A Piece of Cake
The call came on the twenty-ninth of february: the one day in four years when, according to antiquated custom, women may openly choose their partners without shame. As Greenie checked her e-mail at work that morning, a small pink box popped up on the screen: Carpe diem, ladies! Scotland, according to her cheery, avuncular service provider, passed a law in 1288 that if a man refused a woman’s proposal on this day, he must pay a fine: anything from a kiss to money that would buy her a silk dress or a fancy pair of gloves.
If I weren’t hitched already, thought Greenie, I would gladly take rejection in exchange for a lovely silk dress. Oh for the quiet, sumptuous ease of a silk dress; oh for the weather in which to wear it!
Yet again it was sleeting. Greenie felt as if it had been sleeting for a week. The sidewalks of Bank Street, tricky enough in their skewed antiquity, were now glazed with ice, so that walking George to school had become a chore of matronly scolding and pleading: “Walk, honey. Please walk. What did I say, did I say WALK?” Like most four-year-old boys, George left his house like a pebble from a slingshot, careening off parked cars, brownstone gates, fences placed to protect young trees (apparently not just from urinating dogs), and pedestrians prickly from too little coffee or too much workaday dread.
Greenie was just shaking off the ill effects of what she called VD whiplash: VD as in Valentine’s Day, an occasion that filled her with necessary inspiration as January waned, yet left her in its wake—if business was good—vowing she would never, ever again bake anything shaped like a heart or a cherub or put so much as a drop of carmine dye in a bowl of buttercream icing.
As if to confirm her fleeting disenchantment with all that stood for romantic love, she and Alan had had another of the fruitless, bitter face-offs Greenie could never seem to avoid—and which, in their small apartment, she feared would awaken and worry George. This one had kept her up till two in the morning. She hadn’t bothered to go to bed, since Tuesday was one of the days on which she rose before dawn to bake brioche, scones, cinnamon rolls, and—Tuesdays only—a coffee cake rich with cardamom, orange zest, and grated gingerroot: a cunningly savory sweet that left her work kitchen smelling like a fine Indian restaurant, a brief invigorating change from the happily married scents of butter, vanilla, and sugar (the fragrance, to Greenie, of ordinary life).
Dead on her feet by ten in the morning, she had forgotten the telephone message she’d played back the evening before: “Greenie dear, I believe you’ll be getting a call from a VIP tomorrow; I won’t say who and I won’t say why, but I want it on the record that it was I who told him what a genius you are. Though I’ve just now realized that he may spirit you away! Idiot me, what was I thinking! So call me, you have to promise you’ll call me the minute you hear from the guy. Bya!” Pure Walter: irritating, affectionate, magnanimous, coy. “Vee Aye Pee,” he intoned breathlessly, as if she were about to get a call from the Pope. More likely some upstate apple grower who’d tasted her pie and was trolling for recipes to include in one of those springbound charity cookbooks that made their way quickly to yard sales and thrift shops. Or maybe this: the Director of Cheesecake from Junior’s had tasted hers—a thousandfold superior to theirs—and wanted to give her a better-paid but deadly monotonous job in some big seedy kitchen down in Brooklyn. What, in Walter’s cozy world, constituted a VIP?
Walter was the owner and gadabout host (not the chef; he couldn’t have washed a head of lettuce to save his life) of a retro-American tavern that served high-cholesterol, high-on-the-food-chain meals with patriarchal hubris. Aptly if immodestly named, Walter’s Place felt like a living room turned pub. On the ground floor of a brownstone down the street from Greenie’s apartment, it featured two fireplaces, blue-checked tablecloths, a fashionably weary velvet sofa, and (Board of Health be damned) a roving bulldog named The Bruce. (As in Robert the Bruce? Greenie had wondered but never asked; more likely the dog was named after some fetching young porn star, object of Walter’s cheerfully futile longing. He’d never been too explicit about such longings, but he made allusions.) Greenie wasn’t wild about the Eisenhower-era foods with which Walter indulged his customers—indulgence, she felt, was the province of dessert—but she had been pleased when she won the account. Over the past few years, she had come to think of Walter as an ally more than a client.
Except for the coconut cake (filled with Meyer lemon curd and glazed with brown sugar), most of the desserts she made for Walter were not her best or most original, but they were exemplars of their kind: portly, solid-citizen desserts, puddings of rice, bread, and noodles—sweets that the Pilgrims and other humble immigrants who had scraped together their prototypes would have bartered in a Mayflower minute for Greenie’s blood-orange mousse, pear ice cream, or tiny white-chocolate éclairs. Walter had also commissioned a deep-dish apple pie, a strawberry marble cheesecake, and a layer cake he asked her to create exclusively for him. “Everybody expects one of those, you know, death-by-chocolate things on a menu like mine, but what I want is massacre by chocolate, execution by chocolate—firing squad by chocolate!” he told her.
So that very night, after tucking George in bed, Greenie had returned to the kitchen where she made her living, in a basement two blocks from her home, and stayed up till morning to birth a four-layer cake so dense and muscular that even Walter, who could have benched a Shetland pony, dared not lift it with a single hand. It was the sort of dessert that appalled Greenie on principle, but it also embodied a kind of uberprosperity, a transgressive joy, flaunting the potential heft of butter, that Protean substance as wondrous and essential to a pastry chef as fire had been to early man.
Walter christened the cake Apocalypse Now; Greenie held her tongue. By itself, this creation doubled the amount of cocoa she ordered from her supplier every month. After it was on his menu for a week, Walter bet her a lobster dinner that before a year was out, Gourmet would request the recipe, putting both of them on a wider culinary map. If that came to pass, Greenie would surrender to the vagaries of fleeting fame, but right now the business ran as smoothly as she could have hoped. She had a diligent assistant and an intern who shopped, cleaned up, made deliveries, and showed up on time. The amount of work they all shared felt just right to Greenie; she could not have taken an order for one more tiny éclair without enlarging the enterprise to a degree where she feared she would begin to lose control. Alan said that what she really feared was honestly growing up, taking her lifelong ambition and molding it into a Business with a capital B. Greenie resented his condescension; if Business with a capital B was the goal of growing up, what was he doing as a private psychotherapist working out of a back-door bedroom that should have belonged to George, who slept in an alcove off their living room meant for a dining room table? Which brought up the subject of George: was Alan unhappy that Greenie’s work, on its present scale, allowed her to spend more time with their son than a Business with a capital B would have done?
“Delegation,” said Alan. “It’s called delegation.”
This was the sort of bickering that passed too often now between them, and if Greenie blamed Alan for starting these quarrels, she blamed herself for plunging into the fray. Stubbornly, she refused to back down for the sake of greater domestic harmony or to address the underlying dilemma. The overlying dilemma, that much was clear. Through the past year, as Greenie began to turn away clients, Alan was losing them. His schedule had dwindled to half time, and the extra hours it gave him with George did not seem to console him.
Alan, two years away from forty, had reached what Greenie privately conceived of as the Peggy Lee stage in life: Is That All There Is? Greenie did not know what to do about this. She would have attacked the problem head on if the sufferer had been one of her girlfriends, but Alan was a man, chronically resentful of direction. When he was with friends, his argumentative nature was his strength, a way of challenging the world and its complacencies, but in private—alone with Greenie—he fell prey to defensiveness and nocturnal nihilism. She had known this before they married, but she had assumed this aspect of his psyche would burn off, under the solar exposure of day-to-day affection, like cognac set aflame in a skillet. Next year they would be married ten years, and it had not.
In their first years together, she had loved the wakefulness they shared late at night. After sex, Alan did not tumble into a callow sleep, the way most men claimed they could not resist doing. Like Greenie, he would be alert for another half hour or more. They would talk about their days, their dreams (both sleeping and waking), their notions on the fate of mankind. When it came to worldly matters, the voice of doubt would be Alan’s—mourning or raging that genocide would never end, that presidents would never be moral, that children would always be abducted by men who would never be caught—but he was invariably passionate, and back then, Greenie saw hope in that passion. He loved Greenie expressively, eloquently, in a way she felt she had never been loved.
When they had been sleeping together—or not-sleeping together—nearly every night for a month, she asked, “Why do you suppose we’re like this? Why can’t we just go to sleep, like the rest of the exhausted people around us?” They were lying in Alan’s bed, in the never-quite-dark of a city night.
He said, “Me, I think too much. Not a good thing.”
“Why? Why is that not good?”
“It wears down your soul. It’s like grinding your spiritual teeth,” he said. “Dreaming is the healthy alternative. Even nightmares once in a while. Sometimes a nightmare is like a strong wind sweeping through a house.”
Greenie had noticed early on that first thing every morning, often before getting out of bed, Alan wrote his dreams in a leather book the size of a wallet. “What about me?” she said. “Do I think too much?”
“Not you.” He pulled her closer against his side. “With you, I can only imagine that some part of your waking soul just can’t bear to see another magnificent day in the life of Greenie Duquette come to an end.”
“That’s very poetic,” said Greenie, “but it’s malarkey.”
“When I’m with you,” he said, “I love not getting to sleep.” He kissed her and kissed her, and then they did fall asleep. The next day, on the phone with her mother, she said she’d met an incredible man, that she had fallen in love. Her mother teased her that it wasn’t the first time, and Greenie said yes, this was true, but she had a hunch it would be the last.
Consistent with all the evolutions and revolutions of married life, their wakeful late-night musings came to an end when they had George. In those early months, starved of sleep, their thinking selves would plummet toward oblivion once they lay down. But Alan still slept so lightly that he was nearly always the first to rise and comfort George when he cried. By the time Greenie stumbled to consciousness, there was her baby, in his father’s arms, being soothed until she was ready to nurse. Alan’s only complaint was that waking up so often and so urgently made it hard for him to remember his dreams. Along with so many other habits once taken for granted, the little book went by the wayside. Now Greenie wondered if Alan had needed it more than she understood.
Greenie could not point to a specific moment when Alan’s sober but passionate view of the world might have tipped into a hardened pessimism, and she reminded herself that he was still a loving, patient father—but what if that pessimism was genetic? Could it lie dormant in George?
When the loaves and cakes she had baked sat cooling on racks, Greenie filled the larger sink with all the loaf pans and whisks, cups and spoons and mixing bowls. Sherwin would show up later to wash them, but Greenie wiped down the counters herself, several times a day. She had made this place—an old boiler room in the basement of a nondescript tenement building—into her private kingdom. Around the perimeter, the walls and cupboards were white, the countertops made of smooth, anonymous steel, but the linoleum tiles that Alan had helped her lay on the floor were gladiola red. The only windows ran along the ceiling at sidewalk level: wide yet narrow, like gunports in a bunker. Sometimes, organizing bills or tinkering with recipes, Greenie sat on a stool at the butcher-block island and watched the ankles passing by these windows. Now and then a dog pressed its face between the bars against the glass, spotted her and wagged its tail. Greenie would smile and wave before the dog was yanked along on its way. She came to recognize the neighborhood regulars: the aging black Lab with the heavily salted muzzle, the twin pugs with their Tammy Faye mascara, the Irish setter who marked the windows with his wayward tongue. Sometimes dog faces were the only ones she saw for hours. Even toddlers were visible only up to the hems of their shorts or jackets. Walter was the one person who would lean down, knock on a pane, and give her an upside-down grin, The Bruce right there beside him.
She would know that spring had arrived when green crept into her rabbit’s-eye view, as the small plots of earth around the trees in front of the building filled with hardy weeds or the floral attempts of residents longing in vain for gardens of their own. (The dogs were no help there.)
Just below the windows, Greenie had hung her copper and stainless-steel bowls, in pairs. It was a minor joke she still enjoyed: displayed this way, they looked like pairs of great armored breasts, the warrior bosoms of Amazons, of Athena, Brunhilde, and Joan of Arc. Count me in! Greenie told herself while inspecting her private battalion. Carpe diem, ladies!