Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
ANDREW CHOW'S BAKERY
b y   j o h n    r y a n   ~   w e b s t e r   g r o v e s,   m i s s o u r i

ANDREW CHOW, the one and only Italian-American of Chinese descent in Clayton, was scooping old pastries off the rack he had just pulled out of his store's display window. It was 3:45 in the afternoon, and as anyone who knows real bakeries will tell you, goods baked at 5:00 a.m. that sit out until almost 4:00 p.m. are no longer really fresh. Andrew, doffing his red Cardinals baseball cap, knew also that the icing he scraped off the trays day after day (except Mondays, when he closed the shop) practically made him nauseated. Despite this end-of-the-day revulsion, though, he would always be back the next morning as though courting the dawn, lovingly and sleepily rolling out new pastries stuffed and bedecked with all kinds of novelties.

He used any fresh fruit in season; he even took advantage of fresh vegetables. His asparagus eclair, after a few intrepid tasters declared it a masterpiece, sold out before the Clayton lunch crowd could breeze in. Andrew mentioned to one of his regulars that the last eclair was snapped up right at the peak of freshness, that had this last customer, a certain Turner Winger, waited just a minute longer, the asparagus would have tasted overcooked, the pastry would have seemed more moist than flaky on the palette, and his urine would have smelled too rancid to bear.

Andrew also made carefully wrought icing works of art to celebrate the birthdays of the great Italian painters whose names stood out in red letters on his calendar. His anatomically correct David was such a success at a bachelorette party that the bride-to-be ate around all but the engorged pelvis region, saving it along with a piece of wedding cake to eat on her one-year anniversary. Andrew would not vouch for the freshness of said morsel, though he hinted it would retain more flavor than his competitor's flaccid and soggy white- and blue-iced yellow cake that shared the same box.

His scones were said to rival those of any of the haughtiest high teas in Great Britain. Some insisted he mixed green tea into the batter, while his own son-in-law alleged that a low-garlic pesto gave them their distinct flavor. Confronted with that evidence once, Andrew reportedly scoffed, " 'Low-garlic' pesto isn't pesto—it's snot," and refused to yield any details as to the ingredients of his scones.

His coffee, only black espresso, was consistently good, but one was discouraged from asking for cream or sugar. Besides the fact that he never put out any (his one act of purism in a world of unlikely marriages, of both flavors and ancestors?), his confections always contained enough sugar to blunt the intestinal pangs the espresso could incur. The strong coffee swishing about with Dynasty muffins and Emperor's biscotti served to keep offices full of whistling, productive employees all day long. Some managers of businesses in the Eights Building noted that productivity dropped so sharply on Mondays that they petitioned Andrew to open at least half the day. When he refused, they wondered if he couldn't just give them the number of his coffee distributor then.

"It's the Estrella brand," he said, giving in. "They're in the phone book."

On subsequent Monday mornings, doe-eyed temps from the Superfriends temp agency wheeled in coffee carts with espresso-strength coffee to the various offices. ("Estrella Brand Coffee­—Reach for the stars, and hang on!") For a short period of time, productivity increased. The problem was, without Andrew's sumptuous pastries to soften the blow of Estrella's black-belt chops, employees worked, got distracted, and faltered like spiders spinning webs in an unvented meth lab. The results were disordered and asymmetrical webs of incomprehensible proposals, reports, pie charts, and even supposedly idiot-proof Powerpoint presentations.

Turner Winger, a young hotshot with B.H. Felson Investors, was not immune to these effects either. A regular and favorite customer of Andrew's, he would always linger at the counter to inquire after Andrew's beautiful (and married) daughter. On Andrew's day off, Turner usually brought in his own thermos of weakly brewed coffee to work. However, once the carts yoked to docile Superfriends temps appeared, he could not help but indulge in a cup or two of stronger java.

One Monday morning, he realized he was entering a meeting not having eaten anything yet. On top of that, he hadn't slept more than an hour the night before; at 3:00 a.m., he had logged on to see what was happening to the London stock index. Now he scratched at his head, trying to calculate how many cups of coffee he had consumed. Unable to get beyond the number seven, he decided hurriedly that he'd better stop vigorously scratching his head, judging by the way people were beginning to stare. He laughed nervously and took a seat in one of the chairs arranged in a horseshoe. The company's executive VP, Arthur Bedder, was giving the presentation. A no-nonsense leader, Bedder kept the area inside the circle of chairs clear so he could pace and bend his six-foot-five frame meaningfully from one broker to the next. At precisely 9:00 a.m., he hit the lights and turned on the overhead projector.

At once Turner Winger felt fidgety in his chair. He shifted his weight to one side, crossed one leg, then the other, leaned forward, then back, put his hands behind his head, then bent down and fiddled with his shoes for too long, and finally sat up too fast. He could hear his blood in his ears. The darkened room was all shining bug eyes from the projector light reflecting off eyeglasses. Bedder, stepping into the light for a moment to emphasize a point, loomed like a cabaret singer in a dank, wartime basement club. The blood pounding in Turner Winger's ears subsided some, taking on less of a 4/4 percussive rhythm and assuming a more tropical beat. He smiled to himself, looking around at the appreciative crowd in the room. He thought, Were they swaying? Yes. What is it about that rhythm? Very familiar. Something bossanova. He looked up at Bedder again. That clever fellow had undergone a costume change right before his eyes! Turner began to chuckle and nudged one of the imagined patrons (his boss) next to him. Bedder was singing now! Right in time with that choice bossanova tune pulsing through Turner's head! He giggled. That tune! Oh, man, that's too much! As Turner twisted in his seat, spellbound, Bedder sang "The Girl from Ipanema" in a sequined nightgown that he would lift now and again in order to fart mellifluously. Turner began peeing his pants with laughter just as the projector clicked off and the lights came back on.

Though everyone in the room was unaware of Turner Winger's preposterous vision, there was no hiding the dark circle that grew around his groin and buttocks as he jumped up. Stunned, his vision of Bedder vanquished by the overhead lights and sucked away into the spinning projector fan, Winger quickly sat, crossed his leg again and waited until the room of astonished and snickering employees had emptied. Cautiously, when he thought he could make a clean break to his cubicle, he slunk out of the room and dashed down the corridor.

The area managers were flummoxed by this latest example of anomalous employee behavior; it was bad enough their workers were becoming sour, irritable, and near-incompetent on Mondays. They realized they were up against greater odds than they had imagined. The following Monday, no coffee carts were happily wheeled in by Superfriends temps. The office email junkies logged on to find an urgent memo as their first piece of mail. It read, simply, this:

Because of certain deleterious effects, our offices will no longer be serving Estrella brand coffee. Please consider bringing your own beverage or selecting one of the many from our Snak machines. We also encourage you to avoid drinking Estrella brand coffee in general, and in particular, in combination with confections.—THE AREA MANAGERS

As the day progressed, and the workers' astonishment over such a bold managerial move subsided as quickly as a decaying sugar rush, Andrew Chow finally got wind of what the managers were doing. He had been working on a wedding cake for a close friend, though it was his day off. Now, standing in front of his store at 6:00 p.m., just as the sun was pushing clouds away in its haste to meet the horizon, Andrew steamed as he read and reread the final sentence of the memo. Angrily, he crumpled the paper up and threw it towards the Eights building. The wind picked it up in the street and carried it west. Andrew reentered his store and slammed the door. The crumpled paper, as though it had run into the sun at the seam between earth and sky, expanded, was briefly illuminated, flashed, and then burned in a quick, sputtering fury.


That next morning, Tuesday, the spinning earth exposed the sun in slumber. As though shaking blankets of clouds angrily away, the sun seemed poised to simmer all day. Several minutes of wind, though, drew the mollifying clouds back over. A few warning bolts of lightning came hurtling down at the Eights Building for good measure: clearly there would be no sunshine today. It seemed grim indeed, made all the more grim by the preordained absence of thick, black coffee and the conversations (mostly about Winger's pee stain) that wove themselves around the office coffee carts. Turner Winger, humiliated into a predawn arrival to take refuge in his cubicle with a view, pressed his forehead into the glass and let his sad thoughts slide down the fourteen stories to the gray cement below. Other employees were dolefully filing into the Eights Building, some casting sidelong glances at Andrew Chow's bakery, others boldly crossing the street to peer into the darkened windows. There were no hints of human activity. The sign on the door simply said, Closed. Within minutes, the first drops of the day's steady downpour began to fall. But just four blocks away the cloud deck had halted its eastward advance. Invisible to all inside the Eights Building, the rest of the city was blessed with clear skies and bright sunlight.

At dusk, the sun raised a smug eyebrow of light, bidding adieu to the earth for the night. Chilly, and conscious of being enclosed in a vaporous dome of fog rendered orange by mercury lamps, Turner Winger snuck out and slid into the front seat of his Altima. He drove quietly away through the streets of the city that closed at sundown.


Wednesday, the rain came down again in blowing chains. Whipped by the drops, the area managers of the Eights Building scurried inside. Their employees' dreams of Estrella brand coffee were scuttled by the again-darkened windows of Andrew Chow's bakery. Some more seasoned workers had stopped at Southeast Coffee Co. for their morning joe. Turner Winger had not. Holed up in his cubicle with a view, he drank Safari Lite from a thermos and did all his business that day by computer. Other employees (mostly interns), envious of the foresight of the veterans who had stopped for coffee, took their chances on the snack room vending machines. Besides soda and, well, more soda, there was the coffee machine. Just the giant white lettering of the declaratives and imperatives covering the face of the machine inspired hope in some:

Fresh and Hot Coffee! Delicious Hot Chocolate in an Instant! Simply deposit 35 cents, push the button of your selection, wait for the drink to finish pouring, and ENJOY!
Kelly, an intern from a rural state school, approached the machine with mistrust. The fact that the drinks cost only thirty-five cents didn't sit right with her. Nothing in a machine cost that anymore. Nonetheless, she deposited the requisite coins and pushed the button marked Coffee with Cream. After a short rattle, a paper cup plopped down the slot to be held in place by a metal crotch. A hum surfaced, followed by a sound like a heavy book dropping onto a carpet, and then a whir. Next, from out of the miraculously white tube pointing down at the cup, a dishwater-gray liquid flowed lugubriously out. It shut off before almost brewing over the top, and steam began to cloud the once-clear plastic surrounding the spout. With some trepidation, Kelly the intern plucked the cup out, exclaimed "Goddammit!" at the heat, and padded toward the elevators. Behind her a young manager with slicked-back hair stepped naïvely forward out of the line of dismayed workers.

Later that afternoon, darker, more menacing clouds roiled above the city. Soon hail began to fall, pummeling the western side of the Eights Building. The same young manager with slicked-back hair took the elevator down to the parking garage, grabbed his pitching wedge from the golf bag in his car trunk, and began tapping the hailstones off the sidewalk where they fell. Kelly the intern, who had driven away for lunch that day, observed him hooting and swinging away. "That's just a metaphor, you know!" she shouted at him through the clattering of hail. He looked at her blankly just as the stones became baseball-sized. Then he ran into the garage.

On the fifteenth floor, a board meeting abruptly ended when a large window behind chairman Bert Felson, Jr. shook, cracked, and then shattered as hail flew into the room. Everyone fled, some crying out fearfully. When the board shakily returned later, the common thread in its nervous conversation was whether it was the hail or something else that formed a puddle around Felson's chair; Felson himself was missing from the inspection and was unable to account for the marred carpet.

That evening Turner Winger again slipped out after the city had rolled up its sidewalks. His first stop on the way was the men's room. Safari Lite coffee, while not heavy, did not spare the bladder. He flicked and shook several times, until he was suddenly self-conscious of the new scandal he would cause if a custodian happened upon him flicking and shaking alone after-hours in the men's room. He zipped up, a spot on his pants darkening near his groin anyway. Briefcase and umbrella in hand, a rueful glance in the mirror, and he was down the back stairs.

As he crossed the street next to the Eights Building, he saw a flickering of light inside Andrew Chow's bakery. He walked up close to the window. Someone was in the back of the bakery, working by candlelight. It was a man. His back was turned, so Winger couldn't make out who he was. But whatever he was doing, the shadow cast by the candle made it appear as if he were some hunched-over giant. So engrossed was Winger that he could have peed his pants again when a voice next to him said, "Why not come in?" Keys jingled and the door stood open before he could speak. From the darkness, a face streaked with white regarded him. He looked around the hollow streets, then felt a hand in the small of his back firmly urge him forward. The door closed behind him.


Thursday came with a clear sky and a sun back from hiatus. Humidity hung around early, then gathered in intensity by noon. Thoughts that day turned not to coffee, but to water and juice, the cooler the better. Productivity picked up some from Wednesday, but still flagged considerably when plotted on the area managers' line graphs for that quarter. September's early earnings—and the Dow—were down, down, down. The area managers sequestered themselves for a long morning meeting. In fact, they used the snack room because the board room window was being replaced. Turner Winger did not show for work that day, and no one noticed him missing except his secretary. At 8:49 a.m. she received an email from him informing her that he was at home sick and wouldn't be able to make it in. Scarcely anyone paid attention to Andrew Chow's shuttered bakery; as this bizarre week drew to a close, escapist weekends were on nearly everyone's agenda.

Friday had been declared dress-down day. The area managers had a sign placed in the lobby of the Eights Building that read, "Our employees are enjoying a casual dress day." Kelly the intern, first to arrive that morning on her floor, wondered why they didn't just say, "Please pardon our mess," as some construction sites did. Banking on clement weather and the usual goodwill brought on by declaring casual dress day the day before, the area managers were hoping at the very least for a turnaround in the black mood around the cubicles. Arthur Bedder also wouldn't have minded seeing the Dow finish above 10,000 and some damn business done by "these namby-pambies," but no one really listened to him. Turner Winger again did not show, and this time there was no email to his secretary. During the morning, male employees in their Dockers and female employees in their conspicuously white Keds caught each other up on office gossip, explored Web sites with little or no relation to their jobs, and gazed on occasion down at Andrew Chow's still darkened windows.

At 11:19 a.m., a sandwich board, freshly-painted and trimmed in green, appeared as if from nowhere in front of Andrew Chow's bakery. A wooden sign kept a yellow, squat, helium balloon from taking off. On the sign were the words, "Watch the skies!" painted in red squiggly lines to dramatic effect. Word of this apparition shot up the elevator shafts and reached all floors in a matter of seven minutes. The Eights Building was abuzz with the kind of activity that inflamed the area managers' gastritis. Soon all the south-facing windows on all floors of the Eights building were crowded with employees, gazing up and over the tree-shrouded streets of the city. At 11:43 a.m., a collective shout began to rise. Threatening to tip the building over with their momentum, all the workers pushed together on the south side, straining to see.

In the near distance and coming closer, a yellow hot air balloon floated below the wispy clouds like a second sun. Those with the keenest eyesight could begin to discern writing on the side of the balloon facing the Eights building. At the top it said, "Our offices will no longer be serving Estrella brand coffee." The south side of the building almost sagged visibly as the high spirits of the employees sank into their guts like a forty-cent apple tart from the fourth floor snack machine. Some turned away disgusted, muttering about the bad timing of the managers and the reopening of a sore wound. Others stayed glued to the glass, happy for the distraction of a big yellow balloon. The rest lingered in small groups, resuming inconsequential conversations and adjusting their casual attire. Tim Luby, standing on his swivel chair and resting his rear against his cubicle wall like a raving sailor in a wobbly crow's nest, was the first to give a shout. Under the original message on the balloon, in small block letters, was this second message: "THANK GOD ANDREW CHOW STILL IS!"

Cheers erupted around the building, while looks of puzzlement crossed the faces of those who only ate cold breakfast cereal or were on macrobiotic diets.

In the street below the entrance to the Eights building, ground-floor employees were already queuing up in front of the now-open door of Andrew Chow's bakery. Inside, busy Superfriends temps took orders and rang up each purchase assiduously (for temps). An extra glass display had been wheeled in to contain further rows of unimaginably exquisite pastries, puffs, tarts, pies, cakes, scones, muffins, biscuits, and brownies. Andrew Chow's son-in-law, looking harassed and sleepless and partly covered in white flour, took orders, carried out fresh confections, and removed emptied racks. Triumphant Andrew Chow himself could be seen intermittently through the swinging of the metal door between the front and back of the bakery, gleefully topping a tart (so to speak), loading pastries onto a rack, or cutting into a hot pan of fudge-covered mango brownies. The flapping of the door occasionally brought his booming, inflected voice out to his customers in the manner that a slowly spinning fan brings a voice forth­­: otherworldly, commanding, but ambiguous. Coffee flowed thick and freely from giant urns. The area managers, faced with an emptying building, declared a party in the park to no one in particular and detained the nearest interns they could find to place their pastry orders. Sweets do fill the empty hole of defeat.

As to what became of Turner Winger, some say he could be seen in the fleeting moments the metal bakery door flew open, decked out in a baker's hat, white apron, covered in more flour than the son-in-law, and working side-by-side with Andrew Chow. Others say he was the mad pilot in the vintage brown leather helmet and goggles that nearly sent the giant yellow hot air balloon crashing into the parapets of the Eights Building. Most agreed, though, that he had simply vanished ignominiously, unable to bear his humiliation.

Somehow, though, Andrew Chow managed to take Mondays off while still keeping the bakery open and producing fresh delicacies to the delight of everyone.

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