The Cake Therapist, my first novel, debuts on June 2.
Here's a little taste to whet your appetite.
Spoiler Alert. . . This novel is like a sweet cupcake with a dark, secret filling. It's a story told in the present tense, with flashbacks. But rest assured, it all comes together at the end.
If you like what you read, there is more to enjoy at your favorite bookstore or amazon.com. I'll make it easy for you to pre-order with a link at the bottom of the page!
The windows at Macy’s were dressed in the usual high-wattage holiday fanfare, and the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza twinkled as valiantly as ever. But for me, December had been gray and blah, like suffering through the end of a cold when you couldn’t taste anything.
Instead of hurrying down Fifth Avenue with shopping bags full of gifts, I was hauling my life away from Brooklyn in a rental truck.
Good-bye, New York.
Slow and steady, careful not to take sharp turns, I made my way out of the city. Past the brownstones in my neighborhood and the concrete, glass, and steel downtown. Past the stone barns and Victorian farmhouses in Pennsylvania. Up and down the stark hills of West Virginia.
When I finally hit I-70 at the Ohio border in the ink-black night, I pulled off in a truck stop, just to rest my eyes, and ended up sleeping for a few fitful hours.
When I woke up, groggy and stiff, the light was gray again.
I filled the gas tank and poured bad truck-stop coffee, the kind that was so weak that someone could have just murmured “coffee” over a cup of hot water and it would have tasted the same. But it was better than nothing.
At the next Starbucks in St. Clairsville, I got a triple-shot latte and one of their cinnamon scones. Even the jolt of coffee and spice couldn’t nudge my taste meter off “Dull.” I guess I had to accept that for now.
Driving through the rolling farmland of central Ohio, I let my mind wander as I kept my eyes on the road.
It wasn’t often that I had difficulty tasting something. Flavor was the way people like me made sense of the world.
We knew that there was a flavor that explained you—even to yourself. A flavor whose truth you recognized when you tasted it. A flavor that answered the question you didn’t know you had.
Perhaps it was a voluptuous vanilla that your sharp-edged self could sink into like a pillow. Or homesick pomegranate, each seed like a ruby slipper that would take you back to the place where you were loved and where people had missed you.
That’s where I was going. If only I could taste it.
By the time I reached Columbus and headed south on I-71, I knew I was only two hours from home.
Unlike other aging factory towns around it, Millcreek Valley was reinventing itself as a bridal district. Now in the small 1840s brick cottages, two-story Italianate storefronts, shotgun-style houses, and a smattering of nondescript sixties modern brick-and-chrome buildings, you could find lingerie, bridal gown, tuxedo, and honeymoon travel shops. Wedding planners like my high school friend, Roshonda Taylor, had customers who traveled from three states away. The old brick five-and-dime had become an upscale boutique, selling Vera Wang and Monique Lhuillier gowns.
And that was why I was opening my bakery there. Well, one of the reasons. I wanted a destination place with a ready-made[ market.
In the bridal business, everyone knew that December was the biggest month for engagements. In January, those happy brides-to-be would start planning their weddings, so we had to be open by the first Saturday, when hordes of mothers and daughters would crowd the sidewalks, shivering from shop to shop.
And the second reason? I needed a project. A big project.
Anything to help me forget I had nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.
When I finally pulled up to the stoplight on Millcreek Valley Road, ready to turn down Benson Street, I gave myself a long, hard stare in the rearview mirror.
I had inherited my father’s dark auburn hair along with his green eyes. But I also got my mother’s unruly curl, so my hair had a tendency to escape a topknot or ponytail every chance it got. Today was no exception.
I was only thirty-two, but I thought I looked older. Much older. Sleeping in a truck stop in the middle of nowhere on a cold night will do that to you. I pinched my cheeks for color and put on a quick swath of lipstick. I was no primper, but there was something really depressing about looking as drab as you felt. As my aunt Helen often said, “Fake it till you make it.”
That was the corollary to Millcreek Valley’s unwritten rule: Work hard and don’t complain. People here put a premium on niceness and disapproved of moaning and groaning. Especially on Sunday.
As I pulled into the parking lot of my soon-to-be bakery right next to my soon-to-be house, I saw Roshonda across the street, opening the front door of Jump the Broom. I waved at her, thankful that my good friend was now my business neighbor, then jumped out of the truck.
We met in the middle of Benson Street in a big hug, then walked arm in arm back to the parking lot.
“Well, you still look like the same Claire O’Neil I knew in high school, thank goodness. I’m so glad you didn’t go all big-city glam on me. I really missed you, sweetie,” she said, holding on tight. “And now that you’re back for good, we can remind the people in this one-horse town how sophisticated thinkers have fun.”
“Yes, of course.” I nodded with mock solemnity. “Like the time we wrapped ourselves in Christmas tree lights, plugged ourselves in, and danced in front of my house?”
“People still keep asking me, ‘When is the next Festival of the Dancing Lights?’”
“Or when we bribed the opposing women’s softball team with coffee-toffee bars?”
“Strike out, fly out, just get yourself out; then you get a cookie. That was the deal.”
“I’m surprised we didn’t get kicked out.”
“We saved that for later. We can get ourselves kicked out of lots of places now.”
We both laughed and knew that wasn’t about to happen. We talked a good game, but we were both Goody Two-shoes at heart. When other people in your family chose to be bad, somebody else had to be good. That didn’t mean we didn’t have a yen for bad boys who always messed us around. You’d think Goody Two-shoes would be smarter than that, but then they’d have to call us Smarty Two-shoes, and have you ever heard of one? No.
“I got you a welcome-home gift,” Roshonda said. “It was too heavy to carry, so I had them put it on your front porch.”
We walked past the bakery to Gran’s old house, the one that I was fixing up for myself since Gran now lived in Mount Saint Mary’s memory care wing. A fresh coat of dark gray paint and cream trim had the shotgun-style house looking pretty good. I spotted Roshonda’s gift on the wide front porch, right by the black front door—one of the concrete geese that everyone around here wanted as yard art so they could dress them up in outfits for almost any occasion or season. This one wore a chef’s hat and a baker’s apron. There was a gaggle of concrete geese in the parking lot of Hodapp Hardware on Millcreek Valley Road keeping watch over the town, but none of them ever laid that golden egg as far as I could tell.
Maybe mine would be different. I checked underneath.
“Bad news. No egg,” I told Roshonda.
She looked, too. “Good news. No goose poop.”
I unlocked the front door. Roshonda and I went inside the house, which was just waiting to be filled with all the stuff I had in my truck.
We walked from the front parlor to the dining room and back to the kitchen, then upstairs to see the two bedrooms and home office on the second floor. The new bed and upholstered headboard that I had ordered online were already set up in the largest bedroom.
“It’s beautiful. Fresh and quiet and calm. It feels good in this house,” Roshonda said.
“I can’t wait to move in. Gavin did a great job.” Our high school friend Gavin Nichols had begun his career in the art department of a large advertising agency in Chicago and then quickly charmed his way into a coveted in-house marketing vice presidency at Quaker. But, after spending some time climbing the executive tree in brand management, Gavin began to feel hamstrung by corporate life. A couple of years ago, he announced to us he was chucking everything to start his own space planning and interior design business back in Millcreek Valley. Oatmeal’s loss was my gain. Of course, the rumor was that Gavin had also left a serious relationship. Still, we knew not to pry; he’d tell us if he wanted us to know.
When I called Gavin to tell him I was closing things up in New York, he shouldered the massive renovation of Gran’s house without missing a beat. And he was also helping me revamp the Rainbow Cake building. I couldn’t wait to see that, either.
“Let’s bring in a few things, just to get you started.”
Roshonda helped me unload the handcart from the back of the truck and wheel a few boxes into the kitchen. She also wheeled in my two suitcases.
“When are the guys coming to move you in?”
“Not for another two hours.”
“Well, then let’s take a look at the bakery, shall we?”
Although Gavin had texted me photos as the work had progressed, it still wasn’t like seeing it in person. I hoped it looked as great as my house.
The simple truth was that I owed Gavin, big] -time. While my New York life was melting down as fast as buttercream frosting on a hot day, he took charge of my escape plan, which included renovating the vacant old library building for me.
I found the front door key in my purse, and we stepped inside the revamped storefront.
When I turned the lights on, I felt like I had stepped inside a Tiffany’s box.
“Oh, Neely!” Roshonda said.
The walls were painted a robin’s egg blue. Antique wood-and-glass display cases had mottled milk chocolate–brown marble countertops. Antique iron-and-glass stands would make the future little cakes (under their glass domes) pop up and down the on the counter like jaunty hats.
From the top of the left wall of the bakery, Gavin had hung a canvas curtain and arranged a display area in front of it. Both the curtain and display would change each month—as would, of course, the colors and flavors we showcased. The idea was to sell not only cakes, but also cake stands, serving pieces, plates, paper napkins, and other goodies, so once your little cakes got home, they’d look as good as they did in my bakery. One-stop shopping.
On the right, Gavin had arranged a seating area with dark bentwood chairs and café tables. It looked like a tea salon in Paris.
I sighed with delight.
But I wanted to see where I would spend most of my time.
The work and storage areas were screened off in the back, although I would have been happy to show off my two Vulcan convection ovens-on-wheels and the big stainless steel worktable with the cool marble slab at one end for chocolate work.
The calm milk-chocolate plaster walls, stainless steel, and white marble made the workspace look like a shrine to the cake baker’s art. And I liked to think it was.
“Does this start to make up for everything else?” Leave it to Roshonda to get right to the point.
I nodded yes. I was too tired, too frazzled, to cry.
She offered to help me put things away, but I knew she was busy, too. And I wanted to get into this new life without distraction.
“I’ll leave you to it, then,” she said. “Just text me if you need anything.”
As I unloaded the smaller boxes of bakery gear from the truck and started putting everything away, I had that soothing sense of making order out of chaos. Like reading a mystery novel and having everything tied up at the end.
But no matter how many whisks I hung on hooks or metal cookie cutters I put in plastic bins, there was still a hole in my heart. Two holes, in fact.
The old one had been shrinking. The new one was still ragged at the edges.
Dark Chocolate. Rich Coffee.
I didn’t know until I licked the mocha buttercream from my third devil’s food cupcake that this was the flavor of starting over—dark chocolate with that take-charge undercurrent of coffee.
I could actually taste it, feel it. And now I craved it.
Slowly, I was coming back to myself.
The past two weeks had gone by in a flash: packing up on a drizzly December day, driving from the East Coast to the Midwest, getting my house and then my new business set up. I yearned to curl up in front of my fireplace and just stare at the flames.
But here I was on yet another Sunday, getting ready for a soft opening by next weekend. Everything was a fast-paced blur on the outside of my life, but inside, where it counted, I was back in working order. I could taste.
At the moment, I needed a quick break from the sensory overload in the bakery, which held every color, aroma, and flavor of the past few days of frenzied production. I had once read about a Montreal baker who developed a perfume she called “Wheat Siren,” inspired by the aroma and flavor of sweet things baking. Even though my own muse seemed to be plodding in chef’s clogs rather than sashaying in Jimmy Choo’s, the full-body allure of the kitchen had returned to me with emphasis. Years ago, during my very first weeks of pastry school, I had learned that too much of a good thing was still too much. So over time—and with some difficulty—I’d trained myself to step back and reassess at regular intervals. If only I had been as wise in my personal life.
Today, I decided I should step outside, even if it was January. Maybe the shock of the cold and a blast of winter wind would sharpen my focus.
I opened the front door of Rainbow Cake and, like a genie from a bottle, the warm bakery air escaped with me. All of those aromatized esters, the flavor bouquet that wine geeks described as they swirled and sniffed a glass of wine, spiraled out above the sidewalk along Benson Street.
I looked up to see the sun struggling behind a gray mass of snow clouds.
I could relate.
And then a beam of sunlight found a way through. A sign? Maybe.
But what was this? I gasped. The bakery esters had refracted into visible bands of flavor.
Red raspberry, orange, and the yellow of lemon and butter.
Pistachio, lime, and mint green.
The deepest indigo of a fresh blueberry.
The violet that blooms when crushed blackberries blend into buttercream.
The Roy G. Biv that a baker loves.
And then the darkness: chocolate, spice, coffee, and burnt sugar caramel.
Every flavor, I knew, was a shortcut to a feeling. Sorrow. Joy. Anticipation. Fear.
And every feeling was the heart of a story. And we all had a story.
Above me was a rainbow of stories. Maybe I could have a quick taste of one right now. . . .
Something purple. Mmmmmm. Plum.
Could a flavor be pleased with itself and its position in the world? That was plum. Not the sharp-flavored skin and the sweet flesh of a fresh plum, but more the concentrated flavor when the fruit was cooked down for a tart filling. Like the taste of port. In fact, I liked to pair plum and port together.
You won’t be able to wear your pretty gloves and eat one of Mrs. Skillman’s crullers; I can vouch for that.
Who said that? I turned around to look for the old-fashioned gentleman who had just spoken, but he wasn’t there. Never mind. My imagination was in overdrive, so I didn’t see what was coming.
“Watch the dog!”
Tiny, low-to-the-ground Mrs. Amici almost bowled me over as she walked her dog, Barney, down the sidewalk.
“Good morning to you, too, Mrs. Amici.” She looked deceptively sweet with her cotton-candy hair, faded pink parka, and aqua velour pants. But we all knew her bark was every bit as bad as her bite. Barney, half dachshund and half beagle, practically toppled over as he angled his long, tubular body to christen every parking meter and streetlight pole.
“Hope you got enough people around here who can afford those fancy cakes,” she grumbled, and nodded up to Rainbow Cake’s colorful sign.
“I hope so, Mrs. Amici.”
“You’re not going to make it if you go around looking like that. You’ve got blue hands,” she pointed out. “And your hair hasn’t seen a comb since I don’t know when.”
“You’re right, Mrs. Amici,” I had to admit, wiping my hands on my white baker’s apron, for all the good it did. “A little frosting, that’s all. Robin’s egg blue is our signature color.”
She tut-tutted, and her gaze went up to my face.
Did I have buttercream there, too? Probably. I quickly patted my face. I knew I still looked tired, as I had been working nonstop.
“If that’s how you ran around in New York City, no wonder you had to come home with your tail between your legs,” she added, with a mean chuckle. “Little Claire O’Neil. Or is it still Claire Davis? Miss I Can’t Wait to Get Out of This Dump. Oh, wait a minute—it’s Mrs. Big Shot running back home to her mother. Only thirtysomething and you’re already washed up. Don’t look so shocked. It has happened before, believe me.”
I gasped. Her sharpness started to work its way inside me like a splinter.
Lemon. I could just taste it. Above her head, a band of yellow seemed to separate from the rest of the flavor rainbow. As it went into free fall, enveloping us both, I could taste the crumb of a buttery lemon bar that got more and more puckery. Ehhhh.
“Whatever,” Mrs. Amici grunted at me, oblivious, and then hobbled along as Barney did his funny arabesque down the sidewalk.
The wind picked up.
Roshonda opened the front door of Jump the Broom to get the newspaper from her front stoop. “Whatever you’re baking up in there, Neely, it sure smells good,” she said. “Reminds me of my auntie’s tea cakes.”
“I’ll bring you something later,” I promised.
“Neely! We’re ready for January,” Gavin called from the bakery doorway.
The flavor rainbow was gone, and I went back inside where Gavin and the photographer were setting up the first digital shot. For the grand opening next weekend, I’d gone all out. My signature rainbow cake—layers of lavender, coral, lime green, lemon yellow, and raspberry pink cake frosted with our robin’s egg blue buttercream—provided the logo for the bakery sign, brochure, business cards, and website. We took that photo yesterday.
Like any bakery, we’d have the standard stuff—breakfast pastries and muffins, cinnamon rolls, coffee cakes, cakes, cookies, and more. But it was the monthly, flavor-themed specials that would, hopefully, bring customers back to try something new. It was a marketing idea that ice cream makers had been all over for years.
At Rainbow Cake, January’s special flavors would be dark chocolate and coffee, those pick-me-ups we all needed to start the day—or a new year. To me, their roasty-toasty flavors said that even if you only had a mere handful of beans and your life went up in flames, you could still create something wonderful.
A little trial by fire could do you good. After all, if it worked so well with raw cacao and coffee beans, it could work for others, including me. Or so I hoped.
I ran back to the workroom, where I had everything ready to go on my rolling cart of vertical shelves. I brought out the sweet, little pillowy kisses—the version of French macarons I call “polka dots” because they sort of dance in your mouth. Every month, our polka dots will highlight a new set of signature flavors and colors.
Same with the éclairs, which would be a weekend special. January’s éclairs would be filled with a coffee-flavored pastry cream and finished with a chocolate icing.
Gavin arranged the paper-frilled mocha cupcakes with robin’s egg blue frosting and chocolate sprinkles. Sugar cookies individually decorated like snowflakes—each in a unique pattern of turquoise detailing dusted with a flurry of sugar crystals—as well as cookie mittens and ice skates. Chic bridesmaid’s sugar-cookie dresses painted in mocha and espresso. And a five-tiered wedding “cake” display of individual petit fours in pale aqua fondant dotted with dark chocolate.
I thought, again, how lucky I’d been—really. Rainbow Cake was the bakery I’d never have been able to afford in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or the Hamptons. At least, not on my own. While it was true that I had access to money back East, and lots of it, I never felt it was mine enough to spend.
I couldn’t have afforded Gavin in New York, either, so I’m doubly lucky he hasn’t accepted one of those job offers he’s always getting from either coast. His arrangement of platters, plates, and stands holding these little works of Rainbow Cake art against January’s chocolate-brown canvas backdrop looked as good as I knew everything tasted.
“We’ll have different color and flavor themes every month and use social media to announce them,” he told me a few weeks ago, visual and marketing genius that he was. “We’ll take all the digital photos at once, so you can use them for advertising and your website and for showing all those clients who will be lined up as soon as you open.” He talked even faster. “Then Williams-Sonoma will be calling. . . .”
It would take a village to get all of this done in time, in addition to the village already working at Rainbow Cake.
Jett Patterson was going to make all our specialty decorations, from piped roses and ribbons to marzipan fruits and sugar paste flowers, based on my designs but with her own special flair. She was the high school art student I hired to work for me afternoons and Saturdays when school started again. I was starting to think of her as “the Goth Van Gogh” on a good day or “Vampira” on a bad one. She took a little getting used to.
Maggie Lierman, my other close high school friend and now a much-put-upon single mom, would run the business.
Norb Weisbrod, tall, pale, and quiet, would be my baker, back of the house. He used to work at Gateaux, the European-style bakery in Queen City that specialized in elaborate cakes and petit fours. But he came out of retirement to work for me—and get away from Bonnie, his bitchy wife. He was also going to help with deliveries when I needed him.
I’d do everything else—meet with clients, do wedding cake tastings, design and assemble the specialty cakes, generate new business, and oversee it all.
“Charming, utterly charming,” the reporter from Queen City Weddings ] said when she got a preview on Friday.
“Genius,” I wanted to correct her. Rainbow Cake was better than I could ever have imagined it. I sighed and gave Gavin a watery smile.
“Don’t say it,” Gavin warned. Like every guy I’d ever known, he was unsettled by the imminent threat of tears, especially female ones. “I owe you, remember? You don’t owe me.”
Gavin and I always looked out for each other. I had come to his aid several times in the past, especially in high school when his slight build occasionally made him a target for abuse from bigger guys. And while I wasn’t in the habit of keeping score between us, Gavin was the sort of person who remembered every kindness.
I smiled fondly at my old friend as he slid the curtain off the pole. Gone was January’s dark chocolate and coffee. Next up was February’s blood orange and raspberry.
Gavin climbed down the ladder and started arranging February’s display. “Before I forget and we’re too far into this, I’ve got something for you,” I told him. I ran to the workroom and brought out a pale turquoise box tied with a chocolate brown ribbon—Rainbow Cake’s signature wrapping for our high-style cakes.
“This doesn’t match our color scheme for February,” he grumbled.
“It’s a gift, you dope.” I pressed the box into his stomach. He read the card that said, “Thank you for helping me feather my new nest.” He opened the box and saw a tiny cake shaped like a bird’s nest in three small round layers of tender, browned butter-vanilla cake with an apricot filling. A “nest” border of piped rum and mocha buttercream enclosed a clutch of pale blue marzipan eggs and a sugar paste feather. The complicated yin and yang of rum and mocha, the “everybody loves” vanilla, Mr. Social white chocolate, tart and witty apricot, and artistic marzipan—all said “Gavin” to me.
“It looks too good to eat, Neely,” he said as he carefully took the cake out of the box, slid it onto a little white plate, and looked at it from all sides.
“Let’s get a casual shot of this quick,” he told the photographer. And click, click, it was done.
Then Gavin brought the cake closer to him and inhaled the aroma once, twice, three times. “I have to taste this.” He took a forkful, closed his eyes, and savored the tender cake, the smooth buttercream, the flavor energies I had animated just for him.
He breathed a sigh of pure pleasure. Then he looked at me, puzzled, as if I had seen into his deepest self. He ate a few more bites, nibbled each marzipan egg, and then breathed in, closing his eyes for a moment.
“I don’t know what you put in this, Neely, but I find it weird and wrong that you knew how much I needed it,” he said, eyes twinkling.
“I told you about the townhome rehab I’m doing for that cute Chicago couple, right?” He ate the last bit of the cake, plucking off the sugar paste feather, which he put playfully behind his ear.
“Well, they want everything clean and spare and monochromatic. But it just doesn’t fit them as people. They’re quirky and relaxed—and they’ve hated every beige and winter-white scheme I’ve designed. Even though my gut keeps telling me to go another way, I’ve been fighting my instincts in favor of what the clients think they want. It’s been driving me seriously nuts, if you want to know the truth.”
Gavin licked a stray bit of apricot from his fork. “But after one taste of this cake, the whole direction of the project is suddenly clear to me. I’m thinking a streamlined version of homey—maybe a palette of mostly cream with some turquoise and chocolate-colored accents that pop. And a mix of comfortable modern seating with some carefully selected, not-too-crenellated, art nouveau pieces . . .”
“You had me at ‘crenellated,’” I said, rolling my eyes.
He shot a wry look in my direction as his thoughts trailed off. “Hey, Neels, if this whole bakery thing doesn’t work out, you could always be a cake therapist.”
I smiled, and felt myself drifting off again. A cake therapist. Hmmmm.
“Uh-oh[, earth to Neely. We need a latte over here stat!” Gavin snapped his fingers in front of my face. He put his arm around me and led me over to the other star of Rainbow Cake—my new La Marzocco espresso machine. Starbucks was as yet unheard of in Millcreek Valley, so if you wanted a real latte, Rainbow Cake was going to be your only source. All of us had had to learn to use the espresso machine.
“You need caffeine, honey, and you need it bad.” Gavin ground the dark-roasted beans, tamped down the grounds into the holder, brewed the espresso, and steamed the milk. Then he handed me a latte, complete with a design in the froth.
My new leaf.
My smartphone began to brrrrrrrr in the pocket of my jeans. I looked at the text message. The 212 number and I Heart U made my heart get back on that roller-coaster ride it had been trying to get off. “It’s just the caffeine,” I muttered to no one in particular, and walked back into the workroom to put March’s cakes on trays.
Ben Nash and Ethel Parsons stepped out of the hansom cab that had taken them to the Plum Street dock in Queen City. The Aurora, a blunt-nosed wooden canal boat sitting low to the water, awaited them.
It was a cool spring morning, and thank goodness for that, as the oily brown water showed the flotsam of all the breweries, tanneries, pork barreling works, and paper mills that lined the canal and dumped into it—including a dead mule that had yet to be hauled out.
Ethel was tempted to put her handkerchief to her nose, but decided against it.
The two young people stood quietly, their minds on what they were there to do. On the ride up the Miami and Erie Canal to the Simms & Taylor cotton mill and mattress factory in Lockton, they would show their drawings for brocade mattress covers that could be in the next Sears, Roebuck catalogue. The 1909 mail-order book would offer even more products to outfit the popular Sears homes that could be assembled from a kit.
Ben and Ethel had come by train from New York City, staying at the grandiose Alms & Doepke Hotel downtown, all expenses paid by Pearson & Associates, the forward-thinking design firm that had gone out on a limb to hire a woman. Ben had received strict instructions to do most of the talking, unless George Taylor asked Ethel a direct question. Nash was also to keep an eye on her, as a young woman staying unchaperoned at a hotel was not, of course, ideal.
Ethel, in a crisp Gibson Girl shirtwaist under a gray serge jacket and long skirt, her blond hair bundled up under a broad-brimmed black straw hat, thought about her older sister designing jewelry in Boston’s Nob Hill. Like her sister, Ethel was determined to succeed. She tucked her flat black portfolio up under her left arm. Ethel hoped she could convince the men of Simms & Taylor that her designs would appeal to working-class women who, after all, dreamed of domestic beauty like their upper-class sisters, but lacked as much wherewithal to make that dream happen.
Ethel held out her right hand, unbuttoned and removed her gray glove—no true lady went about without gloves—and once more admired the ring her sister had made for her: a pretty sapphire surrounded by tiny gold leaves and seed pearls. Then she polished it against her skirt for good luck and put her glove back on.
Rounding the corner, three men in bowler hats and stiff-collared shirts strode toward the young people.
“Great morning for our little trip up to Lockton, Miss Parsons and Mr. Nash.” The oldest-looking man nodded to them, tipping his hat to Ethel. He looked like a port-drinking gentleman, she assessed quickly, and she envisioned a well-run household with a potted palm in the front bay window of the parlor and maids in black dresses and white pinafores.
“George Taylor, at your service.”
She extended her gloved hand to shake his, but he gallantly raised her hand to his lips and gave it a courtly peck. Ethel blushed as she withdrew her hand, then blushed at the thought that she had blushed to begin with.
Mr. Taylor smiled benignly at her, eyes twinkling, then informed the group, “We’ve asked the captain’s wife to come along and make us coffee. She’s also frying her famous crullers.” The Simms & Taylor men’s eyes widened in delight. Taylor turned back to Ethel. “You won’t be able to wear your pretty gloves and eat one of Mrs. Skillman’s crullers; I can vouch for that.” She blushed yet again as all three men chuckled.
She stole a look at Ben, and he was smiling, too, not annoyed, so all was well.
The Simms & Taylor men led the way onto the short deck of the squat canal boat, then down the three steps into the hold, where a large enameled coffeepot sat on a small cast-iron stove. Mrs. Skillman, a rawboned woman in a long dark dress covered by a striped pinafore-style apron, smiled uncertainly. The little, low-ceilinged room smelled of coffee and frying, the welcome aroma of breakfast.
When everyone was seated, Captain Skillman roared the motor into life. It then quieted to a steady hum, and the boat slowly chugged upstream.
Taylor gave the two designers a bit of the company history, from their beginnings in the 1840s making special-order carriage upholstery in Queen City, to their expanded mill and factory fifteen miles north up the canal in Lockton. It was the modern Lockton mill that the boating party was now on the way to visit.
Ethel took out her sketches and arranged them on the gateleg table in the center of the small room.
Mrs. Skillman served the coffee in cups and saucers. She gave each person a starched and ironed napkin, then passed a basket of cinnamon sugar–dusted crullers, still warm from the lard in which she’d fried them.
For the next two hours, they sat around the table talking rosebuds, filigree, vines, and scrolls versus more classical acanthus leaves and urns. Ethel had brought several sepia wedding photos of working-class couples, borrowed from a photographer friend.
At first, the Simms & Taylor men saw only the unsmiling couples, looking straight into the camera, rigidly posed in their best clothing. But, as Ethel explained, this might be the only photo they would ever have taken of themselves, and they wanted it to be respectful, dignified. There was the requisite formal chair, with either the bride or the groom seated and the other standing. There was a suggestion of a Persian carpet on the floor. A bouquet of flowers. The bride’s hand posed to show the ring, no matter how modest.
“They want better than what they’ve had,” Ethel commented. “If you look closer at the dresses, you’ll notice lace, satiny stripes, dressmaker details like bows and those tiny rosebuds sewn from ribbon.” She pointed to several photos and the rosebuds just visible on the trim of a sleeve or a bodice. “These women may live in tenements, but they dream of gardens.”
Ben sat quietly. Ethel had prepared well and the men seemed to respect that. Ben’s job was matching the aesthetic to the technical—could these designs be woven, with an eye for the bottom line, on a factory loom? Would the design work for a mattress cover?
As Mrs. Skillman poured another round of coffee, Ethel boldly asked her, “Which design do you like best, ma’am?”
The men looked at one another. Why ask this poor woman?
“Oh, I’m sure I couldn’t say,” the captain’s wife murmured as she noticed their puzzled frowns, backing away from the table.
And then it dawned on them. She was a working-class woman—their customer.
George Taylor motioned her back. “I’m going to give you twenty-five dollars.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out bills secured with an engraved money clip.
Mrs. Skillman looked uneasy. “You’re very generous, to be sure, sir.” It was more than the Skillmans usually made in a week.
“I’m paying you for your opinion, Mrs. Skillman,” George explained. “If you were going to buy something for your home with that money,” Taylor said, talking with his hands, “maybe it’s wallpaper, curtains, a divan—”
“Or a mattress,” one of the men joked.
“In one of these patterns,” Taylor continued, “which one would you buy? It’s important that we know. Very important. You would be helping us quite a bit.”
“All right, sir, if you put it that way.”
“Now, have a look at these,” he said, motioning her to look over the drawings. Mrs. Skillman considered each one in her methodical way. She wiped her hands on her apron, then pointed with a blunt, work-roughened finger to the design with the most flowers—climbing roses on classical pillars against a background of scrollwork.
The men looked at one another, at Ethel, and they all nodded. Taylor gave the money to Mrs. Skillman, who didn’t know whether to bow or curtsy, and so did a bit of each before nervously stuffing the bills in her apron pocket.
“Ben?” Taylor asked.
“The looms can handle it,” he said. “Might take a week or so to set the pattern, but the design should work.”
Now that one of the designs was settled, they looked over the other sketches to choose two more.
Mrs. Skillman was gathering up the last of the coffee cups when a sharp crack of thunder cleaved through the conversation. They all turned to look out the small eyebrow windows and saw an ominously darkened sky.
The boat seemed to shudder to a stop before the lock, which could gradually take a canal boat from a lower to a higher level of water before proceeding north to Lake Erie. But The Aurora would simply turn around and make its halfhearted trip back down to Plum Street.
Captain Skillman jumped down from the captain’s berth onto the old towpath while his boy tied up the boat with a thick loop of rope.
“Let’s finish this up at the factory,” said Taylor, rising from the table.
They gathered up their belongings in a rush. Ethel’s gloves fell on the floor, but she didn’t notice.
This time, the captain handed Ethel up to the shelter of a large black umbrella, held by the factory foreman. She had just enough time to take a quick glance across the canal. The chimneys from the paper mill and the asphalt shingle factory sent smoke up into the heavy air.
Rain began to fall like dirty net curtains.
The foreman walked to her left, nearest the canal, gripping her elbow. They hurried to the mattress factory, which was looming like a fortress.
When the foreman stopped suddenly on the towpath to navigate around a murky puddle, Ethel peered up again at the coal-darkened brick building. The factory’s massive five stories rose like Sleeping Beauty’s castle under the enchantment of a dark fairy, she mused. It was surrounded, not by a thorny thicket as in the fairy tale, but by a darker spell that Ethel sensed, but could not see: cotton dust, coal smoke, and tiny filaments of asbestos.
Close to the lock, the wind spun around, pelting them from the other side with cold rain. Her wet hands quickly reddened and numbed.
Ethel hoped her petticoat and skirt weren’t ruined. But she couldn’t ruck up her skirt and hold on to the foreman and her sketches, all at the same time. As she tucked her portfolio higher up under her right arm, Ethel didn’t feel the ring loosen, slip from her fingers, and disappear into the mud.