Tuesday, April 24, 2018

#262: "The Jaws of Life" by Todd McKie


~This story previously appeared in Conclave (2012).
~Selected by Kenneth Fleming, Assistant Editor for Fiction


Give us this day our daily bread. And give us, please, the good stuff. Give us something that smells of wheat, not plastic. Give us this day—right now—something good and chewy, baked with care, to sink our teeth into.

          Years ago, newly married and full of youthful enthusiasm, I tried to learn to bake bread. How hard could it be? In our pint-sized kitchen, surrounded by cookbooks, I added water to yeast, salt to flour. I kneaded until my fingers ached. I patted and poked and folded the dough. Eventually I produced six or seven edible loaves, but I also baked some things the dog wouldn’t touch: dense, burnt things more like rustic doorstops than loaves of homemade bread. The successes we ate immediately. Denise oohed and aahed. She made a fuss.
          “Mmm, this is good with butter,” she’d say. Or, “This is so good hot.”
          It was an awful lot of work for something that could be eaten in one sitting, something that only tasted good hot. After a few weeks, I gave up. Ever since, I’ve been glad to pay what’s asked for a good loaf of honest bread.

          Stories should have a bit of historical background mixed into them. That’s what I’m doing when I tell about my early attempts to bake bread and that’s what I’m doing, I suppose, when I tell you that Denise and I are good people. We’ve had, like most married folks, our share of hard times: lost jobs, dreams that disappeared so slowly we didn’t notice them creeping away, a thousand sad things big and small. I don’t recall a time, though, when we were too discouraged, too angry or scared to sit down at the end of the day and eat a meal together. We’re good people who love to eat.
          I  should mention one unhappy fact: Denise and I are fat. We’re not pudgy. We used to be. We used to be ample, heavyset, substantial. Now, God help us, we’re enormous. I guess, relatively speaking, I’m fatter than Denise, but that’s quibbling—we’re both porkers, plain and simple.

          Twelve days ago on a beautiful Saturday morning I drove to Ziggy’s Bakery in Watertown. Their bread is terrific. Poppy seed, sourdough, rye, whole wheat—you name it, it’s all delicious. I’m usually over there at least twice a week, stocking up. It always seems like a lot of bread when I get it home, but we go through it fast. Denise makes sandwiches to take to the library, we toast a few slices in the morning, and I like bread with thick wedges of cheddar cheese when I get home from the office. Dinner time finds us mopping our plates with chunks of Ziggy’s peasant loaf and at bedtime I enjoy a slice or two of toasted raisin bread.
          I swung my Oldsmobile into Ziggy’s parking lot. Normally I like to get there earlier, when everything’s still warm from the oven, but sometimes on the weekends Denise and I like to sleep in. Don’t be shocked; even when folks are older and heavier, we still enjoy the pleasures of the flesh.
          From the outside, Ziggy’s doesn’t look like much. It’s just a drab warehouse in the middle of an industrial park. Inside the bakery, though, it’s another world altogether. It smells so good! Behind the display cases there’s a giant picture window that lets you see into the kitchen area and watch the bakers, young men and women in white coats, kneading and twisting big lumps of beige dough. There’s a snowy haze in the air and a couple of the workers, the ones pouring flour into the giant mixing vats, are wearing dust masks. It looks like it would be a fun place to work if you were young, which I’m not, and in good health, which I’m not either.
          There were customers lined up in front of both cash registers. As always, I joined the line that led to Irina’s register. Irina is Ziggy’s wife. They’re both from Bulgaria, or Rumania, one of those godforsaken places. Someone told me that Irina, over there, worked for the government TV network, and that Ziggy was a sculptor. He looks like an artist: he’s got a long nose, brown hair in a pony tail, white overalls, and a cotton cap like the ones that house painters wear. And to be cool, I guess, he’s got the hat on backwards, with the visor twisted around to the back of his head
         Ziggy is all over the place. One minute he’s out front, greeting customers and joking with, or gently scolding, the cashiers. Then you’ll see him, through that big window, up on a metal ladder in the middle of a white cloud, dumping flour into a mixer. Or he might be doing a chalk drawing on the blackboard that lists the daily specials. He’ll draw a loaf of bread with legs, a smiling face, and a beret on top. French bread, get it? Or, next to where it says pumpkin bread, he’ll draw a goofy jack-o-lantern. He goes all out on the Fourth of July, Saint Patrick’s Day, Easter, Valentine’s Day—every holiday, major and minor. Being a new American, Ziggy seems to relish all those special days.
         Irina’s pretty, with pale blond hair rolling down onto her narrow shoulders, the whole pile of it caught up in some kind of net bag. It’s not one of those hair nets you might see at Burger King or KFC, it looks European. She looks clean and friendly. And foreign. Her English has improved since they first opened, but she still has a mysterious, sexy, accent.   
         “Hello, Wesley,” she said when I reached the counter. “You’re late. I was afraid you don’t love us no more.”
         “Good morning, Irina,” I said. “Did I miss anything?”
         “The scones is finish.”
         “Well, the early bird gets the worm,” I said. She looked puzzled. “Never mind, I’ll take two— no, make it three—loaves of peasant bread and two raisin breads. I need four baguettes, a sourdough, and a dark rye. Maybe a dozen cinnamon rolls and that should do it.”
         “We got today pecan sourdough.”
         “Okay, throw in a loaf of that,” I said.
         Irina turned and started pulling loaves of bread from the bins behind her. She put everything into crisp white bags that said Ziggy’s on them. She was quick and stylish, a pleasure to watch. 
         “Sixty-three dollars and forty cents,” said Irina. “The pecan bread is on top of the house.”
         “Thank you,” I said, handing her three twenties and a five. She gave me the change and blew a kiss in my direction.
         I walked outside to the parking lot. It even smelled good out there! I opened the car door, reached over and laid the bags of bread on the passenger seat, squeezed behind the wheel and yanked the door shut. I put the key in the ignition, but before turning it I leaned over and grabbed a baguette. I twisted off its end and popped it into my mouth. Absolutely delicious! Before I knew it I’d finished the baguette and half a raisin loaf. I sampled a couple of cinnamon rolls, too. Then I turned the key and drove away.

         I rode home along the river, whistling all the while, full of a warm feeling, full of bread. What a beautiful spring day it was! The cherry trees beside the parkway were full of pink blossoms and a breeze dappled the water’s surface. I wasn’t paying much attention to the road or the other cars rocketing along Memorial Drive. It’s a weak excuse, but true, and it’s what I later told the police: “I was just enjoying the scenery.”
        A dog began to cross the road in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and the car shrieked to a halt inches from the mutt, who sauntered on, nearly creamed again by a Toyota before reaching the other side. My car had stalled and, in the sudden stop, my seat had been catapulted forward. I always drive with the seat as far back as possible, which allows me, just barely, to slide behind the wheel and drive in a somewhat normal fashion. But now I was pinned tightly against the steering wheel. I tried pressing backwards as hard as I could, but I could not move the seat. Behind me, tires squealed, horns blared, and drivers, pulling past, swore and shook their fists at me. “Move it, fatty!” someone shouted. “Learn how to drive, fat boy!” yelled another.
        I turned on the emergency lights and I did manage—it wasn’t easy—to open my door. I realized I was in real danger sitting in the middle of the highway and so I tried to climb out. I tried like hell, but I couldn’t move.
       My heart’s response to all this effort was simple and immediate: it began to race and thump like a wild beast. I had heart pills tucked inside my jacket, but I couldn’t reach them. Over the years, even suspecting only heartburn, I’d swallowed many of the little tablets, just in case. And now my heart was pumping fiercely and real pain—red hot, fiery pain—began to pulsate throughout my upper body.
       I don’t remember being hit by the van, but the collision propelled my car off the highway and into a large oak tree. From that point on, my memory consists only of fleeting, disconnected images: a policeman looking in the window, a crowd of gawkers, firemen in yellow coats and black boots, television cameras. I heard sirens, the screech of a saw on metal, a faraway voice urging me to stay calm and breathe deeply.
      The newspaper story and that awful photograph retrieve some of the other details from the noise and chaos. That’s me on the stretcher, sure enough, although I don’t remember being placed on it or carried to the ambulance. Denise was mortified—she still is—by the headline: 400 LB MAN RESCUED BY JAWS OF LIFE. She wanted to call the paper and ask them to print a correction: 327 LB MAN. I talked her out of it.

          I didn’t have an official heart attack. They’re calling it an episode of cardiac insult. There is, apparently, no further permanent damage to my heart. Of course, my heart is a mess anyway and has been for years. While I was in the hospital, my cardiologist, Nelson Mbate, M.D., delivered several lectures about my weight. It’s not exactly in one ear and out the other with these little chats, but I’ve been hearing these speeches, in one form or another, for most of my life.
         Dr. Mbate, an African gentleman whose voice is deep and musical, wears beautiful suits of pale silk. He has a degree from Columbia and is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. His skin shines like polished ebony.

         One night, in the hospital, I had a dream: It was Dr. Mbate, not me, who was fat. He stood at the foot of my bed with a bucket of fried chicken under one arm. His elegant jacket, decorated with grease stains, was stretched across a huge stomach.
         ”Wesley, you are familiar with, I’m certain, our African proverb about the weasel and the pig.”
         He paused, tilted his face ever so slightly, and smiled significantly. 
         “Sometimes, sir,” he continued, “there is more wisdom in one of these charming fables than in all the celebrated brains within our hallowed halls of learning.” Here, the doctor gave a sharp rap with his knuckles to the top of his own head. He reached into the bucket, pulled out a drumstick, and waved it in my direction.
         “No, thank you,” I said.
         “My good chap, you’ll simply waste away if you carry on in this fashion.” Then he turned on his heels and was gone, the smell of fried chicken lingering in his wake.

         My nose is broken, my forehead is puckered and polka dotted from all the little pieces of glass that lodged there. My left arm is in a cast; I have a busted wrist and a shattered elbow. My head is still swollen. Imagine a man my size with a swollen head! I’ve got a big white bandage covering my right ear, the ear they had to reattach because it was sliced off. My right ankle is sprained, not broken, but I’m going to be on crutches for a long time.
         Mostly I sit here in our living room, catching up on my reading. I just finished an historical novel about Mary, Queen of Scots. She was really something! I’m looking forward to starting a book of Nabokov short stories that a friend brought over, and I’m picking at a book of stories by Irish writers. I say picking because a lot of them are dreary: defeated characters; sullen gray landscapes; melancholy, booze-fueled reveries.  
         I sit on the couch in my pajamas with my bad leg propped on the coffee table, reading a story set during the Potato Famine. A starving man and woman and their two children are peeling the wallpaper from their grim cottage and eating it. They’re soaking peat moss in water until a few beetles emerge and then they eat them too. They huddle around the fireplace where they have begun to burn their furniture to stay warm. The desperate husband and wife have to decide which one of their children to give up and place in the Poor Home.
        Now and then I lay down my book and look out the window. I can see a corner of our little yard, a section of wooden fence, a snow shovel. The grass is turning green. Yesterday I saw a pair of cardinals sitting on the fence.
        I’ve gotten dozens of get well cards, mostly from friends and neighbors and business associates, but others from complete strangers. They say, “Hang in there!” and, “God wasn’t ready for you yet,” and they wish me a speedy recovery. Ziggy and Irina sent a handwritten note. “To our Best Customer,” it says. “Get Normal Soon.”

        Denise says we’re going to turn over a new leaf, that’s how she puts it. She brings me plates of crisp vegetables: sliced zucchini, carrot sticks, red peppers, and broccoli.  
        But when I think about her resolution, I imagine Denise and I turning over actual leaves, big shiny green leaves, tropical ones. I see us clearly: two fat people naked at the edge of a sandy beach, rummaging about in the lush vegetation. We grasp at leaves, we twist them and push them aside. A familiar, yeasty aroma seeps up from the undergrowth. We squint into the shadows and there, heaped beneath the shrubs and stalks, are dozens of delectable baked goods, fresh from the oven.
        It takes several trips, but we gather up all this bounty in our arms and carry it to the water’s edge. We unfold a beach towel and lay it on the sand. We arrange our banquet on top of the towel.
       We’ve got thick slabs of oatmeal bread and almond scones topped with clotted cream. Hot buttered slices of toasted nut bread. Popovers. Hunks of pumpernickel, black as dirt. There’s cheese bread, rye bread, loaves of sprouted wheat. We've got raisin buns, blueberry muffins, and warm banana bread.
       Denise and I lower ourselves to the sand. For a moment we gaze out at the clear blue sea. Then we begin to eat. Except for an occasional murmur of pleasure, we don’t speak. We chew and swallow. We lick our lips. We lick our fingers.
       We’re still plowing through our feast when the sun sets, turning the sky purple and pink. Denise eats another croissant and then a brioche studded with bits of candied fruit. I gobble a lemon square, a meat pie, a chewy baguette. The sky becomes dark and the moon shines on the sea and still we eat. Waves crash against the shore and a cool breeze rustles the palms behind us. We eat on into the night. We eat as if there’s no tomorrow. 


          Usually I begin to write a story with only a snatch of overheard or invented dialogue or a single image. With “The Jaws of Life” I started with more.
          I wanted to write a story about baking, love, and obesity. I’d tried, a couple of years earlier, to learn to bake bread. I’m a pretty good cook, but baking is tough. So much science! And then I suffered a fall on the tennis court that smashed up my wrist and put an end to kneading, bread baking, and tennis.
          I had the beginning of an introduction: Give us this day our daily bread. It’s a simple sentence, but a good one. Wish I’d written it.
          Like Wesley, I love bread, but I’m not fat. In fact, I skew towards scrawny. My wife chides me for my lack of a proper rear end. All the more fun, then, to write as a hefty narrator. The protagonists of my stories are often clueless beings comically buffeted by the world around them. Not Wesley and Denise. They see clearly. Wesley proclaims early on, “We’re good people who love to eat.”
          Near our house there’s a terrific bakery called Iggy’s. I added the Z. They make wonderful bread and other tasty baked goods. Two hundred miles from the Lower East Side, they produce great bagels.
          The term jaws of life has always fascinated me. Such an evocative name for a tool.
          I happened to be reading a batch of Irish short stories at the time I wrote Jaws, so that accounts for Wesley, recovering at home in his pajamas, discoursing on Irish literature.
          I was a visual artist long before I ever started to write seriously. I’ve found that, for me, the process of writing is remarkably similar to that of painting. Adding and erasing. Putting stuff in and taking it out. Knowing when to stop. Like now.


Todd McKie is an artist and writer stumbling, dazed and paint-spattered, from canvas to keyboard. His short fiction has appeared in PANK, Litro, STORY, Chicago Literati, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and elsewhere. Todd lives in Boston. Visit him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/todd.mckie.75

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