Mickey Lerner pressed his nose to the glass at the top of the front door. Where was Benjie? He’d run out this morning with his basketball—the day had been warm—but now it was past dinnertime, it was dark, it was cold. You had to be a fanatic to play ball on a cold autumn night, and Mickey would sooner deliver his son to an all-consuming obsession than think about what he might be up to, in these days before Halloween. Not that Benjie was capable of perpetrating the sort of vandalism you often read about this time of year—the slashed tires, the grave markers defaced and tipped over, the car windows streaked with eggs, with soap, the scattered bonfires; no. Not Benjie. He was crazy for basketball: his bedroom walls were covered with giant posters of ferociously airborne NBA stars, whose sleek young bodies and hateful scowls taunted Mickey, prompted a strange jealousy, made him stare and then turn away.
Still, Mickey’d been proud as hell when the kid made the high school team in his sophomore year. It was a marvelous thing to watch—Benjie’s white face in the huddle, nodding at the coach’s instructions, his eyes full of an attentiveness that bespoke, Mickey thought, a firm and proper upbringing; here was a coach’s dream, a workhorse, the kid who set an example. On the court, though, it was another story: Benjie never did live up to his potential, or rather, the potential didn’t live up to him; and so it was a bittersweet moment when the coach plucked him from the bench and started him at guard in the final game of his career, a gesture of respect toward a lumbering senior whose previous appearances had come chiefly in the waning seconds of contests whose outcomes were not in doubt. Mickey was in the stands that night (he’d closed the bakery early just to be there), and as he watched his son get buried by a flashy black kid from Columbus—thirty-six points this kid scored, some kind of record—he was haunted by reminders of his first and only amateur fight some forty years earlier, at a small, smoke-filled arena in Dundalk.
The ride home from the school had been pretty quiet. Mickey tried to put things in perspective. “My old trainer was a lot like your coach,” he said, a touch of humor in his voice. “Always left his guys in too long. I ever tell you about him? Lou Glazer?” In fact he’d been compelled to tell the Glazer story many times during the course of Ben’s career. But never, ever did he mention what happened in Dundalk. “Don’t let it get you down,” he told his son. “There’s more to life than a ball game.”
Now he considered turning on the porch light to give Benjie a beacon, but decided against it, not wanting to encourage to his door the trick-or-treaters, who would be getting ready to make their annual assault. Twenty, thirty years ago, Mickey would have been prepared, would have gone so far as to fit his mouth with toy fangs and hand out bags of cookies, maybe even hunch his shoulders and laugh in a sinister way upon answering the door. Back then, the kids—a glittering, paint-smeared, sheet-covered dwarf race in sneakers—would fan out over the neighborhood, patrolling the alleys, their orange plastic baskets filled with candy that sparkled under the street lamps like the jewels of a vanquished people; and it was fun to play along, to frighten them as they wished to be frightened, or jump back in mock horror when they raised their little bloody hands and roared. These days, though, you’d get maybe a dozen kids all night, strictly chaperoned, looking victimized in their store-bought costumes; it seemed there were more parents on the street than kids, and you might well have a lawsuit on your hands if you actually scared one of the little creatures.
Mickey could hear the cry of Emi’s violin down in the basement; she’d been at it all day, and the scratchy, spooky sounds (Berg? Bartók?) were like an extension of his anxiety. In the last two months she’d either been on the road or sequestered downstairs, up past midnight and risen before dawn. Things had changed between them since the summer, he thought; she was avoiding him. Was he just imagining it?
He went to the kitchen and finished cleaning up the meal he’d eaten alone—a Mediterranean salad made from the dregs of his garden, which had just yielded its last desperate fruits: gourd-shaped cucumbers, bulbous tomatoes nesting in dirt, skinny green beans curled like the fingernails of the dead; each one a bumper afflicted with a huge yellow-green unripeness. Mickey could be depressed by the final harvest, by the pallor and rubbery give of things, as though he were in some bumbling way responsible; so that while most people dreaded the steamy Baltimore summers and were happy to see them go, Mickey—brushing the dirt from a whopping, jaundiced eggplant, or examining the bent knuckles of a carrot—was always sad to inhale, in August, the first subtle change in the air, knowing that in a short time his little Eden would be dried up, and the big silken leaves from his neighbor’s sugar maple would sail onto his lawn, turning the whole yard red as blazes.
The leaves. A beautiful sight on someone else’s lawn. On his own property it was like an attack, an invasion, and often he raked until it seemed he’d make the ground bleed. Only afterwards, the leaves bagged and set by the curb, would he realize that it was the beauty he resented, the carelessness of it, the way it revealed itself on its own terms and gave you only a short time to admire it. He did not like to be dazzled.
And yet he rejoiced, each autumn, in the increased activity at the feeders out back, where he had learned to identify the birds that gathered there—cardinals, blue jays, starlings, chickadees—by song. A few summers ago he had even painted one of the feeders red to attract hummingbirds, though he had yet to see one. Perhaps he liked the birds because they came daily, without fail; they were reliable. And it was to their credit that they couldn’t be held in one’s hand and examined, like a bright dead leaf. There was nothing tragic about them.
Mickey put the salad in the refrigerator. Benjie could have some later—a double-sized portion, seeing as how Emi wasn’t eating these days. Sometimes she’d get that way before a big concert—nerves, she said—though Mickey couldn’t help but feel, this time, that there was something more to it.
He washed his hands, dried them on his trousers. What now? Maybe he’d take a walk over to the bakery and enjoy a little quiet among the oven and mixers before the bakers arrived for the night shift. He’d been doing a lot of that with Emi away—lurking in the dim tranquillity of his store, trying to cheer himself with the idea that he was, after all, a pretty lucky guy, that it was but an accident of birth that he ended up owning the place instead of being up to his elbows in dough at three and four in the morning like the men under his command.
Silence downstairs. Was Emi taking a break? Mickey decided to drop in for a visit.
He went to the basement door and knocked. “Emi?”
“Come down,” she called.
Mickey turned the knob. He’d always had the deepest respect for her privacy, and even now he could become physically aroused by breaking in on it.
He went down the steps. “Em? You taking a break?”
“A short one.”
She was seated in her chair, the bow in her lap. Mickey regarded her: dark hennaed hair pulled back in a loose flimsy bun, cheekbones drawn up high, mouth turned slightly down at the corners. Her wide nervous eyes searched him, wondering what he wanted.
Mickey walked over and stood beside the music stand. “Benjie hasn’t come home yet,” he said.
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know.” It pained Mickey to admit this; by a tacit arrangement prompted by Emi’s career, Benjie had become his father’s responsibility, and Mickey had long been too proud to share with Emi his parental concerns. But now, with Benjie out of school, and so unprotected from the world, Mickey felt a weakening of his resolve: he would need help—a young man’s life was at stake. “This morning he went out with his basketball,” Mickey said. “I haven’t heard a thing since.”
“He’ll be fine,” said Emi, turning her eyes to her score. “He always is.”
Mickey scratched his cheek; he wanted to trust in Emi’s words, but lately he’d been considering such remarks less a statement of a mother’s intuition than a glaring symptom of her indifference. How could she be so calm? But in the next moment there came a sound from above: the click of the lock, followed by the squeal of the door, the heavy footfalls on the stairs.
Emi pretended not to notice—a rebuke of sorts, Mickey supposed. He laughed, feeling vindicated, as though Ben’s arrival, late and unexplained though it may have been, was evidence nonetheless of a solid rearing. He had at least come home after all. “Of course he’s fine,” Mickey said. “He’s eighteen. He’s indestructible.” And he himself felt invincible: he wanted to revel in this small acquittal, celebrate it with his body. He took a step forward, and was met by the end of the bow, thrust out like a sword at his belly.
“What?” Mickey said. He reached for her breast; the bow struck his hand.
“It’s a bad time,” said Emi.
“A bad time. It’s been a bad time for months. Why?”
“I’m sorry,” Emi said. “Please just bear with me.”
Mickey barked a laugh. “What does that mean?”
“Tomorrow,” Emi said. She looked up at him. “Okay?”
Mickey laughed, less savagely than before. “Tomorrow,” he said. “Tomorrow, in case you don’t remember, we have a date out back. That gardening has got to get done.”
The garden. Was there a greater, more enduring monument to their union? Over the years they had transformed it into a small paradise: heavy rocks of brown, gray and ocher (Mickey had driven to western Maryland and collected them himself) lined the side of the house, with pink and blue creeping phlox growing out from the cracks. The two beds near the patio boasted yellow tulips, reddish lilies and pink begonias. Along the back fence were the vegetables, which this year had featured two kinds of tomatoes, sweet but wildly deformed carrots (the soil had been too heavy), artichokes, cucumbers, green beans and bell peppers shaped like weird, sunken faces. The harvest recalled a mutual feeling of parenthood: the pulling up of the carrots from the ground, slowly, in anticipation of length and shape, and the timid plucking of the tomatoes from the vine, leaving both gardeners amazed by their frank redness, the shock of ripe testicular discovery in all that fuzzy, bristly green.
“Okay,” said Emi. “Tomorrow night then.”
“Yeah?” said Mickey. He planted his feet, folded his arms. “What about it?”
Emi grinned, and for a moment she looked thirty years younger. She raised the tip of the bow to her parted lips and tickled the shaft with her pointed tongue: a parody of seduction behind which she concealed the real thing. She laughed at herself, but intimately, as if in dialogue with herself; then gave a stroke to the E string to indicate she was ready to resume her work.
Mickey felt a sudden despair. It was all so easy for her; she channeled everything into her music. He was the one with the needs, the big dumb urges. He longed for an outlet, a means of expression. How could he explain it?
He kissed Emi’s head—he had no words—and went upstairs, where he stood confused in the living room before deciding to go up and talk to Benjie.
Ben’s door was closed, and Mickey rapped on it lightly. Other fathers might have to bang on their kids’ doors, to compete with the rock music. Not Mickey. Nothing but quiet behind this wood. Such quiet, in fact, that Mickey could almost imagine the room was empty; that the kid, like everyone else in his high school class, had gone off to college.
He rapped again. “Benjie?”
“I’m busy,” came a voice.
Mickey took a breath and counted silently. He could make splinters out of that goddamned door. “I’ll give you until three to open this door,” he said. “One.” In fact he’d never actually reached three; at two and a half he always got his results. The realm of three remained a mystery to both of them. “Two.”
The door opened, and as often happened, Mickey was jolted by the sight of this young man in a T-shirt and undershorts, with a few whiskers on the chin, of whom people would remark, “He looks just like his father.” Mickey wasn’t so sure. For one thing, the kid was skinny, almost gangly. A featherweight. His dark hair—darker than Mickey’s had ever been, and without the touch of gray that had singed Mickey at the temples during adolescence and left him with a virile silvery head at thirty-five—was buzzed close to the scalp, and he wore a tiny gold stud in his right earlobe. Oh, there’d been a heated battle over that (“What’s next—lipstick? Mascara?”), but Mickey eventually threw in the towel.
“What are you doing in there?” he said, trying to see into the room.
Ben shrugged. “Nothing. Just playing Empire.”
Mickey wanted to tell him that if he’d used the computer for his studies instead of goofing off with games, maybe he’d rule a real empire someday, or at least be a productive citizen of one. But there were other issues at hand. “And where were you today,” Mickey said, “that you couldn’t pick up a phone and call?”
“Then I went to Nelson’s.”
Mickey raised his eyebrows: Nelson was the delivery man at the bakery, a ghetto kid from a broken home whom Mickey had hired nearly a year ago. “You were down in that neighborhood at night?” Mickey said.
“It’s not as bad as you think.”
“Don’t tell me what I think. I don’t want you running around down there. At any time. You understand?”
“No,” said Ben. He looked hurt. “I don’t.”
“You grew up there.”
“Don’t be a wiseass,” said Mickey. He didn’t have the energy for this, he’d take it up later. “There’s a salad downstairs. You hungry?”
“I ate already.”
“Nelson’s. Miss Donna made pumpkin fritters.”
“You invited yourself?”
“No. Donna invited me.”
Excerpted from The Baker by Paul Hond. Copyright © 2005 by Paul Hond. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.