In the past, I’ve competed in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. This year, I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. At the beginning of February, I posted my First Round submission (which I’ve since taken down in case I decide to expand it).
To my surprise, I moved on to the Second Round. I had seventy-two hours in which to write and five hundred fewer words allowed this time around. Here were my prompts. The story is below.
NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016
Round 2, Heat 1
Character: A deliver driver
Pickle Cake: The Decadence of Denial
A piece of chocolate cake was waiting for Claire.
Indulgences like that were saved for days when she’d had a trying client or survived a particularly grueling, verbal wrestling match with her mother. She’d endured round after round while cooking dinner the night before. Doris had been in rare form.
This argument had been over the poor choices Claire had made ordering the flowers her mother requested. Online rather than local. Daisies rather than roses. To the hospital rather than the house.
Claire had argued she couldn’t have known they were going to send her mother’s cousin home a day early after the surgery, but Doris had executed such cunning maneuvers of acrobatic logic and subtle holds of reasoning, Claire had eventually lost the will to fight and submitted to the weight of cumulative guilt. By the time she’d hung up, she couldn’t stomach the dinner she’d prepared.
The cake was going to be both a comfort after last night’s defeat and a reward for tasks accomplished that morning.
The landline rang.
“You’ve reached Decadence Delivered! This is Claire. How may I help you?” Claire gripped the phone between her ear and shoulder and continued frosting the formation of cupcakes lining her kitchen table.
“Claire, it’s Mom.”
At the sound of her mother’s voice, Claire’s professional smile faded and the chirp in her voice fled. “Mom, I told you not to call my business line.”
“Well, you won’t answer your cell.”
Because I don’t want to talk to you.
“Because I’m busy, Mom. I have a delivery this morning before I get Jill from preschool.” Claire stretched her neck and pressed her cheek closer to the receiver. She squeezed a tower of pristine, white icing onto the next cupcake.
“Did you sign Jill up for Kindercheer yet?”
Claire traded piping bags and went back to the head of the line. With the ease of long practice, lacy red filigree soon decorated the fields of white. “No, I didn’t sign her up.”
“If you call them now, she can be registered before the first class this Saturday.”
“Mom, registration was in person by nine this morning. It’s,” Claire quickly checked her watch, “ten o’clock. It’s over. It’s closed.”
Ten o’clock. The order she was completing was scheduled for delivery at eleven fifteen. She had to get Jill from the other side of town by eleven forty-five. Half the cupcakes were ready for embellishments, but she still had to top them, package them, and get the minivan loaded.
“Why would you wait until the last minute to do this?”
Claire closed her eyes and took a deep breath. A wave of dizziness threatened her equilibrium and she leaned a hip against the table. She hadn’t eaten since noon the day before; her blood sugar was plummeting. It wasn’t safe to drive like that.
“Call and apologize. Ask them to make an exception.”
A glob of red icing burst against the last cupcake, making it appear attacked rather than decorated. Claire set the piping bag aside and blew hair out of her eyes. “Mom, can we talk about this later? I haven’t eaten breakfast yet. I need to grab a bite. I’m getting shaky and it’s making it hard to finish icing this delivery.”
“Oh, fine.” Her mother gusted a weighty sigh. Claire swore she could hear the eye roll that accompanied it.
When her mother got blustery, the emotional forecast was grim. Don called it ‘strong sighs with a seventy percent chance of martyrdom and future reckoning.’ Claire knew she might as well bite the bullet and invite the storm. With a deep, deliberate breath, she faced the onslaught.
“I didn’t sign her up, because when I talked to her about it, she wasn’t interested.” Claire grabbed the ruined cupcake, scraped off its icing, re-piped it with white, and then decorated it with red before replacing it.
She smiled, replete with accomplishment. The cupcakes sat equidistant from one another, each row perfectly lined up from every viewing angle.
“She’s only four, Claire. She doesn’t know what she’s interested in until you introduce her to it.”
Inside the refrigerator, on a tray lined with waxed paper, sat the edible embellishments: chocolate dipped cherries and strawberries Claire had prepared the night before. She removed them along with the carefully wrapped piece of chocolate cake and placed both on the counter.
The cake was eleven hundred calories. She knew this because she’d made it herself. It was a conscientious habit of hers to include decorative cards containing nutritional information for each of her creations.
“Jill has been to Kindercheer performances.” The urge to pop a strawberry in her mouth as she decorated the cupcakes was strong, but she denied it. Instead, she took a sip of her cooling, black coffee. It was bitter, but calorie-free. “Her friend, Mim, cheers. Jill enjoys watching it, but she’s shown no interest in participating.”
“Jill needs to be active in some way, Claire, or you’re going to have a problem on your hands. If she were shaped like Don’s side of the family, that’d be one thing, but she’s just like you were when you were little: built thick. If you didn’t diet and exercise the way you do, you’d—”
Claire gripped the edge of the table and blinked against the dark stars creeping at the edge of her vision. When they didn’t clear, she sat with her forearms along her thighs and let her head droop between her knees.
“Someone’s beeping in.” Her mother’s voice was annoyed but distant, coming down the length of a long tunnel. “I’ll call you back.”
The effervescent prickle in her limbs slowly abated and left a rubbery weakness in its wake. Claire knew she couldn’t wait any longer. She’d wanted to hold off until she’d boxed the cupcakes and added all the signature frills and furbelows before indulging, but she also recognized her breaking point.
The cake was one of her most popular orders. It was the marriage of sour, tart, and sweet strawberry cream cheese icing with the rich, dense decadence of the double chocolate. They were a perfect foil.
It was beautiful cake, too. The clouds of pink icing popped against the canvas of dark brown, nearly black, cake. The strawberries were formed into circles of concentric, glistening hearts.
She savored the give of the dessert beneath her fork. Reveled in the eruption of pink icing as it bloomed from the earthy cake. Indulged in memories of cakes from her childhood. Innocent, guilt-free cakes paired with milk and laughter.
The icing on her tongue was velvet and erotic. Claire released a shuddering sigh and closed her eyes as buttery chocolate and sweet fruit exploded in her mouth. This slice would be the only thing she allowed herself today, but it would be worth it. Eleven hundred calories of pure extravagance.
Don would wonder if she didn’t eat dinner with him and Jill, so she’d make something they both liked and she didn’t. Tell him she’d eaten just before he got home to compensate.
She knew it was irrational. This was just as crazy as her adolescence, when she’d lied about eating pilfered candy bars even as she grew out of her jeans.
If she skipped dinner too many days in a row, Don would get suspicious. Concerned. It was better when she didn’t eat all day and they shared dinner as a family. Now she’d have to talk about her big breakfast or lunch, meals he couldn’t know she didn’t allow herself.
She couldn’t keep it up, but wasn’t sure how to stop. It had been years she’d lived like this — outside her life, looking in.
When the last bite was savored, the dish washed, dried, and put away neatly with its matching set, Claire boxed up the cupcake order. She added the froths of ribbon and the tasteful business card with its whimsical, watercolor cake logo. Ornamental and orderly; a flawless combination.
Claire checked her watch. Ten twenty. She had ten minutes before she needed to load the van. It was the perfect opportunity to do a quick walk through the house and make sure she’d completed all her chores.
She’d already tidied the master bed and bathrooms after Don had left for work. The tube of toothpaste was left out and open in the hall bath, but it only took seconds to close and whisk into a drawer.
In the doorway of Jill’s room, Claire paused and leaned against the doorframe. Hugged her arms around her waist. She and Don had redecorated the room a few months earlier—-taken down the old, nursery wallpaper that was too babyish for their growing girl–and allowed Jill to choose the paint. The walls were now the color of raspberry jam, deep and vibrant. Like Jill herself.
Jill was active. She liked to run and play on the jungle gym equipment Don had set up in the backyard long before Jill had been able to use it. An invite to swim in her friend, Mim’s, pool was always met with enthusiasm. Jill liked to read and draw, to dress her dolls, and to teach her stuffed animals their alphabet. She loved to steer the riding mower while her daddy drove and to hand him utensils when he grilled. When Claire washed the car or whisked eggs to make French toast, Jill wanted to help.
Jill was a happy child, relaxed, gregarious, and loving. Able to lose games and make mistakes without being defeated or doubting her worth. Claire wanted not simply to mentor that, but mirror it.
Claire’s cell buzzed in her back pocket. Her mother, calling back. Claire sucked in a deep breath, rejuvenated by the cake and the realization that not only was Jill okay, but Claire could be, too. With time. With help.
“Mom, remember when I was little and we used to drive to the bakery in town?” Claire asked without preamble.
“What are you talking about?” Claire had thrown her mother off with her unexpected greeting. She could hear the uncertainty in her voice. “The bakery? You mean Claussen’s?”
“Yes, Claussen’s! That was the name. I remember, it used to make me laugh because—“
“Because it was the same name as the pickles I used to buy.” There was a hint of laughter in her mother’s voice now. “You used to say, ‘Let’s get pickle cake, Mama.’”
“I loved those pretty, little tables with the fancy chairs. And that my chocolate milk came in a mug just like your coffee. I loved that special time together. Do you remember what you always said when the waitress brought our order?”
“What did I say?”
“You’d say, ‘Don’t tell Grandma we were here!’ and then you’d laugh and I’d laugh because you were so happy.”
“Oh, your grandmother!” Doris hooted. “She monitored every bite I took when I was a child and had a lot to say about how I fed you and your brother, too. What a dragon that woman was! She had an opinion about everything and everyo–”
“Mom,” Claire interrupted her mother’s musing, “I’m picking Jill up after pre-school today and I’m taking her out for pickle cake. And when our order is served, I’m going to say, ‘Don’t tell Grandma we were here.’”
Claire let the silence gather between them for a moment before she continued in a softer tone.
“I’d like you to come. We can pick you up and have pickle cake together. And then we can say, ‘Don’t tell Great Grandma Edith we were here’ and we can all laugh. And, Mom, we won’t talk about Kindercheer because it’s not important and Jill isn’t interested.”
Ellipses are used to separate the judges’ feedback.
WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – …………I‘m so happy when Claire finally confronts her controlling mother at the end of this story! And I absolutely love all of the cake details here–the setting for this story is full of great details and totally convincing. And the idea of a pickle cake is unique, a memory that adds real heart and feeling………….I love that you take decadence here and pair it with denial. You also do a wonderful job of almost eroticizing the cakes and cupcakes………….Interesting character study with vivid and delicious sensory detail. It’s telling that Claire becomes a baker, and not just a baker but a deliverer of upscale, truly decadent baked goods, with the family background she has…and her incipient eating disorder, which may be harder to lick than she ever imagines. 🙂 Realistic interactions, some subtle wit, and a nice ending make this a satisfying read………
WHAT THE JUDGE(S) FEEL NEEDS WORK – ………...I’ll confess to feeling a little distracted by Claire’s eating of that 1100-calorie slice of cake, and the details about how she’ll have to lie to her husband about what she’s eaten that day. Are we meant to think that Claire is prone to overeating, that it’s a consequence of her relationship with her mother? There’s complicated stuff going on with food in this story, and yet the resolution of the story involves Claire taking her daughter out for a piece of cake. It feels like it’s meant to be a happy ending, but I’m left with questions about Claire’s relationship with food, and I’d like to know more. This feels like the beginning of something much longer………….I like the idea of pickle cake, but the ending also feels like a departure from Claire’s eating disorder. I think the ending needs to account for Claire’s awareness of her problem as well as that of her mother’s interference………….I’m not sure what “damaging family tradition” this woman’s trying to break free of. The “pickle cake” idea sounds charming, not at all damaging. The haranguing by her mother, on the other hand, is driving her to become anorexic, something that doesn’t seem to be a family tradition. So your synopsis really doesn’t fit the story that you tell here. You might want to tweak it…...