Chiffon Cake

by Liz Betz
It’s from a distant place that an unrecognizable voice speaks.  

“Evelyn.”

“Evelyn!  Are you asleep?”  

I blink then and see the eggs in the frying pan.  Crisp veins of spider brown tell me I’ve cooked them too long although they aren’t burnt.  Neither am I.  My hand rests a safe distance from the burner.  That’s lucky.  I pretend nothing has happened as I flip the eggs and bacon out onto the plates.

“I’m sorry.  I wasn’t paying attention.”  I pass my husband his breakfast and sit down in front of mine. I feel Raymond’s eyes on me while I concentrate on each shake of the pepper and salt.  

“Was it inattention or one of your sleepwalking things?” He asks like it’s a question he’s already answered.    

I don’t have to think.  Evie, who is me at ten, was in another kitchen and although I cannot see her, my mother is there too, as she waits for an excuse to scream at me.    

I glance up, because I must, and I try to see concern on Raymond’s face.  I try to see evidence that he cares.  I see his eyebrows knit and his forehead struggle.  He’ll rub his temples next.  He does.  We’ve been through this before.  He says he’s trying to help me by his request.  That’s his take.  He’s a fixer and I, in his eyes, need this.    

The moment freezes into a lie that he won’t believe.  

“I just remembered.”  I tell him.  “I’m to pick up Taylor – it’s early dismissal today and she’s staying over.”

“That’s right too.”  He takes a mouthful of his breakfast which means he’s decided to not get into it.  

But then I can tell he has a question forming.  Not today, I think, I don’t want to run a little errand for the store.  I need time to think about what just happened.  Evie usually flits in and out, but this morning she’d been there long enough to almost burn eggs.  

That’s more IMAX 3D, surround sound, eidetic image time than I’ve had for a long time.  

Raymond clears his throat. “You should reconsider.”  

This again.  I face another session of ‘Raymond knows best’. He honeys his words as a disguise of reasonable and appeasing but I’ve played this game.  

“She’s old.  She may want forgiveness before she dies.  Have you thought about that?”

“So. She can have it.  Tell her she’s forgiven.  But she’s made her bed, so she can sleep in it.  She did me a favor by leaving.  My life turned out fine.  Tell her that…. since you’ve got her ear.”  I almost add, since you’re buddies now.  He’s listened to her.  He believed her.  

“You’ll regret this.” He puts his plate in the sink and avoids my glare to peck at my cheek with a goodbye kiss.  

He thinks that he’s doing the right thing.  But good intentions can be the worst kind of betrayal.  He doesn’t know.  I do. This is best.  It’s been right for almost 50 years and just because the woman, who once was my mother, is in town and has agreed to meet makes no difference.  

I shake my head.  “No.” I say again.  I should only have to say it once.  I know my own mind.  Raymond leaves as if I haven’t said a thing.  He is Mr. Reasonable; the sane one to my crazy.  He’s still grieving the loss of his mother, and can’t see why I want nothing to do with mine.

It’s Friday and he’s promised to cover a shift at the store, but I never go in on Friday.

And I won’t.  Our granddaughter is to be here.  Taylor is in grade four and she is the most important person in my life.

I stack the dishwasher.  I bring the frying pan to the sink to hand wash and Evie returns.  

I’m ten again.  Scolding words and scalding water. I’m fighting to get my hands free but my mother’s firm grip holds them under the water.  It’s so hot.  She yells in my ear.  Why can’t you clean up?  You make such a mess.  You’re such a pig, Evie.  
  
One of my clocks chime and Evie goes away.  Every fifteen minutes an intervention is possible for the sound will bring me back to my life.  But that makes it two episodes of Evie in one day.  And what do we do if there’s a spike in episodes?  We, the therapist says, but he means me.  What am I to do?  ‘Phone for a session’ I recite.

I shouldn’t hesitate, I know, but he gets this glint in his eye, like I’m his most unusual case.  And he hasn’t told me anything new about these Evie things for years, although he does have this theory.  He says I experienced eidetic images as a child, as children sometimes do.  Certain things that I saw once, (previous optical impressions is the term he uses) return in a sort of hallucination.  But why I continue to have them is a puzzle.  Medications haven’t worked. Group therapy failed.  The strategies that do help have been my own.

The one I use most often is to flood the senses to make it impossible to ignore my world.  

My scent diffusers, that mimic candles, enliven the rooms as lilac, jasmine and sea breeze compete.  I put travel DVDs on the big screen, the Irish landscape unfurls like a green carpet before my eyes.  I select music for my headphones, Celtic, folk, dance tunes and then because busy work is good, I drag out the vacuum cleaner.  I work and as I pause between rooms, my attention is caught by one of the sensory anchors items and I remain my adult self, Evelyn.  

Raymond should be proud enough of what I have done, rather than finding me flawed because I cannot love my mother as he did his.  

Soon it is time to pick up Taylor.  The day is passing, I reassure myself and Evie too, if she’s biding close by.   I feel the shadow of my mother’s proximity; Evie must feel terror.  

I do not know my mother’s schedule but anyone who arrives will also leave.  My world is enough without her.  

It is a world of winter I drive through.  Snow-banked streets, and so overcast that the houses seem to huddle into themselves for warmth and except for stray Christmas decorations, all is gray cold.  

I park among the other cars, our exhausts plume into the air.  I pick out Taylor among the students outside the school.  She sees me too, but lingers several minutes with her friends.  

An old woman makes her way through them.  Taylor runs to the car.  A blast of cold air comes in with her, and with a ‘hey grandma’ she pulls out her toque and mittens, that she should have worn before now.  I turn up the heater.  

I ask her who that was.  She lists the names of her friends, and then realizes I mean the old woman.  

“She gave us a speech; she’s the oldest mayor in the province. It’s career week, we’ve had three speakers, since Monday.”  

As we enter the traffic, I remember.  “Was that Gerry Boggs?”  I’d heard of her, the geriatric darling of the press, outspoken and pushing 80.  

“I don’t remember her name. Can we stop at the store and see Grandpa?”  

“See Grandpa or the new shipment of jeans?”  I tease, as I turn down past the store. We’ll stop if we see Raymond’s vehicle.  But we don’t.    

“Let’s just go home, and make a cake.”  I suggest, happy to avoid more of the ‘meet your mother’ campaign.

Soon the kitchen floor has a dusting of flour, as our feet make trails, my soles slipping as if on dance wax.  Taylor tells me about the poster she made; and the test that she wrote this morning and the field trip they took to the museum.

Taylor separates the eggs and whips the whites. She holds them up for inspection.  I tell her to whip them another minute.  

“How old were you when you first baked a cake?”  She asks as she stirs the egg whites into the rest of the batter; a memorized action.

“I remember being left to bake a cake for supper.  It was supposed to be something simple, but I added spices and extracts. Anyone could smell that something was up so I got the cake into the oven as fast as I could.  All the while I was worried about my experiment.”

“How did it turn out, Grandma?”
    
“My father thought it was wonderful.”

“What did your mother think?”  She turns to me, unaware of the thin ice she is on.  It’s Taylor, I tell myself.  I can talk to her.

“Oh, she was mad. Said I made a big mess but she couldn’t say anything bad about the cake. I told her made a mistake then I tried to fix it up.  That I couldn’t make it again in a million tries.  And I promised to clean up after myself.”  

I adjust the timer for the cake and watch as Taylor puts it in the oven.  I’m breathing a bit fast, but I’m okay.  The chimes resound in kitchen, dining room and den.  

“So am I a big mess in the kitchen?”  

“You are very clean. Taylor.”  I tell her but she is turning the pages of my cake cookbook and doesn’t hear me.  

Evie never listens. I hear my mother complain so that I can overhear.  My cheeks flame as I duck my head and huddle into myself.  It’s not fair.  I try to listen to her, but when I’m in the kitchen I taste flavors in my mind.  I can’t listen because I’m serving cake after cake to a movie star, to a prince, to my future husband.  

“Evie, listen to your mother.  She’s just trying to teach you.”  My father is beside me.

That’s what she says too.  That he’s repeating her words must mean that I’m stupid.  I cannot speak past the lump in my throat.  

The chimes mark the hour.  Taylor flips the pages in the cookbook and I sense she has said something.  

“Sorry sweetie, I missed that last bit.”  I say, hopeful that I can cover my absence.

“I said I like lemon and chocolate, and cherry.  What’s your favorite cake?”

Chiffon, I tell her. Or any cake on any day with this granddaughter, yummy, as I pretend that I’m going to gobble her up.  Like Dad used to do to me.   Taylor giggles then tells me that she’s too old to be tickled.  Her dignity continues as she suggests we clean up.  I smile as I fetch the broom.  

It amazes me sometimes, when I see myself in these happy moments, that the cloud of my childhood has not cast a shadow over another generation.  If that is why I have my Evie spells, to serve as warnings, then I am weirdly satisfied they are with me.

Raymond was patient enough with all of it before my mother and he met.  Now he would have me feel shame that at 58, with a lifetime of skills learned and many moments of success, that still I need to recover from my childhood.   Why does he believe I need anything?  Why does he think that he should be alarmed and concerned and rush into analyze each incident?  He used to think my episodes special, or slightly unique like his allergy to dairy products.   She’s turned him against me.  Some mother, some loving husband!

Taylor passes me the cookbook.  I flip through the pages and realize every cake recipe is tainted with memories.  The angel food was my mother’s dieting staple, all the others that she claimed were so hard to make, and all her flops, an oily carrot cake, or the black forest cake that was solid like mud.  Her excuse at the time, that cuts through five decades to echo my ear, is that it is Evie’s fault, she insisted on helping.  

The cookbook slides into place on the shelf.  I could keep the Chiffon recipes and toss the rest for only Chiffon will do.
    
Raymond is coming through the door.  I hear his voice and that of another.  He must be talking with Taylor, but no, Taylor is here rinsing a bowl.  

Instantly I know.  No.  He didn’t.  After I told him no, and no, and no.  I’m frozen in my tracks.  The timer on the oven sounds its warning but it seems far away.  

“It’s time, grandma. The cake.”  Taylor has to speak again.  “Come on.  We have to check the cake.”

I pick up the oven mitts as though they are foreign objects.  Taylor’s head is beside me as the hot air hits our cheeks.  The cake is golden brown.  The smell wafts over me, I breathe it in.  It is good.

I put the cake on the cooling rack and Taylor and I turn to the old woman at the same time.

“Hey, you were at school today.”  Taylor said.

“Taylor,” Raymond said, “This is your Great-grandmother, Gerry, and this is Taylor.”  

I glare at Raymond but while he ignores this, he comes to my side.  Somehow, at sometime, my mother has gained new names, perhaps married, and altered her given name.  I had not known it was her in the news.  

Raymond tries to take my hand.  I move.  I’ll not make a scene but he’s still wrong. Wrong.  

The woman, this imposter, makes a show out of admiring the cake.    

“Now, doesn’t that smell wonderful?  Did you know I was coming so you baked me a cake?”

“I make cakes all the time at Grandma’s.”

“Well.  Isn’t that nice? She taught you how to make cakes.  Did you know I’m the one that taught her?”  She glances in my direction, a smug look on her face.  

Liar.  I learnt on my own like I did with everything else that I know.  I feel Raymond’s hand on my arm.  

“Watch what you say.”  He says low and indicates Taylor.  That’s when I know it is part of his plan for Taylor to be here, to keep confrontation at bay.  He squeezes my arm and says soothingly, “It’s only a cake.”

“It’s only a cake.”  I say to my father, as I hide my delight over his praise behind a flat voice.    

“That’s so right, it’s only a cake.”  My mother’s voice snakes into me.  “What about my efforts?  Doesn’t the food I prepare deserve credit too?  

I’m Evie and I can see my mother’s contorted face, her storm of anger.  There is a stone I am trying to swallow.  I can feel my fist press into my stomach but somehow I’m Evelyn too.  I can see both past and present.  Both kitchens overlap, the one of my childhood and this one of the now.  The face of my mother wavers between her youth and this crone.

Evie and I have something to say.  Her breath is shallow and trembling, mine is becalmed.  I feel her distress like a butterfly in my ribcage.  I place my hand over my stomach.

“It’s not just cake, it’s an amazing cake. Taylor has a natural talent for baking.” I squeeze Taylor’s arm and she smiles at me with clear eyes.  Eyes just like mine.    

“Would you fill the kettle for tea?”  I ask Raymond, “and keep Taylor company while you make it.”  Suddenly meek, he nods compliance.  

Taylor’s pure voice asks, “Are we going to have some of my cake, Grandma?”  I nod yes.

“Since you’re here,” I start a sentence in the general direction of the old woman and I hear Raymond’s caught breath as I formulate my words.

“Since you’re here, there are things I will tell you.”  The unflappable Gerry Boggs looks trapped.  She is in politics, where bossiness and manipulation are the norm, but I don’t know her life.  Just as she doesn’t know mine.    

“We can go in here.”  I walk out of the room and before she takes steps to follow she announces brightly, like we were voters that she needed to impress:

“Thank you but I just have the tea.  I don’t want a piece of cake.”

As we move into the study, I quietly tell her that she will have a piece of cake.  I won’t have her disappoint Taylor.  

“And if I don’t?  Honestly Evie, you’re still a bossy little creature.”  Her lips tug upward to her raised eyebrows, and she waltzes forward in some private amusement.  Just then the clocks chime the quarter hour and she throws up her hands and backs away from the noise with a shudder.  She always hated any sudden noise; she claimed, but she really meant any sound at all from me.

“Why on earth do you have all these clocks?  They are just horrible.  They must drive you crazy.”

I look at her and when her eye meets mine, I lean in closer.  It is as though I have turned on a beacon that burns through her pitiful postures and illuminates the hollowness within. I see a brokenness that no longer will reach into my life.  

“The clocks do what clocks are supposed to do.  They tell me that enough time has passed.  More than enough.”  
Liz Betz writes from rural Alberta, Canada.  Her retirement occupation of writing short stories has netted her numerous publications.  She prefers to write of the age-experienced hero and heroines.

© 2016, Liz Betz