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Stars matisse Stars
baking matisse
james taylor
An excerpt from
"They Ate My Cake"
Cliff Simon

because you live in a place where the sky is clear and magical and the mountains majestic and mysterious, does not mean you are living in a state of constant bliss and inner peace. Take my word for it.

One day, I got a call from James Taylor's wife, Kathryn. I've always loved James Taylor's music (even though when I told my mother about him, she said, "James who?"). And I have actually made cakes for him at several of his concerts, though I've never met him personally (I guess he would say, Cliff who?). We set up an appointment for Kathryn to see my portfolio.

I have always been (until recently), a New Yorker, inside and out. But let me tell you, it wasn't so easy. You think I lived to wake up every day and wonder if when I was delivering a $500 cake, some crazy bicycle messenger wearing black and yellow spandex and dark glasses and listening to a walkman at top volume, spiraling down the street in rhythm to the music, could very possibly have knocked me down, rode his bike over me and my cake, and as he was escaping the scene of the crime, turn around, give me the finger and tell me I was an idiot for not having seen him?

Now, however, I have become the Jewish cowboy (oy, Trigger), but car wise, I'm still very Manhattan. I had a lot of trouble relating to the directions she gave me to her house. Instead of streets, traffic lights and signs, she talked arroyos, rocks and mesas. Who do I look like, Vasco de Gama?

Miraculously, however, I made it there. I showed her my stuff and Kathryn sang my praises. I liked her singing. I was told the party was a surprise for her good friend, Agnes Gund, the president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who was to arrive in a couple of days. Kathryn decided an edible Matisse painting would be perfect, as MOMA had just done the huge Matisse retrospective (Though I was still living in New York at the time, I missed the show, as Museum crowds and I do not mix. So, I settled for the catalogue, which I can look at while I'm in my bathtub. I'm sure Monsieur Henri M. would understand). Kathryn told me she'd find out which was Agnes' favorite piece, and get back to me.

New Age Note: I'm working really hard on letting go of past patterns. However, I was raised to believe that when a good thing happens, something's going to come along and kill it. Training like that does not leave easily.

The next morning, coming home from the gym feeling exuberant and refreshed, I walk in the front door, and my friend Julian tells me, with mucho excitement, that James Taylor's wife called with the choice for the painting. We looked at it in the catalogue, talked about it and kibbutzed for a while, and as he leaves to water the garden, he tells me to read her note. But why did I have to read it? I just got the news in person. Right? So in my hyper, New York mode (it surfaces every now and then), I dial the phone with Superman speed and at the sound of the machine's beep, I leave the chattiest message of the century, telling Kathryn how excited I am about doing the cake, how I think the Matisse painting is beautiful and that I'm sure I'll do a great job on the cake for Agnes, and for her to get back to me soon, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Just as I'm hanging up, Julian appears at the door with a truly mortified expression on his face - you know, eyes wide open, crossed and glassy, mouth agape, tongue out, eyebrows touching. I'm thinking, "He always gets so upset at nothing. What is it now?" He screams "Didn't you read the note" and I say "No, what did it say?" (a good time to wonder that, right?). He tells me that Kathryn left explicit directions to be completely UNexplicit in my message, as Agnes was staying at her house. She said to just say that Cliff called, period. Now, I don't remember the following happening, but Julian insists that I jumped four feet in the air when I heard that. Considering our ceilings are eight feet (and I am not a pygmy) then there should either be a hole in the ceiling or a bump on my head. But never mind.

I was upset and very frightened. I'm thinking, "I have just possibly destroyed the surprise element of a surprise party for a really important person. I'll become known in Santa Fe for being the bigmouth cake artist of the Southwest, Yente Cowboy." I was plotzing beyond belief.

Frantically, I wrote a note explaining what I did (mea culpa, mea culpa), sealed it in a plain, unmarked envelope, and sped to her house, praying all the way that there would be no one home, in which case I'd leave it by the door so she'd read it before turning the machine on. Of course, the driveway was full of cars. I go to the screen door and suddenly the phone rings and the person leaving the message is being amplified so loudly that every rabbit in the Sangre de Cristo mountains perked its little ears. I start calling, "Kathryn, Kathryn, Kathryn." After about three minutes, a non-Kathryn woman comes to the door and the first thing I think is, "This one is from New York." She had that frightened look that all New Yorkers have when strangers appear, the one that says, "You're a murderer ." So there I am, face to face with the person whose surprise I have already ruined, or if not, may do so at any moment. But I had to trust providence. When she told me Kathryn wasn't home, I handed her the envelope and asked her to give it to Kathryn upon her return (I left, praying that she didn't read the note, or my license plate, which says CAKES in huge red letters). Then I returned home and waited for Kathryn to phone.

A watched pot never boils.

Nothing all night. The next morning, distraught, drawn, fatigued and shaking (Julian told me to put the situation in perspective, that I had not murdered anyone) I decided to call. Deja vu. I got the machine, but this time I left the appropriate message, "Kathryn-this is Cliff-please call-thanks-bye." An hour later she did, sounding light and happy (as opposed to my Marcel Proust). I explained to her what I had been through the past 24 hours, how I thought I had ruined all her plans. She laughed, explaining that had she known I was so nuts she would have called sooner. Maybe from now on I should wear a tag around my neck, like the kind diabetics have. Mine would say, Neurotic, in case of emergency, placate.

But despite my little trauma, the cake turned out to be deluxe. I even heard that Agnes gave the partygoers a lecture about the cake, as if it were the real painting. A great success. All's well that ends well, right?

Sometimes at night, staring up at the beautiful stars, I think: "Is it true what they say: You can take the cowboy out of New York, but . . . ?"

I wonder.