In Our Lovely Deseret
Edited by Robert Raleigh

Throwing the Bread
Ron Carlson

[p.95]The whole summer I’m swindling Fenn. He’s rich and lazy and gullible and twelve like the rest of us, and I admit it: I’m swindling him. Harder to admit, and worse: I’ve got a case on his mother. While Fenn and Butch wrestle on Fenn’s back lawn at dusk, I sit aside chewing grass, watching Mrs. Fenn in the yellow light of the kitchen window as she sets the table for her family. I can only think: what a perfect woman. She wears dresses and does not holler at twilight for her kids to come for dinner right now, the way everyone else in our neighborhood does. Toward evening it’s like a roll call out there; men and women on their porches hollering names: Da-vey! Llo-oyd! La-rry! Mrs. Fenn, however, is delicate and calm. She is careful, never hurried, and she always calls me by my full name: Lawrence.

She is careful to maintain in a large closet in her basement, as instructed by her church, a pantry fully stocked with one year’s supply of food—in case of earthquake, famine, or nuclear holocaust. There is bread and crackers and tuna fish and, among other things, tins of mandarin oranges, which are those little toy oranges, and which I crave. Evidently, Mrs. Fenn’s plan is to feed her family tuna fish sandwiches right after the earthquake. As I said, the church advised[p.96] her to store all of this food, and she is always advising Fenn to be prudent and provident.

As a result, he is an utter spendthrift. He wheedles a huge allowance out of his father by whining about how much work and genuine danger are involved in mowing the yard, and I, in turn, swindle most of it away from him.

The way I swindle him is simple: when Butch and Fenn tire of pulling each other apart and Butch leaves Fenn dazed on the lawn, I lift a smashed Almond Joy from my pocket and wave it in front of Fenn’s face, saying, “Would you care to purchase half of this candy bar for a mere ten cents …?” Ten cents is the retail price of the whole candy bar.

“Yes!” Fenn says, and I motion to Butch to write it down in the book. Butch keeps the records. Given the right circumstances, I can eat half of a dozen candy bars on Fenn’s money. Butch moans every time Fenn says yes.

When we’re not playing baseball this summer, we’re lounging on top of the little league bleachers in the park, arguing about who has the darkest tan. And I, of course, swindle Fenn.

“Fenn, you know that dime you owe me?” I start. “Well, I’d be willing to clear the books for, say, one can of mandarin oranges. Your mother’s never going to miss one can.”

“Do I owe him a dime?” Fenn asks Butch. Butch opens the book.

“Yes.”

“One can.” Fenn nods, lost in the wonderful logic of being able to keep all of his spending money for our trips to the pharmacy soda fountain. So Fenn clambers home and Butch moans at me as he crosses out the debt.

I tell Butch: “Don’t complain. I’m doing him a favor. Besides, he’ll bring you some crackers.”

And soon Fenn is back, stepping up the bleachers. He tosses me the can of those sweet baby oranges, and Butch and Fenn grumble over their crackers. I open the little can from the bottom using myoid Forest Master pocket knife, because the little purple 59¢ printed on the top bothers me. A little.

In the late afternoon, the minor league wrestles out a game or two, and we stay and watch Fenn’s little brother pitch. For an eight-year-old he has a fair curve. About the second inning the concession stand is in full swing, along with my chances for swindling Fenn. I eat half a[p.97] snowcone, being sure to drain all of the succulent orange syrup, and then offer it to him at the full retail price: ten cents … credit. Fenn is too lazy, if he’s sitting on the top bleacher, and too hungry, if the snowcone is presented close to his face, to refuse, and Butch twists in disgust. He nearly throws the book on the ground several times, but there are adults everywhere, so he behaves himself. I try: “Hey, it’s just ten cents.” But he just shakes his head and stares at the game.

Fenn’s mother also comes to see Fenn’s brother pitch. She wears a dress to the games and sits with her arms folded. I always say, “Good evening, Mrs. Fenn,” because it means she’ll nod and say, “Hello, Lawrence.”

A moment later, on the top row, Butch nudges me and whispers: “Good evening, Mrs. Fenn,” and he moans. It’s barely a joke, and becomes less of one as the summer begins to fall away, and I find myself at a few minor league games watching Mrs. Fenn’s back and not the game at all. I worry that she might know about the cans and cans of mandarin oranges I have swindled and slurped. I can see her family sitting in their basement during the famine, and she reaches into the closet for a tin of her oranges, and there will be no oranges at all, and I can hear Fenn, that rat, saying my name right to her face.

Late in August we are flopped out on the bleachers watching Fenn practice his new deep tanning technique: stretching. He drapes himself over one of the planks like a rug on a clothesline.

“Stretches the skin,” he groans up at us. “Better tan.”

“Really good, Fenn,” I say. “We believe you. Now about that nickel you owe me.”

“I can’t hear you down here.”

So I walk down and around and stand face to upside-down face with him. “It’s in the book. Five cents.” I hold out my hand. “I guess, I could accept a can of mandarin oranges.” Even upside-down he looks desperate and I know I’ll have my way again. Butch has a shirt draped over his head; he has freckles and hates this sun business. Even so, I can sense he’s frowning.

This time, when Fenn returns, he has no oranges. He hands me a loaf of bread.

“What’s this?”

Fenn looks at Butch. “What do you mean,” he says. “It’s bread. I can’t take any more oranges; there are only a few cans left.”

I look at the bread, holding it up and hefting it in my hand like a [p.98]swollen baseball. “Bread,” I say. “What do I want with bread? I can eat bread at my house.”

Butch is crossing out the debt in the book.

“Wait a minute!” I yell. “Don’t cross that out. I don’t accept this!”

“Too late,” Butch says. “It’s done. Besides, it’s more than an even trade.”

There is something wrong. I am in the baseball park holding a loaf of bread. It just isn’t right. I squeeze the loaf in my hand.

What happens? Well, I stand up on our row, the top row of those bleachers beside my friends, and I extract the bread from its wrapper a slice at a time and begin to throw each out above the baseball diamond. Each piece spins and sails like a small white Frisbee, landing softly by second base. Bread can really fly. Fenn laughs while Butch sits watching, and for a moment the air is full of bread. But even as I toss each slice, I think: some things are not supposed to fly, even for a minute.

It is easy to forget about bread. We forget it right away when Butch reveals, under intense questioning, that he has some coinage, and we all walk directly down to the pharmacy for ice cream and frosted root beers. Fenn loves to play the juke-box; it strikes him as a clever way to spend money, and he rises and is pushing the button for his favorite numbers, which are always “Chopin’s Polonaise” and “Love Me Tender.”

Butch gives me the hard stare.

“Well,” I say back to him, “I didn’t want a loaf of bread, particularly.”

“It was a waste.”

“Yeah. Tell me about it. We should have mailed it to Europe.”

“A waste.”

“You said that already.” I drain my root beer and push off the stool. When I walk by Fenn, he is still lost in deciding what to play next on the juke-box.

By the time I meet my pals again that evening in the park, I am feeling a little like my old self, and think I might try to trick Fenn out of a snowcone or two. Fenn’s little brother is pitching a no-hitter against the Hornets, and right in the middle of the baseball fury, looking like a lamb gone through a lawn mower, is all that bread. In the action some has been tracked half way to third and some has been scattered into shallow center. Mrs. Fenn sits in row one, her arms folded in her [p.99]way, watching her son pitch. When we pass her as we climb up, I say: “Good evening, Mrs. Fenn.” She does not say, “Hello, Lawrence.” My heart feels like a nuclear holocaust. I sit the whole game trying to watch without looking at the torn bread which beams at me like radioactive particles.

Then there is a scream as the game ends and all of little Fenn’s teammates throw their gloves into the air, and everyone drifts away from the park, and the concession stand is boarded up, and it starts to get dark, and I feel like the last person left in the world.

Fenn has walked home with his mother. Butch left right away, looking back as if the bread might chase him. I stay as long as I can, hoping things will somehow become normal again, but the bread seems magnified in the dark, so I slip down the bleachers and run home.

I lie in bed an hour, I guess. It is hard to tell with all the turning. There is to be no sleeping. I keep seeing Mrs. Fenn’s back. Finally, I draw out of bed, dress, and sneak out of my house. I move down the dark streets at a walk-run, avoiding the bright spills of light from the street lamps, to the park. The whole world is asleep or gone somewhere else; it is as if there is a famine. The park is black. It is late, so late that the tennis court lights are out, and there is no moon, only the bright crumbs of stars thrown around the sky. I find the fence with my hands and jump over onto the playing field. It seems huge in the dark, and I walk in circles for a moment amid the blowing bits of bread, expecting to bump into something. I stand still and squint down, and finally, still scared, I kneel and pick up a crust of bread. This summer is being hard on me. I have thrown a loaf of bread, and I spend that night on my knees in dirt and grass, with new care, pinching crumbs from this old world.

RON CARLSON is the author of five books of fiction, most recently The Hotel Eden (W. W. Norton, 1997). He was born in Logan, Utah.