If he didn’t shut up and stop attacking that plate, I was going to hurl myself across the table, grab his fork, and stab him with it. I coughed to sneak a glance at my watch. I’d been smiling non-stop for exactly one hour and forty-three minutes. The longer I maintained this false bonhomie, the crankier I got. By this point, it didn’t feel like a smile so much as a bad case of lockjaw. Benson kept scraping his fork across his plate in a precise effort to capture every milligram of his dessert. He’d been prattling non-stop for the last fifteen minutes, only pausing to make determined grooves on a plate that couldn’t have been cleaner than if it had been through an autoclave. With every pass, my ballistic meter rose a few notches. We were now at level “irritable” and heading into “dangerous.” He’d been dangling this job in front of me for nearly two hours, keeping the taste of financial solvency just out of reach.
“We now have a total of ten schools,” scrape, “in six states,” chafe, “each one with four hundred students, and,” grind, “plans to open in five more states by the end of next year.”
December 12th. I’d been without a job since mid-October. Bob Benson and I were negotiating my hire for after the New Year. If I was lucky, on January 4th I’d begin teaching students how to bake. In fancy terms: pastry. That’s what I do, I’m a pastry chef. And when Bob isn’t beating up china, he’s dean of École d’Epicure in San Francisco, one of the first and best professional cooking schools in the country.
If I was unlucky, I’d be making Christmas presents for my family out of those plastic baskets that strawberries come in.
The dining room had been done for the holidays. Elaborate swags of candy pink and white-striped satin festooned the walls, culminating in big, cheery bows every fifteen feet. In my ten-year old black linen suit and a cashmere sweater sporting a gigantic moth hole in the cuff—which I discovered halfway through lunch—I felt like a ninety-nine-cent present wrapped in an elaborately beribboned box.
We were the only diners left.
With another scrape of Benson’s fork, my smile slipped. The cranky meter shot passed “dangerous” and was hovering frighteningly close to “fury.” Even though I possess the business savvy of a kumquat, no hint of impatience or garden-variety ennui could cross my face. I’d be fired before I’d been hired.
Memo to self: mortgage payment, Mary Ryan, mortgage payment.
Grabbing my coffee cup, I swilled down the entire contents, ignoring the little rivulets of pain as the scalding coffee scorched my throat. By the time the cup was back in its saucer, the smile was back in place. I needed this job, and if it required parking my self-respect at the door, I’d do it.
“Well, Mary, I’ve explained my concerns. Your qualifications are, of course, impeccable. It’s the other…” Benson’s voice trailed off. To really turn the screws, he pulled a fountain pen the size of a Cuban cigar out of his jacket pocket, gestured to the unsigned contract lying on the tabletop, and placed the pen maddeningly beyond my reach. “I must admit the other teachers would be thrilled to have you on the faculty. You really were an exceptional student, and your subsequent career…With Christmas only two weeks away, we must make sure the position is filled by the New Year. Whether you are the right candidate….” There were those annoying trail offs again. “What do you think of our current batch of students? Pretty impressive handiwork, eh?” Benson gestured a plump, well-manicured hand toward the showpieces in the corners of the dining room.
I turned up the wattage on my smile even more. A muscle on the left side of my face I never knew existed started a minute spastic tic in protest.
Not one but three gingerbread houses, big enough to stable miniature ponies, were grouped in one corner of the room. Picture if you will a student piping out twenty feet of melted chocolate for the “fencing,” although she only needed five, because most of it would break from the heat of her hands. My back ached in sympathy.
“Very impressive,” I chirped enthusiastically. Having constructed more than my fair share of confectionary extravaganzas, I’d come to the sad conclusion that these are a form of culinary masturbation. Most of them aren’t even edible.
“Although it’s been a number of years since you were a student, I’m sure you’d have no problem getting in the swing of things. When I heard, I mean when you…” Benson’s voice trailed off yet again, clearly at a loss on how to finish his sentence. Funny, how visions of me stepping on a dead body stuffed into a laundry bag, or discovering a body shot in the head at point blank range, effectively kill most conversations.
In brighter financial times, I’d have relished his discomfort. But right now Mary’s financial larder was looking mighty thin. If I didn’t get this job, I’d be forced to break an IRA to pay next month’s bills. I continued to smile, not giving in to my over- whelming desire to rip a swath of that fabric on the wall, strangle Benson so that he would finally shut up, and then stalk to the nearest bar for a very cold martini. No Vermouth. Six olives.
Memo to self: keep smiling, no matter how much it hurts, keep smiling.
Only last September I’d been at the peak of my professional career. In addition to being the pastry chef at San Francisco’s top restaurant, American Fare, I’d been on the cover of all of the national food mags. If my career had gotten any hotter I’d have had to start wearing asbestos underwear.
Yes, it sounds insufferable; yes, it sounds incredibly arrogant.
It’s amazing how the sweet aroma of smug can turn to the sharp tang of desperation.
A mere three months ago, I was one of the top pastry chefs in the country. Two months ago I’d stepped on the dead body of one of my employees at the restaurant where I worked and found the owner/chef of the restaurant shot dead in my bed. In my house. Overnight I became virtually unemployable. Not that I’d known that just yet. After all, for six years running, American Fare had been voted one of the top ten restaurants in the United States by all the top food organizations, and, I say without false modesty, the desserts always got more than their fair share of notice.
The restaurant closed for a facelift and, with a naiveté that in hindsight seems unbelievably dumb, I’d assumed job offers would be pouring in once word got out I was willing and able. Funny how a couple of dead bodies can kill your career. Who knew food people were so superstitious? And stupid. Like being involved in a murder meant they were the next in line for a ten-inch chef ’s knife in the gut. I mean, it wasn’t as if I’d killed them!
Be that as it may, my job prospects evaporated like beads of water on a hot griddle. People who’d been begging me to work for them for years wouldn’t return my calls. Even old classmates refused to consider hiring me. I’d become the Typhoid Mary of pastry chefs. The day after Thanksgiving, I sat at my dining room table, the bill for my property taxes in one hand and my mortgage notice in the other, a mere three minutes from a full-blown anxiety-induced stroke, when Antonella de Luca, an old teacher of mine, phoned to tell me that there was a teaching position open at École d’Epicure. Was I interested?
I called Benson immediately, and by his manner on the phone, I’d assumed it was a slam dunk. The snarky side of my personality rose to the fore, and in absentia I thumbed my nose at all those people who wouldn’t hire me; I’d be returning in glory to my alma mater, numerous awards and accolades under my belt. He’d mailed me the standard boilerplate about the school, we played telephone tag for weeks, and still the warning bells didn’t go off until I’d actually sat down for this lunch, still flush and sassy, thinking that this job was mine. In. The. Bag.
Five minutes into lunch I knew it wasn’t in the bag. It was beginning to look like Down. The. Toilet. Every sentence he uttered began with qualifiers: “If I was sure you were the person for the job…” “Your qualifications are exceptional, but…” and the one that caused me to mentally review every bank statement I’d received in the last three months, “There’s a little problem with hiring you….”
Hence, the smiling and groveling. Play to the man’s weaknesses I told myself. The school. His Achilles heel.
“Reading over the material you mailed me, the curriculum seems to have really changed. So much more academic,” I clucked in approval. The fact that the students were actually cooking for what looked like a mere twenty hours total out of a sixteen-month course was not something I should be concerned with.
“Oh yes, we’ve really revamped things since your time. How many years has it been?” Benson peered at me from across the dining table, his eyes scrunched inward in that tortured way of people who need glasses but refuse to wear them.
“Thirteen,” I said, trying not to sound wistful. My thirty-fifth birthday was next week. My physical self was pretty much intact: tall, skinny, with green eyes and reddish hair cut just this short of a crew cut. The green eyes were courtesy of my Irish grandmother and the rangy frame my father. The red was now courtesy of what bottle of Clairol magic my Safeway had in stock. Lately, I’d been using Radiant Ruby.
Thirteen years had turned Benson from a painfully skinny, thirty-year old man with a striking resemblance to a young Frank Sinatra into a solid, older man who moved with the ease of someone who liked the guy he saw in the mirror every morning. The extra pounds had softened his strong Italian features: a Roman nose with a pronounced hook, deep set brown eyes nestling under smooth heavy black brows, and a too full, too red upper lip. He now resembled a prosperous Mafia don, much as Old Blue Eyes did in his later years. Whatever he paid his Hong Kong tailor, it was worth it.
“Well, it certainly doesn’t seem that long, Mary.” The tone of his voice suggested that Neanderthals were still eating raw meat, the advent of cooking fires still two million years away.
I hated being the last resort. I hated being humble. But most of all, I hated not knowing where my next dime was going to come from.
“I’ll take ten thousand dollars less a year than your initial offer,” I said flatly. And, since I’d already parked my pride at the door, I groveled. “It’s a great school. You should be proud.”
Benson eyed me, eyed the pen, eyed me. Thinking I hadn’t gone far enough, I was considering yet another two thousand less when I heard the scratch of the fountain pen across the paper as he amended the amount of annual salary, initialed the change, signed it on the bottom, and then pushed the pen and contract to my side of the table for signature. Somehow I managed not to sigh audibly in relief.
With fingers sticky from nerves, I uncapped the pen, initialed the change, and signed the contract. It was probably way too tacky to ask when I’d receive my first paycheck.
Benson gathered up his pen and the contract, and tucked them away in his jacket pocket. Then he smiled; a tight, satisfied smile. I realized he’d gotten what he’d wanted all along—a top- notch chef for a lot less money than she was worth. He stood up and pushed away from the table to signal lunch was over.
“We’ll see you on January 4th. Go to the office and see my secretary. She’ll have you fill out the necessary forms. And give Allison Warner a call. The two of you can catch up while coordinating the curriculum. She’s in charge of the evening group. She’s an old friend of yours, yes?”
Benson moved to pull away and then remembered his manners. “Merry Christmas.” He held out his hand for one final handshake. Wiping my sweaty hands on the back of my skirt,
I shook his hand and smiled what I hoped was my final smile until after the New Year.
“Merry Christmas to you, too.” I tried to churn out yet another chirpy, happy reply, but it sounded more like a growl, a tribute to the strain of the past two hours and the fact that Benson had played me like a violin. I’d underestimated him; I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Fortunately for me, Benson either didn’t care or didn’t hear the sullen note in my voice because I heard his, “And Happy New Year” behind me as I rose and crossed the dining room. I trilled the fingers of one hand in acknowledgment, not trusting myself to say another word. I was all niced out.
Financial stability and personal livelihood taken care of, it was time to deal with the real question of the day. Should I hoof it downtown for those martinis or, to hell with it, hit the bar across the street. Vodka or gin? Absolut? Stoli? Bombay? A little Christmas cheer? Ho. Ho. Ho. I was nearly at the entrance to the dining room when Benson’s voice stopped me.
“Oh, Mary. There’s one thing I’ve forgotten. The morning pastry chef is in charge of the desserts for the buffet. I’m sure that won’t be a problem, will it? You know what a tradition the buffet is here at École,” he chuckled and clapped me on the back.
Problem? Oh, yeah, a big problem. I loathe buffets.
But I smiled.