Baker's Dozen

It was her mother that taught her to bake. That’s where we can start, if you would care to. Her mother showed her a book of recipes, and let her pick out the cake she wanted to bake the most. Eight years old she was, and fully ready to help her mother in the kitchen, bless her. The first cake that she baked was chocolate, of course, because what child dreams of anything else but chocolate. The middle of summer, hotter than blue blazes, but still she demanded the heavy chocolate. Her mother agreed, because it was going to be her cake. And they baked on a sunny Tuesday afternoon with the public radio playing classical music in the background. Her mother walked her through the ingredients, reaching for the ones that she was too short to get. They cracked and mixed and layered to their hearts’ content. When the unborn cake was ready to be put into the oven, it was then that her mother told her how to bake.

“Listen, Eileen. Any numbskull can put a bunch of ingredients together like the recipe book tells them to. Anyone can whip up some icing, man, woman, or child. The secret here, the important thing, is how you bake it. Bake it too quick and it’s not a cake, see, it’s still the ingredients. Bake it too long and it’s too much of a cake; you can’t taste anything. But bake it just the right amount of time and everything comes together. Bake it the right amount of time and everything comes together.”

Her mother put two fingers to her pursed lips and let out an mwha to emphasize how well together it would be.

“Timers are okay to start with, Eileen, but in the end, you gotta be able to watch the cake and see where it’s at. Watch for color, watch for the way the little heat waves beat against it. I’ll show you, Eileen, how to bake a cake. Your husband will be glad I did.”

The only thing sweeter than Darcy’s cakes was Darcy, but I’m afraid she lied to her little girl when she told her that. There never was a more ungrateful pig of a man than R.J., and never did such a man have such a wife as Eileen. Everything Darcy had taught Eileen she took to heart. But some men were born without a sweet tooth and cannot appreciate the things that are given to them. It’s a shame that Eileen weren’t skinnier or more attractive lookin’, sweet as she is. But truth be told, her hands are as pudgy as the dough they beat, and it doesn’t get much better going up. Not that that’s an excuse for R.J. These kinds of things just need to be said. It’s about gathering the ingredients.

So you got one helping of Eileen. You got far too much of R.J., a fat, poor, dirty rent-a-farmer who can barely keep a job in the middle of the busiest harvest. You take this marriage, this beat-up, miserable excuse for a marriage, and put it in a grungy little house behind the McKinley’s fields. You give it a wire fence, a couple of R.J.’s cur dogs, an ever present rodent problem, and you let it bake. Time does that for you.

She stays married to him for all these years. Thirteen years of marriage to someone like R.J. is enough to throw Mother Teresa straight to the loony bin. You can try to place yourself in her dollar store shoes, surrounded by rats and cur dogs, with a dead mother and a dead father, and her trying to cook like her mom taught her. You probably won’t get very far. Always baking cookies for the church or mixing up some punch for the funeral home. They come from all corners of the parish, looking for her and her kitchen. They practically beg for the merest scraps of her cooking, they taste it, and they wonder how such a cook as she got hitched to such a man as R.J. They wish she would get some sense knocked into her head, and she does. And wouldn’t be the best if it wasn’t R.J. himself who did the knocking.

He had gone too far the day he insulted her caramel cake. For the past thirteen years she had baked him one glorious cake for his birthday. The first year, it was simple chocolate cake. Nothing fancy, but enough to make the roaches in the walls salivate. If you’ve never tasted Eileen’s chocolate icing, then I can’t explain it to you. It’s like explaining God. I’ll try to put it in a way you might get, though. When people take a big bite out of Eileen’s chocolate cake, they’re happier. Don’t matter if their mom just died, if their dog just died, or, hell, if they’ve just got diagnosed with cancer. It makes you happy. Three layers of chocolate send you over your heels. But the beauty is, it’d be too much. So she puts plenty of warm, oven-fresh vanilla cake between them. The policemen always joke when she brings them one on Christmas Eve that at least they know where all the drugs have gone off to. Little Eileen just blushes and runs away, and leaves them to gorge.

Of course, it wasn’t to R.J.’s liking. It was too rich. He didn’t like the red velvet cake that she’d baked for their fourth anniversary either; he liked chocolate better (durn fool didn’t even know that red velvet’s nothing but chocolate with red dye in it, ha!). He didn’t like the seventh anniversary rum pound cake, or the tenth anniversary strawberry cake, or the twelfth anniversary lemon icebox cake. I hate ‘em all, he said, none of them were like the one’s my mom used to bake. Now R.J.’s mother is about the meanest things west of the Mississippi; I’ve heard that she came from a gator nest down south. She’s got that bit of mean Cajun in her, that’s for damn sure, and she’s as skinny as a beanpole. Take this lesson to heart: there’s no great cook in this world who doesn’t have a little problem putting their pants on in the morning. Never trust a skinny cook.

So of course R.J. is lying out of his butt. Because there’s now way in the Devil’s hell that his mom is half the cook Eileen is. She’s a quarter of a person to begin with! But of course, Eileen puts up with it, I suppose because her brain didn’t bake long enough to give her some sense.

But he messed up when he insulted her caramel cake. I’ve only heard legends of good caramel cake. Usually you find someone brave enough to bake one, and all you get is a piece of caramel candy with some bread in between. You can’t even lie to tell them how good it is, cause you’re mouth is glued together! I’ve heard through the grapevine that Mrs. Darcy did it, once, and that it took just about all her skill. So I guess she gave some of her experience about it to Eileen. Eileen figures, what the hell, she’s got nothing to lose. R.J. hates the cakes no matter what, so if she messes up, what more is he gonna say?

It takes her almost a full day, making that damn thing. But when she’s done, God is she done. There’d never existed, and there probably won’t ever exist, such a caramel cake. You could see yourself in the reflection of the glaze, I’m told, and the caramel was at the perfect state, light enough that you could still talk with your mouth full, but chewy enough that your mouth was full for a pretty long time, too. She sweated blood over that cake, and when R.J. came in after a day of drinking and sat down at the table, she thought to herself, If he doesn’t like this cake, he isn’t human. If he doesn’t like this cake, I married some kind of demon or something.

R.J. and Eileen eat dinner, not saying a word to one another. When they’re done, she gets up and cuts them both a nice slice of cake and pours R.J. a nice cup of milk, while she gets herself some coffee. Same old routine, down to R.J.’s belches at the table and his thinking about the crop out loud. She gives him his cake and milk, then sits down at the other end of the table and just watches him take that first bite. He chews, slowly, thoughtfully, not noticing his wife on the other end of the table, but looking at that glass of milk and wishing it were a beer. He swallows and then seems to notice her for the first time.

“You know who makes a good caramel cake? Mrs. Joanne over in Jackson.”

She almost loses it right there, and who could blame her? You know who makes a good caramel cake. Ha! She makes a good caramel cake, and for the first time in this marriage she fully realizes this. She fully realizes that she’s made thirteen perfectly good, no, perfectly wonderful cakes and he’s never once complimented or thanked her. She starts to thinking again about the first time she baked a cake. She had stood at the oven door, opening it every thirty seconds or so to look at it. Her mother had laughed at her gently over the kitchen table, advising her again and again to have some faith and let it cook on its own. She won’t listen, cause it’s her first time, isn’t it? She just keeps opening and closing, for near an hour. She’s so busy watching that she’s not paying any attention to her nose, and she smells the burnt long after the fact. Crying, she takes it out of the oven and goes up on her tippy toes to put it on the stove. The top looks well enough, but there’s some smoke coming out of the sides, and she knows she’s ruined her first cake.

That was when her mom placed her hands on Eileen’s shoulders, and told her that every good cook messes up at least once. Now she’s done it, and she doesn’t have to worry about it anymore. There’s only one thing to do with a burnt cake: throw it away and start anew. So after R.J. insults her caramel cake, Eileen starts to smell what’s been there all along: a burnt marriage. Burned by R.J.’s cold negligence and time. Eileen was, is, nothing but diligent and she’s always been a good girl who listens to her momma.

So the next day R.J. goes to work, not noticing that Eileen’s missing from her bed. Or maybe he does and just discounts it, thinking that Oprah’s gotten into her head again and she’s off jogging away the fat or some such foolishness. He puts on a soiled white shirt and some overalls, gets his baseball cap, and waddles out to his truck. He doesn’t have far to drive, just to the end of the turn row and take a right, because right now he’s working on the McKinley’s fields. Which works for him, since he doesn’t have to get up until five minutes before working time. His tractor is waiting from the day before, just where he parked it. And why shouldn’t it be? No one out here except for him and his wife, and the occasional McKinley checking on his fields.

The tractor is a reflection of its driver, a rusted piece of equipment that is clogged with oil and gunk that has no clear name. It’s as scraggly and mean-looking as R.J., though to give it some credit it does smell better. The machine should have been condemned a long time ago, if you want the truth to be told.

First thing is first. He grabs the half-empty can of gasoline out of the back of his truck so he can make sure the tractor has plenty to go on. He’s a little surprised at the weight; he thought he had used up more, but then again he had been hungover all yesterday from Monday’s rally at the old highway bar. As far as he’s concerns, this means less paperwork for him with the McKinley’s. He pumps the tank up and throws the empty canister towards his truck. He walks up the short, rusting steps to get in to the cab. So far he’s been sleepwalking, but now he gets more careful. The door to his cab has been broken for some time now. He can still remember the day he first realized that he was locked in. What a hairy ten minutes that was, before he had calmed down and decided what to do. It killed him, but he drove all the way back to his house to get Eileen to get him out. He had been sweating buckets, out of fear and out of the ungodly heat. Fear that he would run out of gas and suffer heatstroke in the cab, thanks in part to the wonderful 115 degree summer they’ve been having. It still killed him, though, to have to ask the damn woman for some help. Ever since he had been sure to keep the door propped open with by tightly wedging a slab of broken concrete.

He props the door open and starts the engine. It takes a few tries, but after a few kicks and mild curses the machine grumpily allows itself to come to life, hissing and fighting back every step away. It’s only then that he notices Eileen, standing outside the tractor.

“What do you want?” he yells over the motor, opening the door.

“I just wanted to give a little mid-morning snack!” she shouts back.

He grunts and opens the door wider, a gesture for her to proceed. She takes her sweet time about it, though, and by the time she makes it to the steps he’s yelling at her and half-way ready to jump at her. He would, too, if he wasn’t afraid that the motor would die as soon as he stepped off the damn thing.

She walks up the steps and steadies herself against the motor board with one hand while handing him a couple of muffins rolled up in a napkin. He takes them and places them on the other side where there’s a little nook for such things. He feels, rather than hears, the motion of air cease as the door swings shut.

He whips around, and for a while there not but a foot from each other, eye to eye, straight through glass. He sees that she has the concrete block in her hand, and feels a new kind of emotion start to climb up his throat. But before she can do anything, she opens the door back up and puts the slab back in.
“Be careful, R.J., you’re liable to be stuck in here for good one day!”

“Ah, quit your yammerin!”

She turns and walks away from the tractor and towards her car, parked behind R.J.’s truck. He watches her for while. There was something in her eyes, just then. Something he didn’t like. He’s heard of women going off the deep end from some old heads down at the bar. But he dismisses it. I’ll handle it when I get home, he thinks as he grabs a muffin and takes a bite. Plenty of time for all that. He wonders at the funny taste that is left in his mouth and fondly thinks back on all the muffins his mother use to make for her special boy.

She watches him from the car as he devours all the muffins like the pig she knows he his. Then she waits. He turns the tractor and goes down the dirt road to the end of the field. He starts to plow through, clogging up the dirt for Mr. McKinley. She just waits, and sure enough at his second pass he starts to become a bit erratic. The tractor swerves just a bit, knocking down one of his rows, and it finally stops toward the end of the field. She gets in her car and drives down the end of the dirt road, then down the back road. When she can’t get any close with her car, she gets out and walks the rest of the way.

He’s inside, slobbering a little, and turns to watch her. His eyes look ready enough to pop out of his sockets; she wonders how much more it would take to do it. Making sure he sees her (she knows, cause he starts gurgling and moving around) she takes the concrete wedge out the door and closes it tight.

Her mom was the one that taught her to bake. The most important part of making great cakes was the actual baking. You had to watch it inside the oven as the heat transformed it. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a traditional oven or an oven made out of a tractor cab and 100 degrees of summer heat. You just have to watch and make sure it comes out just right, that it bakes just long enough. He had, after all, insulted her caramel cake.

Baker's Dozen

William H

Joined December 2007

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