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The Neighborhood

Chapter Text

"All set, Mr. Bittle."

Eric Bittle looked up from the industrial sized mixer and to the door that led out of the kitchen. Todd, the friendly employee from the sign company, stood there with a thumb pointed behind him. Eric looked in the bowl of the mixer — the scone batter was just about ready — so he shut it off and returned his attention to Todd. "You done already?" Eric asked. 

"Yep. Come take a look."

Eric untied his apron, a crimson colored knee-length garment with the name Bitty embroidered across the chest. It had been a graduation present from his parents, a sort of good-faith gift when they realized this bakery was for real and not just the pipe dream of a college kid who'd managed to save a small nest egg. It had been a nice gesture, but gestures were just gestures. It had been almost a year since graduation and he hadn't seen them since.

Bitty followed Todd out of the kitchen, behind the empty display case and checkout counter, through the seating area, and to the glass doors in the corner, which until that day had been blank. The hours of operation had been neatly detailed and above them, the bakery's name, Bitty's Corner, along with a muffin and a croissant, a logo designed by Bitty's roommate and longtime best friend, Lardo. Bitty did his best to not cry as he took in the lettering — it had been several months since he leased this space on the southeast corner of Broadway and Knight Street in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Providence, and this was the final detail.

"Look okay?" Todd asked.

"Yeah, it looks great. Thanks so much, Todd," said Bitty, who took a step back to attempt to put his emotions in check.

"I'll clean up and get out of your hair. When do you open?"

"Tomorrow. Sorry I don't have anything to give you now, but I haven't put anything in the ovens yet. Come back when you have a minute and I'll let you take your pick."

"I sure will. Whatever you're making now smells amazing."

"That's probably the cinnamon in the sticky buns. I'm serious; come back tomorrow and I'll keep one warm for you."

"Thank you. I'll have to take you up on that," said Todd. Bitty said goodbye and returned to the kitchen. He had a lot of baking to do before their six-thirty opening. He'd been able to hire a full staff in the last few weeks: Ransom and Holster, his other best friends from college, for some reason agreed to quit their consulting jobs to bake for him; Dex and Nursey, two neighborhood locals who were the first normal people to answer his Craigslist ad; and Chowder and Farmer, two undergrad students at Brown who agreed to work the counter part-time. They would all work that week, but this first prep Bitty wanted to do himself.

It took all evening and late into the night. The next day was expected to be nice; sunny, sixty degrees, a perfect Monday for a pastry and a cup of coffee before work. At least, that was what Bitty hoped as he stocked the display case the best he could and filled both the walk-in refrigerator and freezer with enough dough to feed the neighborhood.

Bitty closed the door to the walk-in and peeked at the time. It was just before one o'clock. He should try to get some sleep before opening. It would be a long day if he pulled his first all-nighter since his thesis was due. He entered the seating area, which was more so a counter with twenty chairs around eight tables and a few more at the window that overlooked Knight Street. It was a homey space, reminding Bitty of old timey New England taverns with wood planked flooring and similarly stained tables and chairs. During the day the natural light from the surrounding windows negated the darkness of the furniture, but it was very dark now that the sun had gone down and the cars had stopped coming. Lardo had been very kind with the decorations; she and a few of her art friends from the Rhode Island School of Design had come in and not only painted the walls, but hung custom paintings that tied everything together. Between the furniture, the decorations, the stocked display cases, and the black chalkboard with the menu meticulously printed on it, the space was finally a bakery.

Bitty pulled out one of the chairs and sat on it — cushions were a good idea. He'd almost opted out of them to save money. He let his gaze fall on the little pieces that created his bakery, his bakery, but he barely saw anything before he felt overwhelmed. He dropped his head onto the table in front of him and began to cry.

He was just a minute into his sob fest when a loud knock against the glass on the front door drew his attention. He sat upright, embarrassed to be caught in such a state. Because of the light in the bakery and the darkness of the street outside, he couldn't make out his visitor. He wiped at his eyes and got a good look at himself in the glass as he approached the door. His large brown eyes were red with emotion, as were his blotchy cheeks. Upon reaching the door he was relieved to see it was just Lardo, her small stature overshadowed by the large doors. Bitty let her inside and when he did, he saw she carried a pork chop on a paper plate.

"Bruh," she said as she handed over the plate. "You look a mess. Everything all right? You didn't have trouble with those used ovens, did you?"

They started toward the table where Bitty had been crying. "No, this is just a 'I can't believe this is happening' cry. You couldn't hear me in the house, could you?"

"Nah, I thought you were asleep until I saw your face. I take it you never had dinner." 

Bitty picked up the pork chop by the bone and took a large bite. He had no idea how hungry he was. 

"Glad I didn't make you oatmeal, Jesus," Lardo said as Bitty messily devoured the entire chop until he was holding nothing but bone.

"Lord, that was amazing. Thanks, Lardo. Do you want to try something?"

Lardo stood and headed toward the display case. "Wait!" Bitty called. He scurried behind the counter, fixed his hair the best he could, and stood up straight. "What can I get for you, ma'am?"

"Bitch, I'm twenty-four years old. I am not a ma'am."

Bitty's posture drooped as he put both hands on his hips. "Can you please play along?"

"Yes, sir, Mr. Bittle, sir. Can I get one of these muffins, please? The lemon blueberry one." Lardo pointed at the tray of muffins, split into four sections for the four flavors he'd serve on a regular basis. 

"For here or to go?"

"Let's eat here."

Bitty took a fresh plate from the stack behind the counter and a pair of tongs from the hook on the back of the case, then reached inside to get Lardo a muffin. He grabbed the closest one to him.

"No, not that one."

He switched to the next one over.

"No."

"Which one do you want?" Bitty asked.

Lardo pointed. From this side of the case, Bitty had no idea what she was pointing at. He guessed based on the direction of her finger, but she shook her head again.

"No! This one!" She smushed her finger against the glass.

"I can't tell which one you're pointing to!" Bitty snapped. Lardo tapped the glass several times. "You're smudging my display case, Lardo! Just tell me which one you want."

"This big one right in front."

Bitty grabbed the muffin in the front right of the tray.

"No, the big one!"

"OH MY GOD, LARDO!"

He grabbed the next one over, which was hardly any bigger than the others, and removed it from the case before Lardo could object again. He put the muffin on a plate and dropped it loudly on the counter. "Here's your muffin," he said.

"Geez, Bits, I hope that's not how you plan on treating all your customers."

"No, just the infuriating ones."

"Customers are infuriating. They'll want a specific pastry and they'll point and smudge and be expressly unclear about what they want. I'm just showing you how it is." Lardo picked up her plate and returned to her seat. Bitty rearranged the muffins so the case looked full, then closed the door and grabbed the Windex. He cleaned up Lardo's grubby fingerprints before he joined her at the table. She'd already eaten half the muffin.

"Is it good?" he asked.

"Yeshf," she said with her mouth full. She swallowed. "How are you, Bits? You ready?"

Bitty took in a long, deep breath. "Yeah. Yeah, I think so."

"Ransom and Holster are opening with you?" she asked. Bitty nodded. Lardo finished her muffin and Bitty took her plate. He washed it in the sink behind the counter and dried it before he replaced it on the top of the stack. When he turned, Lardo stood beside him. "You gonna call your mom tomorrow?" she asked tentatively.

Bitty couldn't squash the fury inside of him from just the one question, although it wasn't directed at Lardo. He knew why she asked and how it must have taken a lot of mental preparation to do so. He looked down at his apron and quickly took it off.

"My mother knows we open tomorrow," he said coolly.

"That's not what I'm asking, Bits."

"I know. I might call her, depending how it goes. I don't — I don't want to think about that right now, okay?"

"Okay. You coming home? It's late."

"Let me clean up quick, then I'll come home. Go out the back through the kitchen."

Lardo walked toward the metal swinging door that led to the kitchen. She turned back before she entered. "Ten minutes. If you're not back by then, I'm coming to carry you there. Don't think I won't, Eric Bittle. Ten minutes." She entered the kitchen and Bitty noticed the bell on the counter, one last item to put up before he could be done. It took a few minutes but then it was up and the bakery was ready. He tested the main door and bell jingled delicately, loud enough to hear in a quiet room. He shut the door and locked it, but then his eyes drifted to the neon "Open" sign in the window.

He looked outside. It was dark and quiet. Broadway and Knight was a major intersection during the day, but just after one o'clock on a Sunday — technically Monday now — it was empty of the life Bitty hoped to see come morning. He pulled the chain on the sign. The red light hit the gray pavement on the corner. Bitty stared at it for just a moment before he pulled the chain again and everything went dark once more.

 

***

 

Bitty was not wholly present when he entered the bakery at five o'clock the following morning. Some of that was due to his lack of sleep, which could be measured more easily in minutes rather than hours, but most of it was the disbelief that this day had finally arrived. In less than two hours, Bitty's Corner would be open for business. He was alone, drifting in surreality, until the door burst open and Holster entered, six feet and four inches of entirely too much personality for this time of day.

"Bits!" Holster yelled, his voice louder than the music, the kitchen equipment, and possibly a nuclear bomb. "Are you excited?"

"I am so nervous I might vomit, which is not good since I'm definitely still dreaming."

"Nah, bro, this is for real! Do you need me to pinch you?" Holster's large fingers threatened pinches to Bitty's sides; Bitty scooted out of the way. When he did, Holster he took a step back, now seeming much smaller than he had when he entered the bakery. "Are you okay? What do you need me to do?"

There wasn't much. Bitty's late night had accounted for nearly everything, but Bitty and Holster baked small batches of bread, which would be better served warm. At six twenty-five, Ransom entered the kitchen and recognized the panic in Bitty’s eyes right away. He put his hands on Bitty's shoulders and Bitty looked into his empathetic brown eyes while they took deep breaths together. 

"You got this," Ransom said gently. "Open the door and let's do this for real."

It was not as simple as opening the door and turning on the sign, however. Six-thirty turned into seven o'clock, and after seven every minute in the empty building felt like its own, individual failure. Bitty's tears threatened as he watched the stop light change and the morning rush of traffic zoom up Broadway and Knight Street in turn. Every car held a potential customer, but every car passed without stopping.

"This was a mistake," said Bitty at seven-fifteen. Holster stood in the seating area with him; he had taken over soothing duty now that Bitty's nervous energy was starting to trigger Ransom. "Why did I spend so much time doing this? Why did I take all of my savings and sink it into this place where I know no one and no one knows me? My mother was right; I should have moved back home to Georgia and gotten a stable corporate job until I could get my life together."

"Bro," said Holster. "As someone who took a corporate job until I could get my life together? It's a bad idea. You hate Georgia. It's been less than an hour and the signs just went up this weekend."

"But they're not coming in! Look at these cars! They can see the sign. Why haven't they come in? What about him?" Bitty pointed at a young, athletic man with vivid dark hair who appeared in their view from the east side of Broadway, headed toward the intersection. Bitty's finger followed him all the way across the window. He had the gait of someone who did this every day, comfortable in the positioning of his strong arms until he turned at the intersection and headed up Knight Street, away from the bakery. "Why didn't he come in?"

"He's running, Bits. Not everyone is going to interrupt their run for sugar and caffeine."

A woman appeared from the opposite corner of the young man, running up Knight Street in workout clothes. Unlike the man, her eyes looked upward at the bakery’s name and logo on the awning. She looked inside and Bitty, unsure what else to do, waved at her. She dropped her arms, slowed her pace, and opened the door at the corner. If she hadn't been looking right at him, Bitty would have grabbed Holster in excitement. 

"Is this place new?" she asked.

"Yep! Just opened today," said Bitty with restrained enthusiasm. He watched as pleasantly as possible as she approached the display case and bent over to look into it. She browsed for a moment before she stood upright again.

"What's good?"

Bitty felt a thousand suggestions surge to the tip of his tongue, but instead just said, "Depends on what you like. I'm partial to the danishes myself."

"Okay," she said. "Can I get a raspberry danish and a medium coffee to go, please?"

"Absolutely. That'll be six forty-two."

Bitty busied himself with nothing while she served herself at the coffee station and left with a wave. "Thanks for coming in!" he called after her, then waited, his breath held, for her to run out of sight. He bolted into the kitchen where Ransom and Holster waited expectantly.

"SIX DOLLARS AND FORTY-TWO CENTS, Y'ALL!" Bitty yelled. Ransom and Holster picked him bodily off the ground. Everyone was yelling when Bitty heard the faint chime of the bell over the front door. "Oh crap, put me down!"

Ransom and Holster set him back on the ground. He darted back to the counter to see the same woman at the door, her paper sleeve held high in the air. "This is amazing!" she said. "I'll be back tomorrow."

"Thank you!" said Bitty. She ran off again and he hoped she didn't hear their shouts of celebration.

She was not the only customer of the day, and after nine o'clock Bitty found himself secretly wishing he could go back to the quiet morning. The line was constantly two or three people deep; they ran out of bagels and had to make customers wait for more, and struggled to keep the coffee station full. Bitty was alone at the counter and washed plates one by one as he serviced the line as quickly as he could.

Holster should have left at noon, but all three of them stayed until four o'clock when Bitty clicked off the open sign and Ransom turned off the music in the seating area. The last two dine-in customers left at four-fifteen. Bitty said a polite goodbye but bolted the door behind them and fell into the closest chair.

The bakery was a mess. Every table needed bussing and Bitty wondered if anyone would mind if he removed croissants from the menu despite their appearance in his logo, because every table and most of the floor was littered with buttery flakes. Holster peeked out of the kitchen door and he and Ransom entered when they saw Bitty alone.

"Note to self, more staff," said Bitty.

"Need us to come in tomorrow with Dex and Nursey?" Ransom asked.

"Holster was supposed to leave four hours ago and I didn't schedule either of you to stay past close today. You can't come in tomorrow too."

"I'll come in tomorrow," said Holster. "What else am I going to do? Play MarioKart with Lardo?"

"I certainly hope not. Lardo has an art project due Friday. Don't you dare distract her."

"I wouldn't dream of it," said Holster, but Bitty still kept an eye on both of them when they left after cleanup. The upstairs of the duplex had been for rent since Bitty and Lardo moved in, and Bitty was very happy it was leased to friends rather than strangers, since Bitty was free to scream at them when they walked too loudly on the old floorboards.

Both Ransom and Holster came in the following day, and the four bakers plus Bitty were a little overkill, but it gave Bitty the opportunity to chat with customers. It also gave him the opportunity to get to know Dex and Nursey, who Bitty had only briefly trained the week before. They were both a good investment; Dex had about a hundred family members, all of whom would stop by over the course of the week, and Nursey knew the owners of some of the other local businesses. By noon Nursey had arranged five weekly coffee and pastry box orders.

"Have you both always lived here?" Bitty asked while they prepped more bread dough — the bread was much more popular than Bitty expected. Ransom was on the register and Holster was in charge of coffee and stock replenishment. 

"Yeah," said Dex.

"For the most part," said Nursey. "I went away for high school but I came back when I graduated. That shit was not for me."

"Did you two know each other before you started here, then? I can't imagine this neighborhood is all that big."

Dex and Nursey stopped kneading bread dough and looked across the work table at each other. Dex seemed wound to the tightest string while Nursey had yet to get riled up over anything, including the three hours he helped Bitty tackle the line.

"No," said Dex, although Bitty did not believe him for a second.

"Well, I'm glad you're both here. Anything about the neighborhood I should know — oh, what's up, Rans?"

Ransom had poked his head around the door and into the kitchen. "Can you help me out here for a bit?" he asked. Bitty immediately returned to the counter.

The volume did not die down the rest of the week, even accounting for Dex's red-headed, large-eared family and the uniformed employees who all said hello to Nursey after they came in. For the first weekend shifts, Bitty called in everyone and found that even with four bakers, Chowder, and Farmer working the counter, it was still a difficult two days. At seven o'clock on Sunday night, three hours after close, Bitty finally dragged himself up to the apartment and collapsed face first onto the couch in his living room, an old musty sofa that was equal parts hideous and uncomfortable. It didn't match any of the other furniture, but that was okay as none of the rest of the furniture matched each other.

"You okay, Bits?" Lardo asked. She sat in a big armchair with her sketchpad against her knees.

"I am so tired," said Bitty.

"Remember when you were worried you wouldn't be successful?"

"Don't jinx me. This could just be novelty business."

"Bitty." Bitty turned his head and looked up at her. "This isn't novelty business. You'll be successful for a reason. Your business out of the Haus kitchen was successful for a reason. People like you, and they like your food."

He didn't know how to refute that despite every urge to do so. There must be reasons as to why he was able to operate an in-home baked good service from the hockey house where they all used to live. There must be reasons why the bakery had been busy seven days in a row. He was much too tired to find them. Instead, he got up and dragged himself into his bedroom. As he shut the door, Lardo yelled, "Call your mother!"

He didn't.