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The Baker's Apprentice

Chapter One

Seattle, September 1989

Linda LaGardia is about the most annoying human being I've ever met. Irascible, embittered, humorless, devoid of common courtesy -- and that's on a good day. Fortunately, she's also totally lacking in imagination, one of those people who seems to go through life with her head down, watching her feet take each plodding step. Fortunately, because that means she's generally too self-absorbed to really get in anyone's way. Much as she can't stand me, most of the time she simply acts like I don't exist.

All through our shift tonight, she's been singing little tuneless songs under her breath, muttering to herself about her kids, Paige and Ed Jr., and her no-good scumbag of an ex-husband, Ed Sr., who's been dead now for over six months.

I'm standing, she's sitting at the worktable shaping loaves of cheese bread and dropping them into oiled pans. "Yeah, I went to the doctor yesterday," she says from out of the blue. Caught off guard, I can't suppress a chuckle. It's so totally out of character for her to start a conversation.

"Somethin' funny about that?"

"Not about going to the doctor. I just think it's funny that you want to talk to me about it. I've been working here for over a year now, and we've never had any kind of meaningful dialogue before. That I recall."

"That's because you're always runnin' your mouth or playin' that god-awful screechin' music."

I close my eyes. "Oh, right. Now I remember."

"Last time he said my blood pressure's too high."

"How high?"

She waves her hand dismissively. "A hundred and eighty."

"Over what?"

"What d'ya mean over what? A hundred-eighty's what he said."

"Blood pressure is usually two numbers, like one-eighty over one-ten or something like that."

"Ahh, who knows. He was throwin' all kinds of numbers around." A few minutes later she says, "He wants me to take some tests."

"What kind?" I keep my eyes on the bread in front of me.

"Stress test or somethin'." She detaches the dough hook from one of the Hobarts, carries it to the sink, then hesitates, lost in some internal debate. She turns on the water, then abruptly turns it off. "I don't guess you'd know what it is?"

The tone of voice is so unlike her that I turn around. "What what is?"

"Stress test," she mumbles. She scrubs the dough hook furiously. "Didn't the doctor tell you?"

" 'Course he didn't tell me. They never tell ya nothin' if they can help it."

"They just hook you up to these electrodes -- "

"Electr -- ?" She makes a little sputter of alarm. "Does it shock ya?"

"No, no. It doesn't hurt. You just walk on this treadmill and they read your heart rate. It's not a big deal."

"I figured as much." She sniffs, embarrassed. "I gotta be there early. Guess you'll have to handle cleanup yourself. Too bad."

I reach over and turn up the boom box with my knuckles.

At five-thirty a.m. the sun is a faint pinkish glow filtered through fog. Linda's out front, loading banana-cinnamon-swirl bread onto the rack behind the register. The street is still quiet enough that I hear the engine before I see the headlights. The sound is unmistakable, as individual as a fingerprint. A truck. A 1971 Chevy El Camino in need of a tune-up. Mac.

My heart and my stomach decide to switch places.

I turn, just in time to see the Elky roll up in front of the bakery, unsavory looking as ever, its paint oxidized to a soft ivory that suggests that once upon a time it was white. Only the newly painted right-rear fender gleams like an anchorman's smile.

I thought he wouldn't be back till the end of the month. I thought . . . well, I thought a lot of things. Two weeks ago in the San Juan Islands, we wrecked a perfectly good friendship by making love for the first time. I sort of thought he'd call me, but he hasn't. Is he sorry it happened? Am I? What should I say? Should I run out and throw myself on him? Should I be cool? Let him know he can't take anything for granted? Act like it never happened?

I push my hair back and take a deep breath. Be casual. Hi. How are you? I didn't think you'd be back so soon. Then I remember that my hands are covered with wet dough. I wipe them on the towel that hangs from my apron strings and force myself to walk slowly around the end of the counter and out the door. He's on the curb, reaching inside the truck for something, and when he hears the door, he turns around. Before I have a chance to launch my carefully noncommittal greeting, he picks me up in his arms and crushes me against him till I can't breathe and don't particularly care to.

After we've tried kissing from a number of different angles, he sets me down on the sidewalk. I rearrange my apron and my bunched-up T-shirt, and he laughs as he extricates a few little globs of dough from my hair.

"I thought you weren't coming back till ... later." I wish I didn't sound so breathless.

The look he turns on me makes my knees feel jointed at the back, like flamingo legs. "I couldn't wait that long," he says. "What time are you off?"

"Seven, but -- "

"I'll be back then."

"Where are you going?"

"Kenny said I could stay with him for a few days till I find a place. I'm going to drop my stuff off there." He leans over to kiss me again. "And take a cold shower."

Gone again.

Linda rolls her eyes ceilingward when I come back inside, rubbing my bare arms from the chilly mist.

"Looks like one divorce didn't learn you nothin'."

"Teach," I say absently. "It didn't teach me anything."

Excerpted from The Baker's Apprentice © Copyright 2012 by Judith Ryan Hendricks. Reprinted with permission by Harper Paperbacks. All rights reserved.

The Baker's Apprentice
by by Judith Ryan Hendricks

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0060726180
  • ISBN-13: 9780060726188