Sean McKlusky's Pick:
"He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread
for God's sacred feast.
"All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of
your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life's heart."
— Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, "On Love"
When he was a boy, Pongo believed if he closed his eyes and turned in a circle three times, whispering lee laa lo, the girl named Maggie would love him. At school, she sat two desks in front of him and rarely spoke, embarrassed by her lisp. For a year, he turned his circle. But she only spoke to him once, softly asking if the school bus was late, and he decided she was ugly as a bullfrog. And the more he thought that, the more he had to see if he was right.
When summer came, he went to the community pool, climbed a tree to a mid-level branch, and, hidden among the leaves, watched her take her swim lesson, her small body splashing in a lime-green suit, her hair tucked under a pink bathing cap. When he heard her tell the swim teacher she wanted to learn the butterfly stroke because she'd like to fly away, his heart beat faster. After her lesson, she stretched out on her belly to read her book, spindly legs waving in the air. Pongo stared at her ginger-colored hair.
Pongo began to believe if he did not sit in the tree and watch, she would not learn to swim, and if she didn't learn, she might stand near a body of water one day and fall in and drown. He had to watch her. He quit his newspaper route and stopped going to summer school math class. His mother had died long ago, and his father called him a lazy son of a bitch for hanging out at the pool all day and refused Pongo extra money. Pongo didn't mind. Instead of the bus, he rode his bike. He picked through the neighbors' trash for comic books. Using his mother's recipe, he learned to make black bread for himself.
His tree limb grew smooth, and he liked the pocket of warmth between his body and the trunk as he sat guarding Maggie, munching on a heel of bread. By early August, she could do the arm part of the butterfly, but her legs weren't strong. Halfway across the pool, she sank, slipping out of the pool each time to cry quietly into her beach towel. As Pongo watched, she became beautiful again, no longer a bullfrog. "I'd teach you," he whispered, "if I knew how."
One day at the end of summer, he went to the pool, but Maggie wasn't there. For a while, he waited, and when she still didn't come, he timidly approached the swim teacher.
Perhaps sick, the teacher said, but Pongo knew better. Jumping on his bike and racing to her house, he found it empty. She'd learned to do the butterfly, he knew, she'd flown away, and her family had followed her because if they didn't, they'd lose her forever. Pongo plunked down in her front yard, his pocket full of crumbs, and wept.
That was fifteen years ago. And now he's a man, a baker, famous for his bread. It is as the sign boasts on the storefront window, Out Of This World!
"Get your head of the clouds!" shouts his boss.
The ceiling is lightly dusted with flour from the countless mornings of baking. He looks down at his hands. They, too, are covered in flour. He's alone in the back, early morning, the sun has yet to light up the sky. He feels the burning heat from the ovens. Yes, yes, back to work, for if he doesn't turn the dough out on the counter and work in more flour, he can't stroke it with his hand. And if he can't stroke it, he'll never find an errant strand of ginger-colored hair. And what if she never feels her hair touched like that? If she only knows the fluttering of her solitary heart?
Nina Schuyler's novel The Painting was published in 2004. Her short stories have been published in Fugue, Switchback, Big Ugly Review and other places.