1. Large lumps float in the batter, thick lumps that won’t move. I prod them with a fork but they just sit there, indifferent. I want to call Judith again. I phoned an hour ago. The recipe called for an eight by ten inch pan; all I have is a nine by thirteen. Relax, Jeremy. That’s what Judith always says. Relax. Still, those lumps in the batter are worrisome. Not to mention the trip to the zoo.
2. I’m going to the zoo with Talia. Talia is nine years old. Tomorrow, she turns ten. I promised Angie I’d take Talia to the zoo for her birthday. If the cake is not a complete disaster the three of us will eat it off paper plates covered with penguins and wash it down with milk out of penguin cups. Talia loves penguins. She has surrounded herself with penguins: a penguin lamp, a penguin pencil case, penguin bedsheets, penguin pillows, penguin wallpaper.
Last week, I flirted with the idea of a penguin cake. I imagined the look on Talia’s face and saw one of her rare smiles. I began to doodle on a napkin, wondering if it could be done and how it could be done and what cake moulds I would need if it was going to be done. But then I rolled up the napkin and flung the pencilled penguin into the bin. One thing I have always known are my limitations. I may be capable of many things, but a penguin cake is not one of them.
So instead of a penguin dressed in a frosted tuxedo I will bring a basic, boring nine by thirteen chocolate cake. Angie told me not to worry, that Talia likes me, that these things take time.
3. We met at the pet store where Angie is now the assistant manager. She started out working the cash and cleaning cages. The pay was lousy, she explained, but the hours were flexible and that was important because she wanted to be there when Talia got home from school. After Angie and Desmond split up she had to move out of the roomy house they’d lived in for five years, into a small, wilting three-and-a-half. That’s when Talia started collecting penguins. Desmond moved into a bachelor’s apartment downtown, a monstrous highrise with an indoor pool that Talia loves. The doorman wears white gloves and calls her Miss Carew.
I needed dog biscuits. I needed a particular brand because Judith’s dog, a shaggy mutt named Max, is a very particular eater. Angie must have seen me tug at my ear. I tug at my ear whenever I feel a little anxious, like when I can’t find a particular brand of dog biscuits for a very particular dog. Angie strolled up and asked if she could help. Between ear tugs I told her what I needed. She looked me over and said biscuits weren’t enough for someone my size. Maybe what I really needed was some doggie burgers, to fill me out and help tone my arms.
4. The lumps have disappeared. Now there are bubbles. Very stubborn bubbles. I mix and mix and mix. They persist. They cling to the bowl. My earlobes are dripping with batter. I have to call Judith.
5. When I was nine and Judith was thirteen, we baked a cake for my father. My mother had died the year before; my father had not yet remarried. He wouldn’t meet Diane for another six years. By the time he met Diane I was old enough to drive. So I drove. Every Friday night I drove him to Diane’s house. She lived in a small apartment above a hardware store. One Friday night, as the car idled and coughed, my father turned and looked at me. He has a large, sharp forehead that juts out like a cliff, so his eyes are always hidden and his eyebrows hang like empty nests.
He leaned over and asked me how old I was. Something lingered on his breath, something that smelled more like defeat than liquor. He wasn’t drunk; he only really drank the year after my mother died. But I don’t think he ever completely recovered. Sixteen, I said. Sixteen, he repeated. Sixteen is a good age. He pointed to the store window, to a pyramid of paint cans stacked to the ceiling. If you’re going to screw someone, my father said, a room above a hardware store is as good a place as any. He waited for me to laugh. And as he waited he seemed to slowly break apart in little chunks; by the time I remembered to smile he had this awful look about him that turned his whole face into loose gravel. He never talked about Diane that way again, but it was all I could think of at their wedding.
The cake Judith and I made for him was nothing like his wedding cake. This pre-Diane cake came out of a package. Judith let me pour and mix as she read out the directions. Lumps were never a problem back then. After we poured the batter into a pan and slipped it into the oven, I pulled a chair over from the kitchen table and sat facing the oven door. Our oven door had a large glass window, and a light to reveal the treasures within. What are you doing, Judith asked. I told her I had to stand guard and make sure the cake didn’t burn. She smiled. Relax, Jeremy. She tapped a lime green watch strapped to her wrist. The cake will be ready in thirty-five minutes. I promise to let you know when it’s time to take it out. I wouldn’t budge. Judith sighed and walked out of the kitchen.
I never told her why I stayed, or what I had seen about two months before my mother died. I had just come home from school. I dropped my schoolbag and called out my mother’s name. No answer. Sometimes she sat in the backyard and played word games, the kind you buy at airports for long flights. She wasn’t in the backyard. I found her in the kitchen, sitting in front of the oven, the very same way I sat the day Judith and I made a cake for my father. I called out her name but she didn’t move. I said it again, louder. She didn’t hear a thing. Her hands were folded in her apron. She looked happy. The oven light was on. Inside, a tray of chocolate chip cookies had burned to a crisp, round as charcoal discs. After about five minutes she got up, took out the cookies, and threw them out. She carefully laid out a new batch, put them in the oven, sat down and watched them burn. She did the same thing until there wasn’t a cookie left. I stood by the door, too frightened to say a thing.
Two months later she paid for a hotel room in quarters and dimes and swallowed two bottles of sleeping pills. On the day she died she left a pot roast in the oven, with the light on, and detailed instructions for dinner that night.
6. I am at the zoo. The cake is cooling in the kitchen. I want everything to be perfect when I bring Talia here tomorrow; I’ve come to plan a route. After brief visits with the seals, the lions and the elephants, I reach the penguins.
Some are perched on a plastic iceberg. Others dive into a pond of clear water. They swim with a grace I envy. Two waddle together like old friends. They all look happy. That’s the thing about penguins: they always look happy. Something about the way their beaks curve makes them look like they want nothing more than to be penguins. Something about their eyes says they can’t understand how anyone would want to be anything else. I can see why Talia likes them.
The pellets in my pocket roll between my fingers. Red-lettered signs everywhere warn me not to feed the animals, but I don’t care. I want to feed the penguins. I want to toss them pellets and ask for a favour. I will be here tomorrow with Talia. You won’t find a more loyal fan than Talia. I will pay dearly for a glimpse of her seven-year old smile. All I ask is that you do something, anything to make her laugh. In return, I’ll throw you pellets every day for a week, a month, a year if I have to. All I ask is that you make Talia smile, so that by the time I take her home she’ll tell Angie what a wonderful day she had as she devours my chocolate cake off penguin plates.
Sir, someone says.
A hand touches my elbow.
Excuse me, Sir.
A young boy is by my side, dressed in the unmistakeable green overalls that all zoo employees wear. He tells me it’s against zoo policy to let the public feed the animals.
Half the pellets in my hand are gone. I wonder how long I’ve been feeding the penguins, if I’ve been talking out loud. This was supposed to be a rehearsal, a dry run. But I don’t tell the young boy that. I nod and apologize. As I tug on my ear I hear the pellets fall to the ground.
7. You aren’t Desmond. You can’t be Desmond. I don’t want you to be Desmond. We were sitting in one of Angie’s favourite restaurants, a small, East Indian hole-in-the-wall where you can eat with your fingers. Angie loves to roll clumps of sticky rice into balls and dip them in sauces I can’t pronounce. She was drinking a cup of milky tea, reminding me that I wasn’t Talia’s father. Desmond is Talia’s father, she said. He’ll always be her father. And for the time being, he’s still my husband. She likes you, Jeremy. It just takes time. Angie rubbed her fingers over my hand. I kissed them, savouring the curried tips.
8. Tomorrow’s visit to the zoo is only the second time Talia and I will be on our own. The first time, we went skating, on a crisp Saturday in early March.
Talia wore a penguin snowsuit that Angie had made for her. Something soft warmed my insides as I watched her move through the crowd, adorable in her penguin outfit, so graceful in her white skates.
I skated too, anxious to be next to Talia but careful to keep my distance. When at last she glided towards me I felt unreasonably hopeful. She wiped her runny nose with one of her fins and said she was cold.
We agreed on hot chocolate at a small bakery a few blocks from the rink. After three sips Talia said she was feeling much better, thank you, and asked for a brownie. Did she want to eat it right away, I asked, or save it for later? It’s not for me, she murmured. It’s for my father.
I told her it was a lovely thought. When she asked if we could give it to him right away I didn’t know what to say.
Why do you always do that, Talia asked.
I looked at Talia, her eyes shadowed by the penguin beak stretched over her head. I’d been tugging at my ear. I quickly explained that it was an old habit and asked if she was ready to go home. She said no and pointed to the brownie. I suggested we visit Angie at the pet store, and told her how happy her mother would be to see her. Talia just shook her head.
We took a cab to Desmond’s apartment, our skates wedged between us. When we arrived the doorman smiled and called her Miss Carew. Her lids fell when he told her that Desmond was away for the weekend. Aspen, I suddenly remembered. A three-day binge in Colorado. That’s how Angie described it. A three-day binge. With a woman he had known for three weeks. The doorman promised Talia that her father’s gift would be waiting for him when he got home. Talia nodded and carefully placed the brownie on the doorman’s white glove. She didn’t say a word during the entire cab ride home. She just tugged at her beak.
I held on to our skates, tying our laces into knots, wondering why silence couldn’t be shaped and moulded as easily as fresh snow.
9. The cake has cooled. There is icing on my fingers, not to mention patches of icing on the fridge and phone. I called Judith, deciding at the last minute to try a chocolate layer cake, wondering how I could do it with a nine by thirteen slab. Leave it be, Judith told me. Add sparkles if you want to. I bought little silver beads instead. Talia’s name glitters across the cake. I was not much older than her when Judith and I baked that cake for my father. We didn’t spell out his name with candy beads. After trying a sugary paste squeezed through a plastic bag, we gave up and etched his name with a toothpick. It looked rushed, as if someone had scratched it on at the last minute. Still, I remember my father’s smile when we brought the cake into his bedroom. It was the first time he’d smiled after my mother died. It’s a smile I would recognize anywhere.
Talia was a finalist in the CBC Literary Competition