Edgar Cheltham looked at the old woman with disinterest. “So, ma’am, when you say that you want me to design a gingerbread house, you mean a house in the high Victorian style with scroll work trim around the eaves, a stoop with a decorative rail, that sort of thing.”
“No, sir,” the woman replied. “I said what I meant and meant what I said. When I said a gingerbread house, I meant a house made out of gingerbread. It will not be decorated with scroll work, it will be decorated with candy canes and jelly beans.”
The woman’s voice had a shrill tone that set Edgar’s teeth on edge. “I think I know what you’re saying,” he replied. “We can shape and detail reinforced concrete so that it will look like gingerbread. Something suitable for a new theme park, perhaps.”
“That is not what I said, young man. I did not say a concrete house made to look like gingerbread. I said a gingerbread house. Nothing will have to be made to look like gingerbread because it will already be gingerbread.”
Edgar stared at the woman’s beady black eyes for a long minute. She looked as crazy as she sounded. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m an architect, not a baker. I work in wood and concrete and stone, not cookie dough. I can’t build a structure with gingerbread.”
“Don’t be silly. I don’t expect you to build the house, just design it. I can bake the gingerbread myself. I have my own oven, you know. It’s a really big oven. You could fit a whole person into it. As long as I don’t need any pieces of gingerbread that are more than seven feet long by five feet wide, I can bake whatever I need.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. It can’t be done. There are building codes. Building inspectors. Laws.”
“Laws, smaws. I don’t care about any old laws. You just design the house and I’ll worry about the building inspectors. Little toads like that don’t bother me, sonny. Bring ‘em on.” The old woman pulled an gnarled little stick from some pocket hidden in the folds of her voluminous black dress and began waving it about frantically. “Bring ‘em on, I say,” she repeated and then began cackling insanely.
This alarmed Edgar and he tried to calm her down, using his most reasonable voice. “You see, ma’am, I can’t build a house out of any old material. I have to use materials whose engineering parameters are known. Who knows the tensile strength of a piece of gingerbread? I’ll guarantee that it’s not so good.”
“Hell, sonny. Anybody knows that if you need good tensile strength, you use licorice rope. What kind of an architect are you, anyway? You’d be some kind of fool to put gingerbread under tension. You use candy canes for the parts of the frame that’re under compression, use licorice for the tensile members, and only incorporate the gingerbread as cladding. Even an old woman like me knows that much.” She fixed Edgar with an evil glare and began pulling at the hairs growing from the large mole on her chin. “I don’t think you’re such a smart architect after all. Are you sure that you’re accredited?”
He held up his hands in a gesture of pacification. “Yes, ma’am. I have degrees in architecture from two universities and the full accreditation required by the province. But that doesn’t make me a miracle worker. Modern architectural training does not include designing structures out of baked goods.”
“You don’t have to be a miracle worker, young man. You leave the miracles to me. All you have to be is competent at your job. I want a gingerbread house. You are an architect. You are going to design it. That’s the only miracle we need to talk about today.”
Edgar decided to try another approach. No sense arguing with the woman when he could get further by humoring her. “Okay, ma’am. Then we better get to work. Let’s start by looking at the function of your building. The best buildings are buildings that serve a specific purpose. Why do you want a gingerbread house?”
“For the children. I want a house that children will like. They like gingerbread and candy, so that’s what I’m going to build. It’s all for the sake of the children.”
“Your grandchildren?” Edgar asked, innocently.
“What a horrid thought!” the woman screamed, reaching a higher octave than Edgar would have dreamed possible. “Me have grandchildren? I’d have to have children of my own before I could have grandchildren, wouldn’t I? Do I look like the kind of woman who’d give birth to children? Do I?”
He looked at the woman’s face stippled with warts, at her oversized, crooked nose, at her hunched back and bleak wardrobe and shook his head. “When you were younger, I’m sure that you had your share of suitors, but if not, then, no, I guess you wouldn’t have grandchildren, either.”
“Not grandchildren of my own, though, I must say, I’ve had my share of other peoples’ grandchildren. That I have.” She flashed a sly smile. “But you don’t want to hear those stories, young man. Of that, I’m sure.”
Edgar was equally sure. “Okay, then. You want a house made of gingerbread that will be attractive to children. That’s it? That’s the entire requirement?”
“That’s it. Oh, and, of course, it has to have room for my oven. The kitchen has to be large. Very large. I bake a lot.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“And the pantry has to be large, too. To hold the supplies, you see.”
“And secure. We can’t have any little varmints gnawing through the pantry walls, can we?”
“No, we certainly can’t.”
“Yes, sir. Strong, the pantry walls have to be. Strong enough to withstand even the most desperate assault by little fists and teeth. Jawbreaker strong, I’d say. Yes, sir. Strong enough to break little jaws. That’s the ticket.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll have to think about how to do that, but I’m sure that I can come up with something that’s strong enough to keep the varmints out of your pantry.”
“Out?” the woman asked in a surprised tone, then recovered and said, “Yes, of course. Out. Whatever. As long as the walls are strong, they’ll serve all right.”
“Now, we’re going to have a problem with services. I’m not sure how I can run wiring and plumbing through the walls within code.”
“Oh, pshaw with codes, sonny. I told you that you don’t have to worry about that. I’m not fussy about codes. For that matter, I’m not fussy about wiring or plumbing, either. My oven burns charcoal. That get’s plenty hot enough and gives everything a sweet taste. I don’t have no truck with gas. Terrible, chemical stuff, that gas. And I don’t much like water, either. I wouldn’t have plumbing in my house on a bet.”
“But for washing up, you’ll have water delivered, then?”
“I’m not so fussy about washing, either. You can’t wash gingerbread and cotton candy, you know. Have you ever seen what happens when cotton candy gets wet? It’s awful, sonny. Simply awful. Nope, I’m not having any water in my house.”
“But for drinking.”
“Who needs to drink water when there are lots of little children around?”
Edgar had no idea what she meant by that, but he was certain that he did not want to know. “But the children will get thirsty.”
“Let them drink soda pop. Nice sweet soda pop. There’s not a child alive who’d drink water when there’s soda pop available.”
“Okay, then. No wiring and no plumbing. But we’re still going to have a problem with water. What happens when it rains?”
The old woman froze in place and looked at him in horror. “What do you mean by that?”
“Well, we have to make your house weatherproof somehow, don’t we? I mean, the primary purpose of every structure is to keep the weather out. That’s the difference between outside and inside. There is weather outside and no weather inside.”
“Of course. Nasty rain has to stay outside. I hate the nasty rain. It’s wet. So, so wet.” The woman’s voice had dropped to a course whisper.
“So the roof and walls will have to be clad in plastic. Maybe we could seal the gingerbread and varnish it with enough coats of polyurethane to make it waterproof.”
“No,” the woman shrieked. “You can’t do that. Little children can’t eat varnish. They wouldn’t like the taste. What child will want to come into a gingerbread house if it doesn’t taste delicious? It has to be candy and cookies. Everything has to be candy and cookies. That’s the rule!”
“But that won’t work. All candies and cookies are water soluble by definition. You can’t eat something if it doesn’t dissolve in water.”
“Well, that’s not my problem. It’s yours. You’re the great architect with all the fancy degrees and the state license. You figure out how to make my gingerbread house waterproof. That’s your job.”
“Like I said, I’m not a miracle worker. If it can’t be done, then it can’t be done.” He stared at the woman and she stared back defiantly. After long, uncomfortable minutes, the woman’s hand began to twitch, flicking the gnarled stick that she was holding back and forth in a broken rhythm. For some reason that he could not articulate, Edgar did not like to see that stick twitching in his direction.
Suddenly, he snapped his fingers. “Of course. There’s one kind of candy that never dissolves, no matter how long you eat it. We’ll clad your roof in bubblegum shingles. That’ll keep the rain out for sure. And by using a low roof with sufficient overhang, we’ll keep the rain away from the gingerbread walls, no problem.”
The woman grinned, showing a jumble of oddly-spaced, snaggly teeth. “That’s the way to do it, sonny. You keep your head about you and you and me’ll get on just fine. Yessir, you’ll keep your fine head on your broad shoulders that way.”
“Of course, there’s bound to be some degradation from the humidity in the air. Dew and the like.”
She waved her gnarled hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about that, sonny. As long as the damage is gradual, I’ll keep the place up. It’ll get fixed along with the little children’s bite marks. You’d be surprised how many little children can’t resist chewing on an old woman’s house. I’ll be replacing parts continuously. There’ll always be something good cooking in my oven, let me tell you.”
“Okay, then. I’ll accept a deposit and get right to work. I should be finished the plans in a few weeks, but we should meet every week and I’ll get you to sign off on the design as I proceed. That way, there’ll be no surprises at the end.”
“What do you mean, deposit?”
“I require ten percent of my fee in advance. That’s standard business practice.”
“Fee? What fee?”
“Money. I have to get paid for my work.”
“Oh. I see. Here.” The woman pulled a handful of gold from some hidden pocket. “Money’s nothing. I can give you all the gold coins you want.”
Edgar took the coins from the woman. He was about to say that he had no way to know the value of the coins, but, once he felt them, he realized that he had a rather different problem. “Ma’am, these aren’t real gold.”
“Of course not. They’re chocolate inside. What did you expect? What would I want with real gold? Children would rather have a chocolate coin than a gold one any day.”
“Ma’am, I can’t accept payment in candy. I need money to cover my expenses. I can’t pay my rent with chocolate coins.”
“Well, that’s between you and your landlord, isn’t it? Don’t try to pass your problems along to me.”
“I can’t begin work until I receive my advance in proper, legal tender.”
The old woman’s eyes glowed red with anger. “Tender this, pumpkin head!” and she snapped her wand at him.
He was blinded by a flash of light. When his eyes recovered, the woman was gone. He was alone once again in his office.
He felt relieved and hoped never to see her again.
Until he looked in a mirror.