The first incision is always hasty. I'm watching Frank's skin change from pale to colorless as the blade slices through white flesh. A pearl falls to the floor, and Frank looks down at his apron. He told me yesterday to make sure the pearls would hold. I created a paste that had the consistency of crazy glue, but it grew flimsy after exposure to extreme heat. I took pictures for our brochure about two hours ago, handing them to Frank so he could hold on to his work. We added some color with an airbrush, and that's when we noticed the mismatched eyes. One blue eye rested slightly higher than the other. I knew it was only in millimeters, but there I was with gel and a scalpel. If I could just fill in the brows, it would offset the imperfection without changing the expression.
"You're gonna lose her, Maddy" Frank said. I reached down into our black toolbox, feeling around for the tool known as the number nine, but Frank calmly moved the box away with his foot My expression asked the question, but Frank just shook his head. "You don't need it, not now, not anymore."
I nodded and remembered as he handed me the airbrush instead. I added depth to her brows in short slight strokes. My wrist carried the motion from base to tip. Still, I wanted this to be my first time with the number nine. Frank’s the only one who has ever used it. Most people have never even seen it. It's a shape shifter, an interlocking system of five point blades, tips, and brushes with a slippery trigger. It definitely delivers. I've seen what it can do, something even closer than a photograph.
Frank was right. I really didn't need the number nine after all. I stared at my canvas. She could have posed for a portrait, every hair placed at a natural angle and groomed to a fashionable length. Her expression was the color of the ideal commonly called "good natured." Frank called out the minute and second.
There's a nine-minute window before gravity takes over, before I have to empty the contents of an aerosol can, dousing the art and freezing that which would naturally fall, sag, or drop. It's been four minutes and I could have stopped there, but I added eyelashes that tapered into sharp tips and waited ten seconds for the gel to stabilize. It worked. The gel hardened on top, resisting pressure to sink into the creases. The extra depth however called for more prominent cheekbones.
I hear footsteps and know that Frank is pacing the short hallway. "There's no time for that kind of architecture. You buttered that bread, now lie in it."
He was nervous, not that it affected his speech. He always confused expressions. I angled the airbrush and pulled the trigger. The blast could have caused a two-inch tear. It could have been the wrong tool and the wrong decision.
But it wasn't and now, we're ready.
As I was stood there fascinated by Frank’s colorless complexion, the guest gathered under the archway. Manicured hands tried to conceal the sharp intake of air that creates a gasp and without any instruction the adults approached her only in single file. The suited and the pencil-skirted, for once in unison and speechless before our finished product. Some were in tears, a fact that was not surprising, but a weak indicator of reaction. This was the reason for Frank’s roll call of emotions. He stood watching on the front line, all emotions ready for action. I watched the crowd as well and tried to look for some kind of signal. The only thing we knew in those first few moments was that our work had made an impact, but people cry at despair as well as despair’s polar opposite and sometimes everything in between. Relief and peace were also possibilities, not that they canceled joy or pain, but overshadowed both of them as an acceptable middle ground.
In our line of work middle ground is stability and far from inertia.
I clutch Frank’s hand as we free fall. We see tissue. A sniff. A cough. Stillness. The mother drifts away from the moment, simultaneously blotting mascara and tightening her smile. In the time it took for Frank to clench his jaw she was brimming before me.
“This is exactly what she would want,” she said.
Our hands fall apart. Frank exhales, and speaks in that clipped manner that almost hides his accent.
“A loved one’s wish, that’s our mission.”
In this kind of interlude, Frank makes himself available in small doses. He prunes what he says before he says it so that everything sounds like an ad in a glossy brochure. He prefers, of course, that they speak to me. I handle both ceremony and business in the same shade of conversational speech.
He was a technical builder while I was public relations. This was our business. This was our marriage. I can’t tell her this so I just smile and wait for her next rush of words. I maintain the smile even though the mother’s words fall like granite.
“Does your company provide the knife?”
I decide to answer her, sparing Frank the indecent moment.
"Yes, of course," I say and place a steel blade in her open palm. The handle had safety grips. Anyone could hold it and look like an expert. I didn't know if she'd start with the shoulder or the sternum. And with that, she turned on her heels and walked back to the cluster of guests. She paused mid step and turned back, addressing both of us from the pit of recognition.
Her hand floated up before her nails grazed her lips.
"I hate to have to do this.I mean, the skill that . . .
She swallowed the end of that thought. They usually do, but not before realizing the finality of their next action. I've seen it before, like a collision that happens in the forgiving motion of water. It's the end that they've seen the entire time, a logical progression in sequence. Observed, but nonetheless, ignored.
The mother regained composure and with a cool nod, smiled with something resembling gratitude before saying, " It really is a beautiful cake."
Frank had gone through a lot to get this gig. His eyes lit up when I finally told him, "It's a girl." The Donavan's had planned their child's seventh birthday party for two straight months. They called her Katie, but her name was Katheryn, a spelling monument to non-tradition, an added risk to sugary letters on top of a cake. A name to get wrong more times than right.
Luckily, we never needed to spell the child's name. Frank considered that only a minor issue, though. In the dying art of custom confection, there are other risks to consider. The Donavan's had requested a cake created in the likeness of their only child. They wanted, of course, to surprise her. They supplied a photo of Katie dressed in pink and springtime green and told us it was her favorite dress. They were well equipped with details because they had just come from Girl Scout Gaudy, a bakery on the south side of town that specialized in custom creations. They were popular with troops 5 and 11 and specialized in renegade icing techniques. Very post modern. Even their green sign had a recklessly granulated texture that beckoned to the only kind of clients they accepted. I heard stories of fathers, of mothers, who begged the owner to build a cake for their little boy. All of them, turned away. Confection and perfection, but for girls only. It was their one and only specialty. That night, while I sketched a model of a six-foot cake, Frank went for a little drive.
He met with Gaudy's owner, an olive-skinned man by the name of Callowin. Frank knew Callowin more as a machine than a person, remembering stories of the man that spent years perfecting an edible red dye that would never stain porous surfaces, such as teeth.
Callowin's persistence paid off, even though experimentation left his own teeth permanently stained in unavoidable crimson.
Frank only nodded to Callowin's red grin before sitting on the edge of a chair. He could, after all, choose to never show his teeth. The fact that he did was an obvious threat, but Frank came prepared.
Saying nothing at all, he removed a small metallic object from his coat pocket. The three men behind Callowin's chair moved quickly, but Frank had already placed the item on the table and quickly stepped back. Callowin’s voice was just as bold as his teeth.
“Is that what I think it is?”
Frank crossed his arms. Stainless steel tips. Changeable edges. Freshly cut, the grooves were multi-functional by a small dial on the side, making any confectionary edge, shape, or design instantly simplified. It was the bastard that bakers know as the number nine. No one ever says its name out loud. This device had no numbers or markings of any kind. The tip for frosting still had remnants of metal shavings around the edges, scars from an assembly normally associated with the creation of firearms.
Frank returned without the tool and without any further rivalry from Callowin's bakery. I blinked in disbelief when Frank told me that Callowin himself gave the order, calling the Donavan's to give them the news: Girl Scout Gaudy could not be considered for their daughter's birthday due to a recently remembered and decidedly large custom order that was already in progress.
Even with Callowin out of our way, the structure of the cake still presented its own contradictions. It wasn't the height. We did eight or nine feet cakes all the time, but they were wedding cakes with the classic Victorian layers that were structurally sound. This project however required yellow cake. It was ordinary substance that everyone was familiar with, stealing its place in childhood photos that burned five, six, or seven candles. Even baked and cooled, it was far less dense than wedding cake, and therefore temperamental. I looked down at the photo of Katie. Her dress was breezy, and that was some sort of safety net. The bare yellow bones were solidified with heat, three hundred plus degrees to form connective bonds. Once it cools, it will reveal a detail that was not in the photo. It was a decision that I had to make, a precaution that followed through, masquerading as a light breeze that added a billowy effect to her dress. The extra depth would create a suitable base for frosted features that would, without a doubt, add weight to any type of curve or angle. The parents wouldn't mind a breeze that could have been. I glanced back at the photo of the pretty little girl and smiled. I know what Frank needs to create. Still photos have the unfortunate effect of stillness, but this is the shape of a happy childhood. This is the sum of summer.
I inhale the scent of sugar and heat and try to translate Katie's features. Our subject has key colors that will need to speak in the language of sweet flavor, new dresses, or a favorite doll. I graph our options before Frank's workday even begins. His job was more technique than process, and highly cosmetic. Frank walked into the room, silent, as if his baby were sleeping. He peered into the oven and flashed thumbs up. He sat down next to me and said he's trying to get a song out of his head. It's bad luck to sing while a cake is baking, and Frank won't even allow his mind to sing, no matter how silent the song. We whispered instead, safe in baking time.
"Her features are so fine," I breathe.
"Thin as lemon glaze," he says. His nostrils flare and he asks, "What is that delicious perfume you're wearing?"
"Vanilla. Your favorite."
He would sleep the rest of the day and start early in the morning. The frosting and paste could take hours, his hands in a painful slow dance with consistency. Scalloped edges come from wrists that guide the tip, while roses required the extension of fingers lifting at precise angles. Almond paste is rolled for any sort of piping, stacked by hand and coated with clear icing to seal the design.
It was just last night that I spoke to the Donavans. We met at a badly lit diner in the club district. They were still in their work clothes and looked nervous as the lights flickered. I chose a booth in the far corner. A shadow loomed over us and we all looked up at the grease stained waiter. His left arm was in a cast and his eyes seemed to float in mid air.
"What you want?"
"Just bring us some water, Mac," I say before the Donavans even find their voices. This type of custom design required a deposit. I went through my entire speech even though they didn't object or even hesitate. They handed over cash, our only accepted form of payment, and nodded to my statements.
They were not really buying a cake for their child's birthday; they were buying a memory of mommy and daddy. For the right price, I could ensure that the memory was pure, and literally sugar coated. I scribbled notes as soon as I got home. While I was grateful that Katie's hair was already the color of caramel, her eyes were not the sky blue variety. In fact, they were an intimidating glass cleaner blue. Her skin color cooperated nicely though, since it was easily expressed in vanilla diluted with bitter almond. Two drops of red food coloring produced a color commonly referred to as flesh. Frank wanted to place flowers in her hand probably because he wanted to show off. He did, after all, spend six days behind closed doors, speaking to himself in these deranged pep talks. He came out afterward knowing how petals and ivy would look if they were ever granulated. The big show off would need to use primary colors this time. I prepped the shades with names like red 40 and blue 1, setting them in order on the counter. I knew how sensitive Frank was to color, and I knew he would be missing a chance to use a group of pastels, known as figments. Their colors changed and faded based on the light. Look once and you'll see something that resembles white. Look again and you'll see a subtle shade of melted pink. They were striking, but those colors are too time consuming to mix. I can't fixate on formula right now. He would have to create flowers with primary colors, just this once. Next week, I'll quantify the soft figments until some sort of formula emerges.
The next morning, I'm standing in our doorway watching those hidden moments when artists are still in love with their subjects. Frank hesitates with tools even though control comes from his hands. He steps back and gages his progress. His head tilts and he curses his own sense of time that is rarely on time. He says that this is work, but I'm not buying it. There are too many soft smiles for a man of Frank's age. I hear him as he finishes the contours "There’s the look of an angel," he says. He's finished, and Frank puts this to bed. He motions that it’s time for me to take over and leaves the room.
The flour spills on the floor as if someone were dusting for fingerprints. Frank's escape leaves blades on marble slabs and twisted wire behind the cabinet doors. I take Polaroid’s before I prep the gurney. The van is running and it will be seventeen minutes before the temperature is precise. Frank and I converted what used to be a van into a moving refrigerator. Kids follow us sometimes because we have to drive so slowly. They think we have ice cream, and wonder why we don't stop.
At the event, a little boy recovers the fallen pearl before he attempts to swallow it. His mother wrestles with him, but it’s gone. She scurries over to where Frank and I are standing. I let her ask the question even though I know it. I tell her that it's candy, and completely safe. Everything on the cake is fit for human consumption. A woman drifts by and compliments Frank on petal shaped frosting, and it's then that I think to ask Frank the obvious question of his attendance. He does this all the time, arriving at each event in a separate car with tinted windows.
Frank just stands and waits in the indiscretion of ceremony. Our guests are gathered around the cake and they don't notice anything outside the celebration. They start slicing and Frank holds his breath. He could leave at any time, but he just stares as they hack away at the dress, and the hair, before rationing out the candy eyes. Children grab fistfuls of icing and the whole thing comes away piece by piece, fragmented by common things like plates and forks. The taste will be momentary at best, before leaving another type of hunger. I want to tell Frank that there's a reason they call them consumers, but I can't look at him in this moment. Not while he stands silent, watching an autopsy that reveals absolutely nothing. Look once and you'll see the likeness of a little girl, look again and you’ll see nothing at all. The pictures of the cake will be in a book that he will never see. I'll tell him to disassociate. Pretend to be pretentious. This will always happen. They will always cut the cake, Frank, so close your eyes as they blow out the candles, and next time, make another wish.
Edible Red by Kara Bright Kilgore copyright 2008