The Lemon Cake

The Word: Bowl

The afternoon of the potluck at her cousin Debbie’s, Rachel assembled the ingredients for a spectacular dessert. How happy she’d been to see the e-mail from Debbie- S to Z, dessert. Nobody ever remembered a lasagne, a lamb tagine, but an Apricot Almond torte, each layer perfectly prepared?  This would stay in the imaginations of the cousins forever. She pulled down her bowl and layer pans, her heavy Mixmaster beater–and out fell great aunt Mina’s bundt pan, startling the dog.

She picked it up,  stroking its dull gray metal with the slight greasy finish, its ridges and dents.  Aunt Mina’s lemon bundt cake was family legend.  Yellow, moist and solid, covered with a hard white frosting you had to crack. That bright lemon flavor.

Aunt Mina had gone to her grave that recipe.  That stubborn woman.  In a family where people pushed recipes on you with the determination of mothers with ugly daughters or sons of questionable sexuality, Mina refused to budge. The aunts asked, “So, Mina, you gonna go to your grave with that recipe?”  And Mina would just shrug and say, “So what if I do?”

Selfish, the aunts whispered among themselves. Who does she think she is? Rachel could still remember her apartment on Fountain Avenue, her pink scalp under the taffy hair, her glasses on a chain–black catseyes with little diamontes, and the cake in position on its yellow and blue cakestand. The boys had given her the cakestand too.  She would use it for the Apricot torte, she decided. The cousins would love it.

The torte took hours, but at the end, it was a thing of beauty, the layers, the bits of apricot peeking out. Now all that she needed was a shower and a bit of downtime, a game of sudoku.  She dozed off, and woke to her daughter, standing over her. “Mom?  There’s a problem. With the cake.”

She raced downstairs.  In the kitchen, on the glazed tile counter, lay the ruins of the Apricot Almond cake, torn apart like the victim of a shark attack. “Spock!” she yelled. “SPOCK!  I’M GOING TO KILL YOU.”

“He’s just a dog,” Gretchen whispered, terrified, from the doorway.

Rachel breathed. It was only a cake, she reminded herself. Eggs and almonds… hand-pralined almonds…  Breathe. Damn that dog, she never wanted a dog anyway, why had she ever let Gretchen bring him home? She glanced at the clock. Just enough time to go down to Ralph’s and pick up something. She had to get over wanting to admired.  A cake was a cake.

But down at Ralphs, the cakes looked as forlorn and undesirable as sweaters in a thrift store clearance box. Stale, impossible. Desperate, Rachel returned to the flour and baking goods aisle, to find nothing but rows of cake mixes, Betty and Duncan and their friends. But a red package caught her eye.  Lemon Supreme Cake. It included a recipe for lemon pound cake–you added lemon pudding mix, which conveniently sold on the same aisle.  She bought two lemons for hard icing and returned home.

That night, at the party, the aunts marveled. The cousins raved. Aunt Mina’s lemon cake had been rediscovered, recreated.  Rachel was dubbed a genius.  “So what’s the recipe?” they all asked. “What was it?”  And Rachel just smiled, as Aunt Mina had. “It’s a secret,” Rachel said. She wished she had kept the diamonte glasses too.

© Janet Fitch 2010 all rights reserved

Part  of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: CLIP

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7 Responses to “The Lemon Cake”

  1. My 14 year daughter and I read this story together. Our mouths are watering for lemon cake. Who knew you would inspire us to bake! We loved stubborn Aunt Mina, so funny. Must have bright lemon flavor.
    Do you have any family members like Aunt Mina?

  2. Starr Kuzak Says:

    Grandma insisted on throwing in a roast. “It’s not much work,” she claims in her sunny drawl, southern-Illinois style. We arrive to a table already set. Grandpa sits in his Maxi-Comfort Lift chair, his new Pilot walker with wheels and seat next to him. His remote and thermos of water all within reach. This time last year, we didn’t think he’d be alive today, but something refused to budge in Grandpa. We were all glad of that.
    While I help Grandma make Potato Spuds carefully measured the night before, she holds up her talon-like hands and exclaims, “I can’t do much anymore,” but her eyes still glisten. She is not one to be bitter. She and Grandpa have made it clear that they want to die at home. I fear they may resort to taking their own lives. The fear of not knowing is the hardest part Grandma confides.
    They are still alive today in the brick ranch I was raised in. They built it themselves over fifty years ago, before my mother had dropped out of Rondero High to follow my dad. She came home in my dad’s Levis, in denial about her bulging stomach. Dad married someone else shortly after I was born. It nearly killed us.
    Russell, my new boyfriend and the reason for Grandma’s compulsion to fix a roast, is outside shoveling their walk. Grandpa barks, “Betty, The Mail,” and she’s off. She jogs out the front door, coatless in her slippers. The snow is scribed with a lonely path from front door to mailbox. It’s a wonder she hasn’t fallen. I watch out the picture window, my boyfriend stops her and she is laughing. He gets her mail and she returns with a smile on her face.
    “Dinner’s ready,” she calls to my grandpa cheerfully and he uses the recliner to help him stand. Grandpa has white sheepskin spread under him like the napkin under his drink. He is amazingly quick with his new walker.
    After dinner, I clear the table while Grandma loads the Kenmore. Russell tells her to sit and she agrees to let someone help for once in her life. “You don’t have to do this. You’ve shoveled my walk. You work too hard.”
    She has a bowl under the sink to catch drips from her leaky faucet. “How long has this been leaking?”
    “Do you know anything about plumbing?” Grandma asks. “Jay can’t do anything anymore. It drives him batty.” Russ rolls up his sleeves and gives me a wink.

  3. The first time I ever drove a car was when I was fourteen. It was red VW Beetle with a white interior that Shane our camp counselor parked right next to our cabin. I used to sit in it and pretend I was driving and made engine noises behind the closed windows. Every day I pestered him to let me drive it. But the answer was always the same – no. God, I wanted to drive that car so bad I could taste it

    Out at the perimeter of our camp there was large oval indentation in the earth with a steep bank that we called “the bowl”. One day as we got a game of touch football underway in the bowl it began to rain like cats and dogs, so we all beat it back to our cabin. When we got inside I asked Shane if I could drive the VW. To my amazement he took out his keys and threw them over to me, “Let’s go,” he said.

    I was so excited I felt like I was going to pee, but instead I ran outside and got in car on the drivers side. This was going to be big. Shane came out and got in the passenger side. “Well start it, and remember to put in the clutch.”

    So I turned the key and the car jumped to life. Then I looked at the shift knob. In all my fantasy driving I’d never considered that the car would have to be shifted. Now what I wondered? As if he’d read my mind Shane said, “Put it in first.”

    I panicked. What the hell was first? If I admitted to him that I didn’t know what or where first was then I wasn’t going to get to drive. I didn’t have to time to think so I let the clutch up. The car took off like a shot and in matter of seconds we were going way too fast and were headed right for the bowl.

    Uh oh.

    The second we hit the lip of embankment the Beetle tipped over on its’ side and slid to the bottom landing with a loud heavy thump. As I looked out my side window all could see was grass. Shanes’ body was pressed right against me and felt heavy. Before either of us could say anything there was a big commotion as a throng of campers approached us to see what happened. As they gathered around the car on its’ side Shane rolled down his window “Hey, tip us up guys,” he hollered. Then we felt the car teeter back and forth until we were up right again. I was so embarrassed I didn’t know what to say or do. Maybe I should just get out of the car and run. I looked over at Shane afraid of what he might say. “What are you looking at?” he said, then “C’mon, let’s go.”

    I looked out at the wet and muddy kids standing in the pouring rain. They were smiling, laughing and pointing at me. I turned the key and the car started right up. “Now this time, let the clutch out real slow, all right? First is straight up to the left.”

    I shifted the white knob and as I inched up on the clutch the car moved ahead effortlessly. Shane reached in the glove box and took out a cigarette and lit it. He had to be the coolest guy I’d ever known.

  4. While she was gone, they knocked down the walls. In the space between the living room and kitchen (now one room) behind cracked plaster a quarter of an inch thick, is old and splintered lath. They broke through some of the lath too, so that now it juts out in sharp points like daggers. The floor (magnesite beneath the pulled up carpet) is littered with plaster and dust bunnies. Dust bunnies consuming the plaster, forming tumbleweeds against a stark landscape.
    “You’ve been working,” she remarks dryly, feeling too clean in her own home.
    “I’d hoped to have this all done by the time you got back, Babe.” Mitch, her boyfriend of six months, opens a beer for himself and one for his brother.
    “I think I’ll go lie down,” she says.
    “Yeah, sure Babe. Get some rest. Me and Pete’ll get things cleaned up in here.”
    But she can’t rest. For one thing, they are still whacking at the walls with a hammer. And for another, there is a matching hole in her bedroom. This one looks into her office.
    She goes into the kitchen to put on a pot of tea. Through the hole, she can see Mitch and Pete, and she knows they can see her too. Had she told them it was okay to tear down the walls while she was gone? She struggles to remember, but through the jet lag and the noise, she can’t pinpoint what exactly was discussed. Some repairs. She specifically remembers Mitch saying he would make some repairs.
    There are beer cans covering the kitchen table. She gathers them into a paper bag from Whole Foods. Later she can take it out to recycling. She gets a rag wet and begins to wipe down the stick, picking up a blue bowl to get under it. She had filled the bowl with oranges before leaving—she’d thought they looked nice and Mitch might enjoy them—they were organic. Now the skins seem to have disattached from the fruit; they are puckered and soft. Into the compost they go.
    She starts to put the blue bowl in the sink to wash later, but instead she holds onto it. It is blue like the royal swirl inside a clear marble. A pretty place to keep oranges.
    The dreadful hammering ceases momentarily.
    “Babe?” Mitch says. “Do we have frozen pizza?”
    Gripping the bowl, she steps outside. The kitchen door closes quietly behind her.

  5. Loved it Janet! I have to tell you that I read White Oleander in part each night before I work on my WIP (work in progress). Your cadence and prose are so beautiful. I’m really enjoying your ‘word’ posts.

  6. Loraine Says:

    Just found your blog today, am overjoyed that I can save this as a quiet reading indulgence in my hotel room in Chicago where I will be doing a show next week. This is a splendid bonbon Bon mot for my pillow.

  7. Janet, this is brilliant, I LOVE it! So simple and straightforward, so unpretentiously beautiful. I love the way you tied it up at then end. Subtly hinting at the fact that this was probably something how Aunt Mina’s recipe went anyway, why she never told anyone 🙂
    You know, paired with some fantastically fantabulous illustrations, this would be such a fun children’s book!

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