FICTION: Once Upon a Time in the Quiet Kingdom of Sacramento

Once upon a time in the quiet kingdom of Sacramento, there lived a queen. The queen, whose name was Amy, lived in a craftsman-style castle with her new husband, King Steve, and Jeff, her Abyssinian guinea pig from a lousy first marriage.

One Thursday, Queen Amy recalled that her mother-in-law, Empress Nan, was throwing a dinner party that very night. All the royal family’s attendance was requested, and they were each to bring a special dish of their own making, as the dinner party was a potluck.

“The Empress will criticize anything I make,” Queen Amy said aloud. “She already thinks that I am a terrible wife for her favorite son. I’m doomed.”

“Maybe not,” said a hushed voice.

Queen Amy started. She’d thought she was alone in the castle. The only movement was Jeff, rolling along the floor in his exercise wheel.

“Hello?” Queen Amy called out. “Is anyone here?”

“Just me,” said the hushed voice again.

Queen Amy cocked her head at the metal wheel. Jeff was old. He hadn’t exercised in years.

The rodent was at her feet. “If I may suggest,” he said, “there was a recipe for a salted caramel frappucino upside down crumble that people are raving about on Pinterest.”

“You do Pinterest?” Queen Amy’s jaw dropped.

“Huge fan,” Jeff said.

“But, but — how…?”

“You saved me from an unfulfilling life in Pets R Us, and through your humanity, I have lived many contented years,” Jeff explained. “Check your inbox,” he continued. “I emailed you a link.” His hushed voice rose. “If you make this recipe, Empress Nan will be in such awe, she will never criticize you again. However, the route to crumbles is shadowed by false hope. Stay the course.”

Queen Amy checked her email, and just as Jeff said, the link was there. She gasped aloud. One click and it was true: six hundred Pinterest users had avowed that whosoever ate the crumble would swoon like dogs in a deli. Quickly, she grabbed the keys to the royal Subaru.

The day was overcast, with a burnt, sulphuric smell. The first item on the ingredient list was salted caramel frappuccino syrup from Starbucks, the nearest iteration of which the cyber-serf Siri proclaimed would be a twelve-minute drive on side streets due to a crash on I-80. Queen Amy pressed the gas pedal hard, even though she had recently been issued a speeding ticket by the royal traffic court. She wished that Empress Nan’s opinion didn’t matter so much, but King Steve was close to his mother, and Queen Amy wanted her second husband to keep thinking he had married a worthy partner, instead of, as her first husband used to say, a sinkhole of need.

In Starbucks, a helpful serf named Caitlin informed Queen Amy that all retail bottles of syrup had been discontinued.

“But I must make salted caramel frappuccino upside down crumble!” Queen Amy said. Her eyes darted to where other serfs mixed libations behind the counter. “There! You have it! Could I just get some in a cup? I’ll pay whatever it costs.” She recalled Jeff’s dire prophecy of false hope, and shivered.

Caitlin’s mouth twisted to the side, but, after hearing Queen Amy’s tale of Empress Nan’s ability to turn her ass into grass, she shook her head in sympathy.

“Your mother-in-law is legit scary,” Caitlin said, and pronounced the paltry sum of five dollars and forty-nine cents for a Venti cup of syrup. Queen Amy reached inside her purse. But in her hurry to exit her castle, she had forgotten to replenish her coffers, and her scrambling fingers emerged from the bottom of her bag with only a single coin.

“I’m so sorry,” Queen Amy whispered, her head bowing. “I seemed to have forgotten my wallet. Could I come back later, after I’ve made the crumble, to repay you your kindness?”

“No way José,” Caitlin said, and returned to the snakey hiss of the steamers. The disapproving face of Empress Nan replaced the smiling green mermaid on all the Starbucks’ cups as Jeff’s voice boomed from the loudspeakers, “Stay the course.” Sweat pooled in Queen Amy’s Uggs.

“If I may,” said a human voice. From the corner of her eye, Queen Amy saw a male arm reach past her, gripping a platinum card. Pumpkin-colored hairs glinted on the back of his hand. Before Queen Amy knew it, Caitlin swiped the card in her small black machine and gave her the syrup.

Cup in hand, Queen Amy turned to thank the shining knight. But when her eyes lit on his medium build, her forehead wrinkled. The ‘thank-you’ caught in her throat as she realized that her saviour was no anonymous good samaritan, but someone she’d met at a party in her youth, a growly-voiced knight whom she had accompanied to an upstairs powder room. Though this event occurred over two decades past, Queen Amy recalled that the knight’s name was Sir Doug, and he had drunkenly confided aspirations of becoming a court jester.

Now the cup of syrup felt obscene in her hand as she recalled how she had let Sir Doug pull her giggling inside the mauve walls of the powder room. They kissed for a while, and then Sir Doug made his request. He did ask first. But Queen Amy had been at a loss. Sucking the penis of a stranger was not what she’d had in mind when she’d stepped into the party’s throng of young humans excited about the night, and yet she’d allowed Sir Doug to unzip his fly. Her heart had shrunk a size or two from its bouyant state, but Sir Doug was sexy, and funny, and maybe — just maybe — like Queen Amy herself — looking for love.

Breakfast rumbled in Queen Amy’s gut as the knight ordered a libation. At the party, Sir Doug had fallen asleep against the bathtub after Queen Amy had satisfied him, and she never saw him again. But that was past and now she had the precious syrup, so all she needed to do was get back in the royal Subaru and drive home. The knight didn’t even seem to care that she had not said thank you. She farted silently into her jeans.

Sir Doug’s eyes were on the small side, but they flickered with kindness as he sidled past her to wait for his libation. Queen Amy noticed the crows’ feet fanning out on the skin beside his aging sideburns.

She trailed behind him. “Thank you for buying me syrup,” she found herself saying. “You’re Doug, right? You may not remember me, but a long time ago we met at a party.”

“No kidding,” Sir Doug said. “Was it a good one?”

“Yes,” she said. “You had a good time.”

“Didn’t you?”

Queen Amy blinked at the knight. “Not really,” she said.

Sir Doug’s eyes clouded. “I don’t remember you,” he claimed.

Queen Amy thought of Empress Nan, and why it seemed so important to please her. Again, her mother-in-law’s glowering face usurped the Starbucks mermaid’s sweet smile.

“You asked me to pleasure you,” Queen Amy said. Her voice was light. “And I did. Do you remember me now?”

Sir Doug’s dad-face froze, and Caitlin paused at her register as Queen Amy headed for the door. She felt their gaze burning her back, but she did not stop. When she got outside, she looked through the glass, and caught the knight’s eye. He was sorry, she could tell, and at least he had become a nice enough guy to buy a stranger a cup of syrup. But still. Queen Amy walked around the corner, flipped the cup upside down, and allowed its sticky contents to coat some purple snapdragons and provide a feast for ants. Pixie dust swirled in the air, and a flock of bluebirds came and set a garland on Queen Amy’s head.

Queen Amy did not take I-80 back to her castle, even though the crash had been cleared. Again, she took the slow route, this time enjoying the blue vein of the river. She drove with an easy hand, and as she crossed the bridge over the river’s radiant surface, a Dunkin Donuts welcomed her with its sunrise-colored signage. Yes, cheap, store-bought donuts would be a perfect potluck offering. Already, she could taste the rosy raspberry jelly on her tongue, the nectar of true queens.

Lisa Lerner is the author of a NYT Notable Book of the Year, Just Like Beauty (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2002), currently in development as a feature film with Lars Von Trier.

Image: Still Life with Cake, Raphaelle Peale, 1818

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