In my original draft, I used all the words in my writing prompt. In my edit, I deleted a few (they had done their work). Writing
this story has renewed my faith in the power of the unconscious -- how it works for us even when we are unaware. That is the real magic of the word prompt.
These are the original words: well, finished, over, valley, begin, relief, chipmunk, robin, scamper
I have decided to continue the story of Chip and Robin and the Obermeyer Bakery (see below). Not sure, maybe a novel.
Art by Mo
Monk Bread goes viral
By Mo Conlan
Brother Charles -- known as Chip since there was another Brother Charles -- arose even earlier than the other monks. Before dawn, he left his cell and went to the monastery kitchen to make bread. He liked this time alone before the day of community prayer and work began -- mixing the dough, punching it down, seeing the miracle of its rising.
As he pulled the last of a dozen loaves out of the oven, he could make out a face on the crusty top that reminded him of his mother’s. He laughed. “Brother Andrew will have a fine time with his psychiatry books if I tell him about this,” he thought.
Though he did not consider the face a miracle, it was a sign, and not the first he’d received in the year since his father died. After 25 years as a monk, Brother Chip would go home to Cincinnati and help his mother Charlotte save the failing Obermeyer Family bakery.
The prospect of leaving the monastery in its tranquil green valley in Kentucky, to begin a new life at 55 made Brother Chip giddy. He felt a combination of anxiety and anticipation. But he knew for certain that this part of his life -- a happy and peaceful quarter century -- was over and finished as a loaf of perfectly baked bread.
The monks weren’t happy to to let Brother Chip go. He was popular for his cheerful temperament, his kindness to brothers who were having troubles, and for his bread. Sold online and in the monastery gift shop, Brother Chip's bread helped the brothers squeak by financially. And he was a whiz at sales.
“What will we do without you,” Brother William, who managed monastery’s finances, wailed when he learned of the brother's departure.
“I’ll make extra bread each week for the monastery,” Brother Chip offered.
Brother William did not give up easily. He took a more confidential tone -- “Brother, you aren’t in some difficulty of conscience, say, over a relationship that is testing your vows?” he asked. Brother William had practice wheedling a monk out of an inappropriate attachment.
Brother Chip shook his head. “Perhaps that would be easier to understand. I just know I must go. I believe it is God’s will.”
“God’s will” was an argument stopper, Brother Chip knew. The other brothers became resigned to his going.
“You can always come home,” his good friend, the monastery shrink Brother Andrew, said. “Be well and go with God.”
Brother Chip saw the sadness in his friend’s eyes.
“I’ll visit. I’ll bring my mother – she’s a real pip and a heck of a baker,” he said.
Just plain Chip as he now called himself moved in with his mother Charlotte in the big, old house he’d grown up in.
His first day home, she questioned him, fierce blue eyes boring into his.
“You didn’t leave the monastery just to save an old bakery that probably can’t be saved, because don’t bother,” she said bitterly. Charlotte blamed his father’s death on overwork.
“Nope,” Chip said. “Saw your face in a loaf of bread and just knew I had to come home."
Charlotte’s eyes softened and she began to laugh. They both laughed.
“Besides,” Chip said seriously, “I think the bakery might be saved. With a few changes and a lot of prayer.”
They didn’t dither over each other. He did his own laundry and they took turns cooking or ordering in. When she wasn’t at the bakery, Charlotte played tennis, attended concerts and lived as if she’d never heard of age 78.
What they liked to do together for fun, when they weren’t working, was to hunt for fossils and interesting stones in the creeks that liberally watered the Ohio Valley. Charlotte could navigate rocks and rivulets like a Girl Scout. They displayed their finds on the fireplace mantel and the wide sills of the living and dining rooms.
Beyond the dining room was a huge kitchen with an Aga range and every cooking and baking accessory – including a giant bread maker.
Chip declined to use the bread maker -- he preferred to make each loaf by hand.
“There’s a touch to the dough," he told Charlotte, "a live thing."
Charlotte sighed. "Sign of a true baker, God help you."
Chip ordered a new awning for the Obermeyer Bakery -- the pale white of whipped cream, piped in strawberry. The red lettering read: “Obermeyer Bakery, here since 1899, aiming for 2099.”
He turned part of the front store into a café with comfortable chairs and a small menu of coffee drinks.
Charlotte grumbled that customers came in for a cup of coffee and stayed all day.
“But sometimes they go home with bread, or a dozen cookies,” Chip countered."And they get used to coming in."
Charlotte stopped complaining when business began to pick up. After Chip established a web site selling loaves of his signature “Chip Monk Bread,” the Obermeyer Bakery went “viral.”
Charlotte and Chip worked longer hours. A high school girl, Pixie, helped out after classes and on weekends, but Chip and Charlotte began to wear down. They couldn’t keep up with the store and the online orders for "Brother Chip's monkbread."
“I’m beginning to feel my 75 years,” Charlotte told Chip.
“You are 78, Mother,” he chided.
She gave him a look.
He could see how tired she was. “We’ve got to get help – someone savvy who can help with the online business, maybe pinch in with some baking and selling,” Chip said.
He put a sign in the window. “Skilled help wanted.”
Sister Mary St. Francis – known as Robin to her friends – was on sabbatical. She had temporary leave from her convent to come home and nurse her mother Anna, whose hip replacement had not gone well.
Anna was not a good patient – but Robin had seen plenty worse in her 20 years as a nun, nurse and hospital administrator. Dealing with one cranky patient was a relief after supervising the hospital run by her religious order.
It was heaven to sleep as late as 8 or even 9 in the morning. It was fun to be back in the old neighborhood where she could walk to cafes and to the library.
But after a few weeks, Robin got bored. Anna slept a good deal and liked to watch TV at night – something Robin had never learned to enjoy.
As her mother napped, Robin took a walk. Cincinnati had not yet turned humid. The day was warm, green and lovely. She stopped in front of Obermeyer Bakery, remembering going there as a girl. It looked, somehow, sprightlier. She decided to go in for coffee and a muffin.~~~~~~~~~~~~~
A man wearing a bakery apron greeted her with a grin. “I hope you are here about the job.”
He was pleasant looking Robin thought – gray-flecked blond hair, large powerful hands and shoulders, smile at the ready.
“No, just coffee and an orange muffin,” she said.
“Coming right up.”
Chip thought this customer looked competent and keenly smart. Her brown eyes held an intelligent, humorous twinkle. She probably would be nice to work with. He handed her the muffin and coffee on a plate. “On the house,” he said. “I’m Chip, by the way.”
Robin looked puzzled. “Thank you, but why ever on the house?”
“My late father always said to give away at least a dozen cookies a day. I figure one muffin equals two cookies. And,” he added, “because I want to talk you into working for me and my mother.”
Robin, on her first bite of muffin, nearly choked... “You don’t know me, and, and the idea is ridiculous.” She broke into laughter. “My name is Robin. I can’t cook.”
“Don’t need to,” Chip answered. “I bet you know computers and planning and people. And, if you want, you can learn to bake – it’s different from cooking. More like prayer, really.”
Robin was speechless. She was not used to dealing with men except in her role as nun and hospital administrator. In charge. She wasn’t sure this was proper – although the man had said nothing improper, just surprising.
She chewed on her muffin.”
“You live in the neighborhood?” Chip asked. “That would be even better.”
Robin found her voice. “I, uh, live in the neighborhood for now, with my mother.”
“Don’t feel bad. I live with my mother, too,” Chip joked. “She’s fun, though, and a heck of a hard worker. But it’s getting to be too much for her … and for me. We really need help.”
She looked at him without speaking.
“I’m trying to save the Obermeyer Bakery,” Chip threw in as a final sales pitch.
Robin was a sucker for causes and crusades. “I’m only here until my mother recuperates,” she said. “But, perhaps, I could help out a bit until then. I do know computers” -- she scanned Chip’s face -- “and people.”
Her smile lighted up her face, possibly even the space around her, Chip thought as he handed her a white apron.
Robin accepted the apron but fumbled trying to tie the strings in back.
“Let me help with that,” Chip said. “Best to circle your waist and tie in front. You get used to it.”
As he reached for the apron strings, Robin backed away. “I can get them.”
“Do you know how to use a cash register?” Chip asked, pointing to an old-fashioned metal one.
“I worked in a gift shop when I was a girl – a long time ago. I could probably manage.”
“Good,” said Chip. “This is old-fashioned, but my mother and I think it adds ambiance. It never breaks down in power outages. We have a gizmo for credit cards.”
Robin opened and closed the cash register a few times. It had a pleasant clang as it shut. She thought about the complex computer system she’d recently installed in the hospital – a whole department of employees to keep it up and running.
There was a rattle at the front door. Charlotte walked in, taking in Chip and Robin by the cash register. “Young lady, what are you doing wearing my apron?” she demanded.
Robin’s face flamed. She felt as if she’d been caught kissing the boy next door.
Chip jumped in to explain. “Mom, this is Robin, our new temporary employee. She can work the cash register.”
Robin extricated herself from the apron and threw it to Chip. “Must go,” she said, half running to the door and out.
“Come back tomorrow,” Chip called after her. “I want to show you our kitchen and online store.”
Then he turned to his mother and scowled. “You chased off our help. Are you trying to sink this bakery?”
“Well you’ve been mighty precipitate lately, mister,” Charlotte shot back. “You up and leave the monastery, and then you hire a woman we don’t know. She could be a criminal or con artist.”
Chip sighed. “Did you look at her face. Of course she’s not a criminal.”
On the walk home, Robin berated herself. It was insanity to think that she might actually work at the Obermeyer Bakery. Had the cinnamon smells, sweet muffin and rich coffee somehow stolen her wits. It had been an adventure, but, still, insanity. And why had she felt so cowed and embarrassed by that silly woman.
When Robin got home, Anna was sitting on the living room couch watching a TV show with the sound turned off.
“Where have you been? Over to church?” Anna asked. When she was awake, Anna wanted Robin there, she had made clear.
“I’ve just taken a walk and stopped by that little German bakery. The one we used to go to.”
“Did you bring me a cookie?” Anna asked petulantly.
Robin did not answer, but wished that she had thought to bring her mother a cookie.
“What are you watching?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Anna said.
“You used to love listening to NPR radio.”
“That’s before every story was about war – in places I’ve never heard of. It’s endless.”
Robin wondered whether to tell her mother about her adventure – the funny man who had asked her to work at his bakery, and his mother. She decided against.
“My hip has been bothering me,” Anna complained.
“It’s time you begin to move around more,” Robin said. “Let’s take a walk together every morning and every evening. We’ll just go as far as you can.”
“I don’t know,” Anna said.
“Well, I do,” Robin countered. “I am a trained professional and I know.” She realized she had been babying her mother, not treating her like an actual patient.
“The convent educated you well,” Anna said. “Still…”
Robin bristled. “Still, what?”
“If you’d married, I might have grandchildren and I could go to their school events, teach them how to make pies.”
For the second time that day, Robin felt her face flame– undeserved shame, she told herself. When she entered the convent, her father was alive. He and Anna had a full life together – working, playing golf and bridge, gardening and traveling. As much as they loved her, Robin had always felt a bit of an outsider.
They’d happily waved goodbye as she took her vows. It might have helped if she’d had a sibling. But the only other baby in the family had been stillborn.
“Mom, we are going to walk. We will talk. And I will buy you a cookie at the Obermeyer Bakery.”
Anna’s face brightened. “I remember that bakery. Nice family.”
That evening, Anna called her longtime friend at the hospital – a physical therapist. His one name, Jon, was legend in the medical world. It was told that Jon once coaxed a patient off his deathbed and got him waltzing.
Jon gave Robin the name of a woman he called “a miracle worker,” who lived in Cincinnati and worked with patients in their homes. And he gave her this advice: “Help her re-find what she loves to do.”
“Is that what you did with your famous waltzing patient?” Robin asked.
“Exactly. Roy lived to dance,” he said. Then he asked, rather plaintively, “Are you ever coming back to the hospital?”
Robin had no immediate answer. She could not think that far ahead. As she went to bed that night, she wondered, is it possible I might become a baker?
Chip was quieter than usual as he and Charlotte worked that day, selling pastries, taking orders for cakes, serving coffee drinks.
“You’re mad at me still,” Charlotte said.
Chip handed her a still oozing chocolate chip cookie.
“You chased away someone who might have helped us.”
“I’ll call her up and say I’m sorry, if that will help,” Charlotte offered, with at least a trace of contrition.
Chip shook his head. “Don’t know her last name. Why did you round on her like that anyway?”
Charlotte swallowed a bite of cookie. “I was surprised. And, and, I don’t want to lose you again. First it was God – now for all I know you’ll marry this woman, go off and start having babies.”
Chip laughed. “I am not running off. I just wanted to find some intelligent help for us. That woman struck me as just that. Strikes me, too, that she is past the years for making babies. And I am too old.”
Charlotte finished her cookie and licked her fingers. “Hah. Now grandmothers are having babies.” But she seemed mollified. “You, know, Chip, we could just pack all this in if it’s too much. Your dad must have known the bakery was going to kill him. He left me quite a lot of life insurance.”
“I don’t want to pack it in. I want to make something of it,” Chip said. “Do you? Do you, really want to give up?”
“No,” Charlotte admitted. “Don’t know how I’d spend all that time.Maybe this Robin woman will come by again and we can get to know her.”
The next morning, before the day got too hot and steamy, Robin woke Anna with a breakfast tray of soft boiled egg, toast, orange juice and coffee.
“I am going to pamper you a bit longer – then play mean nurse and get you marching around and swinging a golf club again,” she said.
Anna sat up in bed and smiled. Robin noticed how thin she was beneath her cotton nightgown.
“I don’t usually have much appetite for breakfast,” Anna said. “But this looks very inviting. Thank you, dear.” She gave Robin the 100-watt grin that Robin remembered and loved.
“Then we are going for a walk,” Robin said.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Anna said. “My hip is hurting me.”
“Take some of the pain pills your doctor prescribed.”
“I don’t like to take drugs. They make me feel all googly.”
Robin laughed. Googly was a family word she had made up as a child to describe a state of dazedness with a touch of nausea – after a ride on the ferris wheel.
“Just a half buffered aspirin then?”
Anna accepted a half aspirin to take after her breakfast.
Robin studied her mother’s gait as they walked slowly down the street. Anna limped noticeably. Still, Robin believed that, given time and therapy and effort, her mother could recover.
Robin’s worst fear was that Anna might have to have a second operation. An operation to fix an operation – not good medicine. Robin knew too much about medicine gone wrong.
“Shall we walk up to that German bakery?” Anna suggested.
Robin felt googly at the prospect. “Why don’t we go up to the church and say hello at the parish house,” she said.
Anna shook her head. “Nobody home, except, of course, God. Haven’t had a full-time priest or pastor there in 10 years. ”
So, they set out for the bakery.
What would she say to the bakery man, Robin worried? What if his mother was there? What would her own mother blurt out?
Robin had not told Chip that she was a nun. It might seem as if she’d been hiding that fact – which I’m not, she told herself. She just didn’t like telling strangers her business.
Robin put her arm through her mother’s and slowed her own gait as they headed toward the neighborhood town square and the bakery.
The Obermeyer Bakery’s “gal Friday” and pinch-hitter, Pixie – short for Patricia --- came into the bakery that morning carrying a box of brownies.
When Pixie began working part-time at the bakery she had been a girl of Botticelli loveliness – strawberry blond hair, clear skin and sky blue eyes. In the several months since Chip had been back home, Pixie had morphed. Dyed black hair, with bright pink streaks, nose ring, raccoon eyes, sulky attitude.
“Hey, Goth girl, what do you have there?” Chip said.
“Don’t call me that,” Pixie said. But she smiled at the attention and held up a baker box.
“My grammy made a batch of brownies and I thought I’d bring them in, just for us.”
Obermeyer Bakery did not sell brownies. It was Charlotte’s belief that people make their own brownies and were reluctant to pay for them.
Pixie set the box down on the counter. “I’ve got to get some cakes baking,” she said and headed into the back of the building through the offices to the kitchens with their huge ovens -- wiped down each night so that, in the morning, they always gleamed.
Pixie liked this. She didn’t like much right now, but she loved this bakery that had been a place of refuge and sweetness to her since she’d been a young girl growing up in a troubled family.
She was only 13 when she’d learned to measure, mix, pour, stir, taste – and put the pastry into just the right temperature oven and bake it for just the right amount of time.
Pixie was glad that Chip had come home – she had been worried that, without him, Charlotte might have closed the bakery. Now that her own family was split all apart, this kitchen, the bakery, seemed more necessary.
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