Red Velvet Cake

It was the Fall of 1994.

I'd been renting a room from Cindy for more than a year.

We got to know each other pretty well in that time.

She told me a lot about her family, where she was from, what she aspired to do with her life.  At this moment in time, she says she is content with her night shift job.  There is so much about Cindy that eludes me.  For example:  While she would talk about her family, she only spoke about them in vague terms.  I'd come to understand where they lived, but she wouldn't tell me anything about their character other than that they were either nice or not nice.  

I, on the other hand, spoke at great length about my own family, my background, what it was like to grow up in Northern California.

Halloween had come and gone, and the nip of winter was in the air around Lacey, Washington.  There were days that seemed cold, while other days seemed spring-like, almost summery.  It was that time of the year when warmth gave in to the cold of winter's sleep.  Of that special time in my life, I thought I'd experienced brutal winters.  It would be a little more than a year before I experienced a true winter, a winter at it's worst, when I was to live through the bitter nasty that was the winter of 1995/96 in New York.

For now, in the Fall of 1994, I was resolute in knowing that this was as bad as it could get.  The coastal weather of the Pacific Northwest tends to be mild, with the exception of the cold and snow one might experience in the Cascade Mountains.

November came and we busied ourselves with the monotony of our work routines and my school routines.  Cindy had her evening shift.  I had my day shifts, but, we would always find time to meet in the middle.  Often, this middle time would be on a weekend.  As the days passed into the weeks of November, we talked about our plans for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.  Cindy was very pleased.  She would be spending the holiday with her mother and father.  She even made plans for the foods she would bring to the Thanksgiving event.

"Cindy," I said, "will you be making that amazing red velvet cake for the family?"

"Of course I will.  They absolutely love my red velvet cake," she replied.

"Are you sure it'll be okay if I have a couple of friends over on Thanksgiving, Cindy?  We won't have much of a meal, but none of us want to be alone and we are each of us very far away from our own families."

"Of course I don't mind.  You should definitely have your friends over."

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, Cindy told me she would be leaving early for the day trip out to her family's home.  She was very much looking forward to spending it with them.  The day before Thanksgiving, she made her signature red velvet cake, placing it neatly in a plastic cake tote.

On the morning of Thanksgiving, I got up extra early.  I went for a run.  The air was brisk, and I marveled at the trail my breath was making as I ran through the neighborhood.  It seemed that everyone was up early today.  It was clear to me with the vehicles crowded around certain houses, who it was who had family over.  It was all so very cheerful.  When I was within a block of my return run home, I caught the scent of baking pumpkin and cinnamon wafting from a nearby house.  It was coming from the home of Cindy's friend, Jessica.

Jessica and I had also become friends.  On that morning, I jogged up to her front door, knocked, and was greeted with a big hug and kiss.  Jessica introduced me to her mother, father, aunt, uncle, cousins...  the introductions went on for what seemed like minutes.  I just loved Jessica.  She was always the life of the party, and she seemed always to be welcoming one person or another to her home.  

"Now, Orval, you simply must taste a piece of my pie!"  I looked at the kitchen counter.  There were at least six pies, all of them pumpkin.

"Well," I said, "if you insist!"  Her pie was delicious.

"Do you have plans for today, Orval?  Because if you don't, you know we'd love to have you over."  This is one of the truly blessed things I loved about Jessica.  She was always so warm, so welcoming.

I replied, "Oh, thank you so much.  I'm actually having a couple of friends over for a cozy meal.  We're all far from home, so, we figure we'll spend it together."  Like myself, my friends were also from California.  We'd come to Washington to finish out our undergraduate education at The Evergreen State College, just across town.

"And how about Cindy?"  Jessica had a look of real concern on her face.

"Oh, Cindy is leaving shortly.  She's spending the day with her parents.  She even made her signature red velvet cake for them!"  Jessica vigorously clapped her hands in approval.  As she clapped, she scrunched her shoulders together and smiled so widely she squinted.  Afterwards, she gave me another big hug and kiss.

"Tell Cindy I may be over this evening with a treat!"  Jessica winked.

This meant she would be bringing over some delicious left-overs.  Jessica's leftovers were always welcome with me and Cindy.

"I'll do that, Jessica.  Thank you."  With that, I turned to the family horde gathered in her living room.  They were watching the movie It's a Wonderful Life.  I said, "Happy Thanksgiving!"  Almost in unison, as if in a commercial, the bulk of them turned to me, beverages in hand and gleefully shouted, "Happy Thanksgiving!"

*    *    *

When I got home I cleaned myself up and then readied all of the ingredients for our Thanksgiving meal.  It would be simple, and since I was a college student on a budget, I planned the meal just so there would be a generous helping of each dish, with a whole turkey for us to share.  There would be some leftovers with the big bird.

As the Noon hour approached, I could see that Cindy was readying herself for her trip out to her parents.

By now, I had completely prepped the bird for baking, tenting and touching up the last bits of my preparation with sprigs of rosemary.  I inserted it in the oven and turned to putting together the other two dishes.  It would be a simple meal of cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes and turkey.

After prepping and putting together what needed to be done, I set the dinner table for three.  Shortly thereafter, Cindy left for her parents house.  Before leaving, she came into the kitchen and declared, "Oops, I almost forgot my red velvet cake!"

"Oh, no, Cindy! That wouldn't be good.  Happy Thanksgiving!"  I gave my roommate and landlord a big hug and wished her a great trip.

With the turkey in the oven and the other trappings nearly done, I settled onto the living room couch with the cordless phone and a magazine.  The turkey was a good 18 pounds, so I knew it would need a good four-plus hours of baking time.  I had timed out my basting schedule with a mechanical timer that I'd set on the counter next to the oven.

I called my friends, Melanie and Jack.  They would be over around 5 PM.

Then, I telephoned my parents in California.  My call wouldn't go through, initially.  It took several attempts, and several iterations of listening to the automated message, "all circuits are busy, please try your call again, later," before I finally got through.  Mom and dad were so happy to hear from me.  They asked about Cindy, first.  I told them where she was headed.  And then I told them about Melanie and Jack.  It was a pleasant call that ended when their own guests started to arrive.  I told them I missed and loved them and then we ended the call.  I thought about the number of times I had to try to get through to them on the phone.  This got me thinking about the millions of people across the country who were reaching out to their loved ones via phone on this day of Thanksgiving.

In this moment, I was so content and relaxed.  

The day was about to turn from thankful to thankless.

At about 4 PM, I went through my mental checklist of all the cooking that was about to come to fruition.  My friends had just phoned me, telling me they had a tough time getting through on the line.  Apparently, even the local telephone circuits were busy.  They would be arriving promptly at 5 PM.  I went about, checking and getting everything together for the meal we were to have within the hour.

As I'm basting the turkey for the last time, I hear the garage door opening.  The garage door had a loud electric motor that could be heard distinctly from the kitchen.  It had to be Cindy.  Of the two of us, she was the only person who parked in the garage and she was the only person who had the electronic garage door opener.  I wiped my hands on a dish towel and walked to the door that led out to the garage.

Cindy came through the door, almost barreling into me with her red velvet cake tote in hand.

She'd been crying.

"Cindy, what's the matter?  Is everything okay with your parents?"

"Everything is fine."

Clearly, by the looks of her face, everything was not fine.

"Cindy, you know you're welcome to enjoy Thanksgiving with me and my..."

She interrupts, "no, thank you, Orval.  I said I'm fine!"  She said this through clenched teeth.

Then, Cindy continued down the connecting hall to her bedroom, taking the red velvet cake with her.

I said to myself: This is not happening.  Then, I stood in the hallway, staring in the direction of Cindy's bedroom.  After a few minutes, I returned to the kitchen, finishing up my preparation.  It was now close to 5 PM.

*    *    *

I hear Cindy entering the living room.  She's in her bathrobe and she still has the cake tote in her hands.  She walks past me in the kitchen to the drawer that contains the everyday utensils like knives, forks, and spoons.  Grabbing a fork, and saying nothing, Cindy walks past me, again, to the living room with the cake tote and fork in hand.  She sits down and turns the television on and up.

I'm standing there in the kitchen, mouth agog.

My friends are about to arrive.

My friends Melanie and Jack are both artists, free spirits.  They've decided to bring part of their morning hike with them to our Thanksgiving affair.  They've collected some beautiful cedar boughs and moss this morning to set a festive tone.  This is how I'm greeted by them when they ring the front door bell and I walk past Cindy in the living room to greet them.  

"Jack! Melanie!  Oh, my friends, it's so good to see you. Happy Thanksgiving!"  We exchange hugs and boughs.  They've been to the house before, so, they're used to the routine when I tell them to set their coats in my bedroom while I attend to the cedar boughs and moss.

As I'm attending to the boughs and moss, Melanie and Jack return to the living room.

Melanie addresses Cindy, "Hey Cindy, how are you?"

I've finished setting the cedar boughs on the dining table and I'm watching this from the other room.

Slowly, Cindy turns away from the television to address Melanie.  She says, "I'm fine," again, through clenched teeth.

Jack then pipes in, "Cindy, we're so happy to be with you here on Thanksgiving."

In reply, Cindy slowly turns around and continues watching television.

I see Melanie and Jack exchange quizzical looks as they walk in my direction.

As I lock eyes with Jack, I shrug my shoulders and I mouth the words "I don't know" using an extreme facial expression to communicate my own bewilderment.

For a time, Cindy is forgotten as we launch into our festivities.  We love each other so much.  We're thankful.  We're together.  Melanie and Jack regale me with talk about their epic hike to obtain the cedar boughs.

With a sideward glance, I can see Cindy.  She hasn't moved until now, but I can see she's taken the lid off the cake tote and she's inserted her fork into the center of the red velvet cake.  She begins to eat the cake as she watches television.  Her hand movements appear mechanical, animatronic, like the repetitive movements one might observe of automatons in a theme park.

Melanie see's me watching Cindy, and then Jack turns around to look at Cindy.  We all stare for a minute as we observe the animatronic display in the living room.

We return to our meal.  I mouth to the two of them, "I'm so sorry!"

Melanie puts her hand on mine, whispering, "God bless you, Orval."

Jack refuses to sit in this funk.  He speaks up, "Orval, this is the best damn turkey I've had in years!  Thank you, buddy."

Again, we're all smiles.  We continue talking about the meal, about our plans for the coming weeks.  Melanie is working on a fascinating painting that she wants to show us.  We shake our heads as she describes the dream she had.  It is a dream that inspired her to paint a landscape.  In her landscape, the trees are water, and the water of Puget Sound is trees.  We are fascinated by this description and look forward to her showing it to us.

And then the doorbell rings.

Through the door, we hear, "It's Jessica!"  

We hear her say something muffled, and then a count down, "1, 2, 3, HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!!"

Jessica has brought the horde from her living room for a Thanksgiving well-wishing.

As soon as we hear the count down beginning, Melanie, Jack and I move from the dining room into the kitchen.

It is at this moment that we observe Cindy rising from the couch.  She's shaking.  She's holding the half-eaten red velvet cake in both hands.  We can see that she has eaten the entire center of the cake.  All that remains is the outer rim of the cake with a giant irregular hole in the middle.

Jessica speaks again from the other side of the front door, "my friends," she stretches out the word "friends" in a sing-song fashion as she speaks.  Jessica continues, "where are you in there?  Did the turkey eat you up?  Or, did you eat all the turkey?"  We can hear healthy laughter from the horde behind her.

Without explanation, in a moment I can only describe from what I observed, Cindy walks to the front door.  She opens it and flings the remains of the red velvet cake at Jessica. Then, she slams the front door and walks down the hallway to her bedroom.  As she walks, we are standing, mouths agog, looking at each other.


  1. Oh, my! I just want to give Cindy a great big hug and tell her that no matter what, everything will be fine. I'm assuming (naturally) that her day didn't go a planned. I literally wanted to cry for Cindy as I read this.

  2. You captured this day in your life with such detail. I can't imagine how you and your friends must have felt. I wonder if Cindy ever opened up about her day. It must have been so difficult for her.

  3. Wow, you set this scene up perfectly. From your morning run, until the cake throwing incident. I was actually preparing myself for Cindy to be in a tragic accident when she went to her parents, based on your leading up to her departure. So I was pleasantly surprised when she returned, even though it wasn't the best of circumstances. Your word choice was so well done!


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