Sometimes, something we see or hear sticks with us. Who can say why? Sometimes it tantalizes us with possibilities, or teases us with hidden agendas, or torments us because we have no clue as to the answers to the Six Primary Questions: Who? What? When? Why? Where? How? More often than not, it opens a Pandora’s Box of images, more questions, and, if you’re lucky, flights of fancy.
Once upon a time, a middle-aged man was standing in a checkout line at one of California’s major supermarkets. The man in front of him was having trouble swiping his ATM card to pay for his groceries. The middle-aged man’s attention wandered to the aisle next to him, where an older woman was buying a small number of groceries. The bagboy was doing an exceptional job keeping up with bagging the items. The middle-aged man was about to look elsewhere when the older woman sharply said “No! That should be bagged separately.”
And there it was, encased in hard plastic: an absolutely sinful looking chocolate cake, small and rich and decadent – from the bakery, no doubt. It was very much in contrast with her previous items. The older woman then, on her own, her attention focused completely on the cake, opened a paper bag, and furtively placed the cake inside, saying under her breath, “My husband mustn’t see it.”
She paid the checkout woman and left, holding the paper bag in one hand, and the plastic bags in the other. Finally the man with the troublesome ATM card gave up, and wrote a check. And the middle-aged man paid for his own groceries and left, his mind fascinated with the older woman and the chocolate cake. Because, you see, he burned to know “Why?”
Why must the cake be kept hidden from her husband? Was the cake for a secret lover? Was her husband a diabetic? Was she? Did she want to eat it all by herself, not sharing a single, delicious mouthful?
And so, many months later, the middle-aged man tried to answer that question. Finally he came to the realization that the answer was ethereal and forever out of reach; it was the question itself that mattered, that held for him a special magic. It was one of those very rare questions that held the magic of dreams.
I hope these stories give you half as much pleasure as I had in writing them, and gift you with some dreams of your own.
Mr. Madison’s Christmas
Henry collapsed into the huge armchair. If he had to wrap another present, fend off his kids for the umpteenth time, wish everyone a Merry Christmas and tell another friend that he was okay, he would run down East 21st Street and scream like Janet Leigh in Psycho. Tom had chosen this week to split up. He’d spent hours consoling his kids, and the past three days talking to his friends – at work, at the clubs, at the gym, at the condo complex, at the supermarket – how do you explain the unexplainable?
Maybe he’d gotten cold feet. Some ‘friends’ said it was about time he left, and others that he’d come back. They’d been together for 3 years. Henry had proposed, and Tom had gone silent. The next day he was gone.
At least there was the holiday. He loved Christmas – the lights, the smiles on normally stern faces, the sudden good will. It was a season of pine, fir and spruce trees; shopping, glitter and sparkle (love it!) and above all, SUGAR! The world consumed more than twice the amount of sweets during this season than on a decade’s worth of Valentine’s Days. And his new cake and pastry shop, SWEET SURRENDER, was doing incredible business.
He had never worked so hard in his life. Reviews in every NYC paper, blog, and food app had made him work round the clock, challenging himself to create new recipes, new taste combinations, new flours…thank goodness he’d had Tom. His partner had managed the household, looked after the kids, all while holding down a part-time job as a cab driver.
I should have seen it coming, Henry thought. Even though Tom said it was okay to talk about their lives to the press, he’d been adamant to keep their private lives private. He didn’t want Tom or their kids followed. He’d had tentative calls from the Food Network talking about a show. It had been an insane 8 months, and he couldn’t count the number of times he’d needed to lean on someone – but with all the things Tom had taken on he didn’t want to burden him with them. It came down to trust, Tom had said. He didn’t know that Henry’s ex-wife had said the same thing, 4 years ago.
Thank God for Christmas, thought Henry. And laughed at the irony of his thought. He stretched his feet out, sitting down for perhaps the very first time that day (though it was an hour until midnight), when 8-year old Christopher called his name. His son was standing in front of the Christmas tree, where half of the living room carpet would soon be blanketed with toys. He had donated half of his “Twelve Cupcakes of Christmas” profits to the Marines’ Toys For Tots’ campaign, and just got into the spirit of things when he saw the expression on the Marine Sargent’s face when he handed him the $150,000 check.
“Dad, where are his milk and cookies?”
“What’s that, Chris?” he said, ruffling his son’s already tousled hair.
“Santa’s milk and cookies. You know, you leave them for him as a present, or else he doesn’t come. Tommy used to put them on the table by the big chair – you know, the one you were in just now.”
“I’m sorry, Chris, we’re out of cookies!” Oh man, he thought, this is just what I need. Tom, damn you for being so effing prepared!
“Dad, we have to have milk and cookies or else he won’t come!” And Chris, stalwart boys-don’t-cry Chris began to tear up. It was his son’s secret weapon. He was 8 going on 18. Henry could not stand to see his kids cry.
“Chris, I’ll take care of it. I promise.” And he watched him trudge off to bed. Shit, shit, shit! Henry’s inner self shouted, what am I gonna do? So he called Vanilla Gorilla, NYC Drag Empress and all around, 300 pound Dear Abigail for the Lower East Village.
After about the 15th buzz, he picked up. “You’re a Hoe, Hoe, Hoe, and you know it, MARE-REE Christmas! Henry, have you called to pledge your undying love for me, or is it something less interesting?”
“I’ve got a Santa problem, Vanny.”
“Darling, is your chimney clogged?”
“No, Vanny. I forgot the cookies!”
“You forgot the Santa Protocol? Oh, you poor dear. Why, you know, if I were smart…”
This was ‘the compliment game’ everyone had to play before they got their advice. And it was worth it. Word was that once even Cardinal Mahoney had called him. Henry didn’t doubt it.
“But ya are, Vanny, ya are…”
“And if I were blessed with extraordinary insight into the workings of the universe…”
“But ya are, Vanny, ya are…” ***
“Henry, you’re a goddamned baker! Go bake some cookies, and let me get back to my admirers! MARE-REE Christmas!”
I must really be tired. Vanilla is never going to let me forget this. Well, I’m distracted, exhausted, and I haven’t slept well since…well, best get to work. He went to his kitchen, and set out the baking sheet. And froze. He could not think of a single cookie recipe, and when he did, somehow he was missing an ingredient. All he could think about was Tom. Sweet and hot…soft yet crunchy…and suddenly, a recipe took shape in his mind. When he was done, it wasn’t a cookie he had created, but a cake. A cake that was a little like a brownie, a little like a cookie, and a little like a truffle; but unmistakably a cake.
He put it on his finest china plate, drizzled it with a ganache infused with chili peppers, and placed it, along with a glass of 100% milk, on the table by the armchair. He sat in the chair, and looked at his work. And fell sound asleep.
He was awakened by little Alice, shaking him as hard as she could (who knew 5 year olds could be so strong?) and screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Dad! Dad, wake up, wake up wake UP! Look at all the presents Santa brought!”
Rubbing his eyes, Henry opened them to see the living room looking like a battlefield. Somehow, his presents had made their way from the ceiling’s hidden storage space to under the tree, and his kids had managed to open them all without waking him. How was it possible? Could it be that…?
He looked at the table beside the chair. The glass was empty, as was the plate. Henry laughed.
“Why are you laughing, Dad?” asked Chris.
“Just for a minute, son, I thought…”
“Daddy,” interrupted Alice, “this is for you!” In her hand she held an ivory-colored envelope, with his name written in ink, in a very elaborate style. As he took it, he knew it would be parchment. He unfolded the letter, which smelled faintly of gingerbread and peppermint, and read:
Dear Mr. Madison,
It seems your creation has become something of an obsession with my husband. He simply won’t stop talking about it! Whatever gave you the inspiration to give him cake instead of cookies? It’s a North Pole first, and that’s saying something.
So, I find myself having to ask you a favor: please gift me with the recipe for…what do you call it? Put it in this envelope, and place it on the plate. If you do, I’ll find a way to thank you.
Keep putting love in everything you bake – I find it makes things taste a little better!
“Whoa – all these presents because you gave Santa cake! Way to go Dad!” Chris had read over his shoulder. “Do as she says, Dad!”
“Mrs. Claus wrote to you, Daddy?” asked Alice in a voice full of wonder.
“Yes, sweetheart. And Daddy’s going to write back. Play with your toys until I’m done, okay?”
“Will there be magic?” asked Alice.
“Cool! Will there, Dad?”
“Maybe!” And he went into the den. He took the set of his old calligraphy pens from college, brought out his best stationery, and wrote:
Dear Mrs. Claus –
It feels silly writing this, and your story is hard to believe. But then, Christmas needs belief, doesn’t it?
He wrote down the recipe, and when he had finished, remembered that he yet to give the cake a name. Mrs. Claus’ words came back to him then, and he wrote, in carefully penned strokes, “TOM.” Folding it carefully, he put it in the envelope and went into the living room, where his wound-up kids almost knocked him over.
“Hey, Chris, Alice – you do know that nothing is probably going to happen. This is probably Auntie Vanilla playing a trick on Daddy.” Vanny had a key to the apartment, and this was just the sort of stunt he would pull.
“Auntie Vanny wasn’t here, Daddy,” said Alice quite seriously.
“And how do you know that?” her father asked.
“Smell,” said Alice.
She was right. Every time he went out in the world, Vanny used at least half a bottle of Chanel No. 5, which lingered in the air for hours, even after he’d gone. There was no perfume in the air. I’m out of my mind, he thought, and put the envelope on the plate.
The envelope lifted in the air, did a flight around the room, and headed to the ceiling, where it exploded with the sound of bells, in a shower of red and green glitter. From outside, they heard carolers. Henry went to window, opened it, and waved. Down on the Street, Vanny was leading the Fabulous Fa-La-Lolas in a G-rated version of ‘Santa Baby’ although he was doing his best Eartha Kitt imitation. His cell phone rang.
“Darling, are your chestnuts roasting yet? Because if they’re not, you had better get ready! And you can thank me later. The girls and I have a standing engagement in Washington Square. Wish my nephew a Merry Christmas, will you?”
“Vanny, who’s your nephew?”
“Ta-ta, my dear, and MARE-REE Christmas!”
There was a knock at the door. Before he could get it, Chris and Alice had already opened it, and thrown themselves into the man’s arms.
“Tommy! It worked!” yelled Alice.
“We told you it would!” said Chris.
“Yes you did, kids. Now, your Daddy and I need to talk.”
The two children winked at each other. “Talk. Right,” said Chris.
Henry was too stunned to speak.
“Hey, are you okay?” asked Tom.
“Okay? What the heck is going on? I feel as if I’m in one of those kooky holiday movies, where it always…”
“Wait! I forgot. This is from Great-Uncle Nick.” Reaching into his pocket, Tom brought some white powder out, and then threw it into the air, where it flew around the room, headed to the ceiling, and exploded with the sound of bells, in a shower of silver and crystalline glitter.
“Daddy! Daddy! Look, it’s snowing!” cried Alice gleefully, her face pressed against the window.
“How did you? What the f…”
“It’s time to make a few things clear. Yes, I’ll marry you. But if you think your life is hard to handle, well, it’s on a par with mine. My family is, well, different. And Great-Aunt Helga gave you a test, to see if you were the right one. In case you haven’t guessed, you passed. You really named that cake after me? Vanny knew you would. So, do you forgive me? Can you forgive me? Will you have me, to…”
Grabbing his burly beloved by the waist, Henry said, “Shut up. Come here and gimme some sugar!”
*** A special appearance in a story to whoever knows the name of the movie these lines parody!