It began with the smell of burning. Daily, before my eyes even opened, dream narratives, swept up into Suddenly the sky turned black climaxes, collapsed, undermined by the identification, all too familiar, of the acrid scent nearly universally recognized as burnt toast.
My lodger, William D.—half-bald, darting, breakfast eater—had been in place just less than a year. The hall smoke alarm had long since been disabled. Its round face, dry milk colored, hung open from its hinge, like a reprobate at the altar rail.
Then one morning, roused again by the stink of scorched gluten, I watched a cinder, ragged and black, come floating through my open bedroom doorway, and something inside me snapped. I flung aside the covers and rose. Over the years I’d learned not to make a habit of conversation with those who paid me rent. With William D., the lesson had hardened to dictum. When my bare feet touched the tile that morning, we hadn’t spoken in months.
“Toast—?” I began.
My subtenant shot a look back over his shoulder, eyes very round. He was bent over an oval platter fanned with wedge-cut shards the color of charcoal, in his bony hand what looked like a potter’s pallet of orange marmalade. Outside snow fell. “Toast,” he said.
“Are you going to eat that?”
He looked at it, blinked.
“I see,” I said with a glance at the counter where the unplugged appliance hunkered in a field of dead embers, adding, “I notice the setting is always on Darkest.”
“I like it dark,” he allowed.
“No,” he conceded.
“Ever try Medium?”
“What can I say?” he said. But when I soberly lowered my eyes he added, “There’s no cancel button.”
“No cancel, see?” he said, head cocked, urging, “to make it pop.”
“Pull up the lever!” I blurted.
“I did. I do. It sticks.”
“You must be joking.”
“Never. Try it.”
Dismissively I sputtered, “It’s an old toaster, granted, but for God’s sake, it’s a GE, the largest, if I’m not mistaken, corporation in the world. You think they can’t make an adequate toaster?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
I glared at him, then took a step to one side as if to summon patience. I was feeling unjustly ridiculous. The facts in play? My lodger made toast; the toast always burned; my lodger had his wits: ergo, the toaster was defective. Why could I not accept what followed? “Look, a new toaster is a—a superfluity,” I said finally, “the technology is settled: a toaster of forty years ago is virtually indistinguishable from a toaster of today.”
“Today’s have cancel buttons,” he said, “and crumb trays.”
Let me be clear. I don’t make toast. Like anyone, of course, I have from time to time put a couple of pieces beside a plate of eggs and bacon, buttered. I don’t do that anymore. That I possessed a toaster, however, was a matter of fact. Furthermore, it was a feature of my unit, a preexisting amenity as the lawyers say, and who knows, its continuing malfunction might be construed a breach of agreement—though there was just the oral one, and nothing in it about a toaster, that I recall. Notwithstanding, my lodger made toast. Every day of our lives. What could I say to the man? No? No. Not really. He’d lived up to his end, whatever besides instilling a reasonable belief he’d one day leave his room “broom-clean” that was.
Retreating under the pretext of daily grooming, I closed my door and reclined, waiting for the smoke, figurative and otherwise, to clear. I shut my eyes and attempted to count breaths. Soon I drifted off into a recurring dream of going on vacation with the mayor, during which while dining I make ingratiating small talk about his policies until he impatiently changes the subject. But this time was different. This time
the mayor summarily ordered me into the kitchen to see what was delaying breakfast. Without a word I complied. The hotel kitchen—vast, white, industrial—was eerily empty save for a solitary chef hunched over a counter in a far corner. Irritated I called out, “Here now!” and clapping once, “The mayor’s waiting.” The man whipped about, his chef’s hat buckling, eyes round and fierce: William D., enraged. From the counter he lifted the object of his frustration—my toaster, its steel flanks singed—and hurled it at me. End over end in slo-mo it tumbled across the empty space, until its business end struck me in the left temple, opening a fountain of hot blood which sluicing over the gleaming surfaces ignited into liquid fire, consuming the hotel and everyone in it, effectively ending the mayor’s administration and the people’s hopes for a sort of better tomorrow.
Twisted in my damp bundled bedding I sat up in horror, nostrils snuffling up the residue of that killing scent. And that’s when it hit me. This was no dream. This was my life. And this was how one’s home burned. In the unlikeliest of likely ways. Or the likeliest of unlikely ways. Like toasters.
Resigned, I placed a call to my friend Irwin, a usually reassuring man who knew my situation.
“Don’t buy a toaster,” he said.
“Not a new one,” I countered.
“Don’t buy a used toaster,” said Irwin.
“I can’t tell you right now.”
And with that we talked about other things—household matters, his gal Gloria’s advancement at HoneyBaked Ham—and I forgot his advice. To be frank, I forgot it even was advice. I hung up and went on Craigslist. There were a lot of toasters out there.
Deep February. Although I like the symmetry—four square weeks without throw-in days kept the budget on track (with leap years affording a pause to reconfigure)—the absence of calendar incident, aside from the bitter rebuke of Valentine’s, make it a ghostly time, a month of nothing. Turn-of-the-year holidays with friends and relations, feasting and swilling, cheery if obligatory, are a vague memory as one shuffles down streets of black-dappled snow beneath skies of ash. Spring seems a pipe dream, summer grainy pornography. You are cold and alone.
Friends—who were they anyway? Did they call you? Rarely. Did you call them? Oh yes, and why was that? Because when you did call why did they invariably say, “So what’s up?” or “What’s going on?” as in “Why are you calling?” as in “Hurry up and remind me who you are to me that I might want to talk to you.” Well, maybe you don’t know who. And why was that?
There were toasters all right: in the area, inexpensive and available now. Good toasters, unwanted. Two-slice, four-slice, wide-mouth, bagel and frozen waffle functions, nearly all with easy-clean crumb trays. And cancel buttons. Everything I’d want. More than everything I’d want. This wasn’t for me, remember?
As it happened, my lodger left that Friday evening for one of those lockdown singles retreats in the Poconos. I had the entire weekend in a great world metropolis in which to find, retrieve, and have installed on the counter when the man emerged Monday morning, a working toaster.
Mr. Arthur Ng lived in Sheepshead Bay. Mr. Ng had a Sunbeam Two-Slice that had been out of the box, he insisted, exactly once. A wedding present from kin of his bride’s, this simple gift conferred a duty to confirm its utility before sending a thank-you. One perfect piece of toast, Ng inferred, and it was back in the box, sheathed, he made me understand, in the same protective wrap in which it came. The Ng’s already had a toaster, considerably nicer (though Sunbeam is a solid name) than this one.
Did I need to know this? No. Who needs a story about a toaster? Who needs a story about anything for that matter, but everybody has one. And a toaster with a story beats a metal box that makes bread crunchy any day. That’s just salesmanship. At the end of the day it was still a Sunbeam, like new. Ng wanted $15, I offered twelve. He said fourteen, but I’d best shake a leg. And the deal was done.
Arrangements were made for Sunday; on Saturday night I prepared. The year before I’d obtained a new subway map. Sick to death of oft-refolded paper splitting crease by crease, I’d ironed and polycoated the map when fresh, a fairly simple process if you have a well-ventilated area. I did the job in early autumn suffering only mild light-headedness. Magneted to the side of the fridge, the map could be consulted at will. This I did now.
According to Ng, his home was a ten-block walk east from Gravesend Neck on the Q line. Simple enough, except Ng didn’t give me his address. Alluding to certain risks he declined to take, he instructed me to meet him at the corner of Avenue X and Bedford, a location near his home, but not so near that I could determine, except in a ballpark way, where he lived. He’d bring the toaster with him then? No, he would not. Observing from an undisclosed distance, he’d assess whether I was a legitimate buyer, then reveal himself and lead me to his home. Besides, I’d want to plug it in and toast something, wouldn’t I?
Sunday dawned clear and bitter. A steady gale from the north frosted my kitchen window, diffusing the winter sunlight and blinding me to the world at large. I was eager to dress and head for Ng’s, but it was early yet. While spooning out a bowl of hot farina I answered the phone. Irwin.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Couple of things,” I said.
“What are you doing after that?”
I hesitated, but only a heartbeat. “I found a toaster,” I said, “in Sheepshead Bay.”
“Don’t buy a toaster,” Irwin said.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t do it.”
“But I need a toaster,” I said, remembering my dream, my lodger bent over the counter, harbinger of conflagration.
“Do me a favor,” Irwin said. “Put it off for a week.”
“I’ll tell you later.”
“I have an appointment with the man.”
“Postpone it,” he said. “He’ll understand.”
“He’ll sell it to someone else. And I need it. It’s a good toaster, at a fair price.”
“It’s a toaster,” said Irwin. “What’s the rush?”
I began to explain but realized it was pointless. And did it matter? This was obviously one of Irwin’s tics and good luck trying to talk him out of it. I changed the subject. “How’s Gloria?” I asked and Irwin told me, warming to it, how her path at HoneyBaked had begun to assume a certain trajectory after years of chaotic languishing, at least to strangers’ eyes.
“That’s just great,” I said, noticing the steam had ceased to rise from my cereal; soon it would harden. “Irwin,” I said, “can I call you later?”
“Okay,” he said, “but do me a favor.”
“Don’t buy a toaster.”
Good-naturedly I snorted, as if he’d told a joke we both knew I didn’t get. Frankly, I was embarrassed by his persistence, something perverse in it—but then, Irwin had that knack. I had to remember that replacing my toaster was simply a small but necessary act, the sooner done the better. Like today. And today I would do it. I would go and get it. Was that so hard to understand? “Sure,” I said and after a few graceless words in closing hung up.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has responsibility for maintaining 468 stations and 842 miles of track in the city’s 100-year-old subway system. A massive job, a never-ending job, which is performed deliberately, painstakingly, late at night and on weekends. Sundays, in particular, with an already reduced train schedule, can render journeys quixotic at best. I take this into account, and take my own extra pains to arrive on time. My appointment with Ng was for noon sharp; I bolted my door behind me at 9:23.
Some five trains (the F to the R to the rerouted Q to the B and back to the Q again) later, I stepped off onto the elevated platform of Gravesend Neck. Down the stairs and up the sidewalk I speed-strolled—gingerly, ice adhered here and there—until I heard the laughter of children, at which point I began to run. Reaching the meeting place early I simply kept going, maintaining my pace to stay warm, taking four random right turns to reckon ending up more or less where I must. It was bracing and I lost track of time, as well as place.
By 12:03 I’d found my way back to the corner of X and Bedford and stood conspicuously, hands on knees, panting. Late, but not flagrantly. Ng was watching me, I presumed, from a rooftop, the window of that van, behind a fire plug—wherever. Here I was, let him look. I even got my wallet out to count my cash, but my fingers were too stiff.
Sadly, in my excitement that morning I’d remembered to layer, but in cottons not synthetics; now, damp from exertion, I began to chill. I trembled, and yes, tears fell—from exposure, not emotion, okay? The point being that I wasn’t sad, all right? Not at that point. Not really. Though why not, you have to wonder: the world as heartbreaking a place as it is, and here you are, in it again, cold and alone.
After a moment I for no reason turned to my left. There a man stood as if he’d stood there forever, my arm’s length away. He was shorter than me but broader, younger but sharper, wearing a gray woolen box-like garment with multiple pockets and thick cuffs—perhaps an East Asian hunting ensemble. A rabbity hood framed his troubled gaze. Embarrassed, I wiped away my tears and shrugged.
He stared at my proffered hand, admittedly now moist, said something like, “Toast?” whereupon I dropped my hand, snuffled and affirmed, “Toast.” Ng, apparently satisfied, turned and with a gesture of direction began walking. I followed.
Let me here enlarge upon the rudimentary character of our exchange. As I’d gleaned from our emails, Ng and I, interestingly, had no tongue in common; at the keyboard, desktop translation widgets pulled us through. Our oral communication on the other hand was by means of a few simple phrases, artful charades, and guttural affirmations. For the sake of clarity I have transposed our dialogue into an efficiently transparent mid-Pacific English.
“I live over there, on the opposite side of the street,” Ng implied.
“I’ll follow you across,” I denoted.
Indeed, Ng led me a bare half-block to the ground floor flat of a two-story four-plex which he shared with his comely wife and dog. The door opened into the kitchen which was small, steamy and fragrant: a large pot boiled lid-rattlingly on the stove. Both wife and dog greeted me warmly, one holding the other back.
“That is a very large dog,” I signified.
“He is an Irish Wolfhound,” gestured Mrs. Ng with her free hand, “a breed largely unknown in our native province.” The dog sniffed me thoroughly, whimpering, straining against the choke collar curled in his mistress’s fingers. I asked his name and the answer, which sounded like “O’Hara,” felt right.
“We like him very much,” intimated Ng, “and here is the toaster.” Stepping aside, he revealed a small corrugated manufacturer’s box bearing the appropriate colors and graphic design of the Sunbeam brand around an image of the very toaster Ng vouched lay within. I smiled, thawing rapidly.
“Get out,” said Mrs. Ng in English, frowning but in an openly insistent way, by which I understood she was speaking to me. Nodding, I sank to the edge of a castered ottoman, taking care to keep the bulk of it swiveled between myself and the hound. I opened the box, extracted the white foam cushioning blocks, unpeeled the frosted polywrap—which caught briefly though disconcertingly on a gelatinous red speck on the otherwise immaculate white body of the appliance—and placed the Sunbeam in my lap.
“You’re jelly people,” I accused, raising a wry eyebrow at the speck.
“No,” said Ng humorlessly, and as I lifted the toaster to show him, O’Hara, straining against his collar, jerked forward and gave it a jowly lick on its blemished face. Astonishingly, Ng burst out laughing, followed quickly by Mrs. Ng—though she seemed tentative, watching my face for assurances that I’d join them, and so I obligingly did, with a small chuckle. This made them laugh all the more and, culturally sensitive, I tried to keep up. Our laughter crested in waves upon ripples until the dog’s ears lay flat and he dropped his head, mortified. I hadn’t laughed so hard in a very long time.
Coincidentally, I began not feeling very well. Since arriving at the Ng’s, the close quarters, delicate dynamic, and pungent cooking smells had combined to disturb my self-possession. The laughter subsiding I took the risk of treading where unbidden. “What’s that cooking?” I insinuated.
Ng and his wife regarded each other meaningfully before making known to me, tag-team fashion, what I’ll roughly translate, “It is not a Western foodstuff we are preparing and to be informed of its substance would not be congenial. Here, try some.” And before I could graciously decline, a small steaming bowl was in my hands. I lifted it and let the murky brown froth touch my lips. I nodded. The Ng’s nodded. O’Hara sulkily withdrew to his enormous bed in the corner.
And quite unexpectedly, something like joy stole over me. Invited into this couple’s home to carry out a small act of commerce, I’d been allowed to share, if briefly, in these strange lives, in this alien culture, and even the dog had been welcoming. An overblown emotion clearly, with a telling progression: a little leap in the heart which rapidly tumbled further south. This had happened to me before. An intestinal disturbance brought on by exotic smells or tastes concurrent with a fit of shallow sentimentality, in this event exacerbated by a 3-days-running bout of constipation, a symptom of anxiety related to the matter that brought me there that day.
“May I go to the bathroom?” I conveyed as politely as gesture would permit.
For a moment, with the exception of the big pot continuing to rattle on the range, everything stopped. Ng gaped at me with a sort of incredulous grief; Mrs. Ng’s mouth too hung wide, though more sensually. It was unnerving. “We had a deal,” the contention.
“We did! We do!” I yelped, springing off the ottoman, Sunbeam pressed to my belly, wondering if they suspected I’d flee through the bathroom window. I wondered only now if there were one.
“You will purchase the toaster,” indicated Ng.
I appealed to my hosts with a sinking movement of eager humility. They looked so disappointed in me. A bead of sweat trickled down my back, eased beneath my waistband. I really had to go. “Fine,” I said, taking out my wallet—but this, apparently, was not the thing either. Both Ngs actually cringed, hands to their mouths, much as when I showed my hernia keloid to friends last fall.
“Make toast,” the demand. “Determine that it is suitable.”
“Are you kidding?!” I cried, grinning. “It’s perfect! See? Wide slots, cancel button, crumb tray—it’s all there, just what I need! Never mind the thoughtless remark about the jelly—I’ll take it!”
Again Ng and his wife sadly shook their heads, and I sat. And as a three-day’s smorgasbord roiled within me, Mrs. Ng turned to the breadbox abutting the backsplash and opened it. Meanwhile, Ng placed the Sunbeam on the counter and plugged it in. A slice of white bread was passed from hand to hand and dropped into the slot nearest my vantage. Peering down at me Ng asked, “How do you like?”
“Dark,” then remembering, “but not too dark.”
Ng turned the dial and lowered the bread. The toaster hummed to life, the reassuring orange glow conspicuous around its twin mouths. And we waited.
Time passed. The pot rattled, rat-a-tat. Ng scratched his neck, crich crich. The dog yawned, hawwwwwczh. A distant siren sang, wah-wah wah-wah. Mrs. Ng took up her knitting, clickety click. Still—no toast. The hum . . . the glow . . . tick . . . tock . . . no . . . toast. Holy Mother Help Me Hold On. It was the longest appliance cycle I had ever endured.
Finally, humiliation imminent, I bolted from the ottoman. There was only one way to go: down the narrow hallway off the kitchen. O’Hara at my heels, I was at the end of it in a trice, across another room, around an unmade bed, and through the promised doorway.
Release was entire, a swift unfurling, the freest in recent memory, the very gauge of good health. I looked up. No window. No matter. O’Hara, who stood ogling me, panting expectantly, licked my bare knee, then circling twice settled at my feet. Trembling, though still huddled in my parka, I bent to scratch his ears. And tears fell. Here we go again, I murmured. What was wrong with me? Why so desperately unhappy? An old story, but continuing. A story with people and places and things. I did have a kind of life. There were things that would happen, things I would do. Now that I could breathe again, I thought about that and felt better. “Good boy,” I whispered, scratching the dog. “Yes you are,” I said and surely meant it.
A wise man once said, “Stop. Look around. Ask yourself where you are and why.” Well, I’d made a decision, trivial perhaps but correct, and soon would possess a nearly-new toaster. When I got home I’d soak a q-tip in alcohol, remove the speck, call Irwin, and start fresh. Little things, but most are that happen next in a life. I would get up from here and return to Ng: a solid, careful man buttoned up in his hunting outfit—and indeed, hadn’t he been hunting, crouched in the cold in his man-blind, scoping out his quarry? And didn’t I fall meekly into the trap, a trap I was eager for, the purchase? And why? In the end it was only toast. Toast I didn’t even want. What did I want?
And then I thought of Mrs. Ng, sweetly deferential in her silky wraparound whatnot that did little to conceal her womanly function, making the mid-day meal in that monstrous kettle. Newlyweds, an arranged union perhaps, but loveless? Not from the looks of that bed. No, they had relations, probably often, probably that very morning; while I now counted years since such occasion. No, these were real lives, this was a home, here was happiness.
Would I ever find my own? Where? Someplace like this? Not likely. But then, why not? I mean, of course, I couldn’t live here but—wait, what was I thinking? Was I actually wondering if they’d let me? Please. But—no, this was insane but … might they consider it? I could pay half the rent—more than half possibly—walk and groom O’Hara and do other chores, but—what onearth?
With the Ngs’ laments at last reaching the door, my reverie concluded. What now? Had I given such offense, inadvertently violated some age-old taboo, peculiar perhaps to the Ngs’ home province? Kung Pao came to mind, which of course is not a province but a chicken dish, and sitting there I realized I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and my blood sugar was crashing. God, for some good dim sum. There was probably take-out nearby. The world wasn’t such a grim place.
O’Hara had risen and was sniffing under the door. He now resumed whimpering, his huge unclipped nails clawing at the sill. I reached down and stroked the velvety spaces between them. He growled. Quickly, I tore paper, finished, flushed, washed my hands. Gazing in the mirror, I waited for the tank to fill and, feeling it prudent, flushed again. The dog kept scratching, growling, then came gentle knocks at the door. “No!” I snapped unthinkingly.
Abruptly the knocks became insistent, the knob jiggled, the dog snarled viciously. Despite the commotion I waited again for the tank to fill and flushed a third time. “Please,” said my face in the mirror, “I’m harmless, truly,” and though noting that the bowl remained cloudy, I closed the lid and opened the door.
The Ng’s shrank back from the doorway, as if suddenly humbled. O’Hara bounded away and I never saw him again. Between two fingers Ng held before me a piece of deeply golden toast. I took and bit of it. “Perfect,” I said softly and put it in my pocket. “Thank you.” From behind Ng Mrs. Ng rubbed thumb to fingers. “Of course,” I said and pulled out my wallet. “Change for a twenty?” Silence. Stillness. “No matter,” I said. “Keep the change. It’s worth the additional cost for the trouble of making the trip out here—which, actually being my trouble, I should say rather in thanks for opening your home to me so that I could take the trouble, no?”
“No,” in English said the Ngs.
Taking mincing steps and bowing repeatedly I lay the money on the marriage bed and retreated down the hall to the kitchen. There, I picked up the toaster, tucked it under my arm, and with one last low bow withdrew into the cold. I never heard the door close behind me.
When I got home there was a message on my machine. Irwin. He and Gloria inviting me over for dinner that night. Last minute, he said, and nothing fancy, but they’d really like me to come. Really. Won’t take no. Please come.
I half-smiled. Sounded like he was trying to make up for being disagreeable about the toaster. My first instinct was to beg off; I had some thawed pork shoulder I needed to eat up, but—oh well, it could wait one more day. Besides, Irwin and Gloria were good people at bottom. It would be a nice gesture on my part. They loved to cook, and I could tell them my story about the toaster.
When I arrived Irwin was busy in the kitchen. A great feast appeared to be in the works. Gloria poured me an apéritif and sat talking about her HoneyBaked options, but they both seemed distracted, casting jittery glances back and forth.
Finally, Irwin wiped his hands on his apron and smiling slyly said, “Need to use the facilities?”
I hesitated, assessing. “Not especially,” I said, “thanks.”
“Wash your hands?” he suggested gently.
Reluctant but resigned—another of Irwin’s tics presumably—I assented. The moment I entered the bathroom, naturally, my mind went back to earlier that day which, as you can imagine, raised a few goosebumps. It already seemed a dream. Impulsively, I undid my pants and sat, with no apparent purpose but to take a moment to reflect.
With a panicked flourish of scraping metal, the shower curtain whipped aside to reveal a half dozen people in cone hats standing in the tub. “Surprise!” they shouted, then discreetly turning away began to sing “Happy Birthday.” Stunned, I slowly rose, gazing at the backs of their heads. Six or so of my dearest acquaintances, singing to me. I pulled up my pants.
Irwin and Gloria appeared in the doorway with a largish box wrapped in colorful ribbons and bows. “We know it’s a week early,” he said, “but we figured we had to catch you before you went and did something crazy.”
In a daze, I slit open the card. “Happy Birthday To You,” it read, “Fondly, Irwin and Gloria, Stan and Sheba, Deb and Carlos” and so on: all these actual people having signed their names, Fondly.
Sniffling by the crowded tub, I tore open the gift. Everyone quietly watched my face, a face that must have betrayed a kind of wonder as I uncovered the perfectly beautiful thing within: a gleaming, silver, brushed aluminum—like a miniature Airstream trailer parked in a bright American desert, all rounded corners, not a right angle on it (thrown at someone’s head it would bruise but not break skin)—state-of-the-art Cuisinator Artisanal Crumb-Expelling, Burn-Aborting 6-slice Suprema Deluxe.
A week later, on my actual birthday, alone in my room, I thought back to that night and that day and had to smile, wiping an eye. My lodger—I could hear him in his room powdering his feet—had been happy with the toaster, but not demonstrably so, which was as it should have been. It belonged to me. The Ng Sunbeam I’d put on Craigslist. Someone was coming to see it tomorrow.
March the First, Happy Birthday to Me. Yes, March came in like a lion and I’d come out of Mother like a—what do you call it? A baby sheep. Which reminds me. Something Ng asked me as he led me through the cold to his home. “Do you know why it’s called Sheepshead Bay?” I didn’t. “Look at a map.” Later I did. Where the blue began I followed the curve of the bay out to sea, and at the last chunk of land before open ocean, I saw what he meant.
Jack Garrett lives in Los Angeles. He has been a country radio DJ in the southwest and performed off-off-Broadway in New York. His stories have appeared in The New Orleans Review, The Portland Review, The Santa Monica Review, and Quarter After Eight. He is also a voice actor.
“Happiness” appears in Artificial Intelligence (TLR Late Fall 2013).