door chimed, snapping me out of my cupcake gaze. I quickly stood up from my stool and got my smile in the greeting position. My breath caught just a little as I took in the man in front of me. He was tall and also beautiful, and he dressed and smelled expensive. I could smell his expensiveness over the cupcakes and that was saying a lot. Men like him didn’t walk into here, not a bakery in Moulton, Alabama.
“Eggs don’t gather themselves,” were the familiar words my momma called out at five a.m. this morning, as she swung open our bedroom door. I shared a room with my three sisters. Always had. We lived in a house with only five rooms, two of those being for beds.
Yawning I wondered if I’d ever get to sleep late. Just one day in my life have a chance to sleep past seven. Oh, what a treat that would be.
“Stop daydreaming and go get the eggs. Sammy Jo, did you hear me? Momma will go to hollering in a few minutes if they’re not in the kitchen. Do I got to do everythin’ around here?” Milly was the oldest of the four of us. She just turned nineteen this past September. We thought she might get married to that Garner boy but he ran off to join the Marines. No one expected that. Especially Milly, didn’t see it coming. However, I think momma was more let down than Milly. She was hoping for one less mouth to feed.
“Are you listening?” she yelled at me this time.
Sighing, I covered yet another yawn and glared at Milly above me. She acted bossy, but truth of it is, I’m only eleven months younger than her. I would turn nineteen this August. “I hear you. Jesus, stop with the yapping,” I grumbled and lightly coughed.
Hazel giggled behind me. I turned my head to wink at my sister. At only ten years old Hazel was the youngest and I thought she’d be the baby forever, daddy having passed on from skin cancer, which seemed to freeze her in time. Make Hazel forever the baby. Then three years ago momma hooked up with a man traveling through town and all he left her was a swollen tummy. Now, none of us wish it any different. Henry is adored by the lot of us.
“I’m not milking the damn cow again,” Bessy said, stomping her feet, putting both her hands on her hips with all of Bessy’s dramatic flair. “I did it last week. It’s someone else’s turn.” Bessy was fifteen and exhausting. I really hoped she ended up on a stage. She would be a superstar with all that drama that comes so natural to her.
“You’re scared of the chickens,” Milly reminded her. “Milk the cow or go feed the hogs. You said they stunk last week. Make up your mind and stop cussing like a man.”
I finished gathering the eggs and headed for the house. Those two would bicker over cows for several more minutes at least. When momma yelled I didn’t want trouble. I had plans tonight and I needed her in a mood, the best one currently possible.
“Come back and help little Diva with the milking,” Milly called out after me.
I ignored her. She wasn’t my boss.
Opening the screen door I stepped into the kitchen. Momma’s back was to me as she cut the shortening and butter into the flour for biscuits. “Want me to put the pot roast in the slow cooker?” I asked trying to be helpful. Overly helpful mind you.
“I reckon we need to do that. Vilma didn’t say how old it was so I don’t want a roast going bad. Was nice of her to bring it over like that. Something to say for good neighbors.”
Maybe so, good neighbors, but this here town was not my idea of a life. I wanted out of Moulton. Out of Alabama. Anywhere but here. There was a big ol’ world waiting to meet me and my dream was to see it all. Or as much as I could in a life.
I pulled my pale blonde hair into the rubber band I kept on my wrist as a habit. The morning breeze had tangled my hair. I didn’t care, I was low maintenance, I’d brush the wads out later. I had some sucking up to my momma to do to convince her to let me go with Jamie and Ben to a concert. Tonight in Cullman, Alabama was Rock the South and they had an extra ticket. I’d never been to a concert before.
“Momma, what time do you have to go to work?” I asked, pulling out the slow cooker, looking for things to be done, though I’m a worker and she expects this.
“Need to be at the bakery by eight. Sara got there at five this morning to start the morning pastries. I’m on cupcakes and cookies today. Thought I’d try a new banana bread too. Those always sell good, no matter.”
Momma had been working for Sweethouse Bakery for over twelve years this month. Some weeks she did the morning shift and we were left with Milly to wake us. Those days were not my favorite.
“You’re working the front counter from nine to four. Be early Sammy Jo. I left a list of things for Bessy and Hazel to do around the house. Bessy needs to keep an eye on the roast. The list is there on the table.”
“Yes ma’am,” I replied, walking over to the table, jotting down Bessy’s chore.
While I worked with momma at the bakery, Milly went to cosmetology school. She passed her exams and had a new job at the only hair salon in town, the one and only to ever exist. She didn’t have to go to work until ten every morning but she often worked till seven. Sometimes worked right past it. I had no idea there were so many heads to cut and groom and style. There were barely over three thousand residents in Moulton, Alabama proper. How a hair salon could stay that busy was beyond my imagination. Where were these folks going? The bakery sat close enough to the main road headed from Cullman to Florence. That gave it commuter traffic. But a hair salon in Moulton, Alabama seemed plain silly to me. All folks do is stare at each other, in the street, at church or home. If they were bald, they’d do the same thing.
“Momma! Momma! I lost my fwog!” Henry called to her as he burst through the door with dirt smeared on his face already, his bottom lip pooched and trembling.
“Go wash up and get ready for breakfast. More frogs where he came from. You can catch one later.” Her response was unconcerned. I made a mental note to help Henry find a frog after breakfast, if not sooner.
His bottom lip stayed pooched as he nodded his head then walked back to the bathroom. Momma had never babied him, but he sure got enough from his sisters.
“Is Bessy and Hazel watching Henry today or is he going to the bakery with us?” I asked chopping up the celery to add to the roast, taking a nibble now and then.
“Bessy can watch him. He hates being there. Says the women pinch at his cheeks. Makes ‘em eat up all the profits.”
He ate his weight in cookies and momma hated that. But there was nothing much for Henry to do at the bakery where Henry had actually been born. Momma hadn’t been able to take days off at the end of her pregnancy then. We flat needed the money to eat. Milly and I had been working after school to help but it wasn’t enough. When momma’s water broke there had been no time to get her to Cullman to the hospital. Henry was born on the tile floor with the help of Sara and Vilma.
I felt bad for momma. The whole situation. She had a baby with her babies around her, no father there to help. After losing my daddy I didn’t figure a man could live up to his memory. But still…I wondered if momma had been scared. She sure didn’t seem to be.
That day I made a promise to myself. I wouldn’t have a baby on the floor of a bakery without its daddy around. I’d marry a man who loved me and could give me the world in pieces. When our baby was born he’d be holding my hand safely nestled somewhere else, likely in a hospital in New York City, Chicago, Boston, or maybe Seattle, anywhere but here.
The smell of strawberry cupcakes filled the air of the bakery making my stomach rumble. I longed, but could not taste. Momma would slap my hand. She could tell when I wanted to touch one. Inside the cake were fresh strawberries and the icing was made with cream cheese. Homemade, not from the carton. I’d watched momma make them many times. I always wanted to lick the spoon, but never got the chance.
It was after two and I hadn’t got the nerve to ask momma if I could go to the concert. I kept waiting to catch her when she wasn’t so busy, but she’d been working most of the day, sweating and straining in the kitchen, skipping lunch to stay ahead. There hadn’t been a good time to ask her. Momma could not stop.
The bell above the
“Hello,” I said cheerily. “We have fresh strawberry cupcakes that just came out of the oven. There’s also warm apple tarts and blueberry muffins with blueberries that came off the farm, straight outta Mable Richards’ field.” Although I normally told everyone who walked in the bakery what we had available, I felt silly saying it to him. He didn’t seem like the kind to eat any of that stuff. I’d imagined he drank champagne, ate caviar, or something like that.
“Oh, and we have banana nut bread. It’s new and I haven’t had any, but my momma never makes anything from scratch that ain’t just perfectly delicious.” I had to add that and sound even sillier. And that was pretty silly.
His gaze stopped scanning the small tiny bakery and then it locked on me. His eyes were green. Around them clear white. Not the dark green that almost looks brown, but light green, like light on grass. The kind that makes you want to stare right at them, while they’re staring right at you. For a long long time, or forever and ever, either one was fine.
“What do you suggest?” When his deep voice asked it was thick like the whiskey I’d tried with Ben that time. He’d snuck it out of his dad’s private stash.
“Huh?” That was all that came out of my mouth. That man’s voice was intoxicating. He even sounded expensive I tell you. I hadn’t known people could sound expensive. Like he had gold in his stomach or something.
A grin tugged at his lips and I caught myself smiling back at him. I bet his full smile was something else. “What item do you suggest I try?” He repeated himself and oh, the man was trying to order. I shook my head to clear it then glanced down at the cupcakes waiting there. “The strawberry cupcakes are delicious. I mean, uh, I think they are. They smell so good and have fresh strawberries and I imagine they taste real nice.”
“I’ll take three,” he replied.
I beamed. He was going to love them. “Okay,” I said, reaching for a box before slipping on the plastic gloves. We had to wear them when touching the food.
“Do you serve coffee?” he asked.
I nodded. “Oh yes! We have a fresh pot on. I’ll get you a large if you like?”
“Thank you,” he responded.
I wanted to look back at him, but I kept my attention on my task, tried not to drop anything. “Does your momma own the place?” His voice interrupted my concentration and I almost dropped the cupcakes.
“My momma?” I repeated then laughed a little. “No, my momma just works here. Sure wish she could own a place like this. She’d be real good at it.”
I placed his box of cupcakes on the counter then put his coffee right beside it. “That’ll be seven dollars and fifty-two cents.” I folded napkins on top of the box and goofily smiled with embarrassment.
From a fist-sized wad he pulled a ten-dollar bill and handed it across the counter. “Keep the change,” he said.
That was two dollars and forty-eight cents he was leaving behind for a tip. Why in the world would he do that? I started to speak when he opened the box and withdrew a fresh baked cupcake. The smell hit my nose and I inhaled deeply, he taking a napkin and his coffee in hand and he was ready to test my opinion.
“If it’s as good as you say it is, I’m sure I’ll be right back.” He then turned to leave kind of slowly. His box with the other two cupcakes sat on the counter as placed. I picked them up and then called out. “You’re forgetting your other cupcakes!”
He stopped at the door and turned back to me grinning. A real smile crept across his face. “I bought those for you,” he replied. Then he left. Just like that. Walked away before I could even say thank you.
I looked down at the cupcakes and my mouth began to water, but I wouldn’t eat them both. I’d take one home for Henry. Momma may not be thrilled about it, but the man bought the cupcakes for me. I didn’t ask him to and Henry would love it and that’s all I needed to know.
Opening the box back up I lifted a cupcake out. Then I took my very first bite. It melted on my tongue like sugar. My toes curled in my shoes.
“Sammy Jo what are you doing!” My momma’s voice startled me to shaking. When I opened my eyes to see her, she was glaring at me with that special momma stare, like a naughty child had been caught.
“It’s mine,” I replied, my mouth still full of the yummy goodness I was holding. “A man just bought three and left me two.” I finished chewing wishing I could savor the taste left in my mouth.
“A man did what?” she asked, her hands on her hips as she huffed.
“A man,” I said pointing at the door. “He was just in here, just now. He asked me what I’d buy if it were up to me and I told him the strawberry cupcakes. So he then bought three with a coffee. He took one out, said the others were for me, and walked right out the door.”
Momma sighed and shook her head then mumbled something. She wasn’t happy, but I was eating my cupcake, so I was having a hard time caring.
“I won’t eat both. I’m taking Henry the other.” I figured mentioning Henry would soften her up. It didn’t soften her any.
“You shouldn’t allow strange men to buy you things. Men only buy women gifts, because they’re after sex and the way you look” -she shook her finger at me and frowned- “you can see in a mirror just fine. The Lord decided to give you all them looks and men notice them for what they want. Ain’t got nothing to do with you. And you got to be careful about it.”
I had heard this lecture before. About men wanting me and me needing to protect myself from the predators about. Daddy had warned me when I started junior high. He said, “you’re too pretty for your own damn good and I’d hate to have to shoot some boy, for forgettin’ you’re my child.”
“He walked out before I could stop him. Momma, he was rich. He even smelled expensive. He won’t be coming back around here. People here don’t look like him.”
Momma frowned and stared at the door. “He’ll be back. He got a look at you. That’s all it takes to return.” She then turned and headed back to the kitchen.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about my very own momma thinking men all wanted me. I didn’t particularly believe I was really that attractive, especially to a man like that one.
I knew after the cupcake incident momma would say no to the concert. But I’d held out hope and asked anyway and yep, she said no. She needed me home for shelling picked peas and canning them after that. In June parts of the garden were ready and each month we had things to put up. We ate from our garden all winter. Next month would be tomatoes and I hated canning them. But I also hated shelling peas.
Milly had been asked on a date. Robbie Long was his name and since momma was hoping to marry her off real soon, she let her go hoping he would ask. The rest of us were sitting under the oak shelling peas and chatting amongst us. Even Henry was shelling away.
Technically, Ben had been a date. Sure we had been friends forever and we weren’t about to get married, but still, it seemed unfair. I couldn’t date at all. Instead my fingers were getting raw from the hulls and we still had several more steps to go before we could sleep.
I had to admit, if telling the truth, that the cupcake was completely worth it. Henry agreed with that. Most of the icing ended up on his face, which made him even cuter. As if that was possible to do.
“Tell me about the cupcake man. Again, tell it once more.” Bessy was starry eyed about the whole idea. You might say slightly possessed.
“Nothing to tell,” momma replied, with a grumble and a snap of her fingers.
Bessy looked disappointed. She knew not to push momma when she sounded like that. I knew the same so I didn’t.
sp; “I want annuder cupcate,” Henry said, smiling at the last of his words.
“On your birthday,” momma replied.
That sent him into singing the happy birthday song and he sang it and sang it and sang it.
“When do I get to work at the bakery?” Bessy asked and Bessy knew the answer. She wouldn’t get to work there anytime soon. Momma needed her to watch little Henry during the summer months. I didn’t say that to her. She hadn’t been asking me.
“When Sammy Jo marries and moves on,” was momma’s quick reply.
Visions of me marrying a man and “moving on” danced in my head and I smiled. That was my favorite daydream. Problem was no one around here was going to sweep me off my feet. Or take me out of this town. They’d all die here in Moulton. Spend their lives barely leaving and their lives would be done. I was headed in that direction.
“She’s picky. Lots of guys ask her out but Sammy Jo never goes,” Bessy said, frowning at me. “She’s the prettiest girl in this town but she never dates any boys.”
I had heard this before and I was tiring of defending myself on the subject.
“No guy in this town can get me away. I want to see the world. I don’t want to set up house in Moulton and spit out babies till I’m old.”
Bessy rolled her eyes. “Ain’t nothing wrong with that. Your looks got you all high falutin’. You think you deserve more than me and it ain’t fair you know. If I’d been born with your blonde hair, big boobs and dancer’s legs, I’d have me a man already with a house all to myself.”
I wanted Bessy to dream bigger than that, but like Milly that wasn’t possible.
“I don’t just want a man. I want an epic romance.”
Bessy laughed and tossed an empty shell into the trash with disgust. “You’ve been reading too many books.”
“That’s enough,” momma said. “I’m tired of hearing this.” She handed me a gallon sized bucket of peas already shelled. “Go on inside with these. Vilma lent me her fancy pressure canner. Said it’s safer to use than the old one. Go figure it out. Get it going. She left directions beside it.”
This was momma’s way to get rid of me. She wanted quiet on the subject of marriage. Not once had she ever corrected me for wanting out of here. She seemed to agree with me. And I think she believed I’d achieve it. I would. Yes, I would.
“Me ont to go too,” Henry said, running toward me and smiling.
“That’s fine. Stay away from the canning. You could get hurt,” momma told him.
I returned little Henry’s grin. “I’ll let you help me fill the jars with peas.”