Mary reported for her job at three a.m. that hot June morning. She wasn't scheduled to start work until five, but competition for the few jobs at Prunella's Cake Bakery had become fierce. If she didn't put in extra unpaid hours, Prunella would fire her and replace her with younger bakers willing to work for half the pay.
"Morning, Mary," Joss said as he carried a pan of his specialty designer mini-tarts to the cooling racks. Joss had been coming in at 2 a.m. because his adorable, tasty little gems hadn't been moving very well lately. "Ready to make cake?"
"Always." Mary chugged the last of her coffee, tied on her apron and went to work. She mixed three new recipes she had practiced on at home for weeks: a white German chocolate ganache, a ten-layer cherry-vanilla torte, and a brazo de gitano made with peaches and cream instead of oranges.
The other bakers straggled in and went to work. Some came to talk to Mary while they surreptitiously checked out her cakes. Others pulled screens into place around their tables so she wouldn't see what they were working on. One nosy cake maker argued with her about her audacity in changing the recipe for the brazo de gitano. Joss obliged Mary by sampling the ganache and pronouncing it to die for.
At six a.m., just as her bakers were preparing the last of the racks to go out into the shop, their employer arrived. The scowling woman's breast implants bobbed and her diamond earrings sparkled as she shrugged out of her furs and stomped through the kitchen.
Prunella surveyed the results of the bakers' hours and hours of hard work. "Where are the fruitcakes? The chocolate cream pies? The marbled cheesecakes? That's what everyone is buying over at Bruno's cake bakery -- or are you idiots too dim to keep tabs on what's selling?"
No one replied. Experience had taught them that Prunella didn't want honest, or any, responses.
"I swear, I'm going to go broke," Prunella grumbled as eyed Joss. "Joss Carter, I was going to cut you a paycheck for those pathetic tarts of yours that you sold back in December. But I had to dock you for the five thousand we haven't sold since then. You owe me seven hundred dollars. I'll just take it out of your paycheck until we're even."
"I have to be paid something!" Joss protested. "You only pay me a penny a tart as it is. I can't live on air!"
"You should have married a rich girl," Prunella advised. "And then you wouldn't have to bake for a living. At which you suck, by the way."
"You're an insane, greedy bitch. I don't have to take this kind of abuse." Joss took off his apron and stormed out.
"Mary," Prunella said softly, "get me the call sheet for all the other bakers. I want to make sure Joss never bakes another tart in this town again." She pulled up a chair to the work table, loaded it with cupcakes, and then looked around at her staff. "Why are you standing around?" She took a big bite out of one cake. "Get out on the floor and sell something before I go bankrupt!"
Mary dreaded the sales part of her job. She would rather bake liver-and-onion casseroles for eternity than get out on the floor and try to convince customers to buy her cakes. But Prunella insisted that business was terrible, and that the bakers had to help sell the stock or work elsewhere. Mary prepared a plate of samples, put on a fresh apron and went out onto the sales floor.
As soon as the doors opened, customers crowded into the shop. Some were regulars and bought their usual orders. A few were new to the bakery and sampled several cakes before buying the ones they liked best. But the majority of the customers came to scarf up the free samples from the trays before they left without buying anything.
A large, fat man in a loud suit waddled over to Mary and eyed her tray. "What's all this?" After Mary described the cakes, he clucked his tongue and took out a notebook. "You're not going to sell very much. Peach cakes are too strange, and that cherry-vanilla torte should be iced, not glazed. No one will want that ridiculous white German chocolate ganache, either." He looked her over. "You might sell a few more if you'd do something with your hair, and open a few of the buttons on that blouse."
"Have you ever baked a cake, sir?" Mary asked politely.
The man laughed as Prunella joined them and handed him a stack of cake boxes. "Why bake a cake when you can get it for free? You should read my column this week -- I'm going to print an excerpt of my new baking guide. Read it and learn what all you little bakers SHOULD be baking." He left the shop.
"I hope you didn't say anything to offend Fat Larry," Prunella hissed. "He's the most important food critic in the city. He just got a huge book deal, too."
"I just asked him if he'd ever baked a cake," Mary said.
"Oh, my God. Fat Larry is going to crucify me for this." Prunella slapped her. "He doesn't HAVE to bake cakes, you stupid little bitch. When will you learn to keep your mouth shut?" She stormed back into the kitchen.
All the bakers stopped selling and turned to stare at Mary. Most quickly turned their backs and continued offering their trays to the customers, but one came over to whisper her sympathy.
"You should change your recipes to what Fat Larry likes," the other baker suggested. "If he wants icing, give him icing."
"But that will make the torte too sweet," Mary argued. "I don't think he knows anything about baking cakes."
The other baker sighed. "When did that ever matter?"
Mary finished out the morning, emptying several sample trays, listening to housewives and caterers criticizing her work, and selling a few tortes. She gave away what hadn't sold, hoping to tempt some of the customers into coming back and buying one of her cakes another day.
At home that night, Mary took a bath, nuked a Lean Cuisine and sat at her table working on new recipes and checking her sales figures. She had moved enough cakes to pay for the ones that hadn't sold, plus a few extra. If she ate mac and cheese and didn't turn on the air conditioning, she might be able to make the rent this month.
She couldn't put icing on the torte, though. Not even for the potential praise from Fat Larry.
There were other jobs she could work -- and might have to, part-time, if she wanted to stay in the cake business. But making cakes was all she had dreamed about her entire life, and she couldn't imagine doing anything else. The kitchen was her home, and the mixing bowl her palette. Someday she would make a cake so wonderful that it would sell like, well, hotcakes.
Mary took a small piece of ganache she had saved from her tray out of her purse. It had gotten a little smushed by an indifferent housewife's elbow, so no one had wanted it. She nibbled at it, ruefully aware that her finances were so bad that she couldn't even buy one of her own cakes from the bakery. The fact was she could have her cake, or eat it, not both.
But such was the life of a baker.