The Warden’s Prowess by Ethan Chatagnier: Part I
Ethan Chatagnier’s “The Warden’s Prowess” will appear in four parts this week.
The full story will be published on Friday, June 28.
This is Part I.
The warden’s prowess with pastry had improved much over the years. It was all we heard the old inmates talk about. They talked about it the way old men on the outside talked about wars everyone else had forgotten. They talked about it the way people who never read books talked about the weather. Once regally brutal men, our elderly brothers had been dulled by the existential salve of life sentences. New men said it was what always happened when you cut a dog’s balls off. The rest of us were more forgiving with them. Custards curdled into scrambled eggs, they’d tell us. Tart bottoms wet and slick as hog skin. Cakes without a hint of rise, so dense you could carve a shiv out of them. We were kind enough not to tell the old-timers: we don’t disbelieve you, we just don’t care. Anyone who’d been inside a few years had witnessed the improvements. It was not just pastry. The man knew sabayons, knew custards and creams, knew pâte brisée and sucrée and choux.
We were a mixed group. There were murderers among us, and coat thieves. Whatever our crimes, we all waited for Mondays, when the warden would bring in some ambitious creation he’d spent the weekend on. He lived alone, the guards had told us. He’d had a wife once. That was as much as we got of the story. Those early cakes must have driven her away, the old timers said, which was now less a joke than the fossil of one. But they were careful not to let him hear them. While we had no evidence he was a sensitive man, there were stereotypes about men who baked. That was how it all began, the old timers would go on more seriously. Mondays, he would bring in the baked goods his wife refused to eat. The prisoners, fearing retribution for unfinished portions, had buried their leftovers in the yard.
There was quite a debate, it was said, over whether inmates got those scraps because he didn’t have dogs to eat them or because he did have dogs and the dogs wouldn’t eat them. Either way, all had assumed that when the warden baked something fit for human consumption, he would bring it nowhere near the prison. All were astonished the first day he brought in a risen and luxuriously frosted cake. It was—well, it was edible. It tasted better than bread. And the warden had been radiant with pride. That was years back.
Now he arrived Mondays with gingerbread villages, with finely layered cakes and intricately decorated pies. The guards were given full portions—a whole éclair, say—while ours were cut down to individual bites. We didn’t begrudge them this. There were ten prisoners to each guard, so it seemed more than fair. During the week we broke rocks and dug trenches. We mucked out the sewers, which clogged often, perhaps owing to the amount of sugar and dairy we all consumed. It was still a prison. It had once been a terrible one. The other thing we knew about the warden was that he had been a violent man, lieutenant of a feared unit in the wars of his youth, and once known as cruel administrator of this very same prison. In those days he’d been content to let us war with the guards and the guards war with us. The yard had become quite fertile, if with weeds, owing to all the blood. Only the warden had been able to break up the fights because he was bigger and fiercer than the best of us.
It was no mystery why he was tamer now. We were docile less because we were bribed with treats than because we had a day of the week to look forward to. He baked during the week too, nothing so extravagant, but more humble techniques he was working to perfect, which he called études. Our weekday lunches would be finished off by a Victoria sandwich, a portion of chocolate croissant, or something else of the sort that he baked in the prison kitchen while we did our morning work. His supervisors must have been alarmed by his behavior. A guard told us the warden allayed his supervisors’ concerns with an argument that the better food kept us gentle. The expense of training new guards had decreased dramatically because we no longer killed any. These savings, the guard elaborated, relied upon the warden’s salary subsidizing the expenses of his ingredients. Most of the man’s purse must go to double cream and rose water, he said.
The warden came in one morning in a jolly mood. He was humming—humming!—some festive, martial song. He complimented the aplomb with which we raked oleaginous shit from the pipes. He gave some of the older guards hearty claps on the back, which so surprised them that we feared for their health. There were rule changes for the day. No one brought out trays of lemonade to refresh us. But he did not bark at any of the guards to stand up tall for pride of the country. He gave no ill eye to the most lackadaisical workers. But he did not bake, which usually signaled the foulest of moods.
It was the next morning that the new prisoner arrived. The usual decorum was not to ask an inmate’s story, but we waived that decorum as again the warden was in such good spirits as to unsettle us. Since the warden arrived with no groceries and the larder was low on flour, we could only assume he would not be baking today either. We feared he had gone mad. So we flocked around the new man, as the timing of his arrival was either portentous or quite the coincidence. None could have blamed him if he’d cowered from the enlivened mob of us, but he seemed too morose for that. He sat on the edge of his new bed with his hands on his lap, displaying a case of the blues that even being crowded by a few dozen hardened criminals could not abate.
He told us he had burned down the business of his competitor. Was the competitor inside at the time? He shook his head. We sighed in disappointment. Are you a friend of the warden? An enemy? He was confused. Who is the warden? he asked. Tall fellow, ruddy complexion, we said—always looks like he’s blushing but never tell him that.
“I haven’t met him. I did see him skulking around in the background this morning. Seemed rather pleasant, for a warden.”
“Was your competitor perhaps a tall fellow with a ruddy complexion? A relation of the warden, perhaps?”
The new man turned angry.
“No, he was a short, dumpy slob. He kept the front of his shop tidy enough, but in the back you couldn’t turn around without sticking your elbow in frosting and slipping on a jam.”
“Pray tell, was the shop you burned down a bakery? And by logical extension, was your own?”
“So you’re a baker?”
“Are you a good one?”
He nodded again.
The baker was back to being morose. The rest of us were jubilant at this revelation. You see, with a man like the warden, a buoyant mood is as likely to signal some impending act of vengeance or wild violence as it is to signal good news. He might have come in humming with glee because he’d finally decided to murder us all. But a baker in the prison—a real baker! That offered us a much friendlier interpretation.
The warden did not bake again that week. Or at least, he did not bake in the prison. Several inmates noticed a scent trailing him of frangipane or Amaretto. Almond-infused air hung in a room after he left it. His good mood lasted. He did not speak to the baker, and in fact rather studiously avoided him. Meanwhile, the guards were lazy, so we were able to be lazy. Prison in a torpor. Half a week of Sunday afternoons. The baker, if he ever looked up from his cot, must have thought us a bit soft. The guards, of course, did not ask anything of him. We established some betting odds about what would happen on Monday, whether the warden would ask the baker for a lesson, or turn the kitchen over to him, or present him with a wedding cake.
Before that, though, there was some Saturday commotion. We heard one of the oldest old-timers accosting the baker. He was haranguing the baker about the warden, who was a more sensitive man than most of them knew, the old man said. The warden required a delicate touch. “You should be good with that, Mr. Baker,” he said, with a dark laugh. Play your cards right, he cautioned, or you’ll spell trouble for all of us. These were deadly things to say aloud. To call the warden a sensitive man. And it could be deadly too, we intuited, to harass the baker, whose stature in the jail was already second only to the warden himself. The guards did everything but fluff his pillow.
We pulled the old man away and chided him, if gently. People had a certain fear of the old men. They could no longer fight but wouldn’t stop short of slitting your throat in the night. What retribution did they have to fear? Our term for a change from a life sentence to a death sentence was an Early Release. It was considered an upgrade. The old man turned his ministrations to us. None of us saw the danger this baker posed, he said. We looked skeptically at the baker, whose mustache was sweating. The warden was a hobbyist, the old man insisted, who wanted not to be a hobbyist. The baker was a man who could crack that façade. “We should kill him now,” he continued. “I’ll do it. I’ll take the punishment.” The morose baker was unperturbed by this suggestion. A few of the prisoners seemed to give the old man’s proposal the most basic consideration. As someone who had survived the oldest days of the warden’s tenure, his witness to a darker age made him a historical treasure. Still, he was old, so we found him annoying.
“Who’s the danger to us now?” we hissed at the old man. “Who’s impugning the warden’s manliness and threatening his favorite prisoner?”
We shooed him away.
Some of us discussed the possibility that the prison would now have twice the baked goods. That the warden and the baker would work side by side in the kitchens. Even, perhaps, that a few of us would be taught the craft to speed along production.
To be continued…
Choux for now, readers. Tomorrow, the warden will reveal his “most ambitious showstopper yet!”
ETHAN CHATAGNIER is the author of the short story collection Warnings from the Future (Acre Books, 2018). His short fiction has appeared in literary journals including The Georgia Review, Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review Online, New England Review, Five Points, Michigan Quarterly Review, Barrelhouse, Witness, The Cincinnati Review, and Ascent. His story stories have been awarded a Pushcart Prize and listed as notable in the Million Writers Award. He lives in Fresno, California with his family.