Most people know me around town as That Guy-you know That Guy, the one who always gets into some wacky situation. The locals are particularly fond of recanting the story of when Grant Fields and I stuck our tongues out to touch the lamppost on Main Street and my tongue stuck to it and froze. It took half of the fire station and two county cops to get it loose, not to mention my tongue looked like a sweet potato for the rest of the winter. So it came to no one’s surprise when I rear-ended a Cadillac on my way home from school.
The stereo roared Def Leopard as the shiny black doors attached to the luxury-model Cadillac I had impaled opened. An old man got out on the driver’s side, and it took me three double-takes to confirm that he, indeed, had an unreasonably large chef’s hat on his head. What I assumed was a teenage pizza boy got out of the passenger’s side, looking ready for battle. I would have laughed if I wasn’t sitting behind the car responsible, but I felt guilty.
The teenage mutant pizza kid came up to my car and did one of those roll-down-your-window gestures with his hand. Didn’t he know this was the 21st century? No car has roll down windows anymore. I jammed my thumb against the driver window down button on my console and pulled it back in a wince of pain. By the time I had rolled the window down, Pizza Face was inches away from me.
“Can’t ya see where ya going, ya idiot, or does ya Justin Timberlake hair glare prevent ya from driving like a sane person?”
I looked (stupidly, I imagine) up at Pizza Face and took in his quick influx of what I can only call a mildly impressive attempt at Italian pronunciation and sneezed in Pizza Face’s face.
“Ya germy scruff, ya tryna contaminate me or something?” he roared and released my door frame.
I took the opportunity to slip out of my Volvo and shut the door behind me. The tail end of my shirt got stuck in the door jamb, effectively pinning me between the closed car and the coughing Pizza boy.
“Sorry, allergies” I apologized to him when he recovered, “Why do you have Anchovy particles on you?”
“Anchovy part-? What the hell ya talking about, ya superstitious scientist sucka? I outta knock ya lights out,” he replied angrily.
I sensed that he was someone who could anger at just about anything, and hoped that he had forgotten why he so obtrusively cratered his way over here and into my personal space. The old chef, whatever he was, was making his way toward our confrontation as quickly as it takes to memorize the dictionary. I could see a glacier move in the distance.
“Young man, I believe you rear-ended my Cadillac,” he announced as he finally approached.
Pizza face looked (if possible) angrier by the arrival of Chef, and I gathered that they were related by the intense and somewhat savage gleam in their eyes. They were both ambitious, I can tell you that much. That was my oh-so-here-we-go introduction to Ray and Papa. Papa was a restaurant tycoon, owning everything from a Pizzeria he had founded fifty years ago to his newest investment, a small town project he was down here in Vallejo to convert the old block to what he called a Cupcakeria. Ray, his nephew, had entered the family business and was now the big boss of the Pizzeria himself, but Papa had wanted him to finalize some details on the Cupcakeria.
That first conversation was confusing, and I think back on it and wonder if it actually happened. Papa introduced himself and Ray and told me why they were here in Vallejo. I stared dumbly at Papa and wanted to know if his hat was puffy or scratchy. I almost asked to try it on, but Ray probably would have knocked my nose into tomorrow or something like that. Papa didn’t skirt around, he got right down to business.
“I have assessed the damages at about $10,000 even,” Papa told me matter-of-factly as if I had asked him how much money his shoes had cost.
I took out my wallet and expected a small bird to fly out of it like they did in the toons, but I dropped it on the ground instead. A couple of quarters rolled out of the change pouch and fell down the gutter with a ching! Papa looked from the battered wallet to me and nodded. Ray stood by stupidly, his gangling shoulders shrugged.
“The only solution will be for you to run the Cupcakeria and pay off your debts,” Papa told me.
I grimaced first. Then, I considered his proposal that I couldn’t refuse. Papa took out a silver key and put it in my hand. Then he left me instructions of where to go tomorrow morning, bright and early. I wondered again if this was a dream or a nightmare, then Ray had moved right in front of me.
“I’m calling ma sister to come in and work with ya, so she will know if ya tryna screw us over,” he threatened. Then he punched me in the eye. They walked back to their Cadillac and drove away, leaving me pinned in the car door and clutching my eye.
The next morning, I left the Volvo at home and walked to the Cupcakeria on foot. Half of my decision to walk was that I’d probably wake up on the stroll over and realize that I wasn’t the shiny new owner of a brand new restaurant. The other half just couldn’t start the car this morning and realized that carbon monoxide poisoning was becoming more than an idle threat. So yeah, clean air and bright nice light on my stroll to the Cupcakeria.
No one was parked in the brand new parking lot, not even my Volvo that wouldn’t start. No one was standing on the brand new sidewalk that my thrift store Air Jordan’s occupied. No one had even opened the brand new doors which had a shiny bright lock on them. I walked next to the brand new parking lot, across the brand new sidewalk, and opened the brand new door. It opened like it was brand new, everywhere, big SIGNS that yelled BRAND NEW!!!
It opened on a small room with two full walls, one wall with a door, and a wall with a door for EMPLOYEES ONLY and a window that would serve as a portal between worlds. Taped to the window was a note:
To the owner of this impressive establishment,
Congratulations on owning your own Cupcakeria. You get paid weekly, beginning at $100 that goes directly to Papa. You are not only the owner; you’re also the cashier, the food preparer, the chef, the packager, and the distributer. Just be sure you aren’t the consumer, ha-ha! My niece Willow will stop by to check on your progress and evaluate your work. You’ll have to live up to our standards or YA FIRED (as Ray would say, he says hello).
Peace and blessings and Good Luck Kid,
PS: The pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles
I taped the note next to the toaster dedicated to making the cupcakes for inspiration. It brought me little. As for the pumps, they were indeed broken.
I didn’t really understand the note, but I pulled up a chair and sat looking at it for three hours. I didn’t hear Willow come into the Cupcakeria, because the vandals had also apparently taken the doorbell. She crept up behind me. She grunted from the doorway, a low hum-hum like a train, and I spun around and fell out of the chair. She laughed, and I rubbed the back of my neck.
She confirmed my identity and then stood back as I got up. I noticed that she had brought a big box of things with her. She had left this box on a metal table against the wall. She taught me about the EMPLOYEE ONLY room. It had four walls. The wall with the window in it was referred to as order station. The other three walls were dubbed Batter, Bake, and Build. Willow sat against the toaster oven on the wall called Bake and watched me look around the room.
The room was so powerful. Even though you could see outside the window into the order station, they couldn’t see in here. It was like a McDonald’s drive-thru window separated the order station nation from planet EO. Willow and I were aliens.
Willow started with the room. She explained how important the room was to us, the workers, and that we had a civic duty to help the public by serving these cupcakes and in return we would be taken care of. She had so much passion when talking about the Cupcakeria. She really believed in us from the beginning. She was the mother of the establishment; she only wanted the best for it from the start.
We went to Batter and Willow brought the box over from Build. Inside, she pulled out a cupcake tin for two, a plastic holder with four holes for four different cupcake wrappings, and the four different cupcake wrappings themselves. There was a machine on this side of the room where the different types of batter would wait for me to pour its goop into the wrappings. Willow would mix the batter.
At Bake, Willow showed me the toaster oven. It could fit four pans, eight cupcakes at once. I absorbed all this information factually. It became as important as Scripture. Bake was also time for another recreational activity, Willow’s personal addition that had nothing to do with cupcakes.
“I smoke a little weed while the cupcakes bake,” she explained, “The customers can’t see you, so it’s perfectly fine. They can’t smell it, because the cupcakes, man, they like smell real good and it masks the weed, so yeah you’ll be fine. You smoke weed before, Kid?”
I nodded yes and said, “No”
“I love that,” she said and ruffled my hair, “Say you’re pretty cute, good thing Valentine’s coming up next. I had to work New Year’s all alone. Ray would’ve helped me, but he was real busy and stuff.”
I nodded again. Willow sat in her chair and lit up a joint from her purse. She crossed her legs at the thigh and oh wow I mean what I can say. She passed me the joint and I smoked with her. I leaned against the stupid toaster oven and it burnt me because Willow had turned it on earlier.
She pointed out Build to me and explained it was where I added frosting, sauces, Oreos, chocolate chips, cherries, and the other toppings. She told me we needed more, they were out of stock right now, but soon we would have more for the holidays. We would then give the cupcakes to the customers in order stations and come back for more. That was all there was to it. Willow pointed all this out with the veteran knowledge of a seasoned pro, the joint hanging loosely between her index and middle fingers.
Only five people came in. When the last customer came up to order station, Willow explained that he was the closer. The last person for the evening was the most likely to pay extra tips if impressed. That was important, because I got to keep the tips. We laughed over trivial things that day. She told me a funny story about Ray falling into the deep fryer once and burning his arm pretty severely. I laughed too loud at that one.
“Why you laughing? You should be practicing,” she told me seriously, smoking her third joint of the shift.
“Practicing what?” the weed had made me feel more educated, ladies and gentlemen of the jury I am not high on the job, butterflies.
She had said something and I hadn’t listened. The damn butterflies strike again.
“Repeat. I want a do-over,” I said to her, which caused her to snort and subsequently cough.
“I said that you have to perform too. I can always use a partner for my 80s jam. If you’re on my shift, you’re welcome to hang with me, baby,” she replied.
Willow really loved the 1980s. She knew almost every hit and wonder from the boogey-woogie years and passionately performed renditions of these tunes at any opportunity. She even had Madonna cone bras. I liked that act in particular.
I told her I didn’t know anything about music, having never really listened to anything except the pop hits of the days, what does the fox say anyway? I couldn’t think straight. I tripped and fell over in Batter and pulled the remnants of the vanilla batter onto my head. It got my work uniform dirty.
“Jesus, clean up. I’ll be surprised if you can go through one shift without causing some trouble,” but she was laughing as she said this, “If you hurry, I’ll show you what I do after work.”
I got rid of that batter by eating it, which led to a violent trip to the bathroom, crude but oh so rude. Willow waited for me, by dancing around the order station to Living on a Prayer. I brushed up a bit and walked out and she led me out the back door to an alleyway. I thought for sure that Ray was out here ready to knife me, but Willow took my hand and led me down the alley to a sideshow tent in a shady corner.
Inside the tent, there was a carnival of sorts hidden inside the ruins of a building in the financial district. It had been part of a series in a run of underground casinos broken up by the rebuilding era of the 70s. The hidden carnival was run by the locals of the town, and had no place or purpose in any other location. I couldn’t imagine the area without it.
Willow showed me the different attractions: a baseball sideshow where you had to strike out your opponent, a roulette wheel, a game that made you follow coins under cups while the operator switched the cups around on full turbo. Other attractions included finding hidden things around the tent, a game similar to Skee-ball, a game similar to Plinko, and a shooting range. It was unbelievable.
We spent the better part of the early evening after our shift wasting our tip money on the carnival games. In some cases, we won money back. We went to the furniture store across the road and bought retro posters for the Cupcakeria. It was fun to the max, super-de-doper, can’t stop, won’t stop, right round. We were so irresponsible, driving to madness by the drugs and the lights of the carnivals and the change, those coins rattling around like pirate treasure.
I eventually found my way home after looking for my Volvo for twenty minutes and tripping into a pothole. I smelled disgusting, but had no one at home to comment on that fact. After showering, I lost my buzz and decided to go bed. By the morning, I found that most of yesterday’s events were hazy to say the least.
The Cupcakeria was as popular as ever. All five customers came back the next day, around the same times they had come in yesterday. Willow came in during the second wave, causing me to almost spill a tray with two chocolate batter filled wrappings. I popped them into the toaster oven and sat in her chair as she lit up the joint. She gave me a hit and showed me a date in her calendar. It was Valentine’s Day, and it was tomorrow.
“We need a miracle,” she began as I coughed out a huge spurt of toxins, “Holidays are a nightmare for a newbie like you. They’ll eat you up and spit you out. We’ll need new decorations. Maybe we can really turn a profit it we play it up. Hearts, roses, candy, that type of thing, we’ll buy a ton of them with the tips from the next couple of days.”
She went off into a corner of EO to talk to herself. I sat in Bake, baking up by myself with the joint she had left. When the toaster oven had called me over, I considered helping her out. If I really tried to learn the craft, if I could perhaps gain some sort of affinity for the Cupcakeria, we could really have something.
Willow looked unconcerned. I got through the wave and completed another. The closer of the night had the look of a food critic. I pointed this out to Willow through the window into order station.
“That’s Jojo. He’s from France. He stops by on occasion to try out Papa’s restaurants,” Willow told me from Bake.
Then she went out to talk to him. It was surprising to see her without the joint, and even more surprising to see her interacting with them so personally when she wasn’t performing. She still hadn’t made me perform yet. She told me I had to wait until I wasn’t a newbie, because she had an image to uphold.
After work, we stopped by the carnival in the alley and played a couple games. I picked up a good bit of tips and earned a little more on the roulette wheel. Willow and I decided to invest in heart shape sprinkles imprinted with little ‘X’ and ‘O’ designs as well as some strawberry sauce for a topping. Pleased with our purchases, she decided to light a celebratory joint before we locked up and went home.
It never occurred to me that I was getting sucked into a pattern. I never bothered to ask Willow about days off, mostly because I never had had many friends, and Willow was a real pal. This morning, she had come in earlier than me and decorated the room with obnoxious posters, most likely won in furious attempts at the carnival. I was impressed with her work, the whole room was mad groovy.
Willow sat in EO, wearing a Go-Go’s outfit and trying to roller skate. I checked her out as I walked in and shut the door behind me. I hadn’t thought of getting her anything, but seeing her today had made me go outside and pick a flower from the still brand new front lawn. I gave her the flower and she had taken it quietly and quickly. Then I moved forward and she stumbled on top of me as I knocked her off her roller skates and fell backward.
“You trying to get fresh?” she flicked my ear as she pushed herself up.
“So what?” I shot back.
She gave me a quick kiss for that and skated out the door. She told me over her shoulder that it would be a busy day. She wasn’t kidding. At least two more people ordered custom cupcakes, keeping me bouncing between the walls like a lunatic in an insane asylum. After the second batch, Willow came into EO and lit a joint. It tasted different from the normal stuff.
“I got this from the Love Doctor, baby. Don’t worry,” she assured me as her face turned polka dot spaceship beep bye gone.
I stumbled around, whoops was that the chocolate sauce I just knocked over? I tripped and half fell out of the drive-thru window between EO and order station. The customers looked at me. I knew them then, they knew me-old Olga, the foreigner who so loved cherries looked concerned and menacing.
I pulled myself back into EO and tried to bake while baked. The first attempt had too much batter; the second was the wrong kind. I fell asleep against the toaster oven. I woke up to the hysterical dinging of the toaster oven timers and gave the cupcakes to the customers without taking them to Build. Then I started cleaning up, assuming the last person was the closer, and not remembering that Willow said more people would come in on Valentine’s Day.
Suddenly, Willow was bursting through the door, looking redder than a baboon’s booty. She pulled me by the ears, and told me I’d done it now. That was it, I ruined it. Those customers had stormed off, appalled at my idea of some tasteless joke. I tried to explain that it was just the butterflies, the lights, everything was so bright Broadway here I come, I’m coming home Mama, the homecoming queen, and suddenly I thought of Papa and I got so scared that Ray would spit in my eye that I focused on Willow.
“Jesus, I’m sorry, Willow. Let me make it up to you,” I offered, actually focusing on her.
“No way. You’re done in here for the day. Try your best at entertaining if you’re any good. Good luck though, that’s the toughest crowd I’ve seen in a long time. There’s a ton out there too,” she said, pulling me close to her.
“Fine, anything,” I scoffed. I really didn’t want to sing, but I figured that hey what did I have to lose? Whatever this could be kind of fun, I guess.
“Get out there,” she pushed me out of EO into the order station, and I slipped right into Edna and knocked her cupcake to the ground. Edna dropped the other one onto my head and ordered two more from Willow. There were six people in the room; all expecting Willow to come out and no doubt rouse them with another great rendition of Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is A Place on Earth. I picked a song that sounded cool on the juke and danced my heart out.
I was really into the song, and I could see Willow eyeing me from the kitchen, giving me that look. Like the hearts were reflecting out man, they were trailing me to her. I moved toward her in that heart tunnel, tunnel of love, the two of us, man I was stoned. People laughed as I zombie crawled toward her and almost tripped-almost!
I set my sights on you/(And no one else will do)
And I/I got to have my way now, baby
All I know is that to me/You’d look like you’re having fun
Open up your loving arms/Watch out here I come
You spin me right-round, baby, right-round/Like a record baby, right-round round round
You spin me right-round, baby, right-round/Like a record baby, right-round round round
The people in order station seemed to really resonate. Suddenly, they were smiling; laughing, having a jolly fine time like Santa had come or more appropriately Cupid had struck them down with his pimp hand strong. I was in High Holiday spirits, doing one of those circle breakdancing run things on the ground, and the people were laughing. I twirled and they clapped. Willow came out to dance and people laughed so hard at both of us having it out of the floor that they ceased caring about their eatables. Eventually, they left.
“We saved Valentine’s Day. We made some tips, all thanks to you!” Willow said like the heroine of my teenage toon fantasies. After my shift, Willow kissed me again and we went to the carnival. She gave me a promotion to Rookie and I won her heart.
We ran the Cupcakeria all the way through Valentine’s until St. Patrick’s Day. We pre-gamed St. Patty’s so hard that we had done away with the Valentine’s stuff two week before and decked out with our greens out. It was a blast, getting wasted in Bake while we baked and seeing all those happy people eating our cupcakes. I had even taken to performing duets with Willow while waiting. We were happy people, Willow and me.
The day before St. Patrick’s Day was the day everything changed. I expected Willow to go out and get green decorations, so when I found the light of the Cupcakeria on up ahead, I ran quick and tripped on the pavement. I thought someone was robbing us, and such a feeling of paranoia and manliness stole over me, causing me to pump and force the door open.
The sight was a vaguely familiar one. Order station looked a little more official in the twenty-one days it had been in active commission. I knew EO better than I knew myself at this point. I knew order station well enough to tell that something was out of place. Then I saw the single sheet of paper sticking on the order window.
I ripped the sheet down and read:
To That Guy,
Congratulations on doing a phenomenal job with my Cupcakeria. Profits are through the roof! Willow says you’re an absolute pleasure to work with (she says hello by the way and something about getting “greens” ha-ha!) so congratulations and victory to you. We are just about even in our debts, wouldn’t you say? No? Oh, well it turns out that I need someone like you to manage my Wingeria in Vegas. You see, son, the Wingeria is basically like the Cupcakeria, it just needs a touch from a marketing genius, such as yourself. Have fun in the sand dunes!
Your last paycheck will be mailed to you,
PS: Ray says hello!
I ripped the letter in two. I couldn’t believe it. I had dedicated a lot to the Cupcakeria, more than I had ever intended to, and I realized that without this, I felt scared. I mean, how was I going to tell Willow?
She already knew, of course. I found this out when she walked in, knocking me headfirst into Build. I knocked down the bag of green shakers, mint shavings, and lucky coin toppings she had purchased.
“I’m going to Vegas!” I yelled in her face when she asked what was wrong.
“Yeah, congratulations on the Wingeria,” she said amused.
“Are you coming with me?” I asked.
She hadn’t known that I would ask that of her. She was more interested now. This had been an unforeseen addition to something she, herself couldn’t name.
“No, baby. If I had made other choices in life, perhaps. But I can’t live my life as a Winga-waitress,” she kissed me and lit the joint.
I finished out my day and earned my third pay check. It was for $150, more than I expected. Willow drove me to the airport, handed me an envelope with further instructions, and kissed me when my plane flew into the gate. I looked at her with eyes that burned words and we danced to sweet 80s melodies in our heads. She did up my coat and told me to call, baby.
“You’re a dynamite kind of guy, you know,” she told me as we danced to Take My Breath Away, “I’ll always remember that about you. That Guy was a real smooth criminal. That Guy was dynamo.”
I waved and called back to her, “I’ve had the time of my life, and I owe it all to you.”