Bernie Boda and the Salvation Bakery
“Your job’s worth shit,” Beverly Boda bellowed at her husband, as was her habit every morning before he left for work.
“But I’m a good chef. Joe says so—customers say so.”
“A good chef means nothing. All you do is cook. Now… now Preacher Pankhurst, there’s a man with a real job,” the wife shot back contemptuously, putting one hand on her ample left hip, stroking her right side with the other, Beverly’s not so subtle way of reminding him that she would not be his to enjoy until Bernie, as she liked to say, “saw the light” and quit his job at Joe’s. “Preacher’s out there on the streets, bright and early, every god-damn morning, converting those heathen Jews to Christ. Every god-damn morning.” More than a few of the Pentecostals suspected that the Preacher’s holy flame had ignited Beverly Boda during the one-on-one “Witness and After-Glow” sessions he conducted with her and other ladies of the church following each Wednesday’s “Praise and Shout” meeting.
Such heaven as he knew on this earth Bernie found only at work. Everyone at the restaurant loved him, the help and the customers. When Ethel was having a bad day, Bernie would add an extra helping to her orders, or garnish the side order of asparagus with what he called a little “culinary architecture”–strands of string cheese intertwined to form what everyone agreed looked like a miniature Eiffel Tower. Delighted with such special treatment, Ethel’s customers gladly doubled what she could normally expect as a tip. Struggling to support four children as a single parent, Amos the dishwasher always found a brown bag filled with what Joe referred to as “Bernie’s beautiful bonus,” the order of ravioli a customer had not touched for some inexplicable reason, the tin of potato salad that would turn bad if left uneaten, the extra cherry pie a take-out customer failed to pick up, gifts from Bernie waiting for Amos as he left at three to pick up his kids from school.
One night Bernie found Preacher Pankhurst and Beverly waiting for him just outside the door of their row house.
“You have an unconverted Jew working at Joe’s,” the Preacher, without saying hello, proclaimed in his sonorous pulpit tones.
“The least you can do is convert her to Jesus,” Beverly chimed in.
“No buts,” the couple blocking the door said in a single voice, their faces still flushed with passion, voices like steel.
“You know they killed the baby Jesus,” Preacher Pankhurst reminded Bernie.
“It’s your Christian obligation,” his loving partner cried out.
“Yes, dear,” Bernie said meekly.
“That Jewess, the waitress, the older one—what’s her name?”
“Emma Grossman.” Bernie offered.
“She denies the baby Jesus every minute she’s at that restaurant.”
“I’ve never heard her speak about our–”
Beverly butted in. “Just being there is enough. A Jewess! What is it those people like to call themselves? One of the ‘Women of Zion’.”
“But what should I–how do I go about?–”
“You sit her down, and tell her about my Christ, the Preacher’s Christ–your Christ, for shit’s sake, about the glorious new life she can purchase if she confesses the risen Lord.”
Bernie was used to saying “Yes, dear.” And when, in his private moments, he asked himself why he did so, why he followed every order, why he gave into this woman, the same two simple answers were always there staring him in the face.
The first was that Bernie was a follower by nature, one of those poor saps who was used to, even in a perverse way likes being bossed around, and had been so since he was a kid. Bernie’s mother had bossed her husband around until he had a heart attack in his mid thirties, bossed Bernie’s brother and sisters around until all three had grown up with complexes. Beverly was a dictator from the same school; Bernie had, invariably and unquestionably, married his “mother.”
Like his father, Bernie looked the part. Small in stature, a wisp of hair barely parting an already bald head, soft blue eyes and the cheeks of a choir boy, Bernie had a slight stoop in his walk, not from age but the aforementioned deference, resembling nothing so much as the servant’s obsequious incline toward the master as he departs the room after announcing “dinner is served.” The one positive quality Bernie had inherited from his mother was her love of cooking.
And there was another reason that, for ten years now, Bernie had been content to be Beverly’s attendant lord. For all her stridency, her taunts, her self-righteous “it’s for your own good”s, despite all this, he admired Beverly’s passion about her religion, the animal-like ferocity of her faith. She lavished on that faith the stupefying sexual energy a teenage couple would discover for the first time in the back seat of a Chevy parked in lover’s lane. On Beverly Boda’s chest, between her monstrous bosoms, a crucifix hung, suspended by a gold chain fashioned to resemble the fabled Crown of Thorns. On that crucifix was the figure of Christ, also in gold, his face contorted in pain but his eyes staring calmly ahead. Given to wearing low-cut dresses, when Beverly stood erect the stature, indeed most of the pendant itself, was concealed between the fault line of her cleavage. But at the peak of her sales pitch, or harassment, or any other display of her fierce ministry, she would trust her shoulders back, and as the breasts parted, the miniature Christ would come popping out, like television’s flying nun, stopping a mere inch from the face of the startled sinner, thanks to the intercession of that Crown of Thorns. To Bernie, his wife was a colossus, a Mother Theresa on steroids, the clearest symbol of the Life Force he had ever known.
“Why do you stay with her, Bernie? Why?” Joe pleaded. With wife troubles of his own, he could well ask that question.
“Because–because she’s my God, my Christ, my Holy Spirit, all rolled into way. May the Lord forgive me if this be blasphemy: I stay, Joe, I stay because, for me, she’s all the world.”
“No, buts, Joe. Without her I’m nothing.
And so, reluctantly, Bernie followed his wife’s command to convert Emma Grossman from Judaism to Beverly’s brand of Christianity. He asked Emma if she would join him for coffee the next morning, a half hour before the restaurant officially opened.
“Something I’d like to discuss with you, Emma.”
For her part, Emma was thrilled at the invitation. A modest person, she did not press Bernie for details. It was enough that he has asked her, for she had always liked him, liked the way he greeted her and the other waitresses with a cherry “Hope you have a blessed day,” for his fatherly attitude toward Angel, the apprentice chef, for the fact that even under the most hectic conditions in the kitchen Bernie remained a calm sea.
It had been a long time since a man had asked Emma to join him for anything. A single parent whose daughter was now a teenager, Emma had gone back to school two years ago to do graduate work in Comparative Religion at Columbia, supporting herself and her child by working as a waitress at Joe’s. Her husband had left her for a teenage girl, but not before telling her that she was “too brainy for a woman” and “mousy-looking.” Emma was indeed mousy-looking. But she was also very kind—as well as brilliant. Once the most promising students in the graduate program, she had abandoned her studies when she became pregnant, remaining home for ten years to raise their child and protect the tender ego of a husband, a handsome man who, not very kind and not very bright, resented a wife on her way to a PhD.
“Bernie asked me out, Ethel,” she told the head waitress the day of Bernie’s invitation.
“Well,” Emma smiled, “Not so much ‘out’ as ‘in’.”
“You mean, to his home?”
“No, silly. By ‘in’ I mean that he asked me to have coffee with him here at Joe’s, before the breakfast crowd.
“Be careful, Emma. He’s married—unhappily, as we all know, but still . . . married.”
“Ethel!!” Emma cried in mock protest, “It’s just an innocent cup of coffee.”
“Look, darling, I know you’ve had your eye on him for a long time–a long time.”
“Ethel, nothing’s going come of it, nothing can. I know that. But still, it’s nice to be asked out–”
“In,” Ethel joked.
“Asked in by someone–by a man.”
“I know, sweetheart,” Ethel said, wiping a generous tear from her eye. “Now, don’t forget to tell me what happens—or doesn’t happen.”
When Bernie came in the next morning, Emma had a pot of hot coffee waiting at the table near the window. Joe was busy in the storeroom taking inventory; otherwise, the restaurant was deserted. Emma had spent some time debating whether she should put the two cups at opposite sides of the table, or nearer each other at an angle. She decided on the former. “Too close would be too bold,” she thought to herself.
For a few minutes they exchanged pleasantries about the cool morning air, about the good rich coffee, and how quiet the restaurant seemed, the only noise an occasional sound from the storeroom where Joe was arranging supplies.
Bernie looked at this woman so different from his wife, flat-chested, her friendly face touched with a look that always seemed to anticipate some fear or disappointment just around the corner. She had folded her hands around the cup, her head slightly lowered, and when she spoke, her eyes were so trusting. Emma’s voice was soft, low, almost at the alto range. She wore owl-rim glasses, looking every inch the graduate student. A man could dominate her, but no decent man would want to. “She has put herself in my hands,” Bernie thought to himself, and if his mission were anything other than the one demanded by his wife, he would have felt supremely confident.
Emma in turn saw in Bernie a man quite unlike her abusive husband. Sitting across from her was a sad yet gentle person, not handsome, but somehow reassuring with his bland face, his dull gray eyes, his head mostly bald, although he had made no attempt to hide the fact, such wisps of hair as remained left to fall where they may. But the same right hand that now clutched his coffee cup, which she noticed was almost imperceptibly shaking, could wield a knife over a brisket, producing wonderfully uniform slices, the left hand steadying the piece of meat, the fingers daringly near the blade, Bernie not even looking down but rather facing to his left as he played the teacher to his apprentice Angel, who was making his first custard. When it came to food, Bernie displayed what the poet has called “the achievement of, the mastery of the thing.” And for all this, for his daily kindness to her and the others who worked at Joe’s, Emma felt the deepest gratitude, a gratitude that at some point blurred into the fantasy that this man who, for some as yet undisclosed reason, had invited her for coffee, this man could be, nay, would be the object of her adoration–and love.
“I wanted to ask you something, Emma,” Bernie began, and immediately choked after her name.
“Well, it’s something . . . something . . . my wife asked me to ask you.”
Emma quickly raised the coffee cup to her lips, and took a perfunctory sip so as to hide her disappointment at the mention of his wife, the standard-size cup almost serving to cover her small oval face, behind which the romantic fantasy had dissipated. Collecting herself, trying to hide any disappointment from this dear man, she managed only a second “Yes, Bernie?” before he continued.
Looking left and right, as if a crowd were overhearing them, or as if his wife stood behind his chair ready to punish him if he failed in his mission, or rather her mission, Bernie tried to resume. “She wanted me . . . I mean . . . I told her I would . . . because she wanted me . . . wanted me . . . to try to convert you from Judaism to Christianity.”
“She wants me to accept the risen Christ?” Emma asked, echoing a phrase she had read in last week’s seminar assignment.
“Yes, she wants to save your soul.”
“And you, Bernie? What do you want?”
“I–I think you already have a lovely soul and if it were just up to me, I wouldn’t even have raised the idea, but my wife . . . you see . . . she–”
Every bone in Emma’s body called on her to “mother” this sweet man, this poor slave of his wife. Humiliated by what he had just said, Bernie hung his head down like some guilty child, tracing his finger in anxiety around the rim of the cup, afraid to face her.
For the first time in his life, if not to Beverly at least to this woman sharing coffee with him, Bernie suddenly let out a violent “No,” followed by a quieter series of “no”s, as if he were a tormented soul crying out to the multitude.
Startled at his outburst, Emma said, “What’s wrong, Bernie?”
“No, I can’t do it. I can’t tell you what or how to believe.”
After Bernie told her about the charge from his wife and the Preacher Pankhurt, Emma came to his rescue as she patted his hand, now clenched into a fist. “You don’t need to try to covert me, Bernie. There’s nothing to convert.”
“But you’re Jewish, aren’t you?” he said at once confused and relieved.
“Well, yes, and I’m proud of the history and the culture of the Jews.”
“The chosen people,” Bernie added, as if to show her he was not totally ignorant of faiths outside his own.
“Oh, I’m not sure we are so chosen,” Emma added, “Unless it be to suffer a lot.”
“You mean, concentration camps?”
“Yes,” and then after a pause she said, “But when it comes to believing in God, Jewish or otherwise, I suppose I’m what you might call ‘a metaphoric Jew’.”
“‘Metaphoric Jew’—that’s a funny phrase. What’s it mean?”
“Yes, it is funny now that I think of it,” she laughed. “You see, I believe God—he or she—is here,” and with this Emma put her hand over her heart. “And here,” as she pointed to her head.”
“You mean, inside us?”
“Yes, inside us.” Now, emboldened, Emma defined that God as a projection, or creation of the imagination, “our normal, beautiful need for some larger purpose,” to which she added, “some frame of reference outside ourselves.”
Bernie stopped running his finger over the rim of the cap, and folded his hands as she continued. “So, you see, Bernie, I don’t deny the Christian God, or anyone’s God for that matter. And as to the idea that God comes from ourselves, from our imagination, our needs, I would never want to impose that view on anyone else. I can’t, because there’s no ultimate truth in it.”
“But, you believe it and–”
“It’s only my truth, what works for me.”
“You don’t believe in absolutes?”
“No,” and then she added with smile, “And even my claim that there are no absolutes is just something peculiar to me.”
With that Bernie relaxed, and it is a moot point whether it was because there was no need to convert Emma or because she was so unlike Beverly, who knew nothing but absolutes, the “Them or Us” axis of her religion, “Salvation or Damnation,” and all the other antitheses which were the stock and trade of the Church of the Holy Pentecostal Flame.
Just at this moment, Joe came out from behind the counter. “It’s eight. Got to open up.”
Startled, as if discovered, Bernie quickly returned to the kitchen, and as Joe went to open the door to the breakfast regulars, Emma got a stack of menus to greet that morning’s customers.
“So, what happened?” Ethel said later that afternoon, while she and Emma were taking out the trash to the back alley.
“Well, nothing and everything.”
“Emma, stop playing the graduate student with me. What do you mean by ‘nothing’ or, better yet, ‘everything’?”
“It wasn’t a date, Ethel. Not what I expected.”
“I’m sorry, baby, I know you were hoping.”
“But we did agree to meet each morning at 7:30 to chat before Joe’s opens.”
“Chat about what?”
“About everything . . . and anything,” Emma said with a grin.
“There you go again! So, what did happen?”
Emma told her friend the gist of the conversation, about Bernie’s wanting to convert her, the details of which were interrupted by exclamations from Ethel like “that bitch of a wife” and “what a slut!”
“So, how do you feel?”
“Well, to be honest, I was hoping for something different–”
“I know, honey.”
“If this isn’t love, it’ll have to do,” Ethel consoled her with a phrase from a song that had just popped into her head.
“You got Tillie Sizemore at table number eight?” Joe called out to Emma from the cash register, and knowing that Tillie always had the Wednesday “special,” Emma hurried into the kitchen to give Bernie the order.
In an uncertain world, their morning coffees proved an island of sanity for Bernie no less than Emma. They talked about everything—Emma’s studies, Bernie’s cooking, her marriage, his, the goings-on large and small, serious and comic in the neighborhood and among the regulars at the restaurant, about politics, favorite books, and recipes. Emma understood, but never questioned Bernie’s irrational devotion to Beverly. And neither ever ventured into that no man’s land where the distinction between friendship and love might have dissolved. Nor were Joe, his staff, the regulars at the restaurant oblivious to the bond that had formed between Bernie and Emma. But each kept private any thoughts they may have had.
Though Emma now knew of his wife’s insane demand that he do what she would define as meaningful, she realized that he could not extricate himself from her spell, that however irrational it may have seemed to her, he worshiped this unworthy woman. And though she had heard, as had everyone, of Beverly’s affair with the Preacher, Emma never mentioned this to Bernie.
“Way I look at it, Emma, is that you’ve already given him something he never had before you two started meeting,” Ethel observed. “Something wonderful. Opening up his world. Getting him to see beyond his wife’s crazy religious cult. Accepting him just as he is. Not trying to change him. Most of all Emma, giving him the friendship of a decent woman. And, in your own way, a woman’s love.”
“Yes, love, Emma. A pure love, one that asks nothing in return. Oh, I’ve heard Beverly Boda boast that she’s ‘the bride of Christ’. Some bride, Emma! Right?”
“Right.” Emma felt safe with Ethel, the way she felt safe with Bernie. “What bothers me most, Ethel, is the she keeps after him about his job. Tells him he’s worthless. That ‘real men’—that’s what she calls them—make their religion their work. And–”
“And this is what’s eating away at Bernie. He’s a great chef–”
“But that’s just the thing. She’s convinced him that being a chef isn’t good enough. Keeps comparing him to Preacher Pankhurst.”
“So, she wants him to become a minister, work in the church?”
“No, not exactly, but she demands his work involve his religion. Maybe if he could find something like that, she’d make it a little easier on him. It’s affecting his job. I know you’ve noticed, we’ve all noticed how sad he looks all the time now.”
“Sure, I’ve noticed.” Then, after a pause, Ethel added, “And I know just the person to help him.”
“Me? What can I do?”
“Well, think of it like a problem you have to solve in one of those classes you take at Columbia. Bernie’s skilled in the kitchen. He’s a man of strong faith, but not a lunatic like his wife. She demands he get a job that somehow involves his religion. You solve it. You’re the future PhD.”
Two days later, at their morning coffee, Emma asked Bernie if she had ever told him about the Tiv.
“The Tiv? Don’t think I know the name. What are the Tiv?”
“I thought they might interest you, Bernie. They’re a tribe in Nigeria. We studied them in one my comparative religion courses. The Tiv believe that good spirits live in things you use every day, around the house, including food.”
At the mention of food, Bernie put down his cup, and rested both arms on the table. “Food?”
“Yes, good spirits live in food and so when you eat, say, a piece of meat in which the spirit lives, you literally ‘eat the spirit,’ and it becomes part of you.”
“You become what you eat?”
“In a way. It’s a bit like the Catholic who believes that at the communion service when he drinks the wine and eats the wafer, since the two symbolize the blood and flesh of Christ, his crucifixion, he takes part in Christ’s sacrifice. You know that as you kneel at the altar rail and drink from the goblet, the priest says “Take. Drink. This is my blood which was shed for you.” And the priest calls the communion wafer “Christ’s body.”
“So, what’s symbolic for the Catholic is real for the Tiv?”
“Yes, exactly. You’d make a good graduate student, Bernie.”
“Not me. I’ve got no brains for such things. But what you’re saying’s fascinating, I have to admit.”
“Imagine,” Emma joked, “if the spirit lived in, say, a doughnut.”
“Calories be damned,” Bernie replied and they both had a good laugh at the idea.
“I can see the sign now: “Tastee Cream—the road to salvation,” Emma added.
Bernie jumped in with, “It puts the holy in ‘hole’.”
Soon, they were trying to outdo each other with jokes about eating and religion.
“An apple a day keeps the doctor and the devil away.”
“It’d take Joe’s devils food cake off the menu.”
“Don’t forget deviled eggs!”
“I found my faith in a Good News bar.”
The two friends went on and on like this until Joe reminded them that customers were about to come in.
Bernie couldn’t get Emma’s account of the Tiv out of his mind. The idea of ingesting a spirit. The sheer physicality of the idea, a god present in everyday things, as opposed to Pankhurst’s abstract, unapproachable god. Or the mind-numbing connection between religion and sex that marked his wife’s every moment. Food was so wonderfully normal, so basic. Bernie dreamed of biting down on a ripe tomato, or eating that delicious soufflé he made every Thursday, or chewing on a piece of tender steak, and then experiencing the simultaneous pleasure of tasting the food and feeling the spirit dwelling within, released by the simple act of chewing, then swallowing, with the stomach acid seconds later breaking it down and scattering that indwelling spirit through the blood stream to every part of the body. “It would put a new twist on the idea of ‘soul food’,” he laughed to himself.
A week later he opened their morning coffee by announcing, “I’ve got something important to tell you, Emma.”
That trusting soul hoped that perhaps he would—she trembled at the very idea—confess his love for her. Or, at very least, ask her if she’d like to go walking in Franklin Park one lovely afternoon. She was encouraged in such fantasies by Bernie’s grasping both of her hands in his, firmly, tenderly.
“I’m going to open up a Christian bakery.”
“What,” she said softly, and with a bit of apprehension since she wondered if this meant Bernie was leaving the restaurant.
“You’re the reason I’m doing it, Emma. You gave me the idea.”
“Yes, that stuff about the Tiv, about eating food that contains a spirit and then having the spirit live inside you. I don’t want to stop being a chef, but I also can’t take Beverly’s anger any more. So, I’m going to start a bakery that sells breads, cookies, cakes, all the products you’d find in a normal bakery, except in mine everything I sell will have a Christina theme.”
“Like?–I’m not sure I understand.”
“Like, a rosary made out of rosemary bread. Get it? Or cookies each with the face of an apostle.”
“But, Bernie, the Tiv really believe there’s a spirit in what they eat. Just because you call a pastry by a Biblical name, or put a religious image on it, doesn’t mean that people these days will really believe that eating it will give them magical power, or save them, or make them better people.”
“Oh, of course not, Emma. You’re right. But you also gave me another idea that I think will make it work.”
“Yes, remember telling me you thought most people projected a God from their own imaginations into their daily lives, that this was how we met a need for someone who gives the world purpose?”
“Well, while there might be some people who think, say, a gingerbread cross actually has the spirit of Christ’s sacrifice inside it, most people would rather think that they’re the ones who imagine that, who imagine a cookie cross as something more than a piece of dough with icing.”
“You mean, Bernie, thinking makes it so?”
“Yes, that’s just what I mean. I won’t pretend that my baked goods are magical, but people themselves can imagine that a spirit lives inside a piece of chocolate cake. They can personalize what they eat, make it a symbol of what they believe, or feel, or need. By the way, I’ll advertise it as ‘virtuous chocolate cake,’ not ‘sinfully chocolate’ like you see in the ads. That’ll help stimulate their imaginations.”
“But will they realize they have the power?”
“Well, if they’re like you, I won’t need to do any convincing. And for those who never thought of God as coming from inside them, well, that’s where you can come in—if you’d like.”
“Yes. Would you write a little brochure for me, maybe talking about the Tiv, then about your idea of God being a metaphor, something that we create through our imagination to fill a need?–”
“That this personal creation can be as strong as anything we call real.” Despite herself, despite fears of losing her coffee partner, Emma had gotten into the spirit.
“Yes. And we can give brochures to the customers. So, does this mean you’ll help me?”
“Of course, Bernie, I’m always here for you.” That last phrase gave Emma a thrill, for, though a cliché, it was as close as she’d ever come to revealing her feelings for him. She noticed that he hesitated for a minute when she said it. “So, you’ll have both bases covered, Bernie. Either people will believe the food is magical, full of the spirit, or they’ll see it as a vessel for their imagination, a way of giving form, shape, reality to what they feel inside.”
“That’s so fantastic, Emma—the way you put it.”
Emma didn’t want Bernie to leave, though he told her he had taken a lease on the vacant store diagonally across from Joe’s. But she loved the idea of helping him, of having inspired him, even if it meant doing what Beverly had driven him to do.
“In a way, Ethel, he’s now got two wives,” she told her friend later that day.
“Yeah,” Ethel remarked, “a real one who’s a bitch, and an imaginary one who’s a saint.”
“I’m no saint, Ethel,” Emma quickly added. “And besides, we don’t have Jewish saints.”
“You’re as good as a person can get, and that’s ‘saint’ enough for me.” Noticing that Emma sighed at this last remark, Ethel asked, “What’s wrong? I thought you were excited for Bernie.”
“I am, Ethel. It’s what he told me just before we finished our coffee this morning.”
“He said he broke the idea to Beverly the night before and she liked it.”
“Why the hell wouldn’t she like it?”
“She even told him what to name the store.”
“Culinary Creations for Christ.’”
“She’s not only a bitch, Emma–she lacks taste. Is it the name that bothers you?”
“I’ll admit it is a little limiting. See, Bernie had imagined that the bakery would be non-denominational. That he would also have items for non-Christians—for Jews, Muslims, and so on. Even agnostics and atheists. He still plans to do that, but he gave in on the name.”
“So, is it the name or isn’t it that’s making you sad?”
“No, it’s not the name. It’s what he told me happened between them after he told her about the bakery.”
“You know what I mean, Ethel. I’m too embarrassed to say it. Bernie was embarrassed to tell me. But he and I are always honest with each other.”
“You mean, he and she,” and with this Ethel mimed the sex act with her outstretched hands.
“Yes. She said now that he was going to start a bakery, a Christian bakery, he deserved it. First time in two years.”
“Good God!” Ethel exclaimed.
During the hours he wasn’t so busy, Bernie let an assistant run the place so he could come back over and help out Joe. Joe and several of the regulars gave Bernie a hand in setting up his bakery. They even hit on a promotion where people patronizing one store would get a coupon for a 20% discount at the other. Much to Emma’s relief, Bernie was able to continue the ritual of morning coffee; they met Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays at the restaurant, Tuesdays and Thursdays at the bakery.
For the first six months things went well. Too well, for business was so brisk at the bakery that Bernie had to be there all the time now with his two assistants and so couldn’t work for Joe. He even expanded the menu to include candies and drinks. The New York Daily News ran a feature on the new store, including quotes from Emma’s pamphlet, which set off a storm of letters, pro and con, on the editorial page and in turn led to people coming to the bakery for a variety of conflicting reasons.
Evangelical Christians insisted that the pecan pie, shaped like Noah’s arc with “The Ship of Salvation” inscribed on its side, if eaten, even just a bite, or perhaps a nibble of one of the animals crowded on the main deck, actually “cleansed the soul.” Gliding out of the store, the stain of his sins erased, his heart overflowing with the joy of redemption, one satisfied customer promptly walked in front of a New York taxi, breaking a leg. “But by eating Noah I was saved from the anything more serious,” he cried out as they loaded him into the ambulance.
More mainstream Christians, including Christian intellectuals, even a group called “Poets for Jesus,” endorsed the pamphlet for its celebration of human willpower and imagination. And as the poets sat at the little tables outside, munching on apostle cookies, the collection conspicuously minus Judas, one bearded pseudo-artist who scorned publication proclaimed, “I am Saint Paul! I am!” while another, using techniques he had learned from his Zen studies, spoke to a St. Matthew Oreo as if the apostle were there at his table, before finishing him in a single bite. He was also more than a little high. Even atheists came, their initial motive to applaud what they saw as an unintentional gastronomical slur on Christianity. But they too were converted, in a small way, praising Joe for such delicacies as “the Mary Magdalene tart” and his Red Sea pound cake, with its generous helping of raspberry jam dividing the yellow icing which simulated desert sands.
Beverly came for the opening and gave her approval, and though she stayed only a few minutes, she looked back at her beaming husband as she left and said, for the benefit of everyone in the store, “Remember, Bernie, God’ll have a little desert for you tonight, when you come home.”
When Joe realized she was content with this single visit, that it was enough for her to know he had “mended his ways,” he became more adventurous with the menu. For Catholics, there were a series of Popes, hands outstretched as if they were giving blessings at the Vatican, from “the Plain Pope,” a four inch figure made out of Danish shortbread and costing just thirty cents, to “The Pope Extraordinaire” with flowing white robe, a golden crucifix around his neck, sitting in a replica of the bubble-top “Pope-Mobile,” complete with black licorice tires that actually turned—and costing a whopping $7. A big seller among the Arab community was the replica of the Koran, with leaves made out of phyllos, a Greek pastry so thin it resembled actual parchment. Jews were delighted with the edible white chocolate yarmulkes and the three-foot Moses fashioned from matzo meal. Baptists could not get enough of “Jesus Walking on the Water,” a model of the miraculous event, with a miniature Savior treading a lake whose surface was made from almond glaze, the spectators on the shore, awe-struck at the sight, fashioned from M & Ms., on which Bernie and his assistants had drawn remarkably realistic human features.
And he changed the name to the simpler, more ecumenical The Salvation Bakery.
Beverly basked in Bernie’s success, now treating him at least cordially, reducing her litany of complains by roughly fifty percent, and once a week bestowing her not inconsiderable sexuality on her obedient slave—all the while continuing her seamy affair with the Preacher. For her part, Emma was resigned to the fact that Bernie would never be hers, that, with the success of the store, the marriage was now “workable,” as he told her one morning. Never more than Platonic, their friendship would remain just that.
With a suggestion from Emma, Bernie added even more items for his Jewish friends. A delicious challah shaped like the Star of David, ingenious little blintzes that doubled as draydls, even a k’nish bass-relief of Palestine, in the center of which two figures, an Arab and an Israeli, were seen shaking hands.
But nothing is forever. It was a well-meant suggestion from his former assistant Angel that marked the beginning of the end: jelly beans shaped like little rabbis, advertised as “ju-ju beans”. Angel was taken with the pun, and when Bernie raised the possibility that someone might object, Angle assured him there was no harm in repeating, even if twisting the spelling of the word “Jew.”
Two days after the aforementioned ju-ju beans went on sale, Bernie was served notice by the Anti-Defamation League that they found the item in “bad taste,” the letter assuring Bernie that the League “knew he meant no harm” and asking him only “to be more sensitive to a people who, the victims of so much discrimination, are bound to be sensitive to your play on words.” Sending a letter of apology to the League, Bernie immediately withdrew the offending item from the case. And was just as immediately attacked by Brooklyn’s Association for Faith-Based Businessmen who accused him “of favoritism to a group of people who already control more than their share of business in the city.” When word got out that Bernie had attended the monthly meeting of the BAFBB to plead his case, the Atheist Society, with the support of the ACLU, objected to what they called his “pandering to this so-called Moral Majority of commercial raptors.” The Muslim Brotherhood now demanded the Arab and Israeli figures atop the Palestine k’nish be removed. Though they had made “Jesus Walking on the Water” a bestseller, Baptists, not to be excluded in the flood of objections, then denounced the piece as a “blasphemy.” Even the otherwise gentle Poet’s Society claimed that Emma’s pamphlet was “an attempt to subvert the joy of metaphor by a grimy reduction to gastronomic reality.”
Business predictably fell off, but the greatest blow to the store was simply the fact that within nine months the novelty had worn thin. People stopped coming. Bernie had to dismiss first one, then his other assistant. He cut the bakery’s operating hours to 2-5 PM, which meant that he could work at Joe’s in the morning and for the lunch hour. Looking out the restaurant’s front windows, Joe’s customers could often see Bernie sitting forlornly at the little table outside his store, waiting for customers who never came. The regulars still dropped by but they were hardly enough to sustain the business.
But misfortune never comes alone. Beverly and Preacher Pankhurst, forgetting in their ardor that the local Girl Scout troop rented out the church on Thursday nights, had been discovered by six Brownies in a compromising position behind the altar. As a result, the Preacher was fired by the vestrymen, and, taking Beverly with him, had fled to the hills of Tennessee where he re-established himself as the leader of The Free Love and Ready Redemption Commune.
“Let’s offer Bernie his old job back, full time,” Joe said to Ethel and she agreed.
“And I think the best person to visit him and make the offer is Emma.” And Joe agreed.
On Wednesday afternoon, just as Bernie was about to close up, Emma appeared at the door.
Bernie walked across the forlorn store to greet her, the display case, the shelves bare, except for a little plate of gingerbread menorahs and vanilla-wafer crosses on a tray beside the coffee urn, now down to its last few cups. He had planned on taking these last vestiges of the failed bakery with him when he returned to what, with Beverly’s departure, was now an empty house, peaceful but empty. His former wife had even sent a postcard from Nashville, with a picture of a sow, on the back on which she had written a nasty inscription: “Having great time. Wish you weren’t here.”
If you were passing by the bakery on this Wednesday afternoon at five, you would have seen a thin woman with owl-rim glasses seated opposite a man about her age, balding, slight of build. They were eating the remaining crosses and menorahs with their coffee, good rich coffee, like that served at Joe’s across the street. They were in the midst of an intense conversation. Emma had brought Joe’s offer, and Bernie had gladly accepted it.
When he closed down the store tonight, The Salvation Bakery would be no more. But Bernie was not sad. In fact, he was smiling. Emma had just made a joke about two vanilla wafers, formerly shaped like a cross, now reduced to a capital “T,” the beam above the center having made its way to their respective stomachs. If he believed, if she believed they had thereby ingested Christ’s spirit, that was a secret known only to them. Bernie wiped a tear from his eye when Emma told him he was a wonderful chef, then added, “And what is more important, Bernie, you’re a wonderful human being.” He asked if he might walk her home. They lived only eight blocks from each other, but until this day neither was aware of the fact. If you were passing by at this moment, you would see them rise, carefully replacing the two coffee cups on the counter before heading toward the door. A gentleman always, Bernie held it open for Emma, then locked up.
Across the street, Joe waved. Inside the staff were cleaning up. Ethel saw Emma and Bernie walking together as they made their way toward Fulton Street. She smiled and repeated to herself the very advice she had given Emma almost a year ago: “If this isn’t love it’ll have to do.” The line came from a popular song of the 1940s her father used to sing: “If this isn’t love, it’ll have to do, until the real thing comes along.” She hummed the melody as she wiped down a table. Soon, Bernie and Emma were little figures at the far end of the street. Above them loomed the Brooklyn Bridge, crowded in one direction with people returning home after a day working in “the city,” in the other with cars heading toward nightspots in the Village. The rays of the setting sun, tinged with a soft red from the smokestacks in New Jersey across the Hudson, filtered through the windows of the abandoned bakery, such spirit as it had now fled.