Baker, Baker

Michael Paul Kozlowsky

Michael Paul Kozlowsky is the author of Scarecrow Has a Gun. Writing as M.P. Kozlowsky, he has authored children’s novels including Juniper Berry, Frost, Rose Coffin, and The Dyerville Tales. He lives in New York.

He carried the ingredients home, ducking in and out of narrow alleys, jumping overturned garbage cans and puddles that shimmered with the starless, coal-dark sky above, his breathing labored and coarse, enhanced by the throbbing pain beneath his ribs, his head swiveling side to side, eyes wary and suspicious. All was quiet but all was not well. He should have been used to this by now—the rotting carcasses of rodents strewn in the streets, the howling forceful wind cutting corners and deeply into the bone, the broken glass, the rusted cars stripped of their interiors, the bus-length sinkholes in the concrete—then again, some things never settle into complacency.

He made it home safely this time and with an unsteady hand, nicked and bruised and calloused with jagged fingernails as yellow as his skin, locked the door behind him. One, two, three, four locks. Without removing his tattered coat (although he didn’t know it, it reeked from constant use as if he were decaying underneath)—there was a time when he needed more outside, there was a time when he needed less, now there was just this—he headed for his kitchen, placing the plastic bag of ingredients on the stained and decrepit and crumb-laden counter.

And then the room began to spin. He closed his eyes, but it was no use; even the blackness he withdrew into spun like a wasteland cyclone. In a mind long devastated, his thoughts tumbled, his memories shuffled and mixed into further irrelevance and fiction, and when he collapsed, his knees pounding the floor hard enough to launch a searing jolt of pain up his thighs and into his back, he slumped forward, gasping for a reprieve as spittle sprinkled the floor.

It was minutes before his vision settled and when he focused, he focused on the ingredients resting on the counter and nothing else.

Finally, he rose, removed his coat and threw it aside, never checking to see where it landed. He licked his lips, not with hunger but with desire and, crouching, opened a cabinet, and then another, and then another, each time peering in, unable to find what he needed—a bowl, just a bowl, he thought, plastic, ceramic, brass, whatever, please, just a bowl, God, please, just let me find a fucking bowl, how could I forget to grab a fucking bowl while I was out there?

He spat on the floor, a sewage-like mixture of bulky mucus and stale saliva streaked with blood, pus and disease conjured from the humid and putrid recesses of his mouth and throat. Smearing it with his shoe, the former beige tone of the tile emerged amongst the layers of crud surrounding it. Not that he noticed, for at that moment he recalled where he had last seen a bowl. His first instinct was to grab his jacket—no, no, no, he thought, I’m not going outside, just across the hall, just across the hall, you stupid fuck.

One, two, three, four locks undone. His head darted out past the door and back in, out and back in. The hall was clear—clear as in no eyes were on him, no living eyes, for the bloated body was still there with a silver rod up its spine, awkwardly posed at the top of the stairs like a fallen scarecrow. Four doors down, he thought, no, five, no, four, five, five, five, it’s five, and you know it, fucking five. Out he ran, again jumping, jumping more garbage and holes, more bodies, more puddles—this time reflecting nothing but a pale and cracked ceiling. Without slowing, he came to the door at full speed, lowering his shoulder and knocking it clear off its hinges, sending him rolling across the floor, jagged glass biting into his arm. Helga, Helga, Helga, he screamed as he ran through the room and into a small kitchen, where, buried beneath the black goop of the sink, its blue rim, a thin lip protruding from the muck as if seeking air, he saw the bowl and reached in, his fingers closing on it while the rest of his body had already turned in preparation for a quick exit. He pulled the bowl free, sending a splash of filth across the floor and wall, and brought it up to his lips and kissed and kissed and kissed, his face smeared with the lingering liquid.

Back down the hall he ran, and back into his home, locking up behind him—one, two, three, four times. A yellowed and broken grin across his face, he set the bowl down on the appropriate counter space and began to dump in his ingredients, never bothering to clean what he had gathered. (Clean? He hardly knew the word.) He ripped bag after bag open—a brown powder here, a grayish powder there, a slow ooze of a yellow paste, a slab of a blackened blob—piling them one on top of the other, and, finally, vehemently mixing them with his fingers. He was breathing heavily now, his protruding ribs pressing tightly against his skin beneath his red, floral-patterned woman’s top; his hands trembled, his teeth clattered, splitting one in half and sending it far down his throat with the faint taste of blood.

Wheezing with glee at the mixture of ingredients, he grabbed the plastic bag and pulled it securely over the bowl. After cleaning his hands with a wipe against the wall, he ecstatically tiptoed to his bed—a creaking mattress complete with attacking springs and wire from a rusted frame—collapsed onto it face down, and drifted toward sleep.

Outside his window there was a glow, neither a celestial body nor artificial light. Lately it had been persistent in its presence, night and day, hovering over the landscape, a banished halo. It used to scare him, this green glow, but now he preferred to ignore it, even as it seeped uninvited through the glass and walls of his home, even as it descended like a fog over every street, the people breathing it in without reservation.

As he twisted in bed, still dressed, holes in his socks, holes in his pants and underwear—the top was clean, the top was perfect—he began to sweat, then, just as quickly, he was ice cold again, an irritating process that would continue throughout the night. Yet, he was optimistic, for the first time in a long time (Time? He hardly knew the word). He wasn’t even sure it was night; it was dark but there was also the glow, sometimes it seemed to be like this far too long for it to be night. He had hope now, it was there in the bowl, there in the ingredients that were suddenly starting to stink. Or was it a sweetness he smelled? But, then again, what is sweet?

The bowl, sitting in stains and darkness, the iridescent glow from the lone window slowly creeping toward it, the plastic bag now loose over the contents, was as still as the cracked television from across the room, as still as the upturned rocking chair, as still as the rat poison under the man’s bed; yet, as the night progressed, the bowl, ever so slightly, kicked; just a slight bump, pushing it a mere centimeter from its original placement. But inside, things were working much quicker.

When he awoke, he immediately went to the kitchen, pulling up a wobbly chair and sitting directly in front of the bowl, his chin resting in his palms, his eyes, bloodshot and wide, focused and unblinking, filled with tears that never fell. Before him, raised above eye level, the bowl sat like an idol, worshipped and paramount to his day. Nothing else mattered, not the gnawing within his stomach, not the tics beneath his skin, not his bladder, only the bowl mattered and the ingredients inside. He didn’t move; he wouldn’t move. He only continued to stare and stare and stare…

It was a large lurch; the bowl shifting a full four inches to the left, and the man jumped back in his seat, squealing with delirious merriment. Kicking the chair aside, he rose, pissing his pants without even realizing it. He began to clap, loud, boisterous applause, accompanied by the staccato stomping of his feet as he rotated in a circle, dust and dirt disturbed and drifting into the air about him, a different kind of mist, something almost magical for him to play in.

Then came the rustling of plastic. His head snapped back over his shoulder and his eyes fell on the bowl and the movement of the bag concealing it. Something was poking at the top, a small blunt jab from within. Hovering over the bowl, through the bag, he could see a misshapen shadow moving about, the tip of which continued to push against the plastic in an attempt to rip through. The bag peaked and stretched, until finally the object receded and all was still again.

This isn’t right; all wrong, all wrong, the man whispered, clearly in distress. He swiveled back around, his eyes surveying his dilapidated home. Not right at all, he moaned, what the fuck am I going to do, what, what, what? Spotting his coat, he grabbed it, slipped it on, undid his locks—one, two, three, four—peeked out into the hallway, and, seeing all was clear, ran out and down the hall, over the dead body, down the stairs, and outside. Pulling his coat tight, he warily headed deeper into the city.

Each street looked worse than the next, small fires flared along the sidewalks and the sewers overflowed, gurgling green ooze. Ahead was the usual assembly of people within the dying greenery of the square, hunched over on the small plastic white and yellow seats neatly aligned in a circle and quietly chanting and humming, rubbing their naked bodies with the backs of their hands, their fingers bent like claws grasping at air. On this day, in the center of the circle was a battered machine of sorts, a machine distorted well past recognition, its cord being used as a whip against it by rotating members of the group. From the corners of their eyes they watched him hustle by, their bodies jerking in their seats, trembling to abandon their perch and approach him; but none did, none ever did, and he knew that.

Knowing which streets he could cross and which he couldn’t, which were safe and which weren’t, he trekked several blocks south until he was in the area he so desperately sought. Overhead, tied to strips of wire hanging from windows and broken streetlights, off building roofs and from dead trees, were long planks of wood painted black. They swung back and forth, creaking in the stale air, dead space against dead space. In the distance a board flopped through the air, falling from the seventh floor of a building, and hit the ground with a blistering smack, splitting into several pieces, shards and splinters scattering about the concrete, and the echo of it all spreading up and down the street like a mushroom cloud of noise.

There was laughter, a cackle that cracked like the wood, and it came from a red-haired woman dancing along the inside of a chain link fence at the far end of the block. She twirled in a pink bathrobe, her fingers gripping the fence for balance, her pale legs kicking at the air. The man approached quickly, the wood dangling overhead suddenly forgotten, a threat so constant it had to be shoved aside. Repeatedly he kicked the fence, rattling it free of rust, but there was no response from the ragged woman, not even a glance of acknowledgement of the chain song. The woman continued dancing her way to the far end of the fence and, just behind, he followed, his fist slamming into the fence with each step. Finally, he spotted a hole and he reached through, familiarly cutting his wrist in long biting streaks. Arm outstretched, he grabbed her by the robe and pulled. But his hands only held the pink cloth and the woman was left bare, not that she noticed, although he certainly did. Her stomach was riddled with splinter punctures; small, sharp shards protruding from the skin, dried blood caked over every piece.

The ingredients! he screamed, revealing a crumpled piece of paper up against the fence. Are these right, are you even her, are you the one who told me, are there others back there?

The woman cackled again and continued to dance but this time, she danced backward, away from the fence and deeper into the lot, bending over and grabbing something from off the ground. What you created, she yelled as she returned to the fence, what you made doesn’t matter anymore. It’s only before your eyes, isn’t it?

I don’t want to look at it, he said, it’ll kill me, won’t it, it’ll kill me if I look, won’t it?

Then don’t look, she screamed, and her arm shot forward, a sharp object in her hand fast approaching his face, his eye. He swung away just in time and the jagged knife poked through the fence where his left eye would have been. The woman shrieked, the knife conducting its own dance in her hand, and without another glance the man ran back the way he came, his footsteps heavy beneath the hanging black wood.

After he finished locking his door—one, two, three, four times—he rushed to the kitchen and discovered the bowl was now completely across the counter, up against the dead refrigerator. The bag rustled in greeting and, seeing this, he ran to his bedroom, ducked beneath the bed, and grabbed the rat poison with his shaking hand.

When he returned to the bowl, he noticed the small hole in the top of the bag. It broke through, he thought, it’s only a matter of time now, it won’t stop. Peering into the tear, he attempted to make out his creation. Squinting, he hovered closer, but there was only blackness.

Then came the whisper.

He couldn’t make out the words, but there was a quiet squeezing of a voice, a puff of air, an attempt at speech, and this caused him to recoil, dropping the poison to the floor. What is it? he asked in a trembling voice, what are you trying to say, what the fuck do you want from me? He suddenly grabbed the bowl and brought it close to his chest, swaying with it as if holding a child. What is it? he asked again, it doesn’t have to be like this, what is it?

There was another puff of air, this one a bit stronger, and a word formed: out. Is that right? he wondered, is that what I heard? He placed the bowl back down on the counter and sat on his chair, hands beneath his thighs. His feet tapped uncontrollably as the sweat dripped from his shaggy graying hair.

Outside, the glow continued to smother the city. Looking out the window, past the creeping muted light, he saw the still ocean and the far-off landmass. He wanted to get out, desperately, but there were risks, dangers, and there were no guarantees. It could be more of the same, he realized; it could be worse. Maybe. A risk.

He decided to sleep on it—there was always time, always (right?)—knowing how some decisions simplify as the days progress.

Over the next few days, he pulled the chair beside the bowl and talked to it, waiting for a conversation to form, but all he heard were more wisps of air, more empty attempts at dialogue, and, sometimes, if he listened very carefully, the word ‘out’ reemerged. I know, I know, he said over and over again to the ingredients in the bowl, but it’s not all bad here; I have you and you have me; if you go out there, well, then you might not exist anymore; I can help you, you can help me, we don’t need anything else.

But still he heard that word: out, out, out. And one day, when he awoke, he found the bowl tipped over, empty. His heart churned, his body went cold, his knees buckled. There on the floor, wrapped and lost in the bag, an eye peering out of the lone hole—an eye? is that an eye? —were the ingredients inching its way to the window. Sprinting across the room, he snatched up the bag, and without looking in it, dumped the contents back into the bowl. No! he screamed, no, no, no; I created you, I control you, you’re mine and you can’t leave, I won’t allow it.

There was another puff of air, and this word was clear. Eyes widened, the man, with his own breath, repeated it with a quiver: please. And something, a finger or small hand perhaps, protruded from the hole. You won’t make it, he told it, I promise you, and that will kill us both.

Again, the puff of air. Please.

No! And he scooped up the rat poison from where he left it, and, crying now, poured it into the hole. Day after day, shaking and delirious with sadness, he continued to sit before the bowl, waiting for it to move, waiting for the puff of air, but nothing ever came. He sat all alone, a green glow upon his shoulders, rarely sleeping, hardly eating, safe, but still somehow dead.