Icing On the Cake
By: Agatha Ryan
Scene One: The camera opens on a dark expanse of hardwood desktop. The monotonous sound of a metronome beats at a slow tempo. A woman’s hand with no wedding ring and oxblood nail polish slaps down a thick stack of paper that starkly interrupts the black. The shot is still. Suddenly, the sound of a shrill and austere violin begins to fill intervals set by the metronome. The hand reenters, holding an inky red fountain pen. The pen furiously circles and crosses out superfluous words. It imposes “cliché,” “run-on” and “repetition” onto the black text. The cuts and crossing out are raw scars across the page. The manuscript is now drenched with the red venom-like ink, leaking into its wounds. The woman puts the paper atop a pile of similarly- scarred documents. The camera cuts to her pointed leather shoes; her spindly heels dig deeply into the red of a Persian rug. The camera slowly pans up the clawed, sturdy legs of the desk and eventually settles on the woman. She is beautiful but severe looking. She has black-brown hair like a mink coat. The shadows from her bones contour her cheeks into negative space. Her face is a vision of angles: a sharp-cornered jaw, cutting cheekbones. The lines of her high backed, mahogany chair are perpendicular. The only moving shape is the reflection of the fire burning in her oval glasses. The camera moves backwards out of the office. The interior slowly unfolds. Her artwork is brutal and violent: an oiled-in Ajax being conquered, a landscape of a storm bruising a sky. The woman gets up from her dark chair and walks forcefully from her desk. Abruptly, the heavy wooden door slams into the screen, shutting the camera out of the office. The violin stops. Inscribed on the door in a bold, no-nonsense font is “Indigo Noir, Feast Magazine—Editor-In-Chief.”
Scene Two: Steam fills the screen with the spray of a raw steak, sputtering spasmodically as it is flung upon a searing grill. The loud clamor of pots and pans is accompanied by a fast-pace percussion beat: hi-hat and bass drum. The camera traces through the bright, orderly kitchen following a waiter who holds a tray with a rare steak. While the rest of the interior is white, the food is colorful: the fleshy pinks of meat and the bright green of a chimichurri sauce. Chefs in crisp whites move to make way for the steak-holding waiter: a chef holding a large saucepan spins to dodge another chef who is sharpening a knife. The natural noises of the kitchen cease as the waiter uses his back to push through the swinging doors. The setting of the dining room and bar is remarkably calm in juxtaposition with the bustle of the kitchen. The waiter places the steak in front of Noir as she sits at the bar of this Argentinean steakhouse. The big room is dim, smoky, and atmospheric. The music is a lonely saxophone. There are many people at the bar but everyone sits alone. These people each seem mysterious as they haunt their stools and corners. There is a professor, with a chalk dusted coat sleeve who reads a book through thick glasses. There is an older woman who looks weighted down by heavy furs and gold jewelry; she stares into an icy, amber-colored drink. The booths behind her are upholstered in tight leather tufts that spit the rings of the dim lights back into the room. There are several feet of empty wooden floor space between the barstools and the booths. Beyond the booths are the dining room tables each dressed in white linen and filled with well-dressed patrons enjoying their dinners. Noir sits comfortably. A green olive has sunk to the bottom of her half-empty martini glass. The bartender places a small ceramic pot in front of her and hands her a cream-colored note. Critically, nose up, she looks at the small, squatty pot; it is filled with a chocolate soufflé and accompanied by a dish of heart-shaped strawberries and puffed, powdery marshmallows. Noir looks skeptically at the dish. She scowls as she looks down at the note. Neatly printed in black ink onto the small rectangle of cardstock read the words, “A watched pot never boils.” She stares down, unmoved at this display of banality. Without the slightest hint of curiosity about the note, she picks up her drink.
Scene Three: The next morning, Noir places a white mug filled with steaming black coffee onto the granite counter of her stony kitchen. She turns on the stove and the burner flares up in a lash of fire. She places a bronze water-filled pot onto the flame and drops in two white eggs. She turns to reach for her coffee, but hesitates. Laughing to herself, she plants her stool directly in front of the stove. Pressing her bony cheek into her palm, she watches the pot. As the bubbles rise she smirks and rolls her eyes. The froth pours over the rim of the pot. Noir turns off the stove and reaches back for her coffee victoriously.
Scene Four: The outside of the restaurant on a dark side street. It is a standalone red brick townhouse with stairs running up from the sidewalk to the front door. Above the door is a white sign brightened by spotlights with red letters spelling “La Palabra.” Noir is back at the bar again—same seat, same martini, different olive. This time, the waiter delivers a swirl of pistachio pudding; the creamy, green emulsion sitting fat and proud in a round crystal goblet in front of her. He hands her another small card. This time, in the same block print, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” The camera follows as she looks down at the light green pudding and then around the bar to see if she can identify the anonymous sender. Unsuccessful, Noir slides the goblet gently forward.
Scene Five: As the sun rises the next morning, Noir wears a long black trench coat tightly belted at the waist. It is foggy and still dim. Each breath hangs in the cold air like an unanswered question. She grips a chain leash holding her Doberman, a muscular dog with a serious demeanor. He pulls her towards the stone wall separating her yard from that of her neighbor. She looks at her grass—full and verdant. She peers over the wall at the neighbor’s grass—spindly and brown. Amused, she smiles. The camera moves to an overhead shot that accentuates the dramatic contrast between the two plots of land. Noir walks away from the wall deeper into the green of her side.
Scene Six: Noir sits, red pen in hand, with a manuscript at La Palabra. She occasionally looks up for the waiter but conceals her anticipation of another anonymous correspondence. Eventually the waiter walks out of the darkness toward her bearing a silver tray holding three petit fours and one square note card. Each of the cakes is lavishly decorated with its own uniquely colored sugar filigree. She looks at the note like a challenge. It reads, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Without expression she reaches for the nearest of the seductive cakes.
Scene Seven: The scene opens inside a sophisticated art gallery. The music is loud and in French, words Noir cannot understand. The waiters bear trays of glittering champagne glasses in the crowded main room. It is bustling with an in vogue crowd. Everyone is dressed in black. The spectators look at each other more than they look at the art. A woman reaches for a feather fastened to another woman’s hat. A man holding a small, sweater-wearing dog moves his lips while shrugging his shoulders. No one is looking at the paintings on the wall. Noir stops in a small oasis of open space and stares at a large white empty canvas hanging pretentiously among the other paintings. She opens her mouth as if to say something but shakes her head. She has no words.
Scene Eight: The waiter at La Palabra walks behind the backs of the seats at the bar carrying another dessert tray to Noir. There is no visible allure to the dish he places in front of her. This unglamorous, globular mound plopped on a small plate is bread pudding. As would be expected of a seasoned food critic, she purses her lips. She is much more interested in the note that the waiter places next to the plate. She reaches for the note. It reads, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” She picks up the spoon and pulls a crusty corner from the bread pudding and tastes it. Her lips relax to a slight smile.
Scene Nine: It is mid-afternoon in a large bookstore. Classical music plays lightly in the background. Noir is browsing a section devoted to cookbooks and recipes. The camera pans over pictures of freshly baked cookies and sugar-dusted apple pie. The recipes are pragmatic and efficient. As she walks towards the register, she passes the romance section. Featured prominently on the center shelf is a display for the “best-seller” entitled, Love at Last by Ron DeVous. The cover is a couple in a dramatic whirl of disheveled hair, billowing blouses, surrendering corsets, and a craving gazes. The surrounding books, also by the same author, have covers featuring the couple, but in slightly varied positions. The camera flashes different book covers on the shelf of the display: Beckoning Call—a scene of unclasping, unbuttoning and fitful lust, Midnight Tryst— the glowing moon hangs over a deep purple lake, now the lovers clasp hands desperately in a big lipped rowboat. Noir scoffs at these covers, but after a moment, picks up Love at Last. With her editorial eye she scans through the book. The camera flashes through her progress. She reads several pages throughout the paperback until she closes it. She rolls her eyes at the predictable arc of the story. She carefully places the book back on the shelf as though she might be required to buy it if she leaves it out of place. She walks away from the display shaking her head.
Scene Ten: Back at the restaurant, Noir forgoes her standard martini for an alternative. Tonight she sips a sweet, yellow dessert wine in anticipation of her delivery. The waiter carries a tray covered with a silver dome. He places it before her and dramatically lifts the silver top to reveal a poached pear with sea salt and caramel drizzled on top. Just as he lifts the dome, an unseen band strikes up the first chords of a tango. Tonight’s note, written in an ardent red, reads, “It takes two to tango.” The camera pans around the bar area. The wooden floor between the bar stools and the booths, usually empty, is now populated with couples. They are twirling, dipping, and pulling each other close as the tango bounces on. Dresses of red, gold, and black sashay in the wake of the dance. The dancers gaze deeply at one another and move according to each note. Noir takes a napkin and carefully prints a message with her red pen. Raising her index finger, she flags down the waiter to give him the napkin. She draws the glass close to her lips and we see the wine quivering above its stem. Striding across the smoke-filled bar is a man in a dark suit moving along the space between the dancers and the barstools toward Noir. He is holding the napkin in his right hand. The camera switches to her profile, her black dress languidly hangs from her shoulders and her necklace is of a smoky topaz. The man’s hand enters the frame, propping the napkin against her dessert plate. He extends his hand out to dance, Noir hesitates a moment then lets him guide her into the rhythm of the tango. They glide smoothly among the couples. Her spinning hemline reveals her strappy stilettos. He spins and dips her. Her hair ribbon, which once bound her tresses in a tight bun, gives way as she shakes her head and releases her hair into a cascade of curls. The camera pulls back towards the bar. The focus shifts from the couple to the napkin, still propped against the dessert plate. Noir’s reply message reads, “Every journey begins with a single step.” The camera switches to an overhead shot of a pattern of circles made of the spinning dresses. Noir and her mysterious dance partner are in the center. As the camera rises past, Noir leans in and whispers into his ear.