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Baker’s Pick
Ryan Dempsey


Photo Credit: Marissa Garza/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Marissa Garza/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I need to see you again,” Erik texted Sarah that morning from the store. He owned Sam’s Spud Hut close to Ninth Street. His dad Sam gave it to him before he passed and Erik still used the same fryer as when the store opened fifty-three years ago. Resting his elbows on the counter, he looked out over the boardwalk and at the ocean. The boardwalk was full of walkers and bikers, families on rumbling surreys and summer girls in bikinis, all out to get their sun before the forecast storm hit later that day. But it was too early for any of them to want fried potatoes. So he watched and waited for the phone to rumble a response between his arms.

“Rough night last night?” An old man startled Erik. He wore no shirt and had very tan and pickled skin. He was a regular but Erik could never remember his name and just called him Skip. Skip stopped by every morning around ten-thirty to get “the first in the oil” as he liked to say.

“No,” Erik answered as he stood from the counter and yawned. “Just the sitting here and waiting kills me. If I could work all day and keep moving I’d be fine and still have enough energy to nail the wife.” Skip laughed, but Erik knew he wouldn’t be getting anything from Molly; she was angry with him again. He picked at a drop of hardened cheese on the counter. She had no idea what was going on; she had no right to be mad.

He moved to the fryer to fill Skip’s order: double potato curly. The grease bubbled and boiled hot as the phone vibrated on the counter next to him. He wiped his hands on his apron, regarded the white cloth and decided he would order black ones as soon as he could. But that wouldn’t help with the smell. He shouldn’t have to do this; he owned the damn place.

Through the glassless window above the fryer he could see the rest of the boardwalk and the other stores. He remembered being here with his dad and every one of the stores down the wooden walkway was owned by a different family or person. Kites used to own the sky, but now all Erik saw were cranes towering over the tiny shops. One by one the shops he grew up with were being destroyed to make room for the franchised food vendors and T-shirt chains.

He took the fries from the fryer, piled them into a cardboard bucket and handed it to Skip. He remembered his phone. “I have dinner tonight with my family. But we can get together after.

Erik smiled. “I’ll meet you after dinner.”

As he responded, the phone came to life in his hands and he almost dropped it into the hot oil. “Can you come fix the roof before the storm?” It was Molly. It was the third time in almost half a year he had to patch the roof above their bedroom.

He talked to Skip for a while only half-listening before he told him he had to leave but that he’d be back later. He watched Skip waddle off down the boardwalk. Coming out from inside the shop, Erik pulled the crimped sheet of aluminum over the front opening and lowered the sheet of steel he used over the open window above the fryer. He secured each with a padlock and a sign that said, “MAY RETURN THIS EVENING.” He’d had Molly write one up for the evening time as well, for when he closed early: “CLOSED FOR THE NIGHT.”

He wandered a few stores down, through the line of patrons waiting outside Pete’s Potatoes, weaving in and out of the groups of kids and parents that stood in front of Sammie’s Shirts and Shorts to the corner ice cream store, Duke’s. Duke knew his father. Sam, Duke, Pete and Samantha were all friends, starting their businesses around the same time. Duke Sr. was the only one left; all the others had passed their businesses along to their children. Duke’s recently moved to the corner building because he needed more room. There was a line there as well.

“Duke around?” Erik asked the cashier. A few teenage kids buzzed around her.

“I don’t think so,” she said in a Russian accent, turning her head to look for her boss. She wore a white apron, the same color as the ice cream. “I think he is at home. No. He is away on vacation. He only stops in once every few weeks. I can have you talk to the supervisor if you like.”

“No, that’s fine.” Erik looked past her. They had tables and small booths but mostly people waited at the pickup counter. “Geez, it’s not even eleven yet.”

“Duke changed the hours and now we open earlier and longer.”

“Good for him, good for him. Yeah, I’m just leaving for a few hours and I wanted him to keep an eye on the shop.” Erik pointed towards The Spud Hut.

“I will let my supervisor know.”

“Thanks,” he said

She smiled and he wondered if Duke was nailing her.

“I can hardly wait to see you again,” Erik texted Sarah from the top of a ladder that leaned against the vinyl-sided surface of his home. The clouds had started to come across the sky and he could see the line between the morning sunshine and the coming afternoon rain. He dreaded climbing the ladder but the roof needed to be fixed. He was sick of just patching it; he needed a new roof. But in order to actually replace it he needed money and in order to get money he needed to work. “But there’s no time for that,” he said aloud. “All because of those goddamn corporate companies throwing their goddamn money around and taking my goddamn business.” He hoisted himself onto the roof, the shingles warm against his palms.

“Watch your language!” Molly raised her voice from the bottom of the ladder. She was ten years his junior. She held their child who straddled her hip.

“He can walk, you know?” Erik said. He looked at the roof and cursed again at the situation, never at home because he needed to be at the store, at the store all the time because he needed the money. He thought about hiring Skip but he’d probably eat through the entire stock of potatoes. He poked angrily through the shingles with a stiff hand. His son started to cry and he listened as Molly walked away with him into the house.

Erik climbed the roof further so he was at its peak, where he got the best reception, and checked his phone. Nothing from Sarah. She was probably getting ready to go to out. He met Sarah like he always met them: at the store. And he always knew which ones were worth the time. It was never that Molly wasn’t worth it but it probably would have ended much the same way all the others did.

His son screamed.

Erik started on another row of shingles. The leak was probably from a previous search on the roof. Maybe he had disrupted how the sheets sat on top of each other. He knew the futility in searching but he had to keep the rain out before the storm really pulled through. Had the leak been anywhere other than their bedroom he could have let it be. But the drops of water started falling straight into the middle of their bed, creating a division that forced them to far opposite sides of the bed and eventually him to the couch. The thing was, it wasn’t just a leak. “We need a new home altogether!” he yelled at the shingles. And this reminded him again of the boardwalk, his threatened business and money.

“This is all because of them,” he muttered to himself again. He sat on the roof, the breeze from the ocean stronger now with the storm just over head. At first he was proud that he stood up to them, as slowly he felt each store around him becoming another carbon copy of the last one built, except for Duke’s and Sharon’s Sunshine Shop. And Bill’s Bicycle Rental and Amato’s Pizza and the other small shops whose names still blazoned their front signs and archways, shops whose names Erik could not remember.

He would probably have to give in and sell. Probably make a good chunk of change and he could probably buy a new a house, but Erik knew that wasn’t the point. The point was his dad had started the business and built it up to a sustainable form of income. There was a certain pride in that that was no longer there. Apparently his name didn’t mean much anymore. It was all about more. More, more, more. More stores, more patrons and more money.

It began very slowly like most summer storms. He hadn’t realized how windy and dark everything had gotten. First he saw the lightning then heard the thunder. He felt the mist from the rain as it blew in at him. It thudded into the roof like chisels pounding into a wall. It fell like that for maybe a whole minute before any struck him. Then suddenly it became a downpour, churning down the roof and overflowing the gutters. He let it fall on him and it felt good.

His phone vibrated then and he almost dropped it taking it from his pocket.

“You still haven’t fixed it!” His wife stood at the base of the ladder under an umbrella, their child in a diaper beside her.

“Yeah, yeah.” Erik shooed his hand towards his wife’s voice, his hair saturated, clothes soaked through, eyes transfixed on his phone, regarding Sarah’s message.

pencilRyan Dempsey currently resides with his wife and daughter in the Pittsburgh area. Ryan’s fiction is published or forthcoming in such places as The Portland Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Gravel, Drunk Monkeys, and Almost Five Quarterly. Email: ryandempsey82[at]gmail.com