I sat in the Seahorse Bakery Café on Ocean Street, like always on a Thursday afternoon after teaching English Literature (Chaucer to Pope). I generally celebrate the weekend by having a late lunch at the Seahorse followed by one of their exquisite tiny cupcakes, each one a masterpiece of Swiss buttercream, chocolate curls, mango curd filling, or perhaps golden raspberries dusted with confectioner’s sugar—but not all at the same time, of course.
On this final day of classes for the year, I had claimed my usual table at a window overlooking the boardwalk, as far away as possible from the wedding-cake display. My table has a water view. Not of the sea, but of one of the public showers at the top of the dunes. The shower is situated conveniently near the top of the stairs that come off the beach, and when in use there is a nice spray of sparkling water that lifts my spirits.
The fly in my waterview soup is this homeless guy. His Thursday schedule is nearly identical to mine; he often begins his shower at 2:30 or so, about the time I’m finishing my delicious cupcake. I believe he is homeless because he is always dirty and mostly unshaven and his clothes are a mess and most significantly he’s taking a shower at a public beach facility in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Like me, he has a routine. He arrives at the shower, removes his shirt and terrible boots, digs around the roots of the sea oats that crowd the stairway to the beach, pulls up a buried Publix bag, removes a bar of dark soap, and proceeds to wash himself with it. He begins by removing his shirt and rinsing it in the flow, then he carefully hangs the shirt on the banister to the stairs. He soaps his head and face and neck and arms and torso and even his pants and finally his feet and toes. He always gives his toes a little extra attention, which used to give me serious creeps before I got used to it. Then he puts the soap back in the Publix bag, buries it in the sand beside the stairway, rinses the sand off his hands, picks up his wet shirt, slings it over his shoulder, and swaggers off like a new man. He actually holds his head up higher and looks around with more confidence. The first time or two that I saw him I was appalled, but by this time I had come to admire his attitude.
I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Seahorse Bakery Café. I love their tiny cupcakes, of course, but the main reason for my devoted patronage is that I am eating off a $150 wedding cake deposit. My fiancé, Charles, changed his mind a month before our wedding and then took our honeymoon to Jamaica by himself. The Seahorse doesn’t do refunds, but they are allowing me to eat the balance.
I didn’t want a credit at the Seahorse. I want to be clear about that. I wanted my damn money back. I really felt after the Charles blow-up that the only thing that could possibly make me feel better would be a whole lot of money flowing back into my bank account. I was fortunately able to get back my entire catering deposit, and I sold my wedding dress on Craig’s List for a profit, if you can believe that. But the Seahorse remained adamant that “no refunds,” which was printed clearly on every flat surface in the place, meant no refunds. As it happens, “no refunds” did not necessarily mean no in-store credit, but I did have to threaten to bring my attorney sister in to negotiate before I got it. They made me sign a one-page contract stating the deal was null and void if I told anyone about the credit; it also stressed the fact that a 20% gratuity would be added to each meal. Fine. I signed it. Did it make me popular at the Seahorse? It did not. But at this point popularity wasn’t a thing I cared very much about. I was more intent on winning battles.
As I finished my curry chicken salad and my ginger-almond cupcake with apricot cream, two ladies scraped back the chairs directly behind mine. I heard Christine, the owner of the Seahorse, say, “I’ll get the tasting samples. In the meantime, you can look at some of our designs.” Her heavy binder of cake photographs hit the table top, and soon the special language of Wedding Cake filled the air with a sticky fog, turning the sweet apricot cream to dust in my mouth.
I despise wedding cake. I know what you’re thinking, but there is a very big difference between a tiny two-bite cupcake and a wedding cake—which is nothing more nor less than a fraudulent tower of spun-sugar that implies a fairy-tale fantasy is about to unfold. Don’t get me started. It was all enough to make me consider forfeiting my remaining $72.62 in credit and never coming near the Seahorse again.
With remarkable strength of character, I sat silently through the royal icing, the rolled fondant, and even the bittersweet chocolate faux bois. But when the discussion turned to hand-tinted gum-paste flowers (orchids, roses, lilies—in any delicate hue the bride desired), I could stand it no more. I tipped my chair back on two legs and intruded my head into the personal space between the bride and her mother. “Gum-paste flowers are foul luck,” I said. “Don’t even think about ordering gum-paste flowers.”
I couldn’t see Christine’s reaction to this comment, but a long, cold silence raised the hair on my arms. “Gotta go,” I said, striving for a cheery tone. My chair legs hit the floor, hard.
As I hurried out the door, I saw that the homeless shower guy was heading down the sidewalk, too, in his jaunty, post-shower attitude. Albert, who runs the Italian water ice stand on the boardwalk, yelled as he walked by, “Dave! What’s up, man?”
“Hey,” the shower guy said. “Not too much. Just takin’ it easy.”
Odd that a homeless guy should have a name and acquaintances. As Dave continued up the sidewalk, I lingered at Albert’s stand. “You know him?” I asked casually, tilting my head toward Dave’s retreating and scrupulously clean figure.
“Sure,” Albert said. “It’s Dave.”
I waited, but further information would have to be requested. “Is he okay?” I asked carefully.
“I guess,” Albert shrugged. “Looked okay to me. What did you hear? Did he fall out of a palm tree and damage his skull?”
“Not that I’m aware of. Does he climb palm trees?”
“What are we talking about here?” Albert was certainly touchy. “Dave trims palm trees; it’s possible he could fall out of a palm tree. And by the way, are you going to order anything?”
“I wasn’t planning to,” I said. “I’m not hungry—I just had lunch with a cupcake for dessert.”
“Then move along, girlie,” Albert said. “You’re blocking my sign and costing me business.”
“Can I ask one more question?”
“Only if you’re walking away while you’re askin’.”
I began to back away from the stand. “How do I get in touch with Dave to trim my palm trees?”
Albert shook his head in disgust. “How do you ever find a guy to trim your palm trees? You look in the classifieds of the Beaches Leader.”
I picked up a copy of the Leader and drove home, where I spread the paper out on my tiny kitchen table and turned straight to the classifieds. And there he was! “Palm trees trimmed, brush cleared. Call Dave.”
I can’t explain why I called him. But I had a couple of months free before classes began again, and there was a sort of tangled mini-jungle at the side of my house that did need to be cleared out. I couldn’t do it, because it looked spidery and scary. Charles had promised that he would take care of it for me, but Charles obviously found the solitary true jungles of Jamaica more alluring.
Dave showed up pretty close to the time he’d said he would, and in half a day my little jungle was gone and I had a strip of cleared land between my house and the neighbor’s fence for the first time ever. As Dave drove off in his tiny gray pick-up truck with my jungle debris packed into the bed, I contemplated the amazing ease of hiring a man to do hard work.
“I’m better off than I was,” I mused. “I have found a guy to do the yard stuff when I need it done, without any contractual commitment. That’s all I need a guy for! Plus, I have weekly lunches lined up for the entire summer, at least, at no charge. This is going to be perfect. I’m really happy about the way things turned out. I’m very, very happy.”
I was so happy that I spent the rest of my afternoon lying on the couch, pointing the remote at the TV and sightlessly channeling around. PBS had a beautiful gardening show on, and I supposed I should try to figure out something to do with my new side yard, but that seemed like an impossible task. Instead I hit Mute and fell asleep.
When I woke, the room was dark and PBS was receiving photos from a satellite that was hurtling into outer space. Space is so beautiful. I turned up the volume. The narrator was talking about Pluto. The photos of space were replaced by a graphic that showed chunks of space rock being pulled together to form the tiny planet (or whatever it is considered now). Poor Pluto. Stripped of planet status. I thought I could understand how Pluto must feel—desolate, barren, unwanted. It was especially touching because for a period of time it had been a part of something grand and beautiful, only to be cast off and left spinning in terrible, limitless darkness.
I tried to pick up the narrative of the program: Where did that debris come from? Was that what had happened after the Big Bang—chunks of stuff began whirling around, and some of it started attracting smaller chunks and they began to stick together? I liked this idea, and in my personal world it made sense. Something blows apart into a million pieces, and some of the bits find others and make connections.
Then it hit me: This is what happens when your heart is hit by the Big Bang of a failed relationship. At first it breaks apart and seems as if it will never be fixed, but then it begins to clump back together like those chunks of gray space rock that were still on the screen, turning into Pluto. All I had to do was wait until the chunks began to orbit back around and started clumping together again. Once it was back in one piece, it would be harder, and stronger, and cold.
* * *
I hired Dave to help me plant the side yard. Over the course of several weeks, we planted three climbing roses and a variety of annuals. Dave devised a trellis, then cleaned the gutters. When all that was done, he insisted that it was long past time for my two palm trees to be trimmed. “Fine,” I said.
I can’t say that all this togetherness furthered my knowledge of Dave much. I still had no idea why he showered at the beach and where (if anywhere) he went afterward. But that was what I wanted—a cold, businesslike contractual relationship where we both knew exactly where we stood. It seemed to me the perfect—perhaps the only possible—male/female relationship.
On the other hand, I sometimes felt that it was not too smart to get tangled up in Dave’s world. What if, once the weather turned cooler, he started turning up on my back porch to sleep? It could happen. I was probably his most consistent employer, and I was pretty sure that he knew I kept a spare key in the mailbox. Maybe it wouldn’t have to be winter, either—the rainy season was upon us, and during a bad storm he could easily show up seeking shelter. I looked at him now. He was tightening the laces of his hideous boots in preparation for going into my front-yard palm tree.
“What are your plans for this weekend?” I asked. “I think they’re calling for rain.”
Dave looked up at me. “I’m going fishing with my buddy,” he said. “If you ever want fresh snapper or whiting, I can set you up.”
“Thank you.” To be set up with snapper or whiting—this was what my life had come to.
Dave summoned up the rags and tags of some nearly forgotten social graces and said, “You?”
I waved a hand. “Oh, nothing planned. My life is in a holding pattern. My wedding had to be canceled, and now I’m taking time to re-evaluate and see what new connections develop.” It was the most I had shared with him to date.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Must have been tough.”
“Actually, I got most of the money back.”
He said, “I meant it must have been tough on your heart.”
“I’m recovering,” I said brightly. “I have a heart like Pluto.” I explained about how tiny, icy Pluto had been a wreck before it formed into an almost-planet. It just took time and solar magic. “Anyway,” I finished, proud of my powers of Pluto-like recovery, “I sold the dress, and got my deposits back for the catering and flowers and photographer. The only thing left to recoup is my wedding-cake deposit, and the bakery is letting me eat on credit until it’s used up.”
Dave gazed at me as I talked. He said, “For God’s sake, let it go. You’re staying stuck by going back there every week. Walk away.” He was silent for a beat, then added, “Who wants a heart like Pluto? An icy slab of rock? Give me a heart like the sun.”
“Why?” I asked. “I mean here we are, unloved and unwanted. Much better to have a heart like Pluto, right?”
“Speak for yourself,” Dave said curtly. “I have a mother, a brother, a girlfriend, and a six-year-old son. I’m not unloved, or unwanted.”
He seemed to emphasize the “I’m,” and that annoyed me. “Oh, I see. Well, lucky you. My mistake. I’ve noticed you taking showers down at the beach, and you know, it made it look as if you might not have a place to go. I thought you were homeless, frankly.”
“You thought wrong. I’m not homeless, and I’m certainly not heartless.”
“I’m not heartless, either!” I said. “I’m like Pluto. And PBS says that Pluto is not just a lump of ice and rock—it’s a dynamic world that undergoes dramatic atmospheric changes. I’m having a dramatic atmospheric change, too, but once it passes, I’ll be warm-hearted again. I know I will.” I stopped, then I added, more calmly, “I haven’t always been like Pluto.”
He wouldn’t look at me. He shimmied up the palm tree. Two minutes later, a browning palm frond slapped the ground near my feet. I went inside so I wouldn’t get hurt. Spiders are fond of palm fronds.
I wondered how in the world it had happened that a guy I had seen bathing at the public beach shower was in my yard, trimming my palm trees, taking my money, and criticizing my heart. There was something very wrong with this picture.
That reminded me of a jigsaw puzzle I had gotten for my 13th birthday. Unlike normal jigsaw puzzles, the box didn’t have a picture on the front that showed what the completed puzzle would look like. It had a vague, surreal outline of a landscape and a large black question mark in the middle. At the top right corner was this message: “Can you complete this 750-piece Mystery Puzzle? Unveil a beautiful garden with a mystical fountain at its heart.” I had worked really hard on that puzzle, but in the end I had to refer to the color photo that was tucked inside the box for emergencies.
Life was like that now. I had imagined a picture on my personal Life Puzzle Box that was simple and distinct—a wedding, a marriage, a life with Charles. A dog. Now that Charles was out of the picture, so to speak, the entire puzzle was a mystery. I didn’t have a husband at all; I had a yard man who wanted a heart like the sun.
I took a bottle of water out to Dave, but he was still up the tree and now there was a pile of brown fronds beneath it. I waited, and soon he scuttled down the tree backward. He used the cold water bottle to wipe his forehead, then uncapped it and drank the entire thing. “Nice job,” I said.
“Don’t worry, I’m going to pick ’em up and haul ’em away,” he said.
“I wasn’t being sarcastic. I think the tree looks great.”
Actually, the tree looked weird. It only had three green fronds sticking out of the top now. I thought perhaps he had overdone the trimming by quite a lot, but just then one of the neighbors passed by on his bike and said, “Wow, great tree, dude. Can you do mine?” He and Dave made arrangements for a future trimming, then Dave turned back to me.
“I’ll come back tomorrow afternoon to do your other tree,” he said. It was only 2:00, but I remembered that he had a strict shower schedule.
“All right,” I said, and he left. The palm fronds remained behind. I wondered if he would come back and get them, or if once again I had been jilted and left to pick up the pieces. That idea caused another dramatic atmospheric change. I started crying and couldn’t seem to stop. Pluto was in for a bout of heavy weather.
On Monday, I went to the Seahorse Bakery. When I walked in, Christine came over and opened her mouth, probably to yell at me.
“Wait!” I pre-empted her hissy fit by holding up my contract for the wedding-cake credit. Then I tore it into six pieces, and handed them to her. “I’m done,” I said. “Thank you for your patience, if not exactly your kindness, during what has been a difficult period in my life.”
I could tell Christine was moved. “Listen,” she said, “I promise I’ll create a magnificent wedding cake for you when you do get married. The next guy will be the right one, I’m sure of it. You know what I think you should do? I think you should have a cake made up of our mini cupcakes.”
I stared at her. “That’s brilliant!” I said. “I adore your mini cupcakes, and I could have every flavor!” I pictured my future cake coming together like Pluto, with mini cupcakes spinning through space and glomming together.
“I’ve got a birthday in October,” I said. “Maybe I’ll order a cupcake cake for that.” Christine beamed at me in a really nice way, and I think a chunk of my messed-up heart fell back into its proper place.
I walked out of the bakery feeling freer and anticipatory. I stopped at the water ice stand and bought a mango ice from grumpy old Albert. I ate it right there on the boardwalk, looking out over the beach and the tourists and the skateboarders and all the terrible color and confusion of a typical beach community. It’s a fragile world, as easily broken as a coral reef and constantly under threat of hurricane, nor’easter, simple erosion, and a steady onslaught of fat tourists and their trash. Frightening things are hurtling toward this world, with no warning of sudden atmospheric changes.
For now, though, the sun shone upon us all. I squinted up at it, and tried to imagine my heart as a bright, burning sun instead of a cold and lonely planet. It felt pretty good. Maybe there was some life left in it yet.
I stopped at Big Lots on my way home and bought a pair of spider-proof gloves. I had palm fronds to pick up, and there was no earthly reason why I couldn’t take care of them myself.
Note: An earlier version of this story appeared in Mused – the BellaOnline Literary Review in Spring 2011.