Alma did not need to look at the clock on her bedside table to know it was five in the morning. Her body awoke every day naturally at that time and had for many years. She had gotten into the habit of waking an hour before Harold did to get his breakfast ready before he headed off to work, and she continued to do so even though he had been gone for nearly five years. She rolled over on her side, relishing the warmth of her bed for a few more moments before peeling her eyes open.
The clock blared 5:05 AM in bright red lights. My, my, Alma thought to herself. I am beginning to lose my touch. She quickly got up, even though there was no one to rush her. Grabbing her housecoat off the back of her vanity chair, she slipped her feet into her worn slippers and shuffled off into the kitchen.
Alma flipped on the overhead light, blinking as the fluorescent bulbs quickly pulsated before settling into their harsh, overly bright glow. She always disliked having such a harsh beam in the kitchen, but Harold enjoyed having that artificial light as he read his morning paper. It had never occurred to her to switch out the fixtures once he was gone. She moved over to the small island in the middle of the kitchen where her containers of flour, sugar, and yeast were already waiting. Alma retrieved some nearly scalding water from the tap at the kitchen sink and went about making a yeast bread.
Alma was a young bride, barely eighteen when she met the twenty-five-year-old Harold. She had been working at her uncle’s bakery in downtown San Francisco, a small building tucked in between giant skyscrapers that filled the Financial District. She would get into the bakery at three every morning and help her uncle, rolling out loaf after loaf. By the time the first wave of customers started streaming in around seven, a thin layer of flour would already be coating her skin, making her look even more pale than she already did. The bulk of their customers were businessmen wearing dark blue suits with white shirts starched within an inch of their life. Alma would pour their coffee, get them a doughnut, and take their money. Day after day, it was all the same, until Harold walked in. She couldn’t even remember the first thing he said to her or even what she said in return; she only remembered what he ordered – a small loaf of her homemade cinnamon swirl bread. It was so unlike the parade of doughnuts that walked out of the door of the bakery every morning that it caught her off guard and from that morning on, she always set aside a loaf just for him.
The months flew by and the next thing Alma knew, she was in the side room of her parents’ church, waist cinched tight under several layers of ivory lace that were buttoned clear up to her chin. Harold wore a blue tie. Her mother told her that in order to be a good housewife, she needed to rise an hour before her husband did and have a full breakfast waiting for him: eggs, bacon, grits. So every morning, for the first few months, Alma rose at five to prepare breakfast for her husband. And every morning, for the first few months, Harold ate that breakfast without saying a word to Alma; none at least that contained a compliment. After a while, Alma began to notice him eating less and less of it. She hadn’t started cooking it any differently, so she wasn’t sure where she was going wrong. Then one day, after she awoke at five, she decided to bake that cinnamon swirl bread. And he ate the whole loaf.
Alma flicked on the small TV in the kitchen so she would have some background noise as she made the bread. She dumped the ingredients into a mixing bowl: flour, oil, and salt. She didn’t use any measuring cups and instead scooped the flour into the bowl with her hand. She slowly drizzled the yeast mixture over the dry ingredients and began working the dough by hand until it formed a soft ball. Dumping the dough onto her floured working surface, she began kneading the gooey mass back and forth across the table. As she pushed and pulled the dough, she felt it ooze between her fingers. The process of kneading bread had always been calming to her – feeling the warm dough and its softness beneath her fingertips put her in a trance as she worked the dough for nearly five minutes. Once satisfied with the consistency of her mixture, she greased a bowl and gently placed her work into it, lightly rolling it around until it was all covered with a light sheen of oil. She placed a towel over the top of the bowl and set it near the warming oven to rise.
Grabbing a cup of coffee from the freshly brewed pot, Alma took a seat at the kitchen table. She enjoyed sitting at the small window, watching as the world outside began to wake up. On the back of the chair across from her, Harold’s old flannel work coat hung across the back. Once he had retired from the hustle of the financial world, he had ditched his severe business suits in favor of more relaxing clothing, which included these flannel coats. Sometimes, Alma would put on that old blue coat. As she wrapped herself in it, she would inhale the smell of Harold that still lingered on the old cloth. It was a combination of the menthol cigarettes he used to smoke with the bitter scent of his morning coffee. Even though the cigarettes were what eventually took him away from her, Alma only associated pleasant memories with their minty smell. Staring at that blue coat that morning, her fingers itched to run across that scratchy fabric, rub it against her cheek like when Harold would wrap her in his arms, but the sound of a creaking garbage truck out front ripped her from her reverie and brought her back to the moment at hand – the making of the morning bread.
Alma rose from her chair and retrieved her bowl from by the stove. She removed the towel and was pleased to see that her bread had risen nicely. Alma worked at rolling out the dough into a slightly thick sheet, painting it with a cinnamon sugar mixture infused with butter. Rolling the dough into a small log, she plopped it onto a cookie sheet and placed it in the oven. As the bread began to bake, she went outside to get the morning paper that had recently been thrown on her front doorstep. The chill from the nearby ocean swept up the block and she pulled her coat closer around her. Even though she was blocks from the coast, a gentle mist speckled her face as the morning fog came rolling in. Her children lived up in the mountains and begged her constantly to move in with them, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave the home she and Harold had shared for over fifty years. As she walked back into the kitchen, the smell of baking cinnamon filled her nostrils and she smiled. After the bread was done, she cut the loaf into eight equal slices. She smeared butter across four of them, watching the pale liquid melt and pool in the crevices of the bread. She ate them standing up at the kitchen island, like she always did.
Alma looked at the remaining four slices, still warm from the oven with little waves of steam rising from them. She gathered them in a clean napkin and stepped into the backyard. The birds were already there waiting for her, their feet resting on stale crumbs of bread. She ripped the slices into pieces and tossed them to the birds. As she watched two pigeons fight over a piece of the bread she had worked all morning to make, she felt a tightness in her chest. She brushed her hands on the front of her coat and went back inside. Those dishes weren’t going to wash themselves now that Harold was gone.
Shannon McPherson lives in the heart of the Mother Lode in Northern California. She has been published in Crack the Spine, 101 Words, and Flash Fiction Online. She is currently pursuing her MA in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University.