Cakeland

On an ugly street, next to a Cash Store and a dubiously trendy petfood bar, the bakery, chic windows and massive awning, is too sophisticated for the northside. If you step inside, stamping the snow off your boots into a dirty puddle at the end of a chattering line that reaches the door—if you glance up to compose yourself, the gold embossed ceiling tiles, the six chandeliers and white moulding will convince you again that this is the farthest thing from the neighbourhood bakery of the Canadian prairies. No yellowing display case, no sweating donuts, no sprinkles, no white-or-whole-wheat rolls, no saran wrap. Instead, the twenty-five people in line press past an armoire full of packaged coffee beans and square marshmallows with black and gold labels.

The girls gliding around behind the case wear velvet dresses, pearls, and lace camisoles made work-appropriate with black cardigans. One girl, eighteen, dark lipstick and a braided crown, looks steadily at you as she swoops down out of sight to pick up a white paper bag from under the case. When she comes back up she is instantly devoted to her seventy-year-old customer.

Most of the pastries are not identifiable, more sculpture than cookie, but there are lemon tarts, decorated with a criss-cross of icing sugar whiter than any icing sugar you've ever brushed from your fingertips, and a single blueberry. You hear a boyfriend asking if the blueberry can be removed. “She thinks she's allergic. She's not, but if you could just take it off.” He digs his pockets around in the front of his pants. “Thanks.” And you recognize miniature chocolate cakes lined up beside a huge, pale green dome with a fondant rose on its apex like a nipple. Near the end of the first case there's a row of pastry toroids filled with twisted mousse piped sharp as a drill bit. The card, stuck in a slit in a marble block, says 'Paris Brest 6.50'. 

You look slightly past the girl with the black rose mouth, who’s now at the till. 

If you walk past this girl, around behind the till and the cases, through the breezeway with the girls' phones and screenprinted water bottles and the sandwich counter, through the kitchen, past the break room where Gillian changes from bicycle shorts into a dress, and into the office with the fleur-de-lis wallpaper, the three desks, and the gilt mirror, you'll still find Graham Schulz.                                                                                                                                                

The day the bakery opened, Graham wandered in to check out the new storefront and learn Suzanne, the new owner, hadn't slept for thirty-eight hours. She asked him if he could help out for a few days. Three years on, when you start coming in, he single-handedly runs the front of the bakery. He has become as much a fixture as the green marzipan breasts sold as Princess Cakes, and for Suzanne and the originals in the kitchen, his former life in provincial government administration is an unconvincing industry myth. 

Graham is flimsy from his limp hair to his rounded spine and sharp knees, like one of the blanched French beans they put in the goat cheese sandwiches. His skin is grainy as almond paste. It’s become a joke for you to come in in the morning and try to share your multivitamin, come in before close and offer to buy him a steak. As far as you can tell, he lives off blemished chocolate cakes and butter croissants. During Gillian the brunette’s first week on bar, he wanders up to her, blocking the opening between the cases and the wall with her espresso machine. “Want some coffee?” she says with that mouth. 

He peers at her counter. “Just some kitten milk if you have it.” He has maroon leather shoes, even if these, like her work shoes, are stained with butter and coffee, and the yellow laces frizz at the ends. His shirt, also stained, is monogrammed. You’ve learned to track his stress level by looking at his pants. Twice in three years, he’s relaxed for long enough to develop a belly, and as his waistband rides his stomach, higher and higher, the cuffs rise correspondingly above his ankles. 

  “What?” Her eyebrows go in two directions.

“Oh, Bayonne just always saves the last little bit of milk in the steaming pitcher for me.” Graham nods. “She just collects it in a mug.”    

Gillian, she pulls her big glasses in with her forehead muscles. “No.” 

One day in October, waiting at the last intersection on your way to a job, you see him hunched over the handlebars of his girlfriend's scooter. Molly makes homemade wine and twice as much money as Graham. He is puttering to work at half the speed limit, his head in his helmet round and big as a baby's. Graham is usually at the bakery hours before opening time, answering emails, packing orders that are the kitchen's responsibility. Later that morning you come in for a three-dollar coffee and ask him how it’s going.

He smiles. “Oh, I think it's going well. Molly's down in Calgary.” His weight shifts so far to one side that his hip looks dislocated. “I just haven't slept for a couple of nights, but you know.” 

  You slap him on the back. “My man. Again?” 

“I did get to read this Melville story. Bartleby the Skirmisher. Screener. Scrivener.” 

“Huh.” 

“It was one of those things I never got around to in my degree.”

“Good?” Poor bastard.

He nods slowly. “It was certainly different.”                                                                                                                             

His insomnia takes quite a toll. You come in the day before Halloween and find four girls free, chatting and folding boxes. The couple in front of you is bent over double jabbing their fingers at specific blueberry scones, the girl serving them clenching her jaw. Gillian is standing at the La Marzocco banging coffee grounds out of portafilters, slamming them back into the machine and wrenching down the pump handles. Approaching the till, the rude couple point at a tray of square danishes, each one with a red dome of fruit jelly in the middle, and in the middle of that, a pert blackberry. When Gillian turns around, you can see nothing but her nipples through a black cotton t-shirt which looks too plain for the French maid uniform.

Graham sweeps in from the back. You throw a thumb over your shoulder. “You’ve got some good staff here.” The girls folding boxes look at each other. You pretend to ignore them, put your hands in your pockets, incline your head toward Graham, and then jerk it toward Gillian. “I don't know if I could handle them though. I’ve been in here on a Saturday. Kind of high-strung.” You whistle a high note and a lower one.

Graham strokes his chin, bare as a bum under his moustache. “We do like the thoroughbreds here.”

Gillian stops rinsing a pitcher and turns around. Her voice is high, her jaw is bulging. “Did you actually just compare us to racehorses?” Graham doesn’t hear her.

It’s early days, but the inevitable expansion and institutionalization of a small business has already begun. They hire a slew of new girls for Christmas.

Suzanne asks Graham to produce a front staff training manual. You hear nothing about it for almost a month, and then, apparently, a white plastic binder appears on the break room table, a draft for the girls to peruse and offer suggestions on. No one bothers until the day Gillian forgets lunch and her phone and spends her thirty minutes in the back reading what Graham has written. The staff room was cramped when she started at the bakery, only a coat rack, a wall of cubbyholes, and a table too small for two girls on break at the same time to eat at. Lately it has become the storage room as well. Boxes of Solo cups and toilet paper are stacked to the ceiling.                                                                                        

Another girl goes back to refill the brown sugar packets for me, and Gillian turns around and her folding chair makes a cracking sound. “Oh my god. You have to see this.” She hands over the binder, trying to hold her finger in the middle of the page. “Under dresscode.” 

The other girl, blonde, laughs and starts to read out loud from Graham’s manual. “Black and white or grey . . . skirt or dress, dress pants also acceptable . . . no jeans or yoga pants.” She puts her hand on her hip and launches into upspeak. “Think chic, not sexy? Lighter, chiffon-type fabrics are preferred. Lace and pearls are always a good choice . . . You should look as delicious as the pastries you are serving?” 

Apparently some of them go to talk to Suzanne about sexist language in the manual. She says she’ll make Graham revise it, but when I come in for a cookie later, she is sitting in the cafe and working on it herself, the whole binder disassembled in front of her, her sleeves rolled up and cutting into her upper arms.

The last Tuesday in January, in the middle of the afternoon, the blonde girl drifts up to Gillian while she is making you a latte. She is wearing ballet flats and slides a little on the hardwood with each step as if she’s about to fall into diagonal splits. She looks Gillian in the eye. “I'm supposed to take over. Graham says he wants to talk to you.”

“Oh yeah?” Gillian fills a portafilter basket with coffee, levels the grounds with her index finger, tamps them down, and balances the portafilter on the counter.

The blonde girl starts sweeping off Gillian’s counter with a natural bristle paintbrush. “I think he's going to ask about why all the full-timers are so miserable—”

“Because of course it has nothing to do with him.” Gillian has abandoned my shot. The blonde shrugs. Gillian stops everything to wipe the inside corners of both eyes with her ring fingers. 

“I told him I thought everyone was starting to want a real job.”

“That's safe.” Gillian sounds like she’s grimacing, but her back is to you. Your latte is still dry coffee grounds in a basket and steaming pitcher full of cold milk. “Well done.”                                                                                                                              

You take your latte, eventually, and go sit down at a round, marble table. “Sure. I'm just trying to figure out where you guys are coming from.” Graham is holding council at the next table over, behind a pillar. Gillian has a glass of water on the table in front of her. Her back is mostly straight, and her ankles coiled around the legs of her chair. Graham has adopted an understanding slouch. “—especially some of you who've been here a while. There seems to be some discontent? Is that fair to say?”

“That’s fair.” Gillian looks right at him. She doesn’t touch her water. “I don't think there's anything weird. A lot of the girls are finishing their degrees. You know, wanting more real jobs.”

“You’re not calling my job a real job, eh?” Graham looks toward the cases and then down at the marble. “I suppose not everyone is always as excited about this place as I am, but that's why we do give the full-time employees raises. It's different if you're a high school student just working full-time for the summer, but when there's no end in sight—I know.” His head bobs on his neck like a toddler-plucked dandelion. There’s a shaving cut on his cheek. 

“I don't think there's no end in sight.” You can hear Gillian inhaling through her sharp nose.

Graham raises his head. “What you have to do is just make it your happy place. You can always tell if I'm having a rough day by the way I'm describing the pastries.”

Gillian takes a very quick drink of water. Her hand is brown up to the wrist where she has ‘mascara lint roller envelopes’ written in blue pen and a phone number written in black pen.

“When life is shitty, I like to take a little journey to a place I call Cakeland.”

The cafe is full of businesswomen absorbed in conversations about their nieces’ fiancees. There’s a table of kids sprawling over their backpacks, kneeling with their boots on the cushions to eat from a communal plate of macarons, one old man. You scoot your chair just an eighth of a way around the table so you can hear better.

Gillian is still holding the glass of water. “Cakeland.” 

Graham counts on his fingers. “There’s nothing in Cakeland but sugar, butter, gold leaf, and fancy cakes. And when I've got a difficult customer, I try to take them with me on my little trip to the land of fluffy brioche and burnt orange marmalade laced with ginger and bourbon, the cold, luscious key lime tart, and the little madeleines. I tell them about Proust and the revelation in classic literature over madeleines dipped in fragrant tea.”       

Graham happens to have two madeleines in a saucer beside his mug, dips one, and offers Gillian the dripping cake. She’s gripping her glasses with her facial muscles so hard that she can’t smile and when she finally shakes her head, he pops the madeleine is his own mouth and closes his eyes while he chews. He swallows. “Or when I describe the Princess Cake I say it’s two layers of lemon sponge,” he opens his eyes, “filled with a raspberry coulis and Madagascar vanilla bean pastry cream, with a dome of house-made marzipan supported by a layer of vanilla bean whipped cream and topped with a hand-formed marzipan rose. I truly,” he shrugs his shoulders but his eyes are shining, “get excited about it and so does the customer.” 

Gillian is hovering a centimetre off her brocade chair. She looks around and, when she catches your eye, glares. “For sure, I think—” 

“So if you can do that when you're having a bad day at work, I think it might make everything more bearable. It lets you escape into a land of happiness, at least for a little while.” Graham whisks away the crumbs from the second madeleine, grinning. “Who doesn't like cake? You know? Let them eat cake!”

Gillian stands up tentatively, in three stages, first rising off her chair, then moving out to the side, and finally straightening up. 

 

A week later Graham asks the blonde girl, Carol, the new front of house manager, to sign a late slip. He’s already distressed because Carol has asserted her new role by taking it upon herself to laminate the paper price cards they put in the display-case. The cards are always getting stained with grease and chocolate and laminating them makes perfect sense, but Graham has been successfully resisting lamination for three years. The glare on the plastic is tacky, you agree. If the new cards hadn't been scattered over the marble counter when Carol arrives at 8:33, she probably would have escaped. But she starts to count the till and Graham approaches her. “So, it's 8:34.” 

You’re just a few minutes early for a quick coffee and croissant on your way to work. It’s minus twenty, twenty-five with the windchill, too cold to wait outside. 

Carol is too smart to apologize. She looks down at her legs in their lace tights, then back at Graham. “You're right.” 

Graham smiles gravely. “Do you know how the late documentation works?”                                                               

     “I don't think I need to document being late. I was checking an email in the office before I came up here.” She feels for something in the pocket of her blazer. 

“Well, we need to make sure that everyone is on the floor and ready to go when their shift starts. I would appreciate it if you set an example and filled out a form. I printed some last week—they're in a folder on Suzanne's desk.” Graham takes a full tray of pain au chocolate out of a girl’s hands, swoops it over Carol’s head, and sets it in the case. “If you want to go do that now I can help you guys open up this morning.” And thank goodness because you’re almost late for work. 

It’s impossible for Carol to do her job until Graham breaks his foot, two weeks after officially relinquishing control of the day to day operations in the front of the bakery. He’s still arriving only an hour after the croissant crew in the mornings and working in the front. He’s begun to hang around Gillian’s bar, trying to second for her when she only has a couple of drinks in line. One Saturday you’re waiting for another latte when Gillian takes the opportunity to go to the bathroom. She comes back, wiping her hands on her high-waisted black denim skirt, to find him adjusting the dose on her grinder. Her jaw does that thing. Graham turns his head awkwardly, both hands still holding down buttons on the control panel, elbows out. The long hair on top of his head flops over the closely-trimmed side. 

On Sunday he doesn't come in. 

The bakery is closed on Monday. When you come in on Tuesday, you see Graham from across the cafe, staggering in through the front doors leaning on a brass-handled yellow umbrella. He is wearing a surgical boot on his right foot. He hobbles to the counter, unbuttons his duffel coat, and unwinds a maroon paisley scarf. His satchel is a deeper shade of maroon. It’s a delightfully quiet morning and you can hear Gillian asking what happened to him. “Molly and I took a hot air balloon ride on Saturday night and I broke my foot on the landing.” 

Gillian snorts. “Did you fall out or something?”

“No, Molly won these tickets at a silent auction.” Graham is peering over her head at the shelves of cups stacked precariously behind Gillian. “There was a big group of us—they took us up, we had a nice ride, and then coming down we just bumped the ground and the shock of it—everyone else was fine.” He limps back behind the counter, still wearing his long coat, bearing down on the umbrella. The tiny Asian woman in line in front of you orders Earl Grey from Gillian. Graham leans his umbrella against the counter and strains toward the top shelf for a teapot. 

He refuses to leave, bargaining with Suzanne in front of customers until she lets him work in the office for the rest of the day. On Wednesday she apparently only lets him work for two hours, though he sits at a cafe table with his laptop for the rest of the afternoon, asking if you have any suggestions for training a new crop of baristas. Thursday night you’re in right at closing for a single florentine, one of the only things that’s usually left at the end of the night, when Graham walks out from behind the counter wearing his satchel awkwardly around his neck and clutching several thick file folders, a large plastic storage bin and a photograph in an antiqued frame. He’s walking along the wall, straight to the door, startled to see you standing there in front of the free newspaper rack, but he does not try to collect himself. He turns to you sardonically, his moustache appearing over his hunched shoulder. “It looks like I've been promoted.”

You raise your eyebrows. “Yeah?”

“Oh yes. Have a good night.”

                      

Late one night, weeks later while you’re at the gym, he calls you, carefully tracing a line from one side of a page to the other, marking the spot with his finger while he dials. Your phone rings in the middle of bench press. You sit up and stab at the screen. “Yeah.” 

“Hi, this is Graham calling from Regency Bakery. Could I speak to Bill?” 

The fluorescents are white lightning. The blood is draining out of your eyes. It must be past eleven pm. “Speaking.”

  “Hi Bill, am I calling at a bad time? I was just wondering if you had a few minutes to talk about some changes here at the shop.”

Your vision is reduced to a soft black circle around your chalky hand on your shorts in your lap. A vignette. In the bakery office, Graham clears his throat and touches one of the thank-you cards from customers standing in a row on his desk. “Yes, just so you know, we're no longer making the ginger and pear macarons. Yes. So your order for the third will have the new port and chocolate. That's what we have for April. Perfect. Thanks so much.”