“Look, there’s no metaphysics on earth like chocolates.”
― Fernando Pessoa, The Collected Poems Of Alvaro De Campos: 1928 1935: V. 2
The ladies of the town were holding their cake walk. A rough circular path of squares and numbers had been put down onto the concrete in yellow masking tape. A motley group of old women and small children slowly walked this course while a record player pumped out a thin buzzing stream of polka music. After an appropriate delay a hand lifted the tone arm and the cake walkers settled onto their squares with an obvious air of excitement and anticipation.
After a short dramatic pause, Mrs. Slaughter, the oldest and biggest battle-ax in the women’s veteran auxiliary, reached into a metal can and drew out a slip of paper. There was a microphone hooked to the record player and after blowing on the microphone screen, causing the record player to pop and squeal, Mrs. Slaughter called out “Number Sixteen, the winner is number Sixteen.”
A huge gray-haired woman in a shapeless, colorless print dress shook with excitement and shouted, “I win! I win!” She was escorted by the other walkers over to a long table covered with various cakes of all shapes, colors, and sizes. Her eyes gleamed as she looked up and down, finally making her choice, and everyone clapped as she hoisted her choice high. The look on her face… this might well be the highlight of her life.
“All right everyone, get on your squares,” Mrs. Slaughter’s voice crawled from the speaker, “Get on your squares, find a good one, only a dollar.”
Sam palmed the single bill in his pocket. He had found a dollar forgotten in his sock drawer that morning. He was filled with a strange excitement and smiled as he dropped his money into the box and took his place in the masking-tape squares. The music started and Sam started to walk, following a scrawny little kid around and around. Sam looked around and grinned as he walked until, suddenly the music stopped. The kid in front of him halted on the seven square, which was Sam’s lucky number. Without really thinking about it he took an extra step and forced the kid to hop one more, ending up on Eight.
Everyone turned to watch Mrs. Slaughter pull out a slip of paper.
“Seven,” she said, “The winner is Seven.”
The kid glared at Sam and started to choke out, “But that was my….,” but it was too late, Sam was already starting over to the table to make his choice. Before he made two steps, his mother appeared from nowhere and put her hand on his shoulder.
“I can’t believe you actually won something,” his mother said. “Now, let’s make sure you pick a good cake.”
Sam shrugged until his mother’s hand fell away – and then they were at the table, surrounded by the other cake walkers, waiting for Sam to make his choice.
The cakes on the table had been baked and donated by all the better ladies of Putterburg. Baking was a prized skill and this was the opportunity to show off. The cakes were elaborate constructions of flour and sugar, colored, piped, and sculpted into scallops and swirls of Angel Food and German Chocolate. Sam’s mother licked her lips as the two of them scanned the rows and debated the beauty of this one or that.
Sam, however, found himself irresistibly drawn to one particular cake that had been shunted off to the far left-hand side. This one wasn’t fancy at all. It was a simple dark cylinder of chocolate icing, with no additions or decoration… not even a sprinkle. It wasn’t large and wasn’t even particularly even or symmetrical. It had a definite oblong lean to one side. The other cakes were on elaborate decorated slabs, color-coordinated with the icing. The chocolate one was on a simple piece of corrugated cardboard with a layer of aluminum foil.
Sam stared at the cake and imagined some poverty stricken woman, eking out a tough living in a rough shack on the bad side of town. Despite her perilous condition she had her pride and wanted to make a donation to the cause. All she had were basic tools, an old, unreliable oven, and the cheapest, basic ingredients. Sam could hear the clucks of the better ladies as this poor patriot brought her humble contribution, watched in his mind their disparaging sneers as the simple chocolate cake was slid to the side, forgotten, until Sam came along.
Sam had no way of knowing if his little cake fantasy was true, but once it lodged in his mind it stuck. Beside, he liked chocolate.
“I choose this one,” Sam said, pointing to the plain chocolate cake.
“Oh, no, Sam,” said his mother, “You don’t want that one. It’s… It’s probably a mix.” She said the word “mix” under her breath like it was the worst obscenity in the world. “Here,” she said and grabbed for an elaborate pink and blue design, let’s take this one.”
“No, I want the chocolate cake. I like chocolate. I like this one the best. I won and I get to chose.” Sam was stubborn and held onto the foil covered cardboard. His mother looked like she was going to die. Sam could hear the clucks from the ladies auxiliary as he set his jaw and walked away. He took his cake and went straight home. He walked the whole way, leaving his bicycle leaning against a tree.
At home Sam grabbed a plate, knife, and fork, then pulled a half-empty bottle of milk from the fridge and retreated to his room. His parents didn’t like it when he locked the door, but he did anyway. He sliced a generous hunk of chocolate cake and ate it in his bed, alternating bites with swigs from the milk bottle. He took joy in the dark crumbs that fell and disappeared into the bedspread and sheets.
The cake was good, but not as good as he had imagined when he first saw the stark cylinder of pure dark chocolate.
Sam pitched the empty milk bottle into his trash, arranged the cutlery around the cake, and slid the foil-covered cardboard under his bed. Sam heard the commotion when his parents and little brother came home, but simply turned on his bedside radio and cranked the dial to drown out the thumps, squeaks, and shouts of the three of them garumphing around. He was pretty sure nobody would bother him and nobody did.
In the morning Sam woke and heard his family clanking around the kitchen, getting their breakfast ready. He was hungry but didn’t feel ready to face all of them yet. He remembered the cake under his bed – there was still at least three-quarters left – and dropped down to pull it out. Overnight the cake had been discovered by ants and the tiny black red bodies swarmed and choked the cake, a line stretched across the floor, each soldier holding aloft a single black crumb.