ISSUE NINE IS HERE

THERE ARE LIMITATIONS TO A DONUT

 

There are limitations to a donut. 

I know what you’re thinking—you’re thinking:

Taffy, you’re the owner of a donut shop, why would you admit this to us? 

You’re right—it’s silly of me to betray my craft in this way, but really, at some point you may as well be baking cakes. Yet, everyone demands something new, something flashy. I make a donut that tastes exactly like Cinnamon Toast Crunch and even has the cereal pulverized and mixed into the icing, and still, they ask for more. I take an orange maple cream and fill a Long John, top it with a maple syrup glaze and two strips of cayenne-infused candied bacon and still—they ask for more. 

There are limitations. 

Forget the absurdity of a two-foot-tall donut filled with a mascarpone bourbon cream and topped with isomalt shaped like a rocks glass. Think of the structure! If it were to topple, you’d blame it all on me—rather than your avarice. 

But Taffy, you say, we believe in you!

Great. Belief doesn’t pay the bills though. In actuality, my sweat barely pays the bills, but I wring myself out day in and day out hoping to shake loose a few coins. 

Passion isn’t just a fruit. It’s a poised rattlesnake you willingly domesticate—building a tolerance to the heart-stopping venom with every mishandle. Passion is the air around your skin holding you in place so you don’t evaporate. As odd as it may sound, donuts are my passion—money or no. 

I proudly opened the doors in 2013. My ex-wife encouraged me to follow my dreams and then proceeded to lose interest in the idea when she realized that she was not my dreams. About two years after opening, she met another woman, and I started renting the apartment above the shop for myself and a chinchilla named Kirkland (short for Kirkland Signature). 

It has all the workings of a Greek tragedy, a prison of my own design. Mostly alone in a small brick building—where I sleep, eat, shower, work, sit, stand, microwave popcorn, impulse buy a rain stick online, etc—I practically never leave. 

Taffy, you ask politely, what do you mean you’re mostly alone?

Well, besides Kirkland I also had a solitary employee. A fifteen-year-old boy named Noah who started working for me a year ago when his Dad caught him stealing his cigarettes and decided to make him get a job to “keep him out of trouble.” Between his vape and his Twitch, I’d say he kept himself plenty stocked on trouble, but he’s a good kid and he does fine with dishes and the cash register so I keep him around. 

 

*

 

This all started on a Tuesday. 

Our rush for the morning just ended, and Marjorie Jessup was at the counter picking up her monthly order of a dozen assorted, what we call the “baker’s blend.” It was three eclair, three maple bacon, three cheese danish delights, and three whipped raspberry. Most of my day happens before Marjorie wakes up, yet every time she comes by she assumes the only thing I’ve done is her order and it’s never up to snuff. Standing there in her tennis skirt, athletic tank-top, white sneakers, and visor, her chief complaint is that “they look smaller than normal.”

(That’s right, Mrs. Jessup. In an attempt to save on costs, we’ve ordered boxes that are 12% smaller and started shaving off chunks of dough from every individual donut because we didn’t think any geniuses shopped here. You figured us out. Maybe they look small compared to the big, stupid rock you’re hauling around on your finger lately. Mr. Jessup making up for all those extra hours at the office with his assistant Shoshana?)

At some point in adulthood, you realize that all lives, converging at various points, are exactly like pennies down a funnel. Swirling around a large basin, narrowing the path with every turn, until we reach the bottom and fall through to the other side. Every person has their own speed and wobble—dreams and fears—and most of them are shitty to all the other people. 

Yet, we persist all the same. Although, at times, we’d be happy to give our aspirations to others to achieve on our behalf. It is our way.

“Marjorie!” I say with a smile plastered to my cheeks. 

“It’s Mrs. Jessup.”

“Yes, sorry, Mrs. Jessup. I can assure you I haven’t adjusted the recipes in any way.”

“Hm—if you say so. Have a nice day.”

She takes one of the maple bacon donuts out as she’s walking towards the door to inspect further. The bacon slides right off the top and onto the floor. Marjorie looks down and turns on her heel to point a stare at me as if there could be an accusation made, that I somehow knocked the bacon off with black magic. 

“Mar—Mrs. Jessup. Give me five minutes and I’ll make one fresh for you.”

“I’m in a hurry, Taffy.” 

“Absolutely, ma’am. Just a moment.”

I ran to the kitchen and told Noah to go up front in case a customer showed up. 

“This is something I am willing to die for!” He responded.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Huh? Oh, what? I had my headphones in. I was singing a song. What do you need, Ms. Novak?”

“First off, I’ve asked you a million times to call me Taffy. Secondly, please go keep an eye on the front door and Marjorie.”

“Uh, okay.”

As I pull the empty donut from the warmer and run to the walk-in to grab the maple cream, maple glaze, and candied bacon, I think about the confidence that someone like Noah has. To stand in a seemingly empty room and sing, to be alone with one’s voice and feel the weight of its echo takes a bravery that I do not possess. Good for him. 

The bag of filling opens easily enough with one of the box cutters we keep on hand. Emptying the contents into a separate bag with a piping tip at one end, I squeeze the filling into the donut. 

I started feeling very strange, almost dizzying, and I wondered if maybe the A/C went out. It was at that moment that I realized what happened. In the rush of gathering ingredients, I accidentally sliced the tip of my index finger with the box cutter. Blood soaked my hand and the piping bag, and some of the blood even seeped into the donut. Shit. Shit. Shit. 

I ran to the back office to the first-aid kit, screaming to Noah that it would just be another minute before the donut was ready, but I think he must have had his headphones in because all he heard was, “the donut is ready.”

When he came into the back, he must have seen the blood, but for some reason he didn’t question or ponder any of it. Instead, he glazed it and stuck two pieces of candied bacon right on top. When I arrived back on the scene, I assumed he had thrown the donut away and was back out front with Marjorie. I started to work on another donut when I heard,

“Oh my God!” 

It was Marjorie’s voice, but there was something in it that I couldn’t detect. When I swung the door open, the horror set in instantly. Marjorie had the bloody donut in her hand and a large bite had been taken. 

“Mrs. Jessup!” I said louder than I had intended.

“Taffy Novak! I must say—you have outdone yourself! I wanted to be a little selfish and eat the fresh one myself. When I bit into this, I about dropped dead! This may very well be the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten!”

“But, I, uh—”

“I mean it! Truly magnificent!”

Marjorie turned again towards the door with an almost drunken saunter and a calm that could have painted the walls azure. She swayed out of the door and the bell rang as sure as any bell ever had. When she stepped onto the sidewalk, she shoved the rest of the donut into her mouth, took her visor off, stared up at the sky for about thirty seconds and let out a sigh. 

I should’ve stopped her, but by some force of nature I had been transformed into a marble brick. What had happened was the most immobilizing and shocking thing I’ve ever witnessed.

Taffy, you say accusingly, what have you just done?

Shut up.

 

*

 

Do you know how famed whiskey distiller, Jack Daniels, died? 

The story goes that at some point prior to October 9, 1911, old Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniels was—likely—cowboy-hat-adorned and drunk as all get out. Hey, sometimes it’s difficult not to be enamored with your craft. He wanted to admire and count the money in his personal safe, but, for one reason or another, he couldn’t remember the combination. He proceeded to kick the ever-living shit out of it and busted his toe up. Months go by, and he developed a nasty blood infection that spread from his foot to his heart. He died without ever getting back into his safe. 

Funny, right?

There’s something almost lyrical about it. A black blood pooling and sticking in his veins, consuming him—thick with a savage rage spawned from a suspension of understanding. 

The true soul of a creator teems with pointless fever. 

 

*

 

It was a Tuesday at noon. Noah, Bev, Justine, and Yassir were manning the counter while I worked on fresh batches of everything. A line of customers stretched clear down the front sidewalk—the sound was raucous. The last few weeks had been an absolute whirlwind. Bev, Justine, and Yassir showed up on my doorstep about a week after Marjorie Jessup left with her baker’s blend. Business picked up exponentially and I needed the extra help. 

My four employees are young, stoned, and five minutes late every day, but they work hard and they all get along. It was Noah’s idea to bring them aboard. 

Marjorie has been back almost every day since to try a new donut. She has been a huge catalyst for the growth we’ve experienced as she seems to have friends everywhere. 

“Marjorie,” I say, “how are you, dear?” 

I had walked up front to make an appearance and get an update from my team. They were all wearing beautiful new t-shirts that they helped me design.

“Taffy, angel, I’m so happy I could cry,” she responded. 

“What are you having today, Marj?” I man the counter for a moment to impress my best regular. I’m not above anything. 

“What’s good today?” 

“What isn’t?” We laugh together for a moment and I wrap up three trés leches donuts with a maraschino glaze, charge her for two, and pass them over the counter. 

“I’m not a charity case, Taffy!”

“I know, darling, but anything I can do to get you back here tomorrow. I miss you already! Have a great one.”

Marjorie Jessup left with sweatpants that hugged her hips. She’d put on a few pounds, but they suited her fine. 

I let Noah, the “shift lead”, take back over on register and walked to the kitchen. Alarms were sounding and I knew I needed to head in that direction. The ovens made their siren call and I stood before them with a smile stitched into my skin. 

But Taffy, you ask judgmentally, this is what you want?

Zip it.

 

*

 

It took a lot of planning. If you asked me then why I did it, I wouldn’t have been able to give you a clear answer. It made sense to me in a way that prayer does: I wasn’t entirely sure what I was accomplishing (if anything at all), but it felt bigger than me. 

Countless nights I played with recipes. Tasting and teasing the delicacy of it until I’d profoundly warped my sense of taste, positive that what I was doing was high art. 

And the flavors were so pronounced, so deeply and earth-tremblingly good. It was becoming almost ravenous. My customers were driving from other states to find out what everyone was on about. I’d been contacted about and even considered opening other locations, but I was still working out the logistics. 

Every batch, every sprinkle, every glaze and filling was crafted and enhanced with the simplest ingredient—a small amount of my blood. 

 

 

*

 

After another long day and longer night prepping, I retreat to my home upstairs. Kirkland was looking thinner. Obviously, I hadn’t spent enough time with him the last few weeks and he was pretty upset with me. The litter box was overflowing and his water and food needed refreshment. His water bowl had feces floating in it. I said aloud, “Captain Kirk! Disgusting. I hope you aren’t drinking that.”

I picked him up gently and sat in bed with my laptop to read the day’s reviews. 

Comment after comment held admiration that surged through me with an overwhelming warmth. I was absolutely loved. 

“These aren’t just donuts. These are little bites of heaven.”

“The raspberry filling has ruined my entire life!”

“I’d sell my children for more if that’s what it took. Taffy Novak is a goddess among mere mortals.”

“The hole is the perfect size.”

Kirkland fell asleep in my lap and I drifted off just as easily. I was awakened by a quick stab of pain—a raven night had draped the room. Kirkland was no longer sitting on my lap. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dark figure skitter under the bed, and there was something wet against my fingertips. I turned on my lamp and saw what looked like teeth marks on my fingertip and a small puddle of blood. 

I heard Kirkland before I saw him. It was a wet sound. Under the bed, I saw Kirkland huddled in the corner next to the wall, turned away from me. When I reached for him, he snapped at me. I moved my bed over and he stayed in place making a breathy whimper. 

Shushing him calmed him enough for me to pick him up and place him back in his enclosure. There was blood matted into his fur, and in my state of delirium, I assumed that he accidentally bit me, got scared, and ran off. I wiped him down with a wet cloth and vowed to give him a good bath in the sink come morning time. I was too tired to keep my eyes open and collapsed against the bed with a heavy push of sleep. 

In the morning, I rubbed my palms against my eyes. My hands felt gritty with fur and lint from my sheets, and the pool of blood was still present. The early morning flooded back into my memory with a crash as I recalled the oddness of it all, and I worried greatly about Kirkland. My finger tip was practically throbbing, but then again, they had been that way since I started my new venture. 

Lighted from above his enclosure, I see the dried blood reflective against Kirkland’s fur. My hand gently fell on him, and I felt a cold lump that used to be my chinchilla. I couldn’t discern what I was seeing, and likely I was in shock, because I shook him and parts that could have been teeth, bones, organs, and more started to slough to the floor. I screamed and rushed him to the vet.

He was obviously dead. The doctor didn’t need to break the news, but he did anyway. 

“Can I ask you something?” The doctor said after talking to me about the diagnosis. 

“Please.” As I wipe a tear away. 

“Had Kirkland ever exhibited any behaviors like this in the past?”

“No, absolutely not.”

“It just is so confusing to me. In all my years I’ve never really seen anything like it.”

“What do you mean? What actually happened?”

“He practically ate himself. I’ve genuinely never seen an animal behave that way.” 

 

*

 

“Some days aren’t yours at all,” Regina Spektor sang to me as I drove home. My hands griped the steering wheel with little resistance. If the sky were to open up at that moment and swallow me whole, it would have been a welcomed change to the hands of gravity that were holding me heavy to the earth. 

My fingertip, where Kirkland had bit me, was turning a deep purple that could have easily been mistaken for black. My head was lost somewhere in a wave of static—as if my skull had taken up AM radio stations that were dark and full of nothing. I was suddenly frightened in a way that bleaches your bones. 

But Taffy, you whisper, what did you expect?

Oh, God. I started to wail and sob. 

 

*

 

I arrived at the café to what I would describe as an angry mob. I forgot to call Noah and the gang to tell them I’d had an emergency. Parking in the back offered little in the way of hiding. Everyone recognized me instantly. I was met—red and tear stained—by fifteen or so people that were all talking at once. It sounded like a foreign language, but even in my state, I could feel their disappointment. 

“I’m so sorry, everyone. Give me a moment and we’ll be up and running!”

The nicest part of all of this was that my employees were all hanging out by the backdoor with their vapes. Apologies to the crew were also in order, but Noah looked at me and said, “It’s okay, Ms. Novak. Things happen. Are you okay, though? You look, like—no offense—but you look rough.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Unlocking the door felt like turning a stone wheel. My hand was shaking horribly and my entire finger was black. I shoved the hand into my pocket and walked inside to turn the lights and ovens on. I quickly shouted orders at the gang so that we could start serving people as soon as possible. They all put their heads down and got to work. 

About thirty minutes later, we felt the shake. A vibration that matched the growing sound of impatience from a crowd of hungry people. Peeking around the corner, it was obvious that today would not be a simple day. 

There are limitations. 

As calmly as possible, I walked to the front door and turned the lock with my good hand. The door didn’t push open as much as it was violently pulled from me. The mass of people spilled through like a leaky damn, shoving one another over to be first in line. 

The babel of it all was painful and my hand was throbbing from strain and heat. 

Bev kept her cool as she rang in orders and Justine and Yassir worked in symbiosis to get everyone’s donuts out in a timely fashion. Noah was in the back restocking product. It was perfect. The day was starting to feel centered again. I tried not to think about Kirkland. This new world is filled with promise. Every artist hopes to achieve any level of success. This is it.

I snapped back to reality when I heard an all-too-familiar voice over the thrum of the noonday crowd. 

“Darling!”

Marjorie Jessup looked startled and sleep-deprived. She approached after her body odor. 

“The young thing with the giant holes in her ears informed me that you were out of the maple bacon donuts. Is there something that can be done about this, Taffy?”

“Of course, Marjorie. Give me a moment.”

The walk-in refrigerator had a different plan for me and my accidental lie to Marjorie. We were practically out of everything. The crowd outside was turning termite and taking the whole place down. The good news is that I had the ingredients; the bad news is that the new way I “prepared” donuts meant that I needed a little privacy. No one was around. Pulling my hand out of my chef coat, I realized that my entire hand had turned to what appeared to be coal. 

The first-aid kit had gauze, so I wrapped my hand enough to cover the discoloration and vowed to have it checked out in the morning. I started to sing.

“Hold me close and hold me fast,

The magic spell you cast,

This is La vie en rose.

I grabbed a box cutter from the office desk and ran to the prep table where I had laid out everything I needed. The filling is easy to assemble. As I dropped in the maple flavoring, I quickly sliced my finger tip and let the blood, dark and thick, ooze into the bowl. Folding the gauze over the fresh wound proved almost useless, but I was almost finished when I was taken aback by another voice.

“What the fuck, Taffy?” Noah was standing about five feet from me with his gaze affixed to my bandaged hand. 

“Are you mixing your blood into that?”

“Noah, you don’t understand!”

“Holy Fuck!” Walking briskly to the line, Noah starts to yell over the din of the masses, “This crazy bitch is cutting herself and putting her blood in the donuts!”

After the first shriek from one of the customers, the madness overcame time itself. For several breathtaking seconds the building frenzied with a choir of shrieks that echo through years of pastry school and marriage, the shop and the divorce, the turning and turning of open sign to close. 

It is said that heat rises, but no one ever talks about the heat that simply materializes around your limbs and throat in moments of crisis. An embrace from an untold fury and fear that racks you into submission. The tile was so cold, and the stampede of shoes felt like a stereo of war drums. Then the blackness of a deep well blotted out the world.

Taffy, you sing, this is La vie en rose.

 

*

 

The sound of a hospital room seeps into my rest and suddenly a light breaks the seal on my eyelids. My head was somewhere between an anvil and a hammer—or so it felt. 

Moving my arms proved to be difficult. The blur started to fade from vision and I became aware that my left hand was attached to the bedside by metal cuffs. It made sense—I’m positive I can explain everything that happened. My other arm was also not moving and upon turning my head, the horror made me scream. 

“She’s awake!” The nurse screams to the hallway outside the door.

“Ma’am, take a deep breath. The doctor said there was no other way.” Another nurse was at my side holding me down while the first prepared a syringe. 

At my elbow was the unmistakable empty air of a removed limb. My arm was gone. 

Sleep took me back quickly. 

Without any warning, I was sitting at a small wooden desk—the kind you find in a highschool classroom. It felt empty all around me, but I knew that the other kids were just being insanely quiet. My teacher had clearly asked me a question and was now spitting it at me again, each word bubbling from her lips in cartoon style.

“What is Dostoevsky trying to convey with the dream about the horse, Taffeta?”

“I don’t know, Mrs. Traver. I forgot to read it.”

The lie slipped from me with ribbons of purple.

Mrs. Traver walked briskly to my side, leaned over, and pointed to a spot on the page. With her sour breath she said to me, “Start here, and read on!”

“She’ll fall in a minute, mates. there will soon be an end of her,” said an admiring spectator in the crowd” I read aloud. 

A small droplet of blood fell onto the page and I shuddered. My nose was bleeding. The teacher became angrier with every second, but the page became harder and harder to read as the page became stained with crimson. 

“Taffeta Novak, I asked you to read the passage.”

“Yes, ma’am. It’s just the mess on the page. I can’t, I can’t—”

“Ew, she’s such a freak!” said one boy from somewhere in the shroud behind me.

“Freak!”

“Freak show!”

All in unison the class devolved into a melting hysteria of the word. 

F-R-E-A-K!

My nosebleed flowed from my face with the force of a small river. The class was cackling with mad glee as they thrashed in my blood. The sound of their laughter was ringing with a harpy shrill. 

And then I woke. 

Marjorie Jessup was only centimeters from my face. The light from the day had been replaced with a moonlit stillness. Marjorie was panting heavily and my face was wet with her tears. 

“How dare you, Taffy Novak!”

“Yeah, I know, I’m sorry”

“Sorry? You’re sorry?”

“Look, Marjorie!”

The pillow came down over my head faster than I could swallow, and although it was muffled, I could hear as the woman who ended my life said to me, “It’s Mrs. Jessup.”

Taffy, your words sink into me, no one will ever understand you. 

 

I know.