I live in a small town. I won’t tell you the name of the town because I don’t want swarms of people descending upon us to get a look at me. I’m kidding, of course. Why would anyone, let alone swarms of people, want to get a look at me after reading this story? And how would they know what I look like? Am I a woman or a man? Old or young? Unless I tell you, you’ll never know.
On the other hand, there is only one bakery in our town, and this is a story about that bakery, so if I were to mention the name of this town and someone reads this story and wants to get a look at me, he or she could go to the bakery where I almost always sit at the same table every day for approximately the same three hours. Thus if I were to tell you which table and what time of day, you would know where to find me, unless you’re reading this story a hundred years from now when I’m no longer alive, barring incredible advances in medical science.
You may wonder why I don’t always sit at the same table in the bakery if I’m such a creature of habit. I can explain in two words. These two words are not verbs or adjectives, but a person’s name. Pedro Steinberg. Are names words? Of course they are. They are proper nouns. As it happens, I would never use the word proper to describe Pedro Steinberg, yet his two names are unquestionably proper nouns. How ironic. Indeed, everything about Pedro Steinberg strikes me as ironic. What were his parents thinking? Pedro is a middle-aged Jewish man born to Jewish parents named Ira and Ruth, descendants of Polish Jews. Why did Ira and Ruth name him Pedro? Why not Peter or Ira or Fritz? Perhaps they were being ironic. Or perhaps, for reasons we can only guess at, they fell in love with the name Pedro and decided there could be no better moniker for their son.
In any case, Pedro sometimes commandeers my usual table before I get to the bakery at ten every morning, but only sometimes because most mornings he stays in bed or lolls around in his pajamas until well past ten, so he and I rarely compete for the table in question, a corner table adjacent to a window. Given there are only two corner tables adjacent to windows in the bakery, someone trying to guess my identity from this story could now narrow my identity down to at most four people.
But I’ll go you one better. My table is in the southeast corner. Therefore, should you come looking for me between ten and one at the bakery, and you know north from south and east from west, you will be able to narrow your search down to me or Pedro Steinberg or the people with whom we are sharing the table. I, however, am not chubby, the person I usually share my table with is chubby, and Pedro is mucho chubby and rarely shares the table with anyone, so there I’ll be if I tell you the name of our town.
By now you may be wondering: where is this story going? Or maybe you’re merely enjoying the way I’m easing into the tale and you aren’t greatly attached to where the story is going so long as the telling continues to please you. Or maybe you stopped reading after the second or third paragraph, rendering these words mere symbols waiting to be deciphered. Imagine a woman standing on a sidewalk watching a man walking away and no longer listening to what she is trying to tell him. She calls after him, but her voice falters and she falls silent.
The bakery of which I write is called Mona’s. This commercial footprint, to use a bit of architectural lingo, has had seven different tenants in the last fourteen years, and for five of those fourteen years, the footprint was vacant. The reason for this track record, so to speak, is that none of the tenants prior to the current tenant, Mona Castelli, were able turn a profit here, and Mona was on the verge of closing up shop, too, until something quite remarkable happened.
The footprint’s décor changed with each new bakery, the menu changed, business hours fluctuated from proprietor to proprietor, staff turned over countless times, prices went up and up, booths came and went and came again, chairs were comfortable, uncomfortable, sort of comfortable, too comfortable, wobbly, not wobbly. Cats were allowed, then disallowed, then allowed, then disallowed, and are now allowed again.
The name of the bakery has changed seven times. My favorite name was Il Trogolo, which is Italian for The Trough. Unfortunately, the owner of Il Trogolo and the baker she hired routinely overused cinnamon, and whoever made their coffee had a penchant for bitterness, so…
There are currently twelve tables and two booths in the large and not-quite-square rectangular footprint that is Mona’s, with a maximum occupancy of fifty-four. The walls are white and decorated with a constantly changing show of photographs and paintings by local artists. The unisex bathroom is large and clean, the pale blue bathroom walls adorned with three movie posters for goofy French comedies made in the 1990s. Hours of business are 7 AM to 5:30 PM, Sunday through Thursday, and 7 AM to 10 PM Friday and Saturday.
Mona’s baked goods are yummy, not too cinnamony, the coffee is excellent, there are numerous gluten-free and vegan comestibles available along with many gluten-rich and non-vegan edibles, the lighting is good, the chairs are comfortable but not too comfortable, and on the face of it, one wouldn’t have thought Mona’s needed a remarkable happenstance to survive and thrive, except…
From April through October our coastal town is a thriving tourist destination. And though it is also true that virtually all of the 977 year-round residents of Carmeline Creek enjoy patronizing Mona’s, when the rainy cold winter settles in on the far north coast of California, tourists rarely venture here; and the 977, few of whom possess trogolos of cash, were not buying enough baked goods and coffee to keep Mona’s afloat.
Yes, things looked dire, and we locals were girding our loins, so to speak, for yet another incarnation of our beloved bakery to close when…
I was just settling down at my usual table in the nearly empty cafe, a hard December rain pelting the windows and obscuring my view of Philomena’s Bay where huge breakers were crashing onto the beach at the mouth of Carmeline Creek. A steaming latte in a handsome green bowl awaited my lips, and a raisin and walnut muffin awaited my mandibles, when the tubular chimes hanging on the front door sounded with the entrance of a woman in her mid-forties with reddish brown hair accompanied by a boy verging on teenagery with similarly reddish brown hair and a girl a few years younger than the boy with light brown hair verging on blonde.
The moment I saw this woman and boy and girl, I thought Danish Irish Spanish Morocco Algeria.
The woman, solemnly lovely, approached the counter where Mona was lost in a trance of despondency about the impending closure of her bakery.
“Hello,” said the woman to Mona, with an accent both Irish and Spanish. “My name is Elisha Montoya. This is my son Conor and my daughter Alexandra. I see you have an apartment for rent upstairs. May we take a look? Also, should you be hiring, I’m looking for a job and have lots of experience as a cook and baker and waitress. I’d be happy to work for you for a week without pay to give you an idea of what I might do for you.”
Mona, who has long curly brown hair and wears large red-framed glasses and always appears to be perplexed, though she isn’t, gazed at Elisha for a long moment and said, “I can show you the apartment, though I’m not the landlord. And as it happens, my baker and counterperson both just found other jobs because, barring a miracle, I’ll be closing this place in two weeks, but… sure, I’ll give you a try.”
Which is how Elisha and Conor and Alexandra came to live above the bakery, and Elisha came to work in the bakery, and how two weeks later Mona did not close the bakery because business had picked up considerably since the coming of Elisha and the addition to menu of Elisha’s creamy potato and turnip soup, hearty Irish stew, spicy chai, delectable basil and cheese bread sticks, falafels, and hummus made with just the right amount of garlic.
Curiosity about Elisha and her children certainly played a part in the sizeable increase in patronage at Mona’s for the first week, and the new food items were undeniably a big hit with locals who have few affordable dining choices outside of cooking at home; but as a daily denizen of the bakery, I can assure you that the decisive factor in Mona’s turnaround was the change in the atmosphere, the new vibe that took hold here with the advent of Elisha and her children.
How to describe this new vibe? I’m currently at work on a quartet of poems inspired by my desire to elucidate this new tonality, and I’m also composing an upbeat dance tune fueled by the transformation of Mona’s geist, but until those poems are finished and the dance tune is second nature to my guitar-playing fingers, I think what happened when Rex Abernathy came into Mona’s a few mornings ago captures the Elisha Effect better than anything.
Rex Abernathy is seventy-eight-years-old, a former lumberjack. Rex, as my mother used to say about nearly everyone, is a piece of work. My mother used that expression to characterize people she thought were unusual and/or challenging in one way or another; and that’s how I’m using the expression for Rex, with an emphasis on challenging.
I’ve known Rex for seventeen years, and even before his wife Effie died seven years ago, Rex was a grim person who maintained a steadfast disinterest in other people, whereas Effie was a reflexively friendly person and genuinely interested in the lives of others. After Effie died, Rex ceased speaking to anyone other than his two dogs—he always has two. When one of his dogs dies, he immediately gets another from the animal shelter; and for all his grimness, Rex treats his dogs well and they adore him.
Eventually people in town stopped saying hello to Rex because when they did say hello, Rex would either ignore them or glare at them as if to say, “Don’t ever do that again.”
Every day for those seven years after Effie died, Rex drove to town with his dogs in his old pickup from his place a few miles up Carmeline Creek Road to get his mail at the post office, buy groceries, and pick up a loaf of bread at the bakery. He never uttered a word to anyone in the post office, even if he had a package to pick up. He would wait stone-faced for either Robin or Joe to bring him the package; and not once did he say thanks. Nor would he speak to anyone in the grocery store.
In the bakery, rather than speak, he would point; and because he always only got a loaf of bread, his pointing sufficed; and not once did he leave a tip.
That’s how things were with Rex for seven years, and I thought that’s how things would be with Rex until the day he died—the lonely man grim and silent and keeping everyone at bay with his palpable sorrow and simmering rage.
A few days ago—one year and four months after Elisha and Conor and Alexandra moved into the apartment above Mona’s and Elisha became the cook and baker and sometimes counterperson at Mona’s, and Elisha’s children started working at Mona’s, too—I’m sitting at the table where I almost always sit, enjoying a cup of potato and turnip soup accompanied by three still-warm-from-the-oven basil and cheese breadsticks, having earlier in my sojourn at Mona’s enjoyed a latte and a delicious pumpkin muffin, when Rex Abernathy comes in from the blustery day, the last day of March.
And I notice Rex is not wearing the filthy tattered orange coat over a frayed plaid shirt tucked into greasy trousers he wore religiously for the last seven years. No, he is wearing a clean teal dress shirt tucked into brown corduroy trousers. Nor is he wearing the beat-up Giants baseball hat that is synonymous in our town with Rex Abernathy. Instead, he is hatless and has combed his thinning white hair, trimmed his mustache, and shaved his usually stubbly cheeks and chin.
He does not glare around the room as if looking for a fight, but rather gazes around the sunny bakery and smiles at a large black and white photograph of Elisha’s daughter Alexandra standing in the open doorway of the bakery holding a contented tabby cat in her arms—the photograph taken by Elisha’s son Conor.
Rex steps up to the counter and smiles at Mona, who seems nearly as surprised as I am by the dramatic changes in Rex’s dress and demeanor.
Mona smiles tentatively and asks, “What can I get you today, Rex?”
At which moment, Elisha looks up from peeling potatoes with Alexandra at the big table in the kitchen and says, “Oh hey, Rex. We saved you some stew. Come sit with us.”
Rex bows politely to Mona and ambles into the kitchen where he sits on a stool next to Alexandra, who looks at Rex and says, “I wanted the last of that stew, but Mama said she was saving it for you.”
Now Elisha sets a big bowl of yesterday’s Irish stew on the table in front of Rex, along with a blue cloth napkin, a large silver spoon, and a big white mug full of hot black coffee, and Rex says as tenderly as I’ve ever heard anyone say anything, “Oh gosh, Elisha, there’s plenty here for Alexandra to have some, too.”