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             He was sitting on the front porch again, smoking a cigarette. Legs stretched out, looking toward the sky. She watched him from the kitchen. His shirt was untucked, and he hadn’t even bothered to close the screen door. There must have been a dozen mosquitoes inside by now.

            She breathed in the thick summer air and stepped forward. She knew what she should do. What her sister had been telling her to do for months. What her friends keep saying at work, when she explained she needed overtime because he had overdrafted their account again. Probably at the bar. Probably after work. But—she loved him once, didn't she? All those years ago, back when she first got pregnant, and he said he'd marry her and they'd all live happily ever after? Didn't he deserve another chance? Just one more chance?

            She stepped toward the door.

            “Can you close the screen?” she said.

            He didn't answer.

            “Dave, did you hear me?”

            “Yeah, I heard you,” he said. “What's wrong with a cross breeze?”

            When he looked up at her, she almost faltered.

            “Will you help me in the kitchen?”

            “What with?”

            “I'm making bread.”

            He hadn't helped when she planted the small patch of wheat out back all those months back. Hadn't lifted a finger when she thrashed it herself, milled it into flour. She figured out how to do it on a series of posts on DIYmom! that somehow brought her comfort. She liked the back and forth of the banter in the posts, how one mom argued that it was only natural to harvest your own wheat because who knows what kind of chemicals are even in flour these days anyways, while another one wrote back that she was a working mom and didn't liven in medieval Russia, so Gold Medal All Purpose was just fine. For her part, Lana wrote: “just want to make something from scratch, just to know how it feels to see it through to the end without quitting :)” She got 10 likes and a few down votes, and a comment asking her if she wasn't sure she needed to see a psychiatrist.

            Lana faltered in the door.

            “I'm going to mix the dough and start kneading. You know I've been working up to this for months.”

            She could hear the kids playing out front, but he wasn't even looking at them. Sometimes she didn't know where he was looking out to.

            She decided she would do it, ask him at every step to join her in the kitchen. Symbolically. Literally. She knew he wouldn't, and she was almost looking forward to it.

            “Help me mix?”

            No response.

            “Fine, I'll do it myself.”

            “Help me knead?”

            Nothing.

            “Right. Didn't expect it. I'll just do it myself.”

            “I'm going to let it rise, so do you want to come preheat the oven?”

            She wasn't even sure if he was there anymore. Maybe, she thought, she wouldn't even notice he was gone. After twelve whole years. Maybe he'd been erasing himself the entire time, inching further out the front door, further down the porch steps, so that one day he'd be down the street and it would all just seem so natural.

            It took nearly six hours, from start to finish: from warming the water, to mixing the dough, to kneading it out, not without a few stray tears making their way in. From letting it rise, to heating the oven, to baking it and watching the outsides brown into a perfect crust.

            The smell was enticing. Fresh-baked bread always was.  

            She pulled the loaf out, and noticed it was pitch dark outside. Was he still sitting on the porch? The kids were scribbling lines into their notebooks at the kitchen table, hurriedly finishing homework before bed.

            “Smells good in here,” he said, as he walked in through the kitchen, reeking of cheap vodka.

            She should have known he'd show up for the final step. He always did.

            “Can I grab a slice of that?”

            She looked at him, square in the eyes, and for the first time in over a decade, said, firmly, no.

            Before he could respond, she launched into the speech she'd been waiting for, since she posted it on DIYmom! six months ago.

            “Damn it, Dave, did you even help me bake the bread?”

            She waited a moment, tried to leave an emphatic pause. She had it all ready to say: the part about how you had to see things through without quitting; how a marriage, a family, took perseverance, just like growing wheat and baking bread. She could make the effort, couldn't he see it? How much help did he offer her as she baked this bread? How much? Didn't that just say something, about their marriage? Didn't he feel like a freeloader? Wasn't he already halfway down the street, never mind out the door?

            But he smiled, and he had crooked front teeth, and it felt like twelve years ago again, and he was picking her up after work in his old pick-up, the one she constantly needed to jump. She saw the kids looking up at her, then, and stupidly, stupidly, let it all rush out: “I baked it, so I get to eat it.”

            And she grabbed a hold of the kitchen knife and sliced off a piece, put it on a plate, and ate it, watching the steam rise out the middle of the loaf, thinking it looked a little bit like the trail of his nightly cigarettes on the front porch.

 

             

Kristina Zdravi─Ź Reardon is a PhD student in comparative literature at the University of Connecticut and earned her MFA at the University of New Hampshire. She translates from Slovenian and Spanish and her translations and stories have been featured in World Literature Today, The Adirondack Review and other journals, as well as Flash Fiction International (Norton, 2015).



 


For a workshop exercise, I was challenged to transpose a folk tale into a new key. I immediately thought of the story of the Little Red Hen. As a child, I was always insulted that no one wanted to help the hen and loved the moment when she got to tell off all the farm animals and eat that bread herself. Yet the irony was lost on me, as my own mother painstakingly prepared meals for our happy family by herself—and never refused any of us. When I sat down to write, I thought about the ways that women today literally and metaphorically often bake the bread by themselves and rarely claim it for their own—and what trying to stand up for oneself really looks like.









 





  


Copyright 2009