I hate Bernice Johnson.
That’s pretty much all I can think of as I scurry out the front door for the second time this morning. It is 5:16 AM, a time emblazoned on my eyeballs. I would have preferred 5:14 AM, but I’d started the car with the remote starter thingy, and then I’d left the darned keys in the kitchen. I had to go back and get them. At 46 and on the plumper side of the Minneapolis demographic, it took me a full two minutes to get back inside, find my keys, and return to the car.
Now, like clockwork, Bernice Johnson is jogging by. Bernice Johnson, thin and svelte and graceful. Bernice Johnson whose house is always clean and who has the perfect career. She went to graduate school with me, we both have doctorates in Materials Science. But now she’s an executive at 3M and I – well, we’ll get to me in time.
She smiles pleasantly and greets me with an upbeat and chipper “Good morning, Betty!”
It is 27 degrees out, she’s jogging in some skintight outfit that just can’t be that warm and she still has a “Good morning, Betty!” for me. The fact is, every time she says, “Good morning, Betty,” all I see are her eyes assessing and appraising whether I’ve gained weight (I have, every time) and silently criticizing me for letting my degree go to waste on raising three little brats.
The fact that I now have my own business doesn’t make things any better.
After all, I sell cupcakes. Not only that, I sell cupcakes while dressed up as an alien; complete with two heads, four eyes and six arms. I’m actually kind of proud with how far I take it. My skin is green and scaley, the extra arms have little contracting solenoids in them so I can move them around a bit. My hair is covered in a silicone mat with an outer layer of green spikes. You can’t imagine how much time it takes me to get my face on in the morning. But it is all worth it. Most of the time.
But with Bernice? I just grimace, smile and wave with one of my real arms – the fake ones just jiggle along for the ride – “Good morning, Bernice!”
Then, feeling a little ridiculous, I hoist myself up into my custom Escalade (the one real luxury I’ve allowed myself) and I head for Interstate 35.
Who the hell in our parent’s generation names their kids Betty or Bernice?
Sixteen minutes later, I get to work. It is 5:34 and I’m late. I’m the boss, but I’m still late. The fact is, I can’t remember the last time I actually woke the kids and got them ready for school. I miss that. I miss them. And if were just cupcakes, I wouldn’t make the sacrifice. But there’s a lot more going on.
My business, Betty’s Alien Cupcakes, is a street-facing shop in one of those buildings that’s brand new but has a brick façade and tries to be all homey and old. Basically, the building is trying to pretend it’s something it’s not and everybody knows it. I empathize with it. But the fact is, I like being here in my store. Out there I’m just another overweight Minnesotan with a weird fascination with alien dress-up. Out there I’m the woman Bernice sees far too often. But in here?
Here I’m the Queen of my own little world.
I quickly lock the door behind me. Sometimes, this cop shows up. He often wants coffee, and he likes to chat. I really don’t feel like making him a coffee and I don’t have time to chat, but he’s a cop so I don’t really like to push him out. Okay, maybe I’m not quite the queen, but I’m the Princess of this shop!
To make sure nobody thinks the store is open, I leave the lights in the front of the store off and navigate my way to the kitchen in back with my phone. There, I flick on the lights.
The kitchen is a gleaming, modern, thing. I don’t have staff, so I’ve invested in the most aggressive automation you can get in a space like this. I don’t measure, I don’t mix, and I don’t ice. I basically fill the hoppers with the ingredients and program the recipes. The machines deliver the batter, I pour it into tins (that machine wouldn’t fit), stick it in the ovens and take it out. I even have an automated icer. It adds that ‘personal touch’ with a minimum of ‘personal effort.’ Still, even with everything, it takes 90 minutes to make enough cupcakes for the morning rush. I open at 7. Six arms or not, I’m 4 minutes late.
I hit the power switch, press ‘Go’ on the mixing machine, and then continue towards the back of the little shop. My walk-in freezers there. I punch in the code on the door and crank it open. I walk inside, my coat still on (yes, it has extra holes), and make my way to the back. There are five 55-gallon drums of ‘cream cheese’ there. I unlatch each one in turn and peak inside. They look just like they do every morning. Those drums are my other ‘babies’ and they’re filled to the brim with cash – about $9 million in each drum and $45 million in total. Soon, I’ll be needing another one.
Maybe I am the Queen, after all.
It’s a real pity Bernice can’t see this.
By the time I open the doors at 7:04 AM, there’s a line half-way up the block. In Minneapolis! People aren’t supposed to be awake at 7:04 AM. The reality is, Betty’s Alien Cupcakes were supposed to be a flop. I was supposed to have time to focus on my real business. But, surprise surprise, Betty who loves cupcakes is very very good at making them. So good, in fact, that I’ve almost completely failed at turning the cash in the freezer into legitimate, bankable, funds. Even though, on some level, I know the customers aren’t good for me, my real face still smiles at each one as they step up to the counter. My additional head is always smiling – I wouldn’t have it any other way. The fact is, I like people. And, hey, here at least, they like me. Nobody’s wondering whether I’m putting my Doctorate to good use. They just like, no, love, my cupcakes.
I take their orders with a smile, put themin my special alien-themed cupcake boxes, take their money and send them on their way. It’s going to go on like this for hours. I’m just glad I have good shoes.
My customers are generally a patient lot. It is really part of the Alien Cupcake experience. Some of them are even done up in their own alien costumes – complete with the two heads, four eyes and six arms. I love it when they do that.
But every day, there has to be one guy. That one guy who feels like they have the right to barge to the front of the line. They normally park their white BMWs illegally right in front of the shop, push their way through and demand cupcakes. At least today’s guy doesn’t park in front. He does push through though – at exactly 8:01 AM, when the line is still snaking halfway around the block. He’s a middle-aged white guy with dark brown hair cut in the most boring way possible. He’s wearing a cheap suit. He doesn’t quite fit the stereotype, but I guess I just have to be more flexible with my stereotypes. He pushes past everybody else and then surprises me by saying, “Betsy Johannson?”
“I need to speak with you.”
That’s a new approach to getting instant cupcake gratification.
“Back of the line,” I say, almost as if I hadn’t heard him. I don’t care who he is, here I reign supreme.
“I’m afraid it can’t wait.”
I give him the stink eye with one of my real eyes and say, “I’m afraid I’m busy. Back of the line.”
Then I do the part I love. Like, the very best part of my day. I hit a button on my outfit and my second head does a slow 360 and then a little speaker in it says, in a completely flat male voice, “Back of the line.” The head never stops smiling, though. While that is properly freaky, I’d love it if the lips could move. I’m going to have to pay someone to add some more animatronics to it.
The man looks at me, a little visible in his freaked outness. He’s assessing his options. Then he looks at friendly midwestern customers who’ve been standing for 30 minutes to get their cupcakes. He detects, somewhere in his limbic cortex, that there is real danger here. That if he delays them any further, the innocent looking neighborly people will turn into violent alien monsters at the drop of a hat.
Quietly, he withdraws from the shop and takes his proper place in line.
I just smile and serve the next customer.
27 minutes later, he’s back.
“What can I get you?” I ask in my friendliest voice.
He just flips open an ID with the letters ‘IRS’ clearly displayed and says, “How about access to your books?”
I just stare at him, flabbergasted and trying very hard not to show it.
Then I mutter, “Don’t you need an appointment or something?”
“We have one,” he says. “My office scheduled it three weeks ago.”
Somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind I remember my husband mentioning something about an audit he scheduled. How in the heck did I forget that?
“Uh, okay,” I say. The line still stretches well out the door. “I’m, uh, busy.”
“I don’t care,” he says. I guess he’s the supreme one.
“Listen, can just go back to my office. There’s a computer there with Quickbooks.” I lower my voice, “The password is, uh, ‘aliencupcakes1’ – all small caps. Can you just go ahead, poke around and do whatever you need to do?”
He looks at me dubiously. I try my best to look like I’m pleading with him – although my second head won’t stop smiling. Then he gives in, lifts the counter divider and heads back to the office. I breathe a very short-lived sigh of relief. Darn, I hope I’ve been cooking my books as well as I’ve been baking my cupcakes. I just hope he won’t want a look in the freezer.
I start churning through customers as quickly as I possibly can now, hoping to clear the backlog so I can ‘help’ the friendly agent out. Then a man in a green scaley hat comes in. A member of my VIP club… Somebody who’s actually allowed to skip the line. One look at his slightly confused face and I know he isn’t here for cupcakes. He walks right up to the counter and says, “I’m here for the VIP experience.”
Did I forget this too? No, no, I didn’t. He’s the Balochi rebel.
“I thought you were coming tomorrow night!?!”
“Change in plans,” he says.
I ask him, “What kind of frosting do you like?”
He answers, “Cashew.”
I shudder. Why did I pick such a disgusting password? And how in the heck am I going to manage a VIP customer at the same time as an IRS agent? This Queen Ant’s alien kingdom is cracking. But I gotta do what I gotta do. I lift the barrier and tell him, clearly, “The first door on the right is my VIP tasting section. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
The man walks past me and almost opens the door to the office which is the one on the left. “Right!” I bark as quietly as I can manage. I really don’t want the government agent meeting one of my special clients. The special client shifts sides and steps into the appropriate room.
I turn to the next customer and plaster a smile on my face as I realize camera feeds in the office include a view of the VIP room. I glance up and realize the line has not shortened. How am I possibly going to deal with the men in the backrooms?
That’s when my husband shows up. He pushes past the line, explaining politely that he’s married to the (crazy) woman who owns this place. He’s almost embarrassed as he says it. In fact, he looks more unhappy than usual. He strides up the counter and says, quietly, “Listen Betty, we really need to talk.”
I gesture, at the line in front of me. “I’m busy,” I say.
“That’s exactly the problem,” he mutters, under his breath.
I have an idea, “Listen. Just manage the counter for a bit, I have a few other things to take care of. Okay?”
He looks like he’s about to blow his top, but just for a second. But then he covers his fury with that old Scandinavian politeness, nods and steps up behind the counter. I rush to the back, poke my heads into the office and ask, “Is it going okay?”
The IRS man glances at the cameras and says, “You really do seem to be pulling in over $750,000 a year in revenue with $400,000 in profit with no other employees.”
“Yes,” I say. The books are completely clean, unfortunately.
I point at myself jokingly, “It just takes these two heads to pull it off.”
He almost smiles. “You know that isn’t normally the case with these cupcake shops. Normally people use them to launder money with falsely inflated receipts.”
“Huh,” I say, and shrug innocently. All six arms move with my shoulders.
He looks back at the screen, gestures at the image of the VIP customers. “Who’s he?” he asks.
“VIP customer,” I say.
“A VIP cupcake customer?” the agent asks, doubtfully.
“Yeah, the big fans get a special experience. Unreleased muffins, no lines, I move all my arms and stuff. It involves a $500 fee. You’ll see it in the revenue breakdown on QuickBooks.”
“You have a license for that – serving food on site?”
“Are you from the city or the Federal Government?” I want to eat those words. I did kind of blurt them out faster than I should have.
Thankfully, the IRS agent smiles. “Point taken,” he says. Then he turns back to the QuickBooks and says, “I’ll let you know if I have any questions.”
I close the door gently. Then dash back to the kitchen. I grab one of my ‘special’ trays and fill it with cupcakes. The trays are flat and look almost like water lilies. In fact, they’re the whole reason this place exists. They’re a modified kind of alien armor I discovered on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina. Early American revolutionaries, who had no idea about alien armor, accidently used it to repel a British fleet. That’s a story for another day though. Let’s just say my degree in Materials Science hasn’t gone entirely to waste.
Less than a minute later, I crack open the door to the VIP tasting room, cupcakes in hand. The man there looks up. He kind of shirks back – it happens when non-fans encounter my alien monstrositiness. Is that even a word? Well, normally, I’d do a whole song and dance. I’d make the guy justify why his group of revolutionaries or whatever should get access to my alien race’s armor technology. I like to make them sweat. But the fact is, I’ve already vetted this guy. He’s Balochi and anybody who undermines the Iranian Mullahs is an acceptable customer in my book. Plus, my cameras have audio, and I don’t want the IRS agent possibly picking up on that sort of conversation.
I put the tray of cupcakes down. I say, “Your sample is here” and then gesture meaningfully at the tray.
Then, I walk out of the room.
I hope he gets it.
When I reemerge behind the counter, I’m delighted to see that the line has just vanished. My husband worked it remarkably quickly. I smile, triumphantly. It looks like I managed an arms transaction, the cupcake rush and an IRS audit. All at once.
Maybe I am the Queen Ant of my little alien world!
Then the IRS agent comes out the office and says, “Mrs. Johansson, I’m going to need to take a look around.”
Simultaneously the Balochi revolutionary steps out of the tasting room and says, “Where’s my sample, woman?!?” He isn’t too bright, but he’s plenty dangerous.
My husband somehow manages to talk over both of them and gestures expansively around the shop and announces, “This is not working.”
I’m just trying to begin to formulate some sort of plan – maybe I can make a dash for the Escalade – when a 10-foot-tall thing squeezes its way through the front door. It’s got six arms, four eyes and two heads. It has green scaly skin and spikes coming from its head.
It looks a lot like my costume… which isn’t surprising.
There is one difference, though. Instead of being worn by a middle-aged Minnesotan woman with a love for cupcakes, it is worn by an extremely well-muscled, and totally alien, thing.
I sense the sudden overwhelming fear from the IRS agent, the Balochu rebel and my pretty helpless husband. But this is my shop.
I’m The Queen here!
“And what do you want?” I ask the thing, fearless challenging it.
It looks me over with its four eyes and two heads. I know it is taking my ridiculous costume fully into account. Then one of its heads seems to smile while the other one growls. Good cop, bad cop, in one easy package. Cool.
A moment later, they both say, together, “Mrs. Johansson, you owe me royalties.”
I guess life is never boring when it comes to Betty’s Alien Cupcakes.