The Night Baker – Caroline Goetze
She has been told the galley is haunted. But if there are ghosts, their presence feels as light and soft to the Night Baker as the dough she kneads for the next morning’s doughnuts. Each turn and fold is a reminder of her babies’ sweet thighs. She inhales deeply and remembers the musty scent of their skin beneath the soap smell of their baths. How delectable it was when they were new and how it made her want to carpet them in kisses. “I’m going to gobble you up” she told each of them before she wrapped her lips over her teeth and bit down a little, almost hard, to feel their baby fat give between her jaws. How they had chortled.
After her husband’s funeral she stayed in bed hugging her babies. She lay facedown on his pillow. She kept still until her grandmother came and moved the three of them into her small apartment.
Her grandmother held up an empty carton of milk and an empty bag of flour. “Which should I buy?”
She looked up from the couch that was now her bed. “I can’t think.”
“You think only of him,” her grandmother said. “He’s gone.”
She knew her grandmother did not mean it. Both of them could see he was still present in the way the babies’ toes were shaped and the way the corners of their mouths turned down in the instant before they cried. The fact of his absence was a companion to all of them.
She knew she must find a way to give her babies both food and room to grow, so she left them with her grandmother and took her husband’s absence away to sea with her.
It was not long after her arrival onboard the freighter that several pans of rolls needed to be remade. They slid off the worktable and onto the deck, rolling with the ship in heavy seas. That same night the men took her to the engine room.
She was dull and inattentive with fatigue, in a vacant passageway near her berthing when the two men caught her. The crew was waking, and she was on her way to bed, her baking finally finished. The hand that clamped her mouth shut smelled of machine oil and grime. Blunt fingers vised her arms. The men dragged her toward the open escape scuttle. The toes of her boots scudded across the deck. They carried her down the ladder.
The first man finished with her and was pissing in the bilge. The taste of him mingled with her vomit and the second man’s sweat. When she realized their mistake she bit down hard until she also tasted blood.“You need new boots,” her bunkmate said. She stood beside their stacked bunks preparing to go on watch, staring down at the deck and the abraded black leather.
The Night Baker pushed aside the curtains that enclosed her bunk and provided her only privacy. She raised her head.
Her bunkmate turned away. The ship’s store carried boots, but there was no place to get a new face.
The Night Baker pats out the dough and cuts it into life preserver shaped doughnuts, logs for Long Johns, and plain circles for the filled Bismarks the crew loves best. They cram their mouths full. Cream or custard or jam drips down their chins. Stays stuck in beards.
Dinner rolls and sandwich white bread are too bland to entice her. She leaves that dough to the dull grey industrial mixer bolted to the dark grey deck. The pallid slapslapslap discomforts her. She turns on the machine’s timer and moves to the scullery to wash up.
After the dough’s initial rise, she shapes rolls and loaves to sit alongside the doughnuts. She is indifferent to the clatter from next door where others have started the day’s kettles of soups.
Her hands love the whole-wheat flour. Its coarseness is like the feel of the beach between her toes on days when her father held her hands to swing her high above his head. Its coarseness is like the bristles of her husband’s two-day beard.
She kneads this dough by hand. Drives the heels of her palms into it and rocks her body forward to claw at it. It is firm like her husband’s shoulders were. Like his ass was.
The mound of dough is massive. She rises up onto her toes. The worktable top is a little too high. She grunts, bearing down on it. It is too firm now, like the thighs of the men in the engine room.
The Night Baker watched four women sift through garbage the ship dumped when it pulled into its port of call. The way they examined and sorted each item and stacked their treasures in equal piles appealed to her. When they left, laden with half-eaten food, broken equipment, and wadded up paper, she followed them down alleys behind the bars and restaurants. She wanted to see what they would do with their spoils. She followed them along a dirt road lined with croton and autograph trees. One by one, the women turned off the road and stepped across the rancid ditch at the roadside to enter their front doors.
Alongside the road ahead a small child squatted outside a red door. At inconsistent intervals the child picked up a stick and poked at something in the ditch. A woman sat on a three-legged stool beside the child. Her hair fell past her waist in ropes. They were thick like the roots of the autograph trees. The Night Baker approached her. The red door woman studied the Night Baker’s face. She did not turn away.
Plump crusty loaves and doughnuts patiently await reveille. The Night Baker prepares her final batch. She measures with cups and teaspoons, not by the usual heavy weights. She has spent the few days since leaving port revising this recipe. The men must cram their mouths with the abandon of every other morning.
She rests the small bowl on her hip and whisks eggs and milk into the dry ingredients. The dough feels oddly light. Turned out onto the worktable, it bubbles. It rises so quickly she fears that it might float away.
The Night Baker takes out the vial of ointment the red door woman sold her. She pulls the stopper and rubs the purple stuff into her palms. She rubs and rubs as if washing her hands until there is not a speck of color left from the potion. She begins to knead her special batch.
Her skin falls into the dough. First from her palms and then her fingers. It sloughs off in ribbons, leaving her hands burnished. It melts into the dough. When her fingerprints have been absorbed, she knows it is time to cut Bismarks for the engine room men.
She puts on a fresh apron. She has told the head cook that she wants to work the line this morning. He is happy for the help. With tongs in her burnished hand she serves the crew the doughnuts she made for them last night. Breakfast is nearly over when the engine room men come. She gives them their special Bismarks. Trains her eyes on each one’s smirk.
More crew straggles through before the line can close. The Night Baker makes her way to the mess deck. She must watch. She sits in the corner farthest from where the engine room men are seated, talking. Neither one has touched his doughnut. They sip their coffee. She does not fret. Soon enough each man crams his mouth full. Filling slides down the two men’s chins, taking with it beard and skin.
The men cannot speak for themselves, so when the Night Baker volunteers to be their nurse, she is put ashore with them.
The Night Baker will leave most of her husband’s absence at sea. She thinks it will haunt the galley with the other ghosts now. She will go home to her babies and open a bakery and grow her hair into ropes like roots. She knows many recipes.
Caroline Goetze usually lives on a farm in Michigan with her husband, two spoiled dogs, and too many cats. For now she is an MFA student at the University of New Orleans’ Creative Writing Workshop.