|The French Baker by Vicki Housel|
Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Fournier worked at the rue Trafalgar Patisserie, home of the giant sugared doughnut, for 21 years.
Lacquered with enamel the shade of clotted cream, the doughnut was made of hand-forged metal and weighed more than a Renault. It hung on heavy chains, the kind of tethers used to berth ocean freighters, welded to an iron bar the breadth of a man's chest.
Tourists came to pose under the giant doughnut. They wore Kodachrome grins with cherries jubilee filling on their chins, smudges of cocoa fudge on their noses and strawberry pink crème anglaise on their lapels.
The enormous doughnut was half of the reason for the bakery's success.
The other half was the ethereal pastries that flew out the front door as fast as they were made by bakers like Ralph, who came in the back door at 3:30 a.m. every day except Sunday and the time he had his appendix taken out.
He came to work when the prostitutes on rue Ste. Anne were just calling it a night, when every respectable businessman was at home beside his snoring wife. He walked along quiet avenues, his footsteps hollow under the streetlights, his breath white in the damp winter months, the key to the back door of the bakery in his big soft hands. When he arrived, Ralph hung his overcoat on a peg by the door, put his salami and havarti sandwich in the refrigerator beside bowls of lemon curd and buckets of butter, then tied a white apron around his white pants. He made a pot of strong coffee for the other bakers who would be arriving at 4, he lit the gas ovens and he began to work. Paté brioche, florentines, madeleines, eclairs. Croissants, meringues and mousse and petit fours. Tiny sugared doughnuts that melted on the tongue. He mixed flour, he rolled dough, he burned his fingers, his ankles swelled, he sweated and toiled. When his work was done, he took off his apron and he put on his coat and he took dessert home to his family, who waited dinner for him when he worked late.
This was the life of Ralph Fournier, who smelled like yeast and cookie crumbs.
He bought lottery tickets because he dreamed of a day when he wasn't on his sore feet all day; when he could afford to take his family on a vacation, maybe to Greece to see a veined marble temple or to drink sparkling pink wine by a cerulean Italian sea.
On the day he won the lottery, Ralph was a happy man. He danced around the bakery in his apron and bought all the pastries in the shop and gave them to the customers. Then he hugged all the other bakers, who hugged him back because they were full of joy for this man.
"Ralph," they said as he was leaving, "you must go out the front door today. Have your picture taken with the doughnut on this, your last day as a working man."
They embraced him and patted him on the back and rushed him out to pose under the doughnut, where he smiled his Kodachrome smile with flour on his eyebrows and butter under his fingernails.
If this was a different kind of a story, the doughnut would have fallen from its chains the very moment Ralph posed for his photograph, crushing the baker with irony and a twist ending. Lucky for Ralph, this is not that kind of story.
The happy baker walked through the busy streets in broad daylight, squinting a bit in the sunshine, thinking about his wife's reaction when he told her the good news, and what he would need to pack for his trip to Greece.
Behind him were floured footprints and sainted Madagascar vanilla, redolent in the changing air.