Tory Brannigan

Tory Brannigan

Sorrow Cake


No one ever sets out to make a sorrow cake. But sometimes, Grandma told me, “You can’t help it, it gets in there anyway.” 

I decide to make cake—lemon or chocolate or pineapple upside down—and I’m mixing the batter feeling fine and up pops a worry. Like, I hope my husband keeps his job this time. Or, Jamie better not get another cough that lands him in the hospital. Or, I hope there’s no problem with this baby. I start thinking of Grandma, who died last year from the cancer that just ate her up.

Then to make it worse, I keep running into Charlie everywhere around town. He always smiles that sweet sexy smile like he did when we were going steady in high school. And I think, what would it be like to be married to him and I know I shouldn’t. I love Steve. I do. I married him because I loved him, not because Jamie was already growing big inside me. But it makes me think of how I cried when we broke up, a whole month of salty tears and red eyes and no sleep and little food. I lost weight and I looked real good when I stopped crying. 

I keep making the cake—lemon—trying to think of happy things as I grate peel and mix it in. I make cream cheese lemon frosting to go with it. But I know even the lemon won’t mask all my worries and sorrows working through it. 

Which makes me think of my paintings. I can see one through the kitchen door into the living room. It’s bright blue with fun yellow drops and orange cones. Abstract. I held promise in high school. I don’t paint anymore. I don’t have time. 

Later, we eat my cake, Jamie slurping it down with a grin for me. Steve’s got a funny look on his face. 

“Something wrong?” I ask. 

“No, cake’s great honey. Has a different flavor. What is it?” 

I shrug. “Maybe I used more lemon.” 

I can’t tell him what it is. That the spice is sorrow.



I see Charlie again. At the grocery store. I don’t wonder why he’s there in the middle of the day. Work’s hard to come by right now. Or maybe any now in a small town like ours. 

“Hey, Hope,” he says, walking up to me with that damn smile. 

“Hey, Charlie.” Jamie’s standing beside me, one arm wrapped secure around my leg. 

“Hey, Jamie,” he says. Jamie gives him a half smile, but says nothing. Jamie can be a shy boy. 

“Just shopping, huh?” Charlie asks. He doesn’t know what to say. 

I nod. I don’t know what to say either. 

He turns to Jamie. “You starting school this year?” 

Jamie nods. 

“Good for you.” 

“He’ll be in kindergarten. He really wants to go to school,” I say, a note of pride in my voice. 

“When’s the other one due?” 

My belly is seven months now, no longer do people pause before asking. You know, just to make sure I’m not just fat. 

“October,” I say. 

He nods, eyes flicking from my belly to my eyes to hold my stare for a second.

“I’ll get you guys a baby gift.” 

“Thanks, Charlie.”

A look comes in his eyes, one of those wistful mighta been looks and he glances at my belly again and then at Jamie. 

“I gotta get going,” he says. 

I stare after Charlie and I think, he’s still got a cute ass. 

Jamie takes my hand and we finish shopping. We buy generic brands and the only meat I get is greasy hamburger, the cheaper and fattening kind. We have food stamps and Steve is still working. Maybe we’ll luck out this time and he won’t get laid off. There really isn’t any point in me getting a job right now. 

I’m scared for when the baby’s born. We don’t have enough as it is. 

“Mommy.” Jamie pulls at my hand. 

“What, baby?” 

“You’re not moving.” 

“Ok. Let’s go check out.” Jamie races into the house when we get home and turns the TV on. He pops a Scooby Doo video in the old player the previous renter left behind. We don’t have cable or dish. I put the groceries away and tell him to turn the volume down. He does and I cut up apple slices for his snack. 

Jamie’s a good boy and he’s excited about the baby. He really wants a little brother, but doc says it’s a girl. I don’t care. I wasn’t so sure I wanted Jamie and I’m not so sure about this baby. But, I look at Jamie hanging upside down off the couch to watch TV and I love him with such a fierce love, the kind that grips my heart tight and I know if anything happened to him it would squeeze and stop my heart. But that’s not how I felt when I first had a pregnancy test come back positive.

I know I shouldn’t, but my friend Ruby told me where Charlie’s been staying and I get Jamie settled in the back of the car, and drive slow by the place. It’s a crappy apartment in the midst of a whole row of crappy apartments where drug busts are more frequent then trash pick ups. I don’t want to park there. I just want to see if I catch a glimpse of him. 

The wind blows in the open window and I gag. The sewer plant sits directly behind the apartments and is especially smelly today. I glance in the rearview mirror and see Jamie wrinkle his nose. 

“It smells like poop, Mommy.” 

“I know. That’s the sewer plant. Everybody’s poop goes there.” 




Only a five year old would think it cool where everyone’s poop goes to. Jamie’s been on a kick about the body lately. Especially fart and poop humor. Steve has gotten tired of pulling his finger. 

I don’t see Charlie. I drive down to the library. 

Jamie loves books. He’s going to be so smart, I can tell. His favorites are Green Eggs and Ham and Hop on Pop. He’s addicted to Dr. Seuss. He can already read them by himself, but he loves to be read to, and then he can follow along with his finger pointing at the right word.

I’m addicted to sappy romances and horror books. Steve thinks it’s a funny combination. Sometimes Steve just doesn’t get me. I don’t get either today.  

I check out a book on abstract art and The Lorax and Cat in the Hat for Jamie. I plan to buy him most of the Seuss books for Christmas, but he loves the library and checking out books and bringing them back, and I catch him staring in wonder at other bookcases full of stories he hasn’t read yet. 

Driving back home, I spy Charlie at the gas station in his rust spotted pick up. I need gas anyway. Pulling up to the pump, I feel butterflies in my stomach. Not baby butterflies or baby kicks, but old scared butterflies bumbling around. 

What am I doing? I’m fat and uncomfortable and stalking my ex-boyfriend and dragging along my son. I get out of our car. 

“Hey, Hope,” Charlie calls out. 

“Charlie, guess I’m running into you everywhere.” 

“Guess so. Let me pump the gas for you.” 

“Ok. Hang on a sec.” I find a twenty dollar bill in my pocket and go inside to put it on pump four, my lucky number. “Thanks, Charlie.” 

He smiles and pumps the gas. “Twenty doesn’t get you far anymore. I remember when it filled up the whole tank.”  

“Yeah, wasn’t a big deal to go cruising in high school,” I say. 

This brings memory sharp and sweet into my mind. We cruised a lot since there was nothing else to do, in the same pick up Charlie still owns. This generally led to parking and to making out and to sex. Our eyes meet and I know he’s thinking the same thing.


 Charlie looks away and puts the nozzle back. “See you later,” he says. 

“Later,” I say. I never say good-bye. It always sounds like I won’t see the person ever again. Charlie waves at Jamie who waves back. 

I wonder what Steve will think. If I don’t mention seeing Charlie, Jamie will, so I’ll have to tell Steve.  

I don’t make cake that night. I make pudding instead. Instant pudding is made too quickly to take on any sorrows.

 A week later, Jamie starts school. He cries when I leave him the first day and then forgets all about it when his teacher takes his hand and he walks into the primer colored
room with letters as big as him ringing the walls. He’s excited he can tell his teacher he knows all his letters and can read and knows his numbers up to thirty. I feel proud. 

At first, I almost don’t know what to do without Jamie with me. I keep glancing back in the backseat to make sure he’s buckled up and he’s not there. Freedom’s an odd thing. Not that I’ll be really free for long or am right now. 

I begin to realize this obsession with Charlie is probably my hormones skittering every which way. I put him firmly out of my head and tell myself—I will not think about him. This works for a little while. I quit cruising by his apartment.

Fate, though, does what it wants to. The damn car gets a damn flat tire on the way home from dropping Jamie off. I stare at the tire for a moment. I look at my belly. I do know how to change a flat, but can’t imagine doing it around my baby. 

We don’t have cell phones anymore. We couldn’t afford them. Steve’s getting paid tomorrow and wants to get me a prepaid cell phone so if anything happens with thebaby, I’ll have a phone. Steve can be a thoughtful man. 

It’s not that far to the house. I’ll just walk it and borrow the landlady’s phone.She’s always home and doesn’t mind. Jamie has completely won her over. He’ll go over
with his books and read to her. They both love it. 

I walk. It’s hot though, that last summer hot, but I can feel fall creeping underneath like summer’s fighting for its last breath and fall’s just waiting it out. 

Charlie pulls over in front of me. “Are you Ok?” 

“No. The car got a flat and I didn’t feel like changing it. I’m going home to use the phone to call Steve.” 

“I can change the flat for you.” 

“Thanks, Charlie. Can you take me home first? I need some water.” 


I hoist myself up in the truck with a little push from Charlie. I glance over at his profile; his nose is just as pointy as I remember it with his dark hair hanging in his eyes that just begs me to brush it back off his forehead. 

He helps me out at the house and walks me in. I get a glass of water and pour one for him, too. I open my mouth to say—Ok, I feel fine, let’s go get the car fixed. But I
never get it out.

Charlie leans over my belly and kisses me and not any kind of shy kiss either. I remember exactly how his lips fit against mine and he tastes like Wintergreen gum because he’s always trying to quit smoking. Charlie’s kiss is sweet like cake made with happiness. 

I’ve missed Charlie, I have and I don’t even remember why we broke up in the first place. But it’s been too long and when he stops and backs up, there’s another man’s
baby in between us and I look at the fridge where I have a picture of Jamie and Steve in dirty T-shirts and jeans with baseball caps and Steve’s holding the ball and Jamie’s holding a bat and they’re grinning like all get out. Right next to the reminder of my next doctor’s appointment. 

“Hope,” he starts to say and it’s almost like he’s not saying my name, but like—I hope, and then stops. 

I can’t. I don’t even tell him anything. In silence we go back to my car and he changes the tire and I drive home. I call Steve and tell him Charlie helped me fix it and Steve says that’s good and he’ll go get me a damn phone after work. 

Jamie doesn’t smile when he gets in the car after school. Usually, he tells me all the cool and exciting things only five year olds get to do. 

“What’s wrong?” I ask. 

“Tony wouldn’t sit with me for lunch.” Tony is his new best friend. 

“How come?”  I look back in the mirror to catch Jamie’s shrug. I wish I could do something about it, but there’s not much I can do. “Maybe you’ll sit together tomorrow.”

He mumbles a maybe.

“Let’s make a cake when we get home. What kind do you want?” 

“Chocolate,” he says. I smile. Jamie’s my love, my life, and I see his smile when I look over my shoulder. Maybe the cake will be sweet.