“Well, what do you think?”
“I think that you did a decent job.”
“Just decent? Not wonderful? Incredible? The best thing you’ve ever seen?”
“Mattie, it’s decent.”
“Decent.” The word felt foreign coming from her mouth as if she were speaking a different language. Mattie looked at her boss and wished that her fearless leader had the ability to sugar coat something for just a few minutes. However, Joan Ellen Winslow was not one for unnecessary exhibition or praise. Although she had a sweet tooth, she didn’t always have a sweet disposition. She relied on short explanations and saved time by refusing to participate in idle pleasantries and small talk. Straight to the point. No chaser. Frustrated, Mattie pushed harder, “Can you explain what is decent about it? Or maybe what it’s lacking to make it better?”
“The cake looks good. Any bride would be happy with it. But it isn’t art.”
“Always direct with the feedback, Joan.”
“I refuse to bullshit you, Mattie,” Joan said while eyeing the cake. “Your work is solid, but what you put together is obvious. Redundant, even. Sure, these colors look great and your work is detailed and specific. But, this is the work of a recent graduate and you’ve been in this field for a while,” she looked at Mattie over the top of the cake and pulled her glasses off of the tip of her nose. She dropped them to her chest and they swayed over the yellow fabric of her chef’s coat, attached to a blue beaded necklace around Joan’s neck. “This seems like the work of someone who has lost their passion.”
“Joan, I spent hours on this cake.”
“It doesn’t matter how much time you spent on it if you were only worried about the paycheck you would get for it.” Mattie balked at Joan’s words. She opened her mouth to respond, but Joan cut her off, “Mattie, I know your work is good. You wouldn’t have gotten this job if it wasn’t. But you asked me what I thought of this cake. I think that it will be a great centerpiece at the Gasset’s wedding, but this is not even close to your best and you know it.” Joan smiled at Mattie and continued, “why don’t you get it packed up and ready to head to the venue and we can drive it over together? You’ll need some help to lift it.”
“Sure,” Mattie nodded her head feeling like she was moving through mist in a dream. “I’ll get on that. I’ll call you when I am ready to head to the van.”
Joan left the back of her bakery and Mattie stared at her cake. Light pink and fuschia flowers cascaded from the top layer and grew in size as they fell to the fourth and final layer of the cake. Each tier alternated flavors between chocolate and french vanilla. It was iced with an Italian buttercream. Once at the venue, it would be topped with a gaudy statue of a woman in a wedding dress dragging her soon to be husband to the altar. Although she didn’t want to admit it, Joan was right. This was not Mattie’s best work. It certainly was quality, but Mattie had secured her job at Winslow’s Bakery because of her willingness to try new styles and challenge tradition. She was a bit lost and needed to find what inspired her again.
She blew a piece of hair off of her forehead and started to prep the cake for travel. She grabbed the baby’s breath that would be added to the very bottom of the cake at the venue and went to get Joan from her office.
“You’re not mad at me are you Mattie?”
“No,” she smiled. “I’m not. I appreciate your honesty. It’s the only way I’ll grow.”
They both loaded the cake into the van and climbed into the front. Joan started the engine and they drove silently for a few miles. Mattie looked out the window and watched the world glide by. Occasionally, her eyes would focus on a building or a person just for a moment before the world became like paint thrown on a canvas and blurred together again.
“Mattie, what motivates you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I meant what I asked. What motivates you? What makes you want to bake and keep moving forward?”
“I guess I want to know that I’m doing well.”
“How do you know that?” Mattie thought for a minute before answering.
“Uhm. I would know I am doing well by what people say about me.”
“So, reviews? Getting more customers from your previous clients?”
“Yeah. That would mean I am doing well.”
“I think you need to think about that more, Mattie. Anything you do has to have deeper meaning than that. You’ve got to know why you’re doing something like what we do. It isn’t easy work and it can be defeating.”
“We’re here, Joan. I’ll think about it and get back to you.” Joan cut the engine and Mattie jumped out of the front seat. She fought the urge to slam the van’s door knowing that it might make the cake fall. She wasn’t angry with Joan for thinking Mattie lacked motivation; she was angry because her source of motivation wasn’t good enough for her mentor. Mattie had developed an understanding that what other people thought about her work is what would encourage and challenge her to improve and work harder. That was good enough for her and what got her working with Joan in the first place. She relished when people provided positive and critical feedback because it meant that she could measure her performance against a specific set of standards.
After delivering the cake to a chorus of ‘thank yous’ and ‘it’s beautifuls,’ Mattie and Joan returned to Winslow’s and closed up the shop.
“Thanks for your work today, Mattie,” Joan said as they walked to their cars. “I hope you aren’t pissed off at me.”
“I’m not pissed.”
“Okay.” Mattie waved goodbye to Joan and got in her car. She started it and let it warm up for a minute before putting it into drive.
When she got home, Mattie showered and changed into plaid pajama bottoms and an old college t-shirt. She dried her hair a bit before braiding it. As she was starting to prep dinner, she heard her phone ding in her purse. It was a message from Joan.
When I hired you, I promised I wouldn’t lie. You’ve lost something, Matilda. I’m not sure what, but you’ve gotta find it. Your work is reflecting that something is missing. I’m here for you and want to help. Let me know what you might need.
Mattie read the message a few times before typing back a reply.
Please don’t use my full name.
She hit send and turned off the ringer on her phone. Deciding that effort in her meal was not an option for the evening, she settled on boxed macaroni and cheese and a healthy pour of merlot. Settling in front of her television, she selected her favorite “I-feel-sorry-for-myself” movie, Bridget Jones’s Diary on a movie streaming site. She had a sour taste in her mouth that was not improved by her choice in food. Try as she might, she was not engaged by Hugh Grant’s charm and Renee Zellweger’s zany personality and soon dozed off on her couch with thoughts of buttercream and flowers on her mind.