Unless everything was done right, his hands would be too cold, constricted with fear, he figured, and unless he’d walked through each stage of his toolkit, and so long as he had not been seen in a strange way, and if only each time he were approaching every situation not with just attentiveness but also basic structure, well, he figured, then his hands would not be cold and the young girl, whomever, whichever one, would probably not mind him and, with his great hope, invite him back to her.

Yet the case was never this way, not even on his birthday, when Baker sat at a mahogany table, all his things in a backpack, watching the quiet Alyssa Firth, as her AP Environmental progress report, cast beside her, beside another mahogany round, on a short chair positioned, it seemed to him, so that each time she needed to read another paper in that same splayed notebook, she was required to lean over and expose milk white firm and well supported breasts kept shuttered in a tight spaghetti strap top, itself wrapped in some kind of open heather sweater, and herself touching a bright green highlighter with black painted fingernails and a brightly colored cloth bracelet tied in a bow on her wrist, no doubt for some cause he could not determine, and he knew it did not matter.

She wrote long notes in the same bubbly handwriting that each had a mystique, one of the so-many, that held his interest. What was she writing, her long hair draped so far down beside the table? Could she be writing to him? Why was she not? Why did Alyssa Firth leave her name out for him to see. What symbol could he quickly construct in his mind, some portable memento to which he could dedicate his worship for as long as he could remember her name? Why did she suddenly adjust that strap, right there, at that specific moment?

 

Baker did not take his job seriously. For all the money in the world, stocking Pepsi was not something to believe in. The house he rented was close enough to his home store that in the odd hours each morning or afternoon, when no deliveries had to be made, he could return home to sit in front of his computer and google names he skimmed from over the shoulders of girls on their laptops at Starbucks. There was a graveyard he kept about three hours south on a farm willed to him by an uncle. Baker lived in his rented house with three college students, and by his measure they all considered him to be approachable and helpful when work was needed done in the yard or kitchen or basement or garage.

It was good enough for him to find a Facebook account, and from there he would find a hometown and a school name. On Twitter, for some, he could read locations and chart habits in a spreadsheet. Baker delivered to grocery stores for twenty-five miles in all directions, and so he cast a net over his breadth of Ohio, and this was all he considered with care.

Finding + Catching was only his personal way of phrasing hunting and gathering. There was no difference. Once man lived to go out and bring back his kill for his family’s meals. Baker’s religion was not dissimilar. During the Finding, there was a rise in him. A great surge of hormones, a sometimes blinding cascade that never quite fell to the water. Rather, it was a wave in reverse that woke him in the morning and carried him through the day, through every person’s bullshit bothering, for all the shit they gave him for parking where he did or standing wherever he was or arriving just about anywhere at a specific time. The Finding was the greatest momentum, and it was a shield that guarded his sanity. Catching was different. A single Catch never lasted as long as a Find. He could not twist together different Catches as he did Finds, intertwining girls in the same towns, with the same friends. Catches were always done in a downward motion. He could not avoid their path toward disappointment.

All of his roommates were women. The good veil of privacy Baker kept through this situation. To everyone he knew personally, the girls at home were neat like he was. They were the studious type who were quiet and good with their money. Other houses on their block were owned by families, not students like these girls, so it was good that he didn’t invite any rowdy college men to live with him. And others his age, ten years older than the girls, they were all getting married and buying their own homes. As far as everyone he knew personally was concerned, Baker was several steps behind on the social ladder. God bless those girls for giving him their company. God hope one gave him some real attention once in a while.

True Finds were very unlike the roommates. Above all, the roommates were too old. Finds were on the tail of freshness, only beginning to take scholarships in New York and Tennessee and the Carolinas. Spoiled Finds who’d done more than a semester were not worth the fortitude that a Catch required. Spoiled ones would probably spread open if he just pulled his hood up and hollered any jigaboo song from the radio.

 

Everyone from Pepsi new Baker as the Bakerman. As in, “Bake me a cake as fast as you can.” As in, “Yo, Bakerman. You wanna bake one?” As in, “Bakerbitch come bake my fuckin cake.” As in, “Baker the Bakerman, you big ass bastard.”

At the grocery stores along his routes, he saw other workers like himself. He waved hello to Coke sometimes. Coke would say, “Hello, Pepsi.” Store owners and department managers would say, “What’s your name again? Brian?” The beer and wine salesmen all high fived him, shaking their ponytails and long feathered unstylish hairdos, “Hey, man. Hey.” Baker would cruise the cashiers attentively about once a month, more heavily in the summer. It was worth him buying a case of domestic once in a while to see just who needed help ringing him up.

 

The wind down at his uncle’s old farm was heavy. He slept until dawn and rose to wash himself in the tub shower and eat. The land had one furnished trailer for Baker and another empty one which he sometimes slept in and moved to different corners of the acreage to feel like he was getting away. Twice in the past year, someone had broken into the trailer when Baker was home up north, and they’d taken his TV and his hotplate and not much else. He stood outside and put two cupped hands to his forehead to dampen the overcast light. Baker had seen footage of the English countryside in movies. Sheep roamed in herds. Animals going freely about. In his Ohio countryside, he only saw the buzzards who came often to his graveyard to sit on the repacked ground and mill about and look back at him, their sick eyes like he could be any different.

Baker took his truck into town and stopped at a gas station. A woman sat at the counter, milling over a crossword and she looked up and tilted her glasses. Baker paused and looked to the newsstand. He poured a cup of coffee and asked her for the bathroom key.

Do you want to leave that out here? She motioned to the styrofoam cup.

Okay, he said.

Wires of someone’s graying beard hair curled around the bare sinkhole. Baker leaned forward over the sink, his legs straight and together, and hocked and spit, letting a long drip stretch down to nothingness. He spit foamy saliva onto his lip and looked at himself in the mirror, like a porno girl who’d just taken a big one. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and stood all the way up on the toilet seat. He peed facing the wall, his yellow urine trailing dark streaks down behind the dirty bowl.

The woman passed him his coffee cup and looked back to her book. Is that a free one?

Is it?

No, it ain’t.

Alright.

She took his dollar and cashed it into the register, never looking up at him.

Are you some kind of bitch-witch?

Excuse me?

Never mind me, he said.

Baker took all of the change out of his pocket, mostly pennies, and dropped it into a plastic charity jar on the counter. Thank you, she said, and he left.

 

Finding Alyssa Firth was not difficult. Baker looked her up online and watched her tweet to her friends in real time. She was studying at the coffee shop. She was waiting on acceptance letters from colleges. She was Jewish because she made Jew jokes to other Jews. She did not appear to have a boyfriend. She went to the coffee shop a lot. She went to school along one of this delivery routes. She appeared to be a good student. She did not appear to have any sort of regular job. The car she drove was a Honda, but he was not sure which one.

Baker stood up from his table and slowly zipped his coat and he tossed his empty cup into the bin and he left, watching her writing there by the window. There were a lot of cars in the lot. Hundreds from people buzzing in and out of the strip mall. He started walking the rows in front of the coffee shop, and there were several Hondas, and a few of them were old, but she was some kind of college Jew, so he looked for newer Hondas and he found a nice blue one with a University of Chicago sticker on the bumper. Baker looked in through the windows, walking all around the vehicle. There was a granola kind of bag sitting on the floor of the passenger seat. There was a textbook in the backseat wrapped in brown paper. Baker turned his back to the driver’s door and reached behind himself to check if it was locked, and it was. He looked at all the adjacent parking spots, and he moved his car to the same row. It was not that easy to see her car from inside his, so he began pacing the lot. Through the window, after two passes, he could see her still at her table. Baker returned to his car and left the strip mall, parking across the street at a fast food restaurant, facing the road. He waited, sitting straight up with his car still running. The radio was off. The windows were up. His hands were in his lap. An hour had passed since he’d left the Starbucks. He checked Twitter but she had not tweeted. He could not see the blue Honda from the fast food restaurant until it appeared fifteen minutes later, waiting at the light to turn. Baker put his car in gear and slipped onto the road one car behind her until he was directly behind her, and he sat low in his seat and drove someplace he’d never been.

 

Baker kept nothing but cans of beans and cases of beer and coffee, though he remembered the thieves had taken his coffee maker. He lay on a couch and watched the ceiling. Outside he could still hear the wind, and he imagined what a demon would sound like, and if either the wind or a demon would could sound just the same. When he was younger, a small tornado came through his neighborhood, trapped spiraling in a shallow valley, parting entire homes and yards, until all at once it hopped up the valley wall and dissipated into the sky. The tornado then had sounded like his idea of a demon, and he’d guessed it stuck.

The best thing he had, the thing he was surprised the thieves did not steal, was a small collection of African masks he’d found at an estate sale. The same sale had a lot of antique guns, and a stuffed lionness fighting hyenas, so he was sure the masks were real. He’d fashioned each mask with a swimming goggles strap, and when he wore one out on the farm at night, it was as though he was an old jigaboo king. Baker ran naked in the mud with his shriveled penis bobbing above his testicles, his entire body electrified with tribal magic. “Grow, you dickhead, grow!” he’d shout, chucking a pitchfork into the wall of rain ahead.

Baker put on a mask and sat slack on the couch. He slouched lower until he could see the ceiling again. He put his fingers on his face and traced the contours of the wood. Baker began to daydream about a Find, one he’d never caught. He imagined her captured and locked in the empty trailer, all her eye makeup smeared, her hair greasy, her pink skin irritated red from tape wraps.

Baker felt his trunks rise, and he turned over onto the couch and slide himself still covered into the space between the couch cushions. He pushed until his knees buckled and his toes pushed into the carpet, until his feet and ankles and shins looked like dog legs kicking nails into the ground. Baker rested his masked face on the cushion and felt the opposite counters with his nose and cheeks. He drummed his hands on the cushions and stood. Outside the wind had not stopped, and he took off the mask and walked out.

 

Jen and Jess and Amanda were his three roommates, two in nursing school and one studying new media, they were all friends enough to sit and watch TV together on certain nights of the week. Baker never joined them, instead claiming to dislike television entirely. This made the girls think even more of him, as if he were somehow smarter than a television, and as though he did not have the spare brain power to drain. While the girls had their TV nights, Baker would sometimes sit in the dining room alone and wonder whether he was really the person he was always meant to be. He did this only when he had no Find.

Do you want to go to the movies with me? Jen surprised him.

Oh, no, he’d say. Oh, I’m alright.

Well, you have to do more than work sometimes, you know. It’s nice to get out.

Baker would look at Jen and imagine himself with her at the movies. What does he do? Does he put his hand on her knee? Around her shoulders? What is the movie they see? Where do they go after the movie? Does he drive her? Does he have to clean his car?

Ah, I never have the cash, he’d say, immediately shrinking. You know I gotta pay for my mom’s stuff. Baker did not have a mom anymore, but the girls believed he did.

You’re so sweet, she’d say.

Oh, I’ll go one of these days. I’m going to go, you know.

You just tell me when, she’d say, batting a hand at him as if he should think she’s pretending to kid.

Do you need your oil changed? he’d retort. Do you need your tires checked. Do you want me to pick you up anything from the store tomorrow. Do you need a ride home from the bar sometime. Do you still hear that whistling in the shower. Is it still draining okay.

 

Days later, Baker watched on Twitter as Alyssa was accepted to Chicago. She exclaimed to her friends, “Next four years, best four years!” He memorized the address to her parents’ house. Two mornings later he returned before the sun rose, and he lay in the cold backyard on a black trash bag and watched as the first window glowed, then the second, and another until the whole house was awake, bathing and eating and aflutter. Alyssa’s mother came downstairs first. She turned on the news. She put away the last night’s dishes. She poured bowls of cereal, coffee. She kissed them and they left for the world and she stayed home, and Baker went to work.

All of the Pepsi guys played video games nonstop. They told him about this and that game. They played until this time and only slept until that. Some of these men were ten years older than him, and they still raised their eyes to what Baker thought was basically controlling a cartoon.

You talked to this guy and played at the same time?

Yeah, we have a clan.

A clan of what?

Like, dudes. Bros of mine, man. You know Coke Steve.

Coke Steve is embarrassing.

Shut up, Bakerman, he said that about you.

Fuck Coke Steve.

Do you want to play with us or not?

They stole my fucking TV.

Who did?

The fucking jigaboos.

Jesus Christ, dude. Come on. Henry’s here.

Henry is embarrassing.

You’re fucked up, Bakerman. Fucked. Up, he pointed.

 

Baker drove a mile down the street to a farmer’s market and left his car parked sideways in the grass. A few old hens trotted around the dirt. Baker walked around bales of hay, pumpkins, carts with apples and pears, things he could smell. An old woman stood, studying an apple.

Ripe as rain, Baker said, and he repeated: Ripe as rain. The women looked at him and put the plum down. She walked away from the cart. Baker took the apple up and bit into it. You don’t know, he scoffed, though the apple was mealy and sour.

A man in overalls and a flannel shirt unloaded a pallet of late corn. Baker watched him unstack boxes, and he continued eating the fruit. You sell Pepsi here, he asked.

No, sir, we don’t

You know I used to live in North Carolina, Baker told the man.

Did you now?

Say I did.

Sounds about right. Had a brother living out there.

Where does he live now?

He’s dead.

Don’t sugarcoat it or nothin.

Dead is dead. Fell off a telephone pole on the job. Wife got all kinds of money.

When I was out there I won the state lotto.

You don’t say.

Bought a farm here in Ohio with the winnings.

You won the super lotto or a ticket?

I won a lot of cash is what I won.

You can come sell here, the man said. I won’t ask any off the top.

Not a lot of folks here buying oranges.

You farming oranges in Ohio?

Most I give away, Baker said.

Well, shit.

You want to come by sometime? See if I’m running the place alright?

Glad to, the man said. Glad to.

 

Baker kept the dresser in his room full of work pants and his work shirts. He made his bed everyday. He had a night stand with a lamp and a pair of black glasses he’d taken. His closet was empty save for his winter jacket. He had two pairs of extra shoes under the bed. In his night stand drawer he kept three knives, which he never used. He kept the blinds drawn. Sometimes before bed, he’d sniff the black glasses, hold them up to the moonlight. He’d put the lenses up to his mouth.

 

Alyssa was never late to class, by his count. She did not skip. True to her Twitter, she did study a lot at the Starbucks near her school. He’d thought maybe she’d start to slip after hearing from the university. Maybe she’d start to stay out late or go to parties on the weekends. Mostly, it seemed, she continued to study. She’d watch TV in her room. Maybe she talked on the phone. He was not sure.

 

John from the farmer’s market came late, after Baker had cooked two plates of corned beef hash from can and mixed up some microwave mashed potatoes and set out cans of beer. When John knocked on the trailer door, though Baker had already watched him drive down the road, he leapt up from the dinette to answer.

Evening, Baker.

Evening, sir.

I smell some cookin.

Oh, I made some food.

Alright, John said, and he sat down and ate.

 

The best thing the girls had ever done for Baker, by his measure, he thought, was to actually bake him a cake. He left the distribution center around dinner time, thinking it might be nice to go home late after a walk at the shopping center. But it started to rain half way there, and he rerouted himself home. Baker opened the garage door, swung around their cars and parked. He took a Pepsi from the garage refrigerator and walked inside, leaving his shoes at the door. There was a good smell. Something he could not place. There was laughter. He paused.

Baker! one of them shouted.

He turned the corner into the kitchen. Tubs of frosting were on the counter. Jen with a spatula. Hi! they said. He stood watching for a moment, gripping the cold can in his hand. Hi, we made you a cake!

Baker gave a bunched smile. Made it pretty quick then?

Oh my God, no, Jess said. It took like two hours.

You almost caught me buying the ingredients! Amanda said.

I did?

We were at the store the same time yesterday.

You bought it all yesterday?

Yeah. Jen told us about your birthday like two weeks ago, but I’m so lazy with finals.

Mm, he nodded.

Well, do you want a piece?

Yes, Baker said. I’ll take one.

 

The Jewish neighborhood where Alyssa lived was always quiet at night. Baker’s house with the girls was on a busy road, and though he slept in quiet most nights, sometimes jake breaks roared in the distance. He imagined her sleeping on a baby blue pillow, her hair fanned like rays. He imagined her under heavy blankets with only her finger tips showing beside her face with her eyes closed and her eyes moving as she dreamt. He imagined her mother and father up late in their beds, each with a book in hand. There was no sibling, no dog or cat. Alyssa slept as the only princess in a small kingdom, and when she walked in open territory she was free.

 

They finished the hash and potatoes, and John asked for a glass of milk, which Baker did not have. They finished their cans of beer, and Baker brought them more. The two men looked out the trailer window at the desolate ground ruddied with tire tracks and unchecked mud. John would smile, sip and nod to no one at all. Baker watched this carefully. This was a man at peace, he thought. This is what peace was like.

Have a house in North Carolina or another trailer?

Big house, he said. One I was willed, fortunately.

Me and my wife have a place about three miles out of town. Nice old farmhouse my granddaddy built.

He build that with his two hands?

Yes, he did.

That’s a good man.

He was.

Tell you what, Baker said. Them orange trees aren’t anything to look at. Say I have a trailer to sell you. Would you want that?

I don’t need a trailer.

Say I wanted to just show it to you. Do you want to take a walk?

Baker, I came out here to see what you’re up to. You know I’ve seen you at my market at least three times this summer. We’ve all seen you around town. Coming and going. People don’t know what to think, but I you just need a someone to talk to.

Mm, Baker nodded. He could not bring himself to give a better response.

Sometimes you don’t even need to talk. It’s just nice to have a friend around, you know?

Baker furled his smile.

Hell, it’d be better if my wife’s sister came out here. She’s a widower. But that wasn’t on the table. None of us knew your uncle, you see. We were all sorry to hear about him, of course. But he talked less sense than even you.

You know that man killed himself.

I know he did.

Well, what do you think about that?

I think it’s sad, and I know you do too.

 

Baker pushed the lawnmower over oak roots in the front yard, blade buzzing the root-tops and him ignoring the sound, dulling the machine and pushing on, up toward the ditch near the road where cars passed by. He heaved the mower in and out of the ditch. Missile branches cracked at the blade and shot out from under. Baker hated how his hands vibrated, how unsteady they were once they left the mower. How he smelled like gasoline. How his shoes turned green with lawn spatter.

Inside, Jen smiled at him from the couch as he went upstairs to clean up. Thank you, Baker! she shouted to him. Mm, he thought. Good for nothing.

He stood in the shower, too hot to feel relief. This was the last mow of the year, surely. He checked his phone while he dressed. No calls from the distribution center. Baker walked downstairs, his hair still wet. Jen looked up from a magazine and smiled. I’m going to take your car for a wash, he said.

Aw, no. She said: You don’t have to do that.

Do you have a class?

Done for the day.

I don’t mind, he smiled. I’m in the mood.

Jen clapped her hands together kicked her feet up and down in little motions. Baker found it strange. You’re too sweet, she said.

Mm, he smiled.

 

The grocery store closest to Alyssa’s house was a small Jewish market where Baker walked, slow through the aisles, picking up boxes in a dry goods aisle. Matzos, ten ounces. Matzo Ball Mix. Baked Lentil Crackers. Weird shit, he thought. He saw Coke Steve at the front of the store, gloves on, building a display with the long boxes of soda.

Sup, bitch, he told Baker.

Hello.

What the fuck are you doing here? Pepsi ain’t kosher, man.

The hell it isn’t.

Fuck if I know, actually. Are you off?

I’m looking for a clan, Baker told him.

Seriously?

Yeah, man.

Shit, negro that’s all you had to say.

What is?

You can play with us whenever, man. What’s your gamertag?

Mhm, he said. BigAssBakerman.

Ha, you fucking faggot, Coke Steve sneered: Call me.

Baker left smiling. He took Jen’s car down the road to Alyssa’s street and swept the block. No one was around at midday, and he drove back past the grocery store to the strip mall and Starbucks. Her blue Honda was there. He waited.

 

There’s something beautiful about a ripe apple’s flesh and composition. It can sometimes be the color, depending on the cultivar, or it may be a memory tied to that type of fruit, something gained from a summer pick one young year, from a lunch served regularly, from a remedy your mother gave you. The something here is pure subjective and possibly unquantifiable. But it is still a universal.

This apple is taut at all points. Round and curved at the bottom. It’s worth first exploring the geometry with your fingers. To carefully document all ideas present—what God made in the highest genius of His creation. What he gave to you, to have and to hold. What he meant for you to feel when you felt it. How He meant for it to taste.

Do not eat the apple yet. This is important. You are appreciating its ripeness. You are not to think: This is my apple, and there are many like it, but this one is mine. Yes, this is your apple. For the moment it is. But you are to think: This is my apple, and I am holding it at this moment, and it will not last forever, and I will have to find another one soon. Because this is who you are, and this is what you do. You are not a shining example of faith in God because you hold what is His. You are only who you are at this moment, and afterward you will have changed.

Smell the fruit. It is perfumed. You did not know it would smell so ripe. There is more.

Taste the skin. Make a small incision and peel with your teeth. Look where the skin separates from the flesh, where you can see juice beneath the surface. If you are not careful, you will take a bite too soon. Yes, I will have to find another one soon, but you do not know when that will be.

Wait. Hold your breath. Squeeze. Okay. Bite the flesh now. Take a small piece, careful not to dribble. Smell the flesh inside the fruit. Have another piece.

You are enjoying this. You are glad you waited for the right fruit, for an apple without a single spot, without soft parts, without a day too long of age to spit back sour taste in your mouth. This is what you waited for. This is what’s healthy.

 

She’d been beaten unconscious with a tree branch. He’d tried to break her ankles by twisting hard but decided he wasn’t strong enough. Baker took each nipple off with a cigar cutter. He swallowed both nipples immediately, and down past his windpipe and deep in his gut he felt that Alyssa Firth was an angel, sweet Ohio trim.

 

Down at the trailer, Baker cleaned his hands with a package of napkins. Each pink napkin went into a bag, and later that bag would be set on fire and all the contents within would die forever and ever.

Sitting in a small trailer with a hotplate cooking grits, Baker could almost realize everything the world would want to know about him: the sweet story that started with him there, with inch-long snippets of hair going down in his gullet. It was told with the stink of ass and sweat-smeared feet and distressed armpit on your face. This perfect story that none of America could understand, though he reckoned Dateline or 20/20 could lend enough consideration of it for someone harebrained like Coke Steve. No, prime time anchors would start his shit story about taking a young girl out of her nice high school life and how he’d taken her good parts and swallowed them to make the best shit for fertilizing the Earth, and how he’d taken her leftover body like an emptied lobster shell and shucked it into a gravel pit underneath an abandoned trailer on a large plot of land that would eventually be picked by a local farmer named John as the perfect new destination for many RV campers sick of swingers and franchiser bullshit from the KOA. It was the perfect place to end a dead farm’s life and to celebrate a skinless Jew and to take a perfect part of Central Ohio and fill it with the lionhearted people that collected pensions and aimlessly mourned dead spouses and had fought in wars and had sold businesses and won lotteries and had up and had it with city living and none of them would be the type who’d have thought much of Baker—Baker, who didn’t want to go back to being the retard handyman at his rental home. Baker, who didn’t respond to the name Bakerman. Baker, who was the new campground owner’s personal friend. Baker, who didn’t say a thing when he got owned on Xbox. Baker, who didn’t lay awake each night licking eyeglass scum. Baker, who didn’t wake each day with a dead feeling that ran from his lungs to his cock and could not be cured with prescriptions or therapy but only a deep trancelike recollection of every worthwhile set of bitch nipples he’d tasted before he’d felt the life leaving their bodies. And before there was a sick twinge of hate in all these young girls’ parents’ hearts when they were alone and thinking at work or awake in the middle of the night and when they felt this and for several minutes could not explain why they suddenly had hurt so much in their wholesome souls and why for whatever reason they now had to get up and go—leave to check on something in the other room.