Stik Mann

Fresh Bread

My eyes won't focus. My nose won't stop running. Every muscle in my body aches and my head is pounding. It hurts when I breathe in. Or out. I cough and it sounds like an old tractor trying to start. I'm shivering, and if I'm not shivering I'm sweating. No, wait--I am sweating. If I could smell I'm sure I would stink so badly that my own mother wouldn't hug me. There is a constant ringing in my ears. My teeth hurt. Even my hair hurts.

I have the flu.

I'm sitting, slouched over on my couch, as I've been doing for the past four hours. I can not move. I could not move earlier to turn off the television when Regis and Kathey Lee came on - even when Kathey Lee sang a patriotic jazz number. I could not move when Florence Henderson reminisced about the Brady Bunch days, or when Soledad interviewed an animal psychiatrist who wrote a book about china (the plates and cups and saucers, not the country). I anticipate my future with dread: The People's Court, Circle of Friends, Days of Our Lives, Rosie McDonald.

I am in Hell.

I look at my computer and eventually realize that there are no printed words in Hell, only letters. I've read the message thousands of times: "It's now safe to turn off your computer". But now, in this world devoid of hope, no matter how hard I concentrate on the words, no matter how many times I look away then try again, what the message says is "Ib's nap sane pu turd up yurn clanducer," or, "Zo'd bow shaf ip lurk ot lore pomdopif."

"We'll be right back, Stik," says Florence, looking up from a bowl of eggs, which she is whipping at superhuman speed. A commercial for Wonder Bread follows. The camera slowly zooms in on the perfectly sliced, bleach-white, nutritionless loaf. "Thanks, Grandma!" says a little girl. I gag and close my eyes, unable to bear the sight of the kid stuffing it in her face, knowing full well that I'll never have the desire to eat again.

Then, something happens… A gear -- a rusty, dust-covered gear - creaks and moves slightly, causing another gear to move, then another and another, and soon all the gears are spinning in synch and I open my eyes and shout out, "Hey, wait a minute -- grandma's don't do that!"

And it is true, because as I look around me I easily imagine that I am in Grandma's kitchen in Fernwood, Idaho. Grandpa is sitting at his seat at the table, smoking a cigarette. Grandma is opening the oven door and peeking inside. "Mmmm, smell that?" she asks. I do not. I have the flu. But my faculties are intact enough to realize that the key to my wellness is within reach. "Fresh bread," Grandpa says. "That'll fix ya up."

"Gotta go," I say.

"I'll call you a cab," says Grandma.

I open my eyes and I am back in my apartment, sniffing, coughing, but mostly, sweating. I am wearing gloves, two coats, a stocking hat and two or three scarves. I am standing and moving as if walking underwater. I am still in pain; but, I now have hope, and in hope there is strength.

I stumble out of my apartment, down the hall, and out into the icy streets. There is a taxi parked in front of the building. The driver leans over and opens the window. "You call a cab?"

"Grandma did," I say.

I maneuver the bulk of me and my clothes into the back seat and settle into an awkward position. I see the driver's eyes in the rear-view mirror. He looks at me directly and I start to feel a bit paranoid. "Hi," I say, and say nothing else, figuring the ball is now in his court.

"Hell-lo," he says, apprehensively. "Ah, where to?"

"Bread," I say, and I cough. Sniff. "Store."

"Bread?" he says. "Store? You wanna go to a bakery?"

"Yes."

"Any bread-store in particular?" he says.

"No."

We drive off, the world all stark white and icy and swirling outside the windows. But it is warm in the cab, very warm. Eventually we pull into a parking lot. There is a large building. A sign on the building reads "Safxwuy". The driver pulls up and stops in front of two glass doors.

"Okay," he says. "Here's how it is. Walk in the automatic door. Turn right. There's the bakery. If you turn left you'll go into the grocery store part of the grocery store, and I'm venturin' to say you'll become confused. So, to recap: Walk in door. Turn right. Bread store."

I follow his instructions precisely and look up. Sure enough, there is bread everywhere, but none of it hot. A young woman steps from the back room. She is young and cute. Nice smile.

"You have hot loaves of bread?" I ask, my voice monotone and sounding like it's coming from an old car speaker lodged in my nose. "Bread that just came out of the oven? Hot bread?"

"Well," she says. "We have buns just out of the oven."

"Like tiny loaves?"

"Yes," she says. "Tiny loaves."

"I'll take it."

"How many?"

"Ah, one."

"One?" she says. "You want one bun?"

"Yes."

"You don't feel well, do you?"

"No," I say. "Could you wrap it up real tight? It has to be hot when I get home."

"I understand," she says. She ducks into the back room, then reappears momentarily, holding up a tiny bag packed full with one small bun. She puts it in a plastic bag and twists the top, then puts that bag into another paper bag and hands it to me.

"That'll fix me up," I say.

"O-kay," she says.

I take the bag and leave the bread store, following the taxi driver's instructions in reverse. Behind me I hear the young woman say, "Excuse me," but I disregard this, as it does not fit well into the scenario of me getting hot bread, going home, and getting well.

The driver is holding the taxi door open for me. "That's it?" he asks, pointing to the bag I'm holding out in front of me like a gift I'm about to present to the Magi. Then, "Everything okay?" he says, but he does not say it to me. The young woman from the bread-store is standing at the automatic door with her hands on her hips and a confused look on her face.

"Enjoy your bun," she says, rather abruptly.

I try to smile and I feel my mouth contorts like an Elvis impersonator. "Thank you, very much," I say.

I am back in the back-seat taxi world, ice swirling outside the window, driver talking about last night's TV shows but his voice sounding like a buzzing insect. The heat from the bun enters my fingertips and palms like friendly electricity and slowly works its way up my forearms toward my heart. We stop in front of my apartment building. I hand the driver a crumpled ten-dollar bill. "Go to bed," he says.

I stagger back to my apartment and lock the door behind me. I kneel down next to the coffee table, sweep it clean of magazines and dirty tissues and dishes with a single swipe of my arm, and reverently set the tiny loaf in the center. I remove layers of clothes until I get to my T-shirt, which is soaking wet. I am surprised at the refreshing coolness I experience - a coolness that would have seemed like ice water surging through my veins just an hour ago.

I carefully remove the layers from the bun and hold it in my hands. It is still very warm. I hold it up above my head like a priest consecrating the Host. For the first time in two days I can smell, and with each breathe the aroma grows stronger, and eases, by degree, the pounding in my head, until finally the pounding ceases.

I tear open the bun, and it is so fresh and so moist that not a single crumb is lost. I hold it under my nose and breathe in deeply as the steam fogs over my glasses.

"Mmmm," I whisper. "Fresh bread."