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Beard Science

By:Penny Reid

“So the unwanting soul

sees what's hidden,

and the ever-wanting soul

sees only what it wants.”

 Lao Tzu


On any given day, I woke up and I baked cake.

If I had to bake cake I preferred not to bake in large batches. That’s like batch-raising kids, expecting them to think and behave exactly alike, or trying to swim across every lake in East Tennessee at precisely the same time.

I preferred to focus on one cake. Each and every cake had its own personality. If you ignored a cake’s personality the cake would ignore you. It’ll be a rude, boring cake.

I avoided making rude cake. These days, I avoided making cake, period. But if I had to do it, I made great cake. Fun cake. Cake with big dreams, difficult to ignore. Special cake.

“Are you finished with the Knoxville order yet?” my momma bellowed from the other room. I hadn’t heard her come in. Her tone was sharp and edged with panic, and that made me panic. “And, I swear on your grandma Lilly’s fried chicken livers, if you’re making one cake at a time again, I’m going to wring your neck.”

I squared my shoulders, swallowing the rush of nervous saliva in my mouth. Grandma Lilly’s fried chicken livers were no joke. Not only were they delicious and a closely guarded family recipe—like most of our infamous family recipes—they could also maim if thrown with enough force and deadly intent.

Employing great care, I placed the last of the cakes—the cakes I’d just baked and decorated one at a time—into a bakery box.

That’s right. I’d baked one cake at a time. Did that mean I had to wake up at 0-dark-thirty and start baking? Yes, it did. Did I need to admit as much to my momma? No, I did not. Better to wake up at the butt crack of dawn than sell the good people of Barbern boring cakes.

“I’m just finishing up,” I called and jumped into action. If she saw my six-quart mixer she’d have a fit. I stuffed the small-batch bowls and measuring tools into a tall cabinet at the back of the large, industrial kitchen. I returned for the six-quart mixer, hoisting it in my arms and stumbling under its weight.

The click of her heels grew closer and I knew I didn’t have time to hide the machine like I wanted, so I lowered it to the ground and covered it with my apron, spinning around just as my momma appeared in the doorway.

“Thank goodness.” Her hands were on her hips and she looked perfectly put-together, as was her habit.

Her blonde waves resembled a helmet, and in many ways they were. Her makeup was spotless and as thick as a layer of frosting, and as impervious as a hockey mask. A cloud of Chanel No.5, nail polish, and Aqua Net hair spray arrived three seconds after she did.

The way she made herself up was both weapon and armor.

She assessed the state of the kitchen, lingering for a long moment on the large-batch mixer. It was spotless.

“Where is everyone? Who cleaned all this up?”

“I did.” I stepped over the smaller mixer, hoping she wouldn’t spot it. “I sent the team home early, since it was just the one special order.”

Her eyes cut to mine, vexation written on her features. “What are you wearing?”

I glanced down at myself, having forgotten what I had on. “Uh, overalls.”

“Oh, Jennifer!” She said my name low and rough, as though it were a swear word. “A lady does not wear overalls.”

“Nancy Danvish wears overalls.” Nancy Danvish supplied our eggs and milk; her hens and cows were very happy, therefore they made the best eggs and milk. Happy eggs and milk make happy cakes.

“Nancy Danvish is a farmer.”

“But she’s still a lady.”

“That’s debatable . . .” my mother grumbled, almost rolling her eyes before catching herself. “And, goodness, your hair. And your face, ugh.” Under her breath she added, “You know I wonder what planet you’re from; Lord knows it ain’t this one.”

I pressed my lips together so I wouldn’t say, “Thank you.”

I tried my best to pretend unkind words were actually just erroneously expressed compliments, as it just made everything nicer for everybody. For example, my momma’s latest comment could be rephrased to, You’re cosmically stellar.

This habit of purposefully misunderstanding insults has served me well over the course of my life, around town, and at home. I’m sure it would have served me well if I’d gone to public school, but my momma homeschooled us kids instead.

For example, when Rhea Mathis called me “stranger than a vegetarian at a barbeque” during junior choir practice at church, I decided it was her own special way of saying unique. And when Timothy King called me a frigid prude outside the jam session when I was fifteen, I thanked him for praising my coolness and modesty. And when two of my fellow baking finalists at the state fair told me I was a no-talent hack, I smiled and accepted their kind remarks about my work ethic.

“Hello? Earth to Jennifer. Stop cotton picking and get a move on.”


My momma had retrieved her phone with one hand and was snapping at me with the other. “You have an appointment at the station with Sheriff James.”

“I do?” This was news to me.

“Yes. You do. I ran into him at the Piggly Wiggly parking lot this morning and asked how he and his deputies enjoyed those cupcakes we sent over. And, of course, he couldn’t stop talking about how amazing they were. One thing led to another and he agreed to a video testimonial.”

“Oh . . .” I nodded faintly, my throat suddenly dry. I attempted a smile.

“What is wrong with your face? Do you have tummy trouble?”

“No.” I tried harder to paste on a convincing smile. “But, Momma, you know I don’t like doing those recordings.”

“Speak up, Jennifer. You’re low talking again. You know I don’t like it when you low-talk.”

I lifted my voice. “I don’t like doing the recordings. I get nervous and the comments—”

“Don’t read the mean comments, baby. There’s always going to be nasty people, bless their hearts.” She crossed to me and placed her hands on my shoulders, giving me a gentle shake. “Focus on how well the lodge is doing since we launched the social media campaign last year. Focus on how business is booming. Focus on all the money we’re making. Focus on how famous and admired you are all around the world. You’re a star.”

“But it’s so public. And people in town—”

“People in town don’t matter. You and I, we’re meant for bigger things. Come on now, you know you look pretty in those videos, and our subscribers eat it up. The camera loves your face, when you’re wearing your makeup and don’t look like a farmer, of course. Go on and change, there’s a good girl. I told the sheriff you’d be there this afternoon.”

“But can’t you—”

“Jennifer!” My mother’s fingers dug into my arms and she closed her eyes for a long moment before speaking. “You are trying my patience, baby girl. Do you know how many things I need to do today? Do I need to remind you we have investors coming for the lodge at the end of this month? I need you, Jennifer. You are the key. You fail me, everything fails. With your brother gone . . .” My mother’s chin quivered and she glanced up at the ceiling, tears shimmering in her eyes.

Immediately, I was awash with regret for causing her distress. I knew how she struggled with my brother’s defiance. I knew how hurt she had been—and continued to be—when Isaac cut himself out of our lives. My father seemed to get over the loss quickly, but my momma still grieved. My heart ached just thinking about how I missed my brother; I couldn’t imagine how my parents felt.

She exhaled a shaky breath and sniffled, bringing her eyes back to mine. “Just, please, Jenny, please be a help to me. Please don’t fail me.”

I swallowed the last of my protests and rearranged my features such that my clenched jaw resembled a closed-mouth smile.

Her sigh was laced with relief and she cupped my face, giving me a cherishing smile. “Good, good. Go get dressed, get a video of you and the sheriff. Afterward you can spend the rest of the day however you like.” Behind her mask of makeup I perceived her eyes soften with concern. “What time did you get up? You look tired.”

“I’m fine.”

She inspected me for a moment longer with maternal eyes before her watch buzzed; she glanced at it, huffed, and released my shoulders. “I have to get this call. Go see the sheriff. Perhaps write a letter to one of those pen pals of yours, or take a nap.”

Maybe for the ten millionth time in my life I said, “Okay, Momma.”

But she wasn’t listening, she’d already brought the phone to her ear. “Hello? Hello, yes, this is Diane Donner-Sylvester. Yes, thank you for calling . . .” She left the kitchen, her voice diminishing along with the click of her heels.

Like the good girl I was, I did as I was told.

I’m a people watcher.

Partly because people, the things they do and say when they think no one is watching, are truly odd. But mostly, I’m a people watcher because hardly anyone in town talks to me about anything but cake.

“It’s the Banana Cake Queen,” Flo McClure announced in a flat voice. She was manning—er, womanning—the front desk of the police station and her eyes barely moved from the computer screen as I approached. Not looking at me or waiting for me to speak, Flo McClure instructed, “Take a seat, gorgeous. The sheriff is expecting you, but it’ll be a few minutes.”