Joanna Ruocco

The bakery was hot, stifling, but Melba shivered again. Before morning, it was night, thought Melba, but what kind of night? She tried to remember the night. She had heard a long, lonely hoot outside her window, and finally, unable to sleep, she had gone downstairs to cook a tiny pancake. Meanwhile, Bev Hat had died and Ned Hat had become an old man. Grady Help had crept into her house and crouched beneath her kitchen sink, and maybe Dr. Buck too, and Hal Conard had made his rounds through the streets of Dan.

Nothing can really be known about the morning or the night, thought Melba. I suppose that’s why we have dates. The numbers make tiny equations and we can learn the numbers and feel like we’ve settled something. Melba, not for the first time, marveled at the strangeness of morning and night sharing a date when they were so palpably distinct.

If Melba were mayor of Dan, she would see that this was changed. It would be her first initiative. Day and night would be divided, no longer lumped together by the chuckleheaded mandate of the calendar. The change was bound to be popular; it was reasonable, and it would serve to speed things up—dates flying past, two or maybe even four dates in a twenty-four hour period—so one no longer had to drag along from midnight to midnight, forced to consider an experience so protracted and yet so disjunctive as a single unit.

But when before did I ever hanker for a political voice? Melba touched her throat gently, then pinched and wiggled her windpipe, rather roughly.

I’m so tired of thinking, she thought. The only distraction is small bodily manipulations and I’m tired of those too. She looked with hope at the bakery door. The bakery door banged open. In walked Don Pond.

Thank—, thought Melba.

Don Pond was the bakery’s first customer every day, but he never boasted.

“It’s luck, Melba,” Don Pond had told her, long ago, back when they were still assessing one another’s prospects as people. Melba had just handed him his bags of garlic sticks and psyllium husk brownies and listened politely.

“I don’t move faster than other men,” Don Pond had said, “and I don’t wake up any earlier. I can’t say I’m more deserving than they are, either. In fact, many would say I’m less deserving.”

Soon a precedent was established. Don Pond would always linger after purchasing his baked goods, making modest claims and waving a garlic stick so that salt and chips of toasted garlic fell onto the counter. He and Melba would lick their fingertips and press them down on the counter, returning their fingers to their mouths and sucking off the savory crumbs. Melba came to enjoy these interludes with Don Pond, except on occasion, when Don Pond was in a mood and his modesty became taxing.

“I’ve caused a lot of suffering, Melba,” Don Pond would confess.

“Oh Don, you’re in a mood,” Melba would interrupt but he would not be put off. When Don Pond was in one of his moods, he interrogated himself ruthlessly, finding fault after fault, and nothing Melba said to encourage leniency made any impression. Just the other week he had stomped into the bakery and Melba could tell from his patchily shaven head and bare, goose-pimpled arms that he was in the throes of a mood the likes of which he had never before inflicted upon her.

“I’ve caused a lot of suffering, Melba,” he began. “I mean physical suffering! To others. In podiatry class, I discovered a splinter in the sole of a classmate’s foot, and I dug for the splinter with a needle, dug deeply, until I had exhausted myself. Can I tell you a secret, Melba, something I’ve never told anyone?”

“Is it because you see me as a person of little consequence?” asked Melba. She retreated through the swinging door into the back of the bakery as she said it, overcome by emotion. She opened and slammed the walk-in refrigerator door so Don Pond would think she was checking on the pitchers of eggs. The cold blast of air felt good against her face and neck. Melba liked Don Pond. She felt close to him when they laughed together, licking their fingers and tasting the pungency of lightly charred garlic: such a flooding, intimate taste to share with someone before most people were even awake. Then he had to spoil it by bringing up secrets, secrets he would only tell to a nobody. But maybe he didn’t see her as a nobody, maybe he saw her as Melba Zuzzo, and, as such, peculiar and unassociated, unlikely to share his secrets with others.

She pushed back through the door and marched to the counter to face Don Pond, who had pulled several paint squares from his shirt pocket and was holding them up in different combinations.

“Do you see me as a person alone, isolated from intercourse?” demanded Melba, blushing.

“Intercourse, Melba?” said Don Pond delicately, stacking the paint squares and sliding them back into his pocket.

“Dealings,” said Melba. “You know how secrets spread through Dan,” said Melba. “It’s like wildfire! Or butter! What do you call that if not intercourse? But sometimes intercourse skips a person, an isolated person, a person so unlike other people that that person is on the brink of extinction. Is that how you see me? As a person skipped by intercourse? On the brink of extinction?”

“I think there would be signs if you were on the brink of extinction,” said Don Pond, shocked out of his modesty by her outburst. “Think about it, Melba. There would be special protections. You wouldn’t be allowed to just come and go, all day and all night, riding around Dan on a bicycle, springing animals from traps. You’d be kept in a special facility until you reproduced, and not with just anyone, with a family member, Melba. I don’t mean biological family,” said Don Pond quickly as Melba recoiled. “I mean a person who shares your most jeopardized quality. Do you even know what quality that would be?”

“I am psychic,” said Melba Zuzzo.

Don Pond whistled. He had a very nice, full whistle, so nice that his whistling might be considered a quality in its own right. But Don Pond did not stop to comment on his whistle. He was focused on Melba. Melba stood with her arms straight at her sides while he admired her.

“Well, that’s it, then, Melba,” said Don Pond. “Psychic. Wow.” He shook his head. “I don’t suppose anyone knows about that, or I’d have heard. It’s only fair that I tell you my secret, not because of intercourse, just because you told me one of yours.” He shut his eyes. For a long time he didn’t speak.

“There was no splinter in my classmate’s foot,” he said at last. “Oh, I showed her a splinter alright, but it was a pencil shaving from my own pocket. I dug in her foot purely for my own gratification. I’ve slapped people, too, Melba, hundreds of times, during mosquito season. ‘Hold still,’ I’d say. ‘There’s a mosquito.’ Then bam! But do you think the mosquitoes were really there?”

“Not always,” said Melba, generously.

“That’s right,” said Don Pond, slowly. “Not always. So you see,” he continued, “I don’t deserve anything, not compared to people who’ve never slapped for no reason. I don’t know why I’m so favored in this life. It’s not in reward for my sterling character! I suppose, Melba, we were all of us given paths to walk in life, and some paths are lucky paths that lead you where you want to go in advance of the hordes. Shortcuts, if you will.”

“Your house is very close to the bakery,” Melba agreed.

“I don’t know if it is,” said Don Pond. “But my path is shorter. Luck has nothing to do with where a man builds his house. That’s a zoning issue. I’m talking about getting from a to b. What if there’s an ocean between a and b? It would take you a little while to cross that ocean, wouldn’t it Melba?”

“It would,” said Melba.

“Well there is no ocean between me and the bakery,” said Don Pond, and let the matter rest there.

Now Melba almost cried out with relief as Don Pond strode across the bakery. To face Don Pond across the counter—surely this was normal! He did not look at all tentative in his dark knit cap and earring.

“Thank you, Don!” gasped Melba extending her hands. Don Pond grasped them. His hands were ice cold and Melba noticed that his wrists, which extended past the cuffs of his dark jacket, were a vivid pink.

“You’re cold!” she observed.

“The temperature’s dropping out there,” said Don Pond. “I almost turned back several times.” He paused, perseveringly. Then he tightened his grip on her hands. Melba braced herself for the outburst.

“Officer Greg was here!” cried Don Pond, a catch in his voice.

“He didn’t buy anything,” Melba said loyally. “He didn’t come in the capacity of a customer. There haven’t been any other customers, I swear it, Don.”

“He left holding a bag . . .” Don Pond’s large, glaucous eyes began to shine. “He had what could have been a Danish in his hand . . .”

“Evidence,” said Melba. She realized Don Pond was trembling. His teeth chattered within his trim beard.

“Hold on.” Melba pulled her hands free and hurried through the swinging door into the depths of the bakery, turning all of the ovens as high as they would go. Then she opened the back door, and, returning to the front of the bakery, opened the front door as well, propping it with a gallon can of chestnuts.

“We’ll see what that does,” she said with satisfaction. “I don’t expect it will warm the whole of Dan, but, then again, it may. For now, come around the counter. We’ll go into the back and stand in front of the ovens.”

“I couldn’t,” said Don Pond. “Even as the first customer, I don’t deserve that kind of privilege. It isn’t authorized.”

“Oh,” Melba blinked. She found his attitude provoking and didn’t like this newly revealed aspect of his character. It seemed to her that Don Pond couldn’t be resisting out of modesty alone. What if Don Pond wasn’t simply modest? What if he was, in fact, some kind of stickler? She wouldn’t believe it. Swiftly, Melba changed the subject.

“I had an idea for a new kind of pastry,” she said, brightly. “Instead of using ingredients, I would use quintessence. I would combine the quintessence of multiple things, quail, I think, for one, and custard, and I’d make a glaze of course and sprinkle nonpareils on top, either whole nonpareils or their quintessence, I’m not sure.”

Don Pond’s expression did not change, but Melba reassured herself that his face was still quite cold; she couldn’t expect it to flex readily just because she’d said something fascinating. She gathered garlic sticks and brownies and presented Don Pond with a large bag.

“Thank you, Melba,” said Don Pond. He took the bag and held it awkwardly, and Melba watched him closely, moistening her finger with her tongue. She waited impatiently for him to open the bag and begin to speak, rapidly, self-loathingly, waving a garlic stick from which salt and garlic chips would shower down. She held her moistened finger at the ready. But Don Pond did not open the bag. Don Pond looked around the bakery as though he had no status there at all, as though he were not the first customer, as though he were not even finite, and therefore had no ascertainable value whatsoever.

“I’ve been talking with some of the other men,” said Don Pond. “Melba, you’re not safe here in the bakery. What’s that on the floor? Never mind. Don’t look. It’s better not to look. Listen, Melba, I’m not blaming you. Some employees try to get themselves killed at work. They say they’re fetching the stepladder to change a light bulb and the next thing you know, they’ve let the ceiling fan take their heads off. That’s not you! What’s happening here is beyond your control. Melba, you need to leave the bakery at once.”

“I wouldn’t want to say that you and the other men are wrong, Don,” said Melba. “But I know that I’m safe in the bakery. Once I cracked an egg on the side of the mixing bowl and a chick fell out. That was startling and I felt shaky for some time afterwards, but I finally came to terms with it and accepted that there’s an explanation. I mean, eggs are supposed to be eggs and not chickens, but there is a point in the genesis of eggs and chickens when they’re the same thing. In the bakery, I have things I do when I feel afraid and they really help. I’ll show you.”

Melba ran through the swinging door. In the depths of the bakery, the air had turned hot and acrid. Melba squinted in the dull orange light and sniffed. Something inside the ovens was definitely burning. The top shelf of the oven billowed smoke. Melba finished squinting and didn’t pause a second longer. She considered herself a veteran of such situations, situations in which nothing can be saved. She had no qualms about allowing whatever it was inside the oven to burn itself off. She rushed past the oven with her hands over her nose and mouth. No, she would not open the oven door. Why create a mess out of false sentimentality? She pulled a heavy bucket from beneath the long table and struggled back toward the front of the bakery through the smoke. A moment later, she was heaving the bucket around the counter, dropping it by Don Pond’s feet. She yanked off the lid.

“Salt,” panted Melba. She ducked behind the counter, rummaging, and returned holding a wooden dowel. Crouching beside the bucket, she thrust the dowel into the salt. For several quick, shallow breaths, she stirred the salt in the bucket with a wooden dowel, then she stirred for several slow, deep breaths, and, finally, she released the dowel and sat motionless on the bakery floor, her elbow in the bucket, the top four inches of the dowel pressing against her inner arm. She looked up at Don Pond. He was looking at the ceiling.

“You don’t even have a ceiling fan,” he said.

“Don,” said Melba. “Maybe I can’t trust this sensation, but I feel wonderful right now, warm and confident. My palms are even tingling. I couldn’t feel half so good if I were somewhere else, if I weren’t in the bakery, if I were in my bedroom, for example, thrashing on the floor between rolled-up balls of tights. Even if I kept buckets of salt in my bedroom, and installed a tower of ovens, I’d always feel more imperiled in my bedroom than in the bakery.”

The essential nature of Melba’s bedroom differed from the essential nature of the bakery in ways she couldn’t quite pinpoint, but that brought her vivid apprehensions of impending doom.

“If I had to describe my bedroom to someone, not to a future tenant, to a disinterested party, to you Don, I would say that my bedroom has a demented, disconsolate nature. Have you ever discovered voles in your pillowcasings?”

“Of course, Melba,” said Don Pond, but he was still looking at the ceiling, shifting from foot to foot.

“I’ve made you uncomfortable!” cried Melba. “I shouldn’t be talking about my bedroom, but Don, it’s so frightening. Maybe you and the men are right about the bakery. Maybe I don’t notice how unsafe it is because I’m always comparing it to my bedroom, and the bakery is a kind of Elysian Field compared to my bedroom, not to sound snobbish,” added Melba, who could be shy about her admiration for the classical world.

Don Pond was no longer looking up. His head was sinking between his shoulders and he looked stricken. Melba knew she had to stop speaking. She pressed her lips together and clutched the dowel with both hands, stirring as she mastered herself.

“This can’t go on,” said Don Pond, shaking his fist, and for the first time Melba noticed that his inflexible features had a steely quality. “If it were just me who thought so, I’d never say,” continued Don Pond, “but there’s a quorum, and because I’m the first customer, the men wanted me to be the one to tell you. I told them I didn’t ask to be first customer, or even try in particular, and I never make much of it. How do you even know that I hold that distinction? I asked the men, and they gave no satisfactory answer. But I assure you they knew. Listen, Melba, no one would suggest you go to your bedroom and sleep, not now. But why don’t you come to my house, Melba?” Suddenly, Don Pond stiffened, and Melba leapt to her feet.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Dr. Buck is right outside,” whispered Don Pond hoarsely. “I saw him through the window.”

“Dr. Buck! But what’s he doing there?” Melba ducked down again, pretending to tie her shoe.

“He’s making sure I convince you to come with me,” said Don Pond.

“My leaving the bakery was Dr. Buck’s idea?” gasped Melba. “When you said the men in this town . . .”

“You didn’t know I meant Dr. Buck?” Don Pond’s voice was frankly incredulous. “You think the laypeople of Dan have gotten into the habit of diagnosing safe and unsafe without the help of a doctor? Melba, Dr. Buck is the only person in this town qualified to make decisions about your wellbeing. He told me you have a condition that makes you mistrustful of representatives of the medical profession and that you’d be more likely to heed my advice if I pretended it came from a group of anonymous men, men who’d reached their decision through a democratic process. I was under no circumstance to reveal Dr. Buck’s leading role in the matter. Now I’ve blown it,” Don Pond sighed. “But why can’t you obey Dr. Buck, like the rest of us? He’s not a small man, and his hands aren’t too cold or too hot. Before Dr. Buck, you wouldn’t remember, but Dr. Clamp doctored in Dan, and he had a mystifying head of hair. What’s more, he was never the right temperature! How can you give yourself freely to a doctor who isn’t the right temperature? What’s more elementary than temperature? Even the smallest doctor in the world knows how to regulate temperature. Dr. Buck got rid of Dr. Clamp easily enough . . .”

“Was there a funeral?” asked Melba. “I do seem to remember the town hall filled with casseroles, all different kinds, spaghetti, creamed corn, turkey divine, queasy tuna, mushroom potpourri, the one that’s made of five different congealed soups . . .”

“Five soup casserole,” murmured Don Pond.

“Five soup casserole, oyster cheese casserole . . . that was a funeral, wasn’t it?”

“Sure it was,” said Don Pond. Around his beard, the face had paled in patches and purpled in others. His words came slowly. Don Pond’s head was very small, and so usually words seemed to issue forth rapidly in a high thin stream. But these words were dark and thick, sluggishly emitted.

“But Melba,” said Don Pond, and the words and the movements of his mouth were misaligned, the words filling the air like sludge and the mouth stretching out and folding in again, so that Melba’s head jerked back and forth, following first the trajectory of the words then the ponderous motions of the mouth.

“It . . .” said Don Pond, “wasn’t . . .”

Melba’s hands clasped together.

“Dr. Clamp’s funeral . . .” said Don Pond.

“Then whose . . .” Melba began, but her world was going dark. She felt as she did when, like Ned Hat, she had been driven by circumstances to fill her mouth with hydrogen peroxide. She would drink the peroxide swishingly and grip the edge of the sink as her gums began to seethe. In those moments, her roaring mouth sounded like the inside of a conch shell, which sounded, in turn, like the outside of the ocean, and through these echoes—a form of geo-sonar—Melba felt that she could establish, briefly, a sense of her location on the earth. She could also establish other things. For example, her body had the consistency of a stone fruit, although with a different ratio of hard parts to soft parts, and those parts differently distributed. She had a keen sense of the human body—blemished and juicy, a lobe of oddly shaped flesh clinging to an oddly shaped pit—and of Dan, the endless thicket in which these bodies formed, growing in clusters but dropping one by one to rot in the understory, contributing nurturing ooze to the tangle of brambles and brackens ever-spreading their roots.

The word “bracken” shot through Melba’s mind. She swayed.

“Samovar . . .” She murmured the word just as “bracken” banged into it. She saw a spark that began to ripple and then she knew no more.


Joanna Ruocco‘s novel Dan is available now from Dorothy, a publishing project. She earned an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University and a PhD in Fiction from the University of Denver. In addition to Dan, she’s published several other books, including A Compendium of Domestic Incidents, which won the 2009 Noemi Press Fiction Chapbook Contest (judged by Rikki Ducornet), and Another Governess / The Least Blacksmith: A Diptych, which won the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize (judged by Ben Marcus). She co-edits Birkensnake, a fiction journal, with Brian Conn.