Roses Take Practice

Roses Take Practice: from Chapter One


The paper plate with ‘help wanted’ scribbled on it in the window of Ida’s bakery stopped me smack in the middle of my usual rush home from school. I needed a job. I needed money. I needed more than that if I could be honest with myself, but I couldn’t. Who can? If we were honest with ourselves we’d all be walking around with ‘help wanted’ signs taped to our backs.

I knew even then that money doesn’t solve all problems. But when you hear someone say, “Money can’t buy happiness,” you can bet that person’s never eaten two weeks of ketchup and mayonnaise sandwiches becauseĀ  her mother sold the food stamps to buy booze. You can bet that person’s never seen her little brother squeezing without fuss into shoes that don’t fit because as young as he is he knows enough not to ask for anything new. You can bet that person’s been on vacation to Maine or Cape Cod or New York City.

You can bet that person goes to the dentist. Check her teeth. Rich kids might whine about their mouths full of metal, but for the rest of their lives they’ll travel the world smiling perfect smiles while kids like me grow up to smile with lips closed in photographs taken at the mall when a special deal and coupons in the paper coincide with an occasion.

Dust frosted the plaster wedding cakes in the bakery window. Three tattered bells of honeycombed tissue paper hung clumped together in a corner. Another had fallen onto a cake and lay where it landed like a passed-out drunk. Most everyone in the valley bought birthday cakes at Ida’s. The only other bakery in Rivertown, Connecticut in 1975 was the thrift store out on Route 8 where the cakes came in cellophane packages stamped with last week’s dates, where they accepted food stamps, where my family shopped. I wondered if Ida gave employee discounts.

I’d skipped lunch to meet up with Danny under the bleachers so I was hungry and craved a donut, chocolate frosted or glazed, any kind really. I tried to think about selling donuts instead of eating them, to look like a professional who knew the bakery business, someone who would be friendly to customers. Licking my lips and the gap between my front teeth, I adjusted my patched denim bag so the strap fell neatly between my breasts instead of squashing one of them, straightened my shoulders and went in.

Sunlight striped the glass cases to my left. Behind them stood shelves of bread and rolls, a slicing machine, and a cash register. In the back stretched a breakfast counter and a row of green, vinyl covered stools patched with duct tape.

“Can I help you?” a tiny old woman asked from behind the counter. Her tone suggested she thought she couldn’t. She set down a stack of saucers with a clatter.

“The job?” I crossed the floor of gleaming green and white linoleum squares. “I saw the sign.”

“You want a job?”

The woman glared at me through her glasses, her eyes steely–like the reservoir on a cloudy day. She said want with a Dracula accent–vant.

“I do.”

She wiped the clean counter with a damp rag. “Have you any experience?”

I laughed.

“What’s funny?”

“What kind of experience do you mean?”

“Bakery experience? Sales?”

“No, but I’m good at math, for making change.” Maybe I didn’t always finish my homework, but I was good at adding and subtracting in my head. “And I do all the cleaning up at home. Cleaning up must be part of the job, isn’t it?”

The old woman narrowed her eyes, her face as creased as a crumpled paper bag. “What’s your name?”

“Wylie Steele,” I admitted. My family was notorious. My younger brother, Robbie, had been caught more than once setting fires and breaking into cars. My father left when I was little. Until he died four years ago he’d come around once in awhile to sweet talk my mother into taking him back. She would, for a few days, then they’d both get drunk and fight so loud about money, about sex, about which channel to watch or who drank the last beer, that the neighbors ended up calling the police. He’d still be coming around if he could. She’d still be letting him stay, then throwing him out. When they heard he was dead, Mom, Robbie, and Kevin cried. I didn’t.

“Wylie?” the old woman said. Vylie. Dracula speaking again. “What kind of a name is that?” I let out the breath I’d been holding.

“My father named me after his favorite cartoon character, Wile E. Coyote.” I smiled without showing my teeth. He’d misspelled it on the birth certificate.

“I am Sofie Schmidt.” The old woman held out her hand, index finger bent like a claw. The nail scratched my palm and kept our hands from fitting together. “For twenty years I work here. In 1955 I started.”

That was three years longer than I had been alive.

“To this job there are many parts. Cleaning, yes. Also waiting oncustomers, putting up orders, filling donuts, decorating cakes.” She paused.

“Decorating cakes?” I said. “You mean writing happy birthday and anniversary and all that?” I wasn’t sure how to spell anniversary. I knew I couldn’t spell congratulations.

“Writing.” Sofie gave a quick nod. “Making borders, flowers, everything. Come.” She motioned me close to a case full of cakes covered with names, flowers, good luck and best wishes.

“I would have to do that?”

“I would teach you,” she said, voice flat. She didn’t sound like she was looking forward to the lessons. “Roses take practice. But see those drop flowers.” She pointed at some small yellow flowers on a sheet cake. “Those you could learn in twenty minutes, maybe fifteen.”