The Toaster

Fiction / Stephen Short


:: The Toaster ::

            Pegatha Bur­roughs didn’t trust her toast­er any­more. She only had it for three days and it dis­played only dubi­ous intent. She brought it home from the South­way Sec­ond­hand Store for four dol­lars. Her pre­vi­ous Toast­mas­ter had final­ly bit the bul­let after twelve years of devot­ed ser­vice. Every morn­ing, two slices of plain white bread dropped to the glow­ing grills, and every morn­ing, two slices of crisp toast jumped over the thresh­old and wait­ed for her but­ter knife. But ear­li­er in the week the Toast­mas­ter made a bark­ing sound and nev­er baked the bread.

            Peg hung her head low through the entrance to the Sec­ond­hand Store. She was ashamed that she had to come here. She tried not to look any­one in the eye, lest they rec­og­nize her from out in the world. It smelled like old paint and plas­tic. Peg tried not to touch any­thing if she could help it and hoped to bee­line direct­ly to the kitchen appli­ances. After a brief dal­liance around the tele­vi­sions she found them; waf­fle irons, cracked blenders, and the only toast­er on the shelf; A tiny black num­ber, two slots on top, and the depres­sor cocked at a slight angle. Four dol­lars showed the hand­writ­ten tag draped off the but­ton. She slid it off the shelf and clutched it under her arm like a foot­ball. She pulled her hood low­er. As she shuf­fled to the front counter, she heard crumbs spilling from the bot­tom of the toast­er and they bounced off her coat. She set the toast­er down to the scratched counter and saw a bot­tle of hand san­i­tiz­er near the reg­is­ter. She pumped a glob into her palm and slathered it over her ringed fin­gers, spat­ter­ing. The cashier told her an amount that was slight­ly more than four dol­lars and Peg gave her a five to break, then pock­et­ed the change and dashed out the glass doors.

            On her counter she exam­ined it ful­ly. A black plas­tic cov­er­ing with buff marks all over. Well used. It didn’t have a name. The depres­sor rest­ed at its angle but would wob­ble to the exact oppo­site angle if tweaked. It made a scrap­ing sound when pressed down. There was a spin­ning dial that was num­bered from one to five, most like­ly indi­cat­ing desired dark­ness of prod­uct, and cur­rent­ly set to four. Peg took a risk and set the dial to three. The crumb tray would not open. She flipped the toast­er upside down over her trash can and jos­tled it the way unpaid musi­cians rat­tle mara­cas. Crumbs spilled every­where but her trash can. She set it down on the counter where the old Toast­mas­ter had gone and plugged the crin­kled black cord into the wall. It sat there, unsus­pect­ing, the rest of the evening.

            In the morn­ing Peg stum­bled from her bed in her flow­ing night­shirt and wob­bled out to the kitchen. She was a gar­bled mess of nerves. She smushed her glass­es up her nose, unspun the loaf of plain white bread, and dropped them into the lit­tle black toast­er. She pushed down on the depres­sor and the bread slipped inside with a screech. A slow orange glow sung out from the slits and Peg wrung her dry hands. The toast­er gave a sub­tle buzz, let­ting her know it would be okay. “Yes,” she said only to her­self. “I think so.” With con­fi­dence, she cracked the lid on her cof­fee pot and poured grounds into a fil­ter, added water, and flipped the switch. She pulled a sil­ver mug from the cup­board. She opened her sug­ar jar and uncapped a half gal­lon of milk. She clanked down a small orange ceram­ic plate and laid it next to the new toast­er. It was emp­ty. Com­plete­ly breadless.

            Peg stared down at the toast­er. The depres­sor was up. There was no glow. There was no heat. She poked it. It shuf­fled a cen­time­ter on her rough counter. The cof­fee pot was bur­bling and hot. Peg licked her chapped lips and picked at her knuck­les. She unspun the loaf of plain white bread and dropped two slices into the new toast­er. She turned the dial down to two. She plunged the depres­sor down with a squeal. The slow orange glow lit up her white bread and the mel­low buzzing calmed her just so. She stood her ground and crossed her arms, her night­shirt crum­pling wild and her shoul­ders tick­ling her ears. Peg locked her eyes on her bread and watched every pore brown over until it popped out of the toast­er, a lit­tle less done than she’d pre­fer. She turned the knob back to three. She pulled the warm toast from the slots and but­tered them near her cof­fee sta­tion. Sug­ar and milk in the cof­fee, toast in the mouth, Peg was happy.

            She got a mes­sage from her daugh­ter, Sheila. She need­ed more mon­ey trans­ferred over. Sheila was a sopho­more at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma. She was study­ing Latin. She scraped Peg for every dol­lar she could spare and hur­ried off the phone before Peg could ini­ti­ate any real con­ver­sa­tion. But chil­dren need­ed to be cared for. Peg opened her phone to her bank­ing app and trans­ferred one hun­dred dol­lars to Sheila. Peg had twen­ty sev­en dol­lars left for the next week and a half.

            Peg got to work exact­ly at 8am and left just after 5pm, mak­ing sure the day’s tasks were all com­plet­ed. Her cowork­ers had left prompt­ly at 5pm, if not ear­li­er. She sched­uled her doctor’s appoint­ment at 5:45pm, know­ing she would leave late. She had hip and back pain for sev­er­al weeks now, and it took sev­er­al weeks to get in with Dr. Kramer. She uri­nat­ed far too much in her cup (“Just to the line,” the nurse had said) but she want­ed to be sure. Giv­en her age, Dr. Kramer sug­gest­ed it was like­ly pain from sit­ting at skewed angles or strain from stress, and rec­om­mend­ed a series of exer­cis­es and stretch­es for Peg to do at home. She sug­gest­ed a yoga class or that she could do them at home with online instruc­tion tar­get­ing her hips and low back, and to move to full body indef­i­nite­ly. Alter­na­tive­ly, a chi­ro­prac­tor may prove effec­tive but may not be cov­ered by insur­ance. Peg had a din­ner of peanut but­ter and grape jel­ly on white bread and a glass of milk and sat in front of the tele­vi­sion to watch game shows. She thought about call­ing Sheila but talked her­self out of it. Dur­ing the next com­mer­cial break she talked her­self back into it and poked her name on the phone screen. It rang once and went to voice­mail. Peg turned the vol­ume up on the tele­vi­sion and fin­ished her milk.

            The next morn­ing Peg crawled out of bed and slipped on her skin­ny robe and hob­bled to the kitchen. She unspun the loaf of white bread and placed two slices in the slots of the new black toast­er. She pushed the depres­sor down and it screamed in met­al. A slow orange glow hugged her bread and the buzzing noise bounced off the kitchen walls and made Peg grin. She dumped yesterday’s cof­fee fil­ter in the trash and added a new one, with cof­fee grounds and dumped water in the tank. She pulled a white mug from the cup­board, uncapped the sug­ar jar, and pre­pared the milk. She clanked a ceram­ic plate down to set near the new toast­er and she gasped see­ing that it was emp­ty once more. Depres­sor up. No heat. Absolute­ly bread­less. She lift­ed the new toast­er and scrunched her face to peer inside the slits, shift­ing it so the kitchen light bled in. Peg jos­tled it about and crumbs sift­ed through the cracks but the draw­er would still not open. She set it down and turned the dark­ness dial to four, then slipped in two pieces of bread to the slots and plunged the depres­sor down as it scraped. A slow orange glow rose about and a pleas­ant heat crept over her arms. Peg stared, unblink­ing, at the toast­er, crisp­ing her bread dark­er and dark­er. The cof­fee pot seared. The toast burst out of the slits and Peg shuf­fled a step for­ward and plucked her black­ened slices to the plate. She turned the dial back to three. She but­tered them and let it melt as she pulled her phone out. Sheila post­ed on social media that she was bored in her dorm. Peg dialed her num­ber and it rang once before going to voicemail.

            Peg got to work at exact­ly 8am and stayed just past 5pm once again, just like she always did. She made sure all the tasks were done despite her cowork­ers’ time­ly exits. On her way out of the glass doors her phone buzzed. Peg jug­gled it out of her coat pock­et hop­ing to hear from Sheila, but it was just a text mes­sage from her bank inform­ing her of her sad balance.

            Peg drove straight home and set her bag and keys over the back of her chair at the kitchen table. She unspun the bread bag and slathered peanut but­ter on one slice and grape jel­ly on anoth­er. She filled a cof­fee mug halfway with milk and dropped into her old chair in the liv­ing room and put on game shows. Her phone buzzed and she snatched it from her thigh. It was a text from the phone com­pa­ny remind­ing her of her pend­ing with­draw­al for more than she had in her account.

            Her hip stung and boiled pain to her leg and spine. Reluc­tant­ly, she turned off the game shows and dialed up begin­ner yoga videos just like Dr. Kramer had rec­om­mend­ed. Peg fol­lowed the direc­tions and heaved into posi­tions she had nev­er vol­un­tar­i­ly entered. Arms splayed, legs askew. Her wrin­kled face was con­tort­ed and strained. The voice on the tele­vi­sion told her to breathe. She gasped and winced.

            Peg woke the next morn­ing and shuf­fled to the kitchen in her night­shirt. She unspun the bread bag and dropped two slices into the slits of the new toast­er and pressed the plunger with a screech. She stared at the toast­er while its care­ful buzz echoed. A slow orange glow calmed her and she adjust­ed her hip, remem­ber­ing to breathe. Peg stepped back from the toast­er towards the cof­fee pot on the oppo­site counter but didn’t look away. The dial was on three. The glow was still orange. Sat­is­fied, she dumped yesterday’s grounds to the trash, filled a new fil­ter with dry, and added water to the bin. Peg flipped the switch and it slurped to life. She pulled a white mug from the cab­i­net, unlid­ded the sug­ar jar, and placed the half-gal­lon of milk on the counter. She slipped a ceram­ic plate from the cup­board and walked to the new toast­er to find it ful­ly emp­ty. Absolute­ly bread­less. Peg felt a burn­ing fury spilling from her fore­head and she smacked the new toast­er. It slid a few cen­time­ters and some crumbs drib­bled to the coun­ter­top. She hat­ed to admit it but her hand was sting­ing from the hit. The cof­fee pot bur­bled. Peg unspun the bread loaf, which was dis­ap­pear­ing faster than usu­al, and dropped one slice into a slot. She did not change the dial. She round­ed her shoul­ders and clenched her teeth and stabbed the plunger down to a wail. A slow orange glow breathed from the wiring and Peg melt­ed. She snapped back, remem­ber­ing to be angry at the toast­er, and stood clenched and hud­dled over the top of it, lis­ten­ing to the buzz. Her hip ached and she decid­ed that part could unclench, but the shoul­ders, no way. Peg remem­bered the voice on the tele­vi­sion telling her to relax and to breathe. She shut her eyes and heaved a strained breath past her lips. She noticed the heat left and the buzzing stopped. Peg burst her eye­lids open to see the bread­less toast­er in front of her. She unplugged it. She plugged it back in, and dropped half a piece of bread into the oth­er slot and dropped the plunger to a wiry wail. The glow didn’t calm her. She saw the bread crisp­ing up then took a step back­wards and stepped in a cir­cle, turn­ing away. The new toast­er was emp­ty when she spun back around. The oth­er half of the bread went in a slot and the plunger went down to a screech. She closed her eyes before the slow glow could win and when she opened them back up the bread was gone.

            Peg hob­bled over to the kitchen table, spilling over with torn envelopes and receipts. She grabbed a bill and fold­ed it down and stuffed it in a toast­er slot. She pressed it down screech­ing. The slow orange glow pleased her as she saw smoke ris­ing from the grills. She closed her eyes. The new toast­er was emp­ty. Absolute­ly bil­less. Peg poured out her cof­fee and added extra sug­ar and slurped it, star­ing at the toaster.

            Pegatha Bur­roughs didn’t trust her toast­er any­more. She unplugged it and scooped it in both hands and moved it to the oth­er counter. She picked it back up and set it on the kitchen table. She stepped back.

            She did not arrive at work at 8am. She drove to the South­way Sec­ond­hand Store with the black toast­er buck­led into the pas­sen­ger seat. Peg held it out like a bomb and wad­dled to the front glass doors and rat­tled them; closed until 11.

            Peg re-buck­led the toast­er and wait­ed on the side of the street. Her phone buzzed and she fum­bled the screen on. Sheila texted ask­ing for more mon­ey. Peg called her. The phone rang once and went to voice­mail. Peg opened her bank­ing app and trans­ferred fif­teen dol­lars to Sheila. She got a noti­fi­ca­tion from the bank about the sad bal­ance she had remain­ing. Sheila mes­saged again com­plain­ing about the mea­ger trans­fer. Peg called her. The phone rang once and went to voice­mail. She set her phone down next to the toast­er. It buzzed. The pow­er com­pa­ny was inform­ing her of the pend­ing with­draw­al which was much more than she had in her account.

            South­way Sec­ond­hand Store would not open for sev­er­al hours. She drove to work and clocked in late. On her lunch break she went back to the store and hauled the toast­er in under­neath one arm, slid­ing her hood for­ward over her hair.

            “I need to return this.” She set the toast­er down. Crumbs fell to the blue plas­tic counter.

            “We don’t take returns.” Peg didn’t look her in the eye.

            “It was four dollars.”

            “We don’t take returns,” the teen repeated.

            Peg couldn’t look her in the eyes but lift­ed her head and focused on the ceil­ing fan. “Please,” she said.

            “I can’t give you your mon­ey back, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

            Peg dropped her head back down and crossed her arms. She tried not to lean on her hip. “Just take it back then. I’ll donate it.” She spun around and burst out the door.

            Peg stayed lat­er at work to make up for the time missed in the morn­ing. At home she made her­self a din­ner of a peanut but­ter and grape jel­ly sand­wich, fold­ed over on one piece of bread. She called Sheila. The phone rang once and went to voice­mail. A mes­sage from the water com­pa­ny noti­fied her of a pend­ing with­draw­al which was much more than she had in her account. She threw her phone across the room to the couch and it bounced off to the floor. Her jaw clenched, her hip burned, her back stilted.

            Peg crawled to her flat­tened car­pet and pulled up the next yoga video in line. She tugged off her socks and spread her bent toes at hip dis­tance. The voice on the tele­vi­sion told her to breathe. She heaved. The voice told her to breathe in light and breathe out dark­ness, weight, unneed­ed things. A rat­tle of air wheezed out of her throat while she fold­ed her body upside over. Close your eyes, the voice said. Breathe.

            Peg bum­bled out of bed in her skin­ny robe and stalked to the counter that didn’t have a toast­er on it. She closed her eyes and breathed. She heeled to the cof­fee pot and dumped yesterday’s grounds, then filled a new fil­ter and the tank at the back. It growled water up. She pulled a black mug from the cup­board, uncapped her sug­ar jar, and prepped the half-gal­lon of milk. She dug a small ceram­ic plate out. Peg unspun the loaf of plain white bread and stared at the crum­by sec­tion where no toast­er wait­ed. She but­tered a limp piece while her cof­fee pot hissed. Peg didn’t know how to eat plain­ly but­tered bread. She resort­ed to tear­ing hunks off and pop­ping them in her mouth. She even dunked some into her cof­fee, just to try it.

            She limped into work five min­utes ear­ly, as usu­al, and cleaned up what the oth­ers left behind to leave at 5:15pm. Her keys and bag slung over the kitchen chair, she unspun the emp­ty­ing bag of bread and made a fold­ed peanut but­ter and grape jel­ly sand­wich with a cold glass of milk. Her phone buzzed and she scram­bled across the counter to her bag. It was Sheila, send­ing a text in all caps. Peg dialed her num­ber and the phone rang once and went to voice­mail. She asked her phone to remind her to respond in an hour. Her phone buzzed again with a noti­fi­ca­tion from the phone com­pa­ny that her pay­ment was unsuc­cess­ful. To her sur­prise, anoth­er noti­fi­ca­tion came from the pow­er com­pa­ny that her pay­ment was, too, unsuc­cess­ful. Peg cool­ly observed her phone receiv­ing the mes­sages and her lights still on. She stretched to the left and to the right, with each oppo­site hip jut­ting out, burn­ing a strip down her leg.

            The voice on the tele­vi­sion told her to breathe. Inhale light. Exhale dark­ness, weight, unneed­ed things. The voice told her to thank her­self for com­mit­ting to her prac­tice. Peg was press­ing her pelvis into the car­pet and her shoul­ders and back screamed. She unpret­zeled and flipped over to game shows. The reminder on her phone told her to respond to Sheila. Her bank­ing app issued her a warn­ing when she logged in. She trans­ferred five dol­lars to Sheila and gri­maced at her sin­gle-dig­it bal­ance. Peg shut off the tele­vi­sion and went to bed ear­li­er than usual.

            Peg slipped out of bed in her gray night­shirt and sneered at the toast­er­less coun­ter­top. She dumped grounds, added more in a fil­ter, filled the back with water, and flipped the pot on. She unspun the plain loaf of white bread and dug two pieces out and slathered togeth­er a peanut but­ter and grape jel­ly sand­wich for break­fast. It didn’t pair well with her cof­fee. Her hip and back burned.

            She made it to work five min­utes ear­ly and left alone late. She drove to the oppo­site end of town to the depart­ment store and shuf­fled through throngs of tired shop­pers to house­wares. Peg eyed a new Toast­mas­ter but not­ed its price. She checked for any oth­er toast­er but none were in the sin­gle-dig­it range. There in the aisle, she bent at the waist and her back creaked as she dragged her fin­ger­tips on the tongues of her shoes. Breathe, she heard the voice on the tele­vi­sion say.

            Peg arrived at the South­way Sec­ond­hand Store before they closed and didn’t both­er putting her hood up. She found the toast­er. It was the only one on the shelves. Black plas­tic with two slits on top and a radi­al dial that went from one to five. It was point­ed to three. The plunger was tilt­ed at a slight angle. The price tag dan­gling from the plunger read three dol­lars. She heard the voice on the tele­vi­sion telling her to exhale unneed­ed things. She closed her eyes and exhaled.

            She paid three dol­lars and tax at the counter, buck­led the toast­er into her pas­sen­ger seat, and plunked it down on the crum­by coun­ter­top at home. She plugged it into the wall. Peg walked to the liv­ing room and put on the next video in the yoga series. Her bony ankles kissed and the voice on the tele­vi­sion told her to inhale light, more than she would nor­mal­ly breathe com­fort­ably. Exhale dark­ness, the voice told her, and all unneed­ed things. Her phone rang and buzzed around the table. Peg saw it was Sheila call­ing. She closed her eyes. Inhale, the voice said, exhale deeply, the voice said. Peg creaked her body over itself, exhal­ing, inhal­ing. The phone buzzed again and Peg blew air through round­ed lips. She felt light and faint as smoke. The voice on the tele­vi­sion told her to thank her­self for her com­mit­ment today. With­out any air of pre­tense, Peg thanked her­self fully.

            Peg rolled to her feet. She felt a long twang down her hip, dif­fer­ent than before, as if blood found new cor­ners to paint in her ves­sels. She toed to the kitchen and stared at the new toast­er. Plas­tic black, scuffed, tilt­ed plunger, dial point­ed to three.

            She unspun the loaf of plain white bread and dunked things into the slits.

            She pressed the plunger and met­al screeched. A slow orange glow lit up the grills and crisped the bread and warmed her fin­ger­tips. Inhale light, she heard the voice on the tele­vi­sion say. Exhale dark­ness, and all unneed­ed things. Peg’s atten­tion turned to her pock­et which was miss­ing her phone. She stared at the toast­er with rabid intent. Inhale, the voice said, exhale. Peg opened her lungs to fill her chest, and dragged in deep­er when she thought it was at max­i­mum. She saw the bread becom­ing toast sur­round­ed by the glow. Peg antic­i­pat­ed the voice ring­ing in her brain, to exhale, and she closed her eyes and felt the glow on her face and let the air drift out of her lungs. Her body was warm, her face was warm. She couldn’t hear her phone buzz, and she didn’t care it wasn’t in her pock­et. When she was out of air, she clenched and heaved just a lit­tle bit more out, still warm. Peg opened her eyes and the plunger of the toast­er screamed back up. Her toast came out to a small ceram­ic plate and she but­tered it with the room tem­per­a­ture stick on the counter. It didn’t pair well with her milk, but bet­ter than her peanut but­ter and grape jel­ly sand­wich did with her coffee.

            Peg woke the next morn­ing and had cof­fee and toast, like she always did. She arrived at work a few min­utes after 8am to lit­tle fan­fare and left pre­cise­ly on time.

From the writer


:: Account ::

The Toast­er is a short fic­tion piece that puts a spin on the “try/fail” cycle. Ini­tial­ly con­ceived to be a pseu­do-hor­ror piece, it end­ed up pulling me in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion to address ideas of anx­i­ety, self-worth, and the L‑word. I often write of char­ac­ters strug­gling to go about their day-to-day or at least get back to it despite out­side influ­ences. While writ­ing this piece I was think­ing of Jeff Van­der­Meer, who is loose and eccen­tric with his descrip­tions and word choice. A remark­able oppo­site to that is my always-influ­ence, Ray­mond Carv­er, who com­mu­ni­cates so much with so lit­tle. I don’t think I’ll ever for­get, “I did the drinks,” in Cathe­dral. This piece isn’t quite so min­i­mal but doesn’t strive to be over­ly com­plex or include unnec­es­sary infor­ma­tion. I trust the read­er to form the image I’m try­ing to con­vey as my ideas are less about the read­er see­ing a clear pic­ture and more about the read­er feel­ing a neb­u­lous weight. I think say­ing too much more may spoil the expe­ri­ence of the sto­ry, so I thank you for your time and I hope you enjoy it.


Stephen Short is a native of the win­try Pacif­ic North­west and a non-tra­di­tion­al stu­dent at Wash­ing­ton State Uni­ver­si­ty. He writes fic­tion, cre­ative non­fic­tion, and poet­ry. His work is influ­enced by the pared down selec­tions of Ray­mond Carv­er and the ver­bose eccen­tric­i­ty of Jeff Van­der­Meer. Stephen sin­cere­ly wish­es you a fan­tas­tic day and life.