A story of two loaves

Bread has never looked so beautiful. "The crust on the round ones is softer -- but smell it. And these long fellows are real crisp and crackly. All baked this morning, sir."

You buy one of each.

Your afternoon visiting schedule includes two more visits. It is already 3 o'clock. Placing the loaves beside you on the front seat, you drive off towards the city jail. The fragrance of the bread fills the car. A loaf for Conrad? Just once, perhaps, the prison guards will smilingly agree to your breaking this kind of bread with an inmate.

"Sorry, sir."

Your literalism is quietly rejected and the round loaf returned to the side of the long loaf in the car. Back again in the prison, you sit across from Conrad. This is your second visit together. Not a loaf but a book lies on the table between you.

"I've really got to know how."m

His finger is on the word "Prayer" that heads up the first chapter. No request is being made to you to see his lawyer, no plea to contact his family again or to add to his cigarette allowance. The man's nails are filled with prison dirt, but his eyes are earnest. As you turn the pages of the book, it is the smell of fresh bread that comes to your nostrils. . . . New thoughts hang between the two of you now and there is something in his face that you have not noticed there before.

As you leave the prison, a clock strikes 4. Your second appointment is on the fifth floor of a senior citizens' apartment building. The round loaf is again in your hands, together with a small tin of sardines. You climb the stairs. When the apartment door opens you are face to face with a dark, unforgiving frown, coming at you from under a wild tousle of silver white.

"I've got something for you."

You place your gifts on the old man's table. To be let into his life now is to hear the bleakness crying out in this room.

"How did you know I liked sardines?"

The hostility begins to melt. But the loaf lies untouched on the table.

"Words don't change things," he mumbles as he sees the books in your hand. Then after a moment's pause he begins to talk softly. His eyes grow moist as he reaches beyond the starkness of his predicament into his Cornish background. Slowly the words come out of his past . . . glide from his lips to yours, discovering new meanings. He is smiling suddenly.

"Did you say Tintagel? It's fifty-four years now since I been back. If I could only walk along that old cliff path to the castle once again -- just like I did when I was 15."

You are going back further into history: shades of King Arthur and his knights at the drawbridge. . . .

"Let's be quiet together for a few minutes," you say. His eyes close and you pray without words.

As you stand in the doorway to say goodbye, his thin hand is patting the loaf gently.

"Call me Ernie," he says, " -- and come back."

You're in the car, turning the ignition key and glancing at the long loaf beside you on the seat. In twenty minutes you will be home. already you see the children's delighted faces, their fingers feeling along the basilics of the loaf.

You come to a stoplight. All at once you notice a street sign that triggers your memory of someone whose problem had prompted your first visit in this part of the city some years before. Gladys Hawkins. You make a right. There's the house. Parking the car, you walk up to the door and turn the old handle-doorbell. No warning. No appointment.

"It can't be! Oh, this is beautiful. I can't believe what's happening."

The loaf is being lifted up like an offering in her hands. Never has bread tasted so good as it does now -- as when you leave it here anointed by this woman's tears and return home empty-handed.

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