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Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson

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BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
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Lin
 

W
ho was a man, Lin
wondered, if he no longer had a place to call home?

Lin knew people still saw him as a foreigner, even after he’d gone to school in the same town, run a business here, taken a wife here, and raised a child here. Even after he’d lost his brothers to the TB, like so many others. Lin, too, had always thought of himself as a foreigner, even as he slammed down his domino tiles on the table in the backyard, even as he spat out a local cuss word, and even as he sat on the veranda sucking on a Bombay mango from the tree that his father had planted with his own two hands.

But all that changed on the night that he watched his store burning up, on the night that someone set fire to one of the businesses where he had worked since he was a pickney, on the night that he found himself fretting for the safety of his daughter in the town where she had been born. On the night that Lin, out of cash and nearly out of things to barter, finally admitted to himself that he was in over his head.

On that particular night, all the names that people had called him under their breath, all the looks of disapproval they’d once given him as his motherless, brown child followed him around town, clinging with one hand to the hem of his shirt, came back now to slice him across the chest like the tip of a cutlass. And he saw that he was not a foreigner at all, that this was his only home, that he had no other place to go. He may have come here as little Lin Jian from Guangzhou but he had spent
more time as Johnny “Lin” Lyncook from Portland parish, sixty-odd miles from the capital city and a lifetime away from China. He could no longer be one without the other.

Had his
ba
been wrong to insist on being called by his Chinese surname and encourage the same for Johnny? Had he been wrong to speak to his sons in Hakka in public? Had Lin been wrong in going to the cemetery on Gah San every spring to sweep the tombs of his lost brothers and, later, his parents? Would it have changed anything?

No matter now. The blame that people were laying at Lin’s feet for the misdeeds of another man who happened to look like him was about to bring him down, not because he had anything to do with them but because of his own mistakes. Lin would not be able to recover from this fire because his own vices had already put him too far into debt.

Lin looked down at his feet. They were still stained with soot. He turned on the garden hose and ran the water between his toes. He looked up at the kitchen window, listened to Covey chatting with Pearl inside, the clack-clack of plates being washed and sorted. Just as Lin was coming to accept that what he had here was all that mattered, he saw that he was on the verge of losing it all.

W
ho are all these people
Benny’s mother is talking about? What do they have to do with her ma? And what about the sister she mentioned? It’s still not clear to Benny what happened. And Benny isn’t even sure she wants to know. She feels panicky. She feels like everything is slipping away. She just wants her ma, the way she used to be.

Benny tells the men she has to go to the bathroom but instead, she heads farther down the hallway to the room where she grew up and digs into the contents of her wheelie bag.

There.

She unrolls an old university sweatshirt she inherited years ago from her brother and takes out a measuring cup, a cloudy-looking piece of plastic that is older than she is. It goes back to the days when Ma was a young bride, newly arrived in America. Ounces and cups on one side, milliliters on the other.

“Take this,” her mother said as Benny was packing for her move to college. She pressed the cup into Benny’s tote bag and patted the bag. “This way you’ll have a little piece of home with you, wherever you go.” After that, Benny never did pack a suitcase without slipping the
old cup in among her clothes, a little reminder of all those days spent together in the kitchen with her ma.

Benny’s nose was barely level with the kitchen counter when her mother first showed her how to make a black cake. Ma reached down and pulled a huge jar out of a lower cupboard. One of her tricks was to soak the dried fruits in rum and port all year round, not just a few weeks before.

“This is island food,” Ma said. “This is your heritage.”

While the batter was in the oven, her mother hoisted Benny onto a dark green stool. She told Benny that the seat was the color of the trees that grew straight out of the water where she had grown up. Benny imagined a wide, dark sea pierced by tall trees, like the redwoods that her parents had taken her and Byron to see farther up the California coast. She imagined them standing firm like massive sentinels, as tall waves washed past their trunks.

“One day, you’ll see,” her mother told her.

Benny grew up thinking that her mother and father would take her and Byron to the island someday, but they never did. It was years before Benny realized that the towering water trees she’d imagined were actually mangroves, low, verdant clumps of life rooted in those intertidal zones where fresh water mixed with seawater, where the roots were both hardy and vulnerable, where both sea and land creatures made their homes. Where nothing was any one thing but, rather, a little bit of everything. Kind of like Benny.

Her ma had been using the same measuring cup for twenty years or so when her dad took Benny and Byron to a department store to find a replacement. They ended up choosing a bigger one made out of thick glass.

“For her black cake,” their father said, raising the cup as if in a toast.

“Oooh!” their mother said when she opened the package. She left the gleaming new cup on the kitchen counter and used it almost every day, only never for the black cake. When baking time came around, she would burrow into a bottom cupboard and fish out the old plastic thing,
closing off the kitchen to everyone but Benny as she measured and mixed.

Even after Benny grew up and moved out, Christmastime baking with Ma remained an annual ritual. She would come back each winter for the blacking of the sugar, the rubbing of the butter, the sifting-in of the breadcrumbs. And each time, she brought the old measuring cup with her. Whenever her ma saw it, she would wrap her arms around Benny and kiss her on the neck,
mwah-mwah-mwah.

Then came the big rift with her parents, that disastrous Thanksgiving Day, two years before her dad died, and Benny stopped visiting altogether. But by then, Benny had already evolved into a person who could smell the weather in a handful of flour and taste the earth in a spoon of cane sugar, and this is what had led her to take culinary classes. That, and dropping out of college. Which, Benny sees now, was what had started it all.

Benny’s decision to leave her elite university, years earlier, had caused the first tear in the fabric of their family home. The fissure had widened with her parents’ growing disappointment in her. They were irritated enough when she went to Italy to take the cooking courses but when she came back to the United States and moved to Arizona for art school, even her brother looked perplexed. The three people Benny loved most in this world no longer made any attempt to hide their doubts in her.

For Benny, the move made sense. Maybe it was the time she’d spent in the pastry-making classes, working with her hands and exploring the use of color and texture. Maybe it was being steeped for one year in the visual stimulation of an Italian city, the mustard- and salmon-colored façades, the marble fountains, slick with water, the faces, the language. Benny only knew that she had come back to the States wanting to do more with her painting. She sensed that some combination of food and art in her life would help to ground her.

Benny didn’t want to work in a kitchen full time so much as she wanted to be surrounded by beauty and comforting things and decent
people. She wanted to sit alone in her own café, before the first customers arrived, and work in her sketchbook, looking up through a glass window to see the morning sky turn metallic blue, then white gold. She wanted to use the café to teach children about culture through cooking. She wanted to do things her own way and have it work out all right. Benny wanted to have a safe space and a life that would always be under her control.

But Benny was Bert and Eleanor Bennett’s child and this was not the Bennett way. If you were a Bennett, you were expected to finish college, go on to graduate school, find a
real
profession, and do everything else in your free time. If you were born to Bert and Eleanor, you banked on your university degrees, you built your influence, you accumulated wealth, you quashed all vulnerability.

In short, you became Byron Bennett.

Benny turns the measuring cup over and over in her hands. The plastic has cracks here and there from repeated drops and house moves, plus the hot liquids that Benny’s mother had warned her never to pour into the cup, but which she’d done anyway.

Benny, plunking butter into the measuring cup and melting it in the microwave.

Benny, drinking mulled wine out of the measuring cup, sitting alone at a table set for two.

Benny, eating soup out of the measuring cup, the bruises on her face and neck aching with each spoonful.

Benny, sipping tea from the cup, feeling that her own brother had turned his back on her.

Benny hugs the cup to her middle now and runs a finger back and forth across the remains of the manufacturer’s label. In nearly fifty years, it has never fully disintegrated. Her mother’s hand would have touched that fuzzy gum every time she measured out a cup of flour or rice or beans or oil, every time she used it to cook for a birthday party, a holiday dinner, a fundraiser. She wondered, could there still be a bit of Ma’s DNA on this cup? Could her mother, perhaps, not be fully
gone from this earth? Scientists have found DNA in ice dating back hundreds of thousands of years.

Benny pulls her smartphone out of her jeans pocket and dials up her voicemail. For the umpteenth time, she listens to her mother’s message from the month before.

Those four words:
Benedetta, please come home.
She lowers her head, swallows hard, hears the soft tap of a teardrop in the measuring cup.

Homesickness
 

B
enny hears Byron calling to
her from the other end of the hallway, but she ignores him. She’s not ready to go back to hearing her mother’s story. She needs to think. Benny looks around at the turquoise-colored walls of the room where she slept almost every night until she was seventeen. Her parents painted it this color because she’d insisted on it. She smiles at the memory. Why didn’t she come back to California sooner?

Benny could have seen her mother a month ago, even a week ago, but she didn’t realize that her mother was ill. And, of course, Byron, dammit, didn’t call until it was too late. So Benny had hesitated, hoping that this would be the month she’d secure financing from a bank for her business plan. Hoping to go home to Ma and Byron with something to show for all that time she’d spent away. Hoping to prove that she had been right all along to follow her own path, instead of the one that her parents would have chosen for her.

While Benny’s mother stood leaning against her kitchen counter in California, a blood clot quietly inching its way up from her pelvis to her lungs, Benny was still back in New York, getting fired from her afternoon job and boarding the wrong bus and finding herself standing in front of the kind of coffee shop that she wanted to have for herself. The café, with its too-early Christmas decorations, stood next to a small bookshop in a neighborhood that hadn’t yet had the stuffing gentrified out of it.

Inside, Benny found comfort in the sound of a thick, enameled cup as it settled into the saucer in front of her, the shriek and crunch of the coffee grinder, the smell of bacon grease settling into the weave of her woolen cape. Benny didn’t eat meat but even she had to admit that there was something about the smell of bacon that could take the edge off a feeling of homesickness.

This coffee shop reminded her of the old place back in California that she and her brother used to go to with their father when they were kids. There was a spigot and a bucket in the parking lot where Dad would let them soap up the car, rinse it off, then leave it to dry in the sun while they went inside to eat things that you found only in such places. It was well before Benny moved away to college, then to Europe, then Arizona, then New York. Years before she ever imagined not getting along with her dad.

Her dad had been gone for six years now, and Benny was nearly thirty-seven years old, still working a jumble of jobs and still unable to convince a bank to lend her the money to open her own café. But just as a person could feel the breeze switch directions and pick up speed, Benny could sense that her life was about to change. She’d been saving money, she was doing better emotionally than the year before, and she wanted to make one more attempt before giving up altogether on her business idea. Especially since she had no idea what to do otherwise.

This café she’d stumbled upon in New York was going out of business. There was a sign on the front door. If she could manage to pay the lease on a place like this, she’d put in lounge chairs and coffee tables with phone- and laptop-friendly electrical outlets. She would keep the lighting soft and the colors warm but declutter the central space. She would offer a super-short menu and only one signature dessert per season. Her winter dessert would be her mother’s black cake.

Benny needed to find more work right away. She’d made a mess of things, getting fired, and yet she was still feeling somewhat righteous because she’d refused to lie to a client. It wasn’t that Benny didn’t know how to stick to a call center script, as her supervisor had suggested. It was that she understood that one of the things that made you
human was your willingness to deviate from the script. The problem was, scripts were like battles. You had to choose when to go with them and when not to. And you had to be prepared to live with the consequences.

Benny had responded to the customer call with the standard “My name is Sondra, how can I help you today?” You never gave your real name at that company. You adopted a moniker that was easy to pronounce, even better if it was just different enough to seem authentic, as in Sondra with an
aw
sound as opposed to Sandra with an
ah
. Benny had become practiced at that sort of thing, making people feel comfortable. The script helped, with a list of appropriate greetings and a checklist of things to ask for. Error code, serial number,
just a moment, please,
et cetera, et cetera.

Benny informed the customer that it was surely a problem with the printer head, which was not removable, though she was sorry to say that the particular printer in the customer’s possession was no longer under warranty. It was not worth it, Benny said, to seek assistance, since a consultation alone, without repair, would cost the customer more than half of what it would cost to purchase a new product.

“And to think that I’ve hardly used the thing,” the customer said.

“That, ma’am, is the problem,” Benny said. “This particular technology is not advisable for people who are not going to be using their printers every day, or at least on a regular basis.” At this point in the call, Benny was still following the recommended language.

“But no one told me this when I bought it,” the customer said. “Apart from the fact that I’m now forced to buy a new printer after only two years, it seems like a real waste of materials. Aren’t we supposed to be reducing the trash we produce?”

“Yes, ma’am, I am in complete agreement with you,” Benny said.

It was the next statement that got Benny fired, according to her boss, who happened to be walking down the aisle behind her cubicle and overheard her.

“Alas,” said Benny, “we are living in a dumping ground for electronics, from printers to computers to mobile phones that fall apart, or
that we are encouraged to replace with newer models that are marketed as being more desirable, and this, ma’am, is one of the main reasons for the environmental degradation that our planet is experiencing today.”

Benny did not forget to ask, “Is there anything else I can do for you today?” but it didn’t really help her case, though she remained convinced that the customer had gone away feeling relatively satisfied, because sometimes all we really want is for somebody to acknowledge that we were right all along.

At least the supervisor fired Benny in person. Back when Benny was still seeing Joanie, poor Joanie only learned she’d been laid off one morning when the electronic key card to her office building failed to open the door to the staff entrance. Benny was deeply offended on Joanie’s behalf. She’d even gone to Joanie’s former workplace to tell the manager what she thought, before being escorted off the property by a security guard. But this episode only added to the resentment that Joanie had been feeling. About the job, about her boss’s lack of respect. About Benny’s failure to tell her parents about her and Joanie. Again.

Maybe, Benny thought, she could supplement her income by selling more of her drawings. She hadn’t tried to sell the others, she’d simply been offered ridiculous sums of money for them by people who had seen her sketching to pass the time in cafés and airports and, once, in a laundromat. She had replicated the laundromat work on heavier paper with a toothier surface, mounted it, and earned enough to pay an entire month’s rent.

Benny had felt like a bit of a fraud at first, but then she got to thinking. She had studied drawing, hadn’t she? And if she could be paid to dress up in an animal costume, which she did on weekends at the mall, then why couldn’t she accept good money for her artwork? She hadn’t really tried before this only because she hadn’t thought it possible.

Benny pulled out her sketchbook and placed it on the café table. Drawing, like baking, usually cleared her head, but she kept thinking about how this diner reminded her of her dad and, by extension, her ma. By the time she was ready to head back to her apartment, she had come to a decision. She would go home this winter, no matter what. It
was time. It had been a month since her mother had left that voice message on her cellphone.

Benedetta, please come home.

Maybe her ma was ready to apologize. Maybe Benny was ready to hear her out. Plus, her ma had sounded tired. Her ma had never been one to sound tired. Yes, it was definitely time.

Benny’s phone was ringing. Her brother’s number. Her brother never called. All of a sudden, everyone was getting in touch.

Leaning against the wall of her old bedroom now, letting the cool seep through the back of her sweater, Benny can’t get away from the feeling that maybe, just maybe, she’ll step out into the hallway and find her mother there, or see her father pop his head into the room and narrow his eyes at the color of the walls, the way he used to. That, maybe, all this can be undone.

BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
2.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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