This is the first part of a two-part story. Read the conclusion here. Copyright is held by the author.
IT’S RAINING now and puddles on Route 13 shoot out from under tires of speeding cars in long streaks — these streaks catch the glow of following cars’ headlamps, making them as luminous as a blazing comet’s tails. There is the heartbeat of the wipers thumping against windshield edges. A horn blares, breaking through the static from the raindrops revving through tire treads. All this Kathryn sees as she stares out the bakery window. Still shaking, she sits alone at a small, round table for two, not far from the bakery display case, where a young woman (whose back is to her) is cleaning the glass. There’s something vaguely familiar about the form. Kathryn has lost track of how long she’s been sitting there. Outside, the world moves so fast.
A tower of empty bakery boxes topples from the countertop. Kathryn watches as a woman, wearing a chocolate-brown uniform with pink trim, scrambles to file the boxes like books on a shelf. The woman doesn’t seem to notice Kathryn. She pays her no mind, even when she retrieves a tray from the trestle and walks right by Kathryn’s table. The last time Kathryn was here was with her father, picking up a birthday cake and coming home with a half-dozen eclairs too. She wants to recapture the sweetness, and yet looking around at the black-and-white checkerboard floor, the place feels foreign. The strangeness surprises her. Saccharine smells seep into her nose. The cases of biscotti and cupcakes with snow-white icing leave her cold, as if hollow nothingness is all that’s buried in their shredded coconut.
CeeCee reads the instructions to clean bakery display cases. She can only recall two steps at a time before needing to look at the sheet again. “‘Hold Windex bottle six inches from glass. Spray front of doughnut case.’ Six inches is how much?”
“Don’t worry it doesn’t have to be so precise. Just a little away from the glass. Like this.” Ms. Desoto the manager sprays the glass.
CeeCee clutches the Windex bottle and approaches the doughnut case, whispering to herself, “Spray front.” She pulls the trigger. Electric blue liquid sprinkles the glass. On her way back to the bulletin board to check the next step, she walks past a sad-looking woman at one of the café tables — she’d been there almost an hour, since the beginning of CeeCee’s shift — maybe she’s waiting for a friend. People did that sometimes. Still, there is something about the woman that bothers CeeCee.
Kathryn climbed into her old Nissan Sentra thinking, if they see me pull up in this piece of crap, they’d realize how much I need this job and hire me on the spot. She turned the key in the ignition. The car coughed like a Himalayan hacking up a fur ball.
She gritted her teeth. “Not now. Come on.”
The voice of Kathryn’s Dad startled her. She’d tried to conjure it to soothe her last week, but it was nowhere, lost. However, she heard him now, the baritone. Clear as day, he said, “Don’t flood the engine.” She clung to the words, trying to trap them inside her head. “Careful,” Kathryn’s Dad said.
She sat back and fingered her angry bird keychain collection while she let the engine rest for a moment. She’d started that collection back in high school. She used to give key chains to the little buddies as incentive to listen. Kathryn took a deep breath and turned the key. The car released another engine-gag then, vroom.
Kathryn thumped the dashboard. “Thanks, Dad.”
She listened for a response, but no Dad, only the DJ’s voice blaring above the revving engine. “Two-at-two-for-Tuesday. That’s two songs by the same artist, back to back for the whole two o’clock hour. It’s two on the dot, so here goes.”
“Two o’clock? So much for being early for my interview.” The DJ started playing some weird remix of old fart music interspersed with rap. As if.
Once Kathryn reached the traffic light at the end of Maple Avenue, she tuned out the music and rehearsed answers to interview questions. You know the ones. The obscure, if you were a fruit what kind would you be, questions. Kathryn still had no clue what to do if they asked her for references from Tower Records, Blockbuster, or Borders. Really, how many businesses could a minimum wage cashier like her drive into the ground? Seriously, at the interview, she feared she might blurt, “Hire me and I give this company about a year before it tanks.”
Kathryn was fretting as she drove along parallel-parked, car-lined streets, when she stopped for the third traffic signal in a row. Sweat plastered her blouse to her upper arms. She turned up the air and leaned toward the vent. “Great. That’s all I need.”
She rolled down the window to let in more air. A lawn mower blared like a 90-decibel cicada buzz, drowning out the radio. Flecks of grass dust blew in. The tiny hairs inside her nostrils vibrated, rebelling against her nasal passages. The instant she crinkled her nose, she saw it. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the calico fluff ball leap from the hood of a parked car to the curb.
She eased up on the accelerator. The cat padded off of the curb. Doesn’t she look for traffic? Kathryn lifted her foot, intending to slam on the brakes. Achoo, Achoo, Achoo! A triple sneeze forced her eyes shut and jerked her body. Her foot landed on the accelerator. When she opened her eyes, the cat was already under the front tire. At the thud, Kathryn threw up in her mouth, choked down the taste of bile and coffee, and pulled over.
The lawnmower still growled and spit out mulched clippings. Kathryn thought about a cartoon she had seen as a kid about a cat with nine lives. Each disastrous, calamitous death resulted in a numbered furry-ghost-with-angel-wings playing the harp and flying to the clouds, as the body of the cat revived and carried on. Kathryn stepped out of the car, holding her breath. She couldn’t bring herself to look at the cat. When she turned away, she spotted the neon sign for a bakery up the road.
Peggy reached into the bag of curly fries on the passenger seat and shoved a handful into her mouth. She hoped the crispy, greasy goodness would lubricate her thoughts. She had no idea how to manage Kathryn’s predicament. Jack would have known exactly what to do. She had always leaned on him for big parenting challenges like removing training wheels, enforcing the no dessert before you finish your green beans rule, grounding her for a missed curfew. They used to joke that only one of them was allowed to lose their cool at a time. If someone kept a level head, they couldn’t inflict too much psychological damage on their daughter. But alone — with no Jack to lean on — she’d need to restrain her anger and hand out advice in measured dosages.
She sucked on a straw, drinking in the thick milkshake. The icy chocolate rolled like a mudslide down her throat and heaped in her gut. The grief should have been easier for Kathryn, away at school in a new environment. Not like it had been for Peggy, who remained in their home where the beer mug with Jack’s name on it taunted her from the kitchen cupboard. The crushed red pepper shaker he used to spice up his pepperoni and mushroom pizza stared at her from the spice rack. The reminders tortured her from every corner of the home. One morning, in the bathroom, she noticed his shaving cream on the vanity and spent an hour squirting dollops of foam onto her fingers and sobbing as she imagined, of all things, the streaks of lather on her nose or her cheek when he’d paused his morning-shave to kiss her. She wandered around, shuffling her bare feet through the wall-to-wall carpet. Last night, she headed to Jack’s side of the closet with a box labeled, “Salvation Army Donations.” She drew a twill shirt to her face and inhaled the remnants of his musk — a combination of tomato with basil, coffee, and gum balls. She left the clothes hanging in the closet and threw the empty box into recycling. Now, in the car, she wadded up the fast food wrappers and tossed them into the back seat.
CeeCee points a finger under each word as she reads aloud. “‘Three, use paper towel to work in a circular motion, clean glass, making sure to cover entire surface.’” CeeCee thinks for a moment and then taps the manager on the shoulder. “Um, if I cover the ‘tire surface with paper towels, how can we see the powdered doughnuts and the other doughnuts?”
“CeeCee, watch me. Here is what you need to do. Spray.” She sprays the glass front of the donut case with Windex. “Towel.” She tears a paper towel from the roll and holds it up. “Wipe.” She takes the paper towel and scrubs the glass in big circles all over until the whole display sparkles.
That glass is so crystal clear that if it weren’t for the sticker on the front, CeeCee bets someone might try to reach right through it to grab a doughnut, especially the ones with rainbow sprinkles. They are the prettiest.
The Manager continues, “When you’re done, throw the paper towel in the trash can.” CeeCee’s eyes follow the paper towel from Ms. Desoto’s fingers to the trash can as if it were a sing-along bouncing ball. “Now you try it with the cookie and muffin case. Can you do that?”
“Yes, Mister Soto. No problem.” As usual, when saying the manager’s name, CeeCee stifles the urge to ask why she is a mister even though she is a woman. CeeCee heads to the cookie and muffin case carrying a roll of paper towels and the spray bottle past the troubled woman parked at the café table. “Spray.” She pulls the trigger. “Towel.” She unfurls a long banner of white paper towels, crumples it in her fist, and steps in front of a family standing in front of the case – a tall man with a baby harnessed to his chest and a tiny girl holding his hand. “Wipe.” She scrubs the glass front of the case.
“One more thing, CeeCee. While cleaning, be aware of customers. Stop working and move aside if a customer needs to look in the case.”
CeeCee is repeating “Spray, Towel, Wipe. Spray, Towel, Wipe,” under her breath, so she doesn’t hear the last instruction.
Her mother’s voice circled her as Kathryn dug through her purse for the car keys. “Give yourself extra time. Be on the early side. Make a good first impression.” Wadded up tissues, wallet, a choco-peanut bar, an unwrapped peppermint with lint stuck to it. No keys. Couldn’t she hang on to anything? How could she find her keys? There was too much noise from her mother who lectured Kathryn on the length of her blue interview skirt, forced her to remove the eyebrow ring, and polished her pumps so shiny Kathryn could use them as a mirror to touch up her lipstick.
Kathryn was listening — She was! It’s just that she was asked to leave college after her first semester. Even though she’d failed to show up for most of her classes, ironically, the expulsion resulted from the only assignment she handed-in all semester — a Western Civilizations essay on “Black Death in the Middle Ages,” copied from the Internet. Kathryn hated the way her mother’s eyes got shiny and her lip quivered as she drove the miles between school and home. The entire ride Kathryn sat in the passenger seat waiting as her mother steered in silent shame. If her father were still alive, he would have exploded for sure, his anger bursting out in barks of “idiot” and “how you could be so irresponsible?” The “idiot” part would have made her heart sting like a hornet. But then it would be done with. The air cleared. It would have ended with her tearful apology, a hug from him, and sooner or later a conversation about options for what she thought she might do next. Her mother’s frustration leaked out in small doses, seeping into endless lectures, leaking out as clenched jaw and curled lip that enhanced the disappointed undertones. Kathryn actually longed for the silent treatment from her mother. Instead, she was stuck here, catching snippets of a diatribe. “. . . Job applications at the mall . . . charge you rent . . . responsibility.”
Kathryn’s mother had taken to wearing her husband’s wedding ring on a necklace, a section of the chain hidden in a crevice. Had this nag with the hippo neck eaten her sweet, bird-like mother? Where was the mother who used to take Kathryn to feed the ducks at Kilmer Pond? Where was the mother who saved the gum balls from Kathryn’s bubble gum ice cream, keeping them safe-in-her-purse for after-cone chewing?
Kathryn wanted to make her mother proud — she did! It was just really hard to focus when not only did she flunk out, but also after she left school, Kathryn’s roommate Pam replaced her with Kathryn’s boyfriend. The way Pam filled Kathryn’s vacancy so easily shoved pleasing Mom to the corner of Kathryn’s heart.
It wasn’t as though Kathryn didn’t appreciate the sentiment, but she’s no idiot. Honestly, most of the stuff Kathryn’s mother laid on her was so frigging obvious. For example, she poked at Kathryn’s jacket sleeve. “Go over that with a lint roller.”
Really, did Kathryn look like the kind of person who would show up for a job interview with dust-bunnies all over her clothes?
But then, her mother opened the cabinet above the kitchen desk, retrieving car keys from a hook. “Here.”
The vise gripping Kathryn’s temples loosened as she reached for the keys and forced out a “Thanks.” But when their fingers and glances met, her mother narrowed one eye, hinting at Kathryn’s inability to handle even the smallest responsibility. The relief at locating the keys gave way to the thumb of self-loathing that re-tightened the vise screw.
The iron hissed as Marion ran it over the blue gabardine she found wadded up on the floor of CeeCee’s closet. She slid the iron, pressing hard. She thought this stuff was supposed to be wrinkle-resistant. Why didn’t CeeCee just leave her gown hanging up after last year’s graduation? Every year it was the same thing. You’d think after graduating from high school a couple times, the girl would know to hang the gown in the back of the closet for next time — not shove it to a corner under a stack of shoe boxes filled with Matchbox cars, dozens of Beanie Babies, and a nail polish collection. Marion’s hand shook.
After sixth grade, CeeCee was placed in a special class with other Down syndrome and developmentally delayed students. The first year CeeCee graduated, she joined her former grade-school classmates. Marion’s eyes followed the other students as they strutted across the stage, raring for their futures. Only, instead of seeing them in caps and gowns, Marion imagined them in college basketball uniforms and Navy service dress blues. She imagined them waving shears and hairdryers at fine salons, and sautéing vegetables while wearing tall white chef hats.
When they called CeeCee’s name Marion saw a child in a graduation costume. As CeeCee treaded across the stage, applause thundered. Only, CeeCee didn’t strut like the others. She slapped her hands onto her ears, stopped in her tracks, and grimaced out at the crowd while the principal stood, waiting, hand outstretched to greet CeeCee and present her certificate. Marion watched from the bleachers, biting her lip and pressing her toes against the ground, willing CeeCee to move forward.
Marion took her love down as she thought of CeeCee on that stage, again. A tear rolled from her cheek onto the wrinkled graduation gown fabric. She evaporated it by swiping the hot iron over it. CeeCee turned around after each commencement ceremony, while the others continued to climb, reaching for the stars.
CeeCee moves around to the left of the cookie and muffin case and sprays the glass side wall of the cabinet. As she wipes, she looks through the window, bypassing the crystalized sugarcoated pillow tops of blueberry, lemon poppy seed, and morning glory muffins, to study the café side of the bakery. The tables and chairs look different through the glass than they had through air. The sunset is lighting up the heavy clouds with her favourite shades of red and purple, only the red looks angry — too orange. CeeCee presses her nose to the glass without a care about smudging the surface she just cleaned. The sun coming in through the café window hides the sad-looking woman in shadow. However, as the sky darkens, her features become clearer. Suddenly, CeeCee knows who this woman is. Something like the foamy head of a root beer bubbles up inside her. Her face grows hot, but she refuses to look at the woman. She turns her attention back to cleaning the muffin case.
Kathryn barely moves a muscle until she looks away from the window and jumps a little when she notices CeeCee, who presses her nose against the bakery case glass and stares straight at Kathryn.
CeeCee. No way. Kathryn can’t believe it. CeeCee looks exactly the same as she had at graduation, that thrusting tongue, that open-mouthed expression. Her glasses still rest on the tip of her pug nose. Kathryn liked CeeCee; not everyone had. She would finally pick herself up and leave the bakery, or at least turn away, but the deep stirring of something like compassion seizes her.
When Kathryn lowers her chin to meet CeeCee’s gaze, CeeCee hesitates for a moment, steps out from behind the glass case, and smiles right at Kathryn.
“It’s CeeCee. ‘Member me?”
Kathryn gives a little wave and a weak smile.
“You gonna invite me to have cookies with you?”
Kathryn feels a cramp in her toe. She starts to frown. “No, I was just about to —”
But CeeCee has already joined her at the tiny table — a chunky thing, seated on the chair, stubby legs swinging to and fro, several inches off the floor. “Where you been since graduation?” CeeCee asks.
Kathryn looks toward the cash register. The man with his baby and daughter is shoving change into his pocket and reaching for his little girl’s shoulder. The little girl is licking the peak of chocolate swirly icing on a velvety cupcake as if it were an ice cream cone. She’ll soon have a fudgy mess all over her nose.
“How come you’re here?” CeeCee asks. “Why not at college? Isn’t that where you ‘upposed to be?”
“Shit,” Kathryn says quietly. “Isn’t there anyone who forgets anything?”
“Forget?” CeeCee says, puzzled. “I forget lots of stuff.”
CeeCee sits face to face with Kathryn, but Kathryn doesn’t want to look her in the eyes. The traffic is heavy and slow outside the bakery window. She lets her hair fall in her face, like a shield against CeeCee’s gaze.