Cake Walk by Jennifer Lee

cake walk image

Lania D’Agostino

DAgostino Studios, llc

You show me a new painting, part of a dream.  A pink ribbon runs across the top, cutting off a giraffe’s head.   The giraffe has green wheels on its feet.  With its head turned, curious, it resembles the Skin Horse.  Bubbles float in the opaque air, part of the watery landscape.  A checkered yellow cat and a little blue bear lumber across the canvas with the giraffe, an animal parade headed for the corner where two red crows have stopped to talk. These creatures could be living under water, or behind the dusty first surface of a chalkboard.  They remind me of unpleasant things from the past, things I don’t like remember.  Those bubbles are the last breath of someone drowning, drifting up to the surface through thick layers of time.  The colors and the big-eyed baby faces of the animals tell me it is all innocence, childhood, but the texture of things and the way they float without purpose weigh them down.

I sip wine, nibble cheese.

–Do you have a blanket?  My legs are cold.

–Where did you park?

–Up the street.

–Good job, finding a spot.

–Wasting my karma.

Turpentine, thick paint on boards.  Boards hanging on walls.  Walls covered, painted everywhere.  Everywhere those big eyes, staring like jackrabbits.

A chalkboard in the corner.  Neat block cap writing.  A list:





–Why are those words there?

–I don’t remember.

–What do they mean?

–I don’t know.

–I know what cakewalk means. (I’m looking at the Harlequin cat.) It means easy.

You shrug your shoulders.

You’re not talking tonight, so I cross my legs under the blanket, thinking.

They had a cakewalk at my cousin’s wedding, so long ago I hardly remember.  I was eighteen, maybe nineteen. Old enough they let me drink, but with a wink.  The band was playing and guests took turns in a circle showing off their best moves. It was a cakewalk.  I didn’t have a date, but some guy, someone from the groom’s side, got in the circle with me, his tie loose and his sleeves rolled back, and I put my arms over my head and swayed, a little bit drunk.  Everybody watched.  My cousin got married down on the shore of Mobile Bay, one of those fancy resorts with a fountain in the courtyard and a golf course set back from the water.  She had pink roses wound through the trellis, and behind her the sky was running pink after the sun set, and big brown pelicans flew heavy in the warm air. Back in slavery times black people did the cakewalk to poke fun at whites.  Maybe the whites didn’t realize the slaves were mocking their ballroom dances, all that lining up and bowing and promenading.  The wedding party went on all night, and I danced with the man with the loose tie. He touched me in ways I liked and then in ways I didn’t.  I danced all night, and in the morning I woke up in the grass under the trellis, pink petals floating down on me.  An old man, his face so black I thought it was a silhouette until he started talking and his teeth flashed white, was shaking me awake.  “Get up now.  You can’t sleep here no more.  Get on up.”

The bear is following the cat, his soft paws resting on air, like it costs him nothing.  Everything costs something, and I point to the blue bear and say –

– Cakewalk.  That’s what you should call it.

*        *    *

That isn’t right. Blue Boy was a little blue and white plush bear with the soft plastic face of a baby.  He had a sculpted yellow curl that lay on his forehead and blue baby doll eyes that shut when you lay him down.  Blue Boy had round teddy bear ears and a little nub of a tail.  He had no arms or legs at all, just stuffed appendage buds to show where his limbs belonged.  I slept with Blue Boy every night, told him stories.  The time my daddy took us camping, Blue Boy came too. My daddy and his friends, they were all getting drunk around the fire, and my belly started to hurt in my sleeping bag, twisting up in that bad knot you get when you’re going to be sick.  The pain would come, then go away, then come again, and I was lying there listening to my daddy telling stories and laughing, worrying about it and what I should do, and before I knew it was going to happen I’d thrown up in my sleeping bag.  My daddy had to leave his party to clean up my mess and he was so pissed he drop kicked my butt out of the tent.  My sister said I flew out of that tent like Daffy Duck, poor stinking Blue Boy clutched to my chest.  I had to share her bag that night.  She was nice about it but made me hold Blue Boy outside the bag; he’d got a tiny bit of throw up on him and it made him smell.  My butt throbbed all night, kept me awake, and it still hurt the next day when we hiked back to the car.

This is a cakewalk: when Momma gave me the ticket to hold, a yellow number twenty-five.  That wasn’t our cake, not the one my momma made.  It was the ticket we bought, a random chance to win something good. The cakewalk wound across the basement floor of the grange hall, a curved aisle with paper doilies thrown down to hold the cake plates.  In the hall, with the yellow lights and the voices echoing and the floor scattered with everyone’s best cakes, I couldn’t find my momma’s angels’ food.  There were so many, some as tall and white as hers.  Not knowing which hers were made me sad, like I’d lost something important to hold.  We started our cakewalk and I saw every kind of cake I knew, but there was a butter cream with perfect icing brush strokes in the prettiest shade of pink that stood a little taller than the others.  Everyone stared at it for a moment before moving on.  For a second I wished I held number seventeen, that I would be the lucky one claiming the butter cream.  But that thought was disloyal to the cake waiting for me, and to my momma who didn’t make it, so I pulled Momma by the hand and we went on.  I felt guilty because I couldn’t stop wondering about the lady who made the butter cream, thinking how she must be perfect like her cake.  I felt guilty, and I squeezed Momma’s hand because I loved her.



Jennifer Lee
Jennifer LeeJennifer Lee is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins MA Writing Program. Her work has appeared in JMWW, Brink Magazine, The Potomac Review and the Bellevue Literary Review. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.