“Rita, I’m sorry to call you so late, but you’re the only person I knew I could phone who would answer this time of night,” my neighbor Alice says to my one-word question of hello?
“It’s okay. I’m definitely up. I’m waiting for a pie I just made to bring to work tomorrow to finish cooking. What’s wrong?” I ask her.
“I have to leave town, family emergency, and I need someone to take care of Jackson while I’m gone. Can you help me?” she asks.
Jackson is Alice’s 13-year-old cat who will snuggle into your lap for a nap but will alternately bite you if he doesn’t like the way you’ve scratched him behind the ears. He is easily overstimulated which makes for an unpredictable blend of furry crankiness and overt affection rolled into one four-legged, stubbed tail feline.
“Okay,” I say, trying to sound helpful instead of the railroaded, obligatory reluctance I’m feeling.
“I’ll leave my key under your mat when I leave tonight, I should only be gone a week or two,” Alice offers. “I really appreciate this Rita.”
The next morning as promised Alice’s key stares at me when I lift the edge of my entry mat.
“Okay Jackson,” I say in greeting as I enter her apartment.
Jackson appears looking sleepy, roused from a cat nap. He stretches and yawns.
“I suppose you are hungry,” I say to the cat as I begin to look over some meal frequency and cat box instructions Alice has scribbled onto a used envelope for me.
“Says here you get a half cup of dry and a half can of wet food,” I tell Jackson.
Alice has left out several bowls, measuring cups, and lids. I give Jackson some dry kibble and then open a can of wet and put the food before the hungry cat.
“What have we here?” I say to nobody in particular as I open her fridge to put away the rest of the wet cat food. There on the shelf rests a fully intact chocolate cake. Not a single morsel missing and this cake looks out-of-this-world heavenly with three layers of gateau topped with crescent shaped waves of rich, deep dark frosting. I’m tempted to cut a slice right then and there to sample, the cake sending out a frequency of seductive dopamine vibrations. But then, something occurs to me. What if I bring this cake to work today for our annual late-summer dessert bake-off instead of the lumpy looking pie I attempted to bake last night?
I decide that this is an excellent idea. Alice wouldn’t want this lovely cake to go to waste, now would she? She said she may not be back for weeks. And no one will be the wiser at work. So, I take the cake.
My boss Rick, and secretaries Bobbie and Karen are to be the official judges again of this year’s bake-off contest. Pleasing Rick who has an appetite for a daily morning danish with his coffee will be a breeze, if its sweet, he’ll like it. End of story. But Bobbie and Karen are more discerning. I once watched Karen pass over giving first place to a perfectly deserving coconut cream pie because she felt that the coconut shreds weren’t toasted to the proper color of toast. Can you imagine?
This year there are entries from at least a third of the employees, somewhere in the neighborhood of forty-five desserts, all lined up in our staff lounge. There are cookies, cookie-bars, pies, and cakes, all vying to be numero uno. The lucky winner will receive a $100 gift certificate to Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and a reserved parking place by the office front door for a year. The competition doesn’t look too stiff in Rita’s estimation.
Rick, Bobbie and Karen start with the cookies, each takes a nibble, chews, smacks, savors and swallows. They then go to their clipboards of notes and tallies and annotate their rating and inscribe their thoughts next to the number corresponding to each employee’s entry—a precaution so no one can scream favoritism since the employee names are secret. Next they’re on to the cookie bars and then the pies. Taking time to thoroughly masticate and savor each morsel.
Rick appears to be in heavenly bliss, and I’m sure he’s rating each and every entry a ten. Bobbie and Karen however are more serious and discerning, with eyebrow raises, frowns, furrows, and the occasional smile crossing their faces. I feel like I’m watching a poker game, working out the grades their assigning.
Twenty minutes have passed, and they are in the final category of cakes. There are ten entries, some chocolate, some vanilla, one with god-awful neon pink frosting, and one I am sure is store-bought.
My cake, well actually Alice’s cake that they think I baked, is tasted next to last. I see Karen’s eyes light up and feel that’s a good sign. The last cake, the one with the god-awful neon pink frosting gets a quick degustation and then the trio of judges convenes to share notes. There is lots of whispering and knocking of heads and then, with some throat clearing, Rick announces that entry number 33, my number, is the winner of this year’s contest.
The crowd of employees moves in for the feeding free-for-all and as the winner I receive much praise and appreciation for such a delicious contribution.
Karen gives me a peculiar look as she slides the gift certificate and parking pass into my hands. I’ve stood in this room for the past ten years entering sweets for this contest and nothing has ever looked as good as the cake that just won.
“I have a question for you?” Karen says.
I stiffen, thinking I’m totally going to be called out in front of everybody.
“What was the secret to your cake? There was something unique in there.”
I have no idea obviously so I fumble a little and then say, “Marzipan, I used a bit of marzipan,” and pray this matches up with her palate’s observation.
She just nods and says, “Hmmm. Very unusual.” And then she walks away.
Two weeks later Alice has returned. Jackson is beside himself with stubbed tail whipping happiness to have her back. I feel the same way, giving her back her keys and kitty duty.
Alice never says anything about the cake, and I don’t bring it up.
When my birthday rolls around a few weeks later, Karen calls me up to the front of the office. I have a delivery. And there stands a smiling Alice, with an exact replica of that cake! I look at Karen and she looks at me.
“I wanted to thank you again for helping me out with Jackson and I know today is your birthday so I thought I’d bring you a cake—I seem to think you rather enjoyed the last one, eh?” Alice says winking with a laugh.
I feel my face flash red and I’m trying to figure out how to recover from the deep embarrassment I’m feeling right now from not just taking her cake, but taking credit for it.
“Oh, does that happen to have marzipan in it?” Karen asks with what I think is some indignation.
“No, it has crème de cacao a la vanilla liqueur as the secret ingredient.” Alice says.
“Ah, that makes sense,” Karen says as she turns to busy herself at her desk.
I never entered another annual late-summer dessert bake-off after that and Karen never outed me, though I knew that she knew I was famous for a stupendous gateau au chocolate that I never actually made.