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Tootsie Baker




 

It took six days to make it perfect. Actually, it took twenty-eight years of hard work to make it flawless to her standards, but Emma knew the font, setup, and margins were just as important on her resume as her business degree for the PR firm where she was applying.


Emma sweated over every last detail. Emma… Emma Baker. Even her name became a point to question. Staring at her resume for a week and a day made her wonder if she should change it. She just read an article about how names can inspire a person’s life path. Baker, did that sound like a PR powerhouse? Before she could offend her ancestors by picking a new surname like Press or Brand, she hit send.


Overthinking was Emma’s strong suit. She agonized over her college major. She stayed close to home because venturing away created a life with too many unknowns. She didn’t like unknowns. She liked plans. And Emma was precise, dedicated, a hard worker, and found a career path where she truly believed she could excel. Yes, public relations was her calling. She could turn bad stories into good ones. People liked her. She had a habit of making the most uncomfortable person in a room feel at ease.


Even though kneading dough would have provided for a better aptronym.


It only took a day for them to contact her. After two Zoom interviews and a six-hour commute to an in-person meeting, she got the job with less fanfare than she’d anticipated. She found an apartment above a coffee shop.


Her first night, while surrounded by newly-built Ikea furniture, she gazed down at the street beneath her. She had done it, she moved away from home and got a job and a place of her own. Now all she needed were friends.


Emma was pretty confident with her next objective. She liked having goals. And To-Do Lists. And this was a city and a city had people and people needed other people to hang out with. She smiled to herself, tomorrow was her first official day at work and her first official day to make friends.


Emma got to the office twenty minutes early. She wanted to scope the place out and find her footing before the rest of her colleagues came in. She put on her recently purchased suit, combed her hair into a low bun, and stopped by the coffee shop for a latte before making the short walk to the building. It was quiet when she walked in, actually, it was too quiet.


She sat in the reception area waiting and looked at the clock. 8:45. She waited. After 45 minutes and a crumpled coffee cup, and ten percent of a Sunday Times crossword she found on the side table, she heard the elevator ding. She stood up - way too fast - to greet a young man walking out of the elevator. She sort of bum-rushed the poor guy with an outstretched hand,


“Hi, I’m Emma! I’m new! Nice to meet you!” She shook the poor guy’s limp fingers with the force of a 1950s ad man. Emma took a quick look at his terrified face made a mental note to dial it back about seven notches. Thankfully the man eventually smiled and introduced himself.


“I’m John. I’m the receptionist.”


“I’m Emma and I’m the new regional hire.”


“Cool.”


Emma stared at him, unmoving.


“So, do you need anything?”


Emma took her opening - “I’d love it if you could show me around.”


John looked perplexed, “Show you around?”


Emma wasn’t sure why this was a confusing request but she held tight to the genuine smile on her face.


“Yeah, that would be great. Introduce me as well?”


“Introduce you?”


Emma recommitted to showing him her friendliest self but this conversion was much more irritating that she’d prepared herself for.


“THANKS!”


John shrugged and gestured to follow him.


“This is the office.”


Emma looked around at the empty cubicles and clean industrial carpet. The fluorescent lights let off the loudest sound in the room. It was, well, an empty office. John walked five steps and showed her the coffee machine. It looked unused. Then they walked another five steps to an empty desk. Then he pointed to his area with a few framed photos of friends at hockey games, a stack of comic books, and the key to the restroom hanging on the wall.


“That’s for the restroom.”


“Oh, awesome!” Emma felt her face flush with her response the second it left her lips. Dial. It. Back. She admonished herself.


“Ok,” John raised his eyebrows, “you good?”


“Yeah,” Emma tried to keep her enthusiasm under control. “Just, like, one question-”


John lifted his chin.


“So, um, where is everyone?”


John looked at her as if she’d shown up naked. “Oh, everyone works remotely. People will be in and out. Mostly out.” Emma started to panic, how was she going to meet people, connect, and climb the ladder to success if no one was there to see her in action?


However, John wasn’t pulling her leg. It was just the two of them in the office every day. John would answer calls and pour over his comics. Emma would get an email every morning with a list of client requests and to-do lists. Every day she would walk by herself to the coffee shop down from her apartment to eat lunch. Stopping there became the only in-person social interaction she would have. The Beannery became her refuge. Kim was the barista and Kevin, Kim's partner, seemed to run around doing everything else. They were nice to her and Emma interpreted her occasional free scone as their lifelong devotion to friendship.


Mostly, she got to hear stories about Kim’s miserable situation living at Kevin’s mom, Dottie’s house. Although Dottie agreed to let them stay with her while they tried to remedy some financial lows, she didn’t do it without complaining. Dottie’s beloved, 16-year-old dying Siamese cat, Tootsie was well past its prime and walked around the house in an ineffective diaper biting and hissing at anything that moved. Kim had recently gotten a tetanus shot because of the feline. This was all very therapeutic for Emma to hear.


Let’s face it, Emma was miserable. She was lonely and unsure of her carefully chosen career path.


The Pittsburg Fall had turned bitterly cold and Emma was longing for the month to end and to take the Amtrak home for Thanksgiving. She needed some good old comfort food and some social interactions. So when her mother called her after a long work day she was excited to plan the turkey day menu.


“Honey! Your father and I are taking a Caribbean Cruise for Thanksgiving. Gale and Fred are coming with us!”


Emma felt the wind knocked out of her. But she wasn’t going to let that on. She was an adult. She had a job and her own place and was not going to admit, out loud, how badly she wanted to wear her fuzzy pajamas and drink hot toddies on her parent’s couch.


Emma heard her mom mixing martinis in the background. Well, at least one of them was living their best life.


Emma hung up the phone and pulled herself together and ran to the coffee shop. She plopped herself into her usual table and started to unload on Kim and Kevin through tears, “How did she not think I was coming home? I’m their only daughter? Who does that, who goes on a cruise for Thanksgiving?”


Emma could hardly get the words out. Kim walked over from behind the counter,


“Ah, sweetie, no worries… Come join us for. A bunch of our friends and family are cooking together at Kevin’s mom’s place.” Emma stared blankly, sniffling through her tears. It had just dawned on her, she was the sad lonely girl at the coffee shop. The loner using Kim and Kevin as a free therapy session. Did they invite her for pity?


Emma stopped crying and straightened herself up,


“That’s so nice of you but really, I’m fine.”


Kevin popped his head over Kim's shoulder. Kim continued, “Don’t be ridiculous, you have to come, it will be fun. Anyway, you can witness the circus of Kevin’s crazy mom and Tootsie the incontinent devil cat.”


“And, mom invited some of her friends,” Kevin chimed in.


Kim’s face lit up as if that were news to her.


“God help us, “ she mumbled to Kevin, “what are the chances of us all making it out of that alive?”


Emma’s other option was Chinese Delivery and cyber-stalking an unserious ex.


“Thank you guys so much, what can I bring?”


Emma started to look forward to Thanksgiving again. She was spending it with friends, and hey, maybe she would meet some more at the party. Emma loved to bake, it made her feel back in her element she was good at it. Maybe her last name wasn’t so off after all? So on Thanksgiving morning, she made a picture-perfect apple pie. Even Martha Stewart would have been impressed.


When Emma hopped out of the cab and rang the doorbell, she could hear the clinking of glasses and overlapping conversations and the piano of a Sinatra song. She immediately felt a bit more at ease.


“Hi loveeee,” Kim yelled from the kitchen. Emma walked in, carefully taking off her coat and holding her pie delicately. The apartment was huge and beautiful. As she made her way to the kitchen she saw a giant cat waddling in a diaper.


“Oh hi! You must be Tootsie!” Emma smiled in her best meeting-the-parents voice, mostly for the benefit of Kevin’s mom whom she assumed was close by.


Tootsie opened up her snaggle-toothed mouth and hissed at Emma as though she’d been planning her revenge for years. Emma jumped back, juggling her dessert.


“And, that’s Tootsie. Don’t get too close, she bites just for the fun of it.” Kim rolled her eyes.


Kim took the pie from Emma’s hands and Emma put the wine on the counter next to about 20 other bottles. Kim poured two glasses and handed one to Emma.


“Emma,” she glanced at the cat, “Let’s party”


The apartment was filled with friends of Kim and Kevin’s. People were friendly and cheerful and, well, quite tattooed. This was the most social Emma had been in weeks, everyone was friendly and chatting and she deserved to let loose a little. “Cheers,” she said while clinking glasses with Kim. She looked around the kitchen and immediately got to work helping.


As she was basting the turkey a very well-dressed older woman walked into the kitchen. Her hair was perfectly twisted into place. Her cream-colored pants suit draped over a muted cashmere turtleneck. The woman looked like she was ripped out of a royal fashion magazine.


“Dottie, this is Emma. Emma, this is Dottie, Kevin’s mother.”


Ahhh, it was starting to make sense for Emma. This woman looked like she belonged in a Vogue spread while Kim’s, um, style was more septum piercings and black leather.


Dottie took Emma's hand, “Come dear, tell me where you’re from. Are you friends with Kim and MY Kevin? Oh dear, maybe you could give Kim some style tips.” Emma looked around and noticed that she was the only young person there without a neck tattoo.


Emma could hear Kim chuckle as she left the kitchen with Dottie who’d now draped her arm around her and was calling her “Dear.”


Dottie led Emma into what she referred to as the ‘parlor room.’


“Ladies, you have simply got to meet Emma. She’s friends with MY Kevin. Isn’t she just delightful? Emma, meet my girls.”


Meredith was her dear friend and neighbor who owned the flower shop down the street, and Peggy was her bridge partner at the club. As they were chatting Emma saw Tootsie crawl to Dottie’s legs, the poor thing didn’t look very good.


“This is Tootsie,” she said while bending over and picking up the cat, “ You know, she’s related to the Queen’s Siamese.”


Emma looked at the cat, if you could still call it a cat. The poor thing had one eye, was missing patches of fur all over her body and wore a diaper. It hissed at Emma and looked up at Dottie. Emma had never been around cats before, both her parents were allergic, but she was certain that that’s not how a healthy cat looked.


As Emma sat there she felt her neck starting to itch, and her throat got scratchy. She tried her best to ignore it. She turned her attention to Dottie’s friends.


“And look at Emma here. So cute. So polished. You must come with us to the library fundraiser. Did you get those slacks from Nordstrom? I swear I just saw them in the catalog.”


Before Emma could answer, Kim called from the kitchen to announce the feast would be served in ten minutes.


Emma excused herself from the circle Golden Girls. Was she giving off some type of lonely woman vibe to these upper-class widows? This made her chuckle and also made her rethink her wardrobe.


Emma went to help Kim who now looked just a bit unsteady on her feet. She held herself up by the counter with one hand and gestured to Dottie with the other -


“ Ya get it now.”


Emma could tell Kim maybe had one too many glasses of wine. Emma also realized she too had maybe a glass too many, and her neck was starting to itch. Emma thought it best for her to take the turkey out of the oven and moved Kim aside. As she opened the oven door, the whole apartment swelled with an unhinged wail.


“Tooooootsieeeeeeee!”


The dinner guests ran to the parlor room. Tootsie was still on Dottie’s lap. She was not hissing. She was not biting. She was also not moving. There was silence in the room. Emma froze. Kevin grabbed the dead cat.


Dottie stood up, eyes wide with fear, “We must take her to the emergency vet now.” She clutched poor drunk and itchy Emma’s elbow,


“Emma, dear, you come with me. I’ll drive.”


Emma tried her best to be the voice of reason.


“Do you really think that’s what she needs? A vet?”


Dottie quite literally clutched her pearls.


“OF COURSE. Kevin, walk us to the car. Continue dinner, Emma and Tootsie and I WILL BE FINE.”


Emma, utterly confused, allowed herself to be guided to the Buick parked in the driveway, strapped herself into the passenger seat while a definitely deceased cat was placed on her lap. Emma’s body turned hot. Really hot.


Dottie careened through the residential neighborhood, her speedometer hitting 80 at one point. Emma held on for dear life. She tried to tell Dottie to slow down. But that’s when she realized that she couldn’t talk.


She pulled the visor down to reveal the mirror on the other side. Emma’s eyes tried to widen. Her whole face, her eyes, her lips, everything was swollen. It’s not that she couldn’t find the right words, she physically couldn’t speak. She started to panic and tried to get the attention of the unhinged emotional woman beside her. The only sound she could get out was a muffled humming. Dottie finally turned to her new friend.


“OH MY GOD WHAT IS HAPPENING TO YOU?”


Emma had always thought that her parents were lying when they said they were allergic to cat to ensure they would never have to invest in getting one for little Emma. But no, they were not lying. On that fateful Thanksgiving afternoon, Emma found herself in the emergency room being pumped with Benadryl and oxygen for an anaphylactic reaction. Were they sure it was from the cat? As she lay there miserable, she thought that perhaps it was a reaction to the craziest event she had ever witnessed.


Tootsie crossed the rainbow bridge that day. Cat Heaven was definitely a step up from derrangement and diapers. Dottie had her cremated and invited Emma to the funeral at The Four Seasons. Emma said yes. Because Dottie asked her while visiting her at St. John’s Hospital where Emma spent her first Thanksgiving alone.


It was during this incredibly strange 48 hours in a blue dressing gown and grippy socks that she concluded life was too short to be this unhappy. She decided right then and there to use this crazy bad day and flip it into a positive. When Emma’s face when down to its usual size and her throat went back to its usual functioning, she went into the office in person to quit.


“And that is why I no longer will be able to work here. Even though I appreciate the opportunity.” This time, John looked her in the eye momentarily and actually shook her hand. Then, he went right back to his comics.


Emma Baker went home and made pies. Dottie bought her first dozen. Then she baked more. The Beanery could not keep them stocked. The Golden Girls called in with orders and soon their club was one of Emma’s biggest customers.


December flew into the Spring and by May, Emma had moved into a small, rented industrial kitchen when Dottie stopped by, unannounced of course, carrying a perforated cardboard box. The bell on the door jingled. Emma wiped her hands on her flour-covered apron.


“Dottie!”


“Darling, I know you cannot hold him, but I came over for two reasons.”


Emma squinted into the box and immediately held her breath.


“This is Sir Reginald. He’s hairless so we must assume will not aggravate your allergies.”


Emma nodded. She’d spent a lot of time counseling Dottie through her loss of Tootsie and was frankly a bit tired of the cat talk.


“He’s a descendent of the King Of Scotland.” Emma assumed she meant the King Of Scotland’s cats but knew better than to correct her surrogate aunt.


“I’m so happy for you, Dottie.”


“Yes, so, Sir Reginald is for me and this,” Dottie reached into her purse and pulled out a cream, embossed envelope, “is for you.”


Emma took the card and opened it gently. A business card fell to the floor.


“That’s Patrick Hines. He’s the best real estate agent in town. There’s a storefront with a commercial kitchen on Main St. I will take care of your first six months rent.”


Emma just stood in front of her, dumbfounded.


“You’ll have to call him. I can’t do everything, you know.”


Emma’s eyes welled with tears as she reached out her arms to hug Dottie.


Yeah, it’s a sugary-sweet ending but, you guys have to remember that these happen too.


And, if you are craving an apple pie in the greater Pittsburgh area, we hope you’ll stop by Tootsie Bakers.





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