SPILL IT, GIRLS
For Confession Club, Joanie Benson is going to make Black Cake. It seems right: dense, mysterious, full of odd little bits and pieces of surprising ingredients. It was seeing The Belle of Amherst that gave her the idea. Joanie had enjoyed the play, not so much for all that "Truth must dazzle gradually" stuff—although, come to think of it, didn't that fit right in with Confession Club? But no, never mind Emily Dickinson drifting around the stage in her white dress, tossing off lines of poetry that made others in the audience quietly gasp; Joanie was fixated on the cake Emily was making. Emily gave out the recipe in a rush of ingredients, but of course one is not prepared to copy down a recipe in a darkened theater, and besides, Joanie wasn't persuaded that it was a real recipe, anyway. But in the lobby afterward, the theater did a very nice thing: they served Black Cake, and Joanie had some, and it was delicious.
When she was driving home from the play with her friend Gretchen Buckwalter, Joanie waited to get off the freeway to talk. No matter who is driving, they don't talk on the freeway, they don't even listen to the radio. (Joanie is a better driver than Gretchen in the sense that she still will make left turns. Gretchen goes around the block, so that she can make a right.) But once they were on the two-lane highway leading to Mason, driving past open fields, Joanie relaxed her grip on the wheel. She told Gretchen she was going to find the recipe for Black Cake and make it for Confession Club, which, don't forget, was at her house this Wednesday.
"What?" asked Gretchen. She hadn't been listening; she'd been trying to catch a glimpse of herself in the side-view mirror, never mind the lack of light. Gretchen is sixty-nine years old and one of those former knockouts who just can't stop mourning the loss of her looks. She admits that if she didn't think God would punish her by making her die on the OR table—and if she could afford it—she'd have every bit of plastic surgery she could, head to toe. Gretchen knows she is shallow in this regard, but she kind of enjoys being shallow this way. And anyway, she believes her fixation with looking good helps make her store, Size Me Up!, the success that it is. Her boutique is for women of a certain age who still want to fight the good fight, as Gretchen sees it. She has lots of cape-y and drape-y things that cover a multitude of sins. She also sells a lot of jewel-toned scarves that seem to say, Yoo hoo! Up here! Look up here!
Her dressing rooms have curtains that close all the way and her sales staff is trained never to open those curtains—if another size is needed, the customer's arm comes out when she is good and ready to snatch the hanger. The lighting in the dressing rooms is adequate but merciful, due to the use of pink bulbs; the carpeting is thick, and the white leather benches for sitting on are not those tiny insubstantial things you see in other dressing rooms. Best of all, good music is always playing and wine is available, too, should you need it to counteract the shock of seeing yourself in a full-length mirror in your underwear.
Joanie, on the other hand, has always been satisfied with her admittedly plain-Jane looks. Who cares? She looks friendly! She is friendly! She still wears the bob she wore in high school and she eschews any makeup beyond mascara and pink lipstick. She has a wide-eyed expression that seems to say, Well, hi there! She doesn't mind the extra weight she carries. She thinks Gretchen is a little nuts for the way she is always dieting, for the way she holds on to her long red hair and hoop earrings. But Gretchen does have her good qualities. And for heaven's sake, they've been friends since they were both in their high school's production of South Pacific. Gretchen, a senior, was Nellie, the lead; Joanie, a freshman, was one of the native girls wearing a "grass" skirt made of newspaper strips painted green, and a bikini top. She used to help Gretchen run lines and they just hit it off, despite the age difference that then seemed immense and now seems negligible.