A Small, Good Thing by David Hansen

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A Small, Good Thing

The baker is crank calling them. Because he made the cake for the kid and no one picked it up. 

Ring…ring…ring…

Between calls he takes swigs of peppermint schnapps, so he can really feel what he’s feeling. And what he’s feeling is, he’s feeling his whole life pressing down on him. 

It shouldn’t press down on him. It should lift him up. Because what’s one cake, in the end? A cake is a cake. 

He looks at the cake, which is sitting there, on a dusty wooden table, surrounded by rolling pins and baking sheets. 

“A cake is a cake,” he thinks.

And it is. A cake is a cake. Until it isn’t. A cake isn’t a cake when you’ve put your whole life into baking cakes. Or when the demand for cake has forced you to give up standards of quality, to cut corners, to crank out cakes so fast you can’t care about them anymore. 

And if you built your life on caring about cakes? And then you can’t care about cakes? Well, there you are.

Some guy tries the bakery door. But it’s locked.

Bang, bang, bang!

The guy looks in the window through cupped hands, sees the baker just sitting there.

“Closed,” says the baker. 

And his voice sounds weird, even in that one short word.

So the sun goes down, down, down.

On the bakery floor, the baker sees the word bakery backwards, “yrekaB”, the shadows of the storefront lettering, lengthened by the sun’s low angle, tracking right to left across the subway tile.

“Ain’t that the truth,” says the baker, staring at that shadow. 

Soon, the movie of his life starts playing in his head. 

“Don’t,” says the baker, pitifully. 

Because the scene in the movie is the scene with his long-lost love, from a million years ago. They’re at the Temperance River. She’s down in the water, he’s up on a bluff.

“Jump! Jump! Jump!” she’s saying. 

But he can’t. No way. Too far. He sees rocks down there, hiding in the water. 

He can’t. But he can’t admit he can’t. He’s still looking down into that churning river, thinking, “Maybe I can.” 

Trees all around. Big, tall trees with wide, straight trunks. No branches until the tippy top, and then voom! Branches galore.

The baker looks at the phone through teary eyes. He could call anyone in the world if he wanted. He could call the pope. The pope has a phone number. He could call it. 

Or this long-lost love. Anyone. 

The baker picks up the phone, hits redial. 

Ring…ring…ring…

Then:

“…Hello?” 

A lady. Her voice is choked and wet. 

“All is not well with her,” thinks the baker. An alarm goes off in his heart. 

Then he thinks, “All is not well with me, either.” And the alarm stops. 

“Have you forgotten about Scotty?” says the baker, reading the name off the nearby cake. He has to close one eye to do it, because the letters are swimming all over.

“You bastard!” 

Click!

And the baker hangs up the phone with an attitude of, “Well, that settles that.” 

Now, night comes upon the baker. It encloses him in its embrace. 

“Into thy hands I commend my spirit,” he thinks. And he embraces it back. 

When he comes to, things are weird. The bakery is blue. The floor, the walls, the ovens. All blue, like a cornflower crayon.

And there’s a shadow at the bakery door, looking in. 

“I see you in there, goddammit,” says the shadow.

Bang, bang, bang!

The baker looks all around him, for a weapon. But all he’s got is rolling pins, some baking sheets. And they’re no good against a shadow. 

So he gets up, lets the shadow in. Because what else can he do?

The shadow comes in, takes a long, long look.

“What a shithole,” says the shadow.

“Times are tough,” says the baker. 

And the shadow makes a tiny violin with its fingers.

“I’m not saying feel bad for me,” says the baker. “I’m just saying, it wasn’t always a shithole.”

They sit down, the baker and the shadow. 

“Hungry?” says the baker. 

“Not just now,” says the shadow. 

“Sure you are,” says the baker. And he tosses the shadow a brioche, takes one for himself.

Once they’re both eating, the shadow says, “You sure picked the wrong line of work.”

“I give too much,” says the baker. “That’s my problem.”

“I hear that,” says the shadow.

“If I just worked a little less.” 

“But then you think, ‘If I just worked a little harder.’”

“Maybe I’d break through.”

“Into the endzone.” 

“Do my touchdown dance.”

“That old trap.”

The baker shakes his head. “I should have gotten into web,” he says. 

And he imagines the web as a river, a rushing river of information. If he could just put a waterwheel on that river somehow, the way they put waterwheels on real rivers. 

“That bubble’s bursting too,” says the shadow. “That was my racket, and look at me now.”

And the baker sees the shadow is in rough shape, too. Its jeans. They don’t have holes in the knees, but they will soon. The baker can see the signs. 

“Wherever you go, there you are,” says the baker.

“Amen to that,” says the shadow. 

And they finish their brioches in silence. 

When the brioches are eaten, the shadow stands up, dusts off its hands. 

“All right,” it says. “Let’s do this.”

The baker sits a moment more. 

“Am I ready?” he thinks.

“Not really,” he thinks.

“But who’s ever ready for something like this.”

Then:

“Jump! Jump! Jump!” 

His long-lost love. She’s here, too. There she is, down below, looking up.

“One last look,” he thinks.

And he looks. God, he loves her. He loves her so much it freaks him out. She’s paddling around in the river. The river is fast, and dark, and it rushes all around her.

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With thanks to Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing”

David Hansen’s stories have appeared most recently in South Carolina Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Chicago Review, Fairy Tale Review, and Conjunctions. In 2019, his story “Hell” was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson prize. He has a master’s from Washington University in St. Louis, and now he teaches fiction at the University of Rochester in Rochester, NY.

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Next: Benches Are for People by Caroline Kim

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Image: Edward Hopper Bosc d’Anjou CC2.0

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