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Archive for May, 2011

I went to the state fair with Richard, and we ate as many fair foods as we could—elephant ears, roasted corn, pork chop sandwiches. I felt the sadness of the past week lift a bit as we viewed the prize-winning rabbits, sheep, pigs, and goats. In fact, I cheered up a lot when we passed the tobacco exhibit and the men competing in the cigar-smoking contest.

“How do you know who wins?” I asked Richard quietly, but he didn’t know, either. The men sat there, very solemn, in straight-backed wooden chairs, puffing away. A small crowd—friends and family, I’m sure—watched them with great anticipation.

“Let’s go see the miniature horses,” Richard said, coughing a bit. So I let him move me along and never learned the secret of the cigar-smoking contest.

We saved the main exhibit hall for last. Some of the handcrafts were quite beautiful, and there was a simple beauty, too, in the way that the jars of canned goods were arranged on glass shelves, neatly labeled.

I felt depressed again as we got to the section of the hall where the baked goods were displayed. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Richard asked.

“Yes,” I said, and we moved down the first aisle. Rows of glass cases held everything from fancy decorated cakes to plates of chocolate chip cookies, plain biscuits, and cornbread.  

And then there were the pound cakes.

Of all the items displayed at the fair—quilts, jam, aquariums, pumpkins—none of them had the short shelf-life of a pound cake. Already there was a fly inside the glass case, knocking against the sides.

“What’s the use of displaying food?” I asked. “It’s so perishable. For that matter, where’s the sense in displaying quilts and pumpkins and gourds and rabbits? People should be enjoying them!” Helen’s family had demolished my pound cake in two days. That was better than getting a blue ribbon.

“Well, people are enjoying them,” Richard argued. “Maybe not the pound cake—although the fly seems pretty happy.”

“No, three judges tasted a tiny bit of each one, and that was it. Show’s over. These pound cakes were sacrificed to the god of ego, because somebody wanted a stupid damn ribbon to display. What’s the use of pouring your love into a pound cake, and then having three bites taken out of it just for purposes of criticism? You should spread them around! You should give them to the poor, the bereaved, the sick, and the lonesome. And electricians, if you have them. You know what? That’s what’s nonperishable, Richard! Not the cake, but the thought and the love that make you give it!” I looked at him, feeling as if I were hovering a couple of inches above the exhibit hall floor.

Richard smiled. “Mother Tourettesa,” he said fondly, and he took my arm and led me away from those awful glass cases. “You deserve ….”

An announcement over the intercom interrupted him. “Ladies and gentlemen,” a pleasant male baritone said, “we have a grand prize winner for Artistry in Wood. George K. Mills is our winner, for his work entitled, ‘Saturn’s Moons.’”

We stopped and applauded with everyone else, although we had not seen “Saturn’s Moons” and couldn’t say if it deserved applause or not.

Richard took my arm again, and we continued to walk. “Mother Tourettsa,” he repeated—he was terribly pleased with himself for coming up with that—“You deserve Best of Show, for Artistry in Pound Cake.”

“Thank you, thank you,” I murmured. “I shall have to treat myself to a crystal cake plate with a domed lid. I don’t imagine I can get one with the state seal on it, though.”

“Oh, I bet there’s an artisan in this building who could engrave it for you. All these handmade crafts…. Well, not all of them handmade, actually.”

“True,” I agreed. “After all, only God can make a pumpkin. But I’d like to see Him try to make a pound cake.”

Richard laughed, then stopped walking and gave the exhibit hall a sweeping look. “Is there anything else you wanted to see, do, or eat?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I’m satisfied.”

END

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Back at Helen’s, we didn’t talk. Helen was beyond words, locked somewhere in a place no one could reach, looking deep inside. She hadn’t spoken since she called her parents with the news. Helen had not been able to reach Jack’s brother, his only living relative. She told me she would wait and try the next morning. I wanted to set out walking and find him so he would know, but instead I walked through the house with Helen.

Helen was so restless she walked through the house all night. As it grew darker, cold moonlight filtered in through the skylights, and she moved from room to room, from light to shadow. I tried to stay in the dark of the shadows, unobtrusive but near, and as I saw where she intended to go next, I acted as her guide. I created pools of light where they were needed, and I brewed cups of tea. Helen even drank some of the tea, from time to time.

There was nothing I could do that would really help. I had that feeling of being incomplete again, of wanting something desperately and not knowing where to find it.

As the moonlight faded from the skylights, and the cold gray sky of dawn could be seen reflected in them, I sat down at the kitchen table, exhausted. I could drink no more tea. I was no longer needed to turn on lamps. What could be done? The only thing I knew how to do anymore was bake pound cake.   So that’s what I did.

The light inside the refrigerator hurt my eyes and my head. I was beyond tired. Still, I took out three sticks of butter and five eggs. In the pantry, I found flour and a full one-pound box of powdered sugar. Heavenly Pound Cake was a strange animal—it only called for four ingredients, not counting the extracts. There was no milk in it at all. Maybe that was part of the reason it was called “heavenly”—the fact that it turned out to be a cake at all was a sort of miracle.

Helen had vanilla and lemon extract, which would do nicely. I preheated the oven, dug a bowl out of the cabinets, and found the hand mixer, a spatula, and a bundt pan. 

There is a rhythm to mixing up a pound cake, and moving through the measurements and additions, one at a time, beating well after each. I beat the hell out of that cake. I beat all of my tiredness and grief and fury into it.

I swayed a little on my feet as I poured the batter into the pan, scraping down the sides with a spatula. I put the bowl back down with a thump, and shoved the pan into the oven. Closing the door on it, I felt like I had just completed the most monumental task of my entire life—until I turned around and saw the mess I’d made.

Wearily, I began to wash up. I scraped batter off the counters and floor, put away the mixer, threw the rinsed spoons and bowls and measuring cups into the dishwasher, jammed eggshells down the disposal.

“What are you doing?” Helen asked. She walked into the kitchen. Her face was pale and puffy. She looked like a 5-year-old who’s just gotten out of bed to come tell you about a bad dream.

“Making a pound cake,” I said.

She nodded. “For the fair.”

“No,” I said. “It’s for you. And your family, when they get here.” I rinsed out the sink, and turned off the water. “I hope it turns out okay.”

Helen sat down at the table, and put her head on her arms.  I walked over and put my hand on her head. A glob of pound cake batter transferred from my thumb to her hair.

“I just got cake batter in your hair,” I said. “I’m so sorry, Helen.”

We started to laugh, and realized we were so tired that we really should try to lie down. Helen went straight to bed and fell asleep; I dozed on the couch until the oven timer rang.

At Jack’s memorial service, the minister read from 1 Corinthians: “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable.” I thought about the box of nonperishables at the hospital emergency room. Why do we give food and flowers to people when someone dies? They are extremely perishable. It seems to me that the sad perishability of the body must be emphasized by such gifts.

Following the service, Helen left to go back to Indiana with her parents for a visit. “Take care of yourself,” I said. I hugged her for a long time before she got into their car, and it pulled away.

Tomorrow: The conclusion of “Nonperishables.”

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Terry’s praise inspired me, and I set out to make a chocolate pound cake, a Perfect Pound Cake, and a Heavenly Pound Cake. Richard gave up testing after day two. “My teeth feel like they’re coated in butter,” he said. “I really can’t eat any more, at least not until I’ve gone through a cycle of eating nothing but salads.” Fortunately, Terry was made of sterner stuff.

It became clear that the Heavenly Pound Cake was the champion—my Best of Show contender. It’s main problem was that it sometime came out of the pan bald, leaving patches of crust stuck to the pan. I devised a better method of greasing and flouring the pan to avoid such mishaps. I also practiced making regulation state fair cake holders: All entries had to be presented on rounds of heavy-duty cardboard covered with foil.  I was ready for the fair.

“Tomorrow’s the day,” I told Richard. “I’ll make my cake in the morning, and deliver it for judging early in the afternoon. The deadline is 5:00, but I want to allow plenty of time.”

“Are you nervous?”

I thought about that. “No, I’m really not,” I said. “I feel like this is meant to be. I’m going to win Best of Show.”

That evening I was ticking off my ingredients and making sure everything was in order when the phone rang. “I’m at the hospital,” Helen said. “Jack has been in an accident, on his way home from work. They won’t even let me see him.” Her voice cracked. “Please say a prayer, Tremain.”

I closed my eyes and tried to think. “I’m on my way,” I said.

By the time I rushed into the emergency room, Helen was nowhere to be found. A few people slumped in the orange plastic chairs, but the receiving nurse had left her post. I assumed Helen had finally been allowed to go see Jack and sat down to wait.

From my chair, I was looking directly at a bulletin board of announcements. Beneath it was a large cardboard box, with a sign on it that read: “Food pantry donations here. Nonperishables only!”

Nonperishable was a nice word. I tried to concentrate on all the nonperishables I could think of—faith, hope, love, joy.

When the receiving nurse returned, I jumped up and approached the desk.

“Jack Knox?” I said. “His wife called for me to come.”

“Yes. She’s in the chapel. I’ll show you where it is.”

“Thank you.” I felt intense relief. Helen had gone to the chapel to pray for Jack.

I followed the nurse through two sets of double doors, and down a short hallway. She opened the door for me, and allowed me to walk in past her. Helen sat on the back pew; two people in surgical scrubs stood beside her. Helen’s eyes were blank and confused, and when she saw me she held up her hands, and I took them in mine. “I have to sign some papers,” she said. “Tremain, he’s gone.”

Her hands twisted in mine, restless and sweaty, not wanting to be released, but not able to be still. My mind was not working. I couldn’t comprehend what had happened. Finally, I said, “When you’re ready, I’ll drive you home.”

To be continued.

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I watched as Richard and Terry sampled the Five-Flavor Pound Cake. “It’s a little more complex,” I said. “Maybe it’s too complex. What do you think?”

They were sitting there chewing and not saying a single word. It made me crazy.

Terry said, “Ms. Clay, I thought that pound cake yesterday was good. But I’m here to tell you, this pound cake right here is the best thing I ever put in my mouth.”

Richard was frowning slightly. “What?” I asked him.

He had the last slice of the pound cake loaf and a fresher slice of five-flavor cake on his plate. “Well, I think I like the more delicate flavor of the loaf,” he said. “It’s elegant, simple, delicious. The five-flavor is very good, but I think you’re right—it’s a little too busy.”

“I never said it was too busy,” I snapped. “Personally, I like it very much.”

Richard held up a hand. His eyes were closed, and he had a patient look on his face that made me furious. “If you can’t take criticism, Tremain, then you better not enter the fair at all.”

Terry shook his head. “Ma’am,” he said, “as far as I’m concerned it would be a doggone crime if you didn’t enter these cakes in the fair. You sit up in here and make pound cakes like it’s easy as falling off a log, and they turn out like this? Of course it’s just my opinion, but I think you’re like an artist, only in cake instead of paint or pencil.”

I beamed at Terry and pushed the cake plate toward him. “Have all you want,” I said. “And you should call me Tremain.”

Terry checked the oven temperature and assured me that it was running right on target. As he headed out to his next job I told him, “Now, you stop by here any time this week. I’ll be trying some more recipes, and you can help decide which one I should enter.”

He nodded happily and headed to his truck. Terry and I understood each other perfectly. I closed the front door and returned to the kitchen.

Richard looked up. “Oh, wipe that Mona Lisa smile off your face, Tremain. It is not attractive.”

“It’s a Mother Teresa smile,” I corrected him. “I’m an artist in pound cake.”

To be continued.

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The next afternoon I was whipping up a Five-Flavor Pound Cake when Richard called. “When can I come over?” he asked.

“You can come over anytime you want.” I broke eggs into a small bowl and threw the shells into the disposal side of the sink. “I baked the pound cake loaf this morning, so it’s ready to be tested. I think it turned out a tiny bit too brown. I’ve got an electrician here now, checking the oven. I think it’s running a little hot.”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Richard said. “I like a nice firm crust on my pound cake. Don’t worry so much about perfection—this isn’t a work project. You need to put in a lot of love to make a great pound cake, not a lot of chemical or scientific know-how.”

“I want a blue ribbon.” I reminded him. “And a covered crystal cake plate. I want to be the Mother Teresa of pound cake. She was a perfectionist, and now she’s a saint.”

“Mother Teresa was a kinder, gentler Type A personality,” Richard said. “You are just Type A, period. And very competitive. Why can’t you relax and enjoy the fair? Enter a pound cake, by all means, but why make it a do-or-die proposition? After all, some of those old ladies have been entering cakes for years. They know all the tricks.”

“That’s the thing about a pound cake,” I told him, beating my five flavorings into my creamy, fragrant batter. “There are no tricks. It’s a sort of alchemy. You need fresh ingredients at their optimum temperatures, you need to tweak the flavorings, and you have to mix the hell out of the batter so that it’s smooth and glossy going into the pan. It should come out with a crumb so fine that if you broke the cake in half with your hands, very few crumbs would actually hit
the floor.”

“Are you on crack?” Richard asked. “And by the way, Mother Tourettesa, you’re making a heavenly pound cake, so watch it with the swear words.”

“I know exactly what I’m doing,” I said confidently. “And if I’m going to make a heavenly pound cake, I guess I better beat the hell out of it.”

“That’s the spirit,” Terry said. “Go hard, or go home.” Terry was the electrician. He squinted at his special oven thermometer.

“Gotta run,” I told Richard, and hung up the phone. “How’s it looking?” I asked.

“Looking good,” he said, staring at the pound cake loaf. In my new role as the Mother Teresa of pound cake, I took pity on him. “You need a slice of cake,” I said encouragingly. “Or don’t you eat pound cake?”

“I eat all the pound cake I can get,” he assured me.

The service call and calibration cost me $95. “But I tell you what,” Terry said. He held a slice of cake in his hand and stared, mesmerized, as I swirled my fresh pound cake batter into the bundt pan. “I tell you what. I’m a little worried about your baking element. I think that, given you paid full price for a service call today, I oughta come back tomorrow, no additional charge, and recheck it when
the oven’s cool. If you’re going to win this blue ribbon, you need a perfectly calibrated oven.”

“I certainly do,” I agreed. He just wanted to be fed cake, but I was happy to give it to him to have my own personal electrician keeping my oven properly calibrated. “You come back tomorrow whenever you can stop by. I’ll have a fresh pound cake by that time, and I’ll hold off on making the next one until after you’ve rechecked the temperature.”

“That little old pound cake you had today was the best I’ve ever eaten,” he said, looking again at the cake plate on the table.

“I hope this one is going to be good, too. Let me pop it in the oven.” I
maneuvered the bundt pan into the center of the oven, closed the door, and dusted the flour off my hands onto my jeans. Then I turned to the pantry and grabbed a box of Ziploc bags. “Why don’t you take a slice of cake with you?” I said over my shoulder. “I need to clear off the cake plate for the new one, anyway.”

To be continued.

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“You’ve got an enormous black smudge on your nose,” Richard said. He lives next door, and I had stopped at his house on my way home from the library because I couldn’t wait to tell someone my idea.

“Good,” I said. “That means I have probably absorbed some of the state fair entry regulations and procedures into my pores. Guess what? I’m going to win a blue ribbon at the fair for my pound cake!”

My success in business, as rapid and amazing as it was, never kept me from doing other things I enjoyed, like playing cello, running in Cherokee Park, and baking. So when I saw that the state fair had a category for all-butter pound cake, I knew I’d found my project.

I waved the state fair regulations at Richard. “Best in Show! That’s what I want to win. If I win Best in Show, not only do I get a blue ribbon, I also get a gilt-edged, covered crystal cake plate. And it has the state seal engraved on it. What do you think about that?”

 “I can take or leave the state seal,” he said, “but I do love your pound cake.”

“Well, can I come in and sit down? I want to discuss this thoroughly. Do you have any coffee?”

“I guess I can brew some,” Richard said dubiously. “Sure, come on in. Ignore the mess.”

He was being silly. Richard’s house is very feng shui and he puts both Helen and me to shame with his standards of cleanliness and order, which he apparently learned before he retired from the Navy. Richard and I have a pact: if we haven’t remarried by the time we’re old and feeble, we’ll move into one house and take care of each other.

While Richard prepared coffee, I sat at his antique pine table and considered my pound cake repertoire. “I’ve got four or five different recipes that are all quite good. First, there’s Five-Flavor Pound Cake. That one has—surprise, surprise—five different flavorings added to it.”

Richard reached into the cabinet for two coffee cups, then said, “That sounds like too many flavors. Doesn’t it end up tasting…. brown? Like you mixed too many colors together?”

“No,  I would describe it as complex. The recipe calls for vanilla, rum, butter, coconut, and lemon. I use vanilla, almond, rum, coconut, and lemon. It’s pound cake for grown-ups. Then there’s one called Perfect Pound Cake, but I don’t remember it very well, so I’m wondering how perfect it could be. I’ll have to make it again just to see. I wouldn’t want to miss out on making the best one because my memory failed me. Then there’s your particular favorite—pound cake loaf.”

“Well, that’s the one,” Richard said. “That is a fabulous pound cake.”

“I know, but here’s the thing: It nearly always comes out of the pan ugly, and sometimes it comes out in two pieces. That’s why I usually give half to you every time I make it. I’m not sure I can count on it. And since I’m not absolutely certain that it does taste that much better than the others, I don’t want to settle on it without some testing.”

“I’m all for testing,” Richard said. “What else?”

“Chocolate pound cake. I’ve never been a huge fan, but there are a lot of people out there who love it, and three of them may be judging the cakes at the fair this year. Finally—and this one is a serious contender, Richard—there’s Heavenly Pound Cake. It has a heavenly texture, and a pretty darn heavenly taste. It comes out of the pan beautifully—most of the time—and it calls for an entire box of powdered sugar.”

“Makes my teeth ache to think of it,” Richard said. “OK, so make one of each, and I’ll be your tester. You should start right away, and then you can perfect the one you decide to submit to the fair. Make one a day for the next several days, and let’s see how they turn out.”

“All right,” I said briskly. “Let me borrow a piece of paper and a pen. I’m going to make a list, and get all the flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and milk I’ll need. Plus cocoa, flavorings, shortening, and maybe some bananas.”

“You’re going to make a banana pound cake?” Richard asked hopefully.

“No, I need them after I run.”

“You aren’t going to have time to run!” he said. “You need to be in the kitchen, perfecting your pound cake.” He handed me a cup of coffee, and fetched the cream. “You’re going to win Best in Show, remember? Keep your eye on the prize.”

To be continued.

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Following is a piece of fiction in probably 7 parts; an earlier version was published in Fiction Fix Vol. 5.

I woke up the morning of my birthday feeling as if something had fluttered loose inside me. I wanted to pin it down, catch it, figure it out. I read once that the hunger for something, the pursuit of a thing that we imagine can make us whole, comes from our awareness that we are, in fact, incomplete. I woke up feeling incomplete.

This was not expected, because I had already accomplished most of what I wanted to achieve in my life. I had graduated with a degree in business, married, divorced, launched my own company, sold it at a tremendous profit, and no longer had to work. I had traveled, spent long, pleasant hours in the company of friends and family, and bought a lot of silly presents for my niece and nephews. I dated when I felt like it, but wasn’t anxious for a long-term relationship that might cause ripples in the pond of my peaceful life. It felt good to have everything settled and serene, but here—suddenly— was this feeling of needing something more.

I described the feeling to Helen and Jack over dinner that night. Helen and I have been friends since high school, and Jack seems as if he’s been around forever. He and Helen married young.

“I think I need a project,” I said.

Helen and Jack thought about this. They have neither children nor nieces and nephews, so Helen often relieves her maternal feelings by mothering me, which works out well as far as I’m concerned.

“Why don’t you take a class?” Jack suggested.

Helen said, “That’s a great idea, Tremain. You could take a foreign language, or sewing. Or you know what? They have memoir-writing classes at the high school as part of the community education program. You should definitely write a memoir.”

Now that got my attention. “Yeah! I’ll write a memoir. When are the classes?”

“Oh, you know what? I think they start in September. You can get a schedule at the library and find out. Can you wait a month to start your project?”

“Sure. I’ll go pick up a schedule and see what else they’ve got going on, too. This is great, you guys! I’ll get all proficient at something, and fill my time and learn to do new things and write a memoir. Hurrah!”

I went to the library the next day, and learned that the fall schedule for community education courses wasn’t available. “There may be a spring schedule left over somewhere,” the reference librarian told me. She pointed toward the section of the library where they kept copies of tax forms and lots of community service information. 

I thanked her, and went looking. There were lots of publications available on newsprint, and they had all gotten kind of scrambled up together. I tidied up, stacking the women’s health publication on one side, and the car trader paper on another. Maybe my project could be to volunteer at the library, and keep things neat. Then I noticed a fresh stack of papers on one shelf with the screaming headline, “STATE FAIR ENTRY REGULATIONS AND PROCEDURES.”

To be continued.

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