student interns, with whom they could share their love and knowledge of baking.

Thus began a series of interns, semester after semester, who worked closely with Richie, Clara and Wilbur to learn how to bake, market, and operate a bakery business. Wilbur spent portions of each day seated in the nook, visiting with customers or simply resting—his heart and his back required that he lighten his workload. Nonetheless, he felt great contentment seeing Conrad, Richie, the interns, and Clara doing what they had come to love.

The years stacked one against another like bread loaves on a shelf. On the eve of Wilbur’s 74thbirthday, the dream returned. Eyeing the visitor’s indistinct features, and expecting what he’d hear, Wilbur spoke preemptively: “You are persistent.”

The visitor smiled. “You’ve done well, Wilbur. There’s nothing more you need to do.”

Wilbur sat up straight, straighter than he’d been able to manage for some time. “I’ve done enough?”

The visitor nodded. “Let’s take a walk.” Standing into the additional lighting that Wilbur had installed years back, the visitor’s face finally became clear: though decades younger and brimming with idealism, it was Wilbur’s own!

Seeing himself that way seemed entirely natural. They rose together, glanced about Crane’s Bakery—Richie, Conrad and Clara were already at work—and stepped through the front door.

Wilbur marveled at the blossoming morning—a spectacle he seldom experienced since he usually found himself busy in the kitchen. A brilliant sun had begun to climb the horizon.

“This is glorious!” Wilbur exclaimed, noting how effortlessly his legs moved. His street and the expansive day spread before him, awash with the aroma of fresh-baked bread.

 

Darrell Petska‘s fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Loch Raven Review, Right Hand Pointing, Potato Soup Journal, Boston Literary Magazine and elsewhere (see conservancies.wordpress.com). With 30 years on the academic staff, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 40 years as a father (eight years a grandfather), and longer as a husband, Darrell lives outside Madison, Wisconsin.

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