The Day it Rained Apricots

Darren Speegle

I was only a kid when Gretchen first hired me on at the bakery. I didn't know my pies from my cobblers, much less the array of finer delicacies her little shop offered. Although my ignorance of all things kitchen-related, she believed in me from the start, pointing out in her old-fashioned, grandmotherly way that I was after all a girl, and girls are made of no less than sugar and spice. We would make up for those fourteen years of road life -- "fancy a child being dragged all over the globe like that" -- in no time at all. She was famous for this sort of frankness, as I suppose most Germans are. But I did love the lady, poor heart.

We settled in Bavaria, my parents absolute favorite region in all the world, not long after my fourteenth birthday. It had taken that many years and more to build up the nest egg, and now I would have the simpler life they had always wanted for me. I don t know why they felt it necessary to carry around that air of apology. I had rather enjoyed the only life I had ever known. Just as I would enjoy this new life. I sometimes think they never completely understood of me that I was not just pretending to be a carefree, adaptable gal but that such was my nature. Alas, what I am.

I fell into the job at the bakery. We had been living in Meuerberg village about two months at the time, and a Saturday morning ritual had developed of my picking up fresh Brötchen for breakfast. Gretchen and I had been on a first name basis almost since day one, when she had admired my straw hat in her thickly dialectal German, a gnarled forefinger helping to specify at least the object of her unintelligible compliment. Today I greeted her with the usual "Guten Morgen" as I stepped out of the cool November air into the warmth and delectable aromas of her shop. When rather than responding in kind, she gestured towards the back, where noises of clanging metals and swearing formed a discordant, even alarming symphony, I knew she was having a disagreement with her help again. The girl's name was Ina, and I went to school with her. She was a sassy one, to say the least, and I had wanted to punch her on her fat lip since the moment I first met her.

Gretchen served out the chosen pieces of bread silently -- although I was a quick study, the language barrier would not be overcome for some time yet -- while I considered, not seriously, stomping back to the kitchen to do some harmful thing to Ina. Ina was not to wait, even for a fantasy. As I passed the coins to Gretchen, the girl came storming out yelling something about Arbeiten -- work -- and die Hexe -- hag -- tossing her apron at her employer and giving her the finger as she almost broke the front door on her way out.

It was on that very day I was shown some of the points of making a brandied apricot-raison pie.

It was a marriage that would last well beyond the one year of our monopoly on the market. To this day I visit her, all the way from the States, and to this day she remembers most fondly that first year, when she had the corner, when she was the apricot queen and they would come from all the surrounding villages just to sink their teeth into her -- into our -- delicious pastries.

She was a wonderful teacher. I learned quickly, the business as well as the German language, and she was responsible for both. There is an art, she taught me, not only to baking, not only to applying, but also to acquiring. The apricots we use are only the best. Italian in the heart of the season, of the South of France on the season's fringes. The same with the language. It must first be of the choicest crop, then Bavarian. Funny coming from her, Bavarian through and through. But she knew her apricots.

And that is how she almost put him out of business the moment he put up shop.

His name was Assen, he was only part German and he came from somewhere up north. He had always wanted to open a bakery, and this was where he would do it. During the tourist season, what with all the skiers Meuerburg attracted, there was plenty of room for two bakeries. Out of season he would shut down, do his other thing (whatever that was), and no one would be hurt. Gretchen laughed at that, which meant she was already hurt, claiming that there was no way, even if he could compete with her at the most basic level of flour and yeast, that he could hope to succeed in the finer endeavors. Not with that schedule. Not when the crop schedule was so instrumental a part in a baker's success. With her knowledge and her connections, you see, she could stretch out the crop to almost the limits of any grown food.

To prove her point, on the day of his grand opening she had an outdoor tasting, which I myself managed, our apricot pastries lining three long tables. Herr Assen was forced to watch from across the street as his potential clients drifted towards the smell of Gretchen's unequalled baked goods.

It was not the sort of day for it, dark clouds gathering over the mountains to the south, the scent of precipitation on the air, the air unseasonably warm. But so we did, and I was not above doing a little taste-testing of my own, and even offering some to Herr Assen himself when he rambled over to have a look.

"How can you bear to be in the employ of this woman?" he said. "Not that friendly competition bothers me, of course. But my own employee tells me stories of her..."

"Your own employee being the sweet-hearted Ina who once worked for Gretchen?"

He eyed me. "Perhaps you would consider..."

"I think you could not afford me, Herr Assen. Considering how you seem to be losing the friendly competition."

I gestured around us, and as he acknowledged the flock of tourists and locals alike surrounding our tables, his face seemed to fall.

"But you misunderstand me," he said. "I do not wish to steal her business, only to--"

"The devil, you say," came Gretchen's voice behind me. "That is precisely what you wish, and I stand here to tell you that you will wallow in your presumption before this day is through."

But thunder rumbled, and it looked as though we might all be wallowing before long.

"Truly, lady, you have me at a disadvantage."

"Oh? Because I know these people? Because they trust me? My goods?"

"Because I have misjudged the market, the taste of these people, the need for a fruit supplier--"

Something landed with a dull squish. We all lowered our faces to the pie to see what had disturbed its flaky surface. A yellowish fruit, somewhat smaller than a peach, lay there, a dead weight in its center. I was struck on the head, looked up to see what was about, was struck in the face. I turned to the others, saw that they too were staring up at the sky. Then all at once the clouds let open and the sky began to fall in round downy missiles.

I reached out for Gretchen but she was not there. She had stumbled back beneath the eave of the shop front, covering her ears as the missiles struck the aluminum, eyes wide with wonder as the apricots fell in a torrent over the street, her carefully laid tables, the stubborn head of Herr Assen as he held a specimen up for inspection.

Against the storefront across the way, leaned our notorious Ina, a look not of bewilderment on her face, as all the rest of the world seemed to share, but one of smug amusement. For it was her day in the rain.

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