“What kind of cake do you want?”
Every year around the middle of January my mother would ask me that.
“How about a store bought cake?” I said this without thought. Her face registered shock for a second then disappointment. She covered her facial tells with a smile.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have me bake one?” she asked, a touch of hope in her eyes.
I ignored the telltale signs.
“Nope. I’d like a store bought one this year,” I said, with all the carelessness of a child.
“Alright, if that’s what you really want.”
“Yup. That’s what I want.” With that I turned and walked away. It was my birthday and I wanted what I wanted.
Dad watched my mother after I left.
“You look sad. I’d think you’d be happy not to have to bake one this year.’
She looked at him. I’m positive it was that look married couples give to one another on occasion, the one that comprehends. That comprehension is the realization that no matter how long you are together your partner in life just doesn’t have a clue. Similar to a kid who takes everything for granted without thought to another’s feelings.
“I love making birthday cakes.” I believe what she meant to say is that the love she feels for the recipient is baked into that cake each year. She can put all the love she feels along with the ingredients into that bowl and then the oven. The resulting baked good contains a part of that strongest of feelings.
“Well, you can love buying one this year.”
“It isn’t the same,” she said her smile fading. She put away the heart shaped pans she had bought.
“I found these special pans this year. I was going to surprise him with a cake shaped like a heart. I thought he’d like it.”
“They’ll keep til next year,” said dad. “This is just a phase, you know that. Probably one of his friends had a store bought cake. You know how kids are.”
“Yeah,” she said closing the cabinet on the pans.
I left the house, the screen door slamming behind me. I ran next door to my cousin’s house. The screen slammed behind me again as I ran in.
“Rickey! Can’t you enter or leave a house without slamming the screen door?” said my aunt. She was at the stove finishing up breakfast. “Oh never mind. Go sit on the bench. I’ll get you a plate.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said sliding into the bench across from Richie and Linda. Richie was buttering toast.
“Valentine’s day is coming up,” she said. “That means aunt Tinky is making a birthday cake for you. I hope you decide on a Lady Baltimore cake. She makes the best Lady Baltimore cake I have ever tasted.”
“Nope,” I said looking up as my aunt handed me a plate of eggs and bacon.
“I bet it’s a Devil’s Food cake,” said Linda, mischief in her eye. “She makes heavenly Devil’s Food cakes.”
“Nope,” I said stuffing eggs into my mouth.
“Angel Food!” said Hayne. “It must be Angel Food. I love her Angel Food cake.”
“Nope,” I said picking up a piece of bacon.
My aunt was at the door drying her hands on the dish towel. “Well, if it isn’t one of those three what did you choose?” Her question was accompanied with a puzzled look.
“I’m getting a store bought one!” I said triumphantly.
“STORE BOUGHT!!” Everyone was staring at me.
“Yeah, store bought. I want one of those Merita cakes like they show on the Lone Ranger. White icing and coconut all over.
“You hate coconut!” stated Hayne.
“Nuh uh. Not when it’s store bought.”
“How would you know? You’ve never had a store bought coconut cake,” said Richie.
“There’s coconut on the Lady Baltimore cake and I like that. So I bet I’ll love that one from the Lone Ranger show.” I was really upbeat in my answer.
“But I like aunt Tinky’s cakes,” said Hayne.
“Get her to make your birthday cake then. This year I don’t want my momma’s cake. I want what I want and I’m getting it!” I was emphatic to the point of dropping my fork on my plate with loud metal-ceramic clank.
“You won’t like it,” said Richie.
“How do you know? Have you ever had one?”
“No, but I’ve had aunt Tinky’s and there’s nothing can top that.”
“Yeah, you’re going to be sorry,” said Linda.
“Why are y’all so upset? It’s my birthday cake.” I was confused.
“Rickey, your momma makes the best cakes in the world. We don’t get cake like that often,” said Richie. She noticed my aunt was staring at her somewhat hurt.
Linda took up the thought.
“You make delicious cakes, too, momma.”
“I’d say my cakes are pretty good. I have to admit though that Sister does make a good Lady Baltimore cake.” She smiled turning back to the dishes in the sink.
“You hurt momma’s feelings,” she whispered to Richie.
“I didn’t mean to. I was just thinking Lady Baltimore,” she whispered back.
“Does aunt Tinky know you want a store bought?” asked Hayne.
“Sure. I told her this morning.” I smiled. I knew that Lone Ranger cake was going to be so good. The picture on the TV made my mouth water every time.
“I bet she wasn’t happy to hear that,” said Richie.
“She asked me what I wanted. Why shouldn’t she be happy?”
“Your momma’s Lady Baltimore would be thousand times better that that old Lone Ranger coconut cake. Yuck!” She made a face. They were all making faces as I looked at each of them. The face I didn’t like most was the one of disappointment. They shared that one while I sat grinning. It was my birthday and my cake and it was going to be sensational. They’d see.
I wiped my plate clean with the last bit of toast then stuffed it in my mouth.
“It’s about time,” Hayne said. “How about a game of monopoly?”
Everyone groaned quietly but slid out of the bench seats. My aunt helped Hayne into his wheelchair. When he was settled I pushed him into the front room where Richie and Linda were setting up the game board.
Hayne was very adept at this game of finance, not to mention lucky. He invariably held the most expensive properties early in the game. With each throw of the dice the rest of us handed over our bank accounts little by little until he had all the money and all the properties while we pushed away from the board empty handed.
“You always win that game,” I whined.
“I’ll let you win if you ask aunt Tinky to make one of her cakes for your birthday,” he said holding out a fistful of monopoly dollars.
“Not this year. You wait. You’re going to love my cake. I better get home. See you tomorrow.” I started to run out the door.
“Don’t forget the scary shows late tonight!” yelled Hayne as I slipped out the door. The screen slammed.
I remembered as I ran to my front porch. It was the weekend and that meant popcorn, candy and Cocola in front of the TV while we watched Frankenstein or Wolfman or Dracula.
Mom was at the front door holding the screen, so I wouldn’t slam it I reckon.
“It gets on your daddy’s nerves,” she said pulling it shut softly.
“What does?” I asked slipping past her.
“Your slamming the screen every time.”
“Oh,” I said without intent to remember.
“I wanted to ask you something, too,” she said.
I turned with an exasperated look.
“I just wanted to know what kind of store bought cake you wanted.” There was a tinge of sadness in her face I ignored.
“I want the one advertised on the Lone Ranger show. The Merita cake with white icing and coconut.”
She made a face that hinted at those made by Richie, Linda and Hayne.
“Are you sure that’s what you want?”
“Momma, you asked me already. That’s what I want.”
“I can’t really decorate that cake like I usually do.”
“You don’t have to. It’s going to be absolutely gorgeous just like on TV. All you need is candles.”
“OK then. If you are sure.”
“Yes ma’am. Oh, do we have some Jiffy-Pop! We need some for the movie tonight.”
“I think so,” she said as she walked into the kitchen. “Yes we do. Here you go.”
I was set for the late show.
The days passed by without any further mention of birthdays or cake. I may not have talked about it but I sure dreamed about it, Merita’s coconut cake. The anticipation made me smile.
“Wakey, wakey . Rise and shine birthday boy.” It was my mother shaking me softly. “I have your favorite breakfast ready for you.”
OH boy! Sugar Jets! I loved Sugar Jets. I threw back the covers and slammed my feet on the floor ready to dress and eat breakfast.
On the table sat my biggest bowl, a quart of milk and the jumbo box of Sugar Jets. I jumped into my chair and grabbed the box with both hands. I poured until cereal began to spill over onto the table.
Dad looked up from his paper.
“Is that what you are going to eat for breakfast?” he asked.
“It’s his birthday,” said my mom.
“Well, try not to spill the milk too,” he said returning to his paper.
“Yes sir,” I said sloshing milk across the top of my mound of cereal onto the table. Mom came over and wiped it up with her dish cloth.
‘I can’t wait til this afternoon!” I yelled.
“We don’t yell at the table,” said my dad peeking over the corner of his paper.
“Yes sir,” I said cramming another spoonful of sugary treats into my mouth.
“I had better wish you a Happy Birthday before it’s over son.” It was my dad’s belief that if one wasn’t wished a Happy Birthday before noon it was a missed Birthday.
I rushed through my breakfast. Wiping my mouth on my napkin I asked, “May I be excused?”
“Yes, son, and Happy Birthday,” said dad from behind the News and Courier.
“Thank you, daddy. I’m going next door, mommy,” I yelled from outside. The screen door slammed behind me.
The day dragged for this Birthday boy but it finally got to the celebrating part. Richie and Linda walked ahead as I pushed Hayne along behind.
Mom opened the door letting everyone in. She helped me with my cousin’s chair. The house was dark when we entered except for a flickering golden glow from within the living room. I wheeled Hayne into the golden room and there it was.
The candle glow gave my white coconut frosted store bought cake a hint of gold flecks across the surface with each flicker of the flame. It gave it the richness of fool’s gold which I was about to discover.
“Better blow out the candles before too much wax gets on the cake.”
Everyone gathered around. I continued to inhale as I walked around my cousin’s chair to the table. The cake in all its golden glory sat in the center surrounded by presents. I was urged on. With one last pull of air I let it all go directly at the flames atop the shortening candles. One mighty blast took care of them all. We were in darkness.
“On with the lights!” came the call from everyone at once.
The lights came on.
My cake looked different in the stark white light of a hundred watts. It sat in the plate my mother used for those she made every year. Hers were always so big the icing began at the rim of the plate. My Merita cake sat in the middle of the plate. The rim was in inch or more from the icing. The icing was thin enough in spots to reveal cake. And the coconut flakes weren’t sprinkled lightly across the top they were matted into the sugary white covering like a dog left to itself for ages.
“That’s the cake from the Lone Ranger?” I asked. “That’s not the way it looks on TV.”
“That’s it,” said my mother. She brought the box from behind her back. Sure enough, it said Merita.
“But it looks so much bigger on TV. It looks so much more scrumptious on TV. That just looks sad.”
“It’s time to cut it,” said my dad.
Mom poked through it with her knife. She placed a triangular slice on each waiting plate. I took mine and grabbed a plastic fork. The slice lay there in all its dryness.
“It’s gonna taste really good,” I said half-heartedly.
As I took my first bite my mother held a glass of milk in front of me. The cake sucked all the moisture from my mouth. I dropped the plate onto the table and grabbed for the milk.
Half a glass later I could speak.
“That’s awful. It’s nothing like they say on TV. The way they talked it was big and plump with thick icing and frosted with a light layer of coconut. It’s all a lie.”
“Imagine that,” said my dad.
“I will never ask for another store bought cake as long as I live!” I was emphatic.
Everyone put their plates on the table with half eaten slices still remaining.
My mother, who had disappeared, came around the corner with another cake, candles flickering above. The lights were turned out.
She placed the cake on the table. It was exactly what I had expected of the one we had just cut.
“Blow out the candles!” I blew them out. My breath was accompanied by tears that had fallen from my eyes. When the lights came on there in front of me was my mother’s famous Lady Baltimore cake. It was big. It was in the shape of a heart. The icing began at the plate’s rim and it was covered in a heavy frosting of coconut flakes. It was in the shape of a heart. I looked up at mom through tears.
“I had a feeling you might be disappointed so I made this one just in case. If you don’t want it I can give it to Richie. She likes them.”
Richie got up reaching for the plate. She was smiling.
“NO!” I shouted. “I want this one. It’s better because you made it.”
The rims of her eyes beaded over. She turned for a tissue.
“Thank you, mommy. You’re the best.”
Her smile added another hundred watts to the room.