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Until that lovely spring day when Thriscross’s assistant invited me for a Zoom chat with the boss about my future in ice cream, I had spent two decades in desserts. My particular domain – savory ice cream for high-end restaurants (turmeric, bourbon, watercress) – had doubled its market share every seven years, so now we were sitting pretty at 33 percent. I had even weathered the storm of social purpose that swept through all divisions last year. Dehydrated soup where my ex worked had its legs kicked out from under it.
But the pandemic, with the closing of restaurants, beaches, and public parks, hit sweets hard. Ice cream wagons, emblem of our youthful innocence, were grounded from sea to shining sea. Rumor was going round that half of us in Sugartown, even in the savory ghetto, were destined for either lay-off or soap. Soap was doing just fine.
Thriscross, the aging playboy son of our company’s founder, looked in top form, in his pressed Italian shirt shimmering at the edges against his Zoom stage flat, the high mirrors and oak panels of a Parisian hôtel particulier offered as clickbait by some art museum on the ropes. I noticed that as he opened with small talk about bird song and hand sanitizer, he kept squirting drops of something (echinacea, catnip, coriander?) into his tea – probably a new launch out of extracts, where he got his start, stealing credit for the squash blossom water that put us on the map oh so many years ago.
“I think you know,” began the boss, “that I’m the guy who from day one had you pegged for the impulse market.” I nodded, smiling. On Zoom, projecting warmth counts for a lot. “And when I did so, I can assure you I had my glasses on straight.” This from a man who wore colored contacts. “Everybody else was saying, he’s too good-looking for desserts. Put him in personal care, or at least condiments. But I could see you were the man for spontaneous consumption.”
He held up the unmarked bottle between thumb and forefinger as if he were offering me some of his flower extract, but I shook my head. “It’s not because you yourself are impulsive,” he continued. “You’re more the calculating type – stop me if I get too personal – but what I always admired in you was, believe it or not, your capacity for restraint. How many times have I read in your eyes your wish to see me dead? You were my scrawny mendicant, at a banquet – ” Here he leaned back as – such are the rents in the Zoom curtain – half of his shirt from collar to waist flickered between rococo carpeting and Italian silk. “A banquet of temptation! The perfect person to invent the irresistible.”
He reached back with one slippery arm, which shrunk to the width of a poker and then waxed full again like a swimmer in high seas, and pulled from the hotel’s empty fireplace a fat paperback whose cover he forced up against the camera, a moonlit nude with seaweed hair and muscular calves, clutching her ankle. “How clever to name our ice creams – ” he pluralized with tendresse “– after the mood swings of the Romantics: melancholy, lassitude, nihilism, ennui, with bon mots from Keats, Byron, and just as many with names like Felicia and Letitia to show me just how pure your hypocrisy can be. It gave our gullible silver-spoons something to purr about over their coffee or brandy.” Here he squeezed a few more drops into his mug, adorned with blue octopus eyes larger, when he sipped, than his own. “What I love is that I could always pick up this book, open it at random, and find something apropos. Uncanny! Shall we?” And opening the book, he read: “The moon on the east oriel shone… We’re not talking birds, spelled that way, are we now? Don’t make me google it.”
“Honestly, I don’t have a clue, something… architectural? Posh, by the sound of it.”
“Ah, you see!” He waved his swimmer’s arms, both of them, over his head, dimming the chandelier that hung like an earring from his left earlobe. “And again. Another.” He flipped the pages. “The tiger him beguiled. Scrambling the word order, excellent stuff! And which of us is the tiger?”
I was waiting for the axe to fall. I’ve always been superstitious, and I told myself that if he squirted one more drop of flower extract, I was history. I held my breath as the bottle materialized in his hand and then disappeared.
“Of the deadly sins,” he said, “lust and wrath are the only ones anybody in desserts should have any truck with, certainly not gluttony which is better off in pre-cooked where taste is beside the point, and since wrath – or in your case, simmering resentment, long-held grudges, dreams of revenge – is your game, you’re shipshape. The problem is your age. The passions don’t wear well, you don’t need me to tell you that. And you’re too maverick for mustards. It’s like a cult, a secret society, all about blind loyalty. Anyway, the cuts are in every department except detergents. A man of your ambitions? Among bubbles and suds?”
He froze, an awkward expression of longing and horror on his gaunt face as he gazed off-camera. I logged off and on again, to find him his normal jaunty self. “Sorry, my – ” I wanted him to know I blamed myself. “I’m not the only one in my apartment on a Zoom call.”
“Nice to see you’re not quarantining alone,” he said on half-second delay. “Just think of those other bastards.” He smiled, and I noticed he’d learned how to smile with his whole face by bunching up his cheeks until his eyes closed to a pained squint. Adapted, as he’d always done.
“It’s not just ice creams,” he continued. “It’s also cream pastries, popsicles, marzipan flowers… even our botany division…” He held out his palm and pretended to blow away something as light as dandelion seed.
“That’s why,” I said, “you’re getting rid of everyone over thirty.” I checked my smile on camera and gave it a little more tooth.
“Almost everyone. All the old tigers can’t leave at once, or the cubs won’t survive. That’s why I’ve written two letters, both with today’s date, and slapped them on this thumb drive.” He slipped the wedge of plastic between his teeth like a sliver of expensive chocolate and pretended to take a bite. “One is your resignation letter, thanking me for giving you the opportunity to thrive and prosper right alongside the company all these years, and confessing to dabbling in small-dose psychotropics for our premium line. The other is my resignation letter, explaining that you’ve always been like a son to me, that you have my complete trust and confidence, and announcing that I’m anointing you chief of – now don’t get too excited – high-calorie R & D. Which of the two signed letters I delete is up to you.”
The elixir bottle danced in his hand again. “I’m going to turn my back, okay? And give you two minutes. When I turn around again, I want you to show me which letter is closer to my heart. That’s all I ask. Do I take your path and you mine? Or do I have a chat with counsel tomorrow at lunch?” He spun around in his chair, and the back of his silk collar wavered at the edges as if it had caught fire.
I sprang up and keeping an eye on his still form began to ransack my bookcase looking for my copy of The Romantic Poets. In my haste I’m afraid I hit my dog with one of the heavier books I threw to the floor, because he jumped to his feet and glanced at me with both an excited and curious air. I cursed myself for not disguising my background as Thriscross had done, but with his back turned, unless he had a mirror disguised in the opulence of his cartoon hôtel particulier, my desperation, at least to him, was invisible.
Miraculously, I found the book. Or maybe not so miraculously, since I always kept it close to hand to remind me of my sweetest success. I opened the book. Dropped the book. Seized it again – my dog dashed from the room – and I tried to focus on the passage that presented itself to me. “Nothing but lifeless flesh and bone, that could not do me ill, and yet I feared him all the more, for lying there so still: there was a manhood in his look that murder could not kill.” I could see on the computer clock that the minutes had advanced by two.
My girlfriend appeared at the door to my study, her puffy headphones wrapped around her neck like a pilot gossiping with her co-pilot. “You’re scaring Porthos. I told you it’s not the end of the world. I told you what scared me wasn’t your losing the fucking job, it was how you’d take it. You promised me.”
“But he hasn’t fired me, not yet.” And together we stood together behind my chair and watched the sleek otter-skin back of my boss’s head.
The call was set for gallery view. On the left, we watched his cut-out form against the pollen-fired light of the majestic room as we took turns calling his name. On the right, we saw ourselves and the disorder of the scattered books and gaps in the bookcase behind us.
Finally, just as I had decided to call his assistant wherever she might be, a woman, her face hidden by a wave of marsh-grass hair, eclipsed the tapestry beside Thriscross and shook him by the shoulder. She looked back at us and screamed. And in that moment I could clearly see that as captivated as I was by Thriscross’s silhouette and the distorted lines of his companion’s face, I was just as entranced by the still-frame picture of my girlfriend and me, in the blanched afternoon light, staring at ourselves. And I knew, with equal fascination, that the woman now holding up the small glass bottle was screaming at herself.
Note: All three quotes from The Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry, ed. Jonathan and Jessica
Wordsworth, 2001: Walter Scott, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel (Canto II),” l. 113, p. 499; Thomas Hood, “The Last Man,” l. 206, p. 529; Thomas Hood, “The Dream of Eugene Aram,” ll. 91-96, p. 237.