a Slice of Red Cake
Have you ever felt that something, somehow, has trapped you and you must escape? Consider the case of a hungry driver who, concluding a holiday journey in western Maryland, patronizes a roadside diner…
The Patron looked over the menu, unsure that he really wanted something else. The grease in the beef noodle soup had floated amongst more noodles than beef shards, the barbecue sandwich had belonged in a microbiology lab, but the fries had been freshly fried. He glanced first at the bill in his hands, then to the lunch counter menu displayed above him.
Home-made New York Cheesecake glared at him. We’re a long way from New York, he thought.
The Patron looked back to his bill and then to the server’s face hovering opposite the counter. “Okay, I give up. What’s ‘Red cake’?”
Off to the his right an older couple, with their family and acquaintances, congregated at the cash register. “How was it?” he heard. “Oh, everything was just fine. Just fine,” came the reply. “Well, that’ll be, oh, $25.74, please.” The older woman opened the latch of her bag and a purse appeared.
The Patron looked up. The server mumbled: “Umm, well, it’s…well, it’s got white icing, cocoa, and , ah, some food coloring, and, well, … you’ll like it. Everybody does.”
A small, wiry man looked to his left as he pulled forward to let a girl squeeze by.
The Patron thought a second and laughed quietly. “Fine. I’ll try it,” he said.
Two others stood by as the server lifted the clear plastic protective cover from the cake dish, held the long pewter knife overhead, and prepared another sacrifice. After paying silent, hesitant homage to the Red Velvet Cake, the first incision was made. Then, a half-cut and another, and so forth until several severed pieces were ready. With each successive slice, a strange, scarlet essence seemed to bleed from the cake.
The Patron reconsidered his acquiescence, but it was too late.
The first piece of the small diner’s famed Red Velvet Cake served this evening was placed before the Patron.
There seemed to be enough red dye No. 10 in the thing to render a colony of laboratory mice—or rats, or guinea pigs—cancerous. The scarlet sections—more garishly crimson than the tackiest fake Royal Stewart imitation tartan plaid—were highlighted, as it were, by a semi-sticky, gooey, white puss passing for white sugar icing. Or, cream cheese. Or, something…
The Patron smiled to himself—and determinedly brought down his fork to cut the first morsel.
The customer sitting two stools down to his left lit a cigarette and asked for a third cup of ‘mud’.
Things are seldom as they appear, the Patron reminded himself. Another small hard, off-white plastic bowl of obviously recently heated canned string beans appeared on the once gleaming stainless steel ledge at the window separating the kitchen from the diners. A wrinkled, sweaty, female face with small, dark holes for eyes appeared above the ledge. “No!,” she rebuked someone. “That’s with the cheese omelet, not the fried chicken!”
His fork, carrying its treasure, moved closer to the Patron’s unconcerned mouth.
A tall, rather large, and heavy-jowled man came out of the door behind the cash register from the kitchen and poured himself some coffee. He glanced over to the recently dismembered piece of Red Velvet Cake laying in state before the Patron and shook his head as he retreated back through the door.
The Patron’s back teeth fell upon a previously unrecognized piece of a nut of undetermined origin or specie
Possibly a walnut, he considered. Definitely not a cashew or a peanut. Well, what else…?
A bowl of antiseptic-white, steaming, dehydrated and reconstituted mashed potatoes appeared on the ledge. Were they intended to support the fried chicken or the omelet? No—apparently they were to accompany a larger plate just tossed up holding something resembling a—was it really a sandwich? At least two pieces of bread encompassing the flesh of a dead life form, covered under a thick, gelatinous substance that must be gravy appeared.
“Today’s a holiday,” the Patron reminded himself. One that only the federal government recognized and celebrated by not wreaking additional damage upon the nation at large. Schools still met and most businesses were open. Roadside vendors were offering fresh pumpkins and assorted autumnal cornucopia while the radio hawked shopping opportunities for Christmas.
A second bite of Red Velvet Cake urged itself into his mouth.
The Patron reached for the tall, red plastic glass of iced tea seasoned with two plastic packets of reconstituted real lemon juice. The tea cascaded down his throat and washed recalcitrant crumbs of genuine Red Velvet Cake to their intermediate processing station.
Another local family—a thin, wiry and slightly stooped father with his somewhat more stout spouse accompanied by a thin and possibly athletic prepubescent daughter and a similarly aged son who might have eyed his feet with difficulty unless he bent over—walked through the diner’s portal and accosted a server.
“Smoking or non?” she asked. “Non,” answered the wife. The flexible bar to the dining room was lifted from its eye hook, and they followed their hostess as she herded them away.
The Patron looked at the gory remnants of his Red Velvet Cake. “Damn,” he realized, “There’s more than half of this thing left.”
Down went the fork.
The noise of a large flatbed diesel truck rumbled through the plate glass windows. The Patron’s stomach answered in turn.
His mouth opened, and another bite of Red Velvet Cake began its final journey.
His mind meandered absently. About the young blond who’d followed him for several miles in her white Honda. He’d tracked her from the rear-view mirror of his own Japanese-designed, built-in-the-USA semi-sports car; noticed as she sang, presumably along with whatever was playing on her stereo. She’d probably been listening to a local radio stations that played both kinds of music—Country and Western—he decided. Her image in the mirror suggested a nice figure, which vision he’d, of course, enhanced. But she’d “followed” him only until turning off some six miles back into a subdivision set in the midst of the otherwise agrarian region. Four vehicles had been in front of him, but he’d been much less interested in them than with she who was behind, “following” him with such subtle interest.
An interest that was obvious up to the moment she turned away.
Women are so fickle, the Patron thought, as his fork returned yet again with yet another piece of the not yet obliterated slice of Red Velvet Cake and rudely returned him to the present.
The phone on the wall separating the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies rang. The server reached in and answered.
“Tim,” she started, “I’ll be a bit late. Why don’t y’all go on, and I’ll meet ya by the roadside? Well, I’ve got this one last, ah, customer, and, well, we’ll be finished with him by, well, I’ll be out of here by 5:45.…Yeah, tell her I’ll be there in a bit.…Yeah, sounds good. How’re they doing, anyway?…That’s fine.…Well, it’s been pretty busy around here for a Monday. Must be the holiday, you know?…Okay, gotta go. See you then. Bye.”
She returned the receiver to its cradle.
An older woman entered the diner with a young boy probably not older than 12 or 13, tops. They sat at adjacent counter stools to the Patron’s immediate right.
“Is everything okay, Mister?” asked the server. “Here’s your check. It’ll be five-forty two.”
The Patron looked down at the bill presented. “Thanks,” he said, as he looked at his watch. Its hands pointed to ‘5:32’.
The Red Velvet Cake, disheveled and disemboweled but undefeated, grinned defiantly. “Shit,” grimaced the Patron.
One, two, three bites went by quickly, yet the Red Velvet Cake remained on that bloody plate.
This is getting absurd, realized the Patron. This thing doesn’t even have any taste to it, and it just sits there. I’ve never met the piece of cake that defeated me!
The Patron knew—just knew—he had to get out of that diner before 5:42 P.M.
No single part of his meal had had any real taste to it, either, but this fact escaped the Patron’s immediate recognition. Challenged by the Red Velvet Cake, he set forth with grim determination to remove this piece of obstinate evil from the Earth. The older woman sitting next to him averted her eyes and turned away.
Finally that Red Velvet Cake was utterly removed from the plate.
“There’s plenty more where that came from, Hon,” the dark-haired server advised as she sauntered past on the other side of the counter.
I know, he thought sadly. I just don’t have time enough to remove more of this menace to life as we know and love it.
He leaned back on his stool, pulled out his wallet, and laid down two dollars in silent tribute to the Red Velvet Cake, now vanquished with extreme prejudice and difficulty.
The server pounced on the tip and pocketed it as the Patron made his way to the altar of the cash register.
The server took the Patron’s check and rang it up. “That’s five-fifteen, please, Sir,” she demanded.
NO! rebelled the Patron. I’ll never get out of here if they don’t get the total right.
Another piece of Red Velvet Cake beckoned him.
“Ah, ma'am, I believe that’s really five-forty two.”
“Huh? Let me check.” Seconds ticked by.
“Damn, someone left off something here.” The server fumbled a bit before regrouping.
“Five-forty two,” she admitted, accepting the proffered cash without looking up.
The Patron’s watch counted down to 5:41 P.M.
The Patron turned and strode out the door to his waiting chariot. As he started the motor, he looked to the sign announcing the diner’s presence.
A wooden bird bedecked in a very sickly shade of bright red paint grinned at him, promising more of the same in the flash of a moment for the unsuspecting.
The engine roared to life, the driver’s door slammed shut, and the Patron’s car took wings and rescued him from absolute damnation in a cloud of dust and gravel.
Neither a denizen of the dark nor a State Trooper arrested his escape.