“Do you recommend bleached or unbleached?”
“It’s the other way around, actually. The white carnations are white and the blue ones are dyed.”
“I was talking about baking, actually.”
The customer was still standing in the doorway, looking around bewildered.
“I’m sensitive to bleach myself,” said Tom, sweeping up a pile of powdered sugar and pollen behind the counter and tucking his black hair behind his ear. “Even on my skin.
“Unbleached, then,” said the customer.
“That’s what I use.”
The customer, a middle aged man with a soft belly and greying hair, turned a full circle and said, “Alright, where is it, then?”
“Where is, what, sir? Sorry.”
“The unbleached flour.”
“Ahh,” said Tom. “I don’t actually sell my flour, see. See, it’s this,” he pointed at the case of fresh baked goods in front of him, “or-or this,” he pointed at the shelf of flowers behind a separate counter. The space was small, but it seemed too big for the setup. Everything was arranged parallel to the door: the pastry case with danishes and fresh muffins, blueberry pies and tarts. Then, maybe three yards away was the florist counter, behind which were the four tiers of quite delicately arranged bouquets. On the opposite wall was a series of typical coffee shop artwork, with images of sweets and pastel landscapes, and nothing else. “Everything’s fresh.”
“It said flour shop.”
“It is a flower shop, yes. And I also sell baked goods.” He gestured.
“But…said the customer, still wandering about like a man looking for that pesky mosquito that just won’t let him be, “it’s my mother’s birthday, and I’m making her a cake. I wanted it to be something special.”
“Well….” said Tom, putting his hands on the counter and scuffling to the far end of the case, stooped, why not buy one of mine? It’ll save you an awful lot of trouble.” The man let his mouth hang open with vague contemplation. “What kind of cake does your mom like? Chocolate?” The man nodded. Tom opened the case and squatted his lanky frame down to the level of the cakes, which were on the bottom. “Look, we’ve got chocolate raspberry, German chocolate, marbled.” He gave each one a little spin as he named it. “They’re fresh,” he added.
“It is getting kind of late, isn’t it…” the man said, looking vaguely through the glass front door.
“Funny, how the afternoons just fly by.” He smiled.
“Alright,” said the customer. “I’ll take the, uh,” he put his hands on his thighs and bent forward like it was his first time in a yoga class. “The, um.” Tom blinked patiently at him through the glass. “Chocolate…let’s go with chocolate raspberry.”
Tom pulled the cake gingerly from the shelf, discretely pulled a rose leaf out of the frosting, and boxed it up. He rang up the man at the cash register at the other end of the case.
“Thank you much,” said the customer, grasping the box firmly.”
“Oh—oh—do you think your mother might want some flowers for her birthday? You could get her some unbleached flowers to go with the cake. Get it? Ahah…”
“Nmm….carnations always struck me as kinda tacky.”
“Oh—well we’ve got lots of other kinds.” He skipped sideways to the second counter and pointed an open palm from vase to vase. “Roses, lilies, gardenias. And mixed bouquets. All very fresh.”
“How bout this one with the buttercups and the, how do you call this stuff?”
“Yeah. That one’s good.”
“Oh—” he beckoned to the customer, who was already heading back to the flour half of the store. “I can ring you up right here, sir.”
“Can I pay you with cash this time?”
While Tom bounced around behind the counter, wrapping the bouquet in paper and slipping it into plastic, the man asked, “Do you get much business?”
“Oh, you know,” said Tom. “It’s a bit slow today.”
“Just you in here?”
“Mmh hmm. All me from start to finish.” The cash register gave a ping. “Need a snack for the road?”
The man eyed the pastries from afar.
“What kinda muffin you got today?”
“Banana walnut. With cream cheese frosting.”
“Couldn’t hurt…” The two of them shuffled laterally back to the first counter, where Tom rung him up at the first register with the change from the flowers and selected a muffin. “And don’t bother with a bag.” He tucked the flowers in the crook of his arm, secured the cake box against his chest with one hand, and with the other he took the muffin in his stubby fingers. “Thank you much.”
“Thank you sir, and a very happy birthday to your mother.”
The man sidled out of the store, pushing the door open with his back and jostling the bells considerably. Before he had even left completely, he took a bite of the muffin. Tom saw his teeth sink into the soft moist cake, saw his jaw work agains the crunch of the walnuts. He licked his lips. It was good.
He watched his only customer of the day walk out onto the street, and when the door bounced back against the jamb, a handful of sunflower petals drifted into a bowl of unfinished croissant dough.