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January 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 1 · pp. 19–25 

The Baker

Phyllis Martens

Nay. A cake from the bakery I will not have. Always they look the same, always pink roses—all flat.” Helen scraped fried potatoes onto her husband’s plate, under his nose, and set the frying pan back on the stove.

John did not look up from his plate. “Nay, Nay, Helen, a bakery cake is good enough.” His voice was quiet. He broke off a piece of brown bread and mopped up the cream from the green beans.

“Twenty years the owner of the business, and that’s all you want?” Helen cried. “If it was up to you, everybody would go and hoe in the garden, forget the celebrating!”

John wiped his mouth and short grizzled beard with his handkerchief and stood up. “Na yo, Lenkya, do what you want,” he said. “I’m going down.”

“Wait. Maria Franz told me about a lady near Delft who makes cakes. I want Henry should drive me out this afternoon.”

John paused in the doorway, staring at the floor. “Henry is unloading freight,” he said at last, “maybe at four o’clock.”

“You won’t get any supper then.”

John nodded and went down to the store. What did he care about supper, she thought—he would eat leftovers in the pantry and walk to the garden to hoe weeds all evening. She piled the dishes into a large tin pan, poured hot water over them from the kettle, and began to wash, setting the clean cups and plates upside down on a large teatowel which she had spread out on the table. Such a man! Anything was good enough. Serve me leftovers, that’s good enough. I don’t need a new overcoat, this one is good enough. Mr. Epp dressed like a businessman, his coat had a beaver collar. But John, whose hardware store was bigger than Epps grocery—John wore his coats until the edges of the sleeves wore through. She wanted to celebrate, it was twenty years exactly since he became owner of Jungas Hardware . . . he had started as a shoe clerk in 1897, barely able to speak English, and here he was. . . . She hung up the wet dishcloth in the pantry. Such a man! It was lucky Henry had a car, or she would sit in the kitchen all day stringing beans from the garden and go nowhere.

She put the dishes away and swept the floor, shifting her heavy bulk slowly from one foot to the other. She would have a party, no {20} matter if she had to do it all herself. Fifty guests, maybe more. Business people from town, some store owners from Delft and Butterfield. The factory man in Mankato who made stoves, he might even come. No children—they always ran around screeching and spilled crumbs on the rugs.

She sat down in the dining room to rest her feet and looked around to see what needed to be done. Her sister Anna would polish the furniture. It was an expensive set. The carved mahogany tables and buffet gleamed, even in the dark; the seats of the chairs were mad of dull red leather. She would put the black tapestry tablecloth from Russia on the big dining table—the fringes hung almost to the floor. She loved fine things—the woven design of blue flowers in the tablecloth, the dark shine of the rounded table legs—they were a joy, like the music of violins. Mr. Epp might wear beaver collars, but their dining set was cheap pine, an ugly yellow set Helen wouldn’t have allowed in the house . . . Mrs. Epp didn’t seem to care, her whole house was full of cheap stuff.

Himmel sei dank, the new front room furniture had come in time. Dark grey plush with black silk tassels and a handsome pattern on the cushions. Ach, such a man! A new front room set, and where did he go with Mr. Epp to discuss the fair? To the back parlor! They were sitting there yesterday on the old wicker settee—it sagged, the chintz was faded, she was ready to throw it out, but he liked to sit there, he said it was comfortable.

Well, what else. The worst job was the skylights. The men would have to wash them—she couldn’t get up a ladder. She always did it herself in her younger days. Tarred the roof, too. Not any more. She must remember to tell Henry about the skylights, he would do a good job. A fine nephew, Henry.

At three o’clock Helen dressed in her navy silk crepe with the frills at the wrist. The day was sultry and she would be hot, but the lady near Delft was no doubt well off and she did not want to appear at a disadvantage. She combed her hair carefully, making sure the hairpins were pushed in tight, and put on her best hat. She made sure the name and address were still in her black handbag.

She remembered then that she had not asked the Rohrs about serving. John would invite them as employees—the Mrs. cleaned stoves for the store, and Mr. worked with freight. They were Sommerfelder. How God put up with Sommerfelder, she didn’t know. Mrs. Rohr still wore her hair parted in the middle and combed tight to the sides, with a kerchief tied over. It was their custom. She had left off the ugly black colony aprons by now, but those skirts—cheap cotton print that hung limp and uneven like a rag over her old shoes. {21} Such watery eyes—as if she hadn’t any spirit at all! And Mr. Rohr looked like a goat with that silly red beard on his pointed chin. John’s beard was full and round, but this straggly thing . . . no, if they would consent to serve in the kitchen it would be much better. She would pay them something.

Henry called up the stairs. Clinging to the handrail with one hand and to her large handbag with the other, she worked her way down backwards, one step at a time.

They drove silently along the road toward Delft. Henry did not like to talk over the noise of the engine, and Helen was busy thinking of many things. She was dissatisfied with the lace curtains at the front windows, they didn’t hang right. The whole house needed cleaning, the silver had yet to be borrowed . . . she would have no kitchen flatware at her party! She herself had service for twenty-four, silverplate with an elegant scroll pattern on the handles, and Maria Franz might lend her a set. . . .

Henry turned off onto a small dirt road, raising a cloud of dust. The cornfields rustled with a dry papery sound. Grasshoppers whirred and hopped on either side of them, disturbed by the thin bumping wheels. Helen began looking for the farm. “Funk, 19586 Windom Road,” she told Henry. He slowed to read the number on a mailbox. Next farm, maybe.

To the right, a tumbled set of buildings, grey and unpainted, showed above the corn. No mailbox. Keep going. A quarter mile further on the left, a white gabled barn. Yes, this must be it. The number on the mailbox read 11202. “It was that other one,” Henry said, and turned the car around. Waut du sajst! That junkpile? She must have the address wrong. Henry turned into a rutted driveway and jolted along it into a wide yard.

Helen clutched her bag. House, barn, chicken sheds, all grey . . . neglected boards sagging off their nails, barn door hanging wide open, chickens squawking in and out, pecking at the chickweed that grew everywhere, a pig snuffling in the mud near the house. “Nay, this is not right,” she said—“go back out.” But Henry stopped the motor and said he would ask and see. He walked to the door and knocked. Mien jauma, such a place! On most farms the animals were kept behind fences, but this one! Mud, chicken droppings, dirty straw—there was not a place to set one’s foot in this schwienerie. And the smell!

Henry was talking to a young girl through the screen door. He turned and nodded—yes, it was the right place. The cake baker lived here? Verrekt! She wouldn’t even get out of the car! She beckoned to {22} Henry—come on, we’ll go. But he was talking to the girl and paid no attention. At last she climbed down from the car and walked to the door, holding her skirts high and stepping on clumps of chickweed to avoid the muck.

The girl let them in. Odors of frying meat, kettles on a black iron stove—didn’t they have a parlor, even? A fat woman sat at the wooden table crocheting with yellow thread, her large arms lying flat on the oilcloth. “Ya-ah?” she said, making no move to rise.

Nay, oba! She talked flat, like the Sommerfelder! But her hair, instead of being combed tight back under a kerchief, was hanging loose in skimpy grey strings. There were black speckles on the loose skin of her neck. Helen stood straight and stiff near the door, clutching her bag. Sommerfelder!

“You are the lady who makes cakes?”

“Ya-ah. Sit down.” The woman nodded toward an old wooden chair. Her cotton dress was damp with heat, her apron strings hung limply around her neck under the speckles. So fat, sitting plumped down on the chair like that, not even a corset to hold in the bulges! The woman was looking at Helen—hat, ruffles, silk dress, handbag. Under her thick eyebrows her eyes were lively and black as two coals. Well, look then—as if I’m a dummy in a store window! With great dignity Helen sat down on the chair.

The woman lifted her head and yelled toward the back part of the house: “Ruby, bring the ca-ake book.” So, now she must look at the cake book, at least. Order anything, she would not. Such a schluntz! She could at least comb up her hair. Who could bake cakes with that untidy hair hanging down over the bowl!

Ruby came in with an old scribbler of the type used by school children, the covers frayed along the edges. She flung it on the table and said to Henry, who was standing by the door, “Want to see the cats?” and the two of them went out toward the barn. The woman pulled the notebook toward her, shoving aside the crocheting, and began to turn the pages. “Wha-at kind?”

“A party—my husband. . . .” The thought of her respectable husband and his thriving hardware store braced Helen’s mind. She said with dignity, “My husband is having a celebration because of his business, twenty years the owner.”

The woman did not change expression. She shoved the book at Helen, pointing to a drawing. “You like this one?” Helen looked at the drawing—a crude box-like shape ornamented with loops and swirls, drawn with a smudgy black carpenter’s pencil. The woman was {23} watching; her eyes glowed under the thick eyebrows. Helen opened her mouth to say she would not order anything, but the words would not come. She stared at the page and thought rapidly—they could order a small cake here and then stop at the Delft bakery and get another one, if the woman didn’t charge too much.

“Twelve dollar, this one,” the woman said. Twelve! Nothing she baked could be worth more than five; three! Only one cupboard! The woman was still watching her. “Ba-aker charge fifteen,” she said.

Ruby and Henry walked in, laughing. Henry’s yellow hair was blown and dusty. The girl held a tiny squirming kitten to her cheek. Helen frowned. Ach, waut! Cats in the house. There might be dogs, too, and cockroaches and spiders and who knew what else. No, she would on no account order anything.

The woman spoke up sharply. “Ruby, out with the cat.” Ruby protested—“Ma, Henry wants to show it to the lady.”

“Out!” The woman reached over with a long arm and slapped the girl on the rump. Ruby made a face and walked out, Henry following. “Kaute, emma Kaute,” the woman told Helen. “Always cats. I tell her, kitchen is for ba-aking, cats go outside. I tell her clean the house, clean the ba-arn, always she plays with the cats.” She picked up the cake book. “I make this one for you.”

She talked as if the order was settled, already! Let be, then—order it and see what happened. “We will come for it on August sixth,” Helen said, and rose to leave.

“Ya-ah,” the woman said, “I have it ready. What na-ame?” She found the stub of the carpenter’s pencil in her apron pocket and wrote on the back page of the notebook. Then she picked up her crocheting and watched as Helen went to the door.

On the way home Helen was angry—angry that she had promised twelve dollars for who knew what, and fifteen more for a cake with roses at Delft bakery (yellow, not pink), angry that the woman was fat, that she let her yard get so filthy, that she had paid no mind to Helen’s fine dress and hat. That woman had not so much as stood up from her chair the whole time. Such a way to treat a customer. And besides all that, to slap a great grown girl on the rump! It was unjescheit.

This was all Maria Franz’s doing. Helen remembered suddenly that years ago when she had been trying to learn English, Maria Franz had teased her badly. Maria had told her to say a word which in German meant something very bad. “Say it, in English it is a good word,” Maria urged, but Helen would not say it, and Maria laughed at {24} her. Well, let be, she could do without Maria’s silver set, she could find other friends in town.

John came home late from the garden. He washed up at the sink and asked how it went in Delft. “I ordered a cake,” Helen said shortly. She did not tell him about the two cakes. Let him find out when the time came.

Anna and her daughter Frieda came to help clean the house. The furniture was moved aside and the rugs taken out to the porch and beaten. The floors were scrubbed, the furniture rubbed with polish. Henry and Mr. Rohr came up with ladders to wash the skylights. When John ran upstairs at noon for a bite to eat, he shook his head at the things piled around everywhere. He objected when Helen told him the Rohrs would help her in the kitchen with serving the sandwiches and coffee. “Can’t you get Frieda?” he asked. “That blabbermouth!” Helen answered in contempt. “Frieda does nothing but talk. Anyway the Rohrs dress Olt Colonie. I would be embarrassed.” John lifted his eyebrows in surprise. He never knew what people wore—they could wear gunnysacks and he wouldn’t know it. John said nothing more, but Helen could see he was displeased.

“Did you buy yet the new shirt?” she demanded. John mumbled something into his bowl of borscht. “What?” John wiped his beard and said he would buy it at Franz’s clothing store. “Franz’s!” she exclaimed. “I looked at his shirts. Such cheap stuff I will not buy. The money is wasted. Go to Mankato. Henry can drive you. “Franz’s shirts are good enough,” John said. He promised to go to Mankato if he had business there—that was all Helen could get out of him. Such a man! Her own new gown had been ready hanging for weeks, but John would pick up a shirt off the closet floor and wear it.

On the sixth Henry went to get the cakes. When Helen returned from Epps grocery, carrying cans of coffee, she saw them on the dining room table. Now she would see! She set the coffee down, glanced into the cardboard box at the cake with flat yellow roses, and then lifted the shelf paper covering Mrs. Funk’s cake. She stood by the table, leaning both hands on the black tapestry tablecloth, and looked at it, amazed.

It was completely white . . . like the park when the snow had newly fallen and every tree was sparkling, every grass blade was sharp and brittle as a glass, when little flower-shapes lay along the walks and everything had a clean bright shape. Schmuck . . . ganz Schmuck. The cake was made with a design of flowers around the top. Each petal was firmly shaped—not flat. Each chain and loop around the sides {25} was perfectly formed. The scallops at the bottom were even as fine crochet work. It was beautiful—like the lace at her windows, like the peonies in the garden growing thick in the green bushes, their petals clean and frilly at the edges.

Helen leaned on the table for a long time. Her feet ached but she paid them no mind, remembering the woman with black speckles on her neck and the skimpy hair hanging down, the mucky yard, the grey unpainted barns. She saw the torn covers of the cake book, the drawing with a carpenter’s pencil, and the woman’s watching eyes. She was ashamed; how could one have known? It was as if God had been walking around the town with a white aster in his hand, looking for a place to plant it; and finding the dirty ground behind the store where they cleaned stoves, he had planted it there.

She covered Mrs. Funk’s cake with the shelf paper and she put the bakery cake away on a shelf in the pantry. Then, still thinking about the untidy woman at the farm, and remembering John’s displeasure about the Rohrs, she went out the screen door and toiled down the back steps to tell Mrs. Rohr they need not help in the kitchen after all, they should come as guests—she would get someone else.

Phyllis Martens

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