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In The Good Baker, a young student takes a summer job at a local bakery with surprising consequences.
About the Author
A. C. Koch lives in Denver, teaches at the University of Colorado, and moonlights as a guitarist and vocalist in the bossa-pop group, Firstimers.
A.C. Koch's work has been published in a variety of literary journals, and he has twice been awarded the Raymond Carver Short Story Award. In addition to writing, singing, and playing guitar, A. C. is an accomplished photographer. You can view his work at invisiblepony.blogspot.com
The Good Baker by A. C. Koch
The original Fred had been dead a long time, and yet Fred's Bread was the most popular bakery in town. I got a job there the summer before starting at the university and ended up putting off school. It was just me and Adrian, the current owner, pounding and rolling and baking from two in the morning until six-thirty when we opened in time for the sunrise crowd. You might think we had a lot of time to get to know each other, me and Adrian, with all the hours we worked side by side in the dead of night. But he was a real quiet type, and sometimes days would go by without him saying a single word to me. He shuffled around with his great gut wrapped in an apron, his tiny eyes jumping about behind thick glasses as he culled the ingredients and prepared the board. I followed what he did, and learned to make the bagels and the croissants and the danishes and the brioches and the baguettes exactly the way he did, without having to ask questions. “You're a good baker,” he said to me once, and that comment stayed with me. That may be the real reason I decided to put off school and continue at Fred's. I was something like a baker's apprentice.
Fred's was down near the campus, and all sorts of familiar faces appeared at the counter during the day. I got to know people's usual orders and attached names to their faces. Mister Mustache always wanted two croissants and two pats of butter in a paper bag. The Friendly Gardener always ordered two garlic bagels and a jalapeño bagel, cut in half, and she brought her own paper bag. Happy Bosom usually got half a baguette, though sometimes she got a whole one, and other times she'd gaze across the countertop at all the goodies in the baskets, and there was no way to tell what she was going to get until her eyes widened on something. When I started out, I was just the counter person, ringing up the sales and being friendly to people, but Adrian saw something else in me. He said I had baker's hands. When he said that, I held up my palms and he studied them, nodding, like he was reading my fortune. “Yes, yes, baker's hands,” is all he said.
I was often asked about the secret ingredient in Fred's bread. This always mystified me. I so far hadn't come across anything you wouldn't find in an ordinary recipe book. But Adrian did have particular, almost superstitious, routines associated with his baking. Certain rolling pins were only to be used with certain breads. All the croissants were to be baked at once on a single pallet in the giant oven. The baguettes were always baked last. And a touch of flour was sifted onto everything once it was out of the ovens and on the counter for sale. In my mind, the only secret ingredient was Adrian's single-mindedness about bread. It seemed to be all he ever thought about. I imagined he was communicating with the dough. Once, after working in silence all morning, I turned to see him rubbing his floury palms together as he gazed over a basket of freshly boiled bagels. Steam fogged his glasses, and he said, “Bagels love cloudy days!”
Me, I loved working at night. Every once in a while, you'd hear a car go by on the avenue with its radio blaring, but mostly, all you'd hear was the sifting of the flour, the slapping of the dough on the boards, and the rustling of the ovens. And opening the front doors at six-thirty was like being born into the world, with all the light pouring in and the faces and the clinking of money and the smell of coffee. Adrian would walk the length of the counter with his big sifter, delicately grinding out a sprinkling of flour over everything. His superstition was such that he wouldn't allow any item to be sold that didn't have the sifted flour on it, and this caught on with the customers so that they'd wait by the basket of their favorite goodies until he had passed with the sifter. And then he'd hang the sifter on its hook, take off his apron, and walk right out the door. We had hired help to do the washing and sweep up, and I was out of there by nine or ten, as soon as the morning rush was over.
Getting off work at ten in the morning is a strange way to be. You don't feel like a beer, you don't feel like dinner, and you don't feel like going to bed. I got into the habit of walking across campus to read in the library. Not that I regretted putting off school. More like I thought I could get the best of both worlds: meaningful work and a good education.
Meaningful work? Let me tell you, I had been a teacher's aide in a kindergarten, an assistant manager at a steakhouse, and a medical intern in the emergency room, and every one of those jobs sent me straight to the bar after work for a round of beers. But after hours of baking, you walk out of there clean except for a little flour in the creases of your hands. You don't fret about this or that, and you don't go to bed dreaming about the things you're doing wrong.
After a year had gone by, I was taking on more responsibilities. All the croissants were mine. Some days Adrian would let me do all the brioches or all the bagels. He would sit and watch me, seemingly in a trance, until I did some little thing wrong, like sprinkle too much flour over the board, and then he would shake his head or wag his finger. Still, he would never let me sift the final sprinkling of flour on the finished goodies, and he would never let me do the baguettes.
And then on this particular day, I showed up at two a.m. to find him sitting by the front window gazing out at the avenue, motionless. I didn't say anything to him. I started rolling dough, firing up the ovens, culling the ingredients. Still he didn't budge. By five, I was finished with everything else, and I asked him about the baguettes. “You do the baguettes,” he said. “You're a good baker.”
So I did the baguettes. I had watched him so many times I felt I could replicate every move he made. He always stepped with his right foot first when going from the board to the oven and always took five steps. He always opened the oven by pulling on the handle with a double-folded checkered rag, and then he hung the rag over his shoulder. He slid the dough into the giant maw of the oven with his eyes closed against the heat. I did all these things to the exact detail. When I pulled the first pallet of baguettes out of the oven, they were golden and perfect. I gave a piece to Adrian and he tasted it. “Mmmm,” he said.
At that point, standing next to him at the window, I saw that he was holding the flour sifter. He dangled it by the handle from his finger, and I could tell by the lightness of it that it was nearly empty. I reached for it and said, “Do you want me to sift the flour today, too?”
But he pulled it away and looked up at me through his thick glasses. “Not today,” he said. “Tomorrow.”
And when I had arranged all the baskets across the counter, and the people were coming in the door with their steaming coffee cups, Adrian made his way past every piece of bread and pastry I had baked, and he sprinkled the last of his flour over everything. That's when I understood the flour was the special ingredient, or rather the ritual of sprinkling it for all the people to see. A seal of approval. It didn't matter who made the bread or how many steps you took between the boards and the ovens, it only mattered that you sifted the flour over it when it was all warm and ready to be sent it into the world.
I thought I had figured out everything there was to know about the bakery business. But the next morning, Adrian arrived at two a.m. dressed in a dark suit and tie with his hair combed down and all the flour scrubbed out of the wrinkles in his skin. He sat me down by the window and handed me the flour sifter. It was heavy now, filled to the top.
"Is there a trick to the flour?" I asked.
"When you get to be my age," he said, "you'll know."
And that ended up being true, but I'm not going to give away that particular recipe. Adrian sent postcards from the Greek islands for a few years. He never wrote anything, just drew simple doodles of bagels and biscotti and croissants. I keep the postcards tacked up behind the counter; I suppose mine will be up there one day too.
By six thirty that first morning, the doors were open, and the baskets along the counter were full, and all the familiar customers stood waiting for the flour to be sifted over their favorite goodies. I took the sifter in my hand and gave it a shake. It was still a little warm. I gave a light sprinkle to everything, and nobody even asked where Adrian was. They were all happy enough to have their morning bread.
About the Story
The Good Baker was written by A. C. Koch.
The story came to A. C. from an afternoon nap dream. Everything in the dream unfolded just as it does in the story, except for the ending, which was interrupted by someone knocking at the door. He had to come up with the ending himself.
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