Deepsouth v.4 n.1 (Autumn 1998)
Copyright (c) 1998 by
Geoffrey Hitchcock
  All rights reserved.
"The fire chief was worried. Why had Mr.Dietleef left his ovens burning on low while he took his short vacation? Because his father had taught him that it was better than letting them cool right down. He had always done it, maybe a hundred times so he knew it was safe."


The most exciting thing that happened in my stamping ground that June was the fire at Dolf Dietleef's. It was a spectacular blaze even if it wasn't a towering inferno -- after all Dolf's bakery was only a small affair in an old broken down suburb -- shop in front, bakehouse at the back and living quarters over the shop. Been there for years and long overdue for demolition.
What made this fire out of the ordinary was the speed with which it got away -- one minute nothing and the next the whole place on fire. Dolf saw it himself and he was lucky not to have been in it. He had closed the shop for four days and gone off on a little fishing jaunt. He did this from time to time when he felt he needed a break from the 7 day tyranny of his business. Maybe two, three times a year, though lately since Martha had died and he was on his own (unless you count Trudi who ran the shop for him) more like four or five. It was that kind of business. You could shut it down for a while and not lose a single customer, just because you had that magic touch that no machine and not many pastry cooks could match.
So nobody had been surprised to see the notice in the window -- open again on June 14. Some of his oldest customers had noticed that his wares had not been quite as good as usual - still superb but just that little bit below the perfection they were used to. Dolf is getting on, they said, he'll have to give up soon. But we hope he doesn't, they added.
He got back to town around 2.30, left his car at Bernie's for an oil change and was walking the last block down the deserted street when Whoosh! his shop, flat and presumably the bakehouse at the back went up in flames.
Joe Kernick came rushing out of Herberts drugstore in time to see Dolf standing there, his mouth open, staring into the sky above the flames.
"My God, Dolf, what's happened?"
"There it goes, there it goes," said Dolf, gazing up into the sky.
"Where what goes?" asked Joe, following his gaze but seeing nothing but the rising column of smoke.
Dolf turned slowly and looked at him for a long time. "It's taken everything," he said, "left me with nothing."
Joe saw the old baker was in a state of shock and led him into the drugstore where Herbie was just putting the phone down. "They'll be here in a minute," he said and took Dolf through to the back room where he made him up a bed and gave him a sedative.
Well, the firemen did a great job of saving the adjoining buildings but of Dolf's bakehouse nothing remained but a blackened shell.
Of course there had to be an enquiry which I, the reporter for the local rag, attended. The insurance company was unhappy. It seemed suspicious to them that Mr. Dietleef had more than doubled his cover less than two months ago. Because, Dolf explained, their agent had come round uninvited and pestered him. Did the company consider Mr. Dietleef to be over insured? No? Well then......
The fire chief was worried. Why had Mr.Dietleef left his ovens burning on low while he took his short vacation? Because his father had taught him that it was better than letting them cool right down. He had always done it, maybe a hundred times so he knew it was safe. Ah, but what if the gas failed and then came on again? It hadn't, said the Gas Co. Maybe a villain had broken in and turned the gas off and on to cover his tracks. The police couldn't find any signs -- but it was hardly likely that they would.
Nobody could explain why it went Whoosh! and not Whoomp! though several gallant attempts were made. They tossed the ball about for a couple of hours and then got bored and decided that the exact cause of the fire was unknown but probably related to a leakage of gas.
Dolf got his insurance money. He didn't rebuild -- he was sixty eight. He let his friend, Matt Bernstein have the site for a hamburger bar and retired to a little shack in the hills with his fishing rod and a pile of books he had always wanted to read.
It didn't take long for the whole incident to be forgotten -- except by me. I had covered plenty of fires but this one intrigued me. I had sensed that Dolf, frank though he seemed to be hadn't quite told everything he knew, which suggested fraud but anyone who had tasted the absolute honesty of his wares would know that that was impossible. So what was the mystery? I begged a couple of days leave from my editor and set out to find the old man.
I found him on the lake shore just beaching his little boat. He greeted me warmly -- I had known him since I was knee high -- and led me to his neat little chalet where we were soon seated with tankards of lager in our hands. "So," he said,"have you come to visit a lonely old man or are you just after a story for your rag? 'How Dolf Dietleef is spending his ill-gotten gains.'"
"Both, old friend, but the story isn't for my rag, it's for my peace of mind. What really did happen that afternoon?"
"Ah -- that afternoon." He put a match to the pipe he'd been stoking and blew a cloud of blue smoke into the air and watched it disperse while he gathered his thoughts. "You know what happened. My place burned down."
"Yes, I know that. What I want to know is why and I believe you know but for some reason you wouldn't say. Why Dolf? I know you have nothing to hide."
He looked at me with sad eyes. "You are a smart boy, Peter. You saw that I knew when none of the others did."
"The others must have been blind."
"Most men are blind. They only want to look for what they want to find -- the fire chief wanted to find gas leaks, the insurance man wanted kerosene cans and the police wanted robbers. But you, you were looking at us all, and wanted to find what I knew." It was a long speech and the pipe needed some violent puffing to get it going again.
"Am I going to find out?"
"Why not? But a lot of good it will do you because you won't believe it and even if you do you won't dare to show it to your editor. It was all the work of an alien."
"An alien! Aw come now Dolf -- nobody will swallow that one. A little green man? You'd be a candidate for the nut house."
"You see? You don't believe me and you jump to conclusions, to preconceived ideas of aliens. At least you can see why I didn't tell anybody."
"I'm sorry," I could see a good story drying up, "I didn't display the open mind of a journalist, did I? What was the alien like?"
"Like? I don't know, I never really saw it. Now listen, before you start an argument, and I'll tell you all about it, starting about three months before the famous fire."
"Not another peep out of me."
"Good. I woke up about 3 that morning and went to the bakehouse just as I always did. It was March and it hadn't really started to warm up yet but it was warm enough in there with the ovens on low heat. I bent down and turned up the gas and as I straightened up a voice that seemed to come from number one oven said "can't you turn it up a bit higher please?" "No I can't," I said, "I've got enough problems with this new batch of flour without having my oven too hot." It was very early and I wasn't rationalising. I was just moving automatically and not in the mood for arguing with strange voices. Not at 3.30 a.m. I got the first batch ready and was just about to pop it in when the voice said, "better check the temperature."
Well, to be honest, I wasn't sure that it was the voice or just an idea that came into my mind. I opened number three door and stuck my hand in -- perfect. Number 2 -- perfect. Number 1 not hot enough. Funny, but no time to figure it out. I turned it up two clicks. "One more," said the voice. I turned it up one more and heard a sigh of pleasure from within the oven."What about my bread?" I asked. "Don't worry."
So I didn't worry and the batch in number 1 turned out as good as those in numbers 2 and 3. Better if anything. I put the loaves in the cooling racks and went to turn the gas down. "Please leave it," said the voice, "or better still, turn it up a bit more." "Now look here, whoever you are, what are you doing in my oven, messing me around. Don't I have enough troubles?" I was more awake by this time. "You think you got troubles!"
said the voice.
Well Dolf, I said to myself, this is it. You're finally going mad -- slipping quietly round the bend. Hearing voices is the first step. I went into the shop. "What's the matter, Uncle Dolf? You look awful," Trudi said.
"I don't feel so good. I'll go upstairs and lie down for a while." I kept a bottle up there for emergencies and this was an emergency.
When I woke up Trudi was standing by the bed with a tray of coffee and toast. "How you feeling now?" "Fine, just fine. I must have been over tired, is all. What time is it?
It was 4 o'clock in the afternoon and she had shut the shop. We drank our coffee together. She's a good girl -- calls me Uncle but she's no relation. She was a bit worried about me but when she could see I was O.K. she agreed to go home. "By the way," she said said, "I noticed you left number 1 on five so I turned it back to low. It didn't seem to have overheated." "Good, thank you, there's something gone wrong with that control. I had to turn it higher than usual this morning." I wasn't sure whether I lied to her or not."
It was getting dark. Dolf got up and turned on a standard lamp. "It's a long story -- do you want to hear more of it?"
"You betcha."
"Then we shall need some more beer."
It was a long story. As soon as he had gone into the bakehouse after Trudi had left,the voice said."That stupid girl turned the heat down." Dolf had been expecting it and had made his plan. He would act as if there really was somebody in his oven and he would talk to it rationally. In this way the madness would leave him. So he turned up the gas again and as he worked with his pastry and dough he chatted away amicably with the voice in the oven. He didn't try to force the pace. Gradually, from day to day, he learned about his strange visitor. It was a being just as he was but whereas he, Dolf, was a consciousness that dwelt in a material body, it, the alien, was a consciousness that lived in a body of energy. Instead of deriving its strength from material food it simply absorbed heat. It would take a meal, so to speak, by approaching a star and it could absorb enough energy to sustain it while it moved about the Universe. But there was a limit to its capacity and it had to be careful not to run out between stars like a car between gas stations. If it did it would starve to death.
And this is what almost happened to Dolf's friend. It had miscalculated on a journey to the sun and had come floating? swimming? into the solar system with its fuel gauge on zero. As luck would have it, earth stood directly in its path but that was as far as luck went. It didn't have the strength to choose a good hot landing place. The smog over the city almost put an end to it and it collapsed down Dolf's chimney and landed gratefully in number 1 oven. And there it proposed to stay until it had recovered enough strength to complete its journey. "You saved my life," it said. "You're very welcome." said Dolf.
Of course at first he hadn't believed that any of it was happening. He was in his second childhood and Jake as he called it because he couldn't pronounce its real name, was one of those secret friends that children have. But as time went by the evidence that there actually was some sort of being in his oven became overwhelming. Dolf was relieved, he didn't want to be going gaga. And he had grown fond of Jake. They had long philosophical discussions while Dolf was working.
But there were problems. It's all very well for you, Dolf had told Jake, but what about my gas bill? What do you use for hard currency in your dimension? You are not to worry, Jake had said. I'm a very grateful guest and you will be compensated. I'm sending the insurance agent round tomorrow just in case anything should go wrong and you must do what he suggests. You should have done it years ago anyway. And as for the meter reader, he's a lazy fellow -- he won't bother to read your meter -- he'll just bill you the usual amount. It's bound to catch up in the end, grumbled Dolf, or have you a way of stopping the meter?
No, Jake couldn't stop a gas meter. He had no control over material things but he could get into peoples minds and implant ideas -- like I'm talking to you now, he said. You're not hearing me with your ears, you know, and I don't hear you because of your voice box. Later Dolf checked this with a tape recorder. There was indeed no sound coming from the oven and he found he could converse with Jake without opening his mouth. Like a couple of radio sets without speakers, he'd thought.
Jake tried to explain his existence to Dolf. In his world -- dimension he called it -- it was all vibrations. But when he tried to explain what exactly was vibrating, Dolf got lost. He told me a great deal, Dolf said, but I couldn't grasp much of it.
As time went on Jake grew and needed more energy. He expanded into two ovens and then into all three. His presence became overpowering and Dolf became uncomfortable. His baking began to suffer. Then Jake said, "I see I'm troubling you and I don't want that. Go away and relax for a few days -- I'll be gone when you get back."
So Dolf went, leaving the gas burning but he couldn't relax. He worried about what would happen when the fully grown and charged Jake went streaming up the flue leaving the ovens, not on low as he had told the enquiry, but on high. He worried about the gas bill when the meter reader got back on the job. But he'd felt sorry for Jake who would need all the energy he could get to take him near enough to the sun where he could grow properly. So he stuck out the allotted time -- well almost. He got back just an hour early -- in time to see the paint on his sign suddenly blister and the glass in the shop front splinter and fall out. In time to see, just an instant before the whole building burst into flames, an indefinable something emerge, not from the chimney but from the whole building and disappear towards the sun. Then all was smoke and pandemonium.
And now the old man lives alone and rows his little boat along the lake shore. He rarely uses its tiny engine because all the time he is listening, listening not with his ears but listening for the voices of those beings that he knows to be out there.......