Photo © Chris Weeks

Photo © Chris Weeks

The Starter

by Naoimh O'Connor

The closer it came to graduation, the more I got to thinking that I might stay on with uncle Eddie and increase my hours with Mattie at the bakery. At least for the time being, until I knew what was what. I was in no hurry to tell the folks; my Dad would say Detroit was no place for a guy starting out. Even if he didn’t know the first thing about it, he would say things like that. And it was alright, far as places go; made me think about how the apocalypse might leave things, with maybe a few more automobiles lying around. The council talked about setting up public transport routes from time to time, but I guess there was nothing much public about Detroit city. And even with the docklands project, no one expected much. But Eddie never asked about graduate school plans. He got an extra key cut for me and I dropped him any place he needed to go. I visited back home now and then, let my mom talk a lot when they called. It was enough. For the time being.

Eddie and Mattie had moved to the city because land was cheap and no one cared much to remember the war there. Eddie didn’t mind what he did so long as he was busy so he took some work in a gas station, but making bread was what Mattie was all about.

‘You know, that guy kept a whole battalion fed for a week on flour, eggs and water,’ Eddie whistled whenever I brought home a couple of hot flatbreads from work. ‘Of course,’ he added whenever Mattie was in earshot, ‘fighting the odds of staying alive makes for good sauce.’

‘And keeping company with real talent is no penance for talking through your a-hole.’ Mattie always had a comeback.

Maybe they had planned to go on someplace else afterwards, but they eventually got to investing their pensions in the waterfront plans; Mattie bought the shop and things just worked out the way they did.

‘What could have been, Eddie, what could have been.’ Mattie would drain the last of his beer on Saturday evenings after the card-game. Then he’d fiddle with his hearing-aid and fix his glasses straight. He’d wonder where he’d left his coat and say Sheryl should be along any time now.

‘Sure sure, what could have been, old man. And Mattie, your wife’s name is Freeda.’ Eddie would shuffle the cards one last time.

‘Oh but Sheryl could have been, Ed, Sheryl could have been.’ Matt would wink like he could see straight, Eddie would laugh from deep in there. And Freeda would honk the horn outside.

‘Your folks called.’ Eddie braced his newspaper when I came in one of those evenings right after we had moved the couch so it faced the door. Now he could see through the single pane of yellow glass and decide if he was in the mood to answer when the buzzer went. 

‘Yeah?’ I threw my bag in the corner and opened the fridge.

The TV was silent but I knew if I came round beside him, it would be flickering NBC images. Eddie called it a bad habit, reading three papers a day and being addicted to the markets. He said he didn’t care for politics, insisted he just liked to be misinformed. Dad was always fired up for a debate about articles he only half-read; Eddie called them outdated affairs even though he was up on all the foreign correspondents; names, dates, locations. Until I moved in with him, I hadn’t known the difference between South Africa and Rhodesia or Rhodesia and Zimbabwe. 

I held a wedge of cheese in the air.  Eddie shook his head. ‘Nah, already ate. There’s some beef under the foil for you… your mom is going to Montana for some embroidery ding-dang this weekend.’

I drizzled oil over a slab of focaccia, sliced a couple of tomatoes. Eddie always kept leftovers for me. Another bad habit, I guess.

‘She asked me to ask you when you’re going to ask that nice girl to marry you, and if you’re nearly set with a good teacher’s job.’ Eddie shook the pages, flicked them in the middle with his finger. Mom had only met Joanna once.

‘Anything happen in the industry of education today?’ He was smiling, but he was too pale.  

‘Does it ever?’ I chewed, looked away, swallowed, sat into the chair that didn’t fit by the window and didn’t properly face in any direction—I guess we called it my chair.

‘Now and again, has been known, someone says something and someone imagines to understand.’ Eddie chuckled and it made him cough. A siren passed outside. Then another. He flipped the window behind him shut, coughed again so his chest rattled.

‘What time you in for?’

‘Don’t think I’m gonna go in tonight.’ Eddie licked his thumb, turned the page and his eyes flickered to my face before he angled the sports section open slow as arthritis. We waited for something to happen then. And it didn’t. So I finished my sandwich and went to lie down before my shift started.

When you’ve been a bread mixer for any length of time, it’s only a small step away from becoming a kneader. Still, after three or four years, it makes for a different kind of life I guess. The mixer starts around midnight, right about the time they’d change shifts down at Eddie’s pumps. It’s a pretty relaxing job once you got your ingredients ready and you know how long each batch will take. Mattie made sure he put clean information on the squares of paper tucked in beside the the flour tins and cartons of measuring spoons. You set the machines to go for fifteen, twenty minutes. It’s dead quiet at that time so you can read some or listen to music once you’re organized. I learned Esperanto and got through the full collection of Proust in a single Summer that way. I guess that was why I had something to say to say to Joanna the first time I met her.

It was just before my final year in college when I decided to give kneading a go. Being a kneader means you got to get used to people again. But at two-thirty in the morning, it’s a different kind of conversation that gets going, the rhythm that comes with a batch flopping against the bench. That birchwood down the back was as worn into as Mattie himself, and he’d taken a few knocks in his time. Lost his eldest boy in a motorcycle accident and his daughter had married upstate; he didn’t see the kids a lot and he limped worse the better the weather got. The guys joked, said it was Freeda who found his teeth for him before he left the house, and made a trench between their front door and The Bretzel so that once he stepped outside there was no place else for him to go. In twenty five years, he had never missed a night’s work. Though for Mattie, it wasn’t work; he had them lining up for his sourdough, even in steel-cold November, and it wasn’t even about the money. I guess you could say bread was to Mattie what Proust was to Joanna. 

‘It’s all about the proportions sonny,’ he would bury his knuckles in the ball of fluid dough and strike it against the table repeatedly so that in forty seconds it was firm and round in his palm.

‘You got to treat it with a quarter pressure and three quarters smile, you know—like a woman you want to wake up beside that bad you can’t sleep in the first place.’ Then, he would pucker the skin so it was grinning at him from the baking tray.

Mattie reminded us all about using mouthwash.

‘So many damn chemicals in flour you may as well be pounding Hiroshima,’ he said, ‘got to clean your mouth out every couple hours to prevent a brothel kicking up in there!’

I figured Mattie knew more than most of my professors. And he said things in a way such that I hoped I might one day know a woman I wanted to wake up beside that bad.

At the busiest times, there was anything up to seven of us buried in that orchestra of light-hard-quick-fast-roll-thump with a box-radio humming away from behind the swing door. It wasn’t supposed to swing but some Russian guy with his own ideas about how long it takes for leavens to rise got into a scuffle with one of the long-timers, so the metal-jams on either side had been broken off. It worked better without them—and the Russian as it turned out. The radio dial was broken too so we were stuck on some coot local station, with no broadcasters, that advertised hair extension salons and gas companies.

Sometime after daybreak, when the windows were steamed up so they had to be opened, most of the batches would be ready to come out of the oven. The perfume of cinnamon rolls and rosemary crusts filled up the room and someone would put on a pot of coffee; we’d have our break down the front, still standing. By six twenty-five, there was a queue as far around the corner as the Jewish museum but Mattie would not open that door until we’d stocked the window cabinets and the wall clock in the shape of a toaster flicked seven. By then Freeda would be in to work the register and talk with the dames.

Whenever we shut for a holiday, Mattie still came by just to feed the starter. That’s what’s you use for the sourdough; it’s one of the last mixes. You cut a knob from the grey ball of dough, about the size of a fist and then pour the rest of your batch into the bowl so the machine can work away on it. Sourdough takes more than a few days if you’re working from scratch. It’s an organic yeast, grows by itself once it’s got something to feed off. To save time you always need to have at least one starter on the go. You take pieces from it and then feed it with water and flour and it matures away in its bin. They say there are bakeries on the East Coast that have starters up to two hundred years old. Nothing this side of the lake was properly that age though and Mattie had only taken to trying it out a few years before.

When Mattie asked me to take care of the starter for him, he said he had to visit the hospital for a while; neither of us mentioned anything about Eddie’s tumor.

‘Just for a bit,’ he told me; until Freeda laid off on telling him to rest up. He still came in, mostly just arrived late and left earlier. And that way, it became part of my routine, lifting up the lid, pouring in the sodium solution Mattie used instead of straight water and kneading in a couple of ounces of double zero until the thing looked satisfied enough to go back into the dark. Now and then, I got to talking out loud with it for a few minutes, the way I had seen Mattie do. I’d tell it about Beethoven, or ancient Greece, about how the NBA was shaking out or how Eddie was doing. So as in just a few weeks, I was opening and closing up the shop; I’d eat at the hospital, leave Eddie and Mattie playing cards and be back at the bench having barely stopped in at the library.

Pretty soon Joanna started asking questions about what was more important. She had never been in, had only met Eddie and Mattie once—thought they were a riot, reminded her of the old guys her grandfather hung out with before he got the stroke.

At least all the screens in St. John’s had subtitles. And Eddie was up to five papers a day in there. But he must have been pretty bored anyways because he thought to start dishing out advice.

‘Take that nice girl ice-skating,’ he lifted his forefinger with the drip attached to it when he talked to me and twirled it in the air like he was making a call on one of those old phones. ‘And hold her hand, a girl likes it when you hold her hand… ’

‘This coming from an old geezer with no lady to call his own, hey?’ Mattie snapped at the rubber band that kept the cards together.

 ‘I ain’t going to die wondering Matt,’ Eddie’s chest sounded loose when he breathed. ‘At least I moved around town a little, checked out a few menus. You found a safe quarter pounder and stayed munching for life.’

‘Why you—I got myself a steak supper!’ Mattie growled. ‘And I have never gone hungry. Not for a single day, oldtimer.’

He slapped the cards down on the Rummy tray one by one—having somewhere to put the cards stopped them upsetting the nurses with their cheating when one of them fell asleep.

‘However. Deluded as the geriatric is, he’s right sonny,’ Mattie stopped dealing and considered it. ‘Hold her hand. Take her places that are important to you. Buy her things that remind you of her.’ He pressed on his fingers as he listed, like he was calling out a new recipe and could forget something.

‘This coming from the Jewman who doesn’t know how to part with a dime when a cent will fit in the hole eh?’ Eddie coughed a lot now and the nurse came by and said it was better not to talk to him so much.

It was late when I got home so I often put off calling Joanna back until the day after.

The morning I slept it in, I had only been to bed a couple of hours. Eddie’s test results had been late from the lab but he told me to go ahead anyway. The new mixer had walked out a few days before; he messed up so many times his hands started shaking just putting the ingredients out on the table. The pressure can get to a guy, I guess. 

If batches aren’t on the table for the kneaders when they arrive, the ovens don’t go on in time so, until someone replied to the ad in the paper, I went in for both shifts. It meant waking up within three hours of when I got home at night. Mattie heard the kid got work with Hobsons afterwards. Hobsons had machines for everything, even had plug-in kneaders; that way they could get by with less staff so the pay was better. Mattie said machines were all well and good but you had to feel the stuff in your hands to know for sure it was ready.

I hadn’t needed an alarm for a long time, until I started falling asleep in lectures so I took to setting one again; but I must have forgotten it this night because it was past one when I bolted upright from a dreamless sleep and groped for my keys. The humidity dampened my shirt and I double-parked. I twisted the levers on all the windows in the kitchen and pushed them open; tried to remember to turn my head away from the bowls when I yawned so as not to suck in Hiroshima.

To stay awake between mixes, I took into kneading them too so it was about halfway through the fourth mix that I realized I had opened the wrong tin and thrown the whole starter into one of the machines. It took a few seconds before I knew my hands had gone cold so I couldn’t feel the dough sticking to my fingers. There were nothing about that grade of error on Mattie’s sheets. The acid rose up in my throat and I shivered, hovered over the half-turned cake.

I was still standing that way, watching the beater whirring through the plastic batter-jar when the doors struggled against each other and Mattie came in.  

‘What is it, eh? You look like you’ve been waiting too long for a bus that ain’t coming.’ He picked up one of his ingredients lists and rested his elbow on the table, then crumpled the piece of paper in his fist. ‘That one would be better with another three spoons of nut-powder and couple pounds ground cashews.’

‘Mattie,’ I was still standing there with flour on my hands, ‘I put the starter in the machine.’ 

He was chewing a clove and he swallowed it. ‘Well of course you did sonny, you haven’t slept in close on two weeks.’ He flicked off a couple of switches and the whirring stopped.

My face reddened up. ‘We’ve been feeding that thing, all this time… ’ I wiped my eyebrow with the flat part of my wrist, and my left eye took to flickering so as I couldn’t control it. ‘Growing it… talking to the goddamn thing… all that time, all that time— ’ I tried to look at him, but he was a flicker of bushy eyebrow and dark brown slacks. He wasn’t moving.

A tremor traveled across my cheek, down my neck and into my fingers. ‘You came in here on Thanksgiving to talk to that thing, and now it’s finished. You got nothing more to say about that, Mattie?’

Mattie put his hand on my shoulder then and looked at me square. He lifted off his thick rims so his eyes got small and I could see little flecks of silver through the brown. I had never seen Mattie without his glasses.

‘You know what sonny,’ he pressed his thumb and forefinger against the bridge of his nose. ‘It’s a goddamn shame, that’s what it is. A goddamn shame.’

He was still leaning his big old hand against my shoulder, so when he cried, the tremor went into my shoulders too.

I pressed my hand on his and I guess I cried some because my eyelid stopped jumping about and my face got wet. Finally, he stopped and swiped at his forehead. He put his glasses back on and told me to take the yeast out and he’d show me how to make a new one.

I sat on a stool beside him and watched, but I guess I was still crying because he just talked and pressed and molded and I couldn’t say for sure I heard a single word. When he was done, he said Freeda was coming by and maybe it would be better if I gave her some space around the kitchen for the morning; seeing as how she had her own way of doing things and all. He would have her call me later. 

I was asleep when the hospital telephoned. It was Freeda who finally woke me by calling and hanging up three rings at a time until I finally answered. She would pick me up, she said, Mattie was already down there. I don’t remember putting on my shoes or locking the door. And it must have been a hundred degrees outside, but my shoulders right down my spine felt like I had been lying on a block of ice.

They had taken him off the machines when I arrived, so his face was puffed out and a bit yellow. Mattie was pushed up close to the bed, with his hand cupped against his ear.

‘Threw the whole goddamn thing into the mix this morning,’ he shouted when he saw me. ‘That’s how overworked we have him Ed.’

Eddie was trying to say something but his lips didn’t move a whole lot.

It took a few hours. Mattie said he’d get Freeda to call my folks.

We’d been dating for six months but I hadn’t stayed over at Joanna’s place since the first couple of times I’d dropped her home. Once we’d spent the night at the lake in her friend’s house and another time we took the car off for the weekend. But in the past few weeks I’d only ever picked her up or left her off, what with the way my shifts were. Now, in the half light of the city’s early afternoon, I left the hospital and decided to walk some. She lived on the Shores, so I cut through the park, took my time checking out the lake. It had been a long time since I took a walk just to walk.

When I reached the flower shop on the corner of the drive, I slowed up. The window was brimming with thin, spindly plants, heaving bulbous, violet petals; some genus of orchid, I imagined. But I didn’t know anything about plants and I couldn’t figure what it was that reminded me of her. So I went to the convenience shop next door and picked up a can of tuna and a packet of gum. By the time I was standing in her doorway, I was holding my jacket, sweating and cold.

The walls inside were greener than I remembered and I was sorry I hadn’t bought a spindly plant. She’d had an air conditioning fan installed in the gap above the kitchenette and was putting together a new bookcase when I arrived—there was already a full rack of science journals and theology books in the space above the TV and a scatter of novels tucked under the coffee table. The place wasn’t new but she kept it well.

‘Can I fix you something?’ Joanna’s eyebrows were pale blonde. She didn’t have any freckles, but sometimes her lips were too thin and straight to make a full smile. She rubbed my arm and took my coat, stood on her toes to kiss me.

A faded poster of the first phase regeneration plans was tacked over the two-seater. It had the metro symbol in the corner as if it had come as a Free Press supplement. I liked that she lived by herself, and she was good to manage a silence with, but sometimes when I looked at those lips, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to kiss her or talk about Descartes.

I had never known anyone else with real red hair. When we met, it had been long; right down to her waist—the first thing I noticed about her, I realized just then. She had started her placement at the elementary school a few months back though and she got it cut up so that it curled tight around her ears.

A low watt bulb glowed inside the olive green floor lamp. She left it right by the window and whenever someone passed by outside, it buzzed and glimmered.

She looked at the tuna and didn’t say anything so I kept the gum in my pocket. Her sofa was low so I had to stretch my legs out when I sat down. There was a children’s literature text on the seat beside me, open and dog-eared. She moved quickly, like one of her feet was burning and I watched her putting the kettle on the gas hob. When she took a bag of bagels out of the bread-box, I tried not to notice they were from Hobsons, and my hands went cold again.

 ‘Come here.’ The words barely came out but she stopped and held the butter knife in the air for a couple of seconds. Then, she came over and sat beside me.

‘I’m so sorry honey.’ She said it once more. That’s all she said when I had called. She continued to rub my arm so that I grabbed her hand. I still couldn’t feel my shoulders. I lifted her onto my lap. A fine, slim build of a girl, my mother had said. I pressed my fingers against her face and traced a thumb backwards along her cheek. She smiled, moved to kiss me. I held her hair and breathed in the rose and lavender shampoo she was trying out. If I lit a candle and turned off the light maybe her eyebrows wouldn’t seem so invisible. We moved onto the floor, kissing, not kissing. After a while, our faces were that close we couldn’t really see each other anyway.

Her shirt was open, my shoes were off. I was shivering. I wondered if Mattie would ask Freeda to sort out Eddie’s things for the ceremony; he hadn’t wanted my Dad to know how bad it had been. My legs were icy now too and I didn’t know if I could go through his closets feeling this kind of cold. Joanna was kissing my neck. I opened my eyes, pulled away, thought about my mother at an embroidery show in Montana. 

‘What is it honey?’ She murmured, bit her lip. 

I traced the surface of her face again, held her chin in my hands and kissed her properly so that she smiled. She looked at me for a long time without saying anything so eventually I stopped thinking about who would feed the sourdough and if Mattie was going to close the shop for the next few days. I took to wondering if Joanna might like to come by and see the place sometime. All I wanted to do was fall asleep right there. I buried my face in the space between her shoulder and neck and felt her small fingers rest lightly against the back of my head. Her olive green lampshade flickered twice, and I guessed it would be hours before my folks arrived.

Naoimh O'Connor teaches psychology for a living, lives between Ireland and Italy for love and writes short fiction and theatre for pleasure. She was a member of the first Irish writer's group to produce an author-driven theatre production in 2006 (The Ten Commandments, Reloaded) and completed her Masters in Creative Writing in Trinity College Dublin in 2008. Among her publications are academic fictions and made-up facts. She currently idles away her experimental writing time attempting to merge academic and creative work, to varying degrees of success (e.g. The War Pony, performance paper, Irish postmodern writing conference, Goldsmith's college London 2011).  


Photographer's credit: Chris Weeks is a freelance editorial photographer based in Los Angeles. His work is regularly published in Vogue, InStyle, People, USWeekly, OK!, Rolling Stone and other domestic and international magazines throughout the world. He prefers location over shooting in a studio. His commercial work funds his personal projects, which revolve around shooting "street" all over the world.