Anna Rae’s Birthday Cake

Fiction
Suzanne Wiles Chapman


“Hey, Marcy!” I maneuvered my shopping cart into the three-deep crowd at the Kroger Deli and Bakery Shoppe.

“Hi Carla! What’s up?” Marcy wore her jeans like body paint. They strained against her belly as she leaned into her cart to open a package of Jolly Ranchers and grab a green one. She offered one to me.

I waved off the candy. “I’m picking up my daughter’s birthday cake.”

Marcy flashed a smile, then her face wrinkled with concern. “How is Anna Rae?” She sucked on the candy, which was stuck in her cheek like tobacco.

“She’s excited about her birthday. I had to wait until today to get the cake, or she’d have found it. I didn’t want her to see it until I come out with it all lit up.”

“Sounds exciting. I bet her having another birthday is extra special for you.”

“My whole family’s coming over to celebrate. I had to order a huge cake. Saved 10 bucks the last two months to be able to afford it!”

“Where is she, anyway?”

“My sister has her while I get the food. I think they’re decorating the dining room right now,” I rolled my eyes.

Marcy laughed. “That Anna Rae is a sweetheart, Carla. You’re really doing great with her, ya know? I couldn’t do it, I don’t think. Not alone, like you do.” Her eyes drifted to the counter, where a woman was shouting at a clerk.

“I ordered four dozen croissants! I have people to entertain and I have all this meat and nothing to put it on. And I don’t want those tacky buns!” The clerk held up her finger for the woman to wait and scurried to the back. The woman groaned. Her lipstick matched the deep plum of her sweater vest. Her hair was a buttery shade, swept back by designer sunglasses that glinted like a tiara.

Another clerk asked who was next and a man stepped up to the glass counter.

“Buns are tacky!” I whispered to Marcy. We giggled at the three packages of buns in my cart.

“Why are there so many people here?” Marcy asked, gazing at the crowd.

“It’s the first of the month.”

Marcy leaned toward me and whispered, “Oh, you mean like all the welfare people got their money?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said. She must be afraid the ‘welfare people’ will hear her and attack, I mused. I imagined a band of angry shoppers marching after her with torches. I snickered, trailing a finger over my pocketbook.

“What?” Marcy asked, her eyes wide and innocent.

“Nothing, just thinking silly thoughts. Tyler okay since the appendix came out?”

“Never better. Kids bounce back so fast…” She trailed off, her eyes widening. “I mean, uh, well, usually…”

“It’s all right, Marcy. Kids do bounce back most of the time. Hey, it’s your turn.” I was thankful for the clerk, who waited for Marcy. Another clerk pointed to me and I stepped forward.

“I’m picking up a cake, last name Ritchie. Oh, and I also need three pounds of sliced ham.” The clerk disappeared to the back. Croissant Woman was still waiting. She stood beside me, tapping her foot. Her clerk reappeared.

“Ma’am, can you come back tomorrow morning? We can have your croissants then.”

She fumed, “No, I can not. Forget it. I’ll go somewhere else. Just give me the meat tray.”

I tried not to look as the pitiful clerk slumped and headed to the back. The woman clicked her tongue and tossed back her gleaming hair. She heaved a dramatic sigh, rearranging the expensive-looking pocketbook in her cart.

My clerk reappeared with the cake. It was a couple of feet wide, with a bright yellow Pikachu winking up at me from behind the cellophane box window.

“That looks great!” I told the clerk.

Marcy leaned over and admired the cake. “That’ll feed an army!” she said.

“I’m gonna have an army to feed!” I laughed.

“It comes to $29.95, and you can pay up front,” the clerk said. I balanced the cake on top of the cart and said good-bye to Marcy. I wheeled carefully toward the checkouts in the front of the store.

Every checkout had four or five customers waiting. Computerized scanners beeped and plastic bags swished. In the checkout line beside me, a pregnant woman tried to console a screaming toddler seated in a cart. A dirty-faced girl with blonde ringlets clung to her leg, peeking at me. I smiled at her. She ducked under her mother’s protruding belly.

“Paper or plastic, ma’am?” The nametag on the cashier’s smock said “Brittany.”

“Plastic. How are you today?” I asked as I eased Anna Rae’s birthday cake onto the crawling black belt then unloaded buns, ham and candles.

“Okay for the first of the month, I guess.” She spat the phrase out like sour milk, shooting a glance at the burgeoning crowd around her. First of the month, when the ‘welfare people’ fill the store and double her workload, I thought. I wondered if they’d hunt her down with the torches, too.

She shot the scanner gun at Pikachu and punched buttons on her register. “That’ll be $51.34.”

“Oh, I have Foodplan,” I said, producing a plastic card from my wallet. Her face reddened. Each month, the Welfare Department encoded the card with my allotment for food assistance. As the cashier avoided my eyes, I wondered if I needed a torch, too.

“Okay, then. The food total is $49.97. Your candles are $1.37,” she said.

I swiped the card in the Foodplan machine, punched in my PIN, and handed the cashier a five.

My neck prickled.

I glanced back to catch a cold stare from Croissant Woman standing behind me in line. Her eyes shifted to tabloid headlines. Ignoring my gaze, she smoothed her khaki slacks with one hand, balancing her huge meat-and-cheese tray with the other.

I stashed the change in my pocket and pushed my cart toward the door. Outside, the parking lot roiled as cars hunted, carts clanged, and harried women restrained screaming children.

I scanned the lot for my mom’s car. Nothing. I walked my cart to the employee-smoking-area-slash-picnic table and sat to smoke and wait. Retrieving my cigarettes from my purse, I caught a whiff of conversation on the breeze.

“…big cake from the bakery that costs 30 bucks and then she whips out one of those food stamp cards at the checkout!”

Across from the picnic table area, I spied Croissant Woman gossiping with another well-dressed lady as she leaned on a Volvo wagon.

“The place is crawling with those people! Meanwhile, I preordered my croissants and they don’t have them!” she griped to her friend. “I guess they’re too busy with people spending my tax dollars to buy cake!” She threw up her hands and her friend shook her head.

Like that car wasn’t worth enough to buy a house for a family. I flicked my lighter and dragged hard on the cigarette.

Croissant Woman spotted me watching her. I smiled broadly and waved. Her eyes grew. They resembled lottery balls, flashing the day’s numbers from her head. The other woman ducked her head and walked to her car.

I flicked ashes. Mom’s blue Buick pulled into the space next to Croissant Woman. As Mom got out of her car, she smiled, but not at me. “Shana!” she cried to Croissant Woman, who was placing the meat and cheese tray on her back seat. “Oh, you must meet my daughter!”

Mom knows Croissant Woman? I dropped my cigarette and crushed it under my shoe. Mom’s friend stiffened when she saw me rolling my cart toward them.

“Shana, remember my granddaughter, the one we’ve had on the prayer list? She’s recovering from a brain tumor? Well, this is her mom, my daughter, Carla.” She leaned over the cake. “Oh, Carla, Anna Rae’s gonna love this!” She tapped the plastic window, as if to wake Pikachu.

“It’s… uh, a pleasure to meet you,” Shana said. “Your mother’s mentioned you at church.”

“Hi.” I offered a polite smile.

Mom laid her hand on her chest. “Shana, I thank Jesus for this day. My granddaughter made it to her birthday.”

“The Lord will provide,” Shana said, patting Mom’s arm.

“This I know,” Mom nodded.

Shana breathed in and shot a glance at me. “Well, I must run. I’ll see you Sunday, Mae, and, I’ll keep praying for your granddaughter.”

“Thank you, Shana. So good to see you!”

“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Mom, let’s get this cake in your car. I have to go home and get ready.”

Shana sprang into her car, pulled out and drove away. I lifted the cake into Mom’s trunk.

“There goes a fine Christian lady, Carla,” Mom said, waving to the back of her Volvo.

“Yes, Mom, I’m sure she is,” I said, winking back at Pikachu.

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Suzanne can be reached at barrister[at]toasted-cheese.com.