You’re watching the traffic under the bus window and trying not to squirm in your seat. No other passenger looks older than twenty; you don’t want to draw attention. Probably all going back to college with their headphones and stout backpacks. Among these bouncy children you must look like a tundra wolf, gray and rangy and uncivilized. Your favorite jeans lie soft against your knees. Your forearms, crossed over your stomach, are smudgy with hair. The arms of a baker, strong from kneading, tough-skinned from heat, still useful-looking although the hair is gray now. You don’t mind aging, not really, which is good because you can’t stop it. The magazines with the clock-stopping strategies were your wife’s domain.
Gracie would be sparking and sputtering in her seat like a Roman candle about now. You wanted your daughter to name the new baby after her, but instead it’s Ariana
Annelise being baptized tomorrow. A frilly name, no heft to it. You hope the little girl will grow up to be soda bread like her grandmother despite the meringue name, the sherbet- tangy mother.
Your boots squeak against the floor as you shift position. You rub your thumb across the end of your little finger’s stump, taking in the smoothness. The headphones of
the boy in the next seat are still breathing out the stuttering hiss of tremendously loud music, but he is asleep. Maybe his hearing is damaged, all the little hairs clinging stunned to the sides of the ear canal. Maybe he lives in a thin-walled college apartment with five other boys and has learned to sleep through anything. That must be it, you decide, flicking a glance over his slack face. Languid brown lashes, no trace of stubble on the smug little chin.
He looks like Phil, or maybe it’s just the innocence. Younger, of course; the boy probably can’t even drink legally. He must anyway, and you should disapprove but instead a soft-focus movie of you and the Phil-boy swells in your mind; you and he both just a little tipsy, lucid but mellow-eyed, swaying into one another until you have to rub your five-o’-clock shadow against his smooth cheek and the faint hairs scattered over his chest. You stop the movie while his khaki pants are still zipped. You could be his grandfather if you’d started young. But then, you could be Phil’s father.
You look away from the boy, back out the grayed window to the endless Morse message of the center line. You don’t know what to think about Phil. Sometimes he’s an
éclair, sometimes one of those bland, flexible cookies PTA moms buy for school parties. His wife Laurie has the body of a pagan goddess, but you could tell as soon as they
walked into church that first Sunday that Phil would prefer Apollo. You never thought he’d settle for you. When he came into your bakery for frosted cupcakes to take to the
new-member potluck, you didn’t expect to end up on the decrepit couch behind the freezers with him, watching the top of his head.
You were faithful to Gracie. Before she died she told you not to be alone too long; Phil can’t be what she had in mind, but she would understand. She’d only scold you
for Laurie’s sake. “All these years under my thumb and you don’t know better than to mess up a marriage?” she’d say, lightly but meaning it. Your daughter Ellen wouldn’t understand at all, which is why she’ll never know. Ellen with her slick forty-year-old
husband, her scrupulous lipstick, her low-carb diet. The futility of telling her things is a dingy feeling, not even an ache anymore.
A jacked-up blue pickup passes under your window, the first vehicle in a while. Muscles swell the young driver’s white T-shirt; he stares stiffly ahead while the
glossy-lipped girl in the passenger seat slides a hand along his biceps. Groceries are scattered unbagged in the truck bed. Frozen corn dogs, Frosted Flakes, a six-pack, a lemon swirl cake mix. You see it now, her cracking an egg into the chemical-smelling powder, him looming behind her, his hands coming up under her breasts as if by accident. She sighs, or giggles, or scowls. You decide he loves her in a tongue-tied, phenomenal way but she finds him merely adequate. You’ve never heard of a relationship with
symmetry, not in real life. Someone is always settling.
Gracie could have married the tax lawyer. She mentioned him four times in thirty years but you know everything about him: the argyle socks, the plastic-wrapped
ham sandwich in his briefcase, the ruler-straight part in his blond hair. Instead she got you but she somehow didn’t complain. Neither did you.
You shift in your seat again, trying to stretch legs used to standing, bending over counters. You hate to be closed on a Saturday. Your regulars depend on you, and
there are other bakeries. Phil is hooked on your apple fritters, or claims to be. He doesn’t know you’re out of town.
With you and Phil it’s never clear who is too good for whom. Your gray-furred chest looks ridiculous against his smooth one. He runs out of words too easily; his
conversation is as flimsy as cheesecloth. You want to be still and breathe slowly on his neck, and he wants to drive away with his fritters.
It’s something you can’t explain to Phil, how the shop bell jingling behind him presses a flat space into your chest. The glacial expanse of your bed sheets under the
crazy quilt Gracie’s sister made. Sometimes when you spot Phil at church you want to push him against the visitor’s station; sometimes his smooth young face seems tasteless,
You wish the bus trip were over. You want to meet Ariana Annelise. When Ellen was baptized she kicked her bootie in an arc across the front of the church, into a bank
of poinsettias. After the service, Pastor Dan joked, “Quite the leg on her. Get her some karate lessons and she’ll be lethal,” but Ellen grew up to tennis, sorority formals,
rigid prefab smiles. What will Ariana grow up to? Gracie was a timid sort of hippie. On your third date you baked pot brownies with her and marveled at the pale undersides of
the snails suctioned to the walls of her aquarium. Your daughter must have tried pot in college, but you can’t remember her marveling at anything since she was little. Maybe wonder skips a generation. You decide you and Ariana will bake brownies together -- plain ones, of course. Your kitchen will fill with giggling, the way it did before Ellen
stopped helping you in the bakery. She was twelve and the other girls teased her about smelling like bread all the time. You remember her as a five-year-old begging to roll a
pie crust, dough smeared across the bib of her denim jumper.
Next to you, the boy’s headphones stop hissing. He mumbles and squirms the way Phil might, not that you often see Phil sleep. You remember Gracie’s quick-slicing smile, how it felt to lie next to someone who wasn’t leaving. You feel as if you’ve been scooped hollow. But there’s nothing to do about that here. For now, you can
content yourself with Ariana. She will be securely wrapped, solid in your arms, compact and warm as a loaf of fresh bread.
Self-conscious at the front of the bland suburban church you wish you were holding Ariana. Your arms don’t know what to do. Ellen’s fingers latch together in front of her flowered skirt and Rick’s pink hands creep into the pockets of his sharp gray pants.
Only the pastor, cradling the baby against his vestments, seems at ease. “Do you renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways?” The tall candle’s flame quivers in his lopsided bifocals.
"I do renounce them,” you murmur with the congregation. Your thumb rubs across the stump of your little finger. Somewhere in the back a child squawks. To keep from shifting foot to foot you study the wheat-colored upright piano, the wine trays stacked on the altar, the thick embroidered crosses at the hem of the purple altar cloth.
Ellen flicks a sideways glance at Rick; her brittle blond cheerleader smile is unexpectedly warm and supple.
“Who brings this child to be baptized?”
“We do.” Rick and Ellen sound unsure, small children imperfectly coached.
“How is this child to be named?”
“Ariana Annelise Gustafson.” The two voices jostle each other in an attempt at unison.
“Ariana Annelise Gustafson,” the pastor’s voice buzzes deep and gentle, “receive the sign of the holy cross, both upon your forehead” – she squeaks as he dips large fingers into the font and brushes them against her spiky-soft hair – “and on your heart.” Ariana breaks into the mewing cry of the newborn. Rick and Ellen both twitch forward, but the pastor lifts her against his shoulder with a grandfatherly groan. “May I,” he addresses the congregation above Ariana’s wails, “present to you our newest member?”
Applause. You are looking at the pastor, his gray hair bent toward your granddaughter. Then he is looking back at you. Behind the bifocals his eyes are nutmeg brown. “Please be seated,” he says to the congregation. Without breaking eye contact, he takes a step forward and settles the small solid weight of the baby into your arms with
exquisite care. Ariana cries during the sermon and Ellen takes her out of the church. You’re watching the sturdy grace of the pastor’s body in the vestments. Next to you in the hard pew, Rick’s head tips forward and his cell phone pokes up out of his pants pocket.
When Ellen was new you used to close the bakery for an hour in the morning so you could nap on the couch. You would send Gracie to bed when you got home and read to Ellen, whatever you had handy: the newspaper, cookbooks and restaurant supply catalogs, Gracie’s magazines. The pastor is reading from Song of Songs. Maybe if you’d read that to Ellen she would have grown up softer, found someone less oily to love. You will ask someone what to read to Ariana.
Watching the pastor’s large hands turn the pages of the Bible you realize you don’t know what the sermon is about. The faint glitter of his bifocals has had your attention.
Next to you, Rick jerks awake with a snort. The phone plops out of his pocket onto the pew cushion. “What’d I miss?” he whispers, smirking. He still hasn’t
decided if you’re his wife’s dull, dried-up, blue-collar father or just one of the boys to elbow in the ribs.
You lift your hands from your thighs and let them fall back down to show you don’t know. You wonder if he cheats on Ellen.
“Let us pray,” the pastor says, and your head bows itself.
As you follow Rick out of the pew to go to communion, Ellen plods up the aisle. Her usual walk is celery-crisp, as if she’s wearing high heels all the time, but not now. You remember the lavender hollows over Gracie’s cheekbones after she gave birth; you reach for the baby as you cross paths with Ellen. Ariana’s face puckers but she doesn’t wake up, just sinks against you with a rustle of diaper, warming your dress shirt. It’s too early to tell but you think you see Gracie in the corners of her mouth. Your knees creak as you lower yourself to the kneeler. You tip forward a little and have to catch one elbow on the
Next to you Rick pulls at his tie. At the other side of the altar the pastor raises his hands to dismiss the group there. They straggle to their feet, one very old woman with bewildered eyes crossing herself, and they file back to their seats in time with the piano medley of Lenten hymns.
Ariana squirms and yelps; you hoist her against your left shoulder and jiggle her a little. The pastor’s bulk whitens your peripheral vision. You realize you’ve been at church an hour without once thinking of Phil. The white of vestments fills the space in front of you. On your forearms you can feel heat coming off the pastor in
subtle waves. You look up into round brown eyes. You are still looking at each other. The moment hangs between you, then falls, both of you blinking.
“Take and eat,” he says softly. The edge of his thumb touches your palm as he places the wafer in your hand. The wafer is papery on your tongue, sticky between your teeth. The pastor’s hand dwarfs Ariana’s head. “Lord, bless this little one,” he says.
The wafer sticks to your throat as it goes down. You should be thinking of spiritual matters but all of you is focused into a hum in that one spot of your palm.
Then white fills your peripheral vision again. “Take,” you hear. “Drink.”
The wine tray moves into view, shiny stainless steel with jewel-red wine flashing in tiny clear cups.
“Take, drink, this is My blood, shed for you for the remission of sins.”
You look up. Eyes hold yours with the steady physical warmth of a hand. Deliberate. You feel yourself smiling and he is too. He moves on. You lift the cup to your lips, knock the wine back. It rolls, sweet and heavy, into your throat and brushes against the back of your nose. You only fumble a little putting the cup into the acolyte’s waiting tray.
Ariana turns her head. Your left elbow is getting stiff. You shift her to your right arm.
“Go in peace,” says the pastor.
You would rather stay, but you grab the railing and push yourself up. On the other side of the altar, the next group waits to kneel. For a while after the service is over, you stand with Ellen and Rick as various churchgoers croon over Ariana. When
you’ve had enough, you let yourself drift into the empty sanctuary, hands in pockets, down the aisle as if to go inspect the altar. Light escapes the sacristy door. You
stick your head in, casual, your stomach tense. “Hi.”
The pastor jumps and one shoulder of his vestments slides off the hanger in his hand.
“Oh! Hello. You startled me.”
You study him. Removing the robes has revealed battered brown slacks and a blue dress shirt. His bifocals have slipped to a steeper tilt, his dark-gray hair sprouts
rumpled tufts behind his ears, his lips jump to a hasty smile. If he came into your bakery you would steer him to the cinnamon raisin nut bread.
“Good sermon,” you say.
“Thank you.” He looks pleased; you feel a little guilty. “You must be Ariana’s grandfather.” You nod. “Are you Ellen’s father or Rick’s?” He doesn’t miss your disgust at the idea of having spawned Rick. “Ah. I thought so. She looks like you.”
“She does?” You frown, rub the back of your neck where the hair is trying to wriggle into your collar. “I always thought they switched babies on us.”
“No, no, the chins. You have the same chin. She doesn’t take after her mother?” He is studying you now. You can feel his gaze like a brush of cloth, a vapor.
“No. Ariana, she looks like her grandma.” Feeling foolish, you clarify. “So far. Guess we’ll see in a couple years.”
The pastor’s grin thrums in your breastbone. You grin back involuntarily for a long awkward moment. Abruptly he sticks out his hand.
“I’m Bill Hasselquist.” You shake his hand and introduce yourself. “Good to meet you.”
Your hand likes his, big, dry and solid. You let go.
“So, are you down for the weekend?” he asks.
“Yeah. Probably go back Tuesday morning – depends how long they want me, I guess.”
Bill resumes hanging the vestment. “Where are you from? Long trip?”
“Duluth. Seven hours by bus. I don’t get down here a lot.” You shove your hands back in your pockets.
“I can see why. Seven hours, that’s a haul.” He stretches on tiptoe to hang the vestment on a high rack crammed with choir robes.
“Yeah. Hard to get away too.”
“No. I work weekends. I own a bakery.”
Bill’s eyebrows jump with delight. You should have guessed he liked to eat. “What’s your specialty?”
You grin again. “Everything.”
“Best in town.”
“I should have guessed.” He’s twinkling, actually twinkling. You want to kiss him.
“So,” you say, “do you have family?”
“Twin sons, just turned thirty, and an ex-wife in San Diego. How about you? Are there others besides Ellen?”
“No, just her. My wife died two years ago.” You can’t keep the lost expression off your face. Bill’s forehead wrinkles in sympathy.
“I’m sorry to hear that. You must miss her.”
“Yeah.” You rub the back of your neck again, adjust your collar. Bill eyes you curiously.
“If you don’t mind my asking, how did you lose your finger?” You glance at your
left hand. Gracie used to kiss your knuckles one by one, lingering longest on the stump’s
smooth end. Phil avoids it as if it’s still oozing blood.
“Meat cleaver, way back. When I still drank on the job.”
He winces. You step closer to him, holding the stump out for him to look at.
Instead he cradles your hand between both of his, bends his head to examine it. Your hand is warmed on all sides – his big hands, his faint breath. It would be easy to cup your other hand around the side of his, let your face drift forward, lips leading. His mouth would be wholesome, like something made with whole-wheat flour. Like Gracie. You could lean into him, rasp chin on chin, knock the bifocals right off his nose. When you try a new recipe at home, away from your industrial- sized ovens, one moment stays in the air -- when the oven timer is buzzing and you bend down, slowly, take the handle of the oven door in both hands and creak it open. Your eyes can’t distinguish the shape right away; you don’t know if you’ve succeeded. For a breath, no longer, you look into
darkness, and the heat of the oven rolls out to press against your face.
Bill is still holding your hand. Your other hand rises toward his, your face drifts forward a little, just a little. His eyes, the unhappy set of his eyebrows, stop you. He strokes a thumb across the edge of your hand, then lets go. You shove the orphaned hand into your pocket with a small, rueful smile. His eyes haven’t left yours.
“Well,” you say. Your voice seems not to belong to the room.
“I should be going,” Bill says.
“It was nice meeting you.”
You turn, jam your other hand into the pocket of your dress pants, and leave the sacristy. A hot wire of tension remains stretched across your stomach, the kind that melts
“Dad!” Ellen walks up the aisle toward you. The carrier seat, full of sleeping Ariana, dangles from one hand and pulls Ellen’s shoulders to a weary slant. “There you are. I’ve been looking all over!”
“I’m right here. Ready to go?”
Ellen nods. Something behind you clicks. You turn to see Bill step out of the now-dark sacristy and close the door.
“Hi, Pastor Bill,” Ellen says almost brightly. “Did you kidnap my dad?”
“Yes,” Bill says, impassive. With a quick smile at you that aches in your breastbone, he passes by: nods at Ellen, bends to transfer a kiss from his index finger to Ariana’s bump of a nose, and is up the aisle and gone. Ellen turns to watch
“Well, that was odd,” she says.
“I don’t know. He’s a strange guy. Nice, but strange. Ready to go?” She starts up the aisle.
You catch up with her, take the carrier out of her hand. Your shoulder dips with the weight of it. “Strange how?”
Ellen rolls her shoulders. “Like – I don’t know, there’s always gossip. People think he’s gay, even.” She glances sideways for your reaction.
“What do you think?” Her tired face is conspiratorial.
You feel as weary as Ellen looks. “Hard to tell,” you finally say.
“Well, if I thought that was anything more than a stupid rumor I would change churches.”
“That’s a little harsh,” you say without meaning to.
Ellen prickles as if you are about to scold her. “Maybe, but I mean, a pastor, you want a good example. Someone who’s going to act normal.”
“Normal,” you say.
“Nothing I wouldn’t want Ariana exposed to, let me put it that way.” Ellen looks down at Ariana with the same backlit eyes Gracie used to look at brand-new Ellen with, and something in your chest slumps like a failed soufflé.
Monday morning there aren’t so many college students on the bus. You can prop your boots on the seat across the aisle if you want. Otherwise it’s the same – flat stubbly
farmland and sullen sky, jacked-up pickups skimming beneath your window. With each blip of the endless ellipsis of the center line, Ariana shrinks a little. The small solid weight of her, in your mind and your ribcage, dwindles to a crumb.
You aren’t leaving her forever. Ellen mentioned Christmas, maybe even Thanksgiving. Ariana will have teeth when you see her again – but you’ll see her. You behaved; you kept the evening’s conversation to Ariana and the bakery, and you
were rewarded. You are convincing yourself the silence is worth it. It has to be.
Phil would pat you on the shoulder and make one of his prepackaged observations. “You made the right decision,” he would say. Bill would approve, Bill the soft kernel among all those squawking, jostling parishioners ready to peck him up. But you feel as if you’re wounding him.
You lean your forehead against the cool window. When you get back you will bake all evening, do some drinking. What else is there in Duluth? Nothing real, just bland Phil, a house of echoes and recipes. You will bake and bake, and play in your mind soft-focus movies of big, gentle hands. Your own hands crouch on your knees. You flatten them, splay your fingers to study them.
What can you say to Phil that will hurt him the least? Any of your reasons would baffle him. In your mind you begin to measure the words: how there will be someone someday, and so you are done settling.
And as the sky slouches lower and the rain begins, the Phil scene softens and spreads until you are introducing Bill to Gracie, nestling Ariana against Gracie’s shoulder. And then you are standing behind Ariana at the counter in the yeast-smelling kitchen, her stretching to tiptoe on the red wooden stool, the two of you in matching dough-smeared aprons.
Maybe a gray-haired man on the couch watches and smiles. Your hands guide Ariana’s; dough squishes between her fingers as together you chant, “Push, fold, turn… Push, fold, turn…”
Jacqueline May is an MFA student at the University of Illinois. She lacks impressive credentials but is in the process of acquiring them.