Tuesday, February 2, 2010

People I meet in bars #10: Sheila


"Yeah yeah," you're saying, "you said it was the end of the story, but then you just drudge it back up again and expect us to the look the other way."

"Us?" I say, wondering who the other people are.

"Andy, there's, like, four of us that read you. Our few numbers oughta give us a louder voice."

"So what do you want me to do? Not tell the story?"

"Who the hell cares?" you say. "Write it or don't. But don't build yourself up to a big fat dramatic ending and then not follow through. Blue balls, dude. You're giving us all balls of blue."

"Empty threats don't go very far, do they."

"No, brah." You put your sunglasses on, but I'm confused, since you're indoors, presumably in front of a computer, reading this. "They don't."

"So what do you want from me? More stupid paragraphs about stupid road trips that people don't actually want to take? Or should I tell the story I was gonna tell now or what?"

"Tell the stupid story. Hope it's better than that crap about starting shit with old dudes at a funeral. Nobody really seemed to like that one."

"Yeah, thought that one was outrageous enough to make a bigger splash. Oh well," I shrug.

"No accounting for taste, dude."

And then you stop nagging me inside of my brain just long enough for me to tell you about Sheila.


"Why can't it be wedding pie?" Sheila asks me. "You show me a person who likes cake more than they like pie and I'll show you someone who needs to get punched in the face."

"What wrong with cake?" I ask. "Yeah, maybe you like pie more, but cake's pretty good, too. And pushing pie in someone's face drips a lot more. Like, cherry pie. Filling everywhere."

"Think of how many more kinds of pie there are than cake. Cake? You've got, what, white, yellow, chocolate--"

"Devil's food," I interject.

"--devil's food, poundcake, cheesecake, spongecake. I can't think of any others."

"What about, what's it called...red satin?" I suggest.

"Red satin cake's just a colorful version of white."

I suspect that she's being reductive, but Sheila works at the bakery a few blocks away, so I trust her. She's the professional.

"What are you drinking?" I ask.

"Daiquiri. Just strawberries and rum blended."

"So the problem with cake isn't that it's sweet?" I wonder.

"No, it has nothing to do with how it tastes. I like cake. I really do. But pie's just better. It's more versatile. We only eat cake at weddings because it's tradition. And why is it tradition? Because someone at the cake company decided that it should be."

"But you work at a bakery, right?" I ask. She nods. "Aren't you part of the cake company, then? The military-industrial complex of cake?"

"Yeah, but it's not some vast conspiracy, Andy. I don't think it's terribly political."

"Marie Antoinette may disagree."

Sheila's eyes hang like a pair of sleeping bats from a layer of bangs that look like she cut them herself, but in a charming way. She's wearing slim black slacks that sheath a pair of legs a little too thin for a baker. Maybe she doesn't even enjoy her own product. The rest of her physique would indicate as much; long neck, as full a figure as a 5'6", approx. 120 lb. woman could have, and a stomach whose occasional peeks from its t-shirt manage to not be even remotely offensive. In fact, they're kind of cute, like her infrequently exposed belly button's winking at you.

"You're pretty thin for someone whose like is dedicated to dessert."

"Yeah," she says. "I make a point not to use my own product. Like a crack dealer."

"Good business decision."

"It's worked out well so far." She takes a long drag from her bendy straw, which, incidentally, matches the color of her drink. I can't tell how hard she's--okay, that description is going nowhere that it needs to.

"So what's with the cake, then?" I ask. "What draws you to cake?"

"I like creation," she says. She slaps her hand to her forehead and winces. "BRAINFREEZE."

It looks painful. She closes her eyes hard enough that I wonder if they'll disappear.

"Okay, better. Jeez. Sorry about that."

"It's okay," I say. "It happens to the best of us. Go on. You stopped at 'creation.'"

"Right. Creation. So what I get to do at work every day is throw a bunch of stuff into a big bowl--I'm simplifying the process, of course--and mix it all up and put it by some fire and it turns into something delicious. These little pieces of something that have no connection to each other except that which I assign them, interplay and become familiar with each other and build relationships and become a meal for people. And not just a meal, either; if it's a wedding cake, that shit gets celebrated. People don't look at the invite and say 'Oh, the reception is from six until nine, so let's go at six thirty so we can make it for the line.' They say, 'Six to nine? They'll cut the cake at eight.' Something I made becomes the centerfold of the happiest day of someone else's life."

I pause. That actually makes...that actually makes a lot of sense.

"It actually makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?" she asks. "This verges on, if not tiptoes directly up to, blasphemy, I know, but I throw on that apron and put on my big puffy hat--"

"Wait," I interrupt, "you really wear a big chef's hat? Like in the movies?"

"Yeah, it's badass. Doesn't always stay on. Anyway, apron, big puffy hat, and I'm a god. In that kitchen, I'm the God. God. I can create, I can destroy. It's my world and I can exercise its principles as I see fit."

"What got you into cake? How'd you discover it?"

"That's less of an awesome story," she says. "Less blasphemous, too."

"Blasphemy and awesomeness are old travel buddies," I remind her. "Please tell."

"Okay." Another long draw. She's decidedly more careful about quantity this time. "Whew. Close call. Anyway. Story. Right."

"Do you not want to tell it?"

"No, it's not really that, it's just...it fits in a little too perfectly, you know? With you and these stories?"

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"I mean," she starts, "what exactly are you going to do with this?"

"I'll try to recreate it, more or less," I explain. "I'll change your name--usually to the name of a character from a Tom Waits or Morphine or Townes Van Zandt song--and try to capture whatever it seems like the 'essence' of you is, and I know that's a really pretentious bullshit thing to say," --she nods in agreement--"but it's about all I can do."

"Yeah, okay, retell the story, whatever. What's the point, though? Why do you do this?"

I've never thought about that before.

"I've never thought about that before. Maybe try to get them published."

"Like, in a book? What would you call it?" she wonders.

"Good question. People I Meet In Bars, maybe?"

Sheila frowns, crinkles her nose in disapproval, and shakes her head. "Too on the nose. But yeah, publication, devoted fans--I assume you want fans?"

"I'll take fans, sure."

"Okay, add some fans, some money, but for what? Why don't you try writing some bullshit fantasy novel? Why don't you invent something new instead of just trying to constantly recreate something that's already happened somewhere else?"

"Jeez, you ask a lot of questions." I scratch my nose to try and distract myself with how flustered I am by her interrogation. "How about we talk about my shit after we talk about cake?"

"Look, here's what happened." Sheila leans forward like she's going to tell me about a conspiracy to kill Betty Crocker. "I was engaged five years ago. We'd dated for about two weeks and got engaged on a whim."

"That's fast," I point out.

"Really? I thought it was perfectly. normal," she drips.

"You don't have to be sarcastic."

"So two weeks, six month engagement, wedding planning, everything. Two days before we're supposed to get married, I find out he's been cheating on me--and not just that, but saying some reprehensible shit about me, stuff I don't even feel comfortable repeating. And so I had to give everything back--take back the dress, the bridal shower gifts, the key to the apartment we'd signed a two-year lease on, blah blah blah. But the only thing I couldn't take back was the cake, because it was obviously custom-made, disposable, would rot in a few days, whatever."

"Makes sense."

"So I took the cake home and thought 'I'll be damned if I don't get something out of this.' So I ate a piece of that wedding cake every night for the next three months, and each piece somehow tasted better than the one before. I don't know if the frosting aged like wine or my food standards had gotten so low or what it was. But I remember looking at that cake, remembering how delicious I thought it was, and thinking, 'Yeah, I could do that.'"

"So culinary school or something?"

"Yeah," she says, taking a brief sip to hydrate her presumably dry throat. "I specialized as a pastry chef, but then just ended up doing my own thing and flunking out. Which I was fine with. I didn't want to pay tuition, and massive quantities of flour, sugar, and eggs are a lot cheaper than living in Central Park West trying to figure out what kind of cupcakes those yuppie freaks are gonna be murdering homeless people for every week."

"And then what?"

"Then I came back here, moved back with my folks, and read every cake book I could find. Made ten different cakes a day until I figured out how to do it. Got really good, got a job at the bakery, and that, as they say, is history."

"And you like your work?" I ask.

"I like it well enough, I guess," she says with an emptiness that's difficult to confuse for anything but regrettable sincerity. "I'm good at it, you know? It may not be what I want to do, but it's something I can do. I don't know what else I'd do if I didn't do this."

"Yeah, I think I understand." I volley a small piece of ice with my tongue.

"Yeah. And sometimes it's just easier to stick with what you know. Not every box that people put themselves in is a bad thing. Growth is really overrated. What was it that guy said? 'I'd be happy to trade some growth for some happiness.' Yeah, it's like that. There are enough challenges in life and I can learn lessons from lots of places. Sometimes, I just want to throw a cake in the oven and collect a paycheck."

"No shame in making a living."

Sheila pulls a twenty out of her pocket and places it on the counter, pushing it toward the bartender.

"So what are you going to name me?" she asks.


"You said you're gonna change my name to a song name, right?"

"Yeah, probably."

Sheila smiles. "How about this."

"I'm listening," I say.

"All of this talk about cake and weddings and whatever has made me sentimental. So I tell you what: if you decide to write this out, to try and turn this into some kind of narrative where people learn a lesson at the end or discover something about themselves or whatever, I want you to think of the last person you've loved with that kind of passion that makes people buy ridiculously overpriced cakes instead of a bunch of pies that everyone would rather eat."


"So then think of that person--a girl, I presume?"

"Oh, come on," I protest. "Do I put off a gay vibe?"

"You never know," she says. "Anyway, you think of that girl, and you name me after her."

"Can't do that."

"Why not?"

"Because some of them read my stuff."

"Okay, then pick a middle name. Name me after this girl's middle name."

"Can't do that, either," I admit, bracing myself for her third suggestion.

"Why not?"

"Already did it. Used a middle name already. For a person that was pretty much just her, too."

"Damn, you write too much of this shit," she says. "Okay, then just pick a Morphine song, I guess. Morphine's pretty cool."

"How about Sheila?" I ask.

"Do I look like your den mother?" she asks indignantly. "What am I, a lunchlady?"

"Maybe the dessert cart lady."

"...okay, that's a good point." She sighs and slumps her shoulders. "Fine. I'll be Sheila." She puts on her coat and checks her pockets for her wallet.

"Bus pass," she says, proudly holding up a hard plastic card with her name on it. "Don't drive drunk."

"I don't drink anymore, but I'll keep that in mind."

"Good talking to you, Andy," she says with more earnestness than I feel comfortable taking seriously. "But here's one more question."

"You've earned it," I say.

"What happened with you and whoever-with-the-middle-name?"

"I don't know," I say. "It's complicated."

"Is it really?"

"She says so."

"Do you trust her?" she asks.


"That's probably more rare than a relationship, huh? Trust like that?"

"Do you just walk around being right all the time or what?" I laugh.

"It's a baker's thing," she says. "Just make sure you do whatever it is that makes you happy. The rest is frosting."

"Do you mean 'gravy?'"

"Nope. Frosting. I don't eat turkey." She takes her first series of steps toward the door, but calls out behind her. "Wait," with a pause, "what is it that does make you happy?"

"I don't know," I say. "I really don't know anymore."

"No shame in that," she says, a small daiquiri-induced burp making its way up for air between her lips. "Just remember that your happiness is your own move. Shit gets you down, yeah, but hell, I turned being more or less left at the altar into a pretty satisfying career. I know it's probably stupid to summarize it all up like that, but three daiquiris gets me all subtextual."

"Don't they make subtextuals sit in the back of the bus?"

"Hardee damn har," she says. "Laugh it up all you want, but just know that anyone that gives up their own happiness, that casts aside what they want for something else, something less than what they were after, is someone to be suspicious of."

"That's pretty cynical."

"Maybe," she says, wrapping her scarf around her neck.

"Do you think the pain of seeing something lesser through to failure, letting something temporary run its course, do you think that that's ever a good idea?"

"Just because it's a good idea doesn't mean it's a good idea." she offers.

"That doesn't make any sense."

"I know," she sighs. She slips slender hands into a pair of black leather gloves that look like they were stolen from Jack Nicholson's valet. "I don't have time to explain it, though. I'm really, really tired and need to get some sleep." She steps out of the bar and gives me a two-fingered salute goodbye, the brisk cold slipping between the cracks and taunting my impending return to the dark of the wilderness.

And I'm tired, too. But tired is usually just a sign that the sun's about to come back up.


Ashley said...

I would never say "No, brah." Just thought you should know.

Waif13 said...

I totally support the idea of this series never ending.

I don't see myself in every story. But the ones I do is spot on. And the other ones could be the stories of my friends. Not the actual circumstances, but the emotions. The realizations.

And I don't think peopled left comments on the other post because it was clearly so personal. It didn't feel like a post to comment on so much as it was a small window into you.