"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

Cake and Wine

Cake and Wine

It was a good little table. He’d always felt lucky to have found it. Amazing what people would throw out. He’d thought it would be useful, gave it a good cleaning, and ended up very fond of it, familiar with every nick and scar. Normally it was buried beneath books and newspapers but, today being a bit special, he had tidied everything away and wiped it off. It looked quite presentable.

The cake he had picked up on impulse at the grocery store on the way home. A stack of them in the bakery department had caught his eye, blank white cakes with garlands of slightly toxic-looking yellow roses, each encased in a kind of sarcophagus of clear plastic that grocers seemed to favour these days. He was just walking by, but his head turned – his distracted mind simply taking a moment to decipher what they were – and his body followed his gaze. Then, when the woman behind the counter asked if he’d like an inscription, no extra charge, she sounded so friendly that he didn’t like to say no. The sight of it now, though, advancing spasmodically down the black rubber conveyor towards the cashier with her scanner, gave him a twinge. This probably wasn’t wise, or necessary. He almost snatched it up thinking he would hurry it back to its kin in the bakery department, but how could he, now that it had Happy Birthday Neil written across it in some kind of thin green jelly. The cashier slid it over the scanner – one more beep in an ongoing chorus of beeps – and lowered it into a plastic bag.

“Did you find everything you were looking for?”

The question struck him as absurd. He was tempted to answer Philosophically, spiritually, or groceterially? She probably wouldn’t get it, though – not part of the script – so he just nodded. She wasn’t looking. Instead, she was fussing with the bag so that the cake wouldn’t tip when he carried it. He wanted to tell her not to bother. The cake was a pathetic mistake. But she was just trying to be nice. And it would after all be a pity if he spoiled it before even getting it home.

He managed to transfer the cake from its plastic case to a china plate without sticking his thumb in the icing. That was something. Poor unlovely thing. Mistake or not, it might as well be eaten. It was only a symbol, anyway. He put it on the table.

The wine was a bottle of the nice rosé they would get for birthdays where he used to work. Where he worked now they didn’t celebrate birthdays. It was considered unprofessional. They were probably right. After all, what was a birthday, really? The wine was good, though.

He stood back to look. The cake, the wine, the sturdy wooden table. It didn’t look like much. No presents, no decorations. He hadn’t even thought to buy some bright candles for the cake. Too late now. He’d have to do without. So, then, everything was ready for his little party. He sat down for a moment. It really was a good table. And the wine was a nice one. The poor cake, not even any candles. Not its fault, though. It was doing its best. Should he put on some music or not bother? It didn’t matter, really. Maybe later. 

He filled his glass with the nice rosé and raised it, raised it to the good table, to the little cake with its thin green Happy Birthday Neil. At least they’d spelled it right. Small mercies. He nodded and raised the glass higher.

“And many happy returns of the day.”

He drank, and set his glass down empty.

Andrea Johnston is a writer and translator. Her poems and stories have been published in a number of magazines and journals including Geist, Contemporary Verse 2, Room Magazine, and The New Quarterly.

Cover photo by Terry Vlisidis on Unsplash

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