“We Used to Do Cakes”
Today is my grandfather’s seventy-eighth birthday.
The rain is cold and fierce, and it fogs up the windows in the car, making it seem especially dangerous to weave through the near-standstill rush hour traffic on the freeway.
“I don’t know how those Parkies do it,” my mother says, looking out the window.
“Yeah, people who live up in Clifton Park. I couldn’t do this commute every day.” I look at the long row of stationary cars, imagining the constant daily stress of leaving an office park: getting into your car in the lot, knowing you’re safe only in that eye of the storm of perpetual gridlock—this is what I thought she meant by “parkies.”
When we pull into my grandfather’s driveway, I’m struck by how green the lawn is. It’s a vibrant, living green, galvanized by the April rainfall. It makes the whole image funny to me. The house on the corner with one car in the driveway, the meticulously trimmed, brimming, almost painted green grass—it all seems too perfect.
My mother tells me that Grandpa has a few things he needs my help with.
“Hello!” I call into the house, wiping my feet on the mat in the garage.
“Hello,” he answers back at his own pace. I climb the stairs to the kitchen, something I’ve done so many times in the past, and find him sitting at the table, examining his own scrawled handwriting on a floral calendar. He’s got a head full of gray hair that’s thin, but not quite balding, and wears thick glasses. The skin under his right eye is puffy and red, and a prescription bottle of eyedrops stands on the table.
“I hear you have some tasks for me,” I say jovially, and then have to repeat the word “tasks” for him.
“Oh, yeah,” he says in that familiar, calm, almost musical voice. He rises slowly. “Come on out and I’ll show ya.” I follow him back to the garage, where he leads me to the electronic tripwire system at the base of the garage door. Beneath one of the sensors lie two screwdrivers—a flat and a Philips—and a pair of wire cutters. “That one’s not on,” he explains. “The door’ll open, but it won’t shut. It thinks that there’s somethin’ underneath it.” I squat down and examine the setup. Two copper wires are to be screwed into the sensor to supply power. One is disconnected and hangs loose. “I was tryin’ it myself, but I can’t see the damn thing.” I strip the excess insulation away from the loose wire and screw it into the sensor. The red light blinks to life.
“Try it now,” I tell him. He presses the button to the motor, and the door rises to reveal the rain pounding my car in the driveway. I look down the long sloping blacktop into the street and watch the puddles fill. He presses the button again. The door rumbles down the track, only to shutter to a halt and open again. I see that the opposite sensor is also off, so I fix that one, too. He gives it one last try, and the door successfully shuts itself.
I hand him the tools and he leads me over the shelf; we have to step around a cabinet lying face down on the floor.
“What happened here?”
“I had it on the risers,” he says, gesturing to the wooden blocks in the corner, “but it wasn’t real steady, so when the wind came in, it knocked it right over. I wanna bring it out to the street so it gets picked up with the garbage.” He wheels over a hand cart. “It’s not heavy, it’s just bulky is all.”
I lift the thin sheetmetal cabinet—its size really does belie its weight—and stand it up properly. One of the doors has fallen off, and the contents splay across the floor: old newspapers, magazines, rags, dish towels of assorted color. He ignores the mess.
“It don’t look too bad because Grandma did a good job paintin’ it,” he says, sliding his fingertips on the beige stucco finish on the metal.
“Yeah,” I say wistfully, then chime: “You could get that door back on the hinges. It doesn’t look like it’d be too hard to reattach.”
“Yeah, I could,” he says, “but I’ve been meanin’ to throw this thing out for years.” He pauses a moment before adding, “It’s raised on the bottom, and the spiders love it.”
I leave it at that. I put the cabinet on the hand cart and maneuver it through the downpour out to the curb, where it looks funny and out of place.
“Well, that was it,” he tells me as I jot back to the garage and shake the rain from my hair. “Thank you very much.”
We go inside and Grandpa opens his presents. I didn’t know what my mom had gotten him, but I easily could have guessed: an impermeable Yankees tablecloth and a gift card to the hardware store. I wonder where in this house he keeps this ever-growing collection of baseball memorabilia. If they judged it by how many tired and predictable gifts he received from family members, he’d by far be their number one fan. He reads from the script: “Very nice, thank you.” The weather forecast blares from the TV, and I play with the now-unused Wurlitzer upright while my mother calls ahead to the restaurant.
We go to dinner at the new Texan steakhouse down the street. Even though it’s a Tuesday night, the place is crowded, and we have to wait for a table. We’re seated at a wooden booth, where we lean in close and practically have to shout over the din of music and conversation. “I was only catchin’ every third word,” Grandpa says after the waitress disappears. For the most part, he looks silently at his food and eats.
On the drive home, we pass by the bakery.
“Ooh,” my mom bubbles from the back seat, “wanna stop and get a birthday cake?” I look back to smirk at her and she’s beaming a grin, raising her eyebrows, trying to tempt me to stop.
“We used to do cakes,” Grandpa says, not taking his eyes off the rain coming down on the window. “I don’t wanna do ‘em anymore. We would do one cake, me and Ma, since our birthdays was close. They’d put both of our names on the cake. I don’t wanna— I’ve got an aversion to it now.”
No one says anything.
“I’m stuffed,” I blurt, trying to break the silence.
The rest of the car ride is quiet. We pull into the driveway and Grandpa gets out. We say our goodbyes. Mom and I wish him a happy birthday, and we watch as he enters the house and shuts the garage door behind him. I roll down the driveway and shift into drive. As I pull away from the stop sign, I catch a glimpse in the rearview mirror of the open cabinet blown onto its back by the wind, collecting rainwater, its face to the sky.