Her voice sounds like the first time we spoke on the phone—like it could belong to anyone. It surprises me, so I mute the television and lean over the edge of the couch to hear the echo of something unspoken. “Say that again,” I say.
“I’m going out with the girls for the night. It’s Throwback Thursday,” Annie repeats as she passes through the kitchen and into the bedroom.
“It’s only four o’clock. What am I going to do?” I say.
“Why don’t you grade some papers?” she says. “You’re always complaining about how much grading you have, but you never take advantage of the time given to you.”
Given to me? As if she’s doing me a favor, forcing herself to drink margaritas and laugh about things I could never understand because I wasn’t there. But her friends were. They have always been there, since middle school, and apparently ‘know her in a different way.’ They know all of the selves she’s ever been.
“Are they bringing their other halves?” I say.
“We talked about this,” she says, searching through her purse for something at the kitchen table.
“I thought that you’d only go out with them if I was busy.”
“I’ll be back before you know it. I’ll bring home leftovers. Tess is making your favorite—coconut shrimp.”
Before I have a chance to tell her that I don’t like coconut, she grabs her high school scrapbook, a photo album, and something covered in tin foil. The last thing she says is, “Maybe you can finally fix that pipe? It reeks.” Then the crunch of her truck on gravel, and before I know it, I’m alone for the first time since I moved in with her one month ago. I’m over five-hundred miles away from my childhood home and any friend I’ve ever known—a sacrifice to be with the one I love. But now there are no more undergraduate deadlines, only gaps of time and a school bag stuffed with newly collected tenth grade essays from a newly accepted long-term substitute high school teaching position. A bastard-brother-of-a-job from the full-time position I had imagined.
For the first hour, I wear the silence like a winter jacket in summer. I know it’s true that, had Annie moved to me, she would have had far more to lose—the job, her friends and family, this house—but it doesn’t feel that way, so I give Mom a call to hear something that sounds like home. Dad answers and says she’s at the doctor’s office getting her gallbladder checked and then she’ll be getting dinner with Elaine, the neighbor. He can’t talk either. He’s draining the pool for the last time. They’ve decided to close it for good since my brother and I moved away.
“Close it?” I say. “That’s a big job to do on your own.”
“I have a lot of time since retiring,” he says.
I haven’t seen him since my brother’s wedding, three months ago, where, after the prime rib and before the cake cutting, he cornered me next to the urinals reeking of cigars and scotch, and he slurred, “Move in together before you get married. I’m warning you. I told your brother, but he didn’t listen. It’s never what you expect.” He and Mom had waited until marriage to move in together. It was “chivalrous and gentlemanly of Dad,” Mom once said. But now I find myself wanting to ask him what he does now that Mom is gone. Or how he does it.
“Do you ever wish you had more friends?” I ask.
“What do I need friends for? I’m sixty-five.”
“Don’t you get bored? Aren’t you—” I can’t bring myself to say the word ‘lonely.’
“I keep busy,” he says. “Doing this and that. I’m so busy I haven’t even had time to replace the water filter on the refrigerator. It’s been sitting on the counter for a week.”
That was my job when I lived at home. I had the thinnest arm, so he’d ask me to reach my hand between the floor and fridge to twist and pull the old water filter out with a suck of air leaving the chamber. But imagining my father lying on the cold tiled floor of the kitchen in an empty house, struggling to grab that filter, makes me want to cry. Then there’s a silence.
“I have to go,” he says. “The pump is still running. I don’t want the lawn to flood.” He says goodbye and hangs up.
I call my brother.
“I’m on a new seaweed diet,” he blurts out. This is the same brother who, before meeting his wife, ate an entire Costco-sized bag of pretzels, drank a six-pack of Guinness, and tried to puke through a screen door in our parents’ basement. Then he met Limber Lynn, a fitness instructor, on EHarmony. They were married after six months. My brother hangs up after she yells from somewhere in the house—something about burning kale. I text Gabby, one of my English Department colleagues. She texts me back a few minutes later: “At a party. cant talk.” Did she have to spare me the “I’m”, “I”, and apostrophe? I picture her balancing a drink in one hand and her phone in the other. The ache in my stomach wonders if she’s at the same party as Annie, if all the women in my life have conspired against me. Rocko, Annie’s eight-year-old German-Shepherd, whines from his bed as if sympathizing, but I shush him and attempt to grade an essay.
“Holden Caulfield is gay. It’s that simple. He’s in love with Stradlater and doesn’t get it in with the prostitute. He’s gay.”
My stomach groans. Only an hour has passed since Annie left, and I’m starving.
The kitchen is cold and dark. Tiles numb my bare feet. Annie insists on shutting off the heat and turning off lights after leaving rooms. I insist on leaving them on so that I’m not searching in a cold darkness. With outstretched hands, I reach for the switch. My fingers find the cold plastic. It’s wet with something. Click, the lights hum. I lean into the switch and sniff. It smells like Annie’s nail polish remover. I use my shirt sleeve to wipe it down.
I bought a box of brownie mix at the grocery store last week to calm a craving for sweets, but when I search through the pantry, I find only a box of expired cake mix. Cake mix expires? And then I find sprinkles. A box of Red Hots. Sugar free icing. And Twizzlers. And for some reason, I want to use all of these ingredients, I want to use more, I want cake mix to be something else, something heavy like beef or grease, something permanent like cement, something that will fill me past sixty-five years old. My stomach hurts as I stare at the ingredients, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve eaten, or if I’ve ever eaten.
I preheat the oven, mix the batter, pour it in the pan, place it in the oven, and set the microwave timer. I grade one more essay, drain a canister of canned air until it’s frosty, and watch a UFC fight that ends in thirty seconds with a kick to a head and legs collapsing like a futon. Then I shut the television off and sit quietly for a moment. The silence reminds me that I have a phone. My phone reminds me of being a teenager—I’m staring at my phone, waiting for a girl to call or text me something sweet and earnest and clichéd like, “I can’t live without you.” But it’s quiet, black, and cold in my palm. I cave and text Annie, ask her how Throwback Thursday is turning out. I want her to tell me that she’s coming home, that she’s bored, that her friends are pissing her off, as they sometimes do. Instead, she sends me a picture text: five girls, including Annie, holding glasses of something the color of Jamaican water, a tray of what looks like brownies with the tinfoil peeled back sitting on a table in the background. Annie’s eyes are only three-quarters of the way open—she’s buzzed. The caption reads, “Just like old times.” Did she expect something to be different? Old times = five years ago. Relatively new times if you ask me. If you ask the history of the world. What can change in five years? Moving out of state. Moving in together. Moving too fast. Marriage? Why wait? And a baby? What—no baby yet? Everything okay between you two? Are you scared? Who said I was scared? How hard could it be?—People don’t change. Things change around them. And what friend would want to hear about that? Who wants to listen to me bitch about me? He might nod, crunch on a pretzel, sip his beer out of the side of his mouth, maybe squint to seem really interested, like he’s straining to listen to every word, every inflection, to understand what makes me, who made me, what makes me happy, what makes me hurt. But really, he’s looking past me, through me, staring at the lacy bartender, wondering how she does it and why she won’t look his way.
I open Facebook while waiting for the cake to cook and search for my best friend from high school, my first real friend, whom I haven’t spoken to since he started dating my first love, Marissa, also my first break up. His page is public. His profile picture is a photo of him on a beach, pale, lanky, reflective in the sun sitting next to Marissa who’s wrapped in a SpongeBob towel. He’s still with her. I shouldn’t be angry after seven years, but I am. Why not? Seven years isn’t so long ago.
Then I find Buddy Listin, a guy I knew from undergrad. We’ve been Facebook friends ever since college. He was in the Creative Writing Club with me but then was accepted into a Ph.D. program and gave up telling “silly little tales.” He introduced me to Annie at a gothic-themed bar one late October night after a poetry reading. She was decked in fishnets and black flowers. Shadowed eyes and a satin skeleton t-shirt. “You fell for my dark side first,” she whispered after a few Whiskey Sours. But for the rest of the night, she clung to Buddy Listin, clutching his arm so tightly I thought her nightmare stained nails would snap off in his skin. She swore they were just friends. But when Buddy found out we were dating, he never talked to me again.
I type a message on Buddy’s wall:
“Hey, Bud. I read a paper by Stanley Fish on existentialism in Murakami. Thought of you. Hope all is well.”
It’s a complete lie. I go to the bathroom and come back to the computer. He’s already commented on my message:
“What are you talking about?”
I comment back:
“The article reminded me of that story you wrote during sophomore year, the one you read at open mic-night about the wandering bum.”
I refresh the page. My comments have disappeared. He’s posted a new status on his wall: “Existentialism is ‘Philosophical Suicide.'”
I don’t know what this means because I grade high school essays for a living. Under his profile picture is his Friends List. He has four-hundred and sixty-eight friends. I scan the list of people, many of whom have honorifics like “Dr.” or “Sir.” One friend even has “Lord” before his name. I type another comment:
“We should get together for drinks soon.”
But when I hit the “Post” button, an error message appears. It recommends refreshing the page. I refresh and can no longer see Buddy’s wall. A mistake. A glitch. I refresh again but see the same result. He had forgotten I was his friend. And now, he’s unfriended me.
The microwave timer beeps. I slip on oven mitts and pull out the cake. After it cools, I spread the icing over its square top. The set of knives my mom bought us as a housewarming gift comes in handy. I choose a knife we haven’t used yet, still wrapped in plastic and cardboard, because I don’t know what it’s used for, because it looks sharp and crooked, and because I want it to be used for something. I try to cut a piece of the cake, but the knife is too sharp, and I cut too far and high. It looks like a head. So I continue cutting the shape, shoulders, arms, legs. I scarf the extra expired cake, breathing heavily through my nose as I jam as much as I can into my mouth. And then a sour taste surfaces with a dizzy spell. I sip some water, take a deep breath, and return to the expired cake man cutout and use Red Hots for eyes, buttons, and a nose, sprinkles for the hair and stubbly beard, and Twizzlers for fingers and toes and clothes. It looks like the snowman I built as a child that my neighbor destroyed with his car after a night of drinking. Hello, Mr. Expired Cake Man. What are you doing tonight?
“Filling your stomach,” he says. “Cake Man is fine. No Expired necessary. It’s dated. And by the way, these Red Hots are giving me hives.” He peels himself off the pan with a sound like Velcro, stands in the center, shakes off a few Red Hot buttons, and jumps to the floor. “I’m in the mood for some light reading,” he says, leaving a trail of frosting footprints into the study. I follow.
Cake Man is standing on the computer chair scanning books on the shelves when I enter the room. He opens a book from a shelf of texts I haven’t looked at since college. “Camus. ‘Philosophical suicide.’ I knew it. Listin’s an asshole. He’s just angry that he can’t write anything of substance. He doesn’t know how to feel anymore.” He grabs The Bible and says, “We’ll need this later,” then jumps off the chair. “Come on. We got a waste pipe to repair.”
I follow him down into the small, damp basement. It’s unfinished, the walls exposed and the ceiling open. Two weeks ago, the waste pipe leaked from a gap that had formed where the pipe meets the coupling directly over my unpacked boxes of everything important, everything irreplaceable—photographs, my high school diary, stuffed animals from childhood—everything caked in a shit crust. For days, the stench rose from the basement and reached the front door where Annie and I turned our heads and held our noses. We took out the garbage, but the smell was still there. We cleaned up food trapped in the dishwasher, but the odor remained. It wasn’t until I needed a photo of my brother for his Facebook profile that I discovered the source. The stench is still sour, despite three bottles of Febreze.
“Is that duct tape?” Cake Man asks. “Did you use duct tape to try and repair CPVC?” He stares at me with those Red Hot eyes. He grabs his nose and flicks it to the concrete with a click. “I don’t want a nose anymore.”
I can’t tell if he’s joking. It’s only now that I realize I never gave him a mouth, only a smear of vanilla frosting. His words come from somewhere else, some place deeper.
“Are you mad?” I ask.
“I was for a second. Just that moment I saw the duct tape on the pipe and the primer and glue and saws and extra pipe and new couplings and everything you could possibly need to fix the pipe on the floor over there. Just for that second, I was annoyed.” He places his hands on his cakey hips and shakes his head.
“I knew I needed these things. I just—
“Lost heart?” he says.
I nod. He knows me.
“Come on,” he waves. “Let me show you how to fix this. Do you have a ladder?”
“What’s the matter? Too much shortening?” I laugh. He doesn’t.
“I didn’t tease you about Listin. Don’t tease me about my height.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t know.”
I grab the ladder and open it under the pipe. With one hand, Cake Man picks up the reciprocating saw. I grab his other spongy hand and kick a bucket under the leak. He climbs the ladder with my help. When he grabs his end of the pipe, he says, “Hold that other end.” So I hold it firm. He looks at me again with those burning eyes and that frosting-smeared expression.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Having you there,” he says. “It’s nice to know you have the other end. Otherwise, I’m liable to cut my cake off.”
I smile, he cuts the pipe, and it leaks chunky water and a stench like rancid meat. He teaches me how to measure a little extra on the new pipe, to fit the coupling before cutting. He teaches me how to prime, to glue, to press firmly. He teaches me to wait, so the glue can dry. At the end of it all, the section of pipe looks like a five-year-old replaced it. But it works. It’s fixed. So we clean up the mess and walk back upstairs to rinse off.
For the next hour, Cake Man helps me make napkin shoes so he won’t traipse any more frosting throughout the house and so Annie won’t get mad. He even corrects a few essays with me. “You see, it goes more quickly if you focus on just a few issues instead of trying to correct everything. Then the student won’t kill himself when he sees all the marks,” he says. “And don’t forget the praise.”
I lean in to see his comments, but I close my eyes when I inhale his cakey smell. I’ve forgotten how hungry I am. My mouth salivates. I want a bite. I want to dig my teeth into his soft shoulder, let the sweet cake disintegrate in my mouth. But then the sour taste of the expired cake returns to my tongue. I pour us some Jack Daniels. We sit in the living room across from Rocko who perks up and whines at the sweet scent of baked goods.
“I’ll tell you something,” Cake Man says. “When I was just a freshly packed box of mix on a shelf, I thought no one would buy me. I was stuck behind three boxes of confetti cake. Confetti cake! Can you imagine my luck? That dumbass, tree-smoking stock boy’s fault. But, one by one, the confetti boxes vanished. And more and more, I began to see the store’s lights, the aisle I was in, and soon, I could see clear across to the cupcake pans. I said to myself, ‘Cake, one day you’ll be in a pan.’ And the next day, you bought me. I still miss that shelf, and occasionally I even miss some of those confetti boxes. But I’m glad to be here with you.” He takes a sip of his Jack and his body swells. “Goes straight to my Xanthan Gum.”
Rocko continues to cry from his bed. My phone chimes. It’s Annie. She’s on her way.
“I guess she’s coming home now,” Cake Man says, staring at Rocko, his voice like the groan of a stomach.
Rocko’s cries persist, grow louder, and I remember why. He needs to be fed. I place my glass of Jack down on a coaster and stand. The room tilts as I move into the kitchen. I’ve had too much number seven. Is it my first drink? My fifth? Cake Man is still on the couch. He’s talking to himself and retying his paper shoes with Twizzlers. Then he takes a swig of whiskey. My vision narrows and Cake Man expands as he drinks more Jack, the icing only covering patches of his cake, unable to expand with his body. “These Red Hots are burning my eyes,” he says. “They are my eyes!” His swollen hands rub his frosted face.
I move farther into the kitchen, holding onto the counter as I open the cabinet underneath the sink and search for dog food. The bin is empty. My stomach burns as if I had eaten the whole box of Red Hots. My conversation with Annie yesterday comes to mind. She called me on my way home from work and asked me to pick up some more dog food. I told her I would get it tomorrow—that I’d get it today. And I didn’t. I haven’t. Rocko has gone two meals without eating. I’m a shitty friend to man’s best friend, but he was never mine to begin with.
“What do I do? There’s no more dog food,” I yell into the living room. “Annie’s going to kill me. I can’t drive. I had a drink. Drinks. I drank.”
“Cake Man?” I call. No answer. I move to the entrance and peer into the spinning room. Cake Man is bloated, standing atop the living room table next to my drink of Jack. The whisky is oozing from his sugary pores. Rocko is on the floor in front of him, waiting. Cake Man opens The Bible, thumbs to a passage, and then raises the glass of Jack high in the air. “John 15:12-15: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friend.'” He drinks the remaining Jack, places both The Bible and the drink down on the table, then looks at me one last time with those burning eyes. Before I can say something, before I can scream, or yell at Rocko, or say goodbye, Cake Man leaps high into the air and never lands. Rocko devours him in a few quick bites. Time expands, a deaf and mute space, and I am at its center.
Annie walks through the door with the empty container of brownies and a Tupperware filled with coconut shrimp. She freezes in the entrance of the kitchen noticing the mess, the Twizzlers and Red Hots and icing and sprinkles on the counter, the frosting across the floor, my drunken frame, Rocko’s empty food bin, and the warmth from the lights, oven, and heat. She moves to the entrance of the living room and sees the Jack on the table, sees Rocko licking his paws of icing.
“What the hell happened? Did you feed my dog cake?”
I hold onto the granite counter and think of saying “I dropped it”, “It was an accident”, or “He’s my dog too.” But instead, all I can say is, “Buddy Listin’s a dickhead.”
Over the next hour, Annie remains aloof as her temper cools, even after she climbs into bed and dozes to dreams. I lie awake next to her under cold sheets, freezing. My head is pounding while I wonder if Listin is warm, satisfied with one less friend, alone, awake, willing the image of a lacy bartender. I catch a whiff of something, like clothes left in the washer too long. But it’s stronger. It’s bitter. Has the pipe leaked again? I raise my hands to my nose, the sour scent still on my fingers. If my stomach was full, I’d probably lose it. But it’s empty. Can Annie smell it too? No—she’s quiet, unmoving, steeped in comforter and the familiar shadows of her past at the farthest edge of the bed as if the scent is too strong, too poignant for her, or anyone, to get close enough and stay long enough to fill the gaps and clean up the mess.