Authors: Judith Ryan Hendricks
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Psychological, #Psychological Fiction, #Bakeries, #Los Angeles (Calif.), #Divorced women, #Baking, #Methods, #Cooking, #Bakers and bakeries, #Seattle (Wash.), #Separated Women, #Toulouse (France), #Bakers, #Bread
JUDITH RYAN HENDRICKS
To Geoff, for believing
may take shape.
may become resilient.
Kneaded, turned on end
will become less
And somehow more myself.
by Gunilla Norris
LOS ANGELES, 1988
he beeping smoke detector wakes me. No, wait. The smoke detector buzzes. When I sit up, the room is wavy, an image in a funhouse mirror. The alarm clock? I turn my head too quickly. It’s the old Apache torture. Strips of wet rawhide, tied tight, left to dry.
I swing my legs over the edge of the bed, blink my swollen eyes. My mouth feels like the lint trap in the clothes dryer. I’m wearing a half-slip and the ivory silk blouse I had on last night. My watch has slid up, cutting a deep groove into my arm: 6:45
An empty bottle of Puligny-Montrachet on the night table. I thought only cheap wine gave you a headache. What did I do with the glass?
I stand up, unsteady. Walk downstairs. Carefully. Holding the railing. Into the kitchen. The bread machine. How can such a small machine make such a big noise? The beeps are synchronized to the throbbing in my temples. I hit the button. The beeping stops and the lid swings open, releasing a cloud of scent. I wheel around and vomit into the sink. I turn on the water, rinse out my mouth, stand panting, gripping the cold edge of the slate countertop. Then I remember. David.
I lift out the still warm loaf, set it on the maple butcher block, a perfect brown cube of bread.
The employment agency is a busy office in a glass and steel building near LAX. The windows offer breathtaking views of Interstate 405, still bumper-to-bumper at ten-thirty. Applicants crowd the waiting area—mostly women who appear to be ten years younger than me, probably all named Heather or Fawn or Tiffany. The place has a sense of purpose worthy of the war rooms you see in World War II movies. All that’s missing is Winston Churchill. No one lingers by the water fountain to chat. Everyone’s on the phone or tapping a keyboard or striding resolutely down the hall, eyes averted to avoid distractions. Like me.
The only exception is the young woman at the front desk. When she finishes filing that stubborn broken nail, she looks up with a smile. “Can I help you?”
I try for amused detachment from the whole process. “I have an appointment with Lauren at eleven o’clock. I know I’m early, but …”
“That’s okay.” She hands me a clipboard with several forms attached to it. “If you’ll just fill these out, we can go ahead and get started with your tests.” She gives me a pencil and points to some chrome and leather chairs against one wall.
Tests? Oh shit.
I sink down onto a chair, my head still twanging in spite of two aspirins and a double espresso. One thing at a time. Name: “Justine Wynter Franklin.” Maybe I shouldn’t use my married name. I try to erase “Franklin” but the eraser is old and brittle and just makes smudges as it crumbles. I scratch a line through it, print “Morrison.” Now it looks like I’m not sure.
Address. Telephone. I nail those two. Date of birth. Social Security number. Type of work desired. “Don’t know” probably wouldn’t look good. I put down “Office.” Too vague? Skills. I stare at the blank space and it seems to grow larger, defying me to fill it.
Well, I can still recite François Villon’s “Ballade des pendus.” Or discuss the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the English novel. Let’s see … I can make perfect rice with no water left in the bottom of the pot and every grain separate and distinct. I know how to perk up
peppercorns and juniper berries that are beyond their shelf life, repair curdled crème anglaise. And if you want to tenderize meat using wine corks or get candle wax out of a tablecloth, I’m your woman. I can tell a genuine Hermès scarf from a Korean knockoff at fifty paces. I have a strong crosscourt backhand. A long time ago, I knew how to type, but even then my speed was nothing to brag about. Someone told me once that I had a nice telephone voice. “Give good phone?”
Startled, I look up.
“Hi, I’m Lauren Randall.” The woman standing in front of me showing me her perfect teeth is obviously very much at home in this world. Fortyish, handsome rather than pretty, wearing a beige raw-silk dress. Her blonde hair is pulled back from her face so tightly that it raises her eyebrows into an expression of surprise.
When I get up to shake her outstretched hand, the clipboard clatters to the floor. Face burning, I scoop it up, ignoring the stares, and follow her down the hall while she does her standard line of chat. “It’s so nice to see someone wearing a suit. You wouldn’t believe some of the outfits I see. These young girls come in here looking like they’re going to the beach instead of to work.”
Now that we’ve eliminated me from that “young girl” category … She takes the clipboard from me and leads me into her office, a cubbyhole with two chairs and a tiny desk covered with file folders. “Let’s see what we’ve got. What kind of work are you looking for?”
“General office. Filing, answering the phone …”
There’s a fifties movie that my mother loves, where Doris Day, as the bright young thing who sets out to conquer the big city, gets a job in the Steno pool—now there’s a term to date you. And on her first day of work at a big, important ad agency, she—demure in a pink shirtwaist with a white Peter Pan collar—spills coffee all over this handsome young guy who works in the mail room. Coincidentally, his father owns the company. She’s mortified, but he’s so charmed by her sweet shyness that he falls in love with her instantly. After a lot of stupid plot complications, they end up getting married and she retires to become a lady of
leisure, sort of like the position I’m just vacating. I want to ask Lauren if they have any openings like that. Receptionist with career path to kept woman.
“Have you worked as a receptionist?” “Well—”
“How many lines have you handled? Have you used a Rolm system? Or Honeywell?” She ignores my silence. “I’m sorry. I guess I came roaring out before you had a chance to finish the application. I’ll just make some notes and we can give you the typing test when we’re all through.”
“There’s no point in giving me a typing test. I haven’t typed anything in five years.”
“That’s okay.” She waves a hand breezily. “It’s like riding a bicycle. It comes back to you with a little practice.” She looks at the blank spaces under the “Experience” heading. “Are you currently employed?” I’ve read plenty of articles that insist that experience as a homemaker and volunteer is just as valid as any other job experience. I’d be willing to bet Lauren hasn’t read those.
“Wynter. I go by my middle name.”
“Sorry. Wynter, why don’t you just tell me what your experience is?”
Deep breath. “Three years teaching high school,” I say. “One year real estate sales …” She’s looking at me expectantly, waiting for me to get to the meat and potatoes. “And I’ve worked on committees. Cedars-Sinai, the Philharmonic …” I’m ransacking my short-term memory for something more impressive.
“Why on earth do you want to do general office? You’d make more money if you just renewed your teaching certificate or went back to selling real estate.”
“I can’t sell real estate because I was horrible at it. I never sold anything.”
“What about teaching? It’s not difficult to renew—” “I hated teaching.” I grip the arms of the chair with damp fingers. She sits back slowly, folds her arms, sizes me up. I can see it in her eyes: Another Hancock Park honey whose meal ticket got canceled.
Inside, she’s probably laughing her butt off. She crosses one slender leg over the other and lets the strap of her slingback pump slip off her heel. Then she says, quietly, “I don’t mean to startle you, Wynter, but I hate this job. Sometimes we have to do things we hate.”
I’m on my feet, not knowing how I got there. “Thanks for the advice.” I walk out of her cubbyhole, past the receptionist, out of the office. If I hurry, I’ll look like I’m going to an interview.
I sit in the parking lot in the red Mazda RX-7 that was my birthday present three years ago.
Bitch. What the hell do you know about anything?
Why am I even worrying about a job? David and I will sit down tonight and work this whole thing out. He’s tired, stressed to the max. He’ll probably walk in the door with roses or something, say he’s sorry … We should go away for a few days. To Mexico. Drink margaritas, make love, sleep. It’ll be okay. I turn the key in the ignition.
I don’t need a job. Especially not one of their piddly indentured servant office jobs.
My car smells good. Whatever the detailers use on the leather seats perpetuates that new-car smell. It was a typical David gift. He wanted me in a Mercedes, but I always found them too stolid, too frumpy. I wanted something I could have fun with, something that had stick. Like a Porsche. Knowing my proclivity for speed, he nixed the Porsche. We stopped discussing it. Then, the morning of my birthday, when I came downstairs, there was a small package sitting next to my orange juice. I thought it was jewelry. Nestled in folds of white satin was a black key. My RX-7 was sitting in the driveway, top down even though the sky was threatening rain. We got a couple of miles up into the hills before it opened up and poured.
It’s past noon and I haven’t eaten anything. I pull into the first In-n-Out Burger I come to, order something at the drive-through window, barely seeing what it is. Back on the freeway, north on the 405, west on the 10, then PCH up the coast. For the first time I notice what a gorgeous day
it is. On my left the blue Pacific, dotted with whitecaps, replicates the blue sky’s scattered, wispy clouds. The whole scene could be turned upside down and you wouldn’t know, like those pictures in children’s books. On my right the earth-toned bluffs of Malibu still blaze with color—scarlet bougainvillea, orange and yellow nasturtiums, purple lantana scrambling over yucca and dry scrub. Everything looks exactly the same as always unless you know where to look along the road for the piles of rock that are always breaking off and sliding down the face.