Middle-Aged Woman at the Pastry Counter

by Robert Peake


“There is another world, and it is in this one.”
-Paul Éluard

Lit mostly by the cake display, her face
describes the thickened cream’s warm sheen,
reflects the yellow tube light from above.

Around her eyes, the lines bunch up
like crêpe de chine, the snow-globe eyes
and cheeks of custard skin, her chin

drawn down toward the glass, unaware,
as it was when she was young and light poured over
the dew-glazed lawn, wanting only to reach her.

She might have been regarding a cone of roses,
a new grandson laid in the bend of her arm,
or clouds multiplying in a furnace of sky.

But whorls in the piped-out frosting press a jam
print in her mind. Water gathers behind her tongue,
and the thought of a spatula descends like a hand

through a sandcastle. The stiff-walled turrets
would seem to give back an empty ring if tapped,
as if a secret rap might open a small, arched door.

(Who dwells within would know the reason for her
fading hair and sagging breasts, the cupcake
huts peopled with soothsayers and quacks.)

Late at night, when I was young, the posters
on my bedroom wall would wink and dance, while
ships of speckled light would glide in the dark.

Clockwork rooms would open in my pillowcase,
and this must be what lies behind that door.
I watch her growing younger as she stares.

She never looks up. She does not know I am there.
Yet children play with one another easily
when drawn outside together by the sun.

So, let us sink our hands together in leavening dough,
and lick the bowl and egg beaters to a gleam,
shovel on frosting with bricklayer confidence,

piling up edible bedtime tales: a tower of Babel
for Hansel and Gretel, Jericho’s walls,
assailed by songbirds, crumbling to gingerbread.

Any moment, she will turn back to her cart,
and trundle slowly toward the vegetable aisle,
our custard world collapsing like her hair.

So, let the gliding ships hoist up their masts,
and set the Order of Stiff Frosting on the march,
while toothpicks still prop up our paradise.

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