• Let Them Eat Apple Cake

    Malerie Willens

    Fall 2021

    Every October, for the first twenty years of the twenty-first century, they drove north to pick apples. It had been her favorite month, before New York City was the world capital of fast-casual salad chains, back in the days when October was October.

    They’d visit the orchard specifically for Mutsus, those yellow-green behemoths sometimes streaked with pink. A little too firm and too tart, they straightened your spine while you ate them. They demanded total engagement, mocking the jaw’s reach and range of motion with their size, and taunting the parotid glands with their sourness. When October was still October, she and R. drove north in a Camry that felt like a Saab because they loved each other. Their affection was an organizing principle. Otherwise, they had little use for organized activities. Apple picking in October had been one of their few rituals.

    After more than a decade away, she returns to pick apples, but now she’s alone. She ignores the orchards closer to the city, the ones with hayrides and bouncy houses, driving past them toward the larger, quieter one they favored all those years ago. This orchard—their orchard—is still quiet. There are no tailgaters, no one grilling meat, no rows of SUVs with doors swung open for maximum oldies station broadcast, or hip-hop, or local ballgames.

    She tromps across the dry grounds, missing the give of rain-softened soil beneath her boots. She gets lost but not quite (she feels the relief of orientation after disorientation, the pleasure of a close call), picks what she thinks is the perfect apple, and then finds better ones and picks those. Her bags grow heavy with a quantity of fruit she knows she can’t consume on her own. The orchard is hotter than in the old days, but it’s still serene and wild. The squash patches remain, but the squash are half the size and the small lake has dried up. There is an abandoned mobile home at one remote coordinate and state-surveilled hemp fields along another. A musky autumn feeling blankets the orchard, in spite of the heat. She takes deeper, more luxuriant breaths than she does in the city, hoarding them for her return to the vault-like loft that can be eighty degrees in winter.

    She makes believe she can transport the country oxygen—her body the vessel—back to her treeless neighborhood, which has never been verdant and is now downright bereft. Street life began to peter out around the time the city went bankrupt, when the statutes around eye contact took effect. The few remaining bars are empty because people no longer drink, and the restaurants are takeout-only since everyone prefers to stay home. Bike lanes are reserved for scooter drivers delivering food and supplies to the people at home. Thirty percent of storefronts are on record as vacant, but everyone knows it’s closer to forty. Supply dwarfs demand. More than half of the apartments are uninhabited, and most have floor-to-ceiling windows. Thousands of never-used kitchens and bathrooms are equipped with small-footprint appliances, their blue seals still unbroken. People are afraid without knowing what of, or why. They don’t even know they’re afraid.

    She returns to the hot loft with two pecks of apples. In the old days, she could’ve put them in a bowl in the department kitchen or faculty lounge, or set them out during the graduate seminar break. But people no longer share food. It’s an intimacy. A surplus of apples is something you keep to yourself.

    She uses them to make a braised pork dish, a rustic galette, and a squash soup with curry. She eats small servings of each, not because she dislikes apples but because her interest in eating has waned since entering middle age. She is amazed at how little the body requires. She brings an apple to work each day for lunch—often the same one over and over because she forgets to eat it.

    Days later, she still has Mutsus in her refrigerator (she prefers them cold), most with the leaves still on, to remind her of the trees. It helps her to feel October in her body if not in the city, which still hasn’t dipped below seventy degrees. The glut of apples mocks her idyll. They spread themselves out over an entire refrigerator shelf, too many of them, a judgment on her pastoral safari and residual nature high. City people still pick apples in October, despite the fact that the city as they knew it is gone, and with it some important but unnamed manner of dignity once the birthright of its people. The rot of uneaten apples is only a shred of the damage.

    She bakes an apple cake. It’s actually a very good cake. She substitutes spelt flour for white and replaces most of the sugar with chopped dates that have been soaked in bourbon. She has run out of vanilla extract so she uses almond, which imparts a hit of umami. She doesn’t have a cake pan, so she uses her rectangular Pyrex and cuts the cake into squares once it’s cool.

    She eats little bits of cake with her coffee over the next few mornings. The cut cake squares sit on the kitchen counter, covered with Saran Wrap, for five days. She puts the four large squares that remain in a heavy-duty Ziploc, refrigerating them before they grow rancid in the stifling loft.

    She is on the subway with the remaining four squares of cake all wrapped up, resting on her lap. The lurch and pull of the train have worsened during the months-long repair project playing out in the tunnel under the river. Nobody knows what needs repairing, and nobody asks. It reminds her of that Mike Watt lyric—“making the freeway safe for the freeway”—a favorite in her youth.

    Her subway line is an abomination for its punitive thrust and halt, its too-frequent stalls, and its baroque timetables—contingencies upon contingencies—that never quite add up. Even worse are the ads. She can still recall the impeachment-era ads for startups, with their promo codes and pandering copy geared toward young arrivistes high on the fumes of their recent move to the city. And before that: the blurry local ads for cut-rate dermatologists, ambulance-chasing law firms, and for-profit universities. She feels nostalgic for the old ads, awful as they were, the visual and psychic equivalent of white noise. But now, the city’s vulgar attempts at solvency are splashed through the train’s interior:imagine your name and/or likeness on this building, billboard, curb, bike rack, doorframe, awning, kiosk, municipal hot dog stand, or carriage horse. Even grimmer is the fact that people are biting. In the muggy, bankrupt city, everyone is keen to be a set piece, given optimal exposure, a part of the landscape that can’t be unseen. A cash-poor city must find money under its sofa cushions. The promise of mass notoriety, always and only from a distance (a kind of anonymity), is the fiduciary magic bullet for a metropolis in distress.

    The younger riders, outfitted in tiny headsets, are inscrutable. Dressed and groomed to be noticed, coveted, and photographed, they are not to be spoken to. They swipe, faces down, between the various aspirations—romantic, financial—netting pro-tips for each minute of the day, a citizenry in thrall to the hack, and the hack of the hack. The goal is always to save time in order to have more time to find new ways of saving time. Everything’s circular. Making the freeway safe for the freeway.

    Only the people in extremis seem to sense that something’s amiss. They’ve become more vocal, sometimes targeting specific riders but mostly calling out the collective ridership’s numb self-interest when nobody offers up food or spare change. But the hardscrabble regulars are not to be found. Not today. Where is the young guy with the tattooed face and bloody-muzzled pit bull who threatens to kill everyone? Or the hunchback—pitched at an inhuman ninety degrees—whose unseen face faces the ground? Or the young mother, with a naked toddler and a baby on the way, explaining in graphic detail her predicament, as though a public self-shaming might expunge her record? Or the wisp of a guy with Kaposi’s sarcoma and visible wasting, a specter in denim with a handlebar mustache dyed blue to match? And where is the woman of a certain age, with her necklace of keys, holding forth on Psalm 109 (Let mine adversaries be clothed with shame; and let them cover themselves with their own confusion, as with a mantle . . . ), that most vengeful of imprecations?

    Normally, the few passengers who give these people alms or attention appear to be nearly as desperate and threadbare. The more fortunate seem not to register them. The mentally, physically, and spiritually wounded, parading on most days through the subway cars—there’s no onlooker’s strategy for this. Her one policy: never avert your eyes. She makes eye contact out of respect or some notion of directness, and they skip right over her. Dispensing her attention for free seems to demagnetize her to the point of obsolescence. This stings, but she won’t turn away.

    But today, with the cake as her offering, nobody’s there to accept it. Its pressure on her lap relaxes her. She made those heavy squares with her hands, in her oven. They did not exist until she baked them. She used four large Mutsus. The cake contains no nuts or known allergens. She waits for the takers to arrive, waits as though they’re old friends. The train bumps along madly: DeKalb, Jefferson, Morgan, Montrose, Grand. Nobody yet. Graham, Lorimer, Bedford. By now they should’ve surfaced. Beneath the river, before the First Avenue station, she hopes one of them will push their way in from another car as they often do, but there are no new arrivals, which is a shame: she feels certain they’d enjoy the cake. First Avenue, nothing, and the same with Third, and even Union Square, normally a hotbed. She is early for work and decides to stay on. Sixth Avenue is another letdown, as is Eighth, the end of the line. She crosses the platform and enters a waiting train headed back in the opposite direction.

    Pinky-texting’s all the rage, ever since pinkies were deemed more dispensable than thumbs. Some young passengers pinky-text with Olympian agility, while others take phone calls from worried kin in Missouri and Montclair who fail to understand the city’s allure. Riders photograph themselves—they’ve mastered their angles—phones like light meters on old movie sets, a tacit agreement to ignore others doing the same. No apple cake for them.

    Sixth Avenue, Union Square, Third, and back to First. No luck. The regulars appear to have taken the day off. She climbs the stairs to what was once the northernmost boundary of the East Village, now just a bus route [YOUR NAME HERE!] among the banks [YOUR IMAGE HERE!], condos [YOUR NAME HERE!], and mostly foreign gourmet hamburger chains [YOUR IMAGE HERE!]. The idiocy of her cake project is tight in her clavicles. As if anyone would’ve taken a piece.

    She walks off her frustration. Fourteenth Street is this day’s orchard. The trees look skeletal, their remaining leaves a dead-moth brown. Squash and vines snake over and around the sidewalks, and there is almost nobody else in the fields, on the avenues, just names and likenesses, images on screens, on buses and the sides of buildings, on benches and kiosks. Every space is ad space. The city disowns its people, enough to monetize them all. She is alone in October, in a heated metropolis emblazoned with the signifiers of too many people, projected onto surfaces—a thousand Pablos and Anas and Jims—faces and names, faces and names, people as content, the idea of people, people without people.

    She walks two blocks to the shelter, a twenty-first century bungalow set among a string of Italianates and Beaux Arts, with a prominent granite ledge near a service window for soup or maybe pills? She pulls open the Ziploc and removes the cake, lining the four squares up in a row until she hears “Hey, hey, wait.” Someone in the four-hundred-dollar clog-boots she’s coveted since she was a teenager swishes toward her in fancy fabric, asks what she’s doing.

    “I’m just leaving cake.”

    “You can’t put your cake here.”

    “I baked it. It’s fine.”

    “Our people have allergies. Many are addicts. We won’t take that risk. I realize you’re well-intentioned, but your food is unvetted.”

     “I’ll eat that fucking cake,” says a woman who could be thirty, could be sixty-five. With weather-stripped skin and unruly hair, she is at least six feet tall and wears a bright yellow rain slicker.

    “Language,” says clog-boots. “Language!”

    “Fuck language,” the woman says as she turns to greet her. “I’m Mar.”

     She extends her hand, which can really only be described as exquisite. It’s long-fingered, regal, with soft-looking skin that does not track with the raw, chapped face and gravelly voice.

    “Mar can go ahead and eat cake from a stranger because Mar is a thorn in my side.” Clog-boots turns and leaves, shepherding stragglers back toward the bungalow.

    “Don’t mind Sonya,” says Mar. “She’s a bump on a log under a dog taking a piss. She’s the kind of woman who tells you she’s Type A the moment you meet her. You want to take a stroll?” Mar takes her elbow and they begin to walk. “Fifty-something years old,” she continues, “and every day she posts pics of herself in anguish about global warming, close-up on the tears, in curated outfits with shopping links, and I’m supposed to trust her with my care? She’s got an eight-hundred-square-foot vegetable garden on her roof. Has she ever brought me or anyone else a single fucking chive, let alone a Japanese eggplant?”

    They are walking west now. Mar’s pace is leisurely, slow, perhaps because her stride is so long. “She went through seven rounds of IVF when it was legal. I ask her, I say ‘Sonya, why do you want a kid so bad in a world like this? There are other things to want. Other ways to nurture, to give, to live.’ You know what she says? ‘Fun Christmases!’ Then she overcorrects—she was joking, of course, about Christmas. It’s a mentorship thing. She’s an excellent mentor, she says. What I know—it’s very hush-hush—is that she’s launching a company that infuses mezcal into placentas, or maybe it’s placentas into mezcal, so she has to build her personal platform, get followers, blah-blah. Don’t ask me how I know all this.”

    “You really hate Sonya.”

    “Not as much as she hates herself. That’s why no one’s allowed to have cake. No cake, no pleasure. And she still blames her mother. Whose mother wasn’t crazy? The worst part is, she asks a million questions and never ever waits for the answers. Her interest in other people’s all an act. Drives me up a goddamned wall.”

     It’s a pretty morning, big and bright against the kiln-hot asphalt. The idea of old October feels remote, faint, quaint, receding but still within grasp.

    “What’s Mar short for?”



    “Yes! Keep guessing.”


    “Yes! Keep guessing.”


    “Yes! All of those plus Marquis de Sade, Marfa, Texas, Hitchcock’s underrated Marnie, Marva Whitney aka Soul Sister Number One, Mar-a-Lago, Martha and the Vandellas—a Vandella is a dream-invading demon in Ethiopian folklore, by the way—and good old Marsha with an sh and not a cia because I loathe the CIA, but not as much as I loathe the FBI.”

    “Wow, Mar. That’s a lot. Can we sit for a minute?”

    They find a bench in what was once a community garden.

    “Why do you hate the FBI so much? It hasn’t existed for, what, a decade?”

    “Where’s your proof it doesn’t exist? Just because it went away doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Ever notice how FBI sounds a lot like FB, as in Facebook? You remember Facebook, that horrible Zuckerman, probably still monitoring us. You think they’re our friends? You think the FBI protected us? You think Facebook connected us? Think I’m paranoid?”

     “You’re not too paranoid to eat a stranger’s cake.” She hands the Ziploc to Mar, who is wearing a pink velour sweat suit under her rain slicker.

    “I’m paranoid, not stupid,” she says as she fiddles with the cake. “Me? I’ve got nobody. And nothing. There’s arthritis in my jaw, big toe, ankle, shoulder, both wrists, neck, and knee. My career never happened. I never happened. But I’m motherfucking here. They say democracy’s done, that soon it won’t exist. You know what’s crazy? I burn. I do. I ache that I won’t find out how it ends, even the bad stuff. The suspense is killing me. And yes, I know how crappy we have it, and it’s getting worse. I remember when there were four seasons. When I had my own kitchen, family members still alive, bookshelves full of books I never even got around to reading. The bounty of it all. I remember life expectancy when it was going up. I remember the tech bros, the way they used to eat salads and talk on their phones in dive bars, which we used to just call bars. Sex is foggy in my mind, but God knows I remember the feeling of lust. So why in the hell wouldn’t I eat your cake?”

    “It’s apple cake. I used spelt flour. It’s got no nuts, and almond extract instead of vanilla because it was all I had.”

     Mar takes a bite and then another, making noises of approval and letting the crumbs fall onto her pink velour, rolling her eyes in an exaggerated display of relish.

    “This apple cake is balls.”

    “You don’t like it?

    “Are you kidding? It’s balls! What’s better than balls?”

    “So many things are better than balls, Mar.”

     “I can tell that you picked the apples yourself. They’re Mutsus, if I don’t miss my guess. In the old days, you’d drive to the orchard in that decrepit Camry, which felt like a Saab because you and R. were in love. You finally went back, alone, to the big orchard you two liked because it was quiet. It was still quiet, but the few leaves left on the trees were dead-moth brown, not like the Octobers you remember. It was warm, obviously. The apples didn’t snap so easy off the branches, and they were a little bit starchy. But it felt good to be there. You took big breaths of country air, and you brought that good, clean air back to your claustrophobic loft with the windows that don’t open. You skipped through that orchard like you were a kid, but not for long because, like me, your big toe’s stiff as hell with arthritis. Then you cooked some sort of pork dish with apples, a rustic apple tart, and a soup with curried squash and apple, but you eat like a bird these days so most of it’s still in the freezer. You have a few apples left. You keep them in the fridge because you prefer to eat them cold. And this, missy, is your first real conversation with a stranger in four months, three weeks, ten hours and fourteen minutes. Pretty sure you’re skipping work today. Pretty sure it won’t matter. Now let your friend Marsha make love to this apple cake.”

    Malerie Willens’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, AGNI, Granta online, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She’s currently working on a novel and stories.

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