How Good I Can Be

The congregation, my audience, roars with applause as I climb the steps to the stage and take my place behind the pulpit. I wave to the crowd and wait for the cheers to subside, I need perfect silence. At 16, I have expert control. By far the youngest auctioneer this Presbyterian church has seen in the eight-year history of its charity cake auction, I stand out among the crowd of retirees and housewives in attendance.

I walk before them as a representation of where their money goes. I’m why they bake, why they arrive on a Saturday afternoon in their Sunday finest, offering up their attempts at confectionary deftness. The cake auction is one of many fundraisers the church puts on to pay for youth enrichment programs. It pays for mission trips to Mexico to build rain basins, it fills charter buses with high school students and sends them on a week-long journey to North Carolina to attend church camp. The auction, along with car washes, coupon books, and a Valentine’s Day carnation sale, pays to keep young people like me involved with the church. I am very involved, I am the face their charity.

An elderly woman joins me on stage, carrying with her a tiered platter covered in dry, un-iced chocolate cupcakes. The tops are split, overcooked. The cakes have cracked open and shrunk in their paper cups, letting out their final gasps of moisture while dying, still in the oven. 

“Oh, Betty,” I say into my microphone, looking at her with mock-flirtation, “you’ve outdone yourself.” Betty’s cheeks redden beneath their dusty powder coating. The audience murmurs in adoration. My timing is spectacular.

“If any of you have had the good fortune of tasting some of Betty’s creations,” I say, “you all know she’s got a real knack for small-scale baking.” 

Betty smiles, puzzled, trying for a moment to remember when or where I might have tried her baking. I haven’t. The cupcakes sell for three times the cost of a gas station box of pre-mixed batter.

I fudge the details. I get creative with the descriptions. The bakers join me on stage to add to the overall desperation of the event. They stand nervously beside me as I plead, describing brownies with burned edges stuck to the pan as caramelized,a lop-sided layer cake defaced with a young child’s palsied scrawl of icing as reminiscent of the works of Kandinsky. Yet some of the baked goods need no embellishments, the bakers no introductions. I sell a wooden crate of tangerine-colored French macarons with sugared lime leaves for $300. The audience gasps. 

Bidding begins at $10, and moves up in $5 increments from there. Occasionally, as is the case with the $300 macarons, people shout absurd prices from the pews in acts of great charity, publicly doling out stacks of money for two dozen cookies or a pan of lemon bars, items baked by their daughters or wives. Bidding gets competitive. In many ways, the cake auction is the only time people can publicly prove how much they care about the church while simultaneously proving how much money they have. If many of these people could write their names in bold and fill in a dollar amount on the palm-sized brown envelopes they deposit into the collection plate each Sunday morning, they would.

A line forms below me, splitting the rows of pews and leading up the steps to the stage. It’s a pageant of sorts: the bakers cross the floor and stop in the center beside the pulpit, they smile out into the crowd, baking pans sagging heavily in their arms. There should be music playing. I imagine these women in bathing suits and sashes, Miss Fudge Cake, Miss Hello Dolly Bar, Miss Ugly Coconut Bundt.

I recognize most of the participants. They’re my friends mothers and grandmothers, they’re people I’ve known for years, people I love, people who love me. I’m not just the auctioneer, I’m the boy from their son’s birthday party, I’m a member of the carpool, I’m their daughter’s harmless, effeminate homecoming date. I have manners, I’m polite, I say sir and ma’am, please and thank you, I tell appropriate jokes and look adults in the eye, I’m charismatic, your parents will love me. 

The joyous reactions of the congregation following each sale inspire me to become more lively and cartoonish with each round of bidding. I take a plated mound of cream puffs from a woman and pretend to trip, wobbling along the stage, wide-eyed, like the rest of the audience. I stumble just long enough to warrant a collective gasp, then I correct myself and smirk. I give a gameshow host wink to the horrified woman on stage, and the bidding begins. 

Nancy Walcott takes the stage, Diana Himley, Elena Rivera. I tally up the dwindling number of cakes left to auction and predict how the rest of the event will go, stopping abruptly at a pan slung low in the arms of Beverly Dodd, the sole member of this congregation who remains unconvinced of my utter perfection.

I’ve spent years looking for holes in her defence, paying her compliments, sitting in the pew beside her, working my magic. It does nothing. I pierced my left ear in the sixth grade, amidst jokes and playful comments from parents about my descent into rebellion and inevitable initiation into a biker gang, Beverly looked me in the eye and said, “It’s nice that your mother doesn’t have a problem with you being so… such a free spirit.”

I suppose it’s my free-spiritednessthat gives Beverly pause, the ease with which I flourish my hands while speaking, the way my affectation softens and curls into something more stereotypically ladylike, the less subtle way I’ve bleached my hair and dyed it the same electric blue as the canvas sneakers on my feet. It’s called a color story Beverly,I want to say,look it up.Even now, as I stand here on stage, Beverly has a way of making me feel inadequate. Or what’s more likely, I feel the way she sees me. A deviant, a bad influence, unfit for the spotlight I so flamboyantly possess. 

She arrives beside me and, like all the other women who’ve been in this place before her, gives me a gentle greeting, a soft glance of her palm on my arm. Then a wince at the sight of my hair up close. The glint of my single earring reflects in the lenses of her bifocals. This could be my opportunity to show her how wrong she is. I’ll whisk the cake out of her hands and triumphantly raise an ungodly of amount of money, I’ll prove my worth. I’ll show her how good I can be.

“It’s vanilla,” she whispers. “Don’t pretend to drop it.”

I clear my throat and look down at her cake, conjuring up the story I might tell, another witty anecdote fabricated for the sake of the sell. A river of blue icing smears its way across the top of the square cake and is dammed by a pile of stone-colored jelly bean rubble in the corner of the pan. Green mock-foliage is piped indiscriminately along the river beds and scatters out into the farther reaches of her chocolate frosting landscape. A Ninja Turtle figurine stands above it like a giant, knee-deep in the flat layer of oily white cake. I’ve come up with something brilliant, and before looking out into the audience, I look at Beverly. Her hands folded in front of her, anxiously waiting for the auction to begin and end, so she can leave the stage and be rid of the boy at the pulpit. It’s possible nothing I say will change her mind, no amount of churched-up description and performance will make me seem less colorful, and I realize that now with her looking at me like this. I can be good, but for her, I’ll be something else.

“Here we have a sheet cake,” I say, looking out into the silent audience. I wait long enough for them to nervously wonder where I might go from there. “Oh,” I add, “there’s also a Ninja Turtle.” I pause again. “Bidding begins at ten dollars.”

I give Beverly a nod and gently set the cake down, listening for someone to make the first bid. She looks awkwardly out into the pews at the congregation’s wordless deliberation of who feels the most sorry for her, and therefore the most obligated to bid. We wait for the flicker of a paddle, a raised hand. I could have done so much more for her, and she knows it, I could have been good. But I’m better than good, I’m a star.

ALEX EBEL's work is featured or forthcoming in The Maine Review, Hobart, American Chordata, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. He can be found online @alexsebel.