The state of the bagel
The heinous defilement of the bagel was unforgivable! Was our culture so obscene? Could we stoop so low as to dirty our estimable staff? Such knowledge gave one willybugs, a grave sense of helpless loss. Only said defilement pleased me at the moment. It took the spotlight off Gwyn my wife during our brunch with Peg my ant and Ed my unc. In heated passion Ed up and said, “This past year three Kansas City bagel shops closed down!” In response Peg sagely intoned: “The larger companies ‘r buying ‘em out.”
Martha my mom, who looks like Martha Stewart you must admit, said, “Gwyneth once worked at the Bagel Barrel, didn’t you, Gwyneth?”
It gave Ed my unc and Peg my ant a chance to look Gwyneth over.
“Oh, how long did you work at the Bagel Barrel?” Peg interestedly inquired.
“Two years,” Gwyneth admitted.
“Two years,” I repeated, “after which Gwyneth baked bagels for the Bagel Barn. The Bagel Barn ain’t Jewish like the Bagel Barrel is. I visited the Bagel Barn during their pre-Gwyneth days? They had a glass display case where you saw the bagels? The people selling the bagels back there looked real proud of their bagels. Some bagels looked like softballs. Others were lumpy and flat.”
“Oh, it’s terrible what they do with bagels these days,” Peg my ant insightfully marveled.
“You know,” I said, “I saw this Weegee picture of some guy in New York City? It was taken back in the old days, like in nineteen thirty something, and the guy had a rope looped around his neck, and bagels were strung through the rope. Guy was going business to business delivering the morning bagels. Made me think of that song that goes, ‘she wore a pearl necklace.’ I thought it would be neat if they changed the words so it went, ‘she wore a bagel necklace.’ It made me concerned, you know, just knowing bagels existed way back in the old days, because Tallahassee didn’t get the bagel until nineteen seventy-eight.”
“It’s true,” Martha my mom piped in. “I know because the Hornsteins, who opened the Bagel Barrel, are good friends of mine.”
“It’s hard getting good bagels these days,” Peg my ant gravely lamented.
“Oh,” I said, “have you seen that Dunkin’ Donuts commercial where the guy says ‘Time to make the doughnuts’? I wonder if the guy from the Weegee picture ever got out of bed and was like, ‘Time to make the bagels’?”
What in the world? their looks said.
“Have you seen that commercial?” I asked.
They shook their heads, no, they had not seen any such commercial, but they had heard, they said, that Dunkin’ Donuts now made Dunkin Bagels!
By now we’d finished off the fruit in the dainty glass bowls, so got up and served ourselves from the food laid out across the mahogany counter. Martha my mom’s special egg dish was there, all steaming, and a bowl of shiitake mushrooms grown in Quincy, and there was a basket of hot bagels.
Back to the table we took our bagels, and spread them over with delightful cream cheese, and Ed my unc and Peg my ant told us of the squirrels in Kansas City, how they caught them in cages and spray-painted them green, then let them go in their rich neighborhood. After this we resumed our discussion concerning the bagel.
“Well,” Peg my ant said, “these are some good bagels.”
“Yes,” Martha my mom said, “they were baked at the place Gwyneth baked bagels back when she baked bagels for the Bagel Barrel.”
Again, they got to look at Gwyneth my wife’s face. This was their first time meeting her.
I said, “When Gwyn baked bagels at the Bagel Barrel she often brought home bags of bagels, so a lot of the time we had extra bagels. Well, out in Woodville at the sulfur hole one time I was giving bagels away to the rednecks. I gave Byron a bagel and he held it up looking at it. Byron is a big fat redneck guy. He turned the bagel in the light and said, ‘What the hell is this?’ I said, ‘A bagel,’ and he said, ‘A bagel?’ and then he said, ‘Hey, come over here and look at this y’all. Y’ever ever heard of a bagel?’ All these rednecks came over and some made fun of Byron for not knowing what a bagel was.”
“I can’t believe anybody in the United States doesn’t know what a bagel is,” put in Peg my ant.
“He liked them though,” I said. “Byron ate three or four bagels, walking around, shaking his head, mumbling bagel under his breath.”
Martha husband Stuart who, because he was off the booze now didn’t talk much, got up and got the coffee and warmed us up. Stuart poured the coffee from a thermos, his hand shaking pretty bad.
“Too bad there’s no such things as bagel holes,” I said. “You know, like doughnut holes?”
Ed my unc and Peg my ant were done with their plates. My how they could eat! Their plates were just, you know, clean.
“Bagels aren’t made that way,” Martha my mom informed me.
“I know, but if they were,” I said.
“It’s enough to upset you,” Peg my ant said, “what they’ve done to the bagel. They have all these flavors. Chocolate chip.”
“Yes,” Ed her husband said, “and cinnamon raisin.”
“Jalapeeno,” Peg commented, rolling her eyes.
Everybody laughed at jalapeenos.
Gwyneth my wife said, “On Saint Patrick’s Day we made green bagels.”
The laughter soared. It was nice that Ed my unc and Peg my ant got to meet Gwyneth my wife. They liked Gwyneth, I could tell. I didn’t mean anything mean by not inviting them to our wedding. We didn’t invite Martha my mother either. I just sort of don’t like my mother very much. She ought to have had the good sense to refrain from the whole baby thing.
Our wedding was OK. We married in the shack we rent, watching a movie we checked out from the Leroy Collins Public library, with just Gwyneth my wife’s father there as witness. The guy who married us we got from the yellow pages. As it happened, Elvis had died on the date we planned to do it on, so over the phone the guy wanted to know should he dress like Elvis. It would be fifty dollars extra. I said no, don’t worry about it, acting like I was too cool for Elvis. In truth, I couldn’t afford it, but the guy came over and married us. He read our vows, us sitting in the couch watching Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed on the big color TV Gwyneth’s dad gave us the year before.
“Hey,” Martha my mom said, “what did Mr. Croissant say to Mrs. Bagel?”
“Oh no,” Peg my ant said. “Please don’t, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
“I couldn’t guess,” Ed my unc dryly said.
“He said, ‘If you’ll just hook yourself onto the end of my crescent, who knows what might happen?’” And she laughed, she with her baby fetish. You could see Peg her sister sighing inside.
These Jewish sisters had had six babies altogether, three a piece. There was really no reason to carry the thing farther, only now, since Peg’s kids are having babies, giving her grandchildren, the competition is on again. Martha has spent some time harassing Gwyneth about it, trying to get her to have a baby.
“Then,” Stuart said cleverly, “I guess you’d have a bagelsant. Or would it be a crebagel?”
I put my hand on Gwyneth’s black-stockinged leg under the table and squeezed. I’d been squeezing her leg about every two minutes or so. It wasn’t fair that she was here. She didn’t want to be here.
When Gwyneth baked bagels for the Bagel Barrel, the man from whom she took orders in the bagel-baking room, the man with whom she took drinks during her lunch break while she was an apprentice, and whose name was Gill, got busted for, as much as I hate to say it, fucking his adopted daughter. That’s how Gwyneth got her promotion to Head Bagel Baker at the Bagel Barrel, because Gill was sent off to prison. Finally she quit the Bagel Barrel and was hired on as Head Bagel Baker at the Bagel Barn.
Martha my mom, center stage now, talked along, going, “Sam Hornstein is a fine sculptor. Sam’s the father of the children who opened the Bagel Barrel. Some of the things Sam builds are quite interesting. Sam uses, oh, junk hubcaps, bicycle wheels, mops. I saw Sam once on the side of the road going through somebody’s trash.”
“I wonder how Mrs. Hornstein feels about that?” Peg my ant put in, raising her brows.
“Oh, she’s fine with it,” Martha my mom said sportily. “She likes it. When Sam builds his sculptures he’s always in the garage.”
“Did anybody see After Hours?” I said. “That movie?”
Everybody shook their head no.
“In the movie,” I said, “this lady makes plaster cream cheese bagel paper weights. It’s the funniest movie. I think it’s Scorcese’s best.”
“Plaster cream cheese bagel paper weights,” Peg my ant said, and flattened her mouth into a beleaguered purse.
Martha my mom said, “Can you rent that movie?”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s famous. You can rent it.”
“I’ll have to rent it,” my mom said. “What’s it called?”
“I’ll have to rent it,” she said.
Ed my unc pulled at his second chin. It makes Ed look like he’s thinking sensitively when he pulls his second chin. He’s the sensitive Jewish lawyer, Ed my unc, an important man. Ed my unc once ran for office. In his kitchen in Kansas City is a framed picture on the wall of him and Peg my ant standing with Bill and Hillary Clinton. They got a Rauschenberg in the den. But Ed, after pulling his second chin, said, “When I was in Hong Kong there was a large metal statue that looked a lot like a bagel. At first I thought it was only an object that was bagel-shaped, but as I stood there I noticed what looked like sesame seeds sprinkled over the surface.”
“Did Sam Hornstein ever make a bagel statue?” Peg my ant asked.
Sam Hornstein, the sculptor who looks like a Charles Bukowski in Burkenstocks, used to come into the Bagel Barrel’s bagel baking room and put his hand on Gwyneth my wife’s shoulder. She’d have her hands doing stuff with dough and he would move his hand down her back and leave it partly on her ass, making it all seem natural and friendly. On one occasion when she was wearing a skirt, for it was very hot back there with the ovens going, Sam let his hand slip down farther. He cupped her ass cheek and gave a little squeeze. Gwyneth dropped the dough, but Sam was already leaving the room.
Martha my mom laughed. “Oh, I think Sam is inundated with bagels. I don’t think he’d want to make a statue of one.”
“But if he did make a bagel statue,” I said, “I bet he’d use old tires. He’d stack a mess of tires on top of each other. My sculpture, it is called: Bagel Stack.”
Only Stuart my mother’s husband laughed. I’ll always love Stuart for that.
“Oh, it’s terrible what they’ve done to the bagel,” Peg my ant lamented.
“Yes,” Ed my unc lamented sensitively, solemnly, thinkingly, lawyerly. Ed my unc pulled his second chin. He said, “I shared a flight to California with August Lender of Lender’s Bagels. You know, he sold the company out for millions of dollars. On the plane he told me that every day he apologizes to God for what’s happened to the bagel.”
That sounded to me like the last on bagels.
Our plates had been emptied of eggs and shiitake mushrooms grown in Quincy. It was time for Gwyneth my wife and I to weasel away, so I helped clear the table of plates and forks and glasses. I said, “I guess we’ll be headed on.”
“You can’t leave now,” Martha my mom tooted. “You must come with us across the street to the rookery.”
The way she said rookery, you might have thought there was a bagel-shaped spaceship across the street. “We saw the birds on the way in,” I lied. “Our movie starts at one,” I lied.
Martha my mom then, in a hushed voice for nobody else to hear, confided in me that Stuart’s clothes, the ones he wouldn’t be wearing anymore due to his approaching retirement, were in the trunk of her car. If I didn’t want to look at them just now, at just this minute, she said, it would be all right. She said I could look at them later. “Or maybe,” my mother said, “maybe you want me to just whisk them off to the Goodwill?”
I said I could look at them later.
Martha my mom gave me a look saying we had done well, the two of us, this conspiring of ours, the design of which was to save us both from embarrassment. Imagine Peg my ant seeing me fumbling around in Stuart’s thrown-out clothes in the trunk of her car. The last time my mother and I had conspired, it was to have the coffin opened so that we could see her dead father’s lifeless body. At Jewish funerals, apparently, it’s in bad taste to look at the corpse. You’re not allowed to see the corpse except by special request, so I made the request for both of us. I’d watched Silence of the Lambs the night before, so when the man standing at the casket lifted the lid, what I saw, at first, looked like Hannibal Lecter. Martha my mom was clutching my arm tightly, afraid. In those dozen or so seconds of looking at her dead dad, it was the closest the two of us have ever been. And once the lid was closed and we were walking away, she said, “Thank God he’s dead.”
Ed my unc caught on to the fact that Gwyneth my wife and I were trying to leave, so shook my hand, looking deeply into my eyes with his brown ones. You could tell, this habit of looking people deeply into the eyes Ed my unc had, was done automatic. A political thing, wise, a tactic of advancing oneself in the world, what Ed my unc likely taught his three children. Ed my unc probably looked deeply into August Lender’s eyes too, the famous bagel magnate, when they’d sat beside each other on that flight to California.
Peg my ant, she up and hugged me. A hugger, Peg my ant. Ed my unc a shaker. I brought my arms up for the hug to be a mutual hug, but when I put my hands on Peg my ant’s sides, beneath her fuzzy pink sweater were the rolls. Peg my ant stopped hugging right then. Peg my ant abruptly knocked away my hands, knocked my hands down off the rolls of, you know, her fat. At first I didn’t understand. It was just so strange, Peg my ant doing that, as if she thought I was trying to cop a feel. It took a moment for me to see what I had been: indecorous.
It creeped me out. I could not get out of there soon enough.
Yet me, I stopped in the garage to look through Stuart’s clothes, had to, didn’t I? Martha my mom’s trunk was wide open, like just for me to see when I passed by with Gwyneth my wife. In the trunk were the clothes Stuart, who Martha my mom met through an advertisement in the Tallahassee Democrat. Like my father, Stuart was a professor, had professed what he’d wanted for most of his life. Going through Stuart’s stuff, I saw there were some nice shirts, but then I started pulling up these weird jock strap things, thongs, briefs, like what was Martha my mom thinking? I let the things fall and wiped my hands in the monkey grass outside the garage and climbed into our car.
Driving home I felt sticky. In the sicky stickiness I recalled how ten years earlier, at my grandfather’s funeral, I’d worn a beanie (I mean yarmulke; please forgive that lapse), advertising my Jewishness, which at the time I felt a little proud of. My two brothers, who sat behind me in the pews, thought it hilarious. My brothers have since moved to New York, known among some Jews as the state of the bagel. They are very successful, my brothers. As for me, I am a Florida boy still. All my friends are rednecks. I live in the same town as my mother, and deplore the whole idea of success, for I was born for exactly two reasons. One: after Peg my ant got her second baby, Martha my mom got jealous, had to have a second baby too; two: in having a second baby, Martha’s first baby would take care of Martha second baby, leaving Martha free to give all her attentions to my father, who wanted nothing to do with babies of any kind. Finally my dad said okay to get her to shutup about it. I’m not sure what all this has to do with my love of bagels—I mean, I really love bagels—but as I drove Gwyneth up to our shack on the south side of town, I set my hand against her neck. I gave a little squeeze and called her baby.
John Oliver Hodges lives in Brooklyn. He has authored a collection of short stories entitled The Love Box, published by Livingston Press in 2013 (winner of Tartt First Fiction Award). Additionally he has written nonfiction for The Oxford American Magazine and American Book Review. His short stories have appeared in over eighty journals, including Redivider, StoryQuarterly, American Short Fiction, Swink, and The Chattahoochee, Cream City, Echo and Literary reviews. As a graduate of the MFA program at Ole Miss, he teaches writing at Montclair State University and the Gotham Writers' Workshop.