first word

The alarm clock went off in the darkness. It was three in the morning, dead of winter. He rose stiffly, pawing at the clock to silence its beeping. He walked into the bathroom, pissed, and splashed water on his face. In the mirror he noticed his eyes were puffy and his hair disheveled, but he couldn’t really do anything about that. He needed to leave for work.

Coasting downhill, the icy air stung his eyes as he pedaled to the bakery. His nose ran and tears beaded up and ran down his cheeks, drying into white, salty trails. There were no cars on the road, so he took up an entire lane, running red lights and stop signs at every opportunity. It was strangely quiet out, what with no people and no cars and no birds, even. Like a ghost town—cold, empty, uninhabited. The tree-lined streets were transformed at this hour, and he knew to relish the tranquil while it lasted.

He unlocked the back door and flipped on the lights. He turned on the ovens and the proof box. From the walk-in he rolled out the bakeoff cart, laden with cookies, croissants, scones, and cinnamon rolls for the morning crowd. The rolls and croissants went into the proof box, the rest into the oven. He walked to the front and, using the hot-water spigot, fixed himself a cup of tea. He walked to the freezer to assess the bread stocks. Wheat would have to be made, and possibly sourdough, depending on how much was used that day. He checked the frozen cookies and scones. Everything was low. It would be a long shift.

The cookies and scones were done, so he pulled them and slid the trays onto a cart. He checked the rolls and croissants in the proof box, deemed them ready, and threw them into the oven. It was a vast oven, six feet tall and four feet deep, with a twenty-rack rotating stile. He rolled the cart to a wooden work table and tied on a black apron. In the stillness of the empty bakery he moved unhurriedly, working without distraction. Pulling out a pastry brush, he glazed the scones with honey butter and put them back on the rack. He sipped his tea and refilled his cup. He made the starter for the wheat bread. Soon the oven’s timer went off, and as if on cue one of the counter girls from the café up front knocked on the door. He opened it for her.

“Good morning,” she said. It was six-thirty. He turned off the oven timer. “Hello,” he said, cracking open the oven door. It was the first word he had said all morning. She smiled at him and hurried up front to open the café. He pulled on the oven mitts. There was work to do, of course.

The bakery began filling with people, staff and customers out for a cinnamon roll and some coffee. The pastry cases were filled with his handiwork. He stayed in the back, kneading the wheat dough in the eighty-quart mixer. He tore off a chunk, stretched it out with his hands and held it up to see if the gluten was ready. There was at least fifty pounds of dough. He halved it and heaved each half into a plastic bin to proof. At nine he took a smoke break and stood outside in the parking lot to light his cigarette. He had put on his coat and gloves and in the cold his breath billowed, indistinguishable from the smoke. There were crows hopping around on the pavement, fighting for scraps of trash. He thought about ducks on the lake nearby, about the denuded trees planted near the lamp posts, about the pretty line cook at the café with the nose ring and the sky-blue eyes. He thought about leaving this place for good.

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