blackbirdonline journalFall 2014  Vol. 13 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Klotilde’s Cake

She was a neighbor in Tucson, back when my in-laws lived there with their children, including my husband when he was a boy. How long-limbed and brown he appears in photographs of their Arizona days, how much of a retroactive crush I’ve developed on the ten-year-old who learned to love the desert after a spring rain. Forty years have come and gone and still he speaks of the crimson tips of flowering ocotillo, the ocean of poppies, the blue lupine and owl’s clover. But nothing is said of the sadness blossoming in their neighbor. Except when my mother-in-law bakes the cake, the one the neighbor taught her to make, the confection named for her (at least at their house), my mother-in-law telling Klotilde’s story as the cake is cut and served, the feelings at the table spiraling as we bite into its rum-dark layers.

It’s the story of a husband leaving, returning to the place from which they’d come, Budapest or Prague, a place of statue-lined bridges and spires thrown about like wedding cakes, which brings us back to Klotilde and the cake my mother-in-law serves as she tells about the woman, her voice pulling against the strings of the story. And oh, the loneliness of whipped cream, the anguish of broken eggs, the heartache of sugar folded into flour. It’s there, the despondency of baked goods, if only one consents to notice.


My mother-in-law has eyes like the blue of Dutch pottery and sits quiet while we eat the cake. When I make na├»ve statements suggesting that perhaps things were not as bad as they seemed for Klotilde—maybe her husband came back or perhaps she met someone new or took up a meaningful hobby, eventually forgetting him altogether—my mother-in-law only shakes her head. “No,” she says, “No.” She doesn’t humor me, does not take hold of the branch extended by offering even a halfhearted maybe so. This I notice, because more than anything my mother-in-law refuses to be deflated.

She rises early and walks fast before making breakfast and heading off to stand on corners with signs demanding rights for hotel workers and fair wages for the tomato growers of Florida or to remind people on their way to soccer practice and outlet malls that we’re at war and war kills, then goes home to write letters to the editor about health-care reform or drives off to read stories to kindergarteners whose families have no books before stopping to visit a friend in a nursing home, or to drop a birthday gift for the man whose family has died or moved away. The two of them, my mother-in-law and father-in-law, near eighty now, think nothing of loading trucks with medical supplies for Cuba from the launchpad of their backyard. When she hears of hardship or injustice, her first response is action, which I notice and admire because I’m the sort to sit around eating cake while replaying old stories and wondering what they mean. Not so my mother-in-law, who is out of her seat and grabbing a jacket, off to help a friend from Sudan, off to work at the overnight homeless shelter, off to register voters in Erie, Pennsylvania, off to deliver the cap she knit for a new baby—off to do more in one day than I manage in a good week. Still and all, around this one story, around this one woman, there is a slump.


But I have not yet said how it tastes, Klotilde’s cake. And if I say it is rich with warm overtones, you will not know. If I say that there’s the slightest suggestion of coffee, that it inhabits the space between wistful and brooding, that the cake itself might be more rightly called a torte, still I will not have said enough. The cake is a woman looking over her shoulder as she boards a one-way train. It’s the scratch of an old record, the words of a song you almost remember, the month of November as it gathers into a final sigh and gives itself over to December.

It’s a wisp of a story really, one that’s been told time and again—a woman abandoned to the desert, her husband flown off to the golden domes of home. She’s young and there’s a child who will never know the man gone away so that as we eat the cake, I can almost hear a lullaby, the voice all loam and gut, the words in Czech or Hungarian or Romanian, or all of them perhaps, because, in truth, Klotilde is nothing so much as the scent of vanilla and the froth of beaten eggs. And more than Klotilde, it’s my mother-in-law who’s caught me—this woman who does daily battle with the world, with energy left over for reading to schoolchildren and the baking of cakes. It’s the way she shakes her head and refuses to be soothed about a neighbor from four decades prior— denying me the lie of the happy ending I’d otherwise weave—that makes me take notice.

Still, it’s a delicious cake and my mother-in-law is a splendid baker, so I lift my fork for another bite, savoring all that’s known, while absorbing, at least for the moment, all that can’t be made right. I make my way through the icing into layers of sugar and rum and salt. The way they come together. The way each is needed. All of this nearly makes me close my eyes as I take up another forkful and let Klotilde’s cake fall dark and sweet into my mouth.  end  

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