Petit Fours

Jenah Shaw

Here’s a strange one: Early on a Thursday morning, late spring but not quite summer, Livy—age twenty-three and solitary, generally ignored or more openly reviled by everyone in our office—turned up on my doorstep. I’d ignored the first knock. Nobody ever called for me. I had the bottom rooms in a house so carved up over time that it resembled the grand villa it had been only from the outside, and then only from far away. To get to my door, you had to go down some rotting stairs around the side and into a grim little alcove, which is where I discovered Livy, squinting at the weeds that thrust out—so irrepressible with life!—from the cracks in the concrete path.

“Livy,” I said. She wore a black coat and a huge, plaid scarf wrapped twice around her neck. She was small, and when she dressed this way, it seemed as if she were about to be devoured by her clothes. Her hair was scraped straight back off her large, pale forehead, and her eyebrows creased together in the middle, which gave her an uneasy cast whenever she smiled, as she did now, like you couldn’t tell which part of her face to believe. I was already confused. “How did you know where I live?”

She waved one hand through the air. “Do you want to go for a drive?”

“It’s a Thursday,” I said dumbly. “We have work. Livy—how did you find my house?”

We had worked together three months. The company dealt in compensations for workplace injuries. I was hired for data entry, my first office job. I didn’t know then what I do now: that all functional offices are alike in their boredoms, but each unhappy office has its own particular kind of meanness.

Our office was three floors up—depressed, airless rooms behind the repainted facade of what had been, in the fifties, the headquarters of a municipal electricity company. Now it was all faded beige carpet and a lingering chemical smell that wafted from the stairwells. The walls were covered with black-and-white pictures, unframed: close-ups of dandelions, or other cities’ skylines, or, inexplicably, melancholic ballerinas standing like tired flamingos on an ornate balcony. Atop the filing cabinets, plastic plants gathered dust along the seamlines. The rest you can imagine. Shabby, green dividers between the desks. Squeaking seats, old monitors. Phones ringing from all sides. Sometimes I gazed too long out the window to the park across the street, and when I looked back, a screensaver had slotted some more exotic location on my screen: the Grand Canyon, underwater reefs—wonders in countries I’d never been to. Every so often, the manager would emerge from his office, smiling, like he just wanted to take it all in. People, fake plants, frustrated ambitions—he gave everything the same indiscriminate grin. Mitchell. His name was Mitchell. Mitchell’s smiles were dark ponds. Cold and teethy.

And in the middle of it all—up and down the rows, in and out of back rooms—hurried Livy. She had a way of moving, let’s call it a scuttle. A little bent over, head down. People shoved paper at her, without looking up or saying thanks, and she collected and sorted and verified and shredded. When clients came, she greeted them; and later, when we’d saved them a shitload by lying to the people who couldn’t work from their injuries, she distributed the gifts these clients sent in thanks: specialty chocolates, little cakes, individually wrapped ice blocks. On the novelty goods, they spared no expense. And every so often, in front of everyone, still smiling, Mitchell would yell at Livy, as though just to remind us that he could.

On my doorstep, she heard me ask why she was there and just nodded, like agreement was the same thing as an answer. She reached into a pocket and pulled out a bit of paper, which she took great care unfolding. It was a photocopy: the previous day’s newspaper. I peered down.

“There’s a storm coming,” I said. “Cyclone Pieta.”

“Not that,” she said. “Below.”

“The lighthouse?”

The reproduction was grainy, but then the office photocopier could be inclined that way—glitchy, prone to distortions—and I knew enough to guess the gaps. The story had flitted in and out of the news for months. The lighthouse was set for demolition, the protestors thought not. Decisions, appeals, and now this: imminent catastrophe.

“People in this country are always knocking down the best things we have,” I said. “Have you noticed that?” I meant it half-heartedly.

Livy was watching my face as if expecting to see some expression, some clue or recognition. She could be like this in the office. It unnerved people.

“Let’s go see it,” she said.

“The lighthouse?”

“The protest.” Her gaze skittered again to the weeds at her feet. Little yellow flowers on the tips of long, thin stalks nodded in assent. “I mean, obviously also the lighthouse. But don’t you want to see the protest?”

The week before, I’d said something at work that might have got me confused for someone more radical than I was. I’d grown edgy with office life. All day, I entered numbers, and around me people took phone calls about every kind of injury you can imagine, the boring and the bloody: the slickened step, the faulty brakes, the butcher knife unseen. For every finger detached in a door latch or foot shredded in an escalator drive chain, every internal organ bled out beneath a tractor’s toppled weight, there were so many wrists tender from repetitive stress, or ankles wobbly from encounters with high thresholds and mopped halls. I can’t tell you how many dull falls.

I only ever heard one side of the story. A dozen halved conversations, overlapping all at once, never added up to much. Except for Livy, offering a jittery good morning or goodbye, nobody spoke to me. Rather, they looked through me, and I’d begun to realize that I was on the bottom rung of an unspoken social system and that what I wanted was to be a person on a phone, and if I couldn’t be a person on a phone, then at the very least I wanted their good graces.

So, on that morning the week before, after Mitchell had blown past me, glancing around for Livy, then shrugged and pivoted back, smiled, and ripped into me for a dish left in the sink—not mine—all while ditching for an early lunch, I stood from my seat and blurted out: “We should start a union.” No one said yes or nodded or even registered my presence. But I couldn’t stop. “Fuck Mitchell. Fuck everything about him. Fuck all of this.”

If I hadn’t yelled, I might have cried, right there in front of everyone; and I did cry, a little bit, out of embarrassment at my desk, but by then the phones were ringing and people were shouting things across the room and I doubted that anybody saw.

“The protest,” I said to Livy. “Sure. I want to see it.”

“Then let’s go,” she said. “You can call in sick.”

She looked so hopeful then, like a child who had just built the courage to ask to join in a game. Spring light was everywhere. It made me feel hopeful, too.

Livy’s car was waiting on the street. She picked up a thermos from the passenger seat and paused a moment, looking for somewhere to put it—the back seat occupied by a cardboard box and scattered debris—then dropped it into the space next to my feet. It rolled as she drove, nestling, like a little creature, against my boot.

“What’s in the box?” I asked, and she just gave a weird little laugh.

It was a good day still, clear skies, low wind, and I absently tracked a lone cloud as we approached the highway. Nearing the on-ramp, however, she turned left, toward town, passing the block with the closed-down stationery store and slowing into a parking space outside our office. We stopped right by the entrance.

“Livy?” I said. “What are you doing? I called in sick.”

“I need to drop something in.” She glanced over at me, then reached into the back. “Don’t worry. They won’t see. I’m just going to leave it in reception.”

I couldn’t relax. I felt too big for her little car. I twisted away from the building, and into the onrush of broadly familiar faces, arriving for work. I let my hair down, as though I might better hide myself that way, but then my cheeks got hot, so I tied it up again. I stared across to the little park, scrubby and square, with its empty benches covered in bird shit. It had been a playground when I’d first started. A month later, all the structures disappeared. For weeks, I waited for a new playground to go in: the area remained fenced off, great trenches in the dirt covered with a blue tarpaulin. It looked like a crime scene.

I startled as a dark shadow moved across my view, but the driver’s door opened, and I realized it was just Livy. No one to be afraid of. Nobody at all.

We reached the coast midmorning to find more people than I’d expected, all crowded up on the hill, and at their center, like some sacred monolith, the lighthouse: squat and underwhelming, domed at the top with brittle, gray tiles and a frail balcony seeping rust. The closer we got, the worse it looked—its white cladding streaked with grime and the most banal graffiti.

“Would you rather live ten years in a lighthouse or one in a submarine?” I asked Livy, and she seemed to be thinking about this carefully, pulling on the strands of her scarf. “This one specifically,” I said. “Not a functioning lighthouse somewhere. Not a lighthouse in a better climate.”

She nodded, and for a moment, I felt absurdly flattered, like my question contained a depth I hadn’t yet appreciated, but what she said in response was: “Do you think that people can learn only from their own misfortunes?”

We were surrounded by an odd, festival atmosphere. I’d predicted a lot of old hippies, grown dour and dull by decades of petty disappointments, but there were just two that I could see, with long, silvery hair and felted coats, and they both seemed rather sanguine, swaying to the tune of a much younger man’s guitar. A church group studied verse near several elderly women who avoided everybody else’s eyes. A man in a neat, dark suit held up a sign that yelled in black capitals: CHOOSE! HERITAGE OR HERETICS? Teenagers in school uniform leaned against a wire fence, smoking. “Sign the petition!” someone called out to us. It was hard to focus on Livy’s question.

“I’ve been thinking about empathy,” she said. “I’ve been trying to decide whether you can learn it. Do you have to experience something bad to know what anyone else is going through?”

“Is this about yesterday?” I asked.

“No,” she said sharply.

“Mitchell was out of line.”

“I know. I hate him. But this is bigger than that.” She spread her arms out, palms up. “Bigger than all of this.”

The day before, a client had sent a gift: a box of tiny ice creams, each in its own cardboard carton. Livy was handing them out, and when she saw Mitchell emerge from his office, smiling, she turned and extended the box toward him, and then stopped.

At first, the rest of us couldn’t hear what he was saying, but his voice got louder, and around the room people quietly ended their calls, looked away, looked over, gave up pretending not to stare.

“Isn’t this what we’re paying you for?” he sneered. “A very simple set of instructions, Livy. Any imbecile could do it. An orangutan, a fucking chimpanzee. But not you, apparently.”

Livy remained still, but the box in her hands had begun to tremble, every so often, as if a tremor were running through the ground and rising within her.

Mitchell’s tirade ended abruptly. He gazed in all directions, still smiling, smiling at the cabinets and at the sad ballerinas and at anyone who would meet his eyes, then he swiveled and briskly crossed back to his office, slamming the door behind him.

For a moment, Livy stood in the middle of the floor. She seemed to take a breath and brace herself. Then she handed out the rest of the ice creams. Nobody said a thing.

“I hate him, too,” I said.

She looked at me. “Do you even know what it was about? Yesterday? He doesn’t understand how to use a spreadsheet. He hid a line of data and thought it was deleted; so when I printed it out and those numbers were still in the sums, he yelled at me.”

“God,” I said.

At the fence, a group of protestors was struggling with a pair of wire cutters. The metal rattled each time the cutters bit in.

“You’d think there would be police here,” I said, watching them. “Or—I don’t know—security. Something. Look, they’re going to cut right through.”

“Do you ever consider the numbers you enter, when you’re putting them in?”

I shrugged. “Sure.” I edged to the side to see better. The group at the fence was making progress now: a corner was beginning to peel away, fold right over itself like paper.

“Don’t you think it’s wrong, how much money they all cut off from people who need it?”

“It’s a job, Livy. They’re just doing a job.”

I glanced back. She had a devout look, a dreamy look, gazing at the lighthouse, as if at any moment the face of a saint might emerge from its filthy walls.

“That box I took around this morning—it was a lot of little cakes. Petit fours. You know, the first time a client sent them, I didn’t know how to say the word properly and Mitchell laughed at me, for weeks. Anyway, that’s what it was. I bought them from a bakery and switched the icing.”

And she smiled, really smiled.

“I spent hours on it. It had to look good.”

“You—what do you mean you switched the icing?”

I was conscious, suddenly, of where I was standing—my feet on this bit of rock, surrounded by people who smelt of fire smoke and damp wool and cheap pharmacy perfume. They let out a cheer as someone climbed through the hole in the fence and ran a slow victory lap around the inside, holding—above his head—a rolled-up banner.

“Livy?” I said seriously, slowly. “What did you do?”

“They don’t understand,” she said. “Nothing bad has ever happened to them. They don’t think it ever will.”

“But that’s no reason”—I dropped my voice—“you know, to do something.” I’ve always found things easier this way, talking around the edges.

“What?” she said. “Why are you looking at me like that?” I was struck again by her oddness, by those pitched eyebrows.

“Nothing,” I said—I think I said—turning away. “I’m not.”

The boy within the fence—a teenager, lank hair flopping over his eyes—was trying to open a rusted door. It wouldn’t budge. He jammed the banner under his arm and began to scale, with a suspicious ease, the painted brickwork. An empty window gaped just a few meters up. He didn’t have to make it far.

I could hear the wind above the crowd. If I really focused, I thought, maybe I could listen to only that. Livy stepped close and grabbed my arm. “I’m not a bad person,” she said. She leaned in closer and closer. I didn’t know what I could tell her.

I wrenched away. People were everywhere, pushing forward like they wanted to storm the lighthouse—crawl up inside it, make nests. Never leave. Nobody had explained to them it was futile, a relic, just an old mess of brick and steel that had become worthless in the constant, flashing lights of this new century. I jostled and elbowed my way through. At the back, the man in the suit had taken up a megaphone and was shouting incomprehensible prose. Along the path, the schoolgirls chased one another, shrieking, with handfuls of something slimy and reeking—seaweed maybe, stripped off the rocks—that they were trying to shove down each other’s collars. One knocked into me. I jolted sideways. “Sorry, miss,” I heard her yell, and her yell was caught and carried by the wind.

Livy’s car was locked. I sat on a low, wooden barrier by a ditch littered with crushed coffee cups. A sign lay facedown in the mud. Nearby, a smaller group of protestors passed around a joint. The smell wafted. I waited. My phone had no signal, but it told me the time: thirteen minutes after eleven. After morning tea.

A man ambled over. No, I told him. I don’t care about the lighthouse, I hate the smell of marijuana and never smoke, I won’t sign the petition.

“It’s not just the lighthouse,” he said. “The whole ecosystem suffers if you pull this apart.” He was squat and earnest, fair and red-cheeked. I looked toward the sea, but he kept talking. Did I know a rare pair of mating terns were nesting on the crest of the cliff below, almost certain to be displaced by the destruction, any hope of their hatchlings’ survival destroyed? I squinted at the line between the sea and the sky and tried to isolate some difference between the two. It seemed to me a dark haze was spreading.

Nearly an hour later, Livy returned, the tails of her scarf flicking in the intensifying wind. She frowned as she descended the hill, but she didn’t look guilty, or penitent, or upset. We walked to the car without speaking and got in, each staring straight ahead.

“I signed the petition,” she said.

Far over the sea, I knew, black clouds were forming and reforming, gathering force. I had felt the ice in the air.

“I think it’s too late for that,” I said.

I’d gone over it in my mind, backward and forward. They had eaten, or they hadn’t. They were poisoned, or they weren’t. I felt wrung out. “The cyclone’s coming, Livy. We should head back.”

We pulled onto the road. I turned in my seat. The lighthouse was framed in the back window. The boy had made it inside: his banner hung from the balcony. But as it twisted and gusted in the storm, the letters rippled and vanished under the folds of fabric, and no one could read what it hoped to say.

In town, I asked Livy to drop me near the high street. It was late afternoon. I couldn’t imagine going back to my rooms, untouched since morning, and finding my cereal bowl where I had left it and needing to be washed. I was full of doomed knowledge, and I didn’t know what to do with any of it. I found myself outside a cinema.

A preternatural gray and yellow light cast an uneasy pall over the pavement. You could feel it, in the looming storm and in the way people walked—quickly, heads down, hoods up. The cinema lobby, by contrast, was snug, emanating a buttery glow. I bought a ticket to the next movie playing, and when that was finished, I bought one to the next. I didn’t have money for a third, so I snuck out before the ending and into another where the trailers were still warming up the screen. I let it all wash over me, and at some point, I fell asleep.

When I emerged, the rain had started. It changed the aspect of the town—made the spaces between buildings seem wider, darker. The footpaths were quiet except for the rain, the hard slaps across the sealed roads. Every so often, a car drove past, and the sweep of headlights would remind me of my shadow.

The following morning, I took a long time getting ready, and stood for nearly a minute on my front step before letting the lock click behind me. I walked the route slowly, trying not to imagine what scene I might find in the office—each time my thoughts rushed on ahead of me, I dragged them back to the signs in the shopwindows, or the uneven cracks in the concrete, or the snapped-off branches that had fallen across the ground. The cyclone had blown through in the night, and everything smelled new, scrubbed clean. Maybe there’d be no one there at all—just me and Livy, and whatever messes they’d left behind, and the phones going off like fireworks.

But all was normal. The rooms were crowded and noisy, as they always were. The only person missing was Livy. Her monitor was blank, and when I walked around the low divider, I saw it: the box, unopened, on the seat of her chair. Someone had just moved it and left it for her. No one had even peeked inside.

I lifted the box carefully, peeled the sellotape from the lid, and was struck by Livy’s painstaking work—everything was immaculate, delicate, just so. Icing sat atop each cake like a glossy, pastel cloud.

“Where did these come from?” I asked, looking around. “And where’s Livy?”

Nobody replied. They were making calls, prying for loopholes and vulnerabilities, pressing hard on any soft point that seemed like weakness.

“Are you going to hand them out?”

I turned. Mitchell leaned in the doorway to his office, staring at the box. “Look at those,” he said appreciatively. “Just look at those.”

I tilted it toward him.

Later, when I’d finally landed a job on the phones, I was put on the case of a salmonella outbreak from a farewell morning tea. Listening to the details, having to note them down—the whole thing made me queasy. I couldn’t focus, continuously wondering, Which of them is behind it? Everyone got paid out in full. And soon after that, I quit.

But in the office that morning, squares of spring light sprawling through the windows—so bright, like they promised to set fire to the carpet—I didn’t know any of that. I imagined passing the little cakes out. I imagined giving them all to Mitchell. I imagined eating them myself, one after another, and then waiting. And I remembered Livy, as she’d been the day before, standing on my doorstep, so ready to get away.

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