Read Black Cake: A Novel Online
Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson
yron’s phone is vibrating along
the kitchen counter, its screen flashing,
like lightning strikes in a wall of clouds. Byron feels like the phone. Agitated. Where the hell is Benny, anyway?
“Sorry, just a second,” he says to Mr. Mitch. He gets up to turn off the phone when he recognizes the number.
It’s been three months since they last talked. She must have heard about his ma.
Byron had wiped Lynette’s number from his list of contacts on the night she’d walked out on him. He’d punched delete with a sense of satisfaction, as though she might feel the defiance in his gesture throbbing across the airwaves, as though it might lead her to regret her hasty exit. It was only later that he realized that when Lynette slammed the door shut, she had already emptied her side of the bedroom closet, had already stuffed her computer and toothbrush into a bag, had already left the earrings he’d given her the previous month on the desk in his studio.
Byron hadn’t noticed any of this at first, he’d only seen Lynette’s arms waving around, her face turning wet, as they argued. She’d been doing that a lot, lately. Crying, yelling, bugging him about plans for the future. Who talked about The Future nowadays? Byron didn’t like that kind of pressure. Did it mean nothing to her, at all, that they were
already living together? Didn’t it count that he had offered to mentor her nephew Jackson? Why was it that nothing Byron did ever seemed to be enough?
Officially, Byron hadn’t gotten together with Lynette until after the documentary project they’d been working on together had ended. Still, he knew the moment he first saw her that he’d have to try. He knew that’s what he was doing during filming breaks when they took to chatting together while they picked out sandwiches and fruit cups from the catering table. He knew that’s what he was doing when he invited the director and the entire crew for a barbecue at his place. He knew it was what he was doing as he watched Lynette step out onto the deck of his house, saw her lips part slowly at the view, watched her shoulders rise with the sea air.
It would be too obvious to say that he couldn’t resist her fluffy crown of hair, or the slopes of her body, or the sight of her deep-brown fingers with their tiny, burgundy-painted nails buzzing over the keyboard of her laptop, or the quiet way she moved through the clamor of a production set. Lynette managed to inhabit space in a way that was different from other people and Byron wanted to be there with her.
In the end, Lynette was so critical of Byron, and yet she’d started out drawn to everything about him. Back then, she didn’t seem to mind his status, his expertise, the house within view of the Pacific. Then things got serious between them and she suddenly expected him to separate out who he was from what he had to do in life.
Lynette, who wouldn’t have met Byron if he hadn’t been the host of that documentary.
Lynette, who he suspects would never have looked at him otherwise.
Lynette, whose neck smelled like nutmeg and who slammed the door when she left him for good.
And now, for the first time in three months, his phone is lighting up with Lynette’s number. Maybe it’s not about his ma, at all. Maybe Lynette needs something from him. Calling about Ma would be a way in. His friend Cable would tell him he’s being a jerk for thinking about
Lynette that way. Cable would say that of course Lynette was calling about his ma. And Cable wouldn’t mince words if he believed otherwise.
Byron will call Lynette later. Or maybe he won’t call. She’s the one who walked out on the relationship. He feels that old burn just below his sternum. He’s pissed that Lynette should still get to him this way. He looks one more time at the flashing screen on his smartphone, then taps reject to silence the call.
yron wants to finish listening
to his mother’s recording, but Benny is off and wandering around the house. Benny, who always used to say that she needed to go to the bathroom when she really just wanted to take off and do something else. Sure enough, Byron finds Benny in her old bedroom, wearing an ancient college sweatshirt and hugging something small to her chest.
Benny looks at him, her face all knotted up. He knows what she’s thinking.
“Who is she, Byron?” Benny says.
Byron shakes his head. “I have no idea,” he says. “This is the first I’ve ever heard anything about us having a sister.”
“I don’t mean this
person. I mean Covey. Who in the world was she?” Benny’s shoulders slump. “What did she have to do with our mother? They must have known each other, with all those things they had in common. The island, the sea, the black cake. Don’t you think?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
“This is taking too long. Let’s just go and make Mr. Mitch tell us right now.”
“No, you heard what he said, he’s not going to tell us. Let’s just go back and listen.”
Benny nods. She has that cloudy-looking face of little Benny at age six and, once again, Byron must resist the urge to hug her. He needs to remember that this is not his baby sister anymore. This is a woman he
hasn’t seen in eight years, who didn’t come to their own father’s funeral, who wasn’t there for their mother’s seventieth birthday, and with whom he’s exchanged only a handful of words in all that time. Apparently, no one is who they used to be. Not his sister and not even his own mother.
Byron holds out a set of keys.
“What’s this?” Benny says.
“I had to change the locks on the front door. This is your set.”
“But I never come in the front door.”
“Well, we have a front door, so just take the keys.”
Benny puts out her hand. “What happened? Burglary?”
Byron shakes his head. “Earthquake. Shifted the doorframe.”
“Oh, yeah, now I remember.”
“You do?” Byron says, the sarcasm making his upper lip curl. “What do you mean, you remember, Benny? You weren’t even here. And, by the way, you didn’t bother to call, did you, to see if we were all right?”
“I didn’t have to. Ma let me know.”
“Ma? You talked to Ma?”
“No, not really. Ma would leave messages once in a while.”
“You were in contact with Ma? All this time? I thought you weren’t talking to each other.”
“I told you, once in a while she’d leave a message. Birthdays, holidays, you know. Then the earthquake.”
“But you never came to see her.”
Benny shakes her head. “She never told me to come and see her. She never even asked me to call her back. I did call the house a couple of times, but she didn’t answer. I wrote her a letter, not long ago, and she left me a short message. She didn’t say she was sick.” Benny opens her mouth to say something else, then stops, shakes her head.
“She was on some heavy-duty meds the last few months. Of course she wanted to see you. She was just very hurt, you know?”
“Ma? She was hurt? And what about me? I was the one who was rejected by my own parents.”
“They did not reject you, Benny. They were upset because you walked out on them.”
“They were not upset because I walked out on them. They were already upset and we both know why.”
“And you made it worse. You walked out on them in the middle of a holiday, and you never even called to apologize. You didn’t give them a chance. And I was pretty upset, too, Benny. No, wait, correct that. I was pissed off at you. I’m still pissed off at you. And what about the funeral, Benny? When I called you that time, you said you would come.”
“I did come to the funeral, Byron. I came all the way to California, I went to the cemetery, it’s just that….”
“What are you saying? You were here? You know, I thought I saw you, but then I said to myself,
No, Byron, you’re imagining things.
But I wasn’t. You mean to tell me, you came all the way out here and then you had the nerve to just leave us on our own?”
“You weren’t exactly on your own, Byron. There were a lot of people there.”
“And that’s your excuse? That with all those people around, you didn’t need to be there?”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying, it’s just that I couldn’t…”
“Couldn’t what, Benny? Couldn’t
? Couldn’t get out of the damn car for your own father’s funeral? Couldn’t get out of the car for Ma and me? And then all I get is a text message saying
“It’s not that simple, Byron.”
“No, it’s not that
Byron turns and walks out of the room, but not before seeing what Benny is holding. It’s their mother’s old plastic measuring cup. He turns back and pulls the cup away from her.
“No, Byron!” Benny cries as she follows him down the hallway. “Byron!” Now she’s pulling at his sweater with one hand, trying to grab the cup with the other.
“Don’t do that,” Byron says, batting Benny away from his sweater. “That’s cashmere.”
“That’s cashmere?” Benny says. “That’s
? Are you kidding me, Byron?”
“This is ridiculous,” Byron says, shoving the cup back into Benny’s hand. “There. Does that make you feel better? Does it make you feel like a good little daughter, keeping that cup for the memories? Where the fuck were you all these years, Benny?”
“You don’t really want to know, do you, Byron? You don’t really want to hear anything from me. You just want to remind me that you’re Byron Bennett, the perfect son, admired and accepted by everyone. Well, you know something? You’re not so perfect. And no one gets to have any feelings until you decide they have feelings.”
Byron is stunned. Is that what she thinks? Is that what Benny really thinks of him?
“Why didn’t you call me sooner, huh, Byron? If Ma was so sick?”
sooner? Are you even listening to yourself? Do you know what Ma would say if she heard this?”
Byron turns and walks off down the hallway, muttering, “This is not the Bennett way.” Then he winces. He sounds so much like Dad.
Benny shouts at his back. “Wrong, Byron. This has always been the Bennett way. No missteps allowed, no room for comprehension, no room for dissension.”
Byron stops, stands still, but doesn’t look back.
“I used to think it was because we were black, you know?” Benny says. “That our parents wanted us to achieve, that we had to work twice as hard, be beyond reproach, that sort of thing. But now I get it. We had to be perfect to make up for the fact that our family was built on a colossal lie.”
When Byron finally reaches the living room, Mr. Mitch isn’t there. Byron hears the water running in the guest bathroom. He doesn’t know that Mr. Mitch is simply leaning against the dusty pink wall in there, eyes closed, pretending not to have heard all the shouting.
harles Mitch has seen worse.
Siblings who don’t care about each other. Relatives who are only looking for what they can inherit. He can see that Byron and Benny aren’t like that but this is turning out to be a struggle, anyway. They’ve lost their mother and they can’t seem to find their way back to each other. Yes, Eleanor warned him that it might be like this, worse yet because Byron and Benny used to be inseparable.
Benny’s world used to begin and end with her brother. When did he become this person? Or had he always been this way? Byron has accused Benny of not being there for her family. But what about Benny? Has it ever occurred to Byron, so accustomed to being cheered on by the whole world, that someone needed to be there for Benny, too?
Byron doesn’t know what to do about Benny. They haven’t said a civil word to each other since she arrived. It’s like she’s hostile one minute and needy the next. But this is not a new thing,
Benny making a bigger deal of things than she needs to. It’s been this way for a long time now, ever since Benny dropped out of college. Yep, that’s really where it started.
Benny, at the school of her parents’ dreams.
Benny, seventeen, at the top of her class.
Benny, getting the side-eye at the black student union.
Benny, not black enough. Benny, not white enough.
Benny, not straight enough. Benny, not gay enough.
Benny, alone on a Saturday night.
Benny, in bed with bruises all over.
Benny, signing papers in Administration.
Benny, walking down the marble staircase.
Benny, nineteen, a college dropout.