“The Cake” – Fiction by Jonathan Wlodarski

Hunger - Kathe Kollwitz, 1923
Hunger – Kathe Kollwitz, 1923

“The Cake” is Jonathan Wlodarski’s deliciously disturbing and Pushcart-nominated short story from our Winter 2017 issue. (And check back here on Monday when we’ll post an interview with Jonathan by our senior editorial consultant Maria Pinto…)

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THE CAKE ONLY GETS MADE WHEN SOMEONE DIES—the baker calls it his mortuary masterpiece. “A recipe from my great-grandparents in the Netherlands,” he explains when we ask. “So sweet it expunges the grief right out of you.” The first time he brings it to a wake, we think he’s crazy—cake can’t heal our wounds, erase our sorrow for the town dentist’s death. We’re pretty sure he was overcharging us for crown work anyway, so we’re not even certain it’s sorrow we’re feeling, except maybe for all the money he’d weaseled from us.

The cake really does all of those things, though—as soon as we eat that first bite, our tears dry, our wails melt into sniffles. Some of us even start to look forward to funerals—fingers crossed it’s just our neighbor’s great-uncle, someone who’s already 85 and lived a good life, but we’re not picky. The twenty-four-year-old who crashes his car into a tree is a tragedy, sure, but at least no one else suffered at the hands of his drunk driving.

The cake is black, or sometimes dark gray, depending on how much food coloring is in the icing. “It doesn’t take much,” says the baker, “just five or six drops.” Some of us don’t like the icing’s anise flavor, not at first: it reminds us of our alcoholic grandfathers, or nosy maiden aunts who visit twice a year. But we come around.

The cake has a slab of almond paste in the middle, a thick, golden mortar that shrivels our tongues and puckers our lips with its sweetness. But almonds take a lot of water to grow, water which has been in short supply for so long, despite some of our efforts to form a resource conservation council and unify the town to save water, which generally fails. Little water means few almonds, so often we settle for imitation paste, which isn’t as good. It has a bit of a chalky flavor simmering underneath. Better than nothing.

The cake goes unmade for three whole months, the entire town in suspended animation like prehistoric mosquitoes in amber while we wait for someone to start counting worms. Our nerves get worn down—we’re on edge, our patience constantly pressed against the edge of a knife, screaming at our spouses for chewing too loud, and one of us snaps and runs over the dog next door that just won’t stop barking. Maybe this will count as a death, we think. We hold our breath. 

“The cake isn’t for pet funerals,” the baker says. “It’s just a dog. Don’t be silly.” A tiny group of us protests outside the bakery, barring our neighbors from buying his baguettes and bagels, until one of us has a stroke smoking a cigarette (made from cactus, of course—who can afford the tobacco kind anymore?) in between angry chants. Dead, boom, and before we’ve even called the ambulance we spy the baker mixing the icing for the cake. But that’s not enough—could it ever be?—and it wears off too quickly, so one of us sneaks into the nursing home and puts a pillow to our mother’s face. “Her quality of life is pretty low,” the nurse had said just two weeks ago, and besides, now we won’t have to worry about the outrageous bills, so that’s a relief, isn’t it? We all feast, almost choking as we try to slide our slices of cake into us whole.

The cake shuts down the nursing home because soon there are no elderly left; they all die peacefully in their sleep, allegedly, and our population has dwindled from 357 to 302. Who knew there were so many old people in our sleepy, sun-scorched village? At least that’s 50 less people using up our water, we think—the old people were the worst at preserving it anyway, always ignoring our community initiatives, never attending our monthly drought-watch meetings, the only ones who really remember a time when water was unlimited. “Wow, so many funerals lately!” says the baker. “I wonder if there wasn’t some kind of bug going around the home. I read about legionnaire’s disease lurking in the taps. Maybe that’s it.”

The cake is absent from our lives for another two months—we try to go about our days like normal, running to the mall to buy an anniversary card we forgot, taking our daughters to drama club, where they’re practicing Singin’ in the Rain, something none of the students can really imagine since it hasn’t rained for more than a minute or two in years. Who has time to sing a whole song when we’re all scrambling for a bucket or empty cup to save some of the water from the thirsty ground? It’s empty words for our children but it’s aggravating for us, a tease, a torment, a temptation we can never succumb to—no rain, no water, and worst of all, no cake. We don’t know what to do. Sure, we could justify murder (if it could even be called that) when it was our dad with Alzheimer’s, or that old man with no family in town with a bad hip (“he was struggling to walk, hadn’t you noticed?” some of us whisper), but how do we justify killing our sister, who runs marathons and has never set foot in an emergency room?

The cake makes us do it—just a couple people, spaced over a couple days, and it’s painless, really, it is. We watch videos of how to snap a person’s neck—in private mode, as if that would stop the government from seeing us doing it, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful—and practice on squirrels and rabbits we trap in our backyards. It’s easier than we think, wrapping our hands around their necks and giving them the quick twist. A few of us read about antifreeze poisoning, drive three towns over on our day off to one of those hardware stores that sells mousetraps and outdoor lightbulbs and potting soil, and pay cash for jugs of the milky, lime green stuff. We mix it in with the food, drizzling it like caramel sauce over the carcasses of the dead squirrels from our backyard—we can’t exactly waste free meat, especially in these ethical times of grass-fed animals with no green grass in sight.

The cake even hooks the mayor and the chief of police—they’re brothers, with the same mustache, sharp and poufy like chimney sweep brushes—and they start a task force to recreate the cake—“cut out the middleman, he charges too much; we’ll run his business into the dirt,” the chief of police whispers in the old church’s basement kitchen as we slave over getting the cake to be fluffy and moist, airy and dense. Our experiments fail; they’re flavorless, or too chewy, or solid like a brick. Pale imitations—we can’t settle for this.

“The cake has to be legally required. This is our only course of action,” the mayor concludes at the town hall where we vote on a replacement for the recently-deceased, geriatric superintendent and talk about whether to close the post office. “It must be compulsory, a legal issue, a necessity for the town, to help us grieve,” says the chief of police. The baker complains every time we see him: “My elbows, my wrists, my calves, they ache. I burned my fingers three times this month.” He holds them up, wrapped in grimy white bandages, and we wince, of course we’re sympathetic, but it’s the law now. “Do you really want to go to prison for two years?” we ask, and he shakes his head, sighs, mutters about moving onto the next town, but the police have confiscated his keys to make sure he can’t leave.

The cake overwhelms us with guilt: it’s not like in the movies, where we wake up in the middle of the night, a pounding heart and a dry mouth. It doesn’t turn our eyes bloodshot, veins like fibers of red yarn. It’s subtler: we forget about it while we knit a blanket for our pregnant cousins’ soon-to-be babies—why you’d bring a child into this desert gulch world is beyond some of us—or while we watch our favorite football team play, the one 2,000 miles away, since all the ones on this side of the country were dissolved as the players kept collapsing from heat stroke.

The cake—or rather, the guilt about how we got the cake—haunts us just as we finish the blanket, or cheer for the game-winning touchdown. It slams into us. It shakes our organs, sends a tremor through our bone marrow, scrapes its claws against our jaws, and we drop our needles or sink back into our pleather recliners and cry. Some people blame the baker, go to his shop to arrest him, throw him in jail—mayor’s new laws be damned, because the madness has to stop and the madness started with the cake. But another group of us, dressed all in black, pulls a prison break and busts him out, and those of us are so proud, feel so connected—if only we had been so united six months or a year ago, when we’d tried to win the state water-saver award, which came with a prize of a million gallons of clean water. At least we’re in this together: we saved the baker and we need the cake. But we have to stop killing. So we all agree—a silent, community-wide oath—not to do it again.

The cake still calls to us, though. The guilt didn’t keep us up at night, but the cake does: we wake up with the taste lingering on the backs of our tongues. We dig in the valleys of our molars, hoping to find a crumb lodged in one of our teeth. Our eyes do go bloodshot, our fingernails chewed to bloody shreds, and we don’t want to waste water washing our hands over and over, so the blood runs down our fingers, drips onto the personal day requests we fill out, stains our Casual Friday khakis.

The cake whispers to us at night: “eat me, eat me, swallow me down,” and it’s starting to drive us crazy. One of us scribbles a suicide note—“rather be dead than alive without it. Have a slice for me, l’chaim”—and ends it, a bullet to the brain, though there are rumors that the angle of the bullet isn’t possible if it’s a suicide. The how doesn’t really matter: he’s our hero, a brave pioneer blazing the trail. It’s one thing to sacrifice a relative—that’s nothing, something one of us even did in our sleep, a rage nightmare turned deadly—but another thing entirely to surrender to a world without the cake. We toast him again and again in between bites and notice the shake in our hands, the pinpricks inside our eye sockets, have finally gone away.

The cake begets a new industry: the farewell party, with confetti that shimmers like a disco ball and balloons that gleam like menacing blades until they deflate. We all want a DJ to spin songs about rain—this becomes a new trend, “Purple Rain” and “Africa” and “It’s Raining Men” playing in the background as we eulogize ourselves, speaking of our imminent demises in metaphors of downpours, floods, summer evening mists, a reminder of more carefree times if nothing else. But some of us make do without so we can afford to have meat catered: nothing huge, just some chicken nuggets, or, occasionally, little chunks of beef mixed in with some rice. One by one, we throw ourselves a farewell party, trying to reuse the silverware and plates as much as possible so we don’t have to wash them repeatedly—just because we’re dying doesn’t mean we should be wasteful. Some of us even try to start up the resource conservation committee again—fewer people means less water means easier to canvas door-to-door, but results are still mixed. Maybe it’s just the cake that people can rally behind. The richer people—the ones who live on Oakgloss Street—compete for fancier catering, more expensive champagne, trying to see who can afford to run the old fountain at what used to be the country club. We are a community transformed: selfless, noble, sacrificial.

The cake culls the fold, but it’s not violent, no wolf incisors piercing wool and bone for sheep flesh. No. It’s beautiful: we depart whole families at a time and we can’t stop crying—some of us even beg people not to go, saying “you’re worth more than cake” (let’s not get carried away), but this feels bigger than a dessert. “I’m not ready—I don’t want to do this,” one of us whispers at a farewell. We don’t know what to say to this; we put our forks and plates back on the table—do we just go home, then? But as the whining continues, some of us talk over it, our voices rustling ever louder until the protests are covered, quieted. After all, we didn’t come here for nothing. We still want what we deserve.

The cake cuts us—the town, the people—into halves and quarters and slices and slivers, 357—the largest town for miles—down to twenty, ten, five, one. We are one now: walking from empty home to empty home, standing in dusty living rooms and whispering memories aloud. We try to get every word right, fret over every “and” and “I” and “we” from each goodbye speech, practice every person’s cadence and delivery until we’re a veritable machine of impressions, a party trick with no audience. We are empty-swimming-pool sad, except we’re drowning in the wavy mirage heat instead of real water. We are alone, and hyper-aware of it as we raid our neighbor’s pantries, dig through their basements in search of their emergency kits’ bottles of water, probably leached through with carcinogens by this point. We didn’t know we were capable of such core-crushing feelings. We didn’t know how taxing, how overwhelming lack could be.

The cake drags us back to the baker—he’s still alive, of course, basically chained to his counter and oven, but we don’t—never did—count him in the 357. Outsider, some of us never stopped whispering, it’s his fault this happened. But they were some of the first to go, the ones who left because they couldn’t live without his cake, or at least that’s what their notes said.

The cake is waiting for us on the counter when we—the one of us—get there, frosted and gleaming. He’s washing the frosting knife in the sink, and we wince as all that water runs down the drain. “I got tired of waiting for you, so I went ahead and baked it.” We blink at the cake—we waited as long as we could to make this visit, ten days, twelve, sixteen, until our face muscles are clenched and our jaw starts chewing reflexively. But now that we’re here, we aren’t sure. Is this what we want? We’re the most whole we’ve ever felt, but now we’re alone, too. No one to share our stockpiled memories with, no one to laugh at the exact way we can mimic our old elementary school principal. And it’s all because of the cake. We blink a few tears away, and then the baker speaks up. “I should have known it would be you who outlasted all the rest—that nasty glint in your eyes the first time you had a piece. I saw the scheming in there right away.”

The cake observes us. We are confused by this “you,” the way he spits it out, the way it tastes in the air—harsh, singular. We are we after all, and we open our mouth to protest, but he cuts us off. “Here,” he says, brandishing the knife—the frosting knife that’s actually a butcher’s knife, perfect for severing strands of animal fat or a human neck. “Just get it over with.”

The cake gleams at us, or maybe glares, and we lose track for a moment, scrutinizing the perfect, even strokes of the black anise icing, the hefty log of almond paste filling—not imitation like the last eight or nine, we can tell by the slightest variation in color, since imitation is a darker, amber color—but we snap back. We’ve made a decision. “That’s not why we’re here,” all our voices say, colliding and coalescing in our one remaining throat. “We are here to thank you.”

The cake shines approvingly. “Thank me for what?” the baker asks. “My cake—it ruined you, turned you into a bunch of hollowed-out junkies. You killed for this cake, don’t think I don’t know that.” We nod—of course we did, the old us. Why doesn’t he understand we’re different? His baking changed us.

“The cake—it watered our shriveled little hearts. So we wanted to say thank you before we go.” We reach for the knife, which the baker has lain on the counter. “Go?” he asks. “You mean you’re the one going?” We nod and lift the knife to our throat, prepare to make the fatal incision, just like we saw in those videos that we still watched in private mode, just in case. The blade will slide through our skin, smooth as butter, easy as pie. A piece of cake. The baker breathes a sigh of relief. He assesses the cake, running his finger along the edge and licking the almond paste off his finger. “Maybe I can repurpose some of this and make some letterbanket.” We don’t think he’s talking to us anymore. “I’d hate to see this paste go to waste.”

The cake catches our gaze—just the corner of our eye—as we begin to press the knife into our skin. We pause.

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img_2555-copyJONATHAN WLODARSKI is a fiction-writing student in the Northeast Ohio MFA. His work has previously appeared in Shirley Magazine, among other venues. The only thing on his birthday wishlist is an imperial Fabergé egg.

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