By Bettyann Moore
It’s the eggshells in Carla’s life that annoy her the most. You know, the jagged little pieces that somehow fall into an otherwise tolerable world, the ones that grate between your teeth when you bite into them. Mr. Dobroczewski’s proposal that September morning was just such an eggshell, one that jangled her nerves more than anything had since Rick had left.
It was almost as if it had been planned for her to be walking down Sutton Street that Saturday morning, a street she hadn’t entered since “The Retreat,” as she liked to call Rick’s leaving. But because of a series of exasperating wrong numbers that finally made her take the phone off the hook, Carla had gotten a late start for the college library where she and Millie were going to cram for a biology final. Her usual detour around Sutton Street would have made the impatient Millie cranky for the rest of the day and impossible to study with.
The feelings that overcame Carla as she penetrated the forbidden territory were an odd mixture of nostalgia and pain. She strode purposefully by the little shops and homes that she and Rick had passed countless times before.
There was Mrs. Santini, as usual yelling at one of her many children. Carla remember how she and Rick had tried to count the brood on several occasions and had come up with a different number each time. And here was Mr. Stanislaski, just opening his thrift shop. Oh, the many hours they had spent wheeling and dealing with the keen old man over things like the wicker love seat that went so perfectly in front of their tiny fireplace; and that ugly tapestry that Carla hated, but Rick just had to have for the big empty spot on the wall behind their bed. The tapestry was gone now and Carla had somehow never found a suitable replacement for it, despite the year’s worth of time that had crawled by.
When she came upon Mr. Dobroczewski’s Bake Shop, Carla started to cross the street, afraid of the memories there. As she stepped from the curb, however, Mr. Dough, as he liked to be called, came rushing out of the door looking aggravated until he spied Carla standing on the sidewalk.
His grip on her hand belied his 70-odd years as he greeted her and pulled her toward the bakery. Her mind reeled with the aromas that poured from the shop, propelled by what Rick had called “Mr. Dough’s Nose Fan,” the one aimed out of the window telegraphing the shop’s message better than any neon sign ever could.
“Please, please,” Mr. Dough begged Carla. “You must do me a big favor. You wouldn’t let an old man down now, would you?”
“What is it? What can I help you with, Mr. Dough?” Carla asked, worried by his urgent tone.
“It’s Muriel!” he replied. “That good-for-nothing Muriel! She went and run off with some grease monkey from New Jersey and I don’t have no help in the store. That girl, I knew she wouldn’t last long, always casting her eyes about, looking at anything in pants!”
That “girl,” Carla knew, was 45 if she were a day and had worked for Mr. Dough for 20 years.
“But what can I do about that, Mr. Dobroczewski?” Carla asked, afraid of his answer.
“You come work for me, that’s what! You know the business, you and that fella of yours been here enough. It’ll just be the weekends, mind you, a little pin money. You come to work tomorrow, Sunday, it’s my biggest day, you know.”
How well she knew. Sundays had been the days she and Rick, on the hottest and the most frigid mornings, had walked down Sutton Street to buy the Sunday paper at the newsstand and then would wait in line at the bakery to buy their usual half-dozen sweet rolls. Mr. Dough didn’t believe in the “take a number” system and Muriel, patient Muriel, wouldn’t hurry the customers, customers like Mrs. Ferlinghetti who always took forever to make up her mind, but who would always go home with two loaves of French bread and six cream puffs.
They didn’t mind the wait. She and Rick loved to watch the people who were drawn in either by the Nose Fan or habit. They would giggle at the old man whom everybody knew had more money than a Rockefeller, but who would purchase his day-old bread with money wrapped in two layers of tin foil and a layer of plastic wrap. Or their hearts would go out to the Santini kids who came in with scraped knees and tattered clothes, waiting for someone to drop a dime so they could snatch it up, even before it hit the floor. On days when no one “accidentally” dropped a few coins, Mr. Dough would make a big show over how he had burned a dozen doughnuts and couldn’t sell them. Would the Santini kids please take them off his hands? Away they would race with the prized confections that, as far as Carla could tell, weren’t burned in the slightest.
Those lazy Sundays when she and Rick would take the newspaper and the rolls up to their bed, filling the sheets with newsprint and crumbs. Then they would make love, the papers hastily thrown aside, bits of icing and dough clinging to their warm bodies.
And that particular Sunday, when the stroll to the bakery had been more like a jog, Rick hurrying before her. He had already put on his business suit – his new promotion carried great responsibility and opportunity, but only if he put in the time, even on Sundays. Carla had tried to be understanding. She hadn’t cried until Rick in his damnable hurry in line at the bakery, had yelled at Mrs. Ferlinghetti to pick out her French bread and cream puffs already! And then, as if the sight of the Santini kids had somehow made his new wealth feel dirty – he’d offered them the money to buy their doughnuts.
Everyone had stopped their chatter as the kids, pride drained from their faces, backed out of the shop and ran empty-handed toward home. Carla’s shame was in the fact that Rick showed no shame at all. Before the week was out, it was over between them.
Carla had spent the year picking the eggshells out of her life and now here was Mr. Dobroczewski cracking another egg into her finally-smooth batter. All right, she could use the money. Damn him, how did he know? He looked so lost, how could she turn him down? She said yes and hurried off to study with Millie. Afterward, she returned to the bakery and learned how to run the cash register and all the little things connected to the job and promised to return the next day, bright and early.
She almost backed out of the agreement as she stepped from her apartment building and smelled Indian Summer in the air, the time she and Rick had enjoyed the most. Mr. Dough’s pleading eyes came to her mind and she headed for Sutton Street, wishing the day were over.
It was strange from the beginning. Mrs. Santini was nowhere to be heard and her kids weren’t running through the alleys or bouncing balls off the stoop. The leaves from the few trees on the block fluttered across the deserted street as Carla walked slowly toward the bakery. As usual, the fan was blowing its good air out onto the sidewalk and the big window was steamy from a morning of baking. And, as usual, as Carla opened the door, she saw Muriel behind the counter.
“Muriel! What are you doing here?” Carla cried.
“Just wait your turn, please,” Muriel hushed her as she wrapped Mrs. Ferlinghetti’s bread.
It seemed as if the whole neighborhood was there: Mr. Stanislaski, the Santini kids, even Mrs. Santini herself. It was impossible for Carla to reach the kitchen to confront Mr. Dough.
“Who’s next?” Muriel called out.
“I’ll have six of those sweet rolls,” a painfully familiar voice replied.
All eyes turned to Carla, who saw no one but Rick standing just five feet in front of her. The crowd parted and Carla strode boldly to the counter and stood beside him as Muriel bagged the rolls and then handed them to her.
“But, I ...”
He was looking into her eyes then and saying, “I thought we’d stop and get the newspaper on the way to, uh, your apartment, if you don’t mind. I have to check the classifieds for a new job – I quit the last one, you know. You were right, selling out meant more than that: it meant selling my soul.”
Carla hesitated – there were a lot of things to discuss – but let him take her arm and guide her through the quiet, smiling crowd and out the door, into the street they loved.