Read Black Cake: A Novel Online
Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson
enny lets herself into her
mother’s house through the back door and stands in the kitchen, listening. She hears her mother’s voice, hears her own laughter, smells clove in the air, but sees only a dishcloth folded over a chair, two prescription pill bottles sitting on a counter. There’s no sign of Byron. She walks into the living room. It is silky with light, even at this hour. Her dad’s armchair is still there, the blue fabric nubby in spots where Bert Bennett once sat. The last time Benny saw him, he stood up from that chair, turned his back on her, and walked out of the room.
Hard to believe it was eight years ago.
Benny had been trying to explain herself. She’d sat down next to her father, though not without great embarrassment. After all, who wanted to have a talk with their parents about sex? Though this wasn’t only about the sex, that was the whole point. Benny had taken way too long to get around to this conversation and it had cost her, big-time.
Benny remembers running her hand back and forth over the crushed-velvet sofa that day, murmuring a compliment. Her mother had kept the seat encased in a plastic covering all those years that Benny and Byron were growing up and long after that. It was the first time that Benny had seen the sofa this way. She couldn’t get over the feel of it, how it could be so soft and ridgy at the same time.
“We just woke up one morning and realized we’re not going to live forever,” her mother said, touching the sofa. “It’s time we enjoyed it.”
Benny smiled and petted her end of the seat like a stuffed toy. The sofa was still an ugly thing to look at, its brassy fibers glinting in the light, but just the feel of it under Benny’s fingers helped to calm her nerves as her father began to raise his voice.
When she was little, Ma and Dad used to tell her that she could be anything she wanted to be. But as she grew into a young woman, they began to say things like
We made sacrifices so that you could have the best.
Meaning, the best was what they envisioned for Benny, not what she wanted for herself. Meaning, the best was something that, apparently, Benny was not. Letting go of a scholarship at a prestigious university was not. Taking cooking and art classes instead was not. Working precarious jobs with the hope of opening a café was not. And Benny’s love life? That, most certainly, was not.
Benny walks over to the sofa now and sits down next to her father’s empty chair, placing a hand on the armrest. She leans in and sniffs at the tweedy upholstery, searching for a hint of the hair oil that her father used to use, that green, old-style stuff that could fuel a pickup truck. Benny would give anything now to have her parents here, sitting in their favorite chairs, even if it meant they might still have trouble understanding her.
Benny finds herself smiling, now, thinking of a different time in this room. Her mother, perching her rear on the arm of this sofa, watching MTV with teenaged Benny and her friends while Benny kept hoping Ma would remember she had grown-up things to do and scoot. Ma had always seemed different from the mothers of other kids. Super athletic, a bit of a math wiz, and yes, a fan of music videos. The whole music thing was something that Benny, in her thirteenth year, had found somewhat embarrassing. It seemed Ma was always doing things her way. Except when it came to Benny’s dad.
Benny’s phone is pinging. It’s Steve. He’s left a voice message. He’s heard the news. So sorry, he says, though he never knew her ma. He’s thinking, maybe they should get together, when Benny gets back to the East Coast. Steve’s voice is low and soft, and Benny feels the old stirring of the skin along her shins, just as she did the last time he called.
Benny and Steve. They’ve gone back and forth like this for years, now. Every time, Benny promises herself it’ll be the last. She never calls him back. But each time, there has come a moment when she’s finally answered Steve’s phone calls, when Steve has made her laugh, when she’s agreed to meet him.
Steve’s laughter, Steve’s voice, Steve’s touch. Years ago, these things had helped to pull Benny out of the muck of her breakup with Joanie. She had followed Joanie all the way to New York from Arizona, though later she was forced to admit that Joanie had never given her a reason to think that they would get back together. So there Benny was, a few months later, staring down at her boots in the music section of a bookstore in Midtown, when Steve came up to her.
Steve wiggled his fingers in front of Benny’s face and she looked up to see this gorgeous block of a man with a broad smile, pointing to his headphones, eyebrows raised, then pointing to the console where she was plugged in. Benny smiled and nodded. Steve plugged his headphones into the jack near hers and, at the sound of the music, he nodded his head and laughed silently.
By the time they stepped out into the slushy streets together, Benny had begun to feel that maybe she was still made of all of those things that Joanie once saw in her and that maybe someone else could see them, too. It would be a while before Benny would realize that Steve, her music-loving, yacht-sailing new lover, could make her feel as threatened as he could make her feel desired.
here are things to do,
things to discuss, Byron knows this, but he doesn’t feel like dealing with his sister right now. The funeral arrangements are set. Byron took care of them while waiting for Benny to fly out to California, and everything else can wait. Byron sits out on the deck at his place, scarf up to his chin, watching the waves. He will stay here as long as he can before going back to his mother’s house.
After all those times he’s felt Benny’s absence, she’s finally back, but instead of relief, what he feels most is resentment. If things had gone differently between them, Benny would be sitting with him right now. She’d probably be drawing something in one of those sketch pads of hers. He still has that goofy surfing sketch she did of him, wiping out big-time, legs every which way. But Byron has been bitter for so long that it even kept him from calling Benny about their mother’s illness until it was too late. He’d intended to call her before this happened, he really had, he knew they were running out of time. He just didn’t realize how quickly.
Last Friday, Byron walked into the house and sensed right away, before he reached the other side of the kitchen, that his mother was gone. He found her just beyond the kitchen, on the hallway floor. It could happen that way, the doctor said later, the kind of sudden episode that might claim someone’s life unexpectedly. It could happen to a person when their body was struggling against something fierce. Ma had still been able to get up on her own most days, wash her face, pour
herself a glass of water, though with trembling hands, turn on some music or the television, until the effort of it sent her straight back to the sofa.
As Byron took his mother’s head and shoulders in his arms and held her cool face against his chest, he thought of Benny, wondered how he would tell her, felt a new grief over the loss that Benny, too, would soon feel. He couldn’t get the words out, at first.
“Benny, Benny,” was all he could say when she picked up the phone. Byron stopped, his throat tight. He could hear noise in the background. Music and chatter and plates. Restaurant sounds. And then Benny, saying, “Byron? Byron?”
But Benny had already understood.
“Oh, no, Byron!”
Then Byron got off the phone after breaking the news to her and began to think of all the other phone calls he would need to make, the arrangements, the sense of his mother being gone, the memories of his father’s passing, the awareness of all those miles and years between Benny and the rest of them, and he felt the resentment toward his sister flooding back.
As he drives up to his mother’s house now, he sees a rental car in the driveway.
Byron walks through the kitchen door, kicks off his shoes, and stands still in his socks, listening. Silence. He walks down the hallway, peers through the window into the backyard, looks into Benny’s old room, but no Benny.
He continues down to his parents’ room. There she is, lying in the middle of the bed, wrapped in the comforter like a giant egg roll, snoring lightly. She used to do that when she was little, pounce on the bed between Ma and Dad, peel the cover off Dad and roll.
A Benny roll!
Dad would yell every time, as if she didn’t do the same thing every
single Sunday morning. Benny used to have this way of making everyone giggle, of making a person feel light. But it hasn’t been that way for a long time.
There’s that feeling again. A mean feeling. Byron wants to rush over to the bed and shake Benny awake. Then the next second, he just feels sad. His phone buzzes. He looks down. There’s a reminder. Mr. Mitch is on his way.
hen Mr. Mitch gets to
the house, Benedetta shakes his hand and takes his jacket. Byron brings out cups of coffee and biscuits from the kitchen and unplugs his mother’s telephone line. Eleanor’s children still aren’t talking to each other, but now the daughter doesn’t seem as edgy. Mr. Mitch is still struck by how much Eleanor’s children resemble their father, one the color of mahogany, the other the color of wet straw, both looking a bit like stubborn toddlers at the moment, their beautiful heads held high, their mouths turned down at the sides.
Benedetta folds her six-foot-tall frame into the couch and hugs a large cushion to her middle. Again, like a child. He wouldn’t have expected that of such a regal-looking woman. Byron leans forward from where he is sitting, his elbows resting on his knees. Mr. Mitch opens his laptop and calls up the audio file. They really have no idea, do they? They think this is all about them. He clicks play.
he sound of his mother’s
voice splits him down the middle.
B and B, my children.
The sound of her voice.
Please forgive me for not telling you any of this before. Things were different when I was your age. Things were different for women, especially if you were from the islands.
Byron’s parents always said
as if they were the only ones in the world. There are roughly two thousand islands in the world’s oceans and that’s not counting the millions of other bits of land surrounded by seas and other bodies of water.
Byron hears his mother stopping to catch her breath and clenches his fists.
B and B, I wanted to sit down with you and explain some things but I’m running out of time and I can’t go without letting you know how all of this happened.
“How all of
happened?” Benny says. Mr. Mitch taps the keyboard on his laptop, pauses the audio recording.
Byron shakes his head. Nothing has ever happened to them, nothing at all. And that’s saying a whole lot for a black family in America. Before their parents died, their only real family drama was Benny, freaking out Ma and Dad because she’d insisted on filling them in on the details of her love life. Couldn’t she just have brought home her girlfriend that year and let that settle into their parents’ heads a bit?
Then, if she’d ended up dating some guy another year, she could have explained the switch. A slow reveal. Their parents could have handled that. They would have adjusted, eventually.
But, no, Benny was Benny. Always needing attention, always needing approval, ever since college. She was no longer the easygoing baby sister she used to be. Benny had become this person who didn’t leave room for dialogue. Either you were with her or you were against her. If Byron had behaved that way, if Byron had walked away every time someone hadn’t agreed with him, hadn’t accepted him right away, hadn’t treated him fairly, where would he be today?
Not that Byron can really complain. He loves his work, he was born to be an ocean scientist. He’s damn good at it, too, even if he’s been passed over for the director’s position at the institute. He’s much better paid than he would be as director, anyway, thanks to his public appearances and books and film consulting. More than three times better paid, actually, but he likes to keep that between himself and the tax man.
Byron didn’t set out to be the African American social media darling of ocean sciences, but he’s going to get as much mileage out of it as he can. He’s just put in for the director’s position again, even though he knows his colleague Marc is hoping to get it, too.
Chances are, Byron thinks, he will hear the same old reasoning from the founders. That the center needs Byron
as its ambassador, that Byron has brought unprecedented attention to the institute’s work, that he’s helped it to get more funding and greater say-so in international meetings than it would have mustered otherwise.
The last time around, Byron countered that line of argument by putting on his best team-player smile and saying he could do an even better job from the operations office, while helping the center to sharpen its way of doing things. He walked out of that uncomfortable conversation with a slight swagger to his step, just to show how much he was taking their decision in stride.
So, one more try. If the institute still won’t grant him greater say in their organizational affairs, then he’ll continue to find other ways to build his influence. It was Byron who was called to speak on television
about the underwater volcano in Indonesia. Byron who was asked to give that paper at the Stockholm meeting. Byron who was called by the Japanese about the seabed-mapping project. He’s been photographed with two presidents and was recently held up by the current one as a shining example of the American Dream, realized. It was at about that time that his girlfriend told him he was full of himself and broke off their relationship.
“This is not the kind of example I would want my children to follow,” Lynette shouted at Byron that last night. It was the meanest thing a woman could say to a man, really. He didn’t even know that Lynette had ever thought about children.
Lynette just didn’t get it. If you were invited to the White House, you simply went, no matter who was sitting in the Oval Office. Here was another opportunity to advocate for things that mattered. To speak out against cuts in research funding, to push for broader access to quality science education. Here was another chance for a black man to be at the table with the decision makers, instead of flinching from abuse. Instead of standing outside yet another closed door.
But Lynette didn’t agree. Lynette didn’t seem to understand what he had to go through to be seen and heard in this world. Though his mother had understood.
“What are you willing to do?” his mother once asked him when he’d made a comment about taking flak from some of the guys in high school. “Are you doing something wrong, Byron? Do you think you’re a bad person for getting a perfect score on that test? For being recognized for your work? Are you going to let someone else’s view of who you should be, and what you should do, hold you back? Do you think those boys are really your friends?” His mother’s eyes took on that glint that he saw whenever she stood at the edge of the sea.
“So, what are you willing to do?” she said. “Who are you willing to let go of?”
Anyway, Byron hadn’t meant to let go of Lynette. She was the one who had done the letting go. Had it been up to him, he’d still be holding on to her right now. But she had made her decision and Byron
wasn’t the type to grovel. That was another thing Lynette didn’t understand. What Byron could not allow himself to do.
Strange, how things have turned out with Lynette. It had never been Byron’s style to date the people he worked with. For years, he’d managed to stick to this rule. He knew a lot of guys who didn’t worry about those things, but workplace dynamics and harassment issues aside, he just didn’t like to go there. And, yeah, it could get lonely.
All that time spent working on calculations and having meetings and writing papers and, in the early days, the ship expeditions, carrying out deep-water mapping for weeks at a time. Then later, the books and public appearances. Airport lounges and hotel rooms. Where was a guy like him supposed to make a connection that went beyond a one-night thing?
Cable, Byron’s self-appointed advisor in all things, swore by Internet dating. Well, sure, that’s how Cable had met his wife. Cable was lucky that way. But where was Byron supposed to find the time to sift through all those descriptions and set up all those encounters with new people? Byron met new people all the time, that wasn’t the issue.
Then along came Lynette.
“Sorry,” Benny is saying now, and Byron’s thoughts come back to the room. “Sorry, Mr. Mitch,” she says, again, waving a hand, “we can keep going.” Mr. Mitch clicks on the audio file.
You children need to know about your family, about where we come from, about how I really met your father. You two need to know about your sister.
Byron and Benny look at each other, mouths open.
B and B, I know, this is a shock. Just bear with me for a moment and let me explain.
Byron and Benny look at Mr. Mitch now and simultaneously mouth the same word.