A baker and former hockey player reminisces on his colourful history as he delivers buns in the dusty Manitoba sun; by Mitchell Toews.
The dust hung in the heavy midsummer air, settling almost imperceptibly and with clinging persistence on the rose hips and yarrow and fescue and crocus growing alongside the road and down into the ditches. Dry fields lining the road awaited a summer storm; the first large drops would land as heavy as pats of butter.
Inside the van, a residue of Five Roses flour dusted the man's hair and stood out on the peach fuzz on his ears and the sloping nape of his neck.
He shifted down into second gear and eased the clutch back out making the motor race and the rear wheels check on the sandy gravel, adjusting their pace to the new ratio and slowing for the intersection ahead. The geometric roads drew a pale yellowish cross in dark green alfalfa fields.
"ARRET" the sign demanded, in the de Salaberry Rural Municipality, north of the town of Hartplatz. The panel van rolled to a stop and the driver - the owner of the bakery, Hart Zehen - revved the engine once and then turned off the ignition. He sat in the close heat of the vehicle, the radiator ticking rapidly and crickets and frogs keeping time from their hiding places in the grass.
A male Red Wing Blackbird swooped down towards a bulrush with its three-toed feet splayed out to grasp the brown, cigar-shaped spadix. His wings flared open just in time to stall and spill enough speed for landing. Trilling, the bird cocked its head, and then took off as quickly as it had come, leaving the bulrush swaying.
Hart checked his wristwatch again. Still 20 minutes early for the wedding delivery to the Giroux Hall. He knew the manager there and he did not want to spend any extra time with him. The order called for him to bring the buns, 80 dozen zwieback, by 6:30. So 6:30 it would be.
He opened the door and it creaked, piercing the quiet. Swinging his legs out, he pushed off the seat edge to land with both feet, a dusty plop on the road. He looked back at the sky to the northwest, where, impressively, an impasto storm cloud was building. It was dark purple at the bottom and startling white higher up, contrasting with the cerulean prairie sky. The thunderhead hung with menace, gathering bulk as Hart stood far below - an Israelite facing the giant Philistine.
The radio came on loudly when Hart leaned in and gave the key a quarter turn. It carried a baseball game from Minneapolis, the signal skipping in off the cloud cover to the south.
"Killebrew, the young first baseman, leads off this inning," announced the play-by-play man, his flat Midwest accent pinching off the words and sounding foreign to the Manitoba baker, far to the north. "Ball one! A curveball that Harmon left alone. Good eye, it bounced in the dirt in front of home plate."
Imagining, Hart sat on his haunches in the crossroads and flashed a sign for fastball. Deliberately, he adjusted his imaginary mask with his right hand and presented a low target to the pitcher; a single rogue sunflower plant growing in the stony edge of the northbound lane. The tournesol sat atop a thick green stalk, its speckled face staring unblinkingly towards the southwest.
"STEE-rike!" the announcer shouted. Hart gathered four or five smooth hardball size stones and laid them near where he crouched. He picked one and tossed it towards the sunflower, standing tall and attentive in the angled evening sunlight that shone on the two of them.
Several batters later, Hart was sweating lightly, enjoying his pantomime ballgame. "One out, runner on first, the count two-and-two on the Twins number seven hitter," said the sing-song baritone. "Pitcher looks for the sign... he nods and reaches up into his stretch... pauses, holds the runner momentarily... now he delivers - THE RUNNER GOES!"
Hart grabbed a stone, crow-hopped up and fired a low, hissing bullet to where second base would be - an oiled cedar telephone pole across the ditch. "BOCK!" sounded the rock as it hit the pole just right of center, embedding in the wood. The crickets and frogs fell silent as one, then slowly renewed their cheering chorus.
He grinned as the voice from the radio, full of static, blared, "He throws him OUT and the batter goes down swinging to end the inning. Strike him out, throw him out! Washington zero, Twins zero. We'll be right back after this message from GRAIN BELT BEER!"
Hart checked his watch again, the leather band stained white with sweat, dried in a jagged line. He jumped into the seat and started the low-slung van, spinning the tires and shooting stones out behind the back bumper.
Feeling strangely exultant from the exertion of the silly, make-believe ball game and in anticipation of the $40 cash he would collect on this Saturday night, he slewed the Chevy around the last corner to his destination. His tires clattered the thick boards of the bridge deck, the sound echoing off the hall's whitewashed stucco walls. He wheeled around tightly on the packed dirt lot, braked hard, then backed up to about ten feet from the "Deliveries" door. Hopping out, he spun ninety degrees on the ball of his foot and flicked the door shut. He snapped down on the lever handle to open the left rear door and then side-stepped to do the same for the right. Every motion was athletic, rhythmic, and economical - practiced thirty times that day alone.
Inside the van were two stacks of bread trays filled with bags of fresh buns. Saturday was the traditional zwieback baking day - for events and Sunday faspa (light afternoon meal). The still-warm zwieback's yeasty aroma had seeped out and filled the air with the faint sweetness of caramelized sugar and scalded milk. The stacks stood side-by-side and a pink delivery slip was taped to the top of one of the clear plastic packages. Hart patted his back pocket - feeling for the invoice pad - picked up one of the stacks, stepped to the delivery door and knocked deftly with the hard toe of his shoe.
He paused to listen and, hearing the lock open inside, backed up slightly to make way for the door to swing open.
"Well, well, right on time," said a thin man with a clean white dress shirt and a red tie tucked into the buttoned front. He stood smiling with his hands on his hips in the doorway, a silver tooth glinting in the evening sun. His sleeves were rolled and a blue anchor was tattooed on one of his corded forearms. "Where's the regular driver - Nightingale?"
"Night off. His twins' birthday today," Hart replied, hugging the trays like the waist of a polka partner as he brushed by the taller man into the kitchen. His leather soles slapped on the painted concrete floor as he walked into the room carrying the awkward metal rack.
He raised his eyebrows questioningly and the manager, Tamsyn, hesitated, and then pointed back into the room where several pots sat boiling on a large range top, wetting the wall with their steam. "Put those buns next to the stove, on the left."
As Hart walked by for the second load of buns, Tamsyn asked, "You the hockey player?"
"I played," Hart replied, smiling, his front teeth cut at an angle from a high stick, small scars like crossbones on the ball of his chin.
"Not no more?"
"Not no more," he said, stacking the second load of buns on top of the first. After wiping his forehead with the back of his wrist, he opened the invoice book and pointed at the top copy, "Forty bucks, see-voo-play".
"Eh?" Tamsyn squinted, pausing in mid-action as he pulled out a leather cash wallet on a chain. "You are obviously not French." He put the emphasis on the last syllable: obvious-LEE. Hart smirked. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and thumbed the edge of the invoice pad, making a rippling sound.
Tamsyn unzipped the heavy brown pouch. He picked four tens free, then rubbed each one between thumb and forefinger to make sure two bills had not stuck together.
He gestured towards Hart with the money. "You had a try-out with Detroit, I hear."
Hart shrugged his rounded shoulders; his head down as he marked the invoice, "Paid - Cash" and signed with his initials. He thought fleetingly of the long-ago try-out camp in Saskatoon; the big star players gliding around the rink. "Good check!" the red-faced coach had yelled to him as he climbed back over the boards in a scrimmage.
"Damn fine," Tamsyn said with a look of genuine approval on his face. "Nothing to lose, right? You go an' give it your best shot and let the chips fall. Right?"
"I played for Ste. Anne, eh." Tamsyn added, smiling and holding out the forty dollars to Hart, "Center-man."
"You got nothing to lose, right?" he remembered one of his brothers saying to him when they made the deal for the bakery, dissolving the partnership.
"Lots to lose. Same as you," he had replied. Hart and two of his older brothers had originally bought out their uncle, paying him what the property was worth plus a small cash stake for him and their father, who worked in the bakery. After a year of argument and indecision, Hart had wanted to end the three-man partnership. "I don't make a good partner," he told his wife.
The terms were blunt - either the two brothers bought him out or he bought them out, the price was $5,000 per share, either way. They got to choose - stay or go. Hart had wanted the partnership to work but it had not and he believed this was the best way out of it. At first, they had scorned him, "Screw you, Hart! Let's go get a beer at the pub. Man! Who crapped in your porridge?"
He stood his ground. Finally, they wavered, their anger rising when they realized he was unyielding; resolute. "Yeah, you've got nothing to lose. If the bakery goes broke, you can always fall back on hockey - make a career and play in the states." He said nothing, shaking his head.
"Hey! YOU! What the hell's wrong with you?" Tamsyn stood close to him, waving the money and shouting, snapping his fingers with his free hand. He leaned forward, bending at the waist.
Hart came out of his reverie. "OK, OK." He replied, stepping back. He took the forty dollars, passed Tamsyn the invoice copy and nodded, mumbling thanks. His mind had once again been stuck in the bakery, ten years back, arguing with his brothers.
The land was flat here. A few miles north, east or south was a bit more rolling - taking contour from shallow rivers or gravel ridges. He stood with the sun in his face, watching heat waves rising off of the highway three miles away and glimpsing bright flashes of cars and tractor trailers. Briefly, while looking to the west, Hart thought of his time on the coast with his brother in law Bill, commercial fishing north of Tofino. Wild Bill, sitting in the tiny, heaving cockpit of the boat, one great boot propped up against the cracked windshield, laughing as Hart choked on his first cigarette. What if I had stayed on? Hart wondered. He recalled how Bill wanted him to stay - equal partners - and Hart could play for the local hockey team. But, as he told everyone at home, he was only sixteen - how could he? His father needed him to help in the shoe shop.
Walking slowly, he paused, letting the dust of the parking lot settle on his shoes. He watched as it seemed to reach up to grasp him. He was sure he could it feel holding him there like a fly to tape. Hart thought of punching a batch of dough early that morning, the first blast of escaping yeast gas hitting him - so strong he could feel it like fan blowing in his face. Like most mornings, a few drops of sweat dripped from the tip of his nose or the line of his jaw, mixing into the dough as he lifted and folded, grunting at the live weight. He thought, as always, how he was in the bread - his sweat, his salt, his DNA, his quiet hopes, and his sadness or his joy. He baked it all in.
Folding the bills, he tucked them away and walked to the van. He was eager to leave.
Tamsyn stood in the shade of the doorway, staring out at Hart. "Now I know why you didn't make the Wings," he called to the stocky man, who was about to slam the cargo doors shut. Hart looked back at him, unimpressed before he even heard the conclusion.
"Head case," Tamsyn said, tapping his temple with two fingers.
"Is that right?" Hart replied. He thought of his mother standing in her kitchen, on the checkered tile floor - "If you can govern your temper, you can govern this town," she would say to him. "Same as hockey - don't retaliate," chiding, smiling with her hazel eyes.
Breaking like a skater - with short, quick strides - he went back towards Tamsyn, who was caught off-guard. "They taught you about head cases in Ste. Anne, did they? Gave you a degree and sent you to work cooking cabbage for weddings?"
Tamsyn rotated his open palms like a highway flagman, hoping to slow the burly man's advance. "Hey, hey - take it easy there - I didn't mean nothing, but you were just kind of day-dreaming. That's all."
Hart stopped in front of him. "OK, sure. You didn't mean anything. That's good, Tamsyn. Shake." He stuck out a thick-fingered hand. Tamsyn raised his arm and Hart thrust forward, engulfing Tamsyn's slender hand and squeezing it so that it caved in backward, creasing into a concave. The small bones clicked as they flexed inwardly, against their natural inclination. Tamsyn's knees buckled and he dipped, pulling back his hand from the crushing grip, but Hart tugged, forcing Tamsyn off balance.
"Shit!" Tamsyn blurted as his gray dress trouser knees hit the dirt just outside of the door sill, his teeth gritted.
"The reason I did not make the NHL," Hart said in a measured voice, "was..." he paused, then suddenly let go of the kneeling man completely. Tamsyn, who was still straining to pull his hand out of Hart's, pitched backward.
"Not tall enough," Hart said in a low, quiet voice, looking down at Tamsyn. "Only one defenseman out of all 36 in the league was less than 5'7". He stepped back and turned towards the gibbous cloud above him, smelled the rain coming and said over his shoulder to Tamsyn, "The bakery business has no height requirement."