Linda notices something alarming. There’s ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, relish, maple syrup, horseradish, and bitter tears on this month’s sales report. Disgusting. Oh gosh! Even worse, sales at the Dripping Wax Birthday Cake Decoration Corporation this month are abysmal. Margins are already tight at such a specific company, so falling profits could spell trouble for a low-level marketing employee like Linda.
Sinking revenue has never been much of a problem before, which is reflected in the marketing budget. When Linda was hired, she asked why the corporation spent almost no money on advertising. Her boss only said, “People will always have birthdays and they’ll always have a cake, even if much better desserts are available.”
Linda pulls customer reviews:
“The trick candles last too long. My nephew had them on his seventh birthday and it took four hours for our family to blow them out. We had to take shifts.”
“My candles looked too much like middle fingers and now my mom knows that I hate her.”
“The nine and six candles only have wicks at one end so they can’t be interchanged.”
“You no longer sell the extra thin candles for elderly birthdays. My father-in-law just turned 101. There wasn’t enough room on top of the cake for 101 regular sized candles. We had to stick some in the side and almost set fire to the table.”
By far the most common complaint is that the “edible” candy decorations are not easy to eat and keep breaking people’s teeth. They look delicious, with their enticing purples and pinks. Their round shape and candy-coated texture convinces customers that they will melt in their mouths, but they don’t melt; instead, they break customers' teeth and cause breathing problems.
Linda can’t in good conscience promote products that set off asthma attacks and break people’s teeth, but she's a new hire, someone with no power to make any sort of decisions that could actually cause change.
She’s got to send it upward, so she walks to the office of Luisa, the head of marketing. Luisa’s desk is full of pictures of her and another woman, including one selfie of Luisa with a pouty duck-face next to the other woman’s body in a casket.
Linda inches into the room. She can’t remember the last time she had a conversation with her boss, though Linda sometimes hears Luisa weeping from outside the door. In these moments, Linda debates between providing a compassionate ear and respecting privacy. She always chooses privacy because it’s easier for everyone.
Luisa is on her corded desk phone, hunched and whispering into the receiver like you might speak to a lover in a dark room.
“Does she want to talk to me?” Luisa asks. Then, after a brief pause, “Tell her to make up her mind. Yeah, I’ll hold.”
Linda sneaks out before Luisa can see her listening, then knocks on the door.
Luisa says, overly business-like,“Come in.”
“Hi—I mean, hello,” Linda says. “It’s come to my attention that sales are perhaps not what they once were. Despite your great leadership, we’ve received complaints about our edible decorations injuring the chompers of our beloved customers, ma’am.”
“That’s not really—” The phone rings. “Hold that thought for a second.”
Linda can’t decide if she should leave the room while her boss is on the phone or stay and pretend to look at something out the window. What she can hear of the conversation does not make the decision any easier.
On the phone, Luisa says, “Tell her I’m sorry about the line dancing, but who wants to go to a boring wake. Yes, I’ll hold. I’m never going to not hold.” She puts the phone back down and turns to Linda. “I’m sorry, I’ve got a medium on the phone who’s talking to my dead ex. I’m seeing if she wants to get back together. You know, just floating it out there.”
“Oh, were you together when she—”
“No, we’d broken up a couple of months before. Of course, I like to say she died of a broken heart, you know? The bear attack was really just the nail in the coffin.”
“Does it seem like she’s up for it?”
“She’s always played hard to get. Now that she’s got this death card, it’ll be even worse. I’m ready, though. Nothing’s going to keep me from her.”
“Isn’t she in the afterlife?”
“I’ve done long distance before.”
“Uh, about these customer complaints—”
Luisa jabs her thumb upward. “I don't make those decisions. I’m gonna kick you up to Paulette. It’s almost nine so her morning existential crisis is probably over by now.”
The corporate office of Dripping Wax is a tall cylindrical building with a grooved and molding exterior, which makes it look like a gray candle at the most monotonous birthday party possible. There’s an elevator, but it’s operated by Ingrid, who’s been very sensitive to everyone’s scents during her pregnancy. She often denies employees a ride.
The only other way to travel between floors is a spiral staircase that runs through the center of the building, but it's only wide enough for one person to traverse at a time. If you are traveling up and happen to meet someone traveling down, either one person has to backtrack a floor or you have to do impossible gymnastics in stiff work clothes without tearing anything. Linda and Celia from sales once ended up stuffed into the same dress when they tried this maneuver.
Luckily, Linda freely walks up one floor and over to the office of Paulette, the head of merchandising. Her door is closed, but Linda can hear a chorus of voices, then scolding. She knocks loudly and the noise stops.
“Who is it?” Paulette asks.
“It’s Linda, ma’am.”
“I told you on the phone, the party isn’t until tomorrow.”
“No, ma’am, it’s Linda from marketing.”
“Oh, are you alone?”
“Alright, come in.”
Linda enters and sees, on one side of Paulette’s desk, most of the merchandising staff huddled in a group, all of them with one hand cupped over the other like choir boys. On the other side of the desk are three bakers, each standing in front of a cake on a cart. Paulette is wearing her bun so tight that Linda imagines the strain will turn it from blonde to white.
“Linda,” Paulette calls without looking at her, “come and listen to this please.” She holds her hands up to the merchandising staff. “If I hear any pitchiness on the third bar, we will be practicing all night. Ready?”
The merchandising chorus sings the birthday song. Each employee stares forward with intense focus that can only be achieved through fear. Their voices quiver. After they finish, Paulette turns to Linda and asks, “Sounds like shit, right?”
Without waiting for an answer, she turns to the chorus and shouts, “Sounds like shit!”
Linda, caught between agreeing with authority and demoralizing an entire group of peers, says, “It’s getting there.”
“Oh please, you hear that, you’ll wish you never have another birthday. Listen, it’s Strike’s birthday tomorrow and if I make his celebration great, he might choose me as his successor.”
“Is he going somewhere?”
Paulette leans close to Linda. “I can’t say any more. Do you sing?”
“Maybe in the car when I’m all by myself, if I’m listening to FM.”
Paulette takes Linda’s shoulder and leads her over to the desk, where at least fifty cards are scattered.
“See, the annoying thing is he’s turning forty-one. What the hell kind of number is that? They don’t sell cards for forty-one. Do I go for funny? Sincere? Heartfelt, but not too sappy? Is forty-one too young to start giving those ‘getting older’ cards? You know what? Scrap that, it’s better to reduce the risk of offending him—unless he likes someone a little bold and willing to tease him in a way no one else will”
“Maybe a nice and sincere card with a little personal message about how great he is.”
“Personalize it? You’re a genius, Linda. I guess that’s why they have you in marketing. So I need one that isn’t already filled in too much. How about this?” Paulette picks up a card with a bunch of cats on the front. Inside it reads, “Hope you get lots of THIS for your birthday!”
Linda stares at the card, trying to make it seem like she’s still reading. “It’s kind of sexual, ma’am.”
“What’s erotic about it? The man loves cats. Are you saying that I’d be implying a sexual favor if he chose me for the position?”
“No! Not at all. I just think the card is making a sex joke involving another name for cats.”
“I really don’t see how feline is at all erotic, but there are some sick people in the world. Fortunately, all of them have birthdays. Never mind that for now.” Paulette walks Linda over to the bakers.
“I heard Strike say at a party once that he prefers real buttercream, but I don’t know what he likes on the inside. So, I got one chocolate, one vanilla, and, just in case, one cookies-and-cream ice cream cake. I always see an empty cookies-and-cream yogurt tin in his trash.”
“What if he likes marble?” Linda jokes.
Paulette starts to hyperventilate. “Oh gosh, you're right. I suppose he could smash together a piece of vanilla and chocolate, but to ask someone to do that on their birthday is heinous! I have to get another cake, and I don’t even know what the inscription should be. He’s always wanted a boat so I was thinking, ‘Happy Birthday, Captain,’ or even more informal, ‘Happy Birthday, Cap’n,’ so it’d really seem like we think he’s a special guy.”
“Ma’am, don't you think you’re more likely to get the position because of all the things you’ve done for the company all these years?”
Paulette’s breathing steadies. “Oh Linda, your naiveté is by far your best quality.”
“Luisa, cake is kind of what I wanted to talk to you about.” Linda explains the customer problems.
“Linda, unfortunately, that isn’t in my power to change. I have people to answer to as well. You’re gonna have to take it to Strike. But don’t interrupt him if he’s busy, and don’t let him know that I sent you. I don’t want him thinking I can’t take care of things.”
“Then why don’t you just take care of this, ma’am?”
“Above my pay grade.”
And so Linda goes up the central staircase again, and stops at the office of Strike, the vice manager of operations. In accordance with his open door policy, there is only a curtain of beads between the hallway and his office.
Linda spots Strike sitting at his desk, his head in his hands, the room lit only by a small desk lamp. Unsure of what to do, she awkwardly brushes her fist against the beads as they clink.
Strike sighs. “Come in.”
Linda tiptoes into Strike’s office, one of the few circular offices in the building. With all the lights off, it feels like a cave in which a lost traveler might hide from the rain. Linda’s apprehension isn’t helped by the forlorn man sitting in the center of the room, his eyes unfocused and moist (moist is usually a compliment in the birthday cake decoration business, but not when it comes to eyes). Strike glances up at her.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Have we met before?”
“I don’t think so, sir. I’m Linda. I work in the marketing department.”
Strike doesn’t rise, but forces a smile. “It’s nice to meet you, Linda.”
“Are you alright, sir?”
“Do you know anything about adultery, Linda?”
“I know what it is. When I was young, my dad cheated on my mom. When he confessed, he learned that my mom had been cheating on him. They wanted to see who could cheat on the other more. They stayed married just so they could cheat on each other. I think they even tried to seduce each other’s mistresses.”
“They told you all this at the time?”
“No, sir. They kept detailed logs that I found in their bedroom when I was searching for my birthday presents.”
“Hmm. You’ll have to excuse me, Linda. I have a bit of an adulterous dilemma myself.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I need to tell my mistresses that I’m cheating on them with my wife.”
“I’m more than a little confused, sir.”
“I’ve got three mistresses. Two of them don’t know I’m married, and the one that does know thinks that I’ve got no feelings for my wife. Except, I’m madly in love with my wife.”
“Do the mistresses know about each other?”
“Then why would they care if you’re married?”
“Because a wife is always number one. A wife is someone you are bound to, especially if you’re madly in love with her.”
“Do your mistresses have boyfriends?”
“Probably. It’s uncouth to talk about such things with them.”
“And how does your wife feel about all this?”
“She’s the one that introduced me to them. She likes to get me out of the house a couple nights a week. I’m embarrassed to even be in this position. I mean, tomorrow I’m already going be out of my early forties.”
“But you’re only going to be forty-one, sir.”
Strike squints. “How do you know that?”
“I can always tell when someone is aging into a prime number.”
“Oh, that makes sense.”
“Sir, if you don’t mind, there are issues with sales and products that need your attention.”
After Linda describes the issue, Strike says, “Yeah, one of my old mistresses bit hard on an edible decoration once. She looked so cute with that chipped tooth that it was hard to break up with her. Unfortunately, before I make any of these types of decisions, I have to float it by Hensington. You know, I have people to answer to as well.”
Linda travels up another floor to the office of Hensington, the company’s chief financial officer. The meeting is rather brief. Linda explains the plummeting sales and customer complaints about the tooth-breaking candies. To which Hensington says, “Why didn’t anyone inform me of the financial position of this company?”
Linda tries to tread lightly. “Is that something that normally happens, sir?”
“Yes! As a boss, my main job is delegation. I don’t have to actually look at any of those numbers. Besides, as CFO of a birthday cake decoration corporation, I can pretty much coast through work. People are always having birthdays. Now, since I don’t have all the facts—”
“I have all the facts right here for you, sir.”
“Don’t interrupt, Linda. Just because you wear glasses doesn’t mean you know more than me. I’m going kick you up to Mr. Augure. I’d need to get his approval on this thing anyway.”
This time, Linda heads to the elevator because the stairs do not lead to the floor on which the corporation’s CEO, Leonard Augure, has his office.
After Linda pushes the button for the elevator and the door opens, Ingrid wrinkles her nose and says, “No.”
“I really have to see Mr. Augure. It’s a national dental crisis.”
Inside the elevator, Linda tries to ignore Ingrid sniffing every three seconds, but then Ingrid says, “I have an extra stick of deodorant if you want it.”
Even Linda sometimes takes her frustrations out on others. “Ingrid, I really hope your baby doesn’t get your nose, for its own sake.”
Ingrid looks in the funhouse mirror on the side of the elevator. “What’s wrong with my nose?”
“Oh, nothing! I’m sorry. I only meant the sensitivity to scents.”
“I know what you meant.”
They arrive on the correct floor. Linda gives a sniffling Ingrid two half-hearted pats on the shoulder before leaving her.
Outside Mr. Augure’s office is the smaller office of his secretary, Mrs. Giggeaux. Lined along her walls are cakes: red velvet, carrot, tres leches, and others Linda doesn’t recognize. There’s one made of Play-Doh and another made of ceramic, both with labels underneath that read: “Not for consumption.” But the Play-Doh one has a bite taken out of it, and Mrs. Giggeaux has green dough on her lips.
“Did you receive an invitation to the party?” Mrs. Giggeaux says to Linda, in the same rehearsed way an apathetic waiter might recite tonight’s specials.
“I don’t think so, ma’am. I was sent to see Mr. Augure about an urgent issue to the company.”
Mrs. Giggeaux stares at Linda for a second before picking up her phone, pressing a button, and wiping the green dough from her lips. “We’ve got a party crasher,” she says into the phone. “She’s here about an urgent issue to the company.”
Mr. Augure steps out of his office with a friendly smile and outstretched hand. “Linda, so good to see you. How’s your Betta fish?”
Linda is taken aback but shakes his hand while searching for the memory of when she told him about Glow Stick, or when they met. Maybe at a company mixer. It’s possible Linda met Mr. Augure without even knowing who he was. The thought of the late Glow Stick threatens to make Linda emotional, but the nation’s teeth are on the line, so she holds it together and lies.
“My fish is doing well, sir, thank you.”
“Excellent, why don’t you come in?”
Inside the office, Linda hears a country-western version of the birthday song. It’s on a playlist of birthday song renditions in various genres: ska, pop-punk, synth, bad a cappella, Celtic, decent a cappella, regular punk.
On Augure’s desk is a picture of him and his wife from their wedding day, though Linda can’t see what they look like because cake covers their entire faces. There’s also a picture of their house’s exterior.
“You have a lovely home,” Linda says.
“Thank you. We’re actually trying to sell it right now.” His look becomes intense.“If you’re interested.”
“I’m comfortable where I am right now, sir.”
Augure mumbles, “Damn it,” before returning to a pleasant manner. “It’s been so tough selling this thing. You see, my wife and I didn’t know this when we bought the house, but there is an ogre that lives behind the refrigerator. Normally this isn’t an issue. She usually keeps to herself, but she happened to come out from behind the fridge during our first open house. I asked her not to come out anymore, and she was kind enough to agree, but once my stupid idiot-head real estate agent saw her, then we were required to put on the listing that there is an ogre that resides in the house. I guess it’s a law they passed a few years ago. There were too many issues with homebuyers and unexpected ogres. Now everybody’s too scared to make an offer.”
“What does she eat?”
“We don’t have to feed her or anything. She just comes out once in a while, usually when we’re not home, and does her shopping or whatever. Nothing is ever missing from the refrigerator. My wife has taken inventory every day for the last four years.”
Linda decides to change the subject. “Sir, have you or your lovely wife ever had a dental issue?”
“Yeah, I used to have a dentist that gave me willies.”
“I mean more like an issue with your teeth, sir.”
“Oh, yeah, a lot of my teeth fell out when I was a kid.”
“Well, if we don’t fix this issue, a lot more adults could lose teeth.” Linda again explains the customer complaints about the inedible candies.
Augure listens attentively. “Gee Linda, we’re going to have to do something about that. A birthday is one of the worst days to break a tooth. I think we should get started on this right away.”
“But, we’ll just need to get the approval of the board.”
Linda’s smile fades. “Excuse me for saying so, but aren’t you the CEO?”
“Of course, but I have to answer to someone. The board could get rid of me in a second if I make a bad decision.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, sir, who usually makes decisions here?”
“I would say it’s a complete team effort. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Sure. I hope everything works out with your ogre, sir.”
With Augure’s permission, Linda goes up to the roof and flies, blindfolded, in a helicopter to an undisclosed location to meet the board (the helicopter circles for a minute and comes back down in the same spot). She’s taken to a room tucked in a corner of the top floor.
Inside, seven cheering members of the board play ring toss. Two interns lie on the ground with pegs in their mouths. The board members try to toss donuts onto the rings.
“Excuse me, everyone,” Linda says. The cheering stops immediately. The board members glare at her. “I’m Linda from marketing. I’ve discovered an issue with our products that could seriously affect public health.”
The board members don’t move.
“And profits,” she says.
The board members rush to their seats. They lean forward to listen. The two interns on the ground aren't sure if they're allowed to get up, so they remain on the floor with pegs in their mouths and donut crumbs in their eyes.
Linda explains the customer complaints one more time.
“It’s not so simple, Ms. From-Marketing,” one of the board members says. “We can’t just make decisions whenever we see fit. Even as the board, we still have the public to answer to. After all, the public is the ultimate sugar daddy.”
“But,” Linda says, “these complaints are coming directly from the public. They’re telling us what they don’t like. If we listen, we could make so much more money, and everyone would be healthier.”
The board members eye each other knowingly.
Finally, one of them says, “Ms. From-Marketing, a dedicated employee like yourself deserves to know we receive heavy donations every month from the National Entente of Respectable Dentistry Sciences. We know that people break their teeth on those ‘edible’ cake decorations. Dentists rely on people breaking their teeth for their livelihood. People have a nice birthday, then they have to go get their teeth fixed. There’s very little harm done and everyone wins. The donations we receive from the dental industry far exceed what we could ever make from retail sales.”
“So this is a company that exists to cause people tooth trouble?”
“We also provide warm birthday memories. We consider this a fair trade.”
Linda is then escorted out of the room and back up to the roof. She circles the building in the helicopter and takes the elevator back to her floor. Ingrid refuses to speak to her. Linda isn’t sure if she’ll ever be able to eat birthday cake again.
She remembers a cake she had when she turned six. It was white with bright pink trim and yellow roses on top. The fork clinked against her teeth as she slid the yellow frosting flower into her mouth. Her tongue tingled with sweetness. The next time she was at the dentist’s office, she was scolded by her hygienist for not flossing, and eating too much sugar, but all she could think about was the frosting making her teeth chatter in delight.
Linda gets an idea. She requests to see the board again, and gets in the helicopter. Once she presents her plan, the board sends it to the dental entente, where it gets approved. Then Linda begins working with Dripping Wax’s development branch to create a new birthday cake candy decoration that will be so delicious, sugary, and edible that customers won’t be able to resist sticking an entire pack on their cake. They may even skip the cake and eat the candies by the handful. Their experiences will be joyous and carefree, but the sugar will rot their teeth. It will send them to the dentist’s office, where they will sit in sea foam green chairs and get yelled at, but they won’t be able to listen to their hygienists because they’ll only be thinking of the next time they get to chew on those irresistible treats.
Once the candy is ready and is sent out to stores, it becomes the corporation’s best selling product of all time. Customers, the board, the National Entente of Respectable Dentistry Sciences, and Linda are all happy with the new equilibrium of birthday bureaucracy. The product makes such a disgusting amount of money that Linda even gets a fifty-dollar bonus.