Dinaburg’s Cake


A short story from Doug Dorst’s latest collection, The Surf Guru, our Rumpus Book Club pick for July.


The man at Kacy’s door was smaller than she’d expected. His voice on the phone had been deep and rich and confident, full of the urgency of business. Now here he was, slightly built and barely up to her nose. Patches of sweat darkened his pink polo shirt under his arms and in a diamond shape over his chest. He thrust out his hand. “Joel Dinaburg,” he said. “That’s Dinaburg, as in dynamo. Father of the bride.”

She invited him inside, where the air was cool and whispery. “I’m surprised you came alone,” she said. “I usually get to meet the lucky girl.” Their footsteps were silent on the thick hall carpet, which was the color of eggshells.

“My daughter doesn’t think the cake is important,” he said. “She told me she’d be happy with Pop-Tarts.”

“That’s cute,” Kacy said, not meaning it.

“No, it isn’t,” he said. “There are guests at a wedding, and they want cake. So dear old dad has to fly in and spend his weekend tasting cakes all over town.” He patted his forehead dry with a handkerchief. “Thing is, I haven’t found one that I’d feed to my dog. Or my neighbor’s dog, the one that keeps crapping on my azaleas. You’re my last hope.”

“Good choice,” Kacy said. “I’m the best around, and I don’t mind saying so.”

“I don’t mind, either, as long as it’s true,” he said.

In the dining room, seated at the long mahogany table, he explained that the wedding would be there in Austin, not in New York, because his daughter and her fiancé were grad students at U.T. and wanted to keep their own distractions to a minimum. “These kids,” he said, “they think the wedding’s all about them.” Kacy liked his accent. His hard consonants could hammer in nails.

They looked at her portfolio, a leather-bound book filled with photos of her finest work: wedding cakes rippling with seas of perfect buttercream waves; a trio of croquembouche pyramids atop a sprawling expanse of chocolate; an abstract, sharp-angled sculpture in hazelnut dacquoise; buildings, logos, and faces all reproduced with perfect, sugary accuracy. “Most people want something simple and traditional for weddings,” she said, “and I’m happy to oblige, but when I’m allowed to be creative, I really shine.” She played up her twang. Oblahge. Ah really shahn.

He pointed to a cake she’d made for the opening of a club at Second and Brazos—a replica of the building’s interior, which was an unruly clash of I-beams, steel cables, and rebar. “Nice. That’s pastillage, right? I never had much luck with pastillage.”

“You know your stuff.”

“I was a pastry chef once,” he said. “Before I got into wealth management.”

Kacy smiled—not her saleswoman’s smile, but one that had risen out of her unsummoned. Here was someone who could appreciate her talent, unlike those Barbie-doll mothers and daughters who waved their Martha Stewart magazines in her face and demanded that she smother their cakes in poured fondant and gum-paste roses! She served him three samples: white genoise punched with amaretto and layered with strawberry cream, Kacy’s Four Chocolate Delight, and spicy carrot cake. “The carrot cake is fresh,” she said. “The others have been frozen. I run a small operation. I can’t keep fresh samples of everything.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I know what freezing tastes like. I can account for it.”

Kacy settled into her chair and watched his little plum-shaped face as he ate. He chewed thoughtfully, silently, with his eyes closed. He tilted his head back and worked the taste over in his mouth, his eyelids fluttering in what she hoped was bliss. She sat with her hands in her lap, rubbing her knuckles, twisting her ring, and she waited for him to choose.

“Excellent,” he said, finally. “All of them. But this one’s the winner.” He tapped a fork on the plate where the Four Chocolate Delight had been.

“It’s my favorite, too.”

“Would you be willing to work with me on the design? I have some ideas.”

“Absolutely,” she said. “You’re the customer.”

And they talked. They talked about the different shapes they’d woven from spun sugar. They talked about roulades and pistachio nougatines. They talked about how so much depends on the quality of your butter. Before he left, he asked if he could see her kitchen. “Someday,” he said, touching her arm, “I’m going to quit the money world and start a business like yours.” She covered his hand with hers and held it there, just long enough to suggest there is something passing between us. And if she was mistaken, so what? She was a saleswoman. Nothing wrong with a little flirtation to grease the pan of commerce, so to speak. Forty-two years old, and she could still catch a man’s eye when she chose.

She led Dinaburg into the kitchen, which was all polished white and gleaming silver. Three years before, when she’d decided to go into business for herself, it had been built as an addition to the house, connected to the family kitchen by a set of pocket doors she could close when she needed to work in peace. She had watched as the new kitchen took shape, watched as the raw floor was tiled with perfect white hexagons, as cabinets were installed and industrial refrigerators were fitted into nooks, as ovens and cooling racks were wheeled in, as the last dusty boot print of a contractor was mopped away. The business—Kacy’s Kitchen—took off immediately. Some nights she’d stay up long after Roger and the kids had gone to bed, sitting at the small desk in the corner, planning her schedule and sketching designs until she drifted off to sleep, lost in the room’s warm baritone hum.

“Hello,” Dinaburg said, looking away from the sixty-pound mixer he’d been admiring. “Who’s this pretty young lady?” Kacy’s sixteen-year-old daughter was standing in the doorway, a ring of car keys swinging from one pudgy, quick-bitten finger. She was wearing her new hat, a white cloche with a silk sunflower on the front. She peered into the kitchen, as if she weren’t allowed to cross the threshold. Which she wasn’t, of course, because of the hair situation. One stray hair in a cake could ruin Kacy’s reputation.

“Mr. Dinaburg,” Kacy said, “meet my daughter, April.”

“That’s a beautiful hat,” Dinaburg said.

April stared at her shoes, as if the compliment had come in a language she didn’t know.

“What do you say, April?” Kacy prompted.

“My mom picked it out,” April said.

Thank you would be a more ladylike response,” Kacy said.

April stuffed her hands into the pockets of her baggy jeans, which Kacy thought made her legs look like tree trunks. “I’m going out with Skillet,” she said.

Skillet. Like some gap-toothed idiot popping out of a cornfield on Hee Haw. Dinaburg probably thought they were all a bunch of hicks. “His real name is William,” Kacy explained. She turned to tell April to be home for dinner, but her daughter was gone. For a big, clumsy girl, she could disappear quickly.

“Pretty soon you’ll be making a cake for her big day,” Dinaburg said.

“Oh, we’re not in any hurry,” Kacy said, with the carefully cultivated lightness she used whenever she talked about April. Frankly, with each bride she saw while assembling her cakes on-site, with each pink-cheeked young woman suffering radiantly through jangly nerves and sprayed-stiff Jackie O. hair, she found herself less and less sure that April would ever get married. All she did was mope, mope, mope. Only sixteen, and already her ankles were disappearing in fat. And, of course, the hair. Good Lord, the hair. “No,” Kacy said, “we don’t want to push her.”


After Dinaburg left for the airport, Kacy poured herself a glass of wine to celebrate. He’d told her he’d call as soon as he got the go-ahead from his wife. A January wedding at the Four Seasons. Five hundred guests, many of them wealthy and important: a software mogul from California; several congressmen; even Rudy Giuliani himself! It could be the break of a lifetime. She’d be called for jobs in New York, Washington, San Francisco. She’d have to hire employees. Down the road, if April matured a little and stopped with the hair strangeness, maybe they could even work together, mother and daughter.

Doug Dorst is the author of Alive in Necropolis, which was honored as San Francisco’s 2009 One City One Book selection, winner of the 2009 Emperor Norton Award, runner-up for the 2009 PEN/Hemingway, Shirley Jackson, and IAFA/Crawford Awards, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and one of Amazon.com’s Best Books of 2008. His story collection, The Surf Guru, will be published July 15, 2010 by Riverhead Books. More from this author →