Fiction by Marcus Pactor: “Cake”

—after Blake Butler

 

The cake reminded me of the twins’ wet sludge food. I could never shovel it well enough for them. My wife often replaced me halfway through their meals, as a mercy.

I did not slice, then, so much as scoop dessert into a bowl.

It tasted of egg and hair. That last word, in French, is “chevaux.” A review of my napkin—I pen notes exclusively on napkins—confirmed that the recipe did not call for hair. Had any recipe? Ever? I tried to work out the statistical possibilities. A fool endeavor, given what anyone can surmise re: my skill at math, my ability to solve for X. Still, I turned over the napkin and listed the cuisines with which I called myself moderately familiar because I could name them. It did not take long and, happily, the solution involved not numbers but an intuition that many cuisines, perhaps all of them, must have at least one recipe calling for the use of hair.

I pictured myself at a restaurant—ludicrous, I know—with a date—let us deepen the ludicrosity—who might have a milk flower pinned to her breast. We would examine menus that I, at least, could sound out but could not comprehend. She would not even try. She would depend on me for guidance, for she had eaten several impairing pills that afternoon and, besides, she sought a leader in a man. She thought of me as a man. I pictured myself, then, seated opposite a naïve, hypochondriacal type, confronted with a mash of printed words and with even less knowledge of French than I have pretended to you, so I ordered bifteck sur chevaux.

The vision failed to explain the hair’s absence from the recipe. I knew that nothing would explain the absence. I lifted the bowl to my mouth because knowing did not matter. Or maybe because I felt that gustation might be substituted acceptably for knowledge. It could fill in, I mean.

True—the cake was more cream than mud. Truer still—a cream should be served alone and unadorned. Do we not offer it to our least fortunate friends? Do we not say, “Taste?” Must we hope?

 

I sensed otherness building in the boy twin. I wanted to love him modernly, but he spilled his milk again. He sat in its pool in a too dainty posture. I tied him to his bouncy seat, in which he commenced to bounce. I grilled him on the subject of eggs. Were they in his possession? Were they in his person? I held up an actual egg so he could visualize the problem.

If necessary, I could hold up my head in the seafood department. The iced panoply of ocean dead would rest filleted under glass, a border between the fishmonger and I, or perhaps I would wait behind a family placing an order for several pounds of catfish. This family would be absent a parent, and the children, four of them, let us say, indicating a couple which at one time at least did not foul up sex with contraception, and the full brood slapping the display case or holding up sweet boxed processed doom for their mother to purchase and crying persuasively or playing an abomination on the mother’s cell phone while the mother chop-shops thoughts not about her absent husband and his peccadillos, but about me. She would see my ringless digit, my receding hairline, my dour slump, and she would not wonder where my twins stunk today, for she would know they were being smelled by the more responsible parent. She would want to know, however, if I had done the least a father could do, and I could answer, “Oui, madame. I have discoursed with him on the subject of eggs. I could do so again, if necessary, and I could teach him to bake them into digestible snacks.”

Of course, he was too young to take part. My heart sometimes sinks under the mashed bugs of TV pasts because I have not once heard him talk in any noise but gibberish. There comes a day—there must—when even a suspect child might ask about famous obsolete consumer products, and the father can at last speak from an angle of comfort. I am afraid neither he nor the girl will ever ask me about the god light shed by a VCR.

Did a memory ensue in which a fish opened its spine to me? It must have, or my wife must have once asked me if it had, though that is not entirely why I have baked and have determined to eat this confection.

It is certainly not why I have misused the word “confection.”

 

The girl, in particular, lustily took food from my wife. She leaned at rather than toward or into the spoon, thereby crusting her face as often as she downed the proffered purees. Her excited failures made us both—my wife and I—laugh. But the girl did not try so hard at meal time with me, so when I had sole care of her on a Saturday afternoon, I gave her a wad of mayonnaise for lunch.

I had to be patient, but she got hungry enough.

In my wallet, behind my voter registration card, I keep a photograph of her resulting expression.

Her sciaphobic dramas began almost in the womb. We could not set her to nap near curtains as, when the planet turned, new shade would intrude on her sleep, and we would be made to suffer. In one of our last acts together, my wife and I searched for helping pills on the Internet. She found several promising drinks and psychotropics, but nothing legal for infants, so she finally blamed the girl’s sensitivity to light on my father. I then established a second nursery in a room rapidly cleared of shadow-making shelves and crates of moldered receipts. Some nights I went under the thousand-watt bulbs and felt a mouthy future.

Have you not eaten a cake’s worth of at least one child in your care? Or, if you are barren, have you not thought once in those terms? A napkin could be trusted with those questions. If only I had thought of this earlier—I could have unfolded one at the table and read from it to my wife. She might respond with a factoid scribbled beforehand on her palm: “The population of Oslo is on the rise.” Better, we could bypass the cooking before and the scrubbing after by replacing plates and dinners with volumes of questions and answers. One could refer to them between gulps of wine. One feels, quite wrongly, that an infinite number of elegancies could have supplanted our dining protocols.

 

Egyptians supposedly gave the first slice of cake to their beloved Ramses. But you must agree that all their ancient power was the gift of aliens mistaken for gods. I can see Ra descending from his spaceship pyramid to present a humble girl, not a pharaoh, with a new treat.

“Cake” comes from the Norse word—not Spanish, mind you—“kaka.”

Have you ever seen a cake hoop? My wife and I received one from a distant relation. She did not appreciate it, as she had no plans to use it, ever, though she must have it stashed among her winnings, somewhere, as it could not have absented itself.

I have not learned to make a buttercream frosting—despite the amount of time I have spent in the tub, contemplating its manufacture.

The Egyptians were compelled to believe, on penalty of a cake hoop diet, that Ra had the shape of the sun. Four thousand years later, I learned he had the glowing face of a VCR. In my youth, I found him in the wandering hours when I begged for dreams. They came, eventually, but I could not follow the language spoken by the bonneted elephants. We shared tears, those elephants and I. Now I wonder why I wanted dreams so much, when that’s how they turned out so often.

 

I flatten on the bed. It has stretched since she and the twins exiled themselves to a western chintz town. Listen: I know the correct word is “chintzy.” But do I deserve to be chastised or threatened? In the home I rent? Because I have absented a suffix? When I know well how much Indian calicos and fabrics have been abused? When I know also that the entire American west should not be slandered with either the correct or incorrect form of the word? But I feel it to be chintz. I feel chintz and ash and cake hair work in me. That last item reminds me that I have not used mouthwash since the old sidewalks were torn out and sold and we were left with worms for roads. I determine nonetheless that flatness will suit me for a while.

 

A cuisine is a small universe. A universe of any sort contains all possible material things. Therefore—I apologize. To resort to syllogisms, at this hour, is to admit too much about how little time I spend in useful rooms.

To speak bitterly, I have a kitchen and an Internet’s worth of recipes to botch. I would not say that the number of recipes is infinite. Nothing that can be numbered can be infinite. Aristotle teaches that the infinite cannot move, while the cake moves all around in me.

I could do without dessert. I do need an egg. No, more than that.

 

The idea of a cake hoop, like a sentence or a family, is to milk a finite space. You want to assign it a number and set it on a shelf within reach. You can nod at it as you pass from the living room to the bathroom by way of the kitchen. When used properly, it molds the product into a manageable, occasionally attractive shape, though all you want are the crumbs. If you are alone, you can eat directly from it, sparing yourself the ache of a bowl.

I mulched most of this ground with a friend yesterday, though I did not soil it so metaphorically. Do not fret over his name. And refrain from thinking of him too closely, for he was not entirely attentive to me. This young man waited behind me at the dairy fridge of our food mart, a gas station that has not sold gas in several years, though the pumps still exist. I imagine you can still lift a pump and huff old fumes and, perhaps, a modern mold. I fingered the gallons of milk, mouthing the percentages of fat held in each bottle, before settling at last on the medically recommended skim product. I retreated to the nearby tower of soda and watched him choose a carton of whole milk. I felt a certain inadequacy. What could I say to this man, who expressed his disdain for health reports by selecting the milk of his father and his father’s fathers, though he appeared intelligent enough to know that his father’s milk was less mediated by chemistry than ours, so he would consume that much less the milk of his father’s fathers, or was he intelligent enough—and here was a more respectably practical intelligence—never to think through the predicament of food and drink in our times, as it could only lead to disappointment? I would have liked to have known. No, I would not. Presently, I tripped over a bag of peanuts, likely thrown down by a daughter after failing to persuade her dad to indulge her want for legumes. My basket’s wares tumbled out. The butter pinwheeled under the candy shelves. The aspirin smacked against the soda tower. The milk plopped dead on the tile. If it had come in a glass container, as the milk of my father’s father had come, the white, wet breakage would have spread in a rough circle. Given what I had observed of this food mart’s employees, it would have dried, to the sticky detriment of their customers’ shoes.

We are lucky to live in a time when milk is boxed in plastic.

 

A participant on a date may usefully pose an untoward question. He may thereby learn a TV nugget about his opposite. He may ask if she would object to his visiting the soft gender’s restroom for the purposes of study, or if “soft gender” is a term that would get him slapped by her under all circumstances, or only under defined circumstances, and if those circumstances could be defined in three glorious phrases. He may ask for simple relief from spontaneous conversation for an undetermined time.

Could he, if she believed it necessary to speak, read notes prepared beforehand on a napkin—one not issued by the wait staff? These notes may be of interest to her, as they involve the administration of new pills. Could he scream?

Picture either of the imaginary women—not my wife—in a restaurant with me. The place should be upscale enough for brass railings and chandeliers. She has been so touched by my pronunciation of French that she ordered herself a plate of bifteck sur chevaux. She has been polite enough to eat half of it before setting aside her knife and fork. She has been charmed enough by my company to join me for dessert. Imagine, if you must, that I am on this date with the young man. He seemed, despite his confident choice in milk, soft enough for an evening. He wore classic bottlecap glasses. He had thick boy-band hair and thin boy-band limbs. He had a mouth made for listening. Imagine who you like. It is more important for you to imagine me able to keep a person—any person—with me through a second course. The pastry chef’s special is a cream flambéed tableside. The whiskey fire burns too long. The dessert smell turns ashen. Before we dip our spoons—this is the moment to try. But I ask only if I have mentioned my twins. My date will grit his or her teeth, for he or she is also possessed by any number of kids you like. The second woman, we know, has four Ra mouths to fill. At best, she can absent them incompletely. Translate that, if you can, into Portuguese. The cook taps his spoon against his heavy, aproned gut. We are compelled to taste.

 

 

***

In 2011, Marcus Pactor won the Subito Press Prize for his short story collection, Vs. Death Noises. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, (b)OINK, X-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review.

Image: hiveminer.com

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