Rose McLarney

Pound, foam, sponge, sheet, chiffon, velvet,
devil, angel, gold, lightening—
so many kinds of cake.

Layered, jelly-rolled, spring-formed, Bundt-shaped,
petit-four-sized, liqueur-soaked, baked upside down.

Imagine them all ringed around one room.

And a cakewalk commencing in it.

How long the walk would be.
If the size of the circle were to encompass
all the exhibits of how people have kept on

sifting and separating, whisking and folding—
such fuss—to raise something fine up
on a cake stand, no crumbs
on the frosted surface.

My elementary school held cakewalks.
People orbited the gymnasium,
over red goal lines, under pink crepe paper,
accompanied by fiddle.

If I had gotten to play, I would have
moved across that floor praying
for a very particular fate.

But my mother didn’t want me to have too much
sugar. She wanted better. We single
our ones out. And so I stood on the sidelines,
separate, wanting.

I wanted the cake from Crystal’s mother.
She decorated cakes at the grocery store.
She obscured cakes under piles of icing
that became full skirts into which
she inserted princesses’ plastic torsos.

The icing was sugar whipped stiff
with lard.

At the grocery store today, I watched as a boy
bit only the icing off the top of a cupcake.
Then with his blue-dyed mouth he said,
“I don’t eat the bread.”

In the beginning one may make such claims,
believe it possible to live on cloudy stuff
floating above lack.

Above a mother’s cart,
its half-price loaf.

Sometimes, Crystal would bring cake for lunch.

A decadent diet, I thought,
believing, then, in choice.

It was after weddings were called off
or expectations for a holiday were too high
that she’d come with her cake.

She didn’t share.

Sometimes, she didn’t bring a thing.

Once, when my mother wasn’t watching,
my grandfather poured syrup on my pancakes,
in the proportions he saw fitting. He flooded
the plate. I drank from the lip.

The maple was artificial, I’m sure. 
But the feelings in me were real—the realization
afterward, of excess, sickening.

At the cakewalk of all the kinds,
when the music stops

some would be in the position
to receive layers overrun with ganache and filled
with cream between, a three-tiered tower,
or a torte topped with fondant flowers.

Some would find themselves stuck
at milkless cake, eggless cake, or butterless—
a cake defined by what it lacks.

Somebody sent a stack cake
to the school. A country recipe,
cooked over wood, in cast iron,
served with sorghum—unrefined sweetener
poor families wrung from their own cane
once. The most unpopular contribution ever.

Nobody made the mistake
of bringing journey cake, a cornmeal round hard
as the travel it was made to bear
with the Shawnee, or some say Cherokee,
or some say slaves. The history is uncertain.

What is known for sure is that cakewalks come from
plantations, performances slaves were forced to put on,
parading in front of their masters.

So how is it cakewalks are held at schools
and kids are brought to them, happily?

So many things, you aren’t told for a while.
Parents put candles on birthday cakes
for a while. No matter if wishes can be.

No matter the trailer from which they may come,
to which classmates will have to go
if there is a party.

Trailer they make fun of for years after.
Your daddy fixed that hole in the wall yet,
or does he like looking at you?

Crystal never attended a party.
Neither should she ride

with her daddy, she told the bus driver,
when he was waiting for her after school in his truck.

But she went somewhere with somebody.
I saw one “Missing” notice, 
and never her again.

“Some kinds, you can’t help,”
my grandfather would say
when my mother gave me cans
for the food drive, coins for some raffle.

How harsh he used to talk
of others not light as white cake
and himself, and at least as rich.
How hard was his voice, the slam of his hand
on the table where grandmother served him.

In his 90s, mostly he keeps quiet.
Or he compliments my mother and me.

We cannot help but love him
and make square cakes he prefers.
My favorite birthday cake ever
was one that cracked.
I placed toy animals careening
into crevasses, called it earthquake cake.

It was run through with faults,
but I didn’t know to see it that way.

That particular day, my mother
wanted me have a celebration,
and I did.

Some cooks don’t give up their efforts,
though their good is of the smallest sort.

Crazy cake, depression cake, war cake—
these arose from food shortages
(no milk, no eggs, no butter),
as fortunes and bombs fell.

We bake him square cakes because
the most icing  can be applied to that shape.

And because the old tongue unlearns tastes,
becomes simple. Sweet is all
grandfather can sense now,
palate turned back to a child’s.

Which does not mean anything will ever be easy
for him again, or hasn’t been worse for others,

or that it would be better if we did not
want to cut for our kin, for our closest,
the caramel-coated slices from all four corners.

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