Rising dough, rising tide

Sarah had decided that all she needed after her third failed career was a change in scenery.

The beach, she thought to herself. Sea breezes. Sitting in plastic chairs. Filling mason jars with sand and the sour smell of sand dollars. These would be a cost-efficient salve for the sudden loss of income.

This time, it was “culture fit.” After serving her sentence of 90 days of a contract that only vaguely offered a carrot at the end of the tunnel, she was turned away. A “copy ninja needn’t so much direction” the Head of Rad (that’s what the HR manager had chosen as his title) had shrugged, reading copies of a statistically calibrated sheet that had rated her work, cross referencing dozens of her colleagues ratings of how she performed on her S.M.A.R.T goals. Head of Rad rattled off her positive qualities like he was a doctor sharing bad news, and slowly waltzed through every syllable of her coworkers’ critique.

“Too earnest.” “Doesn’t take the lead, but listens first.” Asks permission - who does that?“

"Has she like, even listened to our cultural podcast yet?”

She had, and she didn’t find it very good. Instead of a cohesive story about something she didn’t know much about, like her other casts, it was Head of Rad interviewing other Heads: Numbers, Machines, Salesbros. They were all men, and not terribly nice. Once, one of them had matched with her roommate on Blunder. A fortuitous match! she had yelled internally when Molly had told her that she was going on a date with a ~Head of Machines~ at the highest valuated company in the Valley, the one Sarah was auditioning for at that very moment!

Head of Machines instead went on the Culture Cast the next day, listened to by 60,000 employees across every time zone on Earth and Mars, and shared that he had gone on “a totally lame and unspecial date” the night prior, and that Blunder’s algorithms were to blame. “Let’s acquire Blunder and let that shit go asunder!” he cackled.

They did. All 20 people at the small dating app were promptly let go.

Sarah couldn’t let those things cloud her mind now. She had liquidated her assets and moved out her Valley apartment. Thankfully, she had an uncle that had a struggling SeaBnB that needed attention. He couldn’t get anyone to rent out the cottage. It was highly unusual, but that usually bode well for the vacation rental service, which prided itself on celebrating local quirks.

This wasn’t just a regular house. It was a relic of a California known for open roads and gas guzzling vehicles with wood paneling to run on them. People ate real burgers and followed those decadent meals with milkshakes. Meat and dairy were charming relics of the past, pre-drought. And her uncle’s antique house was that in every way: a hard-to-clean, glistening mint green hut with two bedrooms: a small studio perfect for a bachelor poet in the back, and a fully working small kitchen in the front. On the ceiling, a giant plaster hyper-realistic donut. Pink cursive neon splayed across the donut: “Warm, Fresh: Tom’s Donuts!”

The menu was still up by the customer-facing counter. Crullers, sprinkles, raised, old fashioned - each would cost you 25 cents apiece. A “Dirty Dozen” was $2.50 - a steal!

One corner of the still glimmering stainless steel room was dedicated to a coffee machine fit for an ogre that worked the night shift. It could produce cylinders of dark, bubbling coffee - the kind that only tasted good in styrofoam cups, stirred with red plastic.

Sarah had never experienced these things, as they were all pre-drought and therefore illegal contraband. But she always saw them in old films, the kind that played while the things you actually wanted to watch buffered (the internet rations had been in effect in Sarah’s youth, before it was regulated).

Her first week, she spent scrubbing Tom. That’s what she had named the place, after the pink heat that vibrated above her head as she slept. It was oddly therapeutic, to exfoliate an inanimate object. She occasionally talked to the walls as if they were an old friend, one that she used to date but had parted ways with romantically in an amicable way; they joked and occasionally got a drink, perhaps got dangerously close to kissing each other, but ultimately went their separate ways at midnight.

Then, came pictures. And redoing the SeaBnB listing. She even sprung for a bit of programmatic buys to go out to those searching for “seaside retreat” or “eat, pray, sunshine.”

She did personal outreach to those she saw browsing similar listings.

She promised foot massages, free WiFi, and the ultimate luxury: bottled water!

Still, no takers.

She enrolled in Pineapple, which is like reform school for SeaBnB hosts that were having a bit of a crisis. She even opted into the streaming option, which was always a bit of a risk because it could mean you were eligible for the Web series, hosted by a very angry Scottish man that could show up at your doorstep and rip your drywall to shreds.

No one could help her there.

Her uncle checked in. “How are you and Tom?” he asked, with the concern one would use if his niece was dating a freshly-freed violent felon.

“I don’t know if i can do this, Tio,” Sarah sighed. “No one wants to travel to the California coast anymore. People just rail by and then rail back home immediately.”

It was true; high speed rail had introduced a new convenience for people. “A Super for vacation!” investors hailed. Super, the on-demand ride service, had expanded into everything, moving people, places, experiences and animals to and from consumers in an instant. And that included bringing people, at astronomical speeds, to locations for the day, and whisking them back home to sleep in about 30 minutes, no matter the distance. And once people got over the nausea, it was a cinch! Especially since there was very little food post-drought, people had nothing to puke in the first place.

Sarah began to pace as she Fyped her uncle, who could see through the video conference that her brow was furrowed. She paced and paced, until suddenly, she screamed. She had accidentally bumped into the deep fryer, and the rattle startled her and her uncle.

“Well, that’s a frightening noise!” he said. “That’s enough noise to actually make a donut!”

“That makes no sense,” Sarah bit back.

Until it did.

“Wait. What if we do something retro? What if… we actually made donuts?”

“Do you know how?” uncle asked, kneading the idea in his head.

“Yes. I was too cheap to accelerate my internet credits that summer I broke my leg! So instead of watching the blockbusters everyone else was watching, I watched old reruns of that Food Network stuff that was big last century! My favorite reel it got stuck on was that Good Eats show. With that very nerdy man from Atlanta!”

~ ~ ~

A year later, and Sarah was a busy girl. Her nails were caked with powdered sugar, her hair constantly smelled of cooking oil, and she had gone up a cup size. Her savings had been obliterated by her first shipment of eggs, flour and sugar, which were newly legal and therefore very expensive. But as soon as people started to notice a quirky female moving lots of cooking oil across the Coin ledgers, the bloggers began to talk, and to Tweep. They anxiously awaited this strange, retro project some nobody seemed determined to make work.

Tom’s Donuts had become a post-drought-retro-fit-fat craze. It turned out that people had been in fact, sick of their Brotein bars and Slimz drinks - and were willing to pay a little something for some fried dough from the kooky girl in the mint-framed window.

Sarah had figured it all out, albeit a couple of deep frying incidents: petite donut holes she called “Tommies;” maple bars filled with sticky, golden cream; even decadent little sandwiches that put hazelnut spread in between two raised sugar donuts - she called those “Sweet Dreams.”

Her reviews would mention the “charming old stand” and “totes ironic sign” but most of all, “that Sarah who is almost sweeter than those little carb balls she sells.”

She was happy. And although sampling her own product made her invest in a wardrobe of elastic and bras with more support, it was worth it. Twenty years of a post-drought plebeian diet had robbed Sarah of collagen, confidence and a C-cup.

That weight she threw around got the attention of more than just those hungry for sweets.

~ ~ ~

She was first drawn to his strong hands. Most men in post-drought didn’t do anything active, for fear of expending too much water. But he felt like he had touched wood (from a real tree!) in the past month.

As he handed her a tip, his gaze lingered a little too long. And when he had come back as she was sweeping outside, she knew he had liked more than just the new chocolate filling she had given him a sample of that morning.

They talked about the books and reels they liked - about their siblings, parents, first grade teachers, last pets. They discussed what it felt like to swim in the ocean, what it must have felt like to go down a Slip’ N Slide, or jump into a real swimming pool, or a water slide. They contemplated if they’d ever have the gumption to move to Mars and have to pee in a tube. They laughed about how people still believed in ghosts, and stopped when they realized the neighbor’s son passed away.

They dissected their earliest memories, and their least favorite sounds. They shared with each other how their mothers smelled. There was the what, the why, the how and most importantly, the who - each other. Time stood still, the earth was wet, and neither cared that it was 4 in the morning and it was time to start the day’s first batch of dough.

They made jokes about holes and wanting to be filled with sweet cream when it was time to go beyond just holding hands. They cackled, and made gallons of coffee together, and hundreds of happy pink boxes that bore the stamp: “Warm and Fresh: Tommy’s Donuts! Where sweetness and sunshine live.”

A dozen months later, Sarah gave birth to a little girl.

During her pregnancy, Sarah expanded the product line to include morning buns. Loyal customers could choose an apron, sweatshirt or poster that read: “That’s right, there’s a bun in our oven! Visit Tom’s Donuts.”

Yes, this is 1) fiction and 2) started as a joke I made at a bar about donuts and erotica. Obviously, this isn’t erotica. Sorry.


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