Sketch No. 1: White-haired Imp as Café Mistress, Smuggling Key Lime Tart
Please, please, grab a coffee. Or whatever your beverage of choice: tea, Scotch, whatever it is, that drink you like to cradle in your hands and sip. If you were here, and I wish you were, here at my favorite table across from Café Confictura’s front counter, you’d be getting that drink on the house because first-time customers drink free (well, you’d have to bring your own Scotch, or just ask the owner nicely for a shot from her private stash). “You gotta give to get”: that’s one of Mrs. Phillipa Creaverton’s rules of business. Her rules have kept Confictura up and running for nearly forty-five years. “You gotta give to get.” It’s sort of like “you’ve got to spend money to make money,” only a little more Dale Carnegie. And Mrs. Creaverton knows her Dale Carnegie. Although, he asked her in ’67 to please stop calling him “her” Dale Carnegie because even though their friendship was entirely innocent he was concerned people might get the wrong idea.
In the more general sense, “here” is our little Applewood, Connecticut, right smack in the heart of the state. If you have occasion to come through town, don’t mind our main street, Beech Street--they’re working on fixing it up after what happened a couple Novembers ago. Maybe you saw it on the news? We netted a minute and fifty seconds on the nationals: “freak geological event.” We even made it to Canada: “mysterious orogeny.” Whatever you want to call it, it means we all woke up that November fifth to shards of asphalt heaving upward, leaving the street impassable.
Thing is, though--and this is what none of the news reports understood--it wasn’t just geological, and Beech Street wasn’t the only place affected, though it was hit the worst. Storefronts all over town were suddenly chipped, stinking of mold. You know those grassy strips between the curb and the sidewalk? Those turned dry as straw. Café Confictura was one of two businesses spared, even though it’s right on Beech Street too. The other was Ambrosia, a bakery across town. Bizzaro. But that’s Applewood’s only weird thing, I promise.
Oh, and the ghosts. I mean, we’re a small town in Connecticut. Of course we have ghosts. But ever since the “mysterious orogeny” they’ve kicked the hauntings up a few notches, from freaking out cats and knocking over Hummels to all-out Amityville. Even Mrs. Creaverton’s husband has reportedly popped up, and he’s been gone four years.
For the most part, though, Mrs. Creaverton has other things on her mind than the inevitable visits from her deader half. Her own mortality, for one. Case in point, the scene from earlier today:
Morning rush. A glut of customers at the counter, these poor folks squished together in their usual bulging glob. One part of the glob evidently bathed in lily of the valley; one part had garlic last night. It’s impossible to identify individual voices: “I’ll have a nonfat latte cruller with that order up for Anna I said nonfat can I get the small instead of Anna I’m Anne no whip? yeah that’s mine Napkins!”
Only since the quake has the glob been a glob. Before that they were Anne and Christopher and Maria. They’d stop a minute en route to their morning tea or coffee and talk to each other, debate each other. They were unique and had thoughtful things to say. Now when they come in they’re mechanical and quick, their faces brief afterimages floating, and then lost in the crowd. When they do talk, it’s like they’re in a fog, or drugged. They parrot each other. I miss their different voices. All of us who haven’t been affected wish there’s something we could do for them, especially for those who get flickers in their eyes, a moment of recognition of what’s happened to them, a moment of yearning to be who they once were.
No one knows what caused this affliction. All we know is it started the same night as the quake, and in the fourteen months since then, it’s spread.
But we go on. What else can we do?
Behind the café’s front counter, there’s a stairway heading up to Mrs. Creaverton’s apartment. This morning, on the fifth stair up was Mrs. C herself, a puffed zeppola of a woman with a dollop of white hair. On the third stair was her steadfast cashier, Violet, a living, breathing fashion sketch--angular, yet she can get her whole body to pout. Violet’s hand reached out, its demanding palm up, toward the plastic takeout box of key lime tart that Mrs. C had not very successfully hidden behind her back.
Since the two women were raised up above the crowd, I think that’s probably how I could hear them. Mrs. C said to Violet, “You know that Nessie brings tarts to every Merchants Association meeting. I took one to keep the peace. That’s what you do when--here, business lesson, write this down--that’s what you do when a shaky alliance is all that’s standing between you and catastrophe. You keep the peace. End of story.”
Mrs. Creaverton knew full well that Violet would not write that down. She never writes down Mrs. C’s lessons in café proprietorship. When it comes to committing things to memory, Violet lets her inner child hold all the pencils, and that kid’s got a single mind for couture.
“Not end of story,” said Violet. She has a French accent. She’s from Wisconsin, but she has a French accent. “Every month Nessie brings the tarts and every month you tell her, ‘No, I have a disease. I am on pills for my heart, pre-diabetes, and chronic pain associated with my diet. If I eat a tart or a cake or some other thing that lists ‘fat’ and ‘sugar’ as its first two ingredients, I might die.’ Nessie knows this.”
Mrs. C tried again: “It’s not for me. I brought it back as a surprise for you. I was just putting it upstairs for safe keeping.” She tilted her head and made her eyes twinkle. So help me, the woman can make her eyes twinkle--bright enough, mind you, for me to see it from where I sat. I glanced away instinctively. It might be a cool trick, but a little while after Mrs. C twinkles at you, your head clears and you realize she’s recruited you for doing inventory, cleaning refrigerators, or sneaking into the crooked preacher Sweeney’s penthouse to spell out “666” in ’Nilla Wafers on his kitchen table.
Violet’s no slouch; she glanced away too before the twinkle could take hold. “Nice try, old woman,” she said.
Mrs. Creaverton said, “Alfred Hitchcock once told me he’d give his chin for really good key limes. You know why? Secret to longevity. Poor guy didn’t get enough key limes. And now he’s dead.”
“Oh, come on. Hitchcock would be 117 years old.”
“He would be if he’d had more key limes.”
“Enough, now,” said Violet. She shook a ripple through her short black waterfall of hair. “Tell me what is wrong.”
“Why do you think anything’s wrong?”
“Because you took a tart. You don’t bring home a noose just to see how it looks sitting on the kitchen table.”
“You’re being overdramatic.”
“I am not,” said Violet. “Forget a moment about your health. Forget all the people who care about you who do not want to see you get a paper cut let alone get sick. Do you not see that this is exactly what Nessie wants?”
“To unload key lime tarts that, admittedly, probably contain neither limes nor anything else resembling fruit?”
“She wants Confictura.”
“All right,” said Mrs. Creaverton, “you really need to get back on the register, Vi. Denny’s fine at making bread pudding but I think he just charged seventy-three dollars for a muffin.”
Violet ignored her. “More than that, she wants the Merchants Association.”
“And so she’s planning to what? Pastry me to death so she can get me out of her way?”
Eyes down and chin stuck out, Violet dug her thumbnail into the dark wood banister. “Let’s say I were an evil queen who wanted the royal Merchants Association to pass new rules that seemed to help everyone but really just made my business richer, until I could buy up all the other businesses that are struggling since the quake. But a princess stood in the way of my plans, a princess who also owns Confictura, the only competition in town to my Ambrosia bakery. Perhaps, then, at every royal Merchants Association meeting, I would wheel in my dessert cart of deception until I wore the heroine down and convinced her that eating just one tart wouldn’t be so bad…” Slowly, she lifted her eyes. “Then all of a sudden it’s thirty tarts later, and the princess is gone, and I am free and clear to rule over all.”
Mrs. Creaverton came down a step, reached out, and delicately moved a few strands of hair from Violet’s face. “Aw, honey,” she said. “What the hell kind of freaky bedtime stories did your parents read you?”
Now within striking distance, Violet didn’t hesitate. She nabbed the takeout box. “This goes in the garbage,” she said, and started down toward the front counter. “It should feel right at home there.”
She didn’t get far before Mrs. Creaverton blurted out, “I’m dead anyway. That’s why I took the damned tart. I just thought I could enjoy a last supper.” Angry footfalls beat the remaining stairs up to her apartment.
The tart forgotten in her hand, Violet followed Mrs. C. I followed Violet.
By the way, I’m Clarissa. I’m one of the regulars at this crazy place we call Confictura. I hope you’ll be a regular too.
Sketch No. 2: Kitchen in Pockets and Chalk Dust
When the sun’s out, it beads the eaves of Confictura’s A-frame, like lemon drops on a gingerbread house. That was the view from one of the kitchen windows in Mrs. C’s apartment. She’s got the same feel going on up there as in the café, the same eclectic blend of furniture. A melting pot of lines and colors and generations, that. Tea and bistro tables of wonderfully different heights cascade through rooms down the building’s long reach. Bookshelves are as overstuffed as the armchairs. In Mrs. C’s apartment, the kitchen proper carries the café’s strong scent; the moment you walk in you’re swaddled in java and chocolate-cinnamon.
But then there are pockets, alcoves and closets and maybe even whole other rooms behind doors, just as there are downstairs. Secret pockets. I know of at least one tunnel you can get to from the café’s Fireplace Room. The walls of Mrs. C’s kitchen seem to be all pockets, and while the paint is daisy yellow, there’s chalk dust everywhere, a coating transient yet clinging, like powdered sugar. Blackboards of all sizes are propped up on shelves or on the floor, with ever-changing recipes and notes written over years of eraser swipes. The biggest board has Shopping List printed at the top.
We found Mrs. C sitting at her little round kitchen table. Violet said, “And what does this mean, you’re dead anyway?”
“I had my physical yesterday,” said Mrs. C. “Since being on the prescriptions, cutting out sugar and red meat, and switching to low-fat dairy, I have actually gained weight, my arthritis has gotten worse--which I could’ve told you, pain’s bad all the time now--and the pre-diabetes is apparently over and regular season has begun.”
Violet took a deep breath, slowly ingesting this. “All right. Then you’re not doing enough to get healthy.”
“Not enough?” yipped Mrs. C. “I’ve done everything my doctor has told me to do.”
“Which is what?” said Violet. “Stop eating red meat and junk food? That’s like telling a smoker he will avoid lung cancer by cutting back to only one pack a day.” She turned to me. “You are not wishing to back me up?”
I raised my hands. “I’m just a spectator.”
Mrs. C said, “See, this is why I was willing to settle for one of Nessie’s tarts. They may be full of chemicals, but I was pretty sure they’re better for my blood pressure than taking something from my own display case right in front of you and having to hear about it.”
“Ah…well…” I said, considering this.
“Well what?” said Mrs. C.
“You did a pretty bad job of hiding the tart for someone who didn’t want to get caught,” I said. “I mean, you kind of marched the thing right in front of Violet, I saw you.”
“Right,” said Mrs. C. “Because you’re just a spectator. Who’s suddenly feeling very chatty.”
Violet lit up. “I think, then, it is your subconscious telling you you’re ready to eighty-six the cow paste.”
“Wow,” I said. “That sounds disgusting.”
Mrs. Creaverton said, “It’s diner-speak. Cow paste is butter, technically. Eighty-six means nix it, throw it out. When Violet went all-natural health nut on me she started saying it as a euphemism for cutting out everything except, I don’t know, whatever the hell she still eats. The lawn? Life’s too short, thanks.”
“Yes, life is short,” said Violet. “So why spend what little time you have hooked to machines or lying in bed, in agony?”
“Would I rather not wake up with a foot tingling or a joint flaring up? Sure. Would I rather weigh one-thirty again? Of course. But what’s the point of living if you can’t have the things you love? A good steak. A slice of pie.”
“But this is not what you love,” said Violet, holding out the tart. “Café Confictura, your regulars, the townsfolk who hurt from what this quake has done, moi, this is what you love. Food is to keep you running, so you can be with the people you love. Food is not the object of your love. Do not say such sad things.”
“Besides,” I said, “Violet’s right about Nessie. If one of you alienates or attacks the other, the Merchants Association would be bitterly divided on everything from business regulations to the town’s reconstruction. That’d tear Applewood apart. The only thing worse is if we don’t have you around at all.”
Mrs. C looked up. I know she saw herself reflected in my eyes. Her lips moved silently, before she shook her head. “It’s too much. It’s all…too much.”
Violet said, “And when did you ever run from too much? You have never cowered away from change. Just because you fear getting older does not mean you should begin fearing everything else.”
Mrs. C banged a fist on her table, making Violet and me jump. “You’re not a shrink,” she rasped. “Contrary to what you might believe, you don’t know everything, so why don’t you just leave me the hell alone.”
Violet’s eyes widened at such a hit. A soft knock came at the door. One of the baristas announced that Nessie was downstairs, looking for Mrs. Creaverton. I’ve never known Nessie to come here before today. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one surprised.
“Nessie’s here?” said Mrs. C.
“Isn’t that a little like Russia dropping by the White House during the height of the Cold War?” I asked.
Mrs. C got up. At the door, she paused. “Look,” she said to Violet with a sigh, “how ’bout you and me play hooky next Saturday, have a little time out? We can take Manhattan. Twelve hours of Seventh Avenue and not a second less, as many stores as you want.”
Coolly, Violet said, “You should see what Nessie wants. You don’t want to keep Madame Hell Hound waiting.”
Mrs. C put her smile away. Violet stayed put. Down once more Mrs. C and I went, to see what Nessie Fyne had brought to the café’s door.
Sketch No. 3: The Three Heads of Nessie Fyne, Baring Teeth
Nessie likes to say in a joking tone that her heart is almost as big as her belly. Of course, she says a lot in joking tones. Like: “People are too sensitive these days. What am I supposed to do when I send out my Christmas cards, write in every possible holiday so I don’t offend someone? Should I write in all the holidays? ‘Merry Flag Day and a Happy New Year’?” Or, when she first met Violet: “Don’t you lose that French accent, dear. It’ll give your dates a funny story to tell their friends!” Then Nessie follows her jokes with her unfortunate smile. You know Mister Ed’s teeth when he’d “talk”? Whether Nessie is joking or serious, all eight of those incisors jump right out at you and they don’t let go.
When Mrs. C and I got downstairs, Nessie was picking through the To-Go’s: these are takeaway sheets that Mrs. C keeps in three pamphlet holders by the register. One holder is for Mrs. Creaverton’s featured recipe of the week. Then, one is for Violet, and one is for the café’s resident retired English professor, Roscoe Belesprit. Violet does fashion consulting here on her nights off; Roscoe runs a writing salon in the Riverview Room. Their To-Go’s advertise a taste of whatever they’ve covered with their clients that week. Nessie, however, apparently didn’t catch on that there were three pamphlet holders for a reason. She plucked a batch of Mrs. C’s “Yummy Nutmeg Snickerdoodles” and shoved them in front of Violet’s “Pencil Skirt with Pizzazz.”
Morning rush had calmed, the bell over the door slowing its tempo to adagio. Mrs. C said hello to Nessie, and ushered her to one of the front tables. I hung back to fix the To-Go’s and, of course, to eavesdrop.
They’d barely sat when Nessie reached into her oversized purse. “I came to bring you another tart,” she said, presenting it. “I was very happy you finally decided to try one.”
“Golly,” said Mrs. C with a laugh. “You trying to do me in, Nessie?”
And, hello, Mister Ed! “I’ll bring it to my next shift at the hospital. The children see me coming with treats and it’s all hugs and ‘Miss Fyne, we love you!’” She set the takeout box down in front of Mrs. C. “Did you like it?”
“Hmm?” said Mrs. C.
“Did you like the tart you took from the meeting this morning?”
“Oh,” said Mrs. C. “It was delicious.”
“Good, good.” Nessie leaned in. “Phil, can I admit something?”
“You know,” said Mrs. C, “that reminds me of my old friend Jimmy. He also used to forget how much I hate being called Phil. No matter how many times I told him, it just flew right out of his head.”
“Right, I’m so sorry I keep forgetting,” said Nessie. “Jimmy Bantam, over on Maple?”
“No,” said Mrs. C. “Hoffa. But he hasn’t bugged me in a while now, has he?” She laughed. Nessie did too, sort of. “You said you wanted to admit something?”
Nessie regrouped. “Well,” she said, “I wanted to say I’m happy you treated yourself today. Go on and take this tart too. I’ll be happy to bring you another tomorrow. My bakers are like machines, churning out so many goodies so quickly, I don’t know where to put them all. I’m just happy you’re letting yourself enjoy life a little.”
“I always enjoy my life,” said Mrs. C. “The food’s just there to keep me running.”
“Just do me a favor,” said Nessie, “and don’t wither away into one of these size-four monstrosities. Walking skeletons. Turns my stomach to have to look at them.”
She shoved in even closer to Mrs. C. “I think the mind starves, too, when you’re skinny,” she said, “because they actually start thinking they’re better than us normal folks. It seems they hate us. You see them plotting against us: wanting to label our food, posting nutritional information everywhere. They probably have a secret society that comes up with how to shove it in our faces all the time! But, you know, maybe it’s themselves they really hate. I mean, they’re practically anorexic. That’s psychological. Maybe they need professional help. Or at least a cheeseburger! It’s like, for God’s sake, be normal!”
I didn’t miss her glances at me. I once had some of the same health issues as Mrs. C. Then I took Violet’s advice, and I dropped forty-four pounds in the last few years. I happen to be built small so, yeah, I’m a smaller size. I get weird looks at restaurants sometimes if all I order is a black bean burger and a side of roasted veggies, even though I happen to like black bean burgers and roasted veggies. When Violet and I hang out we get smirks or the occasional “eat a sandwich.” But that doesn’t make me hate people. Makes me want to chuck a Brussels sprout at them sometimes, but I rarely ever do that. Also, I know there’s no Evil Society of Vegans and Vegetarians. I know this because if there were one I’d join just so I could put that on a business card. I almost told Nessie all this but, you know, I’m sure she was only joking.
Besides, Mrs. C had it covered.
She leaned away from Nessie’s confederate posturing. “You know my cashier, Violet?” said Mrs. C. “She’s a good girl. Looks out for me. Like with this damned disease. Doc can’t cure it. He doesn’t even have a real name for it. ‘Unspecified cardiac and endocrine affliction.’ I mean, what the hell is that? But Vi’s one of the folks I know who actually had it, and she cured herself. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but she did it, because she’s no coward. She doesn’t fear change, or a little hard work. Or, in my case, a little hardhead. I think she cares more about getting me healthy than she cared even about getting herself healthy. Now, that girl is what normal should be. Loves talking to people, helping them feel their best. Sees the good in just about everybody. Of course, she’s not one of these size fours you’re talking about.”
Nessie had been looking a little uneasy there. “Oh. Of course she’s not.”
Mrs. Creaverton glared at her. “She’s a two.”
Nessie stuttered, “I hope you know I was only joking—”
“This is a serious disease, Nessie, I take it seriously, so I’d thank you kindly not to joke about it.”
“Of…of course,” she said through her teeth.
“Okay.” Mrs. C stood and ushered her back to the door.
Mrs. C really could have left it at that. The point was made, diplomatic ties had not snapped. Alas, it seemed one way or another Mrs. C was destined to have a tart tongue today.
She said pleasantly, “And please, for my waistline’s sake, don’t bring your surplus baked goods here anymore. I’m glad your bakers make so much you hardly know what to do with it all. I always seem to sell everything we make here. But if you still find yourself needing suggestions for where to put your leftovers, I’ve got an idea or two.”
A few customers giggled. Mrs. C looked satisfied.
Nessie froze at the door. “You know, you’re right,” she said. “So often it’s those little tastes of self-indulgence that can blow up into a world of regret. ‘A moment on the lips…’ right?” She left then.
I was about to ask Mrs. C if Nessie meant by that what I thought she meant; but I put my question on pause when we noticed that her huge Shopping List chalkboard, newly erased, had grown legs clad in stylish linen and stood on the stairs.
It said in a meek, French voice: “I would like for us to call a truce.”
“Truce for what?” said Mrs. C. “I’m the one who owes you an apology.”
“Well,” said Violet, poking her head over the board and coming the rest of the way down, “I have done a thing to further--how did you say?--look out for you.”
“Oh, God,” said Mrs. C. “What did you do?”
“Before, you did not have much in your fridge and freezer,” said Violet. “Now, you do not have anything.”
“And I am purging your cupboards next, old woman. Later we shop for new, healthy things, and find new, healthy recipes you will try.”
“And you didn’t care how mad it might make me to find my entire kitchen purged?”
With a pout, Violet said, “Hate me or don’t. At least you will be alive to make the choice.”
They had a moment. Nobody rushed into a hug or anything; that’s not their bag. But they had a moment.
Violet pressed, “Come, now. This is our starting point. After that, we take it one day at a time. We do our best with whatever comes.”
Mrs. C paced around, her Violet-approved sneakers squeaking a score to her contemplation. She landed in front of the main display case, which houses all manner of sweets: cherry Danish, apple pie, apple cake, spice cake, gingerbread, tartlets, biscuits, Swiss rolls, cupcakes, cake balls, devil’s food, angel food, Blondies, brownies, cookies, doughnuts, Parkin, strudel, Bundt. Mrs. C stared at it all, and then she turned around.
“I’ll give it two months,” she said. “No meat, no junk, and whatever other rules you follow. If there’s not enough improvement by then, or if you try making me swallow even one blade of grass, I’m eating my weight in bacon.”
Violet grinned. “Oui. C’est bon.”
The three of us were halfway through making the new shopping list and we were up to our elbows in chalk dust when I remembered my question: “Did Nessie threaten you today? Just because you made a crack about where to put her leftovers?”
Mrs. C kept writing. “I think it’s more what I said than how I said it, actually. She can’t ply me with junk. If she is trying to get rid of me she’ll have to come up with another plan. And I don’t think she just threatened me…” She looked at us both.
“I think she declared war.”