Painted Bread / Elizabeth Theriot

Though Betty had been finished with school almost two years now, she still lived with her father, a stout and ruddy man who owned a bakery but had none of the good nature commonly associated with bakers. She spent her days quietly—reading magazines and annotating cookbooks, dusting her father’s many shelves of antique baking paraphernalia, roasting meatloaf, folding the evening newspaper. Betty didn’t mind the quiet, or the routine of domesticity. It was the waiting she hated: waiting for her father to come home; his heavy steps and his small, flat eyes; her chest tightening with apprehension; her solitude cracking and spilling yolky, wasted, over her feet.

After work her father came home pasted with sweat and flour and complain about his customers through mouthfuls of roasted meat. Betty nodded sympathetically and sipped her cola, the ice melting from the warmth of her hand wrapped around the glass, a perfect bracelet of condensation growing on the table cloth beneath it. She sat with her father as he ate whichever new dessert she had prepared for him, though decline a piece herself. It was preferable to hear him complain about the consistency of the cobbler then remind her that eating wouldn’t get her a husband.

And where do I find this husband, then? she thought to herself, brushing out her dark hair before bed. I’m always here. Or at the grocery. Husbands don’t grow on trees. They don’t spring out from between sidewalk cracks. Her father had expected his daughter to find a boy in school to marry, and when that didn’t happen he was stumped. Once Betty suggested enrolling in a typist’s course at the community college, but her father didn’t see a justification for the expense if she was going to be married soon anyway. Betty didn’t argue; and, ultimately, she also felt that attending the community college would set her life down a particular path, and she didn’t have much interest in typing or in husbands.

Often during the day while her father was busy at the shop forming dough into neat white loaves, Betty experimented with more inventive recipes, many of her own creation. These were not the desserts she presented to her father at night. Betty would eat elaborate nut breads at the kitchen table and watch the small pad of butter soften and sink into the brown surface, hold pecans and almonds on her tongue and feel their weight before chewing, the window light falling with crisp correctness across her ironed skirt.

On her way to the grocery Betty gave the rest of the bread to an old woman who sat daily on a bench in the park; kindly and nosy church ladies alike left casseroles on the steps of her ramshackle house, skittering away as if the peeling yellow paint and crawling vines were contagious. If no one was around to see, Betty would sit by the old woman on the far side of the bench, and talk quietly about her days, her baking, and her own vague sense of things—not worries exactly, not fears, nothing quite so stark. The old woman never replied, at least not to Betty. She would murmur “the sun shines” or, more confusingly, “the fountain plays,” and most bewildering of all, “the house rains.” Betty always thanked the woman, though she wasn’t sure why, and continued to the Safeway, where she’d linger for a moment beneath the long glass arch, sunlight falling heavily and threatening to collapse the whole structure.

In the evenings after dinner Betty sat in the den with her father as he watched Dragnet—once when she suggested I Love Lucy he said he didn’t need any more women in the house—the black and white light splashing weirdly on the walls. If a game show was on Betty tried to keep a close eye on the audience’s faces, looking for a crack in their uproarious expressions. Sometimes her father would even watch The Ed Sullivan Show, enjoy himself criticizing all the “pansy musicians” and awkward opening monologues. Betty thought Ed’s shifting gait and botched introductions made him a real sweetheart.

One night, after the television snapped shut and her father began plodding up the stairs for bed, he mentioned he had found a husband for her, and did not elaborate. Betty couldn’t imagine what sort of man her father might conjure, or from where; and really, could never reason through his desire to have her leave home. His wife dead a decade now, surely such a man wanted a woman to take care of him, daughter or otherwise? (But her father could not abide softness, the rosiness of perfume or swish of skirts in the evening, careful white hands serving food inside a circle of gold trim.)

Later in the week her father brought home a man around his own age, with a starched shirt and yellow teeth. A widower too, and the landlord of her father’s storefront. It was not hard for Betty to see the game of it. Unprepared for guests, she served her portion to the grinning landlord and watched the two men eat, fork tines piercing through the small broccoli trees. That Saturday her father huffed his way up the attic stairs and dragged down his dead wife’s dusty hope chest. He showed Betty the folded stacks of linens, old dresses with narrow skirts and pearl buttons, a small collection of unmatched jewelry—diamond brooch, emerald earrings, ruby bracelet, necklace of dark onyx—and finally, the red velvet box with her mother’s wedding ring. The weather turned cold while Betty’s father and his landlord made basic preparations for a wedding. She bundled up as warmly as possible and trekked to the store, leaving shortbread and small gingerbread men with the mad old woman who whispered, with new urgency: The sun shines. The fountain plays. The house rains.

One day Betty’s father explained that he had to go into the city to speak with a banker, and not to bother with dinner—forgetting, perhaps, that she also needed food—because he would be home very late. The weatherman on the radio that night reported unaccountably large snowstorms ravaging the tristate area; travel was first discouraged, then reported as impossible. The train stations were closed. Betty sat in the mild yellow lamplight taking tiny bites of a single shortbread cookie she had wrapped in a handkerchief and saved. How comfortable to be alone in one’s house, with small lamps and sweet things to eat. She read part of a book, and watched TV. The women by the conveyer belt were in a frenzy, piling chocolates into their hats, deep into their mouths. The studio audience laughed. Betty didn’t.

Outside the snow sifted through the air like powdered sugar. Betty dressed in her warmest coat and boots and took the extra key to the bakery from her father’s sock drawer, dragged her mother’s trousseau behind her in the snow. Everything was dark, floured, indecipherable. She made it to the bakery near-freezing and flicked on the pale floodlights, tore the bulk ingredients from their shelves, woody almonds and glinting sugar. She poured her rosewater into the batter and spread the dough across her father’s large aluminum work table. Kneaded with all the strength of her shoulders. It grew hotter in the kitchen as the industrial oven warmed and Betty removed her shoes and stockings, the wool sweater, her yellow dress, shaped the dough while wearing her brassiere and slip, formed good strong arms and shapely legs, rolled large veins between her fingers, wrist bones and clavicles, the Adam’s apple, paused at the groin then formed it gently into a smooth mound.

She pressed the pearl buttons into the dough for teeth, emerald earrings for eyes, ruby bracelet folded into lips, the onyx necklace drizzled over his brow, her mother’s wedding ring where a heart would be; then placed the dough figure into the oven, closed the heavy door like Golgothan sepulcher stone. The sun shines, she thought. The fountain plays. The house rains. She waited on the pile of her discarded clothes, dozing a little until the baking smells grew stronger, the faintest metallic, a suggestion of rose. The timer pinged louder than Betty expected and she heaved open the oven door, flooding the bakery with more heat, a more potent scent. She slid the bread carefully onto the aluminum table and admired her work, so lifelike in the dim wintry light, then climbed onto the table beside it.  “The sun shines,” she murmured. The bread was warmer than a bath against her skin. She ran her fingers over the inlaid jewels, and they burned. “The fountain plays,” she told the figure tenderly, and wrapped herself around its body. Crumbs clung to her. “The house rains,” she murmured, and pressed her lips to the hot rubies. They softened, and an exhale filled Betty’s mouth.

The man laying beneath her breasts was handsome, of course, and his neat eyebrows raised in surprise beneath a jaunty curl of black hair. The rest of him was smooth as a bathing suit commercial. Surprise softened into recognition as he looked at her. “Hello,” she said, and he smiled. Betty climbed from the baking table, crumbs showering the floor like a way home. The man followed his with his head but didn’t sit up or roll onto his side, and Betty felt like a surgeon, or an undertaker, standing over him. She noted the hands folded prettily across his chest, and the pink, unbroken isthmus between his thighs. Betty was delighted. She helped him down from the table and dressed him in an apron and her own sweater, explaining how she was sorry that his feet would be cold and hoped he wouldn’t get sick. He listened politely, and once Betty was dressed and bundled she led him outside.

By now it was almost morning, the sky lightening as if mixed with cream. On the way home Betty stopped outside the Catholic charity and dug around in the donation boxes for some men’s clothes that looked about the right size. Her companion raised his arms for the shirt when she prompted, stepped gingerly into the slacks. At the bottom of one box she found a sad old pair of house shoes, which would have to do. By the time they arrived home his feet were quite damp, though he didn’t seem to notice. Betty’s father was waiting by the telephone, receiver in hand, his face an unfortunate puce. She didn’t ask who had seen her trudging through the snow at dawn, a beautiful and mostly-nude stranger in hand. “I will marry this man,” Betty said, ignoring her father’s sputters. “It’s the only respectable thing for both you and I, now.” Once the landlord heard about these developments he plotted all manner of coercions and tricks but Betty’s father was discouraged, and found the whole situation too much of a headache to think about at length.

Betty took her fiancé to the bank, and he spoke to everyone with a mild and pleasant voice that sounded very much like hers—the tenor, the inflections. She sat there quietly, held his hand, made her face look as much like a child’s as possible. The bankers grinned wolfishly at each other, thinking about interest rates. Betty’s fiancé signed the loan with an indecipherable script. The couple rode a bus to another suburb thirty minutes away and Betty chose a small redbrick house near the library. It looked friendly and held a single bedroom, tidy kitchen, lushly carpeted den. Betty filled the house with pretty, secondhand things and didn’t wonder about who they’d once belonged to. Her fiancé smiled and nodded amenably, carried tables and chairs, even a television.

The wedding was modest and poorly attended. Her father grudgingly made a cake, though it was plainly adorned and barely suggested marriage. Betty wrapped up a sizable chunk and brought it to the old mad woman in the park. She set the cake between them and said, “Well, I’m married now.” The old woman grinned coyly, not touching the cake. She grinned like a fox in a henhouse.

That night Betty and her husband arrived at the door of their new house carrying a few small suitcases. She took a shower, occasionally petting the lovely taps or the blue marble wall, stretching beneath the generous water pressure. Her husband was waiting for her on the sofa, patient and serene as a doll. He smiled sweetly at Betty’s damp hair stuck against the shoulders of her nylon bathrobe. She gestured for her husband to follow her up the narrow stairs into the bedroom—mostly bare, save a few things brought from her room at her father’s house and a new quilt, carefully folded. The light of a blue glass lamp made the sparseness cozy. Betty sighed deeply and dropped her robe. Her husband also undressed, and climbed onto the bed beside her.

Betty ran her hands across his sturdy breathing body, kissed the veins the pulsed beneath his skin, the slabs of muscle on his chest. She closed her eyes and pressed her mouth to his, and the rubies were cold against her tongue. Her fingers pushed inside the brown crust and she tore away handfuls of dense, warm bread, crushed her mouth around it, chewed again and again until her jaws were sore, until she was completely filled up, and, exhausted, she fell asleep.

The next morning Betty lounged in bed later than usual until the room, soaked in buttery light, became too bright. She scrambled some eggs and ate them with a cup of strong tea and a slice of toast with jam. The bread tasted freshly baked.  While washing and drying the dishes she clanked china, slammed cabinet doors, hummed creakily, her throat unused to it; and none of this was done with purpose but simply in response to the embrace of her home, her own solitude, and all the tidy objects that comprised it. Betty brought her mother’s jewels to the pawn broker—all except the wedding ring, which she wore around her neck on a gold chain like many good widows do—and collected an adequate sum of money. She took the bus back to her father’s suburb and left some of the dense, hearty bread with the old woman in the park, who reached out to grab the warm loaf swaddled in a kitchen towel. “I’m a widow now,” Betty said, and the old woman smiled like a scoop of ice-cream. (She disappeared soon after, and all the church ladies tittered together outside her decrepit house, feigning worry. Betty wasn’t worried; she knew the bread would never run out, assumed the old woman had her own use for it, or for a him.)

Betty made her way home after buying some new dresses in fine mourning black. She clicked on a lamp in every room and watched I Love Lucy before bed.

***

Elizabeth Theriot grew up in Louisiana and lived in New Orleans before moving with her two cats to Tuscaloosa, where she is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama. She also works as Nonfiction Editor for Black Warrior Review and teaches writing. Elizabeth has work forthcoming in Winter Tangerine, Ghost Proposal, and Storyscape, and her poems can be found in Jet Fuel Review, Crab Fat Magazine, Tinderbox, The Mississippi Review, and others.

See more: https://www.elizabeth-theriot.com

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Corvid Queen

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