Cake by Laura Stout

I tapped the GPS incessantly but no map came up on the screen. Ray had warned me to get it fixed. “Hell, just buy a new one down at Costco,” he’d said. But somehow the task was always tumbling out of my priorities. My fuel gauge arrow was hovering just above empty, and I knew there’d be nothing but a two-lane country road for the next twenty miles. I pulled my cell out of my purse and turned it on. No service.

I’d driven this stretch a few times now, visiting an old friend, and was becoming familiar with certain turns of the road, a tumble-down barn, a pasture sprinkled with cows and horses. I passed over a creek and remembered a small road broke off to the right just after the bridge. The sign for Rickville came up quickly, and I slowed and made a last minute turn.

The trees thinned out into power poles with lines stringing out above warehouses and empty dirt lots. About a quarter mile down a solitary brick house sat far back from the road. A girl came out, head down, picking her way across a yard littered with weeds growing out of cement blocks and old tires. I pulled up in front of the house and rolled down the passenger window. She continued past a rusted out wheelbarrow, a garden—now just strangled brown vines and a few crushed tomatoes in the dirt. On the roof, a large patch of tarpaper flapped in the wind.

She was a just few feet from my car and still had not looked up. Something had just happened in that house, I thought. Her mind seemed entrenched and captive, unable to focus on the details around her. She was tall and flat-chested. A cigarette flickered between her fingers and bumped against narrow hips. Her t-shirt didn’t make it past her belly button and flaunted a glowering skull entwined with thick black snakes. Stringy blonde hair hung loose to her elbows. Tangles crowded her face and shoulders.

“Excuse me, miss. Is there a gas station close by?”

Her head snapped up; a startled look beamed from her face. She smiled like she’d just won something and laid a hand on the passenger door.

“Well yeah, there’s one right by the minimart, right where I’m headed.” Her head tilted, and she took a hit of her cigarette. “I’m fixin’ to make a cake but I’m out of milk.” Around one elbow streaks of flour dusted her skin.

A stab of familiarity struck me, of someone I had known years ago. Those vivid green eyes shining out from such fine-spun features. I couldn’t make the connection.

The ease with which she’d suggested I give her a ride told me she’d done this before. Although most likely not with a middle-aged woman in a Lexus. “Just put out the cigarette before you get in.”

She smiled, dropped the cigarette and climbed in the car.

“Is your truck broken down?” I asked. We both looked at the beat up black Ford pick-up in the gravel driveway. The wheel wells were caked in mud and grime coated the windows. Coils of fencing filled the bed.

“Oh. That is Leonard’s truck. He won’t never let me drive it. No, no. He says I’d just wrap it around a tree, or kill somebody.”

Just then the front door of the house opened and a gray cat ran out and trotted across the yard. The girl saw me watching the cat and began chewing on a thumbnail.

“Yeah, he’s home. He won’t drive me though. Won’t get his sorry ass out of that chair in the living room. Watchin’ his Sunday games.” She spoke in a low voice as if the words were just thoughts passing through the car.

“Leonard your boyfriend?” I asked.

“Husband.” She looked out the passenger window.

“Husband. You look so young to be married.”

“Twenty. Almost twenty-one.” She kicked her sandals off and tucked one leg up under the other.

“Married young then,” I said.

She twirled a lock of hair around a finger of her left hand, and I noticed the plain silver band on her ring finger. “Yeah, biggest mistake of my life.”

Her words stunned me for a moment, and a deep ache rose up inside me. At her age I was in the thick of my college years, buzzing with life, surrounded by more friends than I could remember, years from even meeting Ray, the love of my life, and settling down into married life. Of course, it was possible they’d just had a hell of a fight. That might explain his refusal to drive her to the store. Me, I would have given up on the cake.

“Course Leonard’s been out of work now a year. That don’t help. He’s not doin’ anything regular ‘cept helpin’ out at construction sites and such. Me, I got a part time job at a auto repair shop keepin’ the books. So that helps. I can usually get a ride from one of the guys that works there. That drives Leonard crazy a course.” She laughed and rubbed the back of her neck.

I waited for a truck to pass. “I’m Ruth. What’s your name?”

“Natalie.”

I pulled out on the road, and as I hit the gas it came to me who she resembled.  “You look just like someone I went to school with over in Trenton,” I said.

“My mama went to school in Trenton.” She looked at me, her eyes wide.

“What was her name?” I asked.

“Sylvia Bennett. Prom queen and class valedictorian.” She said it all so proudly.

“That was her.”

“Did you know her? Were y’all friends?” She turned towards me and leaned in, put one hand on my shoulder.

“I did know her. We were in the same class. I guess we were friends. Everyone in the school was your mama’s friend though. She was sweet, sweetest girl in Georgia, they used to say.”

While I talked she took her hand away and leaned back in her seat, just listened to my words.

“How’s she doing? Does she still live in Trenton?”

“She died. Two years now. Cancer. Now my aunt’s got it. Doc said it runs in the family. I got to be careful.” She pulled a lipstick from her purse, flipped down the visor and applied a ruby red gloss to her lips.

“I’m so sorry, that’s terrible.” I looked over at her. She didn’t say anything. Just wiped at the edges of her lips with a finger. The silence pulled at me, like a rope around my chest, and I concentrated on the road and my fuel gauge.

She capped the lipstick, threw it back in her purse then reached over to turn on the radio. The length of her arm was lily white. On the inside of her elbow were veins, faint and thin as thread. She appeared to me as someone breakable, translucent. After winding the dial around she settled on Eric Church’s crooning insistent voice singing about his hometown.

“You like country, right? You seem like a good ole Georgia girl.” She adjusted the volume down and leaned back. “I like most anything. You don’t mind, right?”

“Of course not.” And I didn’t. And not that I’ve ridden with many hitchhikers, but I had to believe they usually didn’t tinker with the driver’s radio.

“Oh, hey. Turn right up here, at the light.” On the corner was a strip mall, most of the shop front windows covered in plywood and black graffiti. One, Moons Liquor, anchored the end and three or four cars were parked out front. A group of teenage boys jumped their skateboards on the cracked sidewalk of the parking lot. They took swigs out of a paper bag and passed it between them, dangled cigarettes between their fingers.

“You a good cook?” I asked.

“Hell yeah. Mama taught me. In fact, I been cookin’ for my aunt a few days a week. She’s so sick, so I’m tryin’ to get her to eat. My cousin, Keith, he comes over after work and picks me up and runs me over to her place. He moved in with her so he can help out, but it’s hard cos’ he works every day up in Beaumont at the Xerox Company. Anyways, so Leonard gets all out of sorts. Says I care more about her than him. Says I need to be cookin’ for him every night, not her and Keith.”

A little town was starting to pop up around us. A post office and a bank. Some storefronts glided by with names like “Plaza Café” and Sam’s Hardware.”

“So I told him I’d bake him a cake. His favorite, German chocolate. But then I didn’t have milk. And he wouldn’t even drive me. For his own cake.” She took a clip out of her purse and began to finger comb through her hair. Then she twisted it up and used the clip to hold it in place. I noticed all her nails were bitten down, fingertips raw. Her hands were tiny, the skin white with freckles around her knuckles.

A while back I’d hung a glass angel with filigree gold wings from the rear view mirror; good luck for the road. I loved how it danced and swayed in circles with every twist and rise and fall of the road. Natalie shifted in her seat, cupped the angel in one hand and fingered the sharp points of the angel’s body and smiled. From a pocket of her shorts, she pulled a small blue tin of tiny white mints and offered me one.

“No thanks,” I said.

She picked a few out and popped them in her mouth, impatiently cracking them in her teeth before they could melt. Ray would do the same thing, would make me cringe when we were in close quarters. It was one of those annoying, but endearing habits.

I checked my fuel gauge one more time and the green light was blinking on and off. “Is it much further?” I asked. “My fuel lights started to blink.”

“Aw, those things are never right. Had me a car once. A little red thing. My daddy gave it to me just before he left us. I drove it to school. That light would come on and I’d drive another ten miles at least.”

“Well I’m afraid this one’s pretty accurate.” I said. “You go to school in Rickville?”

“Sure did. Honor roll. Can you believe that?

The words under the surface, the ones she didn’t say, but I could see in her look, the shake of her head: You wouldn’t guess that about me now.”

“Your mama must have been very proud,” I said

“She passed three days before graduation. I didn’t have it in me to walk the stage.”

“You didn’t go to college?”

“I was goin’ to go to State up in Atlanta. Then I met Leonard. Figured I didn’t need college. He made me feel better, you know.”

Over the course of ten years, I had suffered four miscarriages and one stillbirth. Ray and I became battle weary and gave up trying. Even the thought of embarking into the world of adoption was more than we could bear. So we settled into a quiet life on five acres of peach trees and rolling meadows with a brood of rambunctious chocolate labs.

Our stillborn had been a girl. I looked at Natalie and imagined a parallel existence, one in which she embodied my stillborn daughter, alive and grown and flawed but redeemable, and I wondered right then what I would say to her. If I would judge or fight or simply hold her close and breathe her in.

She sat up and pointed ahead. “There it is on the right.”

A sign hung out above the street: “Miller’s Gas and Grocery,” two pumps and a gray clapboard building. I pulled the car in and parked by one of the pumps.

“You gotta’ pay inside first. We don’t have those fancy ones like they got
everywhere else in the world.”

With her hair pulled up, I saw the bruise clear as day. It was on her neck, the size of a baseball. Swirls of purple and blue stamped her skin. She pulled a yellow scarf from her purse and wrapped it around her neck, covering the bruise. She looked at me as she wrapped and tied the ends, then held her hand out to me. I took it, her bones felt like twigs and her palms were moist.

“I appreciate the ride, Ruth,” she said.

“Thanks for getting me here.”

She pulled her hand away, got out of the car and walked into the mini-mart.

A few moments later I followed her inside. As I handed the cashier my credit card, I noticed her pulling a carton of milk from the glass refrigerator. After I had signed the receipt I turned to find a restroom. Her blonde knot of hair was poking up from a back aisle. I could see broom handles hooked up on the back wall and bottles of dishwashing liquid on the top shelf in front of her. Then she disappeared, probably squatting down to find something.

When I came out, she was paying the cashier. Behind her was a group of teenagers, waiting, their arms filled with soda cans and bags of chips. On the counter was a carton of milk. Next to it sat a small box with a red X across a picture of a rodent. The aspect of that box bore down on me, caused a shadow to sink into the pit of my stomach. As I brushed by the teenagers, I saw the cashier put both items in a white plastic bag.

As I pushed out through the glass door of the minimart, that glimpse of the box stayed with me so that I didn’t remember walking across the lot, lifting the gas nozzle, pumping the gas—none of it—until she came out and we looked at each other across the concrete.

Something in her had changed, I saw it in her eyes, some hard edge of doubt, but mostly as though a door had closed.

She stared for a few moments, rolling the handles of the plastic bag around and around her fingers.

“You’re still here,” she said.

“Go on and get in.” I nodded at the passenger door. “I’ll give you a ride home.” The pitch of my voice came out wrong. High and broken.

“Nah, I can’t inconvenience you. I can walk.”

“It’s ok, I’m going back the way we came.” I found a smile somehow.

She didn’t argue anymore, just got in the car. I finished pumping the gas and got in, started the engine.
The teenagers walked out of the mini-mart together, punching arms, throwing chips at one another.
Natalie couldn’t take her eyes away from them. away.

“Did you get your milk?” I asked.

“Got everything I needed.” She began nibbling on her fingernails. “Do you mind if I open the window? Sometimes that hot wind is sort of soothing.” just does the trick.”

“Be my guest,” I said.

She lowered the window, put her head back and closed her eyes. She looked like a child.

“Honey, why don’t you just leave, get out?” I asked.

“Tried that.”

“Your aunt’s?”

“Keith’s sleepin’ on the couch. Don’t want to bring no more hardship into her life right now.” She turned to me. “You’re sweet, but I got this.”

At Moon’s Liquor, the sun’s reflection off the glass window caught my eye as I turned left. The boys were gone, the parking lot empty.

Natalie began to sing along with the radio, her voice sweet and clear, pushing away the hardness I had just seen in her.

When the song ended she told me she had another cousin in L.A. “My mama said I could be someone someday.” She smiled as if she were dreaming of fashion runways and palm trees.

***

Several days later I read in an Atlanta newspaper that Leonard Bowman of Rickville, 25 years of age, had disappeared. His wife, Natalie Bowman, age 20, said he’d left Sunday night to meet some friends at a bar and never came home.

I thought of Natalie, driving down the highway in Leonard’s black pickup, shiny clean, windows down, wind crashing around the cab, hair blowing loose, music loud in her ears, free.


Laura Stout is a retired C.P.A. living in Manhattan Beach, California with her loving husband and two teenage children. Her work has appeared or will appear at The Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, Literary Orphans and The Blue Lake Review. She won first place for best short story of 2013 at Writers Type.