Yelling into the bullhorn, I thought what I was saying was something encouraging, soothing. Possibly, even profound. It wasn’t. It was a scream at the top of my lungs letting loose a string of profanities that would make a mob boss cry.
I always wanted to be an admired leader, just like my dad. At one time he was a mayor of a small town in Iowa. He brought in the quarter-finals of the International Hot Dog Eating Competition and, with it, enough income to keep the town in the black until the County Fair. Inspired by his financial gamesmanship, high school graduates flooded the local community college to study neoclassical price theory, economic liberalism, and the free market. I wanted to inspire kids to reach for the stars, too.
How the hell was that ever going to happen with my vocabulary, regardless of my dreams?
My dad was widowed in a freak accident with a chocolate cake when I, his only daughter, had just turned one. So, I was raised by my grandma. Grammy looked like everyone else’s grandma except for the shock of red hair that changed shades on a monthly basis. She colored it to match her mood. If violet-red was the color of the choice, we knew it would be a gentler time and her words not so sharp. But if crimsons and oranges raged through Grammy’s locks and gold streaked to the tips of her split ends, we knew we were in for a bumpy ride with her lamentations.
It was storied to be a month of flame reds glowering from Grammy’s hairdo when the cake incident happened. It was my dad’s birthday and Mom was hiding the cake on top of the fridge when she slammed the freezer side-door. It actually wasn’t the cake that killed her, though. The cake slid off and planted itself on the floor upside down. Mom stood stunned for several seconds. She had labored long and hard to get that cake done. She wanted it to be just like the cake Dad remembered from his childhood. But she wasn’t a baker. She struggled for days to make the special cake using the beloved recipe. Grammy refused to share the recipe with Mom until the first grandchild was one year of age. Grammy felt that one year of life would cement the fact that the new generation was there to carry on. Grammy lectured Mom time and time again about how the cake recipe had been in the family for “generations upon generations.” Grammy insisted it was the same recipe used by our humble relatives and served to Marie Antoinette. Secretly mom wished she could someday visit the scullery in the Palace of Versailles to be inspired by the kitchens that produced this family heirloom. What Mom didn’t realize was that while she appreciated that Grammy could swear like a sailor, the benefactor of the honored recipe could lie like a rug, too.
Despite the tension caused from the ownership of the recipe, Mom and Grammy supposedly got along famously. One of the amusements they had in common was appreciating pulling off a real good practical joke. They were Mom’s specialty and Grammy embraced the challenge of not letting her succeed. It took mom two attempts at baking the cake with the so-called original recipe, before she connected Grammy’s regular visit each afternoon and the smirk plastered across Grammy’s face with the botched cakes coming out of the oven. The first time Mom tried baking the chocolate cake, it turned out more like pudding. Grammy simply grinned and offered to tweak to the recipe. Later that evening as Grammy was leaving for bingo, her purse felt a bit heavy. Opening the clasp, Grammy witnessed her lipstick tube, a piece of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum and her grocery list submerged in brown, sticky goo.
Mom’s second cake attempt was so dry and hard that she simply threw it away. Mom stormed out of the kitchen refusing to acknowledge Grammy’s Cheshire grin wrapping around her face. Grammy dug the cake out of the garbage can, wrapped it in tin foil, and used it as a doorstop until the day she died.
Again Grammy offered to adjust the recipe. But mom decided to take the bull by the horns and complete the cake without Grammy’s assistance. Mom finally succeeded in her quest by contacting the Women’s Social Group. The church ladies descended like chickens to their feed. They had a mission. They quickly and, rather proudly, deciphered Grammy’s scratchings, re-adjusted the hallowed recipe for the high altitude of Leadville, the Two Mile High City of the West, and produced a most perfect cake.
As the blessed cake lay on the floor smooshed between the linoleum and the cracked cake platter, Grammy came rushing into the kitchen. Grammy later told the story with the patois she’d banked over the years. “Your mom stood there like a blankety-blank not knowing what the blankety-blank to do.” Then, according to Grammy, as mom bent over to pick up the cake, mom’s pants ripped. Mom stood and turned towards Grammy. Grammy taunted, “What the blankey-blank do you think you’re doing? That blanking son of mine will be home in 45-blanking minutes and you can’t even give him a blanking birthday cake.”
That was all Mom needed to hear. She began to chase Grammy round and round the tiny kitchen. Each time they passed the cake, they got closer and closer. Just as Grammy skirted by the ragged edge of the broken cake plate, she took a sudden turn out the backdoor.
The neighbors still reminisce about the foot race. Grammy running down the street giving her best dissertation while my mother followed close behind waving her arms gloriously in the air and adding to the din. Although Mom couldn’t begin to touch Grammy’s dubious parlance, she had been in training with Grammy before she married Dad. Apparently, the Iowa town where Dad was mayor could ignore Grammy’s outbursts. But adding Mom into the discourse would not be tolerated. So after the wedding, Dad found a new town high up in the Rocky Mountains and a job running the local bookstore. He said he chose Leadville so Grammy’s words had less traveling time to reach the atmosphere before being sucked forever into outer space.
Anyway, Grammy just kept running with Mom matching her pace in stride, as well as words. By the time Grammy and Mom reached the town’s edge, there was hardly room on the sidewalks for sightseers and the cheering almost overrode the battle cries of my matriarchs. Once Grammy and Mom faded into the distance up the mountainside, everyone had placed their bets on the champion of their choice. The bets would be settled once the victor descended back down the mountainside.
Grammy and Mom continued running along the hiking trail turning the crisp air blue with their words. As Grammy came to the boarded-up mine entrance she took a turn away from their normally agreed upon stopping place. It was here under the pines they would usually end their charades. Their deceptions were always planned in advance. On the agreed upon day, Grammy would take her regular morning stroll to the mine entrance with a not so regular purpose. With the promise of a late afternoon swig, Grammy would hide the Shanahan’s bottle with a couple of glasses, one for each of them. Both enjoyed whiskey and a local distiller was their favorite. It wasn’t until Grammy died a few years ago that Mr. Shanahan himself came by the house with Grammy’s inveterate tab, smiled at dad, and tore it up. Mr. Shanahan assured Dad that he delighted in his bi-monthly shot, chat, and cigar with Grammy and that he would never accept a cent from dad to pay Grammy’s bill.
But the day of the chocolate cake incident, Grammy didn’t stop for their appointed toast at the predestined spot. Mom followed Grammy through the pine forest, this time without a path. Grammy kept stringing her words together, then stopped. Mom’s retorts had ended a second before. It was silent, no padding of feet. Nothing but the wind scratching the tips of the pines. Grammy turned. Mom was gone. Grammy traced her steps backward. She knew this area like the back of her hand. Grammy had taken the right side of the large pine, while Mom ran around the left. But on the left was an old mine shaft that had probably been recently uncovered by curious tourists, leaving a hole descending into darkness miles deep into the mountain.
Grammy didn’t linger. She high-tailed it back to town, cursing all the way. As Grammy descended, the townspeople began to settle their bets. That day, however, they sensed a different tone upon hearing Grammy’s usual anathema.
They searched for days for my mom. They sent down expert rescuers and Grammy understood the importance of rooting for them at the edge of the shaft the whole time. They never found her. Not a trace. It was as if she disappeared off the face of the earth. There is a river that runs deep beneath the surface of the Leadville mountain and it was determined that Mom must have been swept away.
I set the bullhorn down. I knew there wouldn’t be another talk by the superiors of our town’s summer camp warning me that I had one more chance if I could just control my language. Earlier conversations had strongly suggested that if I wanted to rise to Camp Counselor of the five-year-olds and, one day, to Camp Director, I would have to learn some self-control. It just wasn’t going to happen. I wanted to make my Dad as proud of me as I am of him. But I had spent the first eighteen years of my life under the tutelage of my Grammy.
I turned from the wide-eyed stares and dropped jaws of the Bunny Hoppers and headed towards the bus stop. I didn’t need my stuff. I was on a new mission.
Walking down the gravel path I reached into the pocket of my shorts. I pulled out the tattered, yellowing piece of paper titled “Chocolate Cake” that was left to me in Grammy’s will. I read the final line of the recipe one more time. Across the bottom in bright red felt tip pen Grammy had scratched: Your mom always wanted to live in Paris.
Well, I guess it was time for a blanking trip to Paris.
This piece was one of several written during my time with the Denver Writing Project. It is a piece of silliness. I wanted it to be much darker and funnier. I don’t know how to do that. Yet. I will learn. But for now, I hope you enjoyed this little bit of fiction and had a little chuckle.