The sweet, the heady smell of Lieb’s white bread drew customers in droves long before the loaves were baked. Alert behind the counter, Bessie, Lieb’s second wife, discerned a stranger among them, a frail, gnarled man with a hard hat who hung, disjoined, at the edge of the crowd. Though the stranger looked harmless enough among the aggressive purchasers of baked goods, she was at once concerned. Her glance questioned him but he signaled with a deprecatory nod of his hatted head that he would wait—glad to (forever)—though his face glittered with misery. If suffering had marked him, he no longer sought to conceal the sign; the shining was his own—him—now. So he frightened Bessie.
She made quick hash of the customers, and when they, in response to her annihilating service, were gone, she returned to him her stare.
He tipped his hat. “Pardon me—Kobotsky. Is Lieb the baker here?”
“An old friend”—frightening her further.
“From long ago.”
“What do you want to see him?”
The question insulted, so Kobotsky was reluctant to say.
As if drawn into the shop by the magic of a voice, the baker, shirtless, appeared from the rear. His pink, fleshy arms had been deep in dough. For a hat he wore jauntily a flour-covered, brown paper sack. His peering glasses were dusty with flour, and the inquisitive face white with it so that he resembled a paunchy ghost; but the ghost, through the glasses, was Kobotsky, not he.
“Kobotsky,” the baker cried almost with a sob, for it was so many years gone Kobotsky reminded him of, when they were both at least young, and circumstances were altered—ah, different. Unable, for sentimental reasons, to refrain from smarting tears, he jabbed them away with a thrust of the hand.
Kobotsky removed his hat—he had grown all but bald where Lieb was gray—and patted his flushed forehead with an immaculate handkerchief.
Lieb sprang forward with a stool. “Sit, Kobotsky.”
“Not here,” Bessie murmured.
“Customers,” she explained to Kobotsky. “Soon comes the supper rush.”
“Better in the back,” nodded Kobotsky.
So that was where they went, happier for the privacy. But it happened that no customers came so Bessie went in to hear.
Kobotsky sat enthroned in a private corner of the room, stoop-shouldered, his black coat and hat on, the stiff, gray-veined hands drooping over thin thighs. Lieb, peering through full moons, eased his bones on a flour sack. Bessie lent an attentive ear but the visitor was dumb. Embarrassed, Lieb did the talking: ah, of old times. The world was new. We were, Kobotsky, young. Do you remember how both together, immigrants out of steerage, we registered in night school?
“Haben, hatte, gehabt.“ He cackled at the sound of it.
No word from the gaunt one on the tall stool. Bessie fluttered around an impatient duster. She shot a glance into the shop: empty.
Lieb, acting the life of the party, recited, to cheer his friend: ‘“Come, said the wind to the trees one day, Come over the meadows with me and play.’ Remember, Kobotsky?”
Bessie sniffed aloud. “Lieb, the bread!”
The baker bounced up, strode over to the gas oven and pulled one of the tiered doors down. Just in time he yanked out the trays of brown breads in hot pans, and set them on the tin-top worktable.
Bessie clucked at the narrow escape.
Lieb peered into the shop. “Customers,” he said triumphantly. Flushed, she went in. Kobotsky, with wetted lips, watched her go. Lieb set to work molding the risen dough into two trays of pans. Soon the bread was baking, but Bessie was back.
The honey odor of the new loaves distracted Kobotsky. He deeply breathed the sweet fragrance, as if this were the first air he was tasting, and even beat his fist against his chest at the delicious smell.
“Oh, my God,” he all but wept. “Wonderful.”
“With tears,” Lieb said humbly, pointing to the large pot of dough.
For thirty years, the baker explained, he had been never with a penny to his name. One day, out of misery, he had wept into the dough and thereafter his bread was so sweet it brought customers in from everywhere.
“My cakes they don’t like so much, but my bread and rolls they run miles to buy.”
Kobotsky blew his nose, then peeked into the shop: three customers.
Despite himself the baker stiffened.
The visitor’s eyes swept back to Bessie out front, then, under raised brows, questioned the baker.
Lieb, however, remained mute.
Kobotsky coughed clear his throat. “Lieb, I need two hundred dollars.” His voice broke.
Lieb slowly sank onto the sack. He knew—had known. From the minute of Kobotsky’s appearance he had weighed in his thoughts this against the remembrance of the lost and bitter hundred, fifteen years ago. Kobotsky swore he had repaid it, Lieb said no. Afterwards a broken friendship. It took years to blot out of the system the memoried outrage.
Kobotsky bowed his head.
At least admit you were wrong, thought Lieb, waiting a cruelly long time.
Kobotsky stared at his crippled hands. Once a cutter of furs, driven by arthritis out of the business.
Lieb gazed too. He breathed with pain on the right side. The button of a truss bit into his belly. Both eyes were cloudy with cataracts. Though the doctor swore he would see after the operation, he feared otherwise. He sighed. The wrong was in the past. Forgiven: forgiven at the sight of him.
“For myself, positively, but she”—Lieb nodded shopwise—”is a second wife. Everything is in her name.” He held up empty hands.
Kobotsky’s eyes were shut.
“But I will ask her—” Lieb looked doubtful.
“My wife needs—”
The baker raised a palm. “Don’t speak.”
“Leave it to me.”
He seized the broom and circled the room, raising clouds of white dust.
When Bessie, breathless, got back she threw one look at them, and with tightened lips, waited adamant.
Lieb hastily scoured the pots in the iron sink, stored the bread pans under the table and stacked the fragrant loaves. He put one eye to the slot of the oven: baking, all baking.
Facing Bessie, he broke into a sweat so hot it momentarily stunned him.
Kobotsky squirmed atop the stool.
“Bessie,” said the baker at last, “this is my old friend.”
She nodded gravely.
Kobotsky lifted his hat.
“His mother—God bless her-gave me many times a plate hot soup. Also when I came to this country, for years I ate at his table. His wife is a very fine person—Dora—you will someday meet her—”
Kobotsky softly groaned.
“So why I didn’t meet her yet?” Bessie said, still, after a dozen years, jealous of the first wife’s prerogatives.
“Why didn’t I?”
“Lieb—” pleaded Kobotsky.
“Because I didn’t see her myself fifteen vears,” Lieb admitted.
“Why not?” she pounced.
Lieb paused. “A mistake.”
Kobotsky turned away.
“My fault,” said Lieb.
“Because you never go any place,” Bessie spat out. “Because you live always in the shop. Because it means nothing to you to have friends.”
Lieb solemnly agreed.
“Now she is sick,” he announced. “The doctor must operate. This will cost two hundred dollars. I promised Kobotsky—”
Kobotsky got off the stool, hat in hand.
Pressing a palm to her bosom, Bessie lifted. her arm to her eyes. She tottered. They both ran forward to catch her but she did not fall. Kobotsky retreated quickly to the stool and Lieb returned to the sink.
Bessie, her face like the inside of a loaf, quietly addressed the visitor. “I have pity for your wife but we can’t help you. I am sorry, Mr. Kobotsky, we are poor people, we don’t have the money.”
“A mistake,” Lieb cried, enraged.
Bessie strode over to the shelf and tore out a bill box. She dumped its contents on the table, the papers flying everywhere.
“Bills,” she shouted.
Kobotsky hunched his shoulders.
“Bessie, we have in the bank—”
“I saw the bankbook.”
“So what if you saw a few dollars, so have you got life insurance?”
He made no answer.
“Can you get?” she taunted.
The front door banged. It banged often. The shop was crowded with customers clamoring for bread. Bessie stomped out to wait on them.
In the rear the wounded stirred. Kobotsky, with bony fingers, buttoned his overcoat.
“Sit,” sighed the baker.
“Lieb, I am sorry—”
Kobotsky sat, his face lit with sadness.
When Bessie finally got rid of the rush, Lieb stirred, went into the shop. He spoke to her quietly, almost in a whisper, and she answered as quietly, but it took only a minute to set them quarreling.
Kobotsky slipped off the stool. He went to the sink, wet half his handkerchief and held it to his dry eyes. Folding the handkerchief he put it away in his overcoat pocket then took out a small penknife and quickly pared his fingernails.
As he entered the shop, Lieb was pleading with Bessie, reciting the embittered hours of his toil, the enduring drudgery. And now that he had a cent to his name, what was there to live for if he could not share it with a dear friend? But Bessie had her back to him.
“Please,” Kobotsky said, “don’t fight. I go away now.”
Lieb gazed at him in exasperation, Bessie stayed with head averted.
“Yes,” Kobotsky sighed, “the money I wanted for Dora, but she is not sick, Lieb, she is dead.”
“Ai,” Lieb cried, wringing his hands.
Bessie faced the visitor, pallid.
“Not now,” he spoke kindly, “five years ago.”
“The money I need for a stone on her grave. She never had a stone. This Sunday is five years that she is dead and every year I promise her, Dora, this year I will give you a stone, and every year I give her nothing.”
The grave, to his everlasting shame, lay uncovered before all eyes. He had long ago paid a fifty-dollar deposit for a headstone with her name on it in clearly chiseled letters but had never got the rest of the money. If there wasn’t one thing to do with it there was always another: the first year an operation, the second he couldn’t work, imprisoned again by arthritis, the third a widowed sister lost her only son and the little Kobotsky earned had to help support her, the fourth incapacitated by boils that made him ashamed to walk out into the street, this year he was at least working, but only for just enough to eat and sleep, so Dora still lay without a stone, and for aught he knew he would someday return to the cemetery and find her grave gone.
Tears sprang into the baker’s eyes. One gaze at Bessie’s face—at the odd looseness of neck and body—told him that she too was moved. Ah, he had won out. She would now say yes, give the money, and they would then all sit down at the table and eat supper together.
But Bessie, though weeping, shook her head, and before they could guess what, had blurted out the story of her afflictions: how the Bolsheviki came, when she was a little girl, and dragged her darling father into the snowy fields without his shoes on; the shots scattered the blackbirds in the trees and the snow oozed blood; how, when she was married a year, her husband, a sweet and gentle man, an educated accountant—rare in those days and that place—died of typhus in an epidemic in Warsaw; and how she, abandoned in her grief, years later found sanctuary in the home of an older brother in Germany, who sacrificed his own chances to send her, before the war, to America, and as a result, in all probability ended up with his wife and daughter and her two blessed children in Hitler’s incinerators.
“So I came to America and met here a baker, a poor man—who was always in his life poor—without a penny and without enjoyment in his life, and I married him, God knows why, and with my both hands, working day and night, I fixed up for him his piece of business and we make now, after twelve years, a little living. But Lieb is a sick man, with weak lungs, and eyes that he needs an operation, and this is not yet everything. Suppose, God forbid, that he died, what will I do alone by myself? Where will I go, where, and who will take care of me if I have nobody?”
The baker, who had often heard this tale, munched, as he listened, chunks of soft white bread.
When she had finished he tossed the shell of the loaf away. Kobotsky, at the end, had held his hands over his ears.
With copious tears streaming from her eyes, Bessie raised her head and suspiciously sniffed the air. Screeching suddenly, she ran into the rear and with a cry wrenched open the oven door. A cloud of smoke billowed out at her. The loaves in the trays were blackened bricks—charred corpses.
Kobotsky and the baker embraced and sighed over their lost youth. They pressed mouths together and parted forever.