From the author: I did, in fact, see a woman with a cake balanced on her head going up the escalator at Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. Some weeks later, I saw her again on the sidewalk. I never had the nerve to speak to her, so I wrote this story instead.
The first time I saw the lady with the cake on her head she was going up the escalator out of the subway. I was going down.
It was a three-layer cake with white icing and spun-sugar roses sitting on a large plate under a glass cake cover. The plate balanced perfectly on the lady's head – she didn't reach up to hold it, even when a person brushed past her in such a hurry to get to the street and his destination that he apparently didn't see the cake on her head.
If someone told me they saw a lady with a cake on her head, I would picture an African from one of those amazing cultures where the women carry everything on their heads – water, laundry, goods to market. But the lady with the cake on her head was not only white, but Nordic white: fair skin that showed the hint of a tan, shoulder length blonde hair with a bit of a wave in it. She wore a red suit – the same red as the roses on the cake.
She looked confident. You have to be confident to balance a cake on your head. She smiled at me as we passed. I tried to catch up with her, but even though I ran the rest of the way down and back up the other escalator as fast as I could, she had disappeared from view before I got to the top. I figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But I saw her again, several days later. This time she was just a few steps ahead of me on the up escalator. It was late in the day and she was wearing a simple black cocktail dress. The cake was iced a dark brown color and had little chocolate curls on it. I moved up a few steps so that I got off the escalator right behind her. She walked briskly once she stepped off and I had to hurry to catch up with her.
"Excuse me," I said.
She smiled, but kept walking.
I didn't know what to say. 'You have a cake on your head' seemed silly. "Hi."
"Hi." She didn't slow her stride or offer any explanations, though surely I was not the first who had ever approached her.
I was going to have to ask questions. "How do you keep from dropping the cake?"
"Practice. Lots of practice."
"It's part of the service. I make cakes for special occasions and deliver them."
"All kinds. This one is for a retirement party, but I do birthdays, showers, even weddings."
I imagined her walking down the street with a seven layer wedding cake on her head and my eyes got big.
She smiled as if she knew what I was thinking.
I wanted to see her again. "How do I get hold of you if I want a cake delivered?"
She slipped a business card out of her pocket, handed it to me, then made a sharp left onto 23rd Street. The cake never wobbled.
I tucked the card in my wallet. Every day, I took it out to call her. But I couldn’t bring myself to dial. I didn't need a cake delivered; I just wanted to know the lady who walked down the street with a cake on her head. The card grew dog-eared.
I started dating a guy I met through some coworkers. "My birthday is next Saturday," he told me. "Some folks are coming over."
The perfect excuse. I dialed her number before I could lose my nerve.
"It will be a casual affair," I told her. "Beer and chips."
"Perhaps a sports-themed cake." It was October. "Baseball?"
"Football," I said. Perhaps I sighed.
"I see," she said in a voice that made me think she really did see.
Seventeen guests were standing around drinking from plastic cups when the lady arrived with the cake on her head. A rectangular cake, with green icing divided evenly by powdered sugar lines. Twenty-two little figures were arranged on the field. One had cocked his arm back to pass. You could just see the tiny football in his hand. The lady wore jeans and a Washington Redskins sweatshirt, and a rubber hog nose over her own turned up one.
The women in the room sighed in one voice. The lady walked straight toward the birthday boy. "Happy Birthday," she said.
He laughed. Not the delighted laugh of a young boy who has been given the toy truck he's coveted for a year nor the nervous laugh of a man who is relieved to hear "I love you, too" after he's just confessed his undying affection. No, it was a contemptuous laugh, an arrogant laugh. He was laughing at the lady with the cake on her head.
Without a word, she turned and headed for the door, cake still balanced on her head. Without a word, I went after her. My boyfriend called my name as we went through the door, but I just slammed it behind me. The cake didn't wobble.
We went back to her house and ate the cake. The icing was made of butter and sugar and melted in your mouth. The cake was devil's food, with a streak of darkest chocolate running through it. It was lighter than air.
I moved in with the lady with the cake on her head. She is teaching me the business. Everyday I bake a cake from scratch, ice it, decorate it, and then set out with it on my head. The first time it slid off before I even got out the door, but now I can walk several blocks.
This story originally appeared in Flashes of Illumination.
When we started Book View Cafe, I posted a flash fiction every week. About half of them were reprints, but the other half were written on deadline. This collection includes all of them.
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