by Jessica Aue
The hour between night and day was Astrid’s favorite.
The sliver of light blazing over the roof growing larger every minute was pure anticipation. She was one of the few people awake to see it every day. She was cresting her 5:00 AM slump and drinking the day’s first cup of coffee. The tubs of dough were put away in the cooler and the kneading machine was quiet after clunking and shaking for the past several hours. She treasured the pause between baking and selling, between thinking and talking.
Jenny arrived three minutes late. Better than usual. Without taking off her jacket, she went straight to the espresso machine and dropped her bag beside it. Her face was pale and puffy and her body was tense from being underdressed in the cold.
“Morning,” said Astrid.
“Hey,” said Jenny in a thin, scratchy voice as she walked to the cash register. Still in her jacket, she rang up the first customer. Her painted fingernails ticked delicately across the keys like colorful bird beaks.
Jenny sipped her latte and stared blankly at the door, waiting for the next customer. She took off her jacket and stuffed it under the counter with her purse. She wore the short, black skirt of her uniform with bare legs and a thin white t-shirt. Her blonde hair puffed and waved in a way that could only be achieved through hair dryer and curling iron mastery.
Astrid found Jenny’s hair unfathomable.
The hour between eight and nine was the bakery’s busiest. Color bloomed on Jenny’s cheeks under her thick makeup and her eyes unsquinted.
Astrid cut, buttered and bagged rolls for high school boys who dropped change directly into Jenny’s hand and lingered too long at the counter. Astrid reminded herself that the boys were paying customers, and didn’t point out that they were stopping up the flow of the line.
When the morning crowd was gone, Jenny made another latte, grabbed a pastry and hopped up to sit on the long, wooden baking table.
“Did you see the guy with the Chiefs jacket? He wanted me bad. He almost jizzed his pants when I bent over to pick up his roll.”
“Didn’t notice,” said Astrid. The high school boys all looked the same to her, but Jenny was a specialist.
“I went out with a cowboy last night. With a hat, belt buckle and everything. Super sexy. Anyway, we went out on his ATV. It was cold, so he gave me his jacket and we parked on top of a hill and were looking at the stars. Romantic, right? But then he kissed me, with tongue, and he had chew in his mouth!” Jenny slumped lazily off the table and walked over to the counter where a young mother was waiting, energetically bouncing a toddler on her hip. “I was like, who starts making-out without spitting out their chew? I thought I was going to barf. HihowcanIhelpyou?”
The mother smiled tightly. “Do you have cookies?”
“Nope. Astrid’s Danish, so we only have Danish stuff.”
“Anything special for children?” She looked adoringly at the boy, who was licking snot from his upper lip.
“Only if he likes Danish stuff.”
“Well, what do you want sweetheart?” the mother asked in a high-pitched voice.
“I want a cookie,” he answered sulkily.
“They don’t have cookies honey. What about that?” She pointed to a pastry covered in poppy seeds.
“No,” he answered and crossed his little arms.
“What’s that one?” the mother asked Jenny, pointing.
“Oh? What’s in it?”
“It’s cake with coconut in the icing.”
“Oh! Sounds good. Doesn’t it Lukie?”
“No,” said the child. The mother smiled apologetically at Jenny, but her eyes were on the clock.
“We’ll just have that bread there.” The mother pointed to a round loaf covered in oats.
“No! I don’t want it!” screamed the boy.
“This is for Mommy, we’ll get something for Lukie at the gas station,” the mother soothed.
“God! I’m never having kids,” said Jenny as the mother had almost closed the door. “I’m going to be like you. An old spinster who works all the time.”
Astrid blinked. A spinster had to be over forty. A woman of thirty-six was single.
Jenny continued, “There’s this girl from my class who got knocked up, and her parents are super Christian, so she couldn’t get an abortion. Anyway, she had the baby and now she’s fat. Not just, like, a little belly fat. Double chin fat. It’s gross…”
Jenny half-turned her attention to an overweight woman standing on the other side of the counter.
Astrid smiled. She knew it was bad for business, but she loved to see the customers squirm.
“Large, vanilla latte” the woman muttered, disgruntled.
“We don’t have vanilla,” said Jenny, oblivious.
“What flavors do you have?”
“We don’t have any flavored syrup. Astrid says that if you want a milkshake, you should go to Dairy Twist. She’s Danish, and I guess they just drink espresso out of those tiny, little cups over there.”
Jenny held up her thumb and pointer finger a few inches apart and squinted her eyes to show just how tiny the cups were. “She won’t even drink her coffee with sugar, or milk, or anything”
The woman looked angrily from Astrid, who was rolling pastry dough and pretending not to listen, to Jenny, who was smiling at a construction worker outside.
“Fine. Large latte with whole milk and lots of sugar,” sighed the woman.
Astrid had hired Jenny because she was beautiful. When Astrid was little, her best friend’s father owned Dairy Twist in Springfield and packed it with his oldest daughter’s beautiful friends. The restaurant was bustling and energetic. When Astrid’s parents divorced, she was sent to live with her grandmother in Denmark. When she returned to Springfield, fifteen years later, the middle-aged man who served her burger and milkshake at Dairy Twist had a missing front tooth a gut that rubbed against the counter. The restaurant was empty and depressing.
From this experience, Astrid intuited that beautiful girls draw customers. This had become the cornerstone of her hiring philosophy. They may have had their problems, but the girls at Astrid’s Bakery were gorgeous.
All of them, except Astrid herself. She had no illusions about her own appearance. She was considered tall in Denmark, but in Springfield she was a giant. She had broad hips and powerful arms and legs muscled from physical work. Her decidedly un-feminine appearance was barely tempered by a thick, waist-length braid.
Astrid instructed the girls to wear white shirts and short black skirts. Astrid’s own uniform was a pair of black Dockers and a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. A white canvas apron covered her outfit neck to knee. To find her size, she had to shop in the men’s department, which left her with pants too tight in the hips and loose in the legs and boxy shirts.
Jenny wandered back toward the ovens, where Astrid was taking out round apple cakes.
“What are men like in Europe?” she asked.
“Not very different from here,” answered Astrid. Both European and American men struck her as equally fumbling. They were all too short and insufficiently serious. Maybe the Americans were a little worse.
Jenny shook her head in disbelief. “I could go for a European. The kind of guy who wears a tight suit and shaves his balls. It’s classy.”
Astrid didn’t look up from the pastry dough she was folding. “I lived in Odense, not Rome.”
Jenny followed her own train of thought. “How do they even shave their balls? Are there special clippers for that, or do they go to a professional and get them waxed? I would literally kill myself if I had to be a professional ball waxer.”
An old man blushed and studied the bread on Jenny’s side of the counter.
Pointing to a loaf of 7-grain he muttered, “How much does that one cost?”
“Six dollars? For six dollars, I could get three breads at Family Thrift.”
“Well if you want three loaves for six dollars, you should probably go to Family Thrift.”
Jenny and the old man challenged each other with their eyes for a few seconds.
The old man broke the standoff, “What do you have on sale?”
“Nothing. Astrid says that you wouldn’t go to the dentist and ask for half price to get a cavity filled, so why would you come here and ask for half price on bread?”
“Well, I just think that six dollars is too much to pay for a bread.” Jenny didn’t say anything, but turned to make herself a cup of coffee.
“Two raspberry Danishes then,” the man hastened to order.
Jenny picked up the Danishes with two fingers and dropped them roughly into a bag.
“That’ll be six dollars.”
Astrid watched the exchange with irritation. If it weren’t for the customers and the employees, her job would be perfect.
Astrid rolled five feet of pastry dough onto the baking table. In one sweeping motion, she spread creamed butter, sugar, and marzipan end to end. She coiled the dough into a long snake, and began to slice four-inch thick cinnamon rolls. The knife made a satisfying, rhythmic clunk on the wood table. The dough was cool, the color and texture of skin. She ran her hand down the length of it, and it was like a smooth leg.
She thought about her own legs, which were far from smooth at the moment. Shaving her legs when she was the only one to see them was a waste of time, yet some misguided sense of propriety kept her from giving up completely. This led to an unfortunate situation where the hair on her legs was almost always half-grown and spiky until she got too sick of looking at it.
She wanted sex, but couldn’t find a man who could compete with solitude. In Missouri, the problem was that no one appreciated quality. Like with pastries. Americans loaded everything with sugar so that you couldn’t taste the cheap palm oil or low-quality flour. They had gotten so used to overly-sweetened baked goods, that they complained the quality stuff wasn’t sweet enough.
In Denmark, her problems had been different. Astrid wasn’t authentic enough. She lived in Odense through most of her childhood and education as a baker, and still they called her “The American”. Danes had a mental picture of what each pastry should look and taste like. Everything had to be just like at the guldbager from their childhoods, even if the way she did it was better.
That was why her first bakery failed. She could never be Danish enough. After that, she had nothing left in Odense. She had moved back to Missouri to be closer to her mother. Probably the only reason her new bakery hadn’t failed was the pretty teenagers in short skirts. The customers did nothing but complain about her products and how expensive they were.
So who did she get up for at 3:00 AM every day?
Astrid’s knife sliced efficiently through pastry dough until she reached the end of the snake. She tenderly lay the cinnamon rolls face up on the baking sheet, leaving plenty of room for them to expand in the oven. Jenny watched. Her smooth brow furrowed like she was prying apart a knotty problem.
“Who have you slept with in Springfield?” Jenny asked, apropos of nothing.
Astrid sighed dismissively, and didn’t miss a slice. Chop, chop, chop, chop.
“One name. One name and…I’ll tell you who is having an affair with Fred Dawson”
“Who is Fred Dawson?” Astrid asked without looking up.
“The principal at Kickapoo!” Jenny waited with her eyebrows raised in expectation.
Astrid shook her head and continued working. To her, the only surprising thing about sex scandals in Springfield was the fact that people still didn’t anticipate them. It was quaint, the way they ran around like chickens with their heads cut off every time a boss bedded his secretary.
“I’ll tell you who has been stealing from the register.”
Astrid stopped working and looked directly into Jenny’s big, blue eyes. The till had been short on the weekends. She had suspected one of the three girls on the weekend shift, but couldn’t figure out which one. Her stomach twisted with rage. A name, any name and she would have her culprit.
“Nick Hamilton,” lied Astrid.
“Katie Greff,” said Jenny victoriously.
Astrid fired Katie, then went downstairs to finish baking. She was enjoying the pleasant afterglow of vengeance served, but then she thought about Nick. He didn’t come in often and when he did he barely looked at her. Hopefully, she could put it out of her mind.
“Nick Hamilton,” said Jenny, “He’s hot for an old guy, but he’s a whore. As soon as their papers go through, divorcees are practically beating down his door.”
Astrid didn’t say anything, she felt nauseous.
Jenny continued, “I had him in Spanish. He has a six pack.”
A customer paused on her way out, her hand motionless on the door knob. “THANKYOUHAVEANICEDAY,” Jenny called loudly. The woman quickly opened the door and left.
The lie faded to an ineffective ghost whose haunting raised maybe three goosebumps once a week. Astrid would be arranging pastries, or stacking cake on a serving dish, and the name Nick Hamilton would pop into her head. She would feel an awkward pinch in her stomach, think sternly don’t think about it and push the thought out of her mind.
Then one day, as she was arranging marzipan kransekage on a baking sheet, she looked up and saw to her dismay that he was not the vanquished thought or faded ghost, but the person standing on the other side of the counter.
Jenny winked. “You want to take this one?”
Astrid grabbed an empty crate and hurried to the pantry in the rear of the bakery. On her way back to the ovens, after what Astrid hoped was enough time for Nick to get his bread and leave, she heard Jenny’s voice.
“Did she throw you around in bed? I’ve seen her with those sacks of flour, they can’t be much bigger that you.”
“Goodbye Jenny,” Nick sounded shaken.
Astrid went up the stairs to her small apartment-office and locked the door. She sat down on her single bed and pressed her cool hands to her hot face.
She felt better in her room, sitting on her perfectly made bed and looking at her sturdy wooden desk with the big shelf of cookbooks above it. The walls were saturated with the smell of good bread and baked sugar.
A hand tapped on the door and Astrid startled.
“Your marzipan things are burning,” Jenny called.
“Take them out,” Astrid called back, her voice garbled in her throat.
“Just take them out,” She said again, more clearly.
“They’re too heavy.”
Astrid went back downstairs. She threw away the burned kransekage, even though they were salvageable.
She started over with the batter. Astrid banged around with the stirring machine, aggressively tossing ingredients into the heavy stainless steel bowl.
Jenny chewed a croissant and watched her boss struggle the flat beater into place.
“Jenny,” Astrid began.
“I only told you I was with Nick, so that you would tell me who was stealing.”
Jenny looked at Astrid with interest.
Astrid looked down at the table. “We haven’t slept together.”
Jenny considered. “Bullshit. I can tell when you’re lying Astrid. You’re so obvious.”
She laughed and shook her head. “Hey, did you see the guy I was waving to? That was Marty. He’s dating his own cousin! But, actually, she’s really hot, so it’s not that weird.”
To Astrid’s horror, Nick came every day for the rest of that week and the next. She watched the window while she worked, which led to several burns and a gash on her finger. As soon as she saw his car, she bolted up to the office.
The significance of Astrid’s distraction and restlessness was not lost on Jenny and she ratcheted up her teasing accordingly.
“He is going to get fat as hell if he eats all those pastries. You should get him while he still fits between your legs.”
Astrid took the melted chocolate off the double boiler, angling the metal bowl so the steam wouldn’t shoot out into her face. She dipped rum balls in the chocolate, then rolled them in her hand two at a time, like Chinese stress balls. She tossed them into a pan of shredded coconut and, with the other hand, rolled them until they were white.
“You’re really fast,” said Jenny admiringly from the back doorway where she smoked and watched Astrid.
“I’ve had a lot of practice.” Astrid juggled the rum balls steadily from one hand to the other. She was immersed and didn’t notice the bell over the door ring.
Nick entered. Astrid considered sprinting for the stairs, but that would be even worse.
“Hi. I’ll get Jenny, just a minute,” Astrid felt as though she had unexpectedly walked off a ledge.
“Actually, I’ve been wanting to talk to you. I came by yesterday, but you weren’t around,” Nick smiled.
Astrid walked stiffly to the counter holding her hands in front of her like a doctor going into surgery, one covered in melted chocolate, the other covered with coconut.
He laughed awkwardly. “I didn’t recognize you at first. That night in Denver… It was out of town and you were dressed…” he gestured to her apron splattered with chocolate and dusted with flour “…differently.”
“Denver?” Astrid murmured.
“I know it was a long time ago. You probably haven’t thought about it like I have…” He looked at her again, broke off, and smiled.
He paused for a moment and looked at Astrid, but when she didn’t respond he continued, “Anyway, I would really like to get together again sometime. I was thinking maybe we could get a drink after work. What time do you get off?”
“I don’t do bars,” said Astrid. She regained herself a bit.
“Yeah. There aren’t any good bars in town anyway. Do you want to come over to my place for an early dinner? I could pick you up.”
Astrid looked skeptically at Nick. Their eyes were level.
“Come on. Something simple.” Nick pleaded.
“Ok. You can pick me up here tomorrow at four.”
Astrid stood at the counter and watched him until he shut the door, then quickly washed her hands and hurried upstairs before Jenny could get in any more commentary than, “Shit Astrid! Make sure your condoms aren’t expired! You can borrow my…”
Astrid shut out Jenny’s excited voice as she pulled the door closed.
She sat down on her desk chair and swiveled to look at her open closet. She tried to imagine what the woman who had done the legwork for this date would wear. She pictured a tall, sexy woman in a black dress enjoying a one-night stand during a stopover in Denver on her way to Paris.
Astrid still had the dress that she had worn to her Grandmother’s funeral. It was black at least.
He had said you probably haven’t thought of it like I have.
It must have been good.
Astrid wondered when she should tell him. If she should tell him. She looked at the room that was her tiny home. She ran her fingers over the cream-colored duvet cover. It was the same one that had been on her bed in Denmark. She picked up the notepad on her bedside table where she wrote her schedule and recipes and thumbed through the pages. The margins were full of ideas for her products and reminders for the day ahead. She looked at her desk with its neat piles of papers and stack of cookbooks. She had read every cookbook she owned cover to cover.
It was easy to be herself here. She knew what was best. But customers always wanted something sweeter.
[Check out Jessica Aue’s back porch wisdom]