They’ll promise you pleasure behind all these walls, but I’m not trying to sell you. There’s no pleasure here, it’s true. Still, I think I know what you like… don’t be ashamed. Do you see? Right behind me, just through these doors… a baker, his wife and a neighbor (his customer, a would-be, might-be lover).
Oh sure, there was the time of the Bearded Lady. The Lizard Girl had her day and the 1,000 Year-Old Man had many of his own. Of course I remember them. The freaks of my youth. I cut my teeth on their strangenesses. I barely had a voice then, much less a bark. The very box I’m standing on used to hold Chicken Feller’s eggs until they were ready for hatching, warmed by the hands of people just like you, anxious to touch a piece of what seems like a story from a book and yet, more real than anything you’ve ever felt, fragile, and about bursting with life. Feller’s gone to the great chicken coop in the sky but that’s still what this is all about. You all haven’t changed one bit, it’s the freaks that’ve changed. Used to be you only had to look at their names to get a shiver of loneliness, even right here in the middle of a crowd, made stronger for that, so sharp it cut through that mouthful of cotton candy, the sunshine, the calliope sounds, made your hair prickle so you were sure you’d gotten your two bits worth. We had buckets then, buckets!, to collect all the tickets. But the freaks are refined now. They shave, exfoliate. They die. No more cages and bars, no more funhouse mazes, there’s no more reason, say, to cuff the baker’s ankle to a chain than there was the Merwoman’s to the tub. He’s bound sure enough without our help. He’s not leaving until the show’s over, and anyway, no one is afraid he’ll lunge at them like Lizardy used to do, tongue flickering, hunger hissing. There’s no more screams. I miss screaming. I haven’t seen a young girl faint in… twenty-four… no, make that twenty-seven years. A lifetime. How they used to fall. But no, there’s no more swooning. It’s streamlined now, efficient. Fainting and hysterics take time, stall the progress. We’re down to this box, my voice, and once you’re inside, once you’ve taken your seat, I’ll pack up both and move on. You won’t miss me when I go, you’ll be so busy making room for that new feeling, like a shadow creeping in. The one you’ve paid for.
Let me tell you about this crop. We’ve got a baker, his wife and a neighbor (she buys his loaves and twists, buys them fresh, not day-old), and with each of these, for today only, comes a dusting of flour, and hiding, and loss. And each, I can promise you, will make your life glow with all that you have already got, your smooth skin, your mortality, you’ll be a lantern of gratitude for the hope that remains that you will avoid the freak show’s spotlight. I guarantee it’s that lonely in there. What are you waiting for?
Mind the gathering crowd.
Get out your wallets ladies, gentlemen, and all you in-between, and get ready. It won’t cost you a thing, but get your wallets out, we’ll need to check your address, just in case, get out your tri-folds, your billfolds… just in case it’s your face we’ve been waiting for. The collection plate is coming around, silver filigree in need of the tarnish only your coin can provide, dull its gleam with those portraits, of our forefathers, yes, but of your nephew too, on his way to the war, your driver’s license, and all of those membership cards. There can’t be loneliness without someone to miss first and the coupon for that butter-like spread that’s expired behind your lucky $2 bill that’s worn at the creases? That coupon already has us missing you.
You’ve already paid your dues, so turn them in and pile in. It’s starting to fill up, but it won’t be truly lonely in there until you take your seat. What are you waiting for?
Maggie teaches at an elementary school. Her own children all long gone, she fills her hours with the children of others, alike to her now as her days are, like times tables she teaches by heart. She knows how many sheets of gold stars she will need to get through each year and is never caught a star short. The children are blind to her negligence. They adore Maggie because she still teaches crafts. Crafts are why she began. She doesn’t like to get tested on the proper subjects as she’s made to do every year, history and grammar, nervous as she was when a girl, reaching for ponytails to tug where there are none, having crept up and wound themselves into her single, grey bun. She doesn’t really want to re-certify. Maggie has no use for integers and predicates. She only wants to teach crafts, oranges poked with cloves, tied to yarn, created without a single failure year after year, the classroom smelling like eggnog. She only wants Christmas.
Maggie wears brooches on rotation, but she has only one pair of gloves and one pair of galoshes. She has no cats. She is Maggie, who pins on that day’s particular brooch and wears hats, reaches for her ponytails to tug them and they’ve crept inside her hat, curled there like the cats she doesn’t keep. Maggie wants a garden but has no outside area in which to keep one. She is trapped, the world closing in on her from her tight gray bun down, no options at all. She feels herself pierced with cloves hanging in the bathroom. She doesn’t want to re-certify.
Maggie lives in a basement apartment in the city. There is a bakery above her, and a Thai restaurant. Little bits of cucumber and red onion line up in her alley making a trail from the backdoor to the trash bin. She cannot see the people on the sidewalk whose feet crush the plastic containers and kick the satay sticks because she’s sealed her windows with blinds, with newspapers, with plastic garbage bags. She’s done this so she won’t be tempted to watch every pair of shoes for one she recognizes, black loafers dusted with flour, dough caked in the soles as if the owner trudged through an oven in winter. She’s sealed the window to save her life from being spent tracking the movements of those shoes, crossing as they do twice each day, heavy with sugar and egg.
Maggie has to climb stairs to get onto the sidewalk. The stairs hurt her. The pain keeps her underground, her ceiling alive with the sound of younger feet pacing back and forth, ordering food she can’t understand the desire for. She has lived there so long she cannot smell her own smell in there, it is strong like the vinegar in the cucumber salad that dribbles across the back alley to the garbage bin, strong like the douche she stopped using when her husband died. She never knew if he noticed the pains she took with the bag and tube, and when she made salads for dinner, measuring and shaking the salad dressing herself, she was afraid he would mention the similarities in the smell at the dinner table, afraid of what this would ruin beyond dinner. Her husband never did this, however, his nose never becoming as sensitive as she both wanted it to become and feared it might. She saves the vinegar for dressing now, having lived in the apartment long enough to become a widow but not long enough to order a plate of Pad Thai and let the noodles wet her face with salt and oil.
Maggie has a kimono, it is blue, red, gold, silk, the colors iridescent and a circular symbol repeating over her breasts and around her hips. She wraps herself in it after she gets out of the bath and is covered in Jean Naté bath powder. She feels guilty about the feeling of silk on her skin, guilty about the colors that light up her apartment that is filled with her scent and the dark, glad that she covered the windows so no one can see that she is wasting the colors’ brightness on herself alone. She hears the footsteps above, the cash register drawer closing, and feels guilty about hating anyone not already quiet and at home.
Maggie wants a garden but more than that. More than that, Maggie wants to pull and pluck things from her garden, herbs, onions, gourds, and cook them for someone. She longs to take out her cutting board and the good knife and her big bowl and the large fryer, she dreams of chopping, dicing, shopping, humming, she is hungry for someone to be hungry at her kitchen table where she will give them nothing to do but wait, wait, “Just sit there,” she’ll say, and hum. She watches all the cooking shows and when her son calls she pretends she’s made the latest, most fantastic recipe for herself instead of what she’s really done, eaten too many pretzels. “I made the most delicious crème brulee last night,” she says. “When you visit, I’ll make it for you.” She has saved a box of recipes to make on her son’s next visit, corners of their pages bulge from the box’s top and sides, it is so full, her son so far.
Maggie’s made up a song to hum in this fantasy of loosening roots from the soil, rinsing the dirt, and cooking for someone who waits at her table. In the song, she rhymes “sesame” with “come down and see me,” rhymes “rock salt” with “it’s not our fault.” Sesame and rock salt, Maggie is in love with Samuel the baker. Samuel’s daughter, Ruthie, was in Maggie’s class her first year of teaching on her very own, the first year she wasn’t another teacher’s assistant and could decide: We will have apples this fall to write the students’ names on, not autumn leaves. We will have sunflowers this spring, not tulips, to represent this class. The door to her classroom was and is always bright with better colors, a garden all its own, than any of the other doors in the school, and it was at this door that Maggie first saw Samuel. Samuel, in his apron, breathing hard from running down to the school, still wiping his hands on a towel he tucked into his back pocket when he saw Ruthie sitting there. Samuel kneeled in the doorway and held his arms out to embrace her. Ruthie had been forgotten by her mother that day and when the school called Samuel at the bakery he’d come straight over, but Ruthie, such a mature girl at any age, had never been concerned. She left her father kneeling there as she packed up her pencil case and then squeezed past him and out the door, saying, “Father, I am ready to go home now.” Samuel had nodded at Maggie as he got up to follow Ruthie down the hall and Maggie had barely succeeded in hiding the quivering at her eye, the sadness she felt at this man’s empty arms, his heaving chest, first from running and then from something else, as she nodded back.
This embrace, this embracing that was never completed, is why Maggie loves Samuel, another woman’s husband, and has done so for this many years, for this many classes and students, this many apples and sunflowers later. It is this unfinished embrace that pulls Maggie to his bakery. And this is why she buys his pretzels, flavored with rock salt and sesame, before climbing down the stairs to her dark apartment humming about blameless visitors and not even sure if its adultery she’s thinking of when she imagines herself filling those arms, her brooch dusty with flour from being embraced by arms that have been empty these twenty years in her mind.
Maggie dreams of mortar and pestle, she doesn’t know these words, in her dream there are no words to know. She only knows they are her own hands she sees holding the tools, her own hands but more papery, more spotted than now, and one is cupped around a stone bowl while the other holds a smooth stone. In the bowl is sand, it is full of sand, and she is crushing it slowly, as if sand can be crushed, rhythmically, as if sand can become something other than what it is. The grains scratch against the bowl, against the stone, against each other, and she hums. She hums without rhyming in this dream that has no words but in this dream she also hums without guilt, and all the while her bun loosens underneath the hat that has slid back to reveal the tremble in her eye that she cannot yet soothe.
Cool on wire racks. Samuel re-reads the directions each time, every day, not because he can’t remember, but because he can. He remembers how Hannah made the pretzels, recipe always in hand no matter the number of batches sold, gone to the day-old bin, gone to the alley for the dogs and veterans. No one buys the pretzels now except Maggie, Maggie who is barely a hand reaching out from her giant hat, a wink of rhinestone from her brooch under the fluorescent lights of his shop. She takes the pretzels and she’s the only one, but Samuel makes them anyway. He does not make them for Maggie, regardless of her love for them or him, her long-standing order and her long-lasting patience. He doesn’t even make them to repay the kind way Maggie has of asking after Hannah, the daily gift she gives him of speaking of his wife in the present tense. Samuel makes his pretzels for Hannah and Hannah only.
Hannah is Samuel’s wife. She has Alzheimer’s and he showers in the little bathroom in back of his shop before going home because the sight of him in floury whites and the smell on him of yeast, makes her cry out and hide herself in a low cupboard in the kitchen where the trash compacter used to be. He keeps meaning to seal it up, but he can never seem to gather the hammer and nails and wood even though it is very hard to get her out of there. This is why he showers, and this is why he makes the pretzels, Hannah’s.
He makes them the way she used to do before her mind started to slip like loose change through a hole in his apron pocket. The way she used to do before Ruthie left home. The way she started to do after the first baby, after the first baby who wasn’t, who never really was, and there was no hope of Ruthie’s being born then, of the surprise she would give them when they were both almost too old to bear it. Pretzels the same way Hannah started to do the day she held up her empty hands to him and said, “Samuel, please, give me something to do.”
Hannah’s soft pretzels were added to the bakery’s menu in a cursive of chalk dust until Ruthie was born. Ruthie who lived, and took Hannah away from the kitchen to focus on the work of mothering. Brush with egg yolk mixed with water. And Ruthie never seemed a baby at all, rushing them past all the years they’d been barren and through toddlerhood with an accountant’s efficiency. Samuel cannot remember Ruthie ever falling down, ever having to cheer her or reassure her that we all do this. Before he and Maggie could become accustomed to Ruthie being alive, she was leaving, words about where she was headed said over her shoulder as the door closed so that all he and Hannah heard was the latch clicking. Ruthie, unable to sit still between her mother’s knees long enough to have her hair braided, Ruthie snatching the brush, jumping up, “I’ll do it myself, Mother.”
Hannah was never very good with her hands. “Accident prone, that one,” his grandmother had said with a cluck and a swipe of the corner of her apron the first afternoon he brought Hannah home, to his apartment, to meet his family, and after Hannah had spilled peppermint tea down the front of her blouse. Peppermint tea all over his grandmother’s plastic lace tablecloth, a tablecloth designed to forget such instances, to record them nowhere, but his grandmother’s memory was of such a lily white linen it remembered every incident, forgiving not a single one in her entire life, and burned poisonous as bleach. Samuel has learned this lesson well: there are two ways memory can fail us.
Sometimes he lets the bread stay in for just too long on purpose in order to achieve a specific darkening burn that reminds him of Hannah’s accident-prone hair, thick and brown like halva bread, in a permanent state of singe from the hot rollers she never mastered. He holds his hand above the loaves and absorbs the heat, his wife’s hairbrush strumming through his mind as she’d run it through her curls, preparing for bed on those long nights after the parties that were thrown so frequently after the war.
Hannah and her accidents. Cool on wire rack. Hannah’s fingers constantly scored with burns from the racks she forgot to take out ahead of time while somehow never forgetting she must Preheat oven to 475 degrees. With everything else lost is this small truth, hidden forever wherever Hannah has gone to hide. Though Samuel’s never seen it, he dreams of it, of his young wife, her lit cigarette, he dreams of it without understanding. Samuel will never know, never now, that the burns on Hannah’s hands were not from the wire racks at all, but actually from the cigarettes she bought from Mrs. Ogden, next door, for a nickel apiece. Samuel never wondered where all the nickels went, never noticed the cigarettes Hannah kept hidden in the pocket of her apron next to a small bottle of primrose oil she used to medicate her burns, she said, but really to cover the smell of Mrs. Ogden’s cigarettes. The cigarettes she forgot to put out, even forgot to smoke, forgot soon after the bite of the first bolting inhale, the cigarettes that turned to ash as Hannah leaned low out of the kitchen window or stood on the fire escape feeling the breath of the city blowing up through the folds of her housedress.
This is Samuel’s dream: A beautiful young woman sneaking a smoke behind her husband’s back, the summer heat on the fire escape made bearable by the coolness in her transgression. Always, as he’s reaching into his pocket for a match to light her cigarette, as he’s reaching for the courage to ask her name, he wakes. It is the dream of a widower whose wife has forgotten to die.
The voice says, “Hannah, dear, how are things under the oven door?” and then it shines across the metal handle and echoes across the wire racks. Shhh. She ignores it. Instead, curling up, peeks at the sesame seeds and rocks of salt that fill the spaces between the hardwood boards, that have gathered like silt in the grooves of the kitchen floor. Layers of their lives waiting for a cross section to reveal how many years old this recipe is, to chart it in rings of cigarette smoke, rings of pretzels, rings of metal that wrap around their fingers. Layers waiting for the monument to be built that will chart the recipe’s age against other important moments in their history: V-Day, the miscarriage, Ruthie leaving home.
Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled, about 35 minutes.
Samuel and Hannah curled in their bed, covered, a warm place, doubled, like mixing spoons, about thirty-five years. She remembers some of them well. The monument will help with the rest. She will watch it like television, will wear some of its lettering thin as she traces the epochs, daily, sounding out the words that are no longer familiar, miscarriage, Mrs. Ogden, the words that sound foreign on her tongue, as if they are from another country’s calendar of celebrations, from another marriage’s record. Maybe it is only the M words that are unfamiliar. She will think this, as she stands before the monument. She will consider this new mystery every third day, as that is how long it takes for the questions to play through on their loop. Miscarriage. Mrs. Ogden. Mysteries. Monument.
Roll each between hands to form coil, hands too full of dough to make any mistakes today. Wedding ring sparkling through flour. Bake barefoot in order to leave a trail, to remind. There is so much to remember. White footprints to follow back through the hall after the mail comes. Don’t set the mail on the stove. Don’t place anything on the stove. Follow the footsteps back out to see what was left when the mail was picked up. A brick of butter, a dish towel. A monument celebrating the floured footprints on the floor would also be nice. A way to retrace their paths with her finger, if that is her finger. She doesn’t remember it ever looking that way. Or actual footprints in the floor, marble or Lucite, like dance steps to be learned, the Mambo.
She remembers the parties, she remembers ingredients, drinks. Lemon, orange rinds, shooting juice, fruit’s skin under her nails that turned sour in her mouth, pockmarked and second-tier, stained cutting boards, maraschinos. She remembers her husband’s uniform, almost being drunk off the sight of him in it alone. The monument will require that a plastic cover be added to save the original details from damage by liquids, by vandals. The vandals will bore into the plastic instead, mark it with M, M, M, connecting points that were never meant to go together in this new geography, the mountains and valleys of memory loss.
On this trail, the range of M’s that supersedes what should have been memorialized, the path Hannah and Samuel took in their lives together, it is Mrs. Ogden that suffers a miscarriage when she is so very far along. It is Mrs. Ogden who needs cheering and who, for a short time, Hannah does not make pay a hard-won nickel for each cigarette she sells her. The vandals are the historians now, the docents of Hannah’s existence, and they are careless with the facts, unconcerned with whether Hannah had ever actually bought a pack of cigarettes in her life or that Mrs. Ogden was far too old by the time Hannah and Samuel were married to have become pregnant. The docents have locked the room wherein Hannah would visit Mrs. Ogden before her marriage to Samuel and inside of it no one can see anymore the times that Hannah begged the old woman to read Hannah’s tea leaves and tell the young girl about the apprentice at the bakery and whether her future lay in his kneading hands. The docents, who are also vandals, who wreak havoc on every monument proposed and passed and erected, wield their keys as they see fit and won’t unlock the door and show Hannah the tea cup in Mrs. Ogden’s hands, or let her hear Mrs. Ogden’s voice saying, “You are tied together in love.” The vandals won’t reveal what Hannah only caught a glimpse of but couldn’t quite recognize — that the knot Mrs. Ogden was seeing was tied in the shape of a pretzel.
Moistening ends and pinching together firmly.
It didn’t happen all at once. She didn’t believe it happened. She’d never been successful at believing in what couldn’t be seen, had always had trouble believing in the obvious enough to remember to remove the rollers before she smelled burnt hair, to turn down the kettle before it reached a screaming pitch, that her husband would always come home. So, one expert would not be enough to convince her of what, for once, felt like a certainty to her, so strong, it was coming from right inside of herself. And so, a second doctor was needed to write a prescription for belief, incomprehensible as this new order was. She insisted, insisted on the second doctor, because she felt so full, she said. She’d even smiled when the first doctor reported no heartbeat, smiled sweetly as if he was a child having wandered in the room with a toy stethoscope. Smiling, she said, “But I’m full of life.”
And they couldn’t afford that, the second appointment, but Samuel did not protest, not even when she almost forgot to go, when he came in with his apron still on, rushing home between batches of sourdough, to get her there. He found her vacant on the fire escape, vacant as she’d been all those days in-between knowing, days filled with held breath, filled with held blood. He bundled her in her overcoat. He sat in his apron in the waiting room. He held her there when she came out, a new belief written plainly on her face.
There was no blood until after the second doctor, and the money already spent, and then it lasted for weeks, his grandmother’s clucking echoing through the apartment when she came to help them. They lived under the weight of an apology that no one owed, but that life can’t go on without. And to the docents’ credit, Maggie doesn’t remember this moment, Samuel’s face breaking apart as he said it, took all the blame for a thing that no one owned, saying the words that needed to be said anyway to let the air back in and possibility. Samuel crumpled in grief at his sick wife’s back cradling her where she curled in their bed, a bowl beside her for vomit, another for blood. “I am so sorry.”
And then Ruthie was born and the dreams started. Of both of their children. Together. The other always older, in the background, the shadow at the window, shielded by the glare of sunlight on falling dust, the one who never spoke, whose hair, so like her sister’s, was wavy from a freshly fallen braid. Even in her dreams Hannah cannot keep the ties tight but she is forgiven, her daughters’ hair shines like clear plastic over a tablecloth. Nothing she can do can harm their beauty here. Her girls, together on the playground. Tan bark, pulling up socks, playing on the slide, tire swings, running in the heat, teasing each other, skirts flying, meeting. Do you have any friends? Making friends. Play, all you do is
Shape each coil into a pretzel, moistening ends and pinching together firmly.
She remembers the apron. The flour on his left ear when he held her in the waiting room, hugged her too him, but she could not close her eyes to receive his comfort, couldn’t trust her own insides anymore to tell her what was truth. She tried to stay outside of herself all through the coming weeks while the blood flowed. She stayed outside where he was, night after night, covered in flour, smelling of yeast. He comes home clean now, he says each night, “Not like before,” and holds out his hands to her palms up, turns his hands over and presents his nails then, to say, no dough under them, no caked-on flour in the nail beds, and, “I am your husband, Hannah. I am your good, clean husband.” He says this and she is comforted. She leans her head against the side of the oven, against the door of the broom closet, and closes her eyes to think about their girls. The girls they’ve created together.
Always they grow older and taller. Even in Hannah’s dreams, they grow away from her and she grows shorter, in dreams and in life, until she fits into the compartment for the trash compactor, until she stands in the broom closet, until she folds herself into the laundry hamper, until she curls up under the oven door, under there, where the broom can’t reach.
Come closer my friends, I think I know what you like… just through these doors… there’s always room for another professional… what was it you said you do again?, always room for his wife, and a neighbor (his customer, a would-be, might-be, lover), each one bound in flour like the stripes of a prison uniform, each one hiding, hiding and sneaking their pleasure. One pleasure each and each one a loss. Guaranteed.
I don’t keep anything in the box. When I pick it up, I hold it like I used to do as a boy, when I joined this operation, which is to say, very carefully. My job was to make sure none of Chicken Feller’s eggs were harmed. That job got me where I am today. I caught one just as it slipped from a swooner’s hand, she felt a kick in the shell, a tiny three-toed foot stomped and nearly cost itself its own life because when she felt that wee push, her eyes fluttered, her face flushed, and her knees buckled down. I saw all this in slow motion and dived under the table. I reached my hands through the folds of the cloth, met her right before she fell flat. Blind, I caught that egg.
I don’t keep anything in the box now but you never know what will come about. Times may change, but the show doesn’t. I haven’t seen my last batch of freaks. When the new batch is born, I’ll be ready, ready to cradle them, ready to save them from curious hands that will only warm them enough to keep them vital but won’t stay after the lights go out, hands that lose their nerve at the first little kick. I’ll be here, ready to give them a home, just like I’m ready to do for you.
Step right up folks! Mind the crowd.
Your AARP card is good for an aisle seat, NAACP guarantees a seat in the back, and NRA cards move you to the very front of the balcony. Membership gets you a discount on the loneliest seats we have, but there are no cheap seats here. We’ll want your fingerprints, your visa, your lucky two-dollar bill, we’ll want that old condom of yours, and then straight through these doors… you’ve been found out, you like pleasure, you do, but you like loneliness more. This is not a movie of the week, these aren’t appliances you’re shopping for, not prayers at five dollars a ring, no G-strings and tassels a-twirl, and not a single iced caramel macchiato sweats its plastic for you. Behind these doors there are three kinds of loneliness, nothing less and nothing more. It’s lonely in there. What are you waiting for?