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“Well, I’m an accountant, and work was ... work.”
“That sounds ... good, I guess,” said Aimee.
“Actually, it’s dreadfully dull and it’s making me crazy, but thanks for being polite about it.”
“Phew, I’m glad you said that, because I was just about to say how boring it sounded.”
“Kiki!” admonished Aimee, “That’s her job. Don’t tell her it’s boring.”
Kiki shrugged. “I’m just saying ... ”
“No, don’t worry about it,” said Elizabeth, happy to know there was someone out there she could vent to. “It’s awful. I hate it.”
“Then why do you do it?” asked Kiki.
“Because she needs to make a living,” said Aimee. “Like I need to but can’t seem to be able to.”
They’d reached the doors. Elizabeth grabbed the handle since her plate was the smallest. “After you,” she said, nodding at their thank yous as they walked past her. She didn’t argue with Aimee’s assessment because it was true enough.
They arrived at the glassed-off area set aside for the meeting. They could see Betty already in there, well into another set of booties, this time in a bright orange color.
“Those are some hellaciously ugly baby booties,” whispered Kiki.
“Sshh!” admonished Aimee, giggling.
Elizabeth agreed silently. What kind of mother puts fluorescent orange booties on her baby’s feet?
They went through the door, going over to claim spots in the comfortable, overstuffed chairs and couches.
“Hello, Betty!” said Aimee cheerfully. “How have you been?”
“Well, I’m still alive, if that’s what you mean,” said Betty, not looking up from her knitting.
Elizabeth smiled at the expression on Aimee’s face. She could tell Aimee didn’t know whether to take what Betty said as a joke or to feel bad that she’d somehow insulted the old woman.
“Well, that’s gotta be some kind of miracle,” said Kiki, “what with all the smokin’ and drinkin’ I saw you doing at that bar up the street last Friday.”
Betty cackled and looked up from her knitting, her needles going still. “Aren’t you a pistol?” She turned her gaze to Aimee. “Don’t listen to her, sweetie. I don’t drink at the bars. I drink alone – one shot of whiskey each night before I go to bed. It’s the secret to longevity. My mother taught me that, and she lived to be a hundred and five.” She went back to her knitting.
“Is that true?” asked Aimee as she put her plate down on the coffee table in front of them, dropping her purse on the floor. “Maybe I should start doing that.”
“Perhaps you should wait on that,” said Elizabeth. She could just imagine Aimee getting tipsy every night on the basis of Dr. Betty’s recommendations. Something told Elizabeth that Aimee was about as gullible as they came.
“I only do that if I’m sick,” said Kiki. “My Irish uncle used to call it a hot toddy.”
“You’re Irish?” asked Aimee.
“But ... ?”
Kiki smiled mischievously at her. “Uncle is just an expression.”
“Oh,” said Aimee.
Elizabeth could tell by Aimee’s expression that she had no idea what Kiki was talking about. Elizabeth wasn’t even sure she knew what Kiki meant.
Kiki put the platter down on the table and started unwrapping it. “Aimee, don’t tell me I can’t unwrap this now. I hate secrets. I have to see what’s under here.”
Aimee waved at the table. “Go ahead. It’s just a few things I whipped up for us to munch on while we talk about the book.”
“Shall I go get us some coffees?” asked Elizabeth. “We can do decaf if that’s an issue for anyone.”
“Sign me up,” said Kiki as she finally got to a part of the plastic that she could move off the platter.
“Me too ... decaf,” said Aimee.
“Just some warm soy for me. I’m lactose intolerant,” said Betty, now watching Kiki wrestle with the unwrapping of the mystery treats with interest.
“Okay, I’ll be right back.”
Elizabeth came back to the room five minutes later with four hot drinks and was stunned at what she saw. Sitting on the table were the most delicious-looking, beautiful confections she’d ever seen that were not on a Martha Stewart magazine cover.
“Oh my goodness, what are these?”
“These ... are works of art,” said a respectfully sober Kiki. “There’s no other way to describe them.” Her eyes didn’t move from the items on the plates, even while she spoke.
Elizabeth looked at Aimee whose face was a delightful pink. “Aimee, where did you buy these?” Elizabeth was thinking about all the high-end clients who would love to receive these as gifts from their grateful accounting firm.
“I didn’t buy them. I made them.”
Elizabeth eyes widened of their own accord. “Are you joking?”
“No. I made them ... today, actually. I had a lot of time on my hands, and I was excited about the meeting. Baking helps me keep my mind off stuff.”
“I’m almost afraid to eat them,” said Kiki, her voice almost reverent.
“I’m not,” said Betty, putting her knitting to the side of her leg and bending over with a groan to grab one from the plate nearest her. “They sure are pretty. Let’s see if they taste as good as they look.” She took one of the small, delicate pink mini cakes with the sculpted flower and tiny silver pearl on top and bit it in half.
All three women watched her in fascination. She took a few chews and then closed her eyes.
Elizabeth glanced over at Aimee and could see she was on the edge of her seat, waiting for the verdict.
“Mmmmmmm,” said Betty, her eyes opening back up and a smile lighting up her face. She finished chewing and said, “Utterly divine. Simply delicious. Young lady, you are a culinary angel.” She popped the other half of the cake into her mouth, pausing only a second to remove the small silver ball from her mouth.
“Oh, you can eat that too. It’s edible.”
“Not good for the dentures, though, sweetie.” She placed the ball on the edge of the plate, as far from the other cakes as possible.
“Oh. I didn’t realize. I’m sorry.”
Betty waved at her before taking another cake. “Don’t apologize for giving me food fit for goddesses. These girls have all their teeth. They can eat your silver balls all night long.”
Elizabeth shot her a look, trying to remain serious, but losing the battle. She and Kiki both reached for one of the tiny tarts that were on the plates nearest them. They took a bite at the same time, exchanging looks of surprise and pleasure.
Kiki was the next to give a review. “Damn, girl. You can bake your ass off. Where’d you learn how to do all this?” She swept her hand over the display of six different confections.
“YouTube. Television. Magazines.”
Elizabeth nearly choked on her tart. “You learned how to do this watching YouTube?”
“Sure. There are a lot of great videos on there, from some really talented people. Plus, I experiment a lot.”
“Oh, my god,” said Kiki, popping a tiny yellow cake into her mouth, not bothering to swallow before continuing, “she’s like ... a culinary savant or something.”
“Hey!” said Aimee, laughing. “Careful now!”
Kiki smiled as she finished chewing, unabashedly licking her fingers.
“I think she means that it shouldn’t be possible for you to be this good without ever having taken a serious course in professional baking. You have one of those spooky talents.” Elizabeth looked down at the little cake in her hand that she’d just taken off the plate. “How did you get the tart so perfectly sweet? And this cake thing so fluffy?”
“Oh, well, with the tart it’s all about not overworking the pastry and watching the heat on the filling. It can be tricky. And with the cake, the way you manage the eggs ... that’s key. It’s mostly chemistry. I was al
ways good in high school chemistry.”
Betty cackled. “You’re one smart cookie. Maybe you could bake some of these for my mahjongg club sometime. The girls would go bananas for it.” Her eyes narrowed as if picturing something unpleasant. “I’d love to show Madge Wilson a thing or two. She brings her horrible lime jello molds with nuts floating in them every week. Can you imagine? If I never see another jello mold in my entire life, I could die a happy woman.”
“I promise. I’ll do some for your mahjongg club someday. Just tell me when.”
“How much would you charge for twenty of them? Ten of the cakes and ten of those red tarts?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t charge you, don’t be silly.”
“Of course I’m going to pay for them. These must take you all day to make.”
Kiki nudged Aimee’s arm. “Make her pay you. She looks like she’s got dough.”
“Ha! I’m not rich, but I’ve got enough to pay for some pretty cakes. Especially if they’ll shame Madge into leaving her lime jello at home for the rest of my life. I’ve still got a few good years left in me.” She held up her finger, shaking it at the girls. “And let me tell you ... life’s too short to be tortured with jello molds. I think it’s time I put my foot down. You’ve inspired me with your pretty little cakes.” She smiled at Aimee, revealing her perfect dentures with their fake pink gums.
Aimee looked uncomfortable, shrugging her shoulders and not saying anything. Elizabeth was reminded of a turtle pulling itself into its shell.
“How much did you spend on the ingredients?” asked Elizabeth, looking at Aimee.
“I don’t know. Maybe seven, eight dollars?”
“And how long did it take you to make them?”
“Ummm, maybe two hours? A little less? I can make a lot in two hours, but I only had you guys, so I just made this much. Once I get going, I can do a lot in a short period of time. It’s like an assembly line kind of thing.”
“Okay, well, if you were to figure in how many you could do maximum in those two hours, take twenty cakes as a percentage, add up the cost of materials and then determine what you want your hourly rate to be, multiplied by the hours worked, you could figure out what you should charge.”
“Uh, sorry ... you lost me at hello,” said Aimee, smiling awkwardly.
“She’s saying you should charge about eighty cents to a buck for each one – assuming I’ve guessed how many you can make in two hours and a fair wage for standing on your feet in the kitchen by a hot oven properly,” said Kiki.
Elizabeth looked at Kiki, impressed with her ability to put that together so fast. “You’re good.”
Kiki lifted an eyebrow and shrugged. “What can I say? I like money.”
“Okay then,” said Betty, clearly energized at the idea of bringing down the jello mold empire Madge had so carefully built over who knew how many decades. “Twenty cakes and tarts. How about I pay you twenty-five dollars, and I’ll come get them from you before my mahjongg game next Monday. Say around eleven?” asked Betty.
“Shrewd,” said Kiki.
Betty gave her a sly nod.
“Okay,” said Aimee, looking a bit overwhelmed, “that sounds fair.”
“You can give me your address later.” Betty looked at the other two. “Are we going to talk about books now, or what?”
“No,” said Kiki, matter-of-factly.
“No?” asked Elizabeth. “Why not? I have a list of talking points.”
“Because I have something else I want to discuss first. I have an announcement to make.”
Aimee sat up straighter. “Oh, goody. Announcements.”
Elizabeth gestured with her hand for Kiki to continue, unoffended by being put off her agenda. She was feeling like throwing the agenda in the garbage anyway. She liked chatting with these girls. “By all means. Announce away.”
“For the first time since I was sixteen years old, and that’s more time than I care to admit, I am officially unemployed.”
Aimee’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “No more dancing?”
“Nope. No more dancing.”
“You were a dancer?” asked Elizabeth.
“Probably because she thought you were a street walker,” said Betty, knitting away.
“Betty!” said Elizabeth, shocked out of her gourd. “I didn’t!” She looked at Kiki in horror, hoping she couldn’t read her mind and find out that it was exactly what she had thought Kiki did for a living.
Kiki smiled. “It’s okay. I know what people think. It doesn’t bother me. But no, I wasn’t a prostitute. I was an exotic dancer – a drug free, pimp free, exotic dancer, for the record. But I’m done with it, as of two weeks ago. I’ve officially retired.”
“So what are you going to do now?” asked Aimee, fear in her voice.
“I don’t know. Plant some window boxes with flowers. Suntan. Relax. Maybe start a business. I’m not sure yet.”
Elizabeth leaned forward, suddenly very intrigued. “You’re thinking of starting a business? What kind?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought too hard about it. But I have some money to invest. My expenses are low. I could live lean for a while if I had to.” She paused for a moment looking at each of the girls before turning back to Elizabeth. “Why do you ask?”
Elizabeth sat back. “Just curious. I work with business owners all the time. In fact, I was thinking today about possibly doing the same thing – quitting and starting something on my own.”
“An accounting firm?” asked Aimee.
“No. No way. I want out of that business.”
“So, what then?” asked Betty. “Going to be an exotic dancer?”
Kiki smiled. “You could do it. You’ve got the bod. All you’d need is a few lessons. You could make a lot of money.”
“Oh, I hardly think I could do something like that. I have no rhythm. And I’d be too afraid to let a stranger see me in my underwear.”
“It’s more than underwear,” said Aimee, “it’s the full monty. You have to show them your hoo-hah and everything.” She looked at Kiki, nodding for confirmation.
“Hoo-hah?” asked Kiki.
“Yeah. Hoo-hah. Your ... you know ... lady parts.”
Kiki started laughing.
Elizabeth joined in. She looked over and could see a smile on Betty’s face too.
“What do you guys call it?” asked Aimee, slightly miffed.
“Vagina,” said Elizabeth.
“Va-jay-jay,” said Kiki.
“Hairy clam,” said Betty.
The three girls were momentarily shocked into silence before they started laughing so loud, they received hard stares from patrons of the store outside the glass meeting room.
Elizabeth held up her finger, signaling them to stop laughing so loud, but all that did was make them start snorting instead, trying to keep the guffaws in.
Kiki was the first to recover. “Oh. Em. Gee. You did not just say what I think you just said.”
“What? Hairy clam? I most certainly did too,” said Betty, not laughing, just knitting away as if nothing was happening.
“Stop,” gasped Aimee, “just stop. I’m gonna pee my pants if you keep it up.”
“Yes, okay, no more ... colloquialisms. I drank too much coffee,” agreed Elizabeth.
“Fine,” said Kiki, back to business now. “So, Elizabeth, why don’t you quit if you’re so unhappy? Just do it. Start your own thing. If you’re an accountant you must be good with numbers and know what it takes to make a business succeed.”
Elizabeth felt the humor leave her body instantly as she thought about her job. “To be honest, I have no idea why I don’t leave. I guess I just never seriously considered it an option. But after today, it’s looking more and more attractive.”
“Wow. You guys are amazing,” said Aimee. “I wish I could do that ... just have a job and then decide to quit and do something on my own.”
Kiki looked at her. “Why can’t you?”<br /
“Well, I don’t have the job to quit in the first place.”
“So, that just means you have one less obstacle,” said Elizabeth. “It’s easier when you don’t have to make that decision.”
“Well, you have to have money to start a business. And I have none.”
“Find a partner with money. You have talent. You could open a bakery or a coffee shop. You already have one customer right here.” Elizabeth pointed to Betty.
“I hope I get a lifetime discount, since I’ll be your first,” said Betty.
Aimee smiled, almost sadly. “That would be so amazing. But it’s just not possible for me right now. I have to find an apartment, get a job, figure out how I’m going to support myself. Starting a business is a luxury I can’t afford.”
Elizabeth looked at the pitiful expression on Aimee’s face and wished there was something she could do to help. “Something will turn up for you. I’m sure of it.”
Aimee perked up visibly. “I know. I’m hopeful. Don’t worry about me.” She clasped her hands together. “So ... congratulations to Kiki, right? That’s a big step. Retirement at ... 30?”
“Thirty-two. And it’s only temporary. I’m just going to take another week off to marinate and then decide what to do.”
“Well, here’s to new beginnings,” said Elizabeth, picking up one of the last few cakes on the plate in front of her.
The others each picked up a cake or tart and held them up, touching them together and smiling. “New beginnings!” they each said, before popping the confections into their mouths and smiling as the sugar, flavors and textures melted together onto their tongues.
THE LAST BOX WAS PACKED. Aimee looked over the stacks and sighed heavily. She’d made herself stick to ten of them. That’s it. Everything she owned had to fit in one of those cardboard boxes, or it wasn’t coming with her. Where she was going, she didn’t yet know. But when she found a place, she’d be ready. There was one suitcase next to the boxes that held her favorite clothes, shoes, and toiletries. She could get all this moved in one carload, and it made her happy to be so organized.
She could have taken more time to do this and probably allowed herself more boxes, too. But Jack’s behavior had escalated to the point that she just didn’t trust him to be rational anymore. She needed to pack light and be able to move quickly, just in case.