A Stove's Promise
The dough pressed against his hands, reading the cracks of his palms, filling the whorls of his fingertips. He stood back, scooped a small handful of flour from a nearby sack and sprinkled it over the counter. Then he leaned closer and pushed the dough with his whole body, one great shove, and it flattened against the wood without a noise. He lifted his hands and gazed down at the lump of dough sitting in front of him, shrinking slightly, until he folded it in two, locked his elbows and threw his shoulders down again. He focused on this task, over and over, and though the dough looked no different to any eyes he could feel it change. The air around the fleshy, white ball seemed to crackle with electricity coming from the hidden yeast buzzing within. While he worked he hummed a song, a tune that appeared in his head, but after a few bars he realized that the song didn't come from inside him, it trickled into his ears from across the room, sweeping strings under a familiar voice, a voice so clear and powerful that it cut through the air and made him stop working and look up, but as he turned towards it his nose brushed something and then weight and warmth and dark with eyes cracked blurry – the red angled numbers of the clock-radio showing him where Ray Charles was singing.
The blankets weighed down his body and he floated in a warm sea of fabric. A wool cap covered his bald head and only his cheeks and nose felt the raw bite of the air. During the night, a winter chill crept into the house and the wood stove in the adjacent room did little to fight against it. Inside the stove an asphyxiated flame had steadily reduced the strong cord wood into a handful of ashes, with only the memory of heat hanging in the morning air. He would have to revive the flame to keep the house alive. That was the first task of the day. He had to leave the warmth of the bed, put on slippers and a robe and see to the stove. If the metal was still warm to the touch, he would find red coals nestled underneath the flaky layers of gray ash. A handful of wood scraps and a few steady lungfuls of air could bring the house back to life. On very cold mornings he could see his breath on the short walk out of his room and if the stove was cold to the touch, the fire was dead. He would have to pull out the unburnt logs and reinvent the fire from scratch. Those cold minutes stretched out as he huddled close to the little flame, watching it lick the kindling brown. He couldn't just give up. Without a fire the pipes would freeze by the end of the day, perhaps even shatter, and the old house would be finished. With all its other faults, a sagging roof, a rotting bathroom floor, a spreading black mold, there would be no reason to fix it. They would bulldoze it to the ground.
More often than not a nest of orange-gray coals greeted him when he opened the stove. He had slept so many winter nights in the house that he could go for weeks without ever having the fire die. One winter he made it the whole season, striking the first match in mid-October, putting the matchbook on the mantle above the stove and not touching it until the first bonfire of the spring. It was his eternal flame. That season Jefferson had given him nearly two cords of good, slow-burning hardwood. He and Jefferson, his neighbor, could go through a bottle of rye together every other day. Jefferson always stopped in during the day to feed a few logs to the fire, so that the stove would be full later in the afternoon and all he would have to do is flip the damper, the iron valve banging loudly, and listen to the hungry flames feed on the new-flowing oxygen. With the smell of burning wood and the slow, spreading warmth, the walls and roof transformed, once again, into his home.
When Jefferson was still alive. He shifted under the covers, moving onto his side, exposing only one cheek to the cold. The clock-radio came on a few minutes before he needed to get up, and most of the time his eyes opened a few minutes before that. He never knew how that happened, but he never knew lots of things. When he was a younger man, and waking up was an ordeal, he put the radio across the room so he would have to get up to turn it off and the flash of cold morning air would jump-start his blood. These days he just liked to have music playing in the early morning while waking up, something to drown out the mice scratching through the walls, the drip of the faucet and the silence of waking up alone in a cold house.
Ray was singing about that lucky old sun. It was still dark outside, not even a gray dawn light, he didn't need his eyes open to know that. But, Ray, the sun will rise today. That's one of the few thoughts that he could count on, a realization that struck him maybe ten, fifteen years ago, during a graveyard shift at the pipe fitting plant. The sun will rise today. After a long night besieged by the screeching metal and soulless fluorescent lights, seeing that first beam of sun on his drive home became an important event. He'd spent many mornings sitting in his car on the side of the road with the coal tip of his cigarette glowing back at the rising sun. With that first flash of light, the steady advance of time seemed manageable; the well-oiled tick of a wound clock and another irretrievable moment gone. While feeling the slow minutes of his night shift pass, the phase would continually roll through his head, 'the sun will rise today... the sun will... the sun...' until the words disintegrated into foreign letters, no longer meaning anything at all, until that guiding beam of light hit the backs of his eyes and brought his existence into focus once again.
Basking in the afterfuzz of unconsciousness, his dreams turned and twisted over each other, melting into vague memories and floating away. Time's river slipped around him and only the warmth of the bed and the feeling of hands kneading dough existed. Reality would only hit when he switched from horizontal to vertical. With the blast of cold the years would pile back on and as his feet hit the floor the dreams would travel through the wooden floorboards and into the house. There they would hide in the walls, in the pattern of the curtains, in the jar holding pencils on his desk. He would have moments when he looked at something later in the day and it would cast a gray light across his memory, the object shining and slightly set apart from its surroundings, a flicker of recognition stemming from a time when he was apart from himself, something that was not his imagination, but far beyond it. An escaped dream that lived around him, untethered, soon to drift outwards into another sphere.
Ray's voice passed through his memory and floated past the atmosphere, his smile etched in the stars, the black glasses blending with the deep of space. The cold air rushed down his throat and into his lungs where it was warmed in those one, two seconds before flowing out and mixing silently into the room. This was the only time of the day when all was well with the world. Pure happiness could exist in these ice-cube fragile moments, before his eroded joints brought along consciousness, thought and all of the other evils that follow. Within the first few steps of the day the coil of routine would squeeze his body and soul, guiding and crushing him, until he had reached bed that night, the stove filled to the brim, damper closed, to wait for sleep.
The early shift at the bakery began at 3 AM. It wasn't too bad a job for an old bastard; working for a baker, a baker's hours, a baker's wages. Another job in a long line of jobs, this one only standing out because it was at the head of the line. After the past three or four they melted together: whole years forgotten in chores, hours, paychecks, bosses, faces. The number of break rooms where he had sat and put food from hand into mouth. He had pulled himself through the years and he had to keep going. Now he worked the early shift; opening the shop, heating the oven, tossing the ingredients into the giant metal bowls, flipping the switch and watching the giant metal corkscrew mix everything together. The machines did the hard work. But he would almost always grab a hunk of dough and knead it himself, throwing his weight against the dough, crushing it between his hands and the wooden counter. In a few minutes he would be sweating and would toss the dough back into the bowl to watch it mix in and disappear.
Under the covers his hands opened and closed, anticipating the kneading in an hour or two. He could feel the texture, the elasticity, the pressure on his palms and fingertips and the secrets he was unlocking with this friction. The dough would be divided into pans and would hit the oven. Soon after came an aroma handed down from the kitchen of the gods. It rose out of the heated loaves, passing through the cracks of the oven to fill the room, eventually spilling out into the front shop where the customers ordered and drank their coffee. He could see the scent; it had a curved, loopy shape, though without a texture or color. It settled in an aura around the store, hanging in the air like radiation, and would pull in pedestrians with watering mouths off the sidewalk.
The wood stove in his house was too big for its room. When going strong it was far too hot and he could be sitting around in shorts and a t-shirt as it blew negative thirty outside. Having the stove was like living with another person, and he got to know it pretty well over the years. He knew its mood from a room over; the way it ticked as it was hitting its stride, that first waft of cold that said it was hungry. When overfed, the stove glowed a dull, sooty red and if he turned off the lights the object which was his friend and keeper would suddenly take on an evil tinge, like he could open up the front door and reach straight into the bowels of hell. But hours he'd open it to find nothing, only a pile of ashes and nails, the remains of some fantastical demoniac orgy. Then he could only get the paper and kindling and start the fire again.
That lucky old sun will rise today. He would see the flash of light this morning, all or nothing, just skip out the back of the shop and look through the bare tree branches to catch that first ray coming up over the hills. He felt he cold air rushing in to his lungs and he expelled it, over and over, his breath warming his bedroom. In the other room the old stove waited and it would either be warm or cold to the touch, he would have to get up to find out. But as long as Ray was singing he wasn't going to leave the warm bed. When the next song came on he would get up and embrace the familiar coil. But he felt nothing but the warmth, the weight and Ray's voice as he dipped back down, the smell of the baking bread blooming in the corners of his nose and the dough pressing against his hands, reading the cracks of his palms, its texture filling the whorls of his fingertips.