A tin of mints bangs against the keychain in Beth’s purse. She rattles with each step like a toy. Next to her, her four-year-old son Leroy wails for a bathroom. One hand bunches the flesh and fabric between his legs as he gallops beside her yelling “peee peee.”
Her Brooklyn neighbors avert their eyes.
She stops in front of a bakery.
“You can use the bathroom. No treats.”
She lets Leroy run in as she maneuvers the stroller, holding her daughter May, through stacks of fliers and free newspapers in the entryway. Having worked for a magazine, she’s glad someone still pays to print these things, even if few read them.
She points Leroy toward the bathroom then parks May in front of the display case.
“Can I help you,” a woman behind the counter asks as she squeezes flowers of frosting onto a cupcake. A high ruffle collar surrounds her neck like a bowl of soft-serve ice cream. The words PUT IT IN ICING are embroidered across her apron.
Beth knows this bakery. She met one of the owners, possibly the husband of the woman behind the counter, a few days earlier at a birthday party where kids waded naked in a plastic pool and parents drank boxed wine.
“Just taking a look. Are you the owner?”
“That would be me,” the woman says.
“I met your husband and daughter at a birthday party.” Beth walks the length of the counter. Most of the cupcakes are topped with swirls of tan or off-white. She expected bright, candy-colored icing. But in this neighborhood food dye wouldn’t sell as well. A tray next to the cash register holds cupcakes topped with muddy red icing lined to look like bricks, topped with a toothpick sign that says DEVELOP DON’T DESTROY.
“I told your husband at the birthday party that I’m a photographer,” Beth says.
“That sounds like fun,” the woman says in a voice with no intonation. She doesn’t look up.
“It’s my profession,” Beth says, trying to match the woman’s dismissive tone. Like making flowers with icing.
At the party, as he sipped Merlot from a Wonder Woman paper cup, the baker’s husband asked the inevitable ice-breaker: what do you do?
“I’m not working at the moment. I used to work in the photo department at a magazine,” she’d said.
He mentioned the bakery and pronounced cupcakes a hot commodity. “They can be used to make a political statement, to market a film or book,” he explained.
Beth nodded. “So can photography.”
“Do you have a studio?” he asked.
“I have children and a mortgage.”
Her lack of employment made her defensive. She’d stepped aside when May was born. Stepping back in took herculean leaning. The pram in the hallway is a somber enemy of art, a photography professor had proclaimed to a class full of students when Beth was in college. She researched it. The person quoted would have been more than a hundred years old, if he were still alive. Virginia Woolf hated him. But the words were born again when she purchased her first stroller.
She walks away from the display case to check on Leroy. The men’s room door is slightly ajar. Inside he sings his favorite song about shiny, happy people. She pulls the door closed.
The hall outside the bathroom is lined with framed prints, abstract swaths of orange, black, brown and white. On the second pass through, she realizes they’re close-up photos of rusted steam radiators. Under each print, a small white card lists the title and price. The least expensive, titled “Beautiful but Not Necessarily Mutated,” is three hundred dollars.
Leroy comes out with wet shorts and wet hair. “Like how my hair is darker when it’s wet? Can we get a cupcake?”
“I said no treats right now.” She steers him toward the door. He stops at the counter and presses both hands against the glass.
The woman looks up. “They’re so yummy at that age,” she says. “What’s your name? I’ll tell my husband I met you.”
“I’m Leroy. I can’t have a cupcake because it’s almost bedtime.”
“My name’s Beth.” She steps away then stops. “I have a lot of experience with food photography and with styling food. If you ever need help with marketing.”
“We don’t style our cupcakes,” the woman says. She sticks a finger in a bowl of batter and samples it.
At home she herds Leroy and May to the bath to clean off sunscreen and sweat. She leaves the overhead light off and fills the tub with a lavender-scented bath milk, hoping to soothe her kids enough that they’ll fall asleep early.
The sugary smell from the bakery burns the back of her throat.
Leroy and May recline in the tub. Slick wet hair sinks behind their heads, so only their faces are consistently visible as they squirm in the milky water. Knees and elbows pop up then submerge. She can’t tell whose limbs are whose. They look like pink flesh in a baby chowder.
She pulls her phone out of her pocket, stands on the edge of the tub and aims her camera down.
Lori Barrett is a writer living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Salon, Bustle, Necessary Fiction, Barrelhouse, Paper Darts, and Entropy. She has participated in Chicago’s Live Lit events That’s All She Wrote and Tuesday Funk. She volunteers as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel, and as a writing tutor at a local public high school. Find her at https://twitter.com/LoriMBarrett