Work in Progress - A Cake Without Candles


          On the way home we drove past the Pizza Hut and I told Daddy it was where I wanted to go for my birthday.

“Why wait?” he said, and with a quick check of the rearview, he pulled into an empty lot and got the truck turned around. I smiled, my eyes going big and my stomach doing cartwheels as we started back for the Pizza Hut.

Daddy parked in the space right beside the door. He smacked the steering wheel. “Let’s go.”

I threw my hands up, my smile nearly lifting me out of my seat. “But it’s not my birthday.”

He laughed. “So we go today, and then again on your birthday.”

I unbuckled my seatbelt. “I like the sound of that.”

“Thought you would,” he said with a laugh.

Sometimes my hunger snuck up on me, and it was like an ambush as we walked inside. I hadn’t even known I was hungry, but when the smell of garlic bread and warm pizza hit my nose, I nearly collapsed. But first, tradition.

Daddy motioned to Pac Man machine at the sit-down table, where we always tried to beat each other’s score. I shot him my finest dueler’s squint. “You’re on.”

Daddy always made a big deal about our retro Pizza Hut. He marveled over the checkered vinyl tablecloths and the red and white Pizza Hut light shades. And he couldn’t help himself with the old jukebox, talking about how he and Mama used to come here when they were kids. I usually didn’t mind all his reminiscing, so long as he was buying pizza, but I’d had Mama on my mind a lot lately, and I wasn’t sure I could hold back all my questions when he brought her up.

We got out table and Daddy ordered a pitcher of Dr. Pepper, my favorite. Once the waitress hurried off he sat back and stared at me with a smile. I could tell he was over the Aunt Bethany thing, but when I started fiddling with my thumbs he dipped his head low and asked me what I was thinking about.  

“Nothing,” I shrugged. I’d been thinking of lots of things, things that kept me up half the night. But for some reason I went with, “Well, I’ve been thinking about Mama again.”

Soon as it left my mouth, I wished it back. Daddy’s smile clamped shut like a hymn book at noon. He removed his Chevy hat and wiped his face before he set it back on his head. “Sweetie, I wish I could change things for you, wish I had better answers to give you, but…”

“No.” I shook him off before he went down that road. “Daddy, that’s not what I meant. What I’m trying to say is,” Man, here he’d gone and taken me out for pizza and I’d gone and ruined everything. “I mean, I’m glad I have you—more than anything in the world.” I reached out and took his hand, like they did in Aunt Bethany’s soaps when they said something meaningful. “I promise. It’s just, sometimes I can’t help but wonder where she is, and if she ever thinks about us.” I looked down. “About me.”

Daddy gripped my hand, his big thumb smoothing over my knuckles. He gazed out the window. “I’m sure she does, Net.”

I took a breath, wondering how to say what I’d been thinking. There was no way other than blurting it out. “Do you ever hear from her? Does she call? Or…”

“Nettie.” He watched me for almost a full minute. Then, before he let go of my hand, his gaze fell, like he was counting the checkerboard squares on the table. He took a breath, but before he could speak, the waitress returned. She smiled brightly.

“So what will it be tonight?”

Daddy’s head popped up. I did my best to put a smile on my face. Daddy nodded at me and I did the honors. “We’ll have a large pan pepperoni and pineapple.

She smiled. “Okay, got it. Be out soon.”

Once she was gone, Daddy laughed. “Never thought I’d eat pizza with pineapples.”

“It’s the best and you know it,” I said, but my voice wasn’t into it. His face went serious again.

“Nettie. I’m sorry. You know, Aunt Bethany says…”

A surge of hope shot up my spine to my brain. “Aunt Bethany spoke to Mama?”

“No. Well, I mean of course, a while back.”

I pounced. “How long ago?”

Daddy frowned. He shifted in his seat. “Oh, it was some time ago. I never wanted to get your hopes up, Nettie.”

I gazed out the window. Traffic swooshing one way or the next. Mama was out there, somewhere, in this great big world. I knew I needed to do whatever it took to speak to Aunt Bethany about it. Which meant getting back on speaking terms with her, which meant an apology. Yuck. I poured some Dr. Pepper in my cup. That was a tough pill to swallow.

Daddy was looking like he was sitting on thumbtacks, so I decided not to press him any longer. And so when he said, “Well, you all set for school?” and went back to doing that I can’t believe you’re going into middle school stuff, I sat back in my seat and smiled.

Usually, I would have told him to knock it off, but not tonight. I didn’t want to mess up this evening any worse than I already had.

I took a pad and pen out of my medicine bag and beat Daddy in a game of hang man. We were back to laughing, over the rough patch about mama, when our pizza arrived, and I pulled a steamy, stringy, gooey cheesy slice from the pizza puzzle.

The thing about Daddy always leaving was that I wanted the clock to slow down. I wanted to sit there with him at that table under the warm glow of the restaurant all night and right until forever. Sometimes I just know when I’m living a memory that will stay with me for a long time. And that’s what it was. All of it. The way Dad’s mustache curled with his smile as he tried to get the high score on Pac Man, how he knew all the words to the songs, his corny jokes that still made me laugh because of how he told it. We laughed about everything and nothing because neither one of us wanted to get back home and go to sleep. Because that would mean he’d be gone tomorrow.  

After I ate three pieces of pizza and desert then sucked down more Dr. Pepper than one would think possible for a girl of 86 pounds, Dad paid the tab and we walked out to face the night. I kept the piece of paper from where I’d beaten Daddy at hangman. I saved everything. Sentimental, I guess.

It was dusky out but still thick and muggy. Daddy lit a smoke and I started for the truck when he asked me to wait. I shot him a look but it was clear he had something on his mind. He took a seat on the curb and patted the place beside him. I did, and he exhaled a plume of smoke and looked straight ahead.  

“I lied, Nettie. Back there about your Mama.”

It felt like my veins turned to prickly briars. “What?” My voice shook, straining to hold the weight of my feelings.

Daddy looked off, as though he couldn’t face me. I watched his cigarette, the hot coals burning the paper at the edges. “I haven’t spoken to her in a long time. Real long time. Neither has Aunt Bethany.”

My tears won the race, springing from my eyes before I could get the words out. “But why?” I wiped the tears away with the back of my hand. I never cried in front of Daddy. He looked away and cursed under his breath. I took a breath and asked him again. “Why would you lie about it?”

When Daddy turned to me again, his eyes were wet. He gave me a little shrug. “Because of your face. Because I hate that she’s gone.”

I dropped my head. Daddy did the same. He started apologizing all over again as we sat on that curb sorry as could be. I wondered how I could feel so empty with so much pizza and drink in my gut. I wondered what happened between being inside the restaurant to sitting out here, but it felt like two different worlds.

Once daddy stopped with all the apologizing things got quiet again. Then it was my turn to stare off, my jaw locked in place. The smell of oil and tar and Dad’s still burning cigarette mixed with the warmth of the pizza on my lap.

We sat on the curb and watched the cars drift down the street. A motorcycle grumbled along as Daddy waited me out, before he set his smoke on the curb and smashed it with his foot. I watched the smoke spiral into the air, thinking how I felt like that sometimes. Sucked dry and thrown away.

Daddy groaned as he leaned into me, pulling his knees up as he scooted closer beside me.

“I’m going to find her,” I said before I could stop myself. I kept my face straight ahead, squinting into what was left of the low sun. “I’m going to find her and tell how much I hate her.”


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