Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
THE BAKER
b y   b r u c e   t a y l o r   ~   s e a t t l e ,   w a s h i n g t o n

SAM, THE baker, was well known in the city for his obvious skill and expertise when it came to pastry -- in particular, rolls. His rolls were always well done. They were perfect in shape, rigidity, taste and class. No one ever questioned Sam's rolls. They were perfect.

Sam knew how well his rolls were done. And he did not step beyond his particular area of expertise. He was a proud individual; his clothes were white as flour, stiff as starch. He kept his shirt sleeves rolled up, but not beyond the elbow. On his left forearm, a small, heart-shaped tattoo. It reminded him that he was a good son and how much he loved his mother and respected his father and that was only right and the way it should be.

Sam was a large man. He was overweight, but not by much. He got the proper amount of exercise that the doctor recommended. He got enough sleep, ate the right foods, dressed well, washed his socks and worshipped God. He was a baker, and proud of that, and that he functioned so well in that capacity. And every day he looked in a mirror and admired himself; his large puffy face like gently risen dough and his cheeks, red as though lightly tinted by rose food coloring. The baker was a happy man and when he stretched he felt expansive as though he could reach from sea to shining sea.

He was proud of himself. He was a fine baker and could afford to use only the finest ingredients. And things were going well for the baker. He had many friends. He did business with only the best people in the city. Virtually every day, someone with a wide tie and diamond stick pin and a dark pin-striped suit would walk in and say, "Samuel, my good man, I'll take a dozen of the usual rolls. Not too spicy now. At my age, I cannot handle heartburn."

Sam agreed. "Why, of course," he would say, "I just got through baking a batch. They are still warm." And while he went over to the numerous racks in the shop to find the rolls, the very important person might sniff the air of the bakery. The person's eyes might water at nostalgic memories of mother's home cooking that the odors evoked. And the person would realize then how good a bakery it was; it was the best bakery in the world. It was Sam's Bakery, best of bakeries and Sam would return (interrupting the rich man's fantasy,) with a brown paper bag filled with rolls and the very important person would smile and nod and pay then say, "Thank you, Sam, for these wonderful rolls."

"And thank you," Sam might reply, "for being such a fine and genteel customer."

Good feeling would flow between the men and the very important person would leave and the baker might sit by the vast and whining ovens and think of the good feelings that his work could evoke in people. Then he might get philosophical and think, "Ah, what joy it is to take the common flour and turn it into delicacies for the stomach. What joy to take soft dough and mold it into rolls. How wonderful that is." Then he might sigh, and get on with his work.

Before too long, Sam had such a business going that people were waiting in line to buy his pastry, in particular the rolls. While he was enjoying the business and the money, he knew that the work load was getting to be a little much for him. He needed three or four assistants, but the thought of paying out so much money to workers to help him out bothered him. He was mentioning the problem to a very rich banker one afternoon.

"You know what you need?" asked the banker.

Sam nodded. "I need someone to help me."

"Yes. You need a robot."

Sam spanked the top of the counter with his broad, flat hand and flour dust billowed up. "Of course! Of course!"

The banker continued. "We use many robots in my textile mills. And are they good! They require no maintenance. They are guaranteed a lifetime."

"Yes," said Sam, "that is just what I need! Where can I get one?"

"Well," said the banker, "I just happen to be partner in a company that manufactures them. Due to the scarcity of some of the materials used in manufacture, the robots are rather expensive . . ." The banker then shook his head. "No, no, maybe you would do better to hire someone to work with you."

"No," said Sam, "the idea of a robot really sounds like what I need. The bad thing is that I may need more than one. There's an awful lot of work to be done here."

"No need to worry," said the banker, his diamond stick pin glittering like light off a spider's eyes, "one robot does the work of fifty men."

"I must have one," said the baker, "that's just all there is to it. I must have one."

The banker munched a roll and thought. "Tell you what. Make me a partner in your business and you can have a robot -- free."

Sam thought. He clearly recognized he was in a fix -- he needed help but couldn't possibly afford a robot. But what he could do was take the banker up on his proposal and when he, Sam, had made enough money, purchase the robot and buy back the banker's share. Sam nodded and smiled and he and the banker shook hands. In a week, a robot was delivered to the bakery.

Sam was delighted. It was a beautiful robot. It stood as tall as a man, had two arms that came out opposite of each other, half way up the cylindrical body. And from the bottom of the barrel-like body, two legs and feet. The light bulb shaped head had no features. The robot itself was dark gray in color. There were no instructions. Sam shrugged. He pointed to a sack of flour.

The head turned. Sam said, "Bring that sack to the table."

The robot did just that.

Sam nodded. At first slowly, then eagerly; yes, yes, this was going to be just fine.

Business boomed. Sam was overjoyed. Soon he had to expand his business to keep up with the demand. Not only could he afford to expand, but he had just about enough money to buy the robot. There were times, however, that Sam wondered about the robot. It was quiet. It did the work with efficiency, but it was quiet, so very, very quiet. Finally, one day the robot spoke. "Master," it said, "I need cleaning. Flour has filtered in through my joints. I need servicing."

At once Sam was irritated. "You aren't supposed to need servicing!"

"Master," the robot said, "that is true. However, the flour is causing damage and I must be modified for these unforeseen diff--"

Sam waved his hands. "Get back to work!"

To himself, Sam smiled. The robot was guaranteed for a lifetime against defects or breakdown. And in his mind he ran through a conversation he was sure he was going to have with the banker: "Mr. banker, you gave me a defective robot. It won't move. It doesn't work. You can have your robot back and I want my shares back." Sam smiled at his genius. A fair trade. Later, he would buy another -- but modified -- robot and be out only the cost of the robot, not the cost also of buying back the shares as well. And Sam smiled again. He had a case. He could win. And he went home that night feeling good. He assumed that the robot would simply stop functioning. It did indeed stop functioning, but in doing so, it exploded. When Sam came to work the next day, the storeroom and work room was a place of strange fumes. Sacks of pure, white flour were ripped open by jagged metal. Into some sacks, black oil dripped off metal parts.

Sam was infuriated. He called the banker who came down immediately and wrung his hands, saying that he did not have any idea how this could have happened. Sam told him what he was going to do and the banker replied, "Well, I don't blame you, I don't blame you; we'll get this worked out . . ." The banker left and Sam began to clean up the mess, more irritated at the chaos and waste than actually losing the robot.

By mid-morning, Sam had most of the storeroom straightened up. He was fairly certain that the spoiled flour had been discarded, although he vaguely wondered about the effects of fumes and gas from the robot. But then, he could not very well dump all the flour and besides, cooking in the oven would most likely take care of any possible foreign substances which might be in that pure and white flour, and hence subvert the taste of his pastry and rolls.

At a very much reduced rate, Same made more rolls. He really missed the help of the robot; he hoped things could be settled quickly with the banker. He could not afford to go on too long without the help of a robot.

Of course, business remained good, although the supply was certainly meager. Very important people with diamond stick pins and pearl necklaces waited in line for more of those wonderful pastries and rolls that Sam made. He had pretty well set aside the idea that the explosion of the robot had harmed or altered his ingredients. And that evening, when he finally closed down, he had actually managed to put a few pastries and rolls away for the morning. He was very tired and he fervently hoped something could be worked out with the banker in the morning. He could not go on like this. Just as he was walking out the door, he thought he heard something. It was a very faint and distant voice and what it said made Sam very uneasy: "Help! I'm trapped in a roll! I want out!"

Sam shook his head. He was tired, that was all; just very, very tired. He closed the door.

When he came to work the next day, there was a long line of people waiting for him. A general, face flushed with rage, shoved an open sack at Sam and demanded, "What the hell kind of rolls are you giving me? Just listen!"

Sam listened to his rolls which he had made the day before. "Well, frankly," said one roll, "I don't care what Brucie thinks. I think that mean old general is a cutie and I'd like to get him in bed!"

Another gentleman rushed forward and opened up his sack and said in a thick German accent, "Ach! These are not the rolls I want!"

Warily, Sam listened. "Id, Ego, Superego. Who gives a shit? I may play the role of psychiatrist, but I don't have to believe all that crap. All psychiatry can do is help you like yourself."

A housewife rushed forward. "And just look at what you sold me!"

Again Sam listened. This time, it was the voices of two girls. "I don't want to be a housewife-baby machine. I want a career! I got other things to do!"

A very distinguished gentleman, one of Sam's best customers, strode up, indignant, and opened up his sack. "Just listen to this tommy-rot!"

Sam did. "Yeah, my old man wanted me to take over this business, but fuck, man, I'm gonna join a commune!"

Sam waved the man away. He saw a tremulous, old Negro who shyly opened up his bag. "Listen, baby, Negro is a white man's word. The word is Black, baby, Black. And we got as much right to what we want as any one else!"

Sam put his hand to his forehead and walked into the bakery. The crowd jeered and scolded and threatened him. They threw back the bags filled with rolls until there was a pyramid of brown paper sacks in the middle of the floor. God, he thought, oh God, how the rolls have changed. Now what do I do?

Soon after, he left and simply went home. And sometime during the night, the bakery was bombed. A fire resulted, but no fire engines responded because the fire department was also very unhappy with Sam's rolls. The bakery burned and burned and the fires spread and soon the entire city was engulfed in flames.

Sam watched the city burning. All night long, the city burned. By morning, all that remained were black concrete walls; the hard, charred bones of the city. And Sam, the baker, thought, "No bakery. Guess I'm no longer a baker." He suddenly felt chilled at the thought. "If I'm not a baker, what am I?" Panic seized him. He got up and began pacing. "Without pastry, without rolls, what is my life?" He swallowed. Then he looked around. The grass on which he was standing was very green. He stopped pacing. The distant mountains were blue and snow covered. He looked up. The sky was very blue and the sun was rising. He laughed. He felt his heart beat. He laughed again. He felt something in his pocket. He looked. A roll. He took a bit of it, then spit it out. It was stale and hard. Sam shook his head. He turned his back to the smoldering ruins, tossed the roll over his shoulder and, walking away, he whistled a tune that carried high and far in the clear and still morning air.

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