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Empty Seat at Eli's Bakery

By Heidi VanderVelde

Sixteen, visiting my uncle, standing at a sticky glass display case. Pastries 

on aluminum plates, the shape, shade of metal mortuary trays; purgatory 

for yellow-brown crusted apple turnovers, danishes wading in spilt pools 

of cheese, jelly donuts with a congealed maroon center at the waistline, 

like a clot. 


At the bakery, everyone knew his name, seat. A waitress left him a mug 

of dirt-colored coffee before he asked. His neighbor, a man with a Ford 

baseball hat and calloused hands nodded in my direction, slid over, 

made room for me.


We ate, left in the boat of his Lincoln Town Car to watch mallard ducks 

at the park, my uncle armed with binoculars, a loaf of stale bread, 

a dozen day old pastries. We drove, our silence buffered 

by the air conditioner’s droning breath, the sharp pop of potholes. 


At the pond, he turned the car off, didn’t open the door. 

He had seen a book on Buddhism in my baggage. 

Didn’t I believe in a Christian God? 

I paused, didn’t answer, disappointed him.


I wish someone would’ve asked my uncle what he believed in. 

Fifteen years later, he went home from the bakery, park, 

pointed a revolver’s hollow finger at himself, 

pressed its silver comma: 


another pause we would avoid, 

like the period of his empty barstool 

at an otherwise full bakery counter.

Heidi VanderVelde is a pediatrician residing in Auburn, Alabama. She was recently accepted into Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers. She is the recipient of the Robert Hughes Mount Jr. Poetry Prize and is the winner of the Sand Hills Literary Magazine 2024 Poetry Contest. She has been published in The Thread and has a forthcoming poem in Poetry South.

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