Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2015  v14n1
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The Joy of Baking

It should be simple, baking. A certain amount of each ingredient, heated to a uniform consistency, created a standard, replicable product. Scientific really. I know science, the scientific method. These experiments in baking should have yielded standard results, the recipes proven over and again both by the cookbook writer, my favorite vegan food porn blogs, and my friends. I sat at Natalie’s kitchen, the spines of the farmhouse revival chair biting into the flesh of my shoulder blades. Ta-da, Natalie had said with a flourish, plopping a fat muffin directly on the table in front of me. I picked up the muffin, pulling the top off, and split the bottom evenly into two. A small puff of steam escaped, wafting the delicate autumn scent of spice and warm sugar. As I bit into the succulent bread, I changed my mind about two things: zucchini was more than just a bastard version of squash, and I didn’t care that Natalie’s cat had recently padded barefoot on the kitchen table I’d just eaten from.

So, it wasn’t old baking powder. It wasn’t the pans, as I’d thought initially. I bought new nonstick airflow sheets. I had even borrowed Natalie’s pans, and Natalie’s kitchen for that matter, sure that I could replicate the results if I maintained the integrity of the original conditions. It wasn’t the flour, sugar, vegan butter, bananas, dark chocolate, or baking soda. It wasn’t the mixing method either, as I’d mimicked Natalie exactly. But there was something I wasn’t doing right, something to give me the bland, fibrous, moisture-wicking muffins. Huh, Natalie had said after tasting yet another failed batch, created from her own ingredients, baked in her own tarnished and well-loved pans, in her own kitchen. You weren’t kidding. These are pretty awful. Liz, she’d said, frowning at the brownish lump in her hands, these taste like sadness. And fiber supplements.

I moved to Page, Arizona, two years ago for a grant position in a minor research cohort. I worked in blood and memories. Bloodborne pathogens in a ramshackle level-two lab, our research attempting to trace the recent rise in Yersinia pestis fatalities in the plague endemic Northern Plateaus. It was work with teeth, I thought often, something worthwhile to spend my time on. In the lab I felt comfortable in my biohazard suit, protected rather than stifled as some of the grad students complained. In the lab, in my white plastic cocoon, I was my own microcosm. I loved the sound of each exhalation, potent and ruminating in my head gear, the stale smell of my own sour coffee breath and the salty, rubber undertone of perspiration on the suit’s interior. I wasn’t a woman in my suit, or an anthropologist, or a survivor—I was just a collection of circuitous cells. I had become so attuned to the suit that I moved more smoothly in it than if I were exposed to the elements, a pliable exoskeleton helping me negotiate interior space the way my own skin never did. Alone I am clumsy—slightly awkward—unsure of my occupation of space and time. But inside my universe, I undulate, each rubberized movement a delicate slip through the atmosphere.

After work a few times a week, I joined Natalie at McGregor’s, a part-time dive and full-time haven for Natalie’s ever-tightening circle of lovers. I don’t know how Natalie and I became friends other than proximity to one of the few bars in a mostly dry county and a shared fondness for baked goods. Though I would never admit it to myself, with the 6,356 population of Page, it was more than likely that locally bred Natalie would at minimum have had a beer with nearly two-thirds of the eligible, age-appropriate, single male population. There was something unsettling about that, the idea of licking lips that Natalie had licked before. I found Natalie in the back, nestled into a corner by the pool table, thumbing the jagged edge of a broken cue-stick. I asked once why they kept a broken stick, and Natalie had shrugged, It’s been like this since my dad came here to work on the dam. That’s Page, she’d said. In the last year I had learned that a thumb over the jagged edge meant that Natalie was getting close to jettisoning someone. That someone was Markus, a hirsute hipster of the middle-aged variety. I was neutral about him, didn’t bother to get to know any of Natalie’s admirers until they’d passed the rumination cue. I did, however find his Rollie Fingers mustache fascinating, watched intently every time he angled to kiss Natalie, maneuvered his face in an effort to avoid crushing the carefully waxed tips.

Natalie tossed the stick on the table, the jagged edge snagging on the felt before it fell with a muted clatter. She took a loud swallow of her beer. “So how’s things at the Horror Show?”

“You know. Bloody. Flea circus, all that.”

Natalie nodded, and I thought we were done with shop talk. Early on Natalie had developed a fascination with the lab, misapprehending the study of bloodborne pathogens not as the semi-sterile clean lab that it was, smooth surfaces and hard white edges, but as a sort of charnel house, red waste fluid splashes and mason jars filled with gray sinew. Nor did Natalie choose to grasp that I studied the socio-cultural conditions of the endemic presence of Yersinia pestis in the Four Corners region, rather than hands-on experimentation.

“Do you have any jobs open?” Natalie asked, as she nursed her beer.

“There’s a lab assistant spot open. But you’d need BBP and OSHA training for it.” Natalie nodded.

“I can redo it, got it when I became a piercer.” I knew that she had pierced before, but it was years before we’d met, and Natalie’s clear and un-punctured skin testified to her lack of dedication to the craft. Natalie spotted the momentary silhouette of Markus at the door, a blast of warmth swallowing us, so dry it broke like crystals of heat against my bare arms.

“Let’s get out of here,” Natalie said as she rose from her stool. She thumbed the broken pool stick, setting it to rock slightly in her wake. “Maybe you aren’t so terrible with crusty bread.”

I was, in fact, terrible with bread. Natalie had taken us to her small third-floor apartment, cool and dark with the shades pulled tight against the late evening sun. Her kitchen was the sandy rose color of the Manson Mesa, at one time a fashionable summer home for the families of the engineers at Lake Powell. Natalie lowered the AC and turned up the oven, baking pans warming slowly against the stovetop as she pulled ingredients out in haphazard piles. I stood with a hip against the counter, poking at a sponge that had seen better days. Clostridium perfringens, eight to twenty-two hour incubation period, third most common food-related illness. Natalie threw the last of the ingredients on the counter, her open box of egg replacer puffing out like a winter’s cloud.

“Aprons!” she said. “Maybe that’s the mojo you’re missing. My mother never cooked anything without an apron on. You’re wound up straight like her, maybe the apron will be some sort of anal-retentive talisman for you.” After a moment of searching she pulled out a wrinkled apron from the back of a drawer. It was ‘70s lime green fabric with embroidered orange flowers, the stitching uneven and handmade. I wondered if Natalie’s mother had made it, if she had cut the pattern out on an enamel kitchen table and muttered curses under her coffee breath like my own mother had done. Natalie pulled the strap over my head, pulling my hair gently to one side. She was close, smoothing the edges of the apron over my torso, before she wrapped the ties around my waist, hugging me close for a moment, then another. The apron smelled like wood glue and silver polish. Underneath, just the slightest hint of sugar and sweat from Natalie’s skin.

“Maybe this is will help,” she said. We’ll do it step by step. Because it is unreasonable for you to be so bad at this.”

I’ve since thought that Natalie could be captured in essence that afternoon. Baking, yeasty sour taste, rubbing sprigs of rosemary between the pads of her fingers, a hint of desolate mesquite. Natalie in subatomic particle. I sometimes roll this memory in my mind like a pinch of uncooked dough, sticky and sweet. Yet for all of the careful attention she paid to my kneading technique, and her mother’s magic apron, the loaf that I made was black-hole dense next to hers.

“So the job,” I said as I unlaced the apron strings from my waist. “It’s not glamorous. Half the time you’ll be tidying up someone else’s mess. The other half you’ll have to wear a clean suit to transport cultures between the labs. Or at least you should. We’ve gotten pretty lax with the protocol lately. Plus it’s short-term as the grant runs out in December.” Natalie nodded as she crumbled my loaf into tiny, thumb-sized pieces.

“Why do you want to work at the lab? There are plenty of interesting jobs at Pima CC. You could teach art or something.”

Natalie swept her pile of crumbs into the still warm loaf pan. “C’mon,” she said and led me to the balcony. “Just feels right, I guess. I’ve been dreaming about blood. Could be too much weed, could be prophetic or something.” She pulled aside the glass door and opened her apartment to the bright heat of the evening. Tossing the crumbs to the birds, the cascade arced before falling to the asphalt below, softer and more delicate than the first high-desert snowfall.


I never told Natalie how close her dreams came to the reality of the Yersinia pestis infection in its later stages. I knew firsthand about buboes bubbling slowly in wet lymph nodes, expanding like yeasty balloons, stretching the cervical and mandibular nodes taut against shining pale skin. It’s a peculiar feeling, this internal pressure, as though the body has decided to exceed its spatial capacity, stretching into the negative space around you. I knew the taste of pennies when you cough after deep rattling breaths, and the look of confusion on the face of doctor after doctor. I knew hospital beds. I knew death as out of my immediate family, only I survived the last case of pneumonic plague found in Colorado in twenty years. It seemed only natural that my brain would follow my body into the cultural anthropology of disease, to follow the tinned scent of illness throughout the southwest. The scent was a tangible texture on my tongue, something thick and savory. I didn’t want Natalie anywhere near it. Yet the following Monday I kept my thoughts to myself as she put a plate of lemon blueberry muffins in the break room, disrupting the sharp smell of disinfectant with a tart sugary sweetness.

As I washed up in the specimen sink, I counted the slim possibility of infection: (1) active viruses were rare in the lab, but the techs did work with them occasionally when a family from the reservation brought in an infected pet, (2) live fleas from said pet, (3) cross-contamination, (4) mutations and secondary infections, relatively unheard of, but not out of the realm of possibility. As long as I could keep her in the lab, ensconced in prophylactics, and away from the epidemiology charts in the closet that served as my office, things would be fine. I wouldn’t let her see the post-mortem photos of the Begay family. Mrs. Begay, age 73, found dead in her bed, no plans to drive to Shiprock for a doctor, simply resting her eyes for a moment while her fry bread rose under a damp cloth.

Even though my office didn’t qualify as a hot room, and the only precaution I had to take was the common sense measure of hand washing on entry, I kept my suit near me. It hung against the wall, deflated and gray like someone else’s skin. I thought it made an appropriately morbid frame for the GIS charts and photographs of each plague site. On the corkboard wall, I’d carefully spiraled the picture of infection outward based on presumed spatially-driven outbreak and linked family units with lavender ribbon I’d found buried in an old suitcase. In the two years I’d been modeling outbreak, I could trace with accuracy how the disease jumped and wound through families, passed like an unwanted vase at holidays. I’d even published an article on the climatic effects of Yersinia pestis upon household pet populations. But I was being paid to collect the stories of the plague, to trace the ethnography and tease out each victim’s plague narrative. I was to be the collector, a task I’d excelled at as I surrounded myself with the facts, death dates, pictures of swollen pustules, and the ghost of blood on pale blue lips. But I’d found myself trapped in the absence of narrative, paralyzed by a story with no beginning.

I had writer’s block.

Elinora (Michaelson) Begay: age seventy-three. Married. Three children. Presumed infection vector household dog. Dog was not found, but evidence of pet accoutrements included water dish, a partially full food bowl, and numerous pictures of Mrs. Begay with what appeared to be a German shepherd mix with a pale red coat.

I fingered the edge of a picture I’d taken from the Begay home, the edge mottled from years in a tarnishing copper frame. The dog’s name had been Harold, he’d had a soft glossy hair so at odds with the dusty life of an outdoor dog. Mrs. Begay had doted on him.

Yersinia pestis infection was listed as the cause of death, bubonic form of the disease determined by the presence of large buboes near her groin, swollen and of ruddy discoloration. Gram-negative test confirmed the presence of Y. pestis. Based on the state of putrefaction at the infection site and the statement from her son, Reggie, who last saw his mother in good health six days prior, Mrs. Begay was likely infected on May 23-24 with a two day incubation period.

When we’d investigated her home the salty-sweet smell of fry bread dough was overwhelming. She’d been preparing for a feast it seemed, multiple mounds of dough over-risen under once white kitchen towels, long since dried into shelled mounds. I lifted the stiff corner of a towel to reveal the blue-green haze of mold crusting the dough. I pressed a finger past the thin outer crust, and inside the dough was warm and still wet.

Smoothing the rust-speckled photo on my desk, I stared at the case notes on my computer screen. All I could think about was the smell of bread, yeasty and ripe. Like a summer’s day in Denver, too hot for the oven, the heat rolling over my skin, clutching a doll by the hair as I waited for my mother to pull out a loaf of crusty wheat bread, hot and thick.

I was lost in Mrs. Begay’s kitchen again, lost in my mother’s kitchen, as had been happening nearly every day anymore. I could hear our PI, Tom, talk to Natalie through the doorway, heard her ask him about my photographs.

“Dr. Burt is quite the artist, don’t you think?” I could imagine him waving a hand toward my office. “These photos are the infection vectors for the past two years in the Four Corners region. You’ll note she’s grouped whole families of infection and traced them back to suspected transmission.” Natalie peeked her head in the doorway, looked in the direction of his pointed finger from the other room. I saw her lean face grow taut as she followed the lavender-strung autopsy photos of the Velasquez family. A cluster of close-ups of the buboes near the armpit of eleven-year-old survivor, Marcel, patient zero, bulbous and shiny against the bones of his shoulder. Tacked against it was an image of the biopsied lungs of his father, glossy red. It spiraled out this way, spilling out from Marcel, who had been treated early enough, yet had passed on the pneumonic strain to his father and brother.

“Liz’s web is mnemonic storytelling—the heart of the grant that sustains our lab hinges on creating a humanizing narrative of plague in the region,” Tom said. As they left Natalie took a last glance over her shoulder at my menagerie of photos and maps.


I didn’t see Natalie that night, didn’t hear from her at all for the rest of the week even though the office was small. The last desperate intensity of the September sun blanketed me as I cycled from work to home. Unable to bear the silence of my still-bare living room, I found myself at McGregor’s almost without thought. I grabbed a beer and settled into the pool room, nestling my stool into a corner where I could watch the rest of the bar. I wondered where Natalie was, what she was doing. If she could teach me fry bread.

“Slow night,” said a familiar voice to my left near the smoking patio. I nodded to Markus as a vapor ghost followed him in from the last embers of his cigarette. He pulled a stool next to mine, his booted feet propped up against the scarred edges of the pool table. His mustache was gone. I hadn’t noticed before, but Markus had a delicate bow for an upper lip, his lower lip dry and flaking. I raised a finger to the corner of his mouth, a millimeter from touching.

“Looks nice,” I said and pulled my hand away, the heat of his breath feathering against my open palm. “I mean, it was an impressive Rollie Fingers, but you look more . . . something.” I took of sip of my beer.

“It was a handlebar. But thanks, I guess.” We sat in silence for a moment, the occasional burst of laughter from the patio sounded thin and far away. Markus idly scratched an overgrown sideburn. His hair smelled warm and oily. I felt myself go still as he reached across me to grab the broken cue stick propped haphazardly against the wall. Markus waved it like a baton from the base, swirling the dust motes visible in the light spilling in through the patio door. “I know one of those kids. The plague kids.”

“Yeah?” I said and took a sip before realizing my bottle was empty. I didn’t know much about Markus other than he was about to be or had already been cast off of Natalie’s island. “Which one?”

“Richard Scope. Except he went by Ricky. We had tenth grade Algebra together. He was pretty smart.” Markus put a palm on my hand, the fingers pressed hot against mine. “He had these crazy green eyes.” I looked at our joined hands, nodded. I lifted my beer bottle and he pulled his hand away while I took a sip of air. Markus sighed, and I followed the direction of his gaze. A woman with weighty hair like Natalie entered the bar with a male companion. Markus poked his baton upwards one last time, disturbing years’ worth of dust nestled onto the faded top of one of the dozens of band T-shirts that were pinned to McGregor’s ceiling. A shower of motes dusted down on us, my face upturned and eyes closed as it littered my eyebrows. As I blinked away the weightless clumps of gray, I saw Markus rub his eyes with a knuckle, red and raw as he smeared the dust on his cheekbones. He leaned across me, his armpit on my knee, warm, too warm, as he dropped the cue back to the corner. “Green like potato sprouts,” he said, his irritated eyes meeting mine.


Mrs. Begay was a tribal elder, matriarch of her large family, and pillar of the community. Her infection with Yersinia pestis rocked the larger community and her picture was run on all three local papers. Prior to infection she was active in . . . her skin was pale cream and soft, wrinkles in the center of her bosom and what her husband said was a gift from God, plentiful breasts. When she hugged him he felt like he was home, resting his cheek safe upon her chest were he could feel the thin flesh tremble with her heartbeat. Her skin tasted like sweet buttermilk and her pendulous arms gave tight, warm hugs.

I glanced at the photo of Mrs. Begay’s angular form and deleted the last paragraph. Mrs. Begay looked nothing like my mother, but my mother kept writing herself in, a thick-bodied ghost hovering over my infection map.

“Liz, we’ve got a new site just outside of town,” Tom said, poking his head in my office. “Fresh.”

“How many infected?” I asked, slipping Mrs. Begay’s photo under the edge of my laptop.

“Three adults, two lingering in critical care with pneumonic plague. The deceased showed signs of advanced septicemic plague. Pretty exciting. Have Natalie prep the gear and get your butt in the van—this is a level three active site and I want to get in there before it gets decontaminated.”

My stomach twinged. “Natalie is going?” She’d been avoiding me, or me her.

“No time like the present to get her up to speed on field safety protocol.” I shrugged and grabbed my field kit and tablet. I could keep an eye on her.

The ride to the Wright home took twenty minutes over country dirt roads. Natalie had been silent on the ride out, other than a quick grin in my direction and a gentle punch to my shoulder. She helped Tom suit up before helping me, taping his ankles and wrists securely. As she wrapped the last of the safety tape around my wrists, my hands blue latexed and double gloved, I wrapped my hands around her hair, pulling it into a ponytail. An unstuck edge of tape snagged some strands and she winced.

“Sorry. Just remember to tie back your hair so fleas can’t hop on.” I lowered my arms. The gloves and tape felt confining, hot in the sun, and the mask around my neck abraded my skin in a way it never had before. “Just stay out here, out of the tall grass, and don’t touch anything,” I said and went inside.

The Wright home was tidy and smelled of reed diffusers, Windex, and lemon cleaners. I rarely entered an active infection site, let alone one so tidy. My taped ankles squeaked with each step, sweat rolling into my socks as I followed Tom into the bedroom. In there was where the Wrights lived, the room dark against the daylight, curtains pulled tight, but haphazard, the careful navy and white stripes in disarray. The bed was unmade, and in the air lingered the delicate scent of pine and the faint metallic odor of sweat. I imagined that the fever had set in while the Wrights were asleep, the sheets absorbing the first layer of perspiration, wicking it away from their bodies until they became overheated enough to wake up, damp through their bed clothes, yet chilled by the evening air. They would have had stage two infection by then, buboes swelling uncomfortably, yet barely noticeable under the skin, more an unexplained tight feeling near the site of the infection. In the corner near the master bathroom, Tom bent over a cardboard box, humming to himself. I peeked over his shoulder to see a baby ground squirrel nestled under torn strips of newspapers.

“Jesus. Who would bring a wild rodent into the house in this area? Forget plague, what about rabies or Hantavirus?” He nudged the box with his knee. The squirrel squeaked and rustled under the paper strips. He went to the kitchen to look for sealable plasticware for transport. I snapped a few pictures of the squirrel and box, brushing aside soiled paper to get to the trembling animal. Its fur was the ruddy auburn of a baby, the tail still sparse. It wasn’t a ground squirrel, I thought. It was a juvenile kangaroo rat that I’d brought home that summer. A baby rat I’d found at a roadside truck stop on the way back from Disneyland, slipped trembling into the pocket of my overalls. I’d reached into my pocket frequently on the ride home, poking at it until it bit me and I zipped it inside. It had been tiny, barely out of the nest, and shat in my pocket. My mother noticed my hand in my pocket while making dinner later.

“Lizzy, what is in your pocket?” she said. She rolled a crust onto Shepherd’s Pie, looked over her shoulder at me.


“Now.” She turned to me, knelt, and pulled me to her. Her hair was scratchy against my cheek and tasted like flour, her belly firm and round. She held onto one shoulder strap and fished around in my pocket with her other hand until she pulled out the tiny rat.

“Jesus Christ! Elizabeth Burt, you cannot bring home wild animals!” She pulled a chipped vermillion pot from the cupboard and tossed the rat inside quickly before she slammed the heavy lid. “Now go wash your hands while I figure out what to do with the thing.” I watched her, sure she was going to bake him in the oven, but all she did was peep under the lid with a frown.

“Alright, throw him in here and let’s get back to the lab.” He shoved a small Tupperware in my direction. “I can do the necropsy and you should have another chapter to work on now. Maybe we can apply for an extension to the grant.” I felt the ground squirrel’s frantic heartbeat under my thumb. I set him gently in the box and sealed it tight with a puff of escaping air. I carried the box gently as we closed up the house, only our dusty orange footprints in the carpet showing we were there.

I sat next to Natalie in the back seat on the way back to Page. I’d shed the gloves, but the rubberized smell that clung to my hair and clothing, had etched its way into my cells. I held the squirrel in my lap, its frantic scrabbling in the Tupperware making a staccato scritch scritch noise that was too loud in the car. Natalie stared out the window, her body in profile, and she absently scratched at her ankle with paint-chipped fingernails.

“Well,” she said, facing me at last. “So that’s what the fieldwork is all about. It’s kind of boring. And I still can’t believe that thing killed someone,” Natalie said, nodding toward the squirrel. “Nasty thing.” She poked one slim finger into the side of the box, jostling the squirrel, causing it to scramble even more panicked against the sides, its small chest heaving. Its mouth was now open, tiny tongue visible between large teeth, as it gasped for breath. I pulled it tighter into my lap.

“It’s the fleas that actually have the bacteria in this species. The squirrel is just the vector for transmission. It was happy just being a squirrel before all this.” I rested one palm flat on top of the lid. I thought I could feel its heartbeat through the lid, the rapid thump of panic tapping against my palm in time to my own pulse.

Natalie scratched absently at her ankle again and shrugged. “Baking and beers tonight?” she asked. I slid a nail under the lid of the Tupperware, lifted the edge infinitesimally. The squirrel ran to the edge, stuck a wet nose into the breach, desperate for air. I let the tip of my finger touch its nose, wet, soft—the gentle press of teeth against the fleshy pad. “Sure,” I said, and raised an arm to shield it from view. As I let its nose nudge my finger, grateful enough for the air to nestle its oppressor, I wondered if Mrs. Wright had held it in her hands, cupped and gentle against the creases in her palm. As we pulled into the parking lot of the lab, I gave its head a gentle nudge back before I resealed the lid.

Baking was nearly silent that night, Natalie didn’t mention her mother’s apron again, and despite my best efforts, I ended up with a crusted handprint on my behind as we brought our completed muffins to McGregor’s. Natalie set her box on the main bar, open and perfect for the taking, the orange glaze infusing the air. My muffins, those that I was able to scrape out of the pan in mostly one piece, were left to the back of the box, collecting puddles of Natalie’s glaze. I carefully collected one of my less deformed muffins, set it on a bar napkin and left Natalie chatting with an out-of-town biker while scratching idly at her leg under the bar.

Markus was outside, sitting under a mister and smoking. The lower half of his face was still pale, and looked soft with the delicate sparkle of water droplets clinging to his cheeks. I set the muffin in front of him and pulled a chair up, put my feet on the bar next to his. I pushed the muffin toward him with a finger.

He nodded, took the muffin and peeled the wrapper away. He pulled it into two, set half in front of me, and took a large bite before swallowing audibly. “It’s good,” he said.

I smiled and took a bite. It actually wasn’t half bad—moist and tart—once you got past how misshapen it was. Markus licked a finger, stuck it to the edge of the wrapper, then to his mouth. We watched the sun as it sank below the canyon walls, the refracted light pulling salmon and ochre from the sandstone. It was just us then, remembering the warmth of skin as we braced for the coming desert night.  end  

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