My birthday cake sat on the dining room table. Fluffy, Linda’s elderly tabby, made an unhurried entrance to join the more-energetic Sam, who’d claimed a close place as soon as we put the cake box on the table. Sam’s full cat-name is “Sammy-get-down from-there.”
I’ve never seen Sam leap from the floor to the table. He favors a stealthy approach. He jumps onto a chair and sits like an attentive, polite guest waiting for the platter to come around. Sometimes he even lies down on the seat as though indifferent to the conversation that flows over him. He doesn’t fool me.
If he’s occupying someone’s chair, Sammy-get-down-from-there gives up his seat, but not before giving a reproachful look to indicate his displeasure.
I’ve been told that the cake is going on the traditional family cake plate, which Linda shows me: beautiful, smooth old glass. I’m not ready to look at the cake. Something ought to be a surprise.
So Fluffy and Sam are in the dining room, and we’re all sitting in the living room, having returned from our favorite annual Volunteer-Fire-and-Rescue chicken barbecue, which is way past my birthday, but who says that birthdays have to be celebrated on the actual day?
Once we moved our national birthday celebrations of Great Dead Men to the nearest Monday, as far as I was concerned the precedent had been set. Birthday? Let it be a floating affair. I’d say a movable feast, but that has a literary heft too great for such a small gathering as this: a few old friends and two cats.
In my honor and to my delight, Linda had bought full-fat whipped cream, with which I thought I’d top my coffee. Café mit schlag, as my Tante ‘Lizabeth used to call it. No aerosol powered cream for her. No indeed. She made her whipped cream with a hand-cranked rotary eggbeater, favoring a Pyrex four-cup measuring cup instead of a bowl. She’d let me help, warning me that just a few turns too many and I’d have butter. (She was right.) But she took that cream right to the edge. Café mit schlag it would be.
Why don’t I make whipped cream myself? Is it concern about my arteries? If I worried more about LDL cholesterol levels, I’d be trying to lower my stress level, as I’ve read that stress increases cholesterol. In other words, I’d have to worry less if I worried more.
I held out my hand, palm up, and Linda shook the red and white can, pushed the nozzle, and whoosh! Fluffy meandered over to me and gathered herself for the journey to the top of the easy chair from which perch she would have convenient access to my hair. She paused midway to sit in my lap and have me pet her. I watched a cloud of cat hair rise. I’m allergic to cats, but fond of Fluffy. She stretched and made the rest of her journey to the top of the chair, where she sniffed and bit at my hair. After a few moments of nosing around, she lost interest and headed back to the dining room, which was out of my line of sight.
Until now, my birthday cake had been safe in its high white cardboard box. Joe, who’d bought the cake for me, was getting it onto the plate. From Linda’s exclamations, I could tell it was going to be amazing — and it was. A thin layer of yellow over white buttercream icing, a blue fondant ribbon and sugar-paste red roses; chocolate and vanilla layers, with the bi-color icing between them.
I hadn’t had a cake that pretty since my mom made the cake of many colors I’d asked for when I was turned five: three layers of pink, yellow, and aqua, the pink and aqua thanks to food coloring. I realize now that she must have worked to get the aqua, which wasn’t one of the five colors in the set of little bottles.
Fluffy and Sam evinced no particular interest in what was happening at table level. I was sure they were just biding their time.
We carried our cake into the living room and settled down to eat. Linda looked at each of us and said, “Well, who’s going to jump into the big hole first?”
Sink holes had been in the news, swallowing a building in Guatemala City and an SUV in Milwaukee. I knew that’s not what she meant.
Linda’s comment was spurred by the recent death of a friend’s mother. We were all adult orphans, and it’s as though our parents’ existence kept us safe from death. With them gone, nobody’s standing between any of us and the rim of that big hole. We’re next.
For a moment or two nobody said anything. I imagined we were all contemplating our own — and the others’ — mortality.
She’s right. It’s inevitable. One of us will jump first. Maybe while we were on the topic, I should have suggested that we set up a tontine.
“What big hole?” Paul asked, looking up from his cake. Maybe it was the buttercream icing that had kept them silent.
“Do we have to talk about that now?” I asked.
“Well, it’s going to happen,” she said.
“This is delicious cake,” I said. “Where’s Sammy?”
I don’t understand why people give animals names that belong to humans. I’m sure that “Sam” isn’t an acronym for “Such a Mouser.” I don’t think he’s named after anyone, although lots of people do that. In college, Bunny bought two salamanders at the circus and named one Miriam and the other after my boyfriend. I didn’t complain — what could I have said to a girl who was brought up being called “Bunny”? But then one day I came back to the dorm and my roommate was upset. “David’s missing,” she said.
It took me a while before I realized which David had vanished. Bunny never found the salamander. And David died young.
“Sam doesn’t like cake,” Linda said.
“Does he know that?” I asked. “And where is he, anyway?”
“He doesn’t like cake.”
Her voice had the tone that cat-owners get when someone asks if the cutting board has been washed after the cat walked on it.
“OK. But where is he?” Linda’s talk of jumping into the big hole had made me anxious, and it was easier to be anxious about what could happen to the cake.
And then it was, “Sammy-get-down-from there!”
I knew enough to shut up.
“It’s fine,” she said, once Sammy had been removed from the table.
“Fine?” My first instinct for silence had been better.
“I told you. He doesn’t like cake.”
I could picture Sammy batting the yellow icing.
I leaned way forward to where I had a view of Joe and Linda examining the cake.
“It’s just one place,” Linda said. I was glad she hadn’t added a tag-line about how clean Sammy was.
“Where he licked it,” Joe said.
I thought about smooshed icing and the floating cloud of cat hair.
“We can cut it off,” he said.
“Sure,” I said, “I’m sure it will be just fine.” And it was. • 8 September 2010