Runner-up 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Recipe
5 jumbo egg whites, room temperature, if the room is cold and dark
1 1/4 cups caster sugar kept dry, despite dampness
scant 2 teaspoons brown malt vinegar
1 1/2 cups cold, fresh whipping cream
1 tablespoon sifted cornflour
4 ripe kiwis
2 ripe passion fruit

 

  1. Wielding a wire whisk, mix whites with vigor, as if your arm and hand have suddenly become possessed by the desire to dance. Stop when whites begin to take on shapes of things you’d rather forget.
  2. One tablespoon at a time, add sugar, whisking relentlessly until you can see the shadow of your sweaty face glistening in the meringue.
  3. Spoon mixture onto metal tray lined with parchment to avoid stickiness.
  4. With rubber spatula, smooth into shape of theater in the round.
  5. Bake at medium temperature for 90 minutes or until pavlova is hardened and dry, like a brand new pointe shoe, ready to break in.
  6. Having switched off oven, open door and leave ajar for dessert to rest briefly.
  7. Whisk cream in chilled bowl until peaks resemble scenery from Kingdom of Snow.
  8. Peel and slice fruit into corps de ballet of equal portions.
  9. Decorate cooled pavlova with cream and fruit.
  10. Serve immediately after final standing ovation.

Note: Dessert is delicate yet unwieldy. Be careful with assemblage.

Notes on recipe
Created and named in honor of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova after her 1926 tour to New Zealand, the dessert is well known worldwide. This version has no author or date of publication. We don’t even know what country it comes from, but the terms cornflour and caster sugar help to exclude the United States, where Pavlova dreaded dancing in 1913. However, a prominent food anthropologist classifies the references to meringue as distinctly American. Handwritten in elegant script, this recipe appears to exist only on a three-by-five note card sandwiched in a collection belonging to American balletmistress Zella Muris of Missouri. The ingredients are basic. No one at Midwest City Ballet, where Muris works, is known to have allergies to any of them. But one thing’s for sure: When Alexander Green first ate the pavlova, he morphed into one of the strongest male dancers of all time.

Notes on prima ballerina
Pavlova lived to be one of the world’s greatest and most celebrated ballerinas. Still worshipped by many a dancer, the Russian icon of grace is known for her elegance, etiquette, and determination. Despite her allegiance to all things feminine, she presided with a heavy hand over her male partners. If they failed to live up to her expectations, she slapped them, often in public. Eighty-two years after her death, Pavlova is still recognized for her ability to intoxicate audiences, particularly through the roles of the Dying Swan and the Butterfly.

Corrine’s perspective 
I don’t like to say negative shit, but Alex Green is too short to be in the company. Most of the women are at least two inches taller. And at twenty-five, he isn’t getting any younger. Why he was hired I’ll never know. Politics. To make things worse, he’s oh so holier than thou: “Ballet is my lover, my life.” Give me a break. Probably a latent homosexual. Worst kind. And Zella, his little advocate, she’s too old and dried up for anything. Couple of bitches: both of ’em. Well, at least one’s gone. You know, before he left, that excuse of a man got away with violating the company contract. Nobody can get that big and buff in such a short time. Must’ve taken something. Or Zella slipped it to him. Probably a witch. That’s what you should be investigating—the two of them, not me.

Dancer’s Contract, Midwest City Ballet, Section 7B 
Despite requests for dancers to lose or gain weight, which may be issued at any time (See Section 35C), the Company officially condemns any self-destructive behavior, including but not limited to actions that resemble or lead to the development of eating disorders, to the consumption of illegal substances, and to unwarranted surgical and other medical procedures. Dancers who fail to comply with this edict will be dismissed and replaced immediately.

Excerpt from a review of Midwest City Ballet’s winter performance
Grafton’s Lightness of Foot pays tribute to the devil-may-care playfulness of Gugnoni’s score. A series of vignettes that fluctuate between petit allegro and adagio movements combine classical vocabulary with contemporary gestures, making the choreography as light and up-to-date as the dancing. However, an unwelcome serving of irony was offered up in the section titled “Whipped Topping,” when one of the dancers landed heavily from a series of jumps.

Tony’s take
Corrine is the one who landed like a lead weight in that performance. Of course nobody’ll admit it, including Grafton, and he’s the artistic director. Corrine didn’t just come down heavy; she would’ve fallen if it hadn’t been for Alex. When he saw what was happening, he placed his hands on the small of her back to keep her upright. Instead of thanking her savior, the bitch issued a complaint—said Alex caused her to land funny because he was standing too close. Alex denied it, there was a company hearing, and nothing happened. Grafton stood up for Corrine, and Zella for Alex. Us dancers thought it was all over, but Corrine refused to give up. Had to find something to cause more grief. So she got out the contract. Convinced Grafton that Alex was underweight.

Notes on Zella
If you saw her walking down the street, you’d know, despite the cropped white hair and slight limp on the left, that Zella Muris was and is a ballerina. Not a modern one, but the kind you read about in books. A woman organized equidistantly between vertebrae—so elegant that even the most inept and poorly mannered step aside to let her pass. Her figure is trim, her expression amenable. Once she was great. Zella’s voice feels like maple syrup filling the squares of a waffle. When she speaks, dancers listen. You are one of the few. You have been chosen for a life unlike any other. Sex, family, computers: they come later. You won’t relate, no matter how hard you try. Going to the bathroom: even that is different. Doctors will see the X-rays and say something is wrong with your spine. But it is straight because you know how to stand straight.You are a dancer. Like the members of the Imperial Ballet—the first, along with political officials to be escorted to safety when invasion was imminent, you are commissioned to preserve order in a world of chaos.

Excerpt 1 from Alex’s diary, left in a storage unit on the outskirts of town
Zella wants to talk. I know what she’s going to say—gain weight or my contract is up, except that’s not how she’ll say it. She’ll speak in a way that makes me feel both special and unworthy. Must have been a nun in another life. Huge surprise! Zella’s invited me to dinner! Tells me not to worry. Dessert’s fantastic. Meringue cream thing with kiwi and passion fruit—named after Pavlova. Don’t know why, but feeling lightheaded, kinda giddy. Zella loves the way I jump. Must have forgotten about the contract. Feeling too good to worry.

Interview with Tony
Yes, it’s true: Alex gained ten pounds and not a bit of body fat. The whole thing happened in a week, when Zella fed him the pavlova. He said he loved it; it gave him confidence. You have to understand: Alex is straight-laced. That means no drugs, no alcohol, no smokes—nothing. Not even caffeine, and that includes chocolate. No, he’s not religious. Married and monogamous to his art. Probably straight. Just my luck. Alex started acting strange after he ate the dessert. Started going out late at night. Said he wanted to get in touch with nature. What that has to do with getting buff I’ll never know. With extra activity, he’d be losing weight, not gaining it. But, as you can see in the picture, the man looks like a god—one of those Greek statues you see at museums.

Notes on Alex’s picture
No one knows who took it or where it came from, but the pic is running around the Internet. Alex’s expression is confident yet distant, the open-lipped smile a sign of ease, the far-off gaze an indication that part of him is somewhere else. His outfit is contemporary—light blue form-fitting sleeveless shirt and red skinny jeans, which outline his forceful chest and powerful quads and calves. Yet somehow he appears anachronistic, as if he came from another time, and someone photoshopped the clothes onto his body. His kinky hair appears almost as a halo. Around the lower right corner of Alex’s lip is a tiny speck of white—not milk, for the consistency appears thick like whipped cream or meringue before it is baked.

Interview with Zella
The recipe is basically sugar, egg whites, cream, and some fruit. Ask anyone with the least bit of knowledge of nutrition, not to mention anatomy and physiology, and you will see that what you propose is preposterous. Of course I am no expert, but these are hardly the substances that build muscle. I made the pavlova to cheer up a downtrodden dancer. That’s all. Alexander worked very hard to perfect his art. Why not give him the credit? Yes, it may appear to some that he developed quickly, but I’m sure you are familiar with the concept of hyperbole. Dancers are notorious for it. Life is either perfect or doomed, performances great or worthless.  No, I’m not sure where the recipe originated. It’s been in my family for generations. Of course I miss Alex. He was one of our finest.

Interview with Grafton
I have no idea where Alex went after he left the company. We don’t keep tabs on our former dancers. Have you checked the Internet? How about the IRS? Now I really must be going. I have a meeting with the Midwest Prairie Alliance. Our company is collaborating with conservationists to preserve classical ballet, the nation’s most unappreciated and endangered art form, alongside the prairie, the nation’s most unappreciated and endangered ecosystem. If you want to do a story on this exciting development, I’d be happy to meet with you next week.

Alex’s Diary, Entry 2
She makes me call her Mademoiselle, and I must bow whenever she enters the room. At first I thought it was a dream, but once she slapped me, I knew Anna Pavlova was real. It’s true: she’s as light as the dessert created in Her name. Pavlova is teaching me all kinds of things I never really knew. When a man dances with a woman, he must worship her. He must make it look as though he’s in charge, but underneath it all, she is. That’s how it works. She wakes me up at three in the morning. I bow and kneel before her, and then we head out to the prairie preserve. When I’m with Anna, I never feel cold. The stage is filled with leftover snow and dirt, but somehow we manage. We rehearse until six, and then I take her back to the apartment. We share a slice of pavlova, and then she disappears until the next night. Despite all the extra activity, I feel rested, ready to dance. My body is changing—fast.

Tony’s final statement
There’s something I forgot to say. Before tech rehearsal for the spring performances, I went to wish Alex merde—that’s what dancers say instead of good luck or, God forbid, break a you-know-what. Well, I got to his dressing room door and stopped short. I distinctly heard a woman with a Russian accent screaming at him. Then what sounded like a slap. When I knocked at the door, I heard furniture crashing to the floor. When Alex opened the door, the left side of his face was all red, a chair was overturned, and the room was empty, except for the two of us. Yes, I’m sure. I know what I heard and saw.

Excerpt from a review of Midwest City Ballet’s spring performance
Rarely do soloists outshine the principals, but such was the case in Grafton’s Prairie Progression, when Alexander Green and Tony Perugina took flight in a feverish series of man-to-man suspension lifts and supported jumps. Reminiscent of lightning spawning a wildfire, the two men epitomized not only the strength and beauty of the male form but also the stoicism of our ancestors arriving in covered wagons. Kudos to Grafton and his collaboration with the Midwest Prairie Alliance. Good luck to MCB. With dancing and choreography like this, companies on the coasts can’t compare.

Alex’s diary, last entry
Last night was strange. We talked more than we danced. Both captivated by nature—open landscapes, beetles crawling in grass. Think I’m falling in love. Anna says she could easily replace Corrine. Finally together in front of an audience. I asked how she planned to do it. She made a joke—called herself The Phantom of the Ballet. I laughed. Asked why she didn’t go to New York. “Because you are here,” she said. I’ll never forget those words. My wrists slipped during a press lift, and she punched me. The frozen grass clinked in the wind. The prairie was laughing.

Notes on YouTube video
Extensive investigation, but no one knows who posted the video or where it came from. It’s called Boa. The picture is clear: Alexander Green partnering none other than Anna Pavlova. Alex looks like a Greek myth come to life—beige dance belt and nothing else but his sparkling brown ringlets dripping with sweat as he lifts his partner high in the air. Pavlova, skin tanned and expression distant, sports a black bikini. Her hair is buzzed to a bristle. The choreography is distinctly twenty-first century—unabashedly sexual, moments of sustained extension followed by repetitive, spastic moves—peace before the storm. Pavlova constricts her partner to death. The final scene focuses on Alex, eyes rolled back, face blue, expression slack. Three comments posted on the accompanying YouTube page: “bout time,” from sexyladycub; “gr8 hairdo pavvy,” from pickleloverspoon;  “What happened to human tenderness? Violence gratuitous,” from MidwestSpiritWeaver.

Excerpt from arts section of Midwest Tribune
Despite local, state, and national funding, Midwest City Ballet and the Midwest Prairie Alliance received a heavy blow today. Late Summer Dance on the Prairie, held at and supported by the privately owned Midwest Prairie Preserve for the last forty years, will be discontinued. The land has been sold to the Mall-Mart Corporation, and construction for a new Mall-Mart Megacomplex will begin within the month. The site will include multiple stores, a ballpark, two daycare centers, a one-acre prairie preserve, and a new four-year college featuring the highly popular Corporate Studies major. “Once the construction is done, the ballet can perform at the ballpark,” said Hugo Spitz, spokesman for the multimillion-dollar project. Midwest City Ballet Artistic Director Frederick Grafton, who received the International Green Space Choreographic Award earlier this year, was unavailable for comment.

Front-page story in Midwest Tribune
“Mall-Mart Project Swallowed Up”
After a month of rumors and jokes claiming that the Mall-Mart Megacomplex was jinxed, haunted, and doomed, the project caved in on itself—literally. Only two days after the completion of nine buildings and a ballpark, a giant sinkhole swallowed up everything except one acre of prairie, leaving no trace of the $80 million complex. No one was injured, since the cave-in happened sometime between 3 and 6 a.m., according to police. A worker who wishes to remain anonymous said he found piles of kiwi peel at the construction site during the last month. The cause of the sinkhole is under investigation.

Statement from a baker in rural North Dakota
Fat little dude—called himself Al Green. Hired him because of the look on his face. Real depressed. Getting out of a bad relationship, he said. Only worked here a short time. Crazy about the prairie, he was. Talented baker. Never tasted a pavlova like the ones he made. So light—gave you energy, made you want to dance.


Runner-up in the 2013 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize, judged by Michael Martone