Birthday Cake and Baby Teeth
(Fort Worth, Texas, July, 1963)
The doors of the bus knuckle inward as it rumbles to a stop at the curb in front of the children’s home. In quick jerky movements Matt scrambles up, drops in two dimes and takes a transfer as the bus spews a burst of air and pulls into the hot Sunday afternoon traffic. The wiry eighteen year-old sits directly behind the driver, takes out a slip of paper and studies the address as the orphanage pecan trees glide past in the windows. He leans forward, saying, “Excuse me, sir, can you tell me if there’s a bus that goes down Mc Cart?”
“You can transfer to number six at Hemphill Street, downtown,” the driver says, smiling into the mirror. “Six’ll take you all the way out to Seminary Drive on Mc Cart.”
“Thank you,” Matt says, his knees jacking up and down to some frantic inner rhythm. He wipes the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief and puts it way. His mouth waters as he pictures the chocolate cake Mommy mentioned on the telephone. His mother is more an idea than a person. It was the first time he’d heard her voice on the phone. The few times he’d lived with Mildred she’d rarely spoken to him, instead relaying messages through his older sister, Anne. And as for “father,” it was just a word scrawled on the back of a sepia photograph of a smiling Army officer with his foot in a chair.
As Matt stares with unfocused eyes at the landscape flowing past, a question hovers below the level of consciousness: Why, after all this time, did Mildred want to see her invisible son?
Her call had come on the wall phone in the stairwell outside the Big Boys’ dormitory.
“Tell Matt he’s got a phone call!” Mrs. Crow yelled through the dormitory entrance. Thinking it was Maria, his girlfriend, Matt ran the entire length of the long green room to grab the dangling handset.
“Hello?” he said.
Mildred’s giddy high-pitched voice greeted him. “Hello, Mr. High School Graduate! You’re going to be eighteen next Monday. I want to make you a birthday cake!”
At the sound of his mother’s voice, Matt felt paralyzed. She was actually talking to him! He pictured her face from the last time he saw her, two years ago on visitation Sunday.
“Uh…, h-hi. A birthday cake?”
She sounded happy. She looked so pretty when she smiled. He wondered what she looked like now. He didn’t even have a picture of her. And Janet, his half sister—she was nursing the last time he saw her the year he came to the Home—Janet would be almost eight. And Lisa he’s never even seen. She must be what? Five?
“What kind would you like?” Mildred said. “Chocolate used to be your favorite.”
Matt didn’t know what to say. Choices had been rare at the Home, where you take what you get and feel lucky.
“Yeah, sure, chocolate’s fine. It’s great,” he said.
“Or I could bake you a pie. Banana cream or chocolate? It’s your birthday; you get to choose whichever you want!”
So many choices: cake, pie, banana cream, chocolate. It made him dizzy. “Uh… Cake. Chocolate. Sure, that’s good.”
After hanging up, he stood looking at the phone, wondering if he should have told her about the scholarship.
Across town, Mildred slides open the closet door and stands in bra and panties looking over her options. She knows that the only thing that fits is another print house dress, yet she moves the hangers back and forth, remembering when she could wear those other things in the back. She glances at the alarm clock, and her pulse quickens as she tries to picture Matt’s face the last time she saw him two years ago.
“Mommy! Janet hit me!” Lisa calls from the living room where cartoons are on television.
“She bit me!”
Shoes. Mildred tosses the dress onto the bed. The near-empty canvas shoe caddy flops against the closet door as she throws it open. There used to be more—the brown and white pumps and those patent leather high heels that made her feel good just looking at them. She stoops to fish among the floor clutter and pauses to knock the dust off the tasseled white majorette boots from high school. She picks the gold slippers with elastic around the tops.
“Mommy!” Lisa yells.
“I did not hit her!”
Mildred notices Janet’s lisp. She’ll grow out of it, she thinks, as she steps into the thin flowered dress, pulls it up and buttons in front of the cracked full-length mirror. She frowns at the thick flesh that obscures her hips and holds the history of her multiple miscarriages. Troy, her husband, calls them fist abortions. Why does he laugh when he says that, she wonders. Closing her eyes, Mildred shudders, remembering the pain as he pounded her belly. And the bloody mess afterward. She wonders how everything could have gone so wrong. “He’s big now,” she murmurs. “Spunky will help me.” Those words are on her mind as she leans close to the mirror and applies bright red lipstick.
Mildred sits at the dresser and begins brushing her hair. Little Lisa comes in wearing nothing but panties and stands next to her with a battered naked doll clamped upside-down and unblinking under her knobby elbow. As the thin five-year-old blinks back from the mirror, Mildred notices Lisa’s delicate turned-up nose and is reminded of Anne, her big half-sister. Where is Anne, anyway, she wonders. Trance-like, she begins absently brushing Lisa’s fine brown hair in slow, careless strokes. In a practiced ritual, Lisa tilts and turns her head under the brush, directing the energy where it is needed. In the next room, Mickey Mouse is rescuing Minnie.
Lulled by the rocking of the bus, Matt drifts back in time to another chocolate cake, when he was six years old. What family he had then called him Spunky. He remembers the cake aroma drifting out to him in Aunty’s garden where he and Anne were playing. The tantalizing scent drew them indoors, where it filled the house. Then that rush of hot air as the oven door opened, revealing four steaming circular pans. Mommy up there with a spatula, mortaring those brown disks with chocolate icing. Toothpicks to hold them in place. He licked the back of the spoon while Anne licked the other side, giggling at the chocolate smudge on the tip of her freckled nose.
The sizzling tires of the bus whine a high-pitched chord as it cruises past familiar places—the Mexican Inn, the 312 Club, a yellow brick house at Bomar Street where they had lived during one of the few times he and Anne were living with Mildred. In those days, it was Anne who taught him how to tie his shoes and Anne who had made cinnamon toast in the morning.
In those days, Home was wherever Matt fell asleep, like the back seat of a car, with street lights gliding past, lying head-to-toe hugging his sister’s legs as the fatherless family drifted among the motels and taverns along that six-lane stretch of Highway 180 called East Lancaster Avenue. A week or two here. Four weeks there.
Unsupervised and oblivious to danger, the vagabond pair were drawn to anything curious or exciting and have scars to show for it. They found an abandoned refrigerator, and took turns locking each other inside. A giant wooden cable spool was an alien spaceship that they pushed upright and rolled downhill into the street. At the drive-in theater behind the Park Plaza Motel, they’d climbed inside the giant silver screen and used the framework for monkey bars.
A cloud of diesel fumes catches up to the bus at the Beach street intersection, and the engine idles as Matt strains to picture Mommy the last time he saw her. Great-aunt Carrie had usually come alone on visitation Sundays; so he was surprised when his mother drove up in a blue ’58 Chevy with Aunty riding shotgun. Mildred gave him a driving lesson that day. She seemed happy, almost carefree. It was hands-down the best time he’d ever spent with her. Troy, her new husband, wasn’t there to spoil everything.
The light changes, the bus lumbers into the heat and Matt opens his window all the way, unbuttoning his shirt. He’s proud of the new Madras shirt and Levis he bought with his earnings from driving the delivery truck for Book Nook. He’s proud of the scholarship and that he’ll be starting college next month. His heart beats faster, knowing that when he gets to Mommy’s he won’t be invisible anymore. He sits up, lifts his chin and straightens his shoulders the way Aunty taught him.
He remembers the first time Mildred came for visitation. It was a hot spring day a month after he and Anne arrived at the Home. The curbside doors of Troy’s ’52 Buick were flung open for ventilation. Matt and Anne were in the back with Aunty, who kept fanning her large lavender-scented presence with a church pamphlet. Mommy and Troy were in front, and Troy had leaned over the seat to read aloud from their marriage license to prove to everyone that he and Mildred—now three months pregnant with Janet—had finally married. Three months later they returned. The sight of baby Janet in his mother’s arms gave Matt a twinge of envy, and he feels it again, just now.
“It’ll just be a couple more weeks, and we’ll come get you, Mildred had said, adjusting Janet’s blanket and shifting her bottle.
The next month Aunty came alone, with a message: “They’ve gone to live in Colorado. Troy said he didn’t want to raise someone else’s kids. That ornery cuss is running from child support. He’s got five other kids from another marriage.”
The words were like lead weights slung around his shoulders. Mommy’d said a couple of weeks!
But the days and weeks piled up into months and melted into a river of yesterdays.
During Matt’s nine years at the Home, time kept swallowing Mildred and spitting her back. She came for visitation maybe four times. Not even a card at Christmas and suddenly she wants to make him a birthday cake? Matt shakes his head and heaves a deep sigh.
And yet he feels the urge to see her. After all, she had called.
After changing buses, the trip south on Mc Cart is brief. Matt covers the final three blocks on foot, unconsciously avoiding cracks in the sidewalk. He stops and studies the “6329” painted on the steps below the porch of a small white wood-framed corner house next to a railroad crossing. The front yard is weeds and hard-packed earth. Tall shoots of Johnson grass nod gently behind a scraggly rose bush.
Cicadas take turns drumming the air as Matt gazes at the house and wipes his brow. It’s like being in a heat vise, sandwiched between the sun above and the concrete baking through the soles of his shoes. It’s just a few steps to the porch, but his feet are rooted there. He knows he’s supposed to want to see his mother, but something’s holding him back. What should he call her? His friends at school call their mothers Mom. Silently he mouths the words—Mom, Mother—but they’re like a foreign language.
The screen door opens, and a small arm and matching leg wrap around the black door frame. A child’s face appears. Matt starts forward, and the little girl’s limbs fold away like a spider disappearing into a hole.
Cake aroma greets him at the door. As he knocks he sees a woman’s dim silhouette through the screen, backlit by the kitchen window.
“That you, Spunky?” Pots and pans rattle, and Mildred comes. Matt hasn’t been called by his nickname in years. It makes him feel small. He clears his throat. “Um… Hi!”
“Hi-i-i!” she says, pushing open the door. “You found us!” She looks up at him, smiling. “Come in! Your cake’s almost ready!”
“Hi, it was easy.” He shrugs. “The buses were on time.” He grabs the door, surprised at how small she seems.
Mildred releases the door and steps back. “Look how tall you are. Your father was six feet. You’ll be six feet too.” She pats his shoulder as he moves through into the front room, hands in pockets, blinking to adjust to the light.
“Come over here and let’s look at you.” Mildred motions toward the kitchen. “Janet! Lisa! Come see your big brother!”
Janet, brown-eyed and plump, beams a shy smile from a doorway, pulling at her stringy shoulder-length sand-colored hair. Lisa is the spider girl, her tousled curls and blue eyes visible over the top of a chrome-legged kitchen table. Both girls are barefoot and wear worn and discolored everyday dresses.
“Hi.” Matt smiles and waves at the girls, then turns toward the woman who brought him into the world. He glances at her, looks away, then back again, struggling to reconcile this image with the shapely form in his head.
Mildred’s shoulder-length wavy brown hair is fluffed and combed back on the sides, held in place with plastic barrettes. She wears thick makeup and lipstick, her chipped nails a matching bright red. A yellow apron with limp ruffles covers her dress. Her face looks puffy to him, but despite everything, she seems prettier than most of the mothers of his friends at school.
“Janet, Lisa. Don’t be shy. He won’t bite,” Mildred says, glancing back and forth between the girls and Matt. “Come sit while I finish your cake.” She motions toward the kitchen table.
Matt pulls out a chair and sits. Lisa giggles and climbs a stool near the sink, where she perches, gumming her lips, suppressing a smile that eventually breaks through revealing her cavities.
Mildred notices Matt’s reaction. “It’s okay,” she says. “They’re just baby teeth. I’ll just make some finishing touches here.” She returns to the cake.
Janet marches to the table and sits across from Matt, repeatedly drawing a strand of hair through her mouth. She cocks her head, looking directly at him. He smiles and turns to watch Mildred scoop chocolate icing from a bowl with a long rectangular knife and apply it with utmost care.
“Janet, would you pour some milk for you and Lisa?” she says.
Janet jumps up and goes to the refrigerator.
“Do you want milk or iced tea?” Mildred looks at Matt. “I made some fresh.”
“Milk,” he says without hesitating, then, “No… tea.”
The girls look at each other and giggle. Matt blushes and looks around the room. It feels like their eyes have been on him since his arrival. There’s a faint odor of dirty clothes, cigarettes, beer and whiskey. The kitchen sink is full of unwashed dishes. The counter is cluttered with cooking utensils and an overflowing ashtray. Through the kitchen window comes the distant sound of a locomotive’s air horn.
From his seat at the table, Matt has a view of the living room past the stove and over the arm of a badly worn leather easy chair. Curtains partially drawn over broken Venetian blinds darken the room. On the coffee table, another bulging ashtray is overlapped by a newspaper. Weathered magazines and comic books are carelessly stacked and strewn. Dirty clothes are piled on a vinyl-covered couch. Mildred hums along with Dean Martin’s “Volare!” on the kitchen radio: Just like birds of a feather, a rainbow together we’ll find. It’s all so familiar, and Matt suddenly feels tired.
The cake Mildred sets on the table is a glimmering promise of gustatory delight.
“I made it from scratch,” she says. “I always make my cakes from scratch.” She removes the apron and starts applying candles.
Matt chuckles. “I remember Aunty used to say, ‘No box cakes at my house.’”
Mildred says, “Lisa, get down from there and go sit at the table.”
Lisa climbs down and parks in a chair in front of a glass printed with underwater scenes of shells, fish and seaweed, the colors vivid against the white background of milk inside.
“Eighteen candles,” Mildred says, throwing Matt a smile.
Matt watches them distribute the candles, each in an individual white sugary base. During half those years he was at the children’s home. He knows this, and he knows that most of the other years were at Aunty’s. Sitting here feels almost like being in a family. A familiar longing surges up. But he shoves it back down, cracks his knuckles and crosses and re-crosses his legs. The girls giggle and trade looks.
When all the candles are blazing, Mildred says, “Okay, let’s sing ‘Happy Birthday.’”
As they sing, Matt’s mind goes to the orphanage dining room, with seventy a cappella voices. It seems like every week someone’s having a birthday at the Home. Next week the song will be for him and Ingstrom.
The girls clap and yell, “Make a wish! Make a wish!”
Matt closes his eyes and inhales, searching for something to wish for. The longing returns. Could they? He shoves it down again, purses his lips and blows, pushing air until after the candles are out, emptying his lungs.
Mildred’s three children watch as she slices a large piece of cake and hands it to Matt. She cuts smaller pieces for the two girls and herself. Matt and the girls trade glances over grinning mouthfuls. The girls giggle at their white moustaches. Matt takes his time, cutting small bites, chewing slowly, prolonging the wonderful sweet taste he remembers so well.
Mildred pulls a cigarette from a pack of Salems and lights up. “Oh, crap!” She chuckles. “I forgot the tea!” She goes to the counter and begins filling glasses. Tea spills. “Goddammit! Shit!” she says, stamping a foot. “Janet, go get the mop. Quick!”
“Shit!” Janet mutters. She jumps up and rushes out, then returns with a damp mop reeking of mildew.
Mildred puts a glass of tea down hard on the table in front of Matt and cleans up the spill, then leans the mop against the wall. The girls exchange looks and wrinkle their noses at the smell. The train horn sounds again, louder this time.
“How’s Troy?” Matt says, studying Mildred’s face.
Her smile turns into a grimace. “He’s at work,” she says, puffing on the cigarette. “He manages two Fina stations over on Hemphill. He’s hardly ever home—works days and most nights.” She lifts her head, gazing blankly out the kitchen window, revealing a bruise on her neck partially covered by makeup.
“How’s Anne?” Mildred says.
Matt sighs. “I don’t know. Last I heard, some lady sent her to modeling school, and she was staying with her over by TCU.” He sighs again, wondering how he will get in touch with her.
Matt wants to leave, but he doesn’t want to be rude and go too soon. As he searches for something to say, fractured scenes descend like winged ghosts: Mildred being attacked by a chow and Uncle Roy threatening to cut off it’s head with a butcher knife—Mildred pinching Matt, saying, “There, cry yourself to sleep!”—her whiskey breath words, “You kids are not going to ruin my young life. I’m going to live high, love hard, and die young!” —and strangling terror as the glowing red coil of a cigarette lighter comes at him in the dark. Unconscious of doing so, he rubs the scar.
At that moment their eyes meet, and for the first time in her life Mildred actually sees her son. This time he doesn’t look away. She opens her mouth, but words don’t come, and she knows she cannot ask anything of him. Not now. Not ever. The cigarette burns her fingers and falls into the ashtray.
“It’s hot,” Matt says, wiping his forehead with his handkerchief. He gulps tea. “There’s mint. It’s been forever since I had mint in my tea.” Two more swallows, and the ice rattles. Mildred refills the glass.
“It grows right outside the back door,” she says. “Is it sweet enough?” She nudges the sugar bowl closer.
Lisa gets down from her chair. “I have to go to the bathroom,” she says, and trots through a doorway, tripping on a rug.
“Godammit!” she whispers.
Janet smothers a giggle. Mildred doesn’t notice. She takes a long drag from the cigarette and exhales, watching the plume drift out the kitchen window. Again the train horn sounds.
“Janet, how old are you now?” Matt says, looking at her.
“I’m eight in December. Is that Aqua Velva you’re wearing? I like your shirt.”
“What grade will you be in when school starts?”
“Fourth grade,” Janet says, tonguing a decayed tooth. “I like your shirt.”
Matt glances down at the buttons. “Thanks. It came from India. What’s your favorite subject?”
“I hate school,” she says. “School’s yucky!”
Mildred smiles, gazing dreamily out the window. “I went to your school,” she says, glancing at Matt. “Poly High, Class of ’38. Ours was the first graduating class in the new building.” She chuckles. “I was a majorette.” She sits up, shakes her hair and blows another plume.
By the time he finishes the cake, Matt is squirming in his chair. He needs to pee, but he wants out of there. “Thanks for the cake,” he says, rising. “It was really super. I gotta be back by five.” He’s not due back at the Home until six, when the orphanage bus leaves for church.
Mildred comes out of her reverie and looks at Matt. “What are you going to do, now that you’re out of school?”
Matt gets to his feet. “I got a scholarship to Arlington State. I’m leaving in a couple of weeks.” He glances at her, then stares out the door.
“Oh! …Congratulations! I’m so happy for you! Girls, Spu…, uh, Matty’s going to college!” The girls exchange puzzled looks.
Matt blushes. “Yeah, I didn’t even know about it until the last day of school. Some sort of benevolent fund.”
Mildred rises to join him as Matt sidles toward the door, wondering how to fill the emptiness with words. At the door, she touches his arm and looks up at him.
“Come see me before you leave, will you? Come say goodbye.”
“Sure thing. Yeah,” he nods, glancing at her as he moves past. “See y’all later,” he waves over his shoulder.
Outside, he turns and waves, forcing a smile. Mildred holds the screen door open. At the street he turns and waves again. Mildred waves. The girls wave, yelling, “Bye-bye!” Everyone smiles.
The bus groans away from the curb, listing to the right from the weight of passengers avoiding the sun-baked seats on the left-hand side. It will be an uncomfortable ride with a full bladder, but Matt had to get away. He slouches into a seat on the cool side and turns his face into the wind. A blast from the horn of a southbound freight train drops a half-tone as the engine rumbles past. Matt looks at the shrinking white house and sighs, glad to be returning to the sanity of Mrs. Crow and the dormitory.
He’d thought it would feel good to tell Mildred about the scholarship. He’d wanted her to be proud of him. It should have been a big deal, but it was an empty feeling that came when he said the words. He turns away from the window and studies the vacant seats, then closes his eyes and swallows the tightness in his throat, hoping she won’t call again.
The clanging of the railroad crossing bells fades until the sound is smothered by the singing of the tires. As the wind musses Matt’s hair a good feeling washes through him. He feels almost weightless, as if he could fly. He sits up, straightens his shoulders and watches the road ahead. His thoughts are on Maria. He wants to call and hear the sound of her sweet voice.