“Erik, remind me again why we are making a cake?” She thought this was stupid, and the more difficult it became, the stupider it seemed. ‘Cream the butter.’ Cream the butter? Do what to it? The book said to do that until ‘light and fluffy.’ Fluffy butter?
Why did they have to mix the wet and dry ingredients separately? That was just more dishes. It was all going to get mixed into the same bowl anyway, why not just do that?
“It’s a present,” Erik said. He seemed to believe ‘cream the butter’ involved the mixer and he was employing it haltingly. The blocks of butter tore and chunked and spattered, but did not become ‘fluffy.’
“We gave him a violin!” said Hyacinth, maybe for the tenth time.
“That wasn’t for his… birthday and you were mean about it!” Erik said, maybe also for the tenth time. He ceased mixing and wiped butter off of his cheek, leaving a smear. “Maggie, can you get it? Can you just make it go?”
“The butter or the mixer?” Maggie asked, peering into the bowl. It was a gray ceramic bowl with a crack in the rim, the big bowl. The middle and small sized bowls had dry and wet ingredients mixed into them, respectively.
“I dunno.” He hopped down from the step-stool and consulted the cookbook on the kitchen table. It was the one Milo found and used for pancakes. There were some actual cakes in it, too. This one was supposed to be ‘yellow.’ (The chocolate one required melting chocolate on the stove, and Hyacinth said to hell with that. Mordecai didn’t do that for chocolate cake, why should they?) “It doesn’t say melt the butter, so don’t do that.”
Maggie was attempting to put together a simple charm to get the gears on the mixer to go. Milo could probably do that in his sleep, but he wasn’t home yet. They didn’t think they were going to need him for cake. Mordecai made cake all by himself all the time!
“You’re making it worse!” Hyacinth shrieked as the mixer sped up past human capacity and began to fling noticeable chunks of butter out of the bowl. “Turn it off! Turn it off!”
Maggie experienced some difficulty in getting it to turn off. She tried to stop it manually and snatch the whirling crank and the gears chewed up approximately an inch of her index finger.
“Oh, my… gods… Maggie!” said Erik. Followed shortly by, “The… butter!”
Hyacinth rinsed Maggie’s finger and bandaged it. Staples were not required. There was a small amount of blood spatter in the butter. The three of them regarded it over the edge of the bowl.
“How much butter do we have left?” Erik said.
The remaining butter was on the kitchen table next to the powdered sugar, for frosting. “Not enough for both,” said Hyacinth. “Can you do that thing with the oil, you guys?” Both Erik and Maggie had had some lessons in substitutions. Mordecai could sub oil for butter, and make frosting out of it.
“Sorta,” Erik said painfully.
“I could try to figure it out,” Maggie said.
Erik and Hyacinth both looked at her. The thing where she tried to figure out how to make the mixer go did not work out very well, and Maggie would have to go back upstairs for lessons soon.
All three of them looked at the butter again.
“You know, I think we can probably just scoop that part out,” Hyacinth said. She supplied a spoon and removed the blood.
They were unable to decide if the remaining portion was ‘fluffy.’
Mordecai was sitting in one of the upholstered chairs in the front room and leafing through a fashion magazine. It was the one Hyacinth brought him when he was sick and she was annoyed with him. It would eventually work its way up to the attic — Barnaby claimed everything paper in the house like Hyacinth claimed everything metal — but for the moment it lived on the table between the upholstered chairs in the front room. Mordecai had no great love of fashion, or magazines in general, but it amused him that he had done all the quizzes. He was trying to work out who he had in mind when he did the romantic ones, there were three of those as it was the February issue. They had all spit out the answer that he was fundamentally incompatible with this person and he should run rapidly away from them, in various words. That was something of a clue.
But he didn’t need quizzes to tell him he was fundamentally incompatible with Cathy, and that had been so long ago. There had been women since Cathy, although no marriages and nothing serious. Being married to Cathy was sort of like an inoculation. His immune system had responded. Let’s not have that again!
Good ol’ immune system.
But it did make figuring out the quizzes an interesting challenge.
He snickered. Diane…?
He caught Magnificent coming out of the kitchen on her way back upstairs from a somewhat long lunch. He had been forbidden from entering the kitchen himself, but he was enjoying all of the screaming, particularly Hyacinth’s voice. That was a great present. He didn’t mind one way or the other about the cake, although he wasn’t looking forward to having to eat it.
Maggie had flour stains on her dark blue dress and a chunk of what looked like butter clinging to one pigtail.
“How’s it going in there?” he asked.
“It’s like the Battle of Grantier,” Magnificent said, smiling. “I’m a casualty!” She held up her bandaged finger.
Mordecai looked stricken. “You didn’t get any of that in the cake, did you?”
“Nope!” she replied with a grin. She had to shoo the snowflake on her way up the stairs.
There was a single tin snowflake still whizzing around the front room and dodging in and out of the railings upstairs. The charms on the others had worn off weeks ago, they had been cleaned up with the snow. This one had proved unusually persistent, and crafty. Hyacinth kept saying they were going to have to go after it with a butterfly net. Mordecai was rooting for the little guy. If it survived until April, he was going to give it a name. Perhaps something gender neutral like Pat or Jamie, since snowflakes didn’t sing and there was no way to tell. He was leaning towards Joey, though. Joey the Snowflake.
He abandoned the magazine and Joey the Snowflake and peeked into the kitchen.
Erik was standing on a step-stool at the counter and mixing with a wooden spoon. Apparently something had been done to the mixer, which was resting on the counter nearby with dirty beaters, but no longer being used. Hyacinth had a carton of eggs and was cracking them into the bowl.
“Auntie Hyacinth… stop!” Erik cried. “It says… one at a… time!”
“This is one at a time,” said Hyacinth. She was not capable of cracking two eggs at once, she didn’t think even Mordecai could do that. Maybe the General, if she wanted. That was a silly thing for the cookbook to specify. She added a third.
“You’re… supposed to… wait until… I… mix… them… in!” said Erik.
“Are you two absolutely certain you don’t want me to…” said Mordecai.
Erik shrieked at him and threw a towel, which Mordecai caught. “Go… away! This… is… supposed… to… be… a… surprise!”
“Okay, okay.” Mordecai retreated, snickering. He was positive this was going to be a surprise, no matter what happened. He would be surprised if they managed to come up with a cake.
He returned to the magazine.
It can’t be Diane. Diane annoyed me, but I don’t think we would’ve strangled each other. Maybe she would’ve put me in an asylum, but that wasn’t anything to do with personality. Could I have been thinking of Janice? Oh, gods, but Janice was such a nice girl…
Erik and Hyacinth had managed to produce a chunky substance that was not dissimilar from cake batter. It had been poured into the casserole dish and was resting in a ‘moderate oven.’ Possibly. There had been some discussion about it.
“It’s midway between a slow oven and a fast oven,” Hyacinth said, and Erik had glared at her. “Well, it is! I mean, it must be!” The boxed noodles wanted a ‘slow oven’ and she knew approximately how much wood to have in there so as not to burn the noodles. So they put a little bit more than that.
Erik and Hyacinth were resting at the kitchen table, both with their heads down. Erik had folded his arms and buried his in them, Hyacinth was clutching her hands in her hair and numbly examining the grooved wood of the table top.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” Erik said, muffled.
“Were you yelling?” said Hyacinth. “I think it was necessary to be heard over the sound of us screwing up the cake.”
“Do you think it won’t be any… good?” said Erik.
Hyacinth looked back at the cake in the oven. “Well… I think it might be okay.” They hadn’t put anything bad in it, like rat poison or shoe polish or anything. It was made of food. It should be edible, if they timed it right and the oven was sufficiently ‘moderate.’ She regarded the timer. It was a small glass one with white sand that gave them ten minutes a turn. Naturally, the cake wanted forty-five.
Erik sighed. He lifted his head and rested it in one hand. “Maybe I should’ve just done a card.” His uncle liked cards, or at least he pretended he did, but it seemed like kind of a little kid thing to do. He could do more than just crayons. He didn’t know enough violin yet for that to be a present, and his uncle certainly wouldn’t like a god for a gift, but he knew how to cook some things! Pancakes! Basic white sauce!
(He was embarrassed about sometimes flipping his letters the wrong way and he didn’t want to do a card. If he wanted to get it right, he would’ve had to ask for help. He had to ask for help with this, too, but this involved fire. It was new and interesting, not stupid and boring like a card with crayons that he should already know how to do.)
“I’m telling you, we got him a violin,” Hyacinth said, shaking her head. “He loves the damn violin. He named it.” That wasn’t special, Mordecai named all his instruments (and he had been talking about naming that snowflake in the front room), but it surely meant that the thing had been accepted, even if he wasn’t confident enough playing to take it out of the house yet.
“You got him a violin,” Erik said. “Maggie and me were just there when you gave it to him.” He kicked out at the table leg, but gently. “I didn’t even get him stuff for Yule.”
“Erik, that’s not fair,” said Hyacinth. “Yule was a surprise. You weren’t supposed to get anyone anything. Your uncle barely got anyone anything. He didn’t have any money.”
“Yeah, but the stuff he did was really great,” Erik said.
He made all the food, and he played that song Erik’s mother used to like, and Hyacinth’s great big shell was still in the kitchen, awaiting use as a mergers or staples. It was wearing sunglasses and a hat. They were calling it Lord Sheldon Shellbury.
“You’ve done some pretty damn great stuff, too,” Hyacinth said.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t presents,” Erik said. “I mean, I would’ve done it anyway.” Try to get better after he got hurt and call a god to help his uncle. Those things were hard, but it wasn’t like he had any choice.
And they didn’t make people happy. There was happy involved, but he also made people worried and sad.
“I wish I could play violin already,” he said. “Then I’d have money for presents.” It would be like he had a job. There were kids with jobs. There was a man who paid Cornflakes to pick stuff out of the gutters. Sometimes Soup did that, too, but usually he just stole stuff.
“Your uncle would be really unhappy if he thought you wanted to learn violin just to buy him presents, Erik.”
“Yeah, I know,” Erik said. “That isn’t why I want to, it’d just be nice…” He toyed with the dirty measuring cup on the table. There was flour dusted inside. They were going to have to clean it out so they could do powdered sugar for the frosting, but it was too soon to start the frosting. He was tired, anyway. How did his uncle just turn out cakes like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Calling Auntie Enora was easier than a cake!
“Is my uncle really old?” He seemed concerned about it.
Hyacinth shrugged. “He’s not really old. He’s older than me, but he’s not old like Barnaby. Even Barnaby isn’t really old.” Really old, she thought, would be ninety or something. Barnaby was in his seventies. She didn’t think Mordecai had hit sixty yet, but it was hard to tell with the white hair. “I think your uncle likes to pretend he’s old. Or maybe he thinks he is. He was around a lot of young people during the war, and he’s done a lot, you know?” She considered it. “He was a handler during the siege, with your mom, and before that he played ‘cello in theaters. I’m pretty sure he was in a band, and a revolution. That was the Cut-Flag Revolt. Does he ever talk about that?” She was curious. He didn’t seem like a revolutionary. Maybe it was the suits.
Erik shook his head. “I think he’s embarrassed of it. He thinks it was dumb that it happened and he’s sad a lot of people died.” Not all of this was stuff that his uncle had said.
“Yeah, I guess I know that much,” Hyacinth said. “Oh, yeah, and he was married for a little while, there…”
“He was… married?” said Erik, upstarting. “To a… lady?”
“Well, yeah. They don’t let men be married to men. You hafta get a lawyer and a lot of papers and sort of pretend about it…”
Erik tore out of the kitchen and into the front room. He skidded on the tile. He had smudges of flour evident on his green skin and brown trousers and even his shoes. There was cake batter in his hair. “Uncle!” he demanded. “You were… married to that… lady you didn’t… like?”
Mordecai dropped the magazine in his lap. He had been going over it question by question and trying to build up a picture of a hypothetical woman. Apparently, she was blonde. Linda was blonde, but there wasn’t an option for white hair, so he might’ve meant Diane, too. “Oh, gods, Erik, do you mean Cathy?” he said.
Erik had seen some of Cathy, he knew that. Auntie Enora had been in Erik, and she had gone filing through Mordecai’s memories to keep him calm while he was sick. There had been a tenement apartment from when he was a kid, the room with Cathy, the infirmary during the siege, and the dining room, here. All places he’d been sick, but with nice people to take care of him. Well, nice-ish, given that one of them was Cathy.
“The… purple… lady who… gave you the… wrong… crackers!” Erik said.
Mordecai put a hand to his head and nodded. Yeah, that was her. “Erik, didn’t you know we were married?” It was obvious they were living together. There was a double bed and Cathy had been half-dressed.
It seemed like Erik had a pretty liberal idea of morality. Gods, he wished he’d felt that way at the time. It would’ve saved them a lot of time and money, and screaming.
“Why would you be… married to her?” Erik said. “You didn’t… like her!”
“Well,” said Mordecai, painfully. “Well… We were young. And we were dumb. And I thought she was pretty and I might like being married to her. And she thought I was handsome.”
They wanted to have sex. And they’d both been brought up to believe you needed to be married to do that. And he really hoped nobody was going to mention that to Erik.
Come on, invisible people. I know you think you’re funny, but I have to live with Erik. Let’s leave it at pretty and handsome.
“She… didn’t like… rock and… roll!” Erik said, which apparently the Invisibles thought would upset him more. Maybe it did.
Oh, there was rocking and rolling involved, believe me, thought Mordecai. He couldn’t help being clever. But, no, Cathy did not like rock and roll. They were always fighting over… Well, they were always fighting, but a good percentage of the fights were over the radio. She wanted to listen to classical, or opera. He wanted actual music, thank you. Not sedation. And for gods’ sakes, can we crank up the volume? Cathy, are you old?
That man downstairs pounds on the ceiling!
That man downstairs pounds on the ceiling when we open soup cans!
Oh, gods. He closed his eyes and slipped both hands briefly over his ears. He could still hear it. Pounding and screaming. And there was a kid upstairs who was always doing scales on the piano. Badly. Of course, they had only lived there for six months, it was possible the kid had eventually improved. It was possible the kid was a concert pianist with his own kids doing scales badly, by now.
“I didn’t know that,” he said. “I didn’t think they made people who didn’t like rock and roll. I did mention we were dumb.”
“Didn’t you… talk to her?” Erik said.
“…No, not really, no.” Not before, not even after. Not talking. “Mainly stuff about being pretty and handsome.” That got them through about a month. Then it was all, What’s this crap on the radio? and, These are the wrong crackers! “I guess that was all we liked about each other.”
“How did you get rid of her?” Erik said.
He snickered and shook his head. “It wasn’t like she wanted to keep me, Erik. We got rid of each other. She wanted to be married to someone else and I wanted to be in a band.” (The band had gone longer than the marriage, but that might not have been the best decision, either. Certainly they should not have gone ahead with the uniforms and the flag.) “We had the marriage annulled, that means you do some paperwork and they let you take it back, like it never happened. It was cheaper than a divorce and we weren’t married for very long, so we did it that way.”
“They let you just do that if you marry someone dumb?” Erik said. Gosh, that was something of a relief. People in stories were always talking about getting married like it was forever. He’d like to be able to take it back if he made a mistake, like when you made a bad move in checkers but you still had your finger on the piece.
“Well, no, not exactly,” Mordecai hedged. “There’s a lot of stuff they want you to say. Not just that you didn’t like each other. Certain reasons. And we weren’t really sure exactly what we needed to say, because we were young and stupid, but, uh… We really didn’t want to be married anymore and we didn’t have the money for lawyers and stuff, so we came up with something. I mean, we lied.”
Erik did not disapprove. Given his experiences and upbringing, lying to save some money and get what you wanted was like a virtue. He smiled, expecting a good story with cleverness in it, “What did you say?”
“Well… We told the very nice man at the courthouse that I was gay.”
Hyacinth, who had been listening from the kitchen doorway (and trying to keep half an eye on the timer), pitched forward and began cackling madly. “You? Oh, my gods! You?”
He stood and turned on her. The magazine dropped out of his lap and splayed on the floor. “Look, it had to be me! We had to say the marriage wasn’t consummated! If it had been her, there wouldn’t have been a problem!”
“I think there would’ve been a considerable one!” Hyacinth said.
“Not a physical one! We only had one shot at it, all right? We didn’t have the money and we hated each other! I can pass for gay! It’s not like there’s a sticker they can check!”
“I’m just picturing you trying!” She was almost sobbing.
“Well, you can stop,” he said sourly. “I wasn’t stupid about it, Hyacinth. I just said I was. That was it.”
He had only narrowly avoided being stupid about it, but Hyacinth didn’t need to know that. He had been discussing it with the guys in the band (“No, no. I am absolutely going to get out of it. We have a plan!”) and they had been laughing about it and they had been encouraging him, and just as he had been getting ready to pack up for the evening, Charlie over at the bar grabbed him by the arm and dragged him into a chair.
“What exactly is it that you’re thinking of doing, Mordecai?” he’d said
“We’re going to tell the guy I’m gay, so I don’t have to be married to Cathy anymore!”
“It sounds to me like you’re thinking of making a goddamned fool of yourself.”
“Well, I have to sell it, Charlie.”
“You do not have to sell it, there is nothing to sell. You are not doing a music hall act. ‘Gay’ is not a species. We walk among you. We look just like regular human beings. It’s like that horror movie with the plant creatures.”
Mordecai had some difficulty absorbing this, and then some difficulty coping with it. “You’re gay?” Charlie was a very large man who had just thrown him into a chair.
“They always said you were the smart one,” Charlie replied.
Mordecai looked him up and down. There did not seem to be any… intention going on there. Just an angry man in a white apron. “You seem normal,” he said.
“Ah! Now he’s getting it!” Charlie said. “No lisping, no prancing, no limp wrists held at a ninety-degree angle. Normal!”
“But I have seen actual gay people who act like that,” Mordecai protested. At least, he assumed they were gay. Why else would they act like that?
“That is because they actually are gay and it amuses them to do so,” Charlie said. “You are trying to get out of a stupid marriage to a mean lady who won’t let you be in a band. You are going to walk into that courthouse normally and speak normally and inform the clerk — with a straight face! — that you like to fuck boys. And that is all you are going to do.”
So, that was what he did. He was nervous and he might’ve been a bit too insistent about it (“Yes. Incredibly gay. Artistic. Musical! Thought she would straighten me out. Absolutely did not work. Like trying to pick a lock with a sardine.”) but he was not insulting.
“And they bought it?” Hyacinth said.
Mordecai drew himself upright and laid a hand on his chest. “The nice man at the courthouse filed all our paperwork and then asked me to dinner.”
Hyacinth squawked laughter and put both hands over her face.
“Did you go?” Erik asked eagerly. He was having a little bit of trouble with the vocabulary (He was pretty sure ‘gay’ was to do with not liking girls ever, and ‘consummated,’ well, he thought that was something to do with soup, but that couldn’t be right, there had definitely been soup.) but he was getting more detail to the story than his uncle was saying out loud. His friends had told him he should act really stupid and he almost did. There was a big man in a white apron who scolded him like a little kid. And something about sardines? Anyway, it was great. He’d like to hear about his uncle having to go to dinner with a man just so he didn’t have to be married anymore.
Sure, I went! thought Mordecai, snickering. We had a lovely time! Don’t you remember your old Uncle Courtroom Clerk?
But he didn’t say it. Erik wouldn’t like being teased about not remembering something.
He shook his head with a smile. “No. I told him my mother wouldn’t like me to date someone who wasn’t colored.”
“Well, thank the gods for casual racism,” said Hyacinth, grinning.
“Aw,” Erik said. “I wish you would’ve gone.”
Mordecai blinked at him. Erik, would you like to have an Uncle Courtroom Clerk? “What for?”
“I think it would’ve been funny. Like when the man in the apron yelled at you about acting all weird…”
” Yes! That was extremely hilarious!” Mordecai broke in. He put one hand on Erik’s back and put another over his mouth and propelled the child in the general direction of the kitchen. “Why don’t you check the cake? Your Auntie Hyacinth is paying absolutely zero attention to that cake, Erik! She cannot be trusted!”
“Did you do the timer?” Erik asked her.
Hyacinth looked over her shoulder at the kitchen table. The timer had run out, possibly some time ago. “No…”
“Auntie… Hyacinth!” said Erik. He dashed into the kitchen.
Mordecai stood there feeling trepidacious until he heard them start up an argument about whether the cake should be tested with a toothpick (“Erik, it is wiggly. It is not done!”) and whether they even had any toothpicks (He knew they did. He bought them specifically to poke in things.) before he considered his youthful idiocy safe (at least from Hyacinth) and returned to the magazine.
So, where the hell were we?
Linda or Diane… Or I guess possibly Cathy, too. I mean, I was sick. I might’ve thought I was still married to her. I can’t be held responsible…
“Sift the powdered sugar? Why? It’s not like there’s bugs in it, we just opened the bag!”
“I… don’t… know… why! It… says… we… should!”
He breathed a laugh and put a hand over his eyes. Yeah. It would not have been unreasonable for him to have believed he was still married to Cathy. Oh, it wasn’t like that all the time, but sometimes it seemed like all they were missing was the guy pounding on the ceiling and the kid doing the piano.
Is it me? Do I attract people like this? Am I being punished?
He inquired of the snowflake, which was making a near pass, Joey, what do you think?
Joey appeared sympathetic, or perhaps that was hyperactive, as the unmistakable sound of Erik and Hyacinth starting in way too early on the frosting emanated from the kitchen.
Ah, now here was a clue. The magazine had asked him the color of his beloved’s eyes. That would narrow it down. He had circled… ‘Steel Blue.’
(‘Ocean Blue’ was also an option.)
Linda and Cathy had brown eyes. Diane had green.
Blonde hair and blue eyes? STEEL BLUE?
He closed the magazine and held it shakily back from him, as if it had suddenly grown red eyes and fangs.
Did I do these quizzes about HYACINTH?
There was a pulsation of bright light and the scent of hot metal from the kitchen as Hyacinth repaired the mixer. Joey the Snowflake froze in midair and fluttered dead to the ground at Mordecai’s feet.
“Uncle!” cried Erik. He cast about the drawers and counter, but there was nothing near enough and kind enough to throw. He wasn’t going to hurl the mixer at his uncle’s head, no matter how much he wanted to.
Mordecai ignored him and strode rapidly to the oven. “This magazine must die.” He folded it in half and stuffed it into the fire.
“The… cake!” Erik shrieked, as visible flecks of magazine began to drift upwards with the heat.
“Oh, you can pick those out,” said Mordecai, waving a hand. “Frosting covers a multitude of sins. It’s fine.” He regarded the two of them and the mixer and the bowl. “Let it cool down before you frost it, I am not Solange. And remember to cream the butter before you mix in the sugar.” He exited the kitchen with a nod.
“Cream the butter…” said Hyacinth, weakly.
Erik looked into the bowl and then up at her. “Do you think we can take the sugar back out?”
Mordecai’s birthday cake was of brick-like consistency, stuck firmly to the bottom of the casserole, frosted with a thick substance that contained unmixed lumps of both butter and sugar, and speckled with magazine ashes. He ate it gratefully.
Better that the magazine be in the cake than anywhere near Barnaby’s room.
This way, he could pretend it never happened. Like being married to Cathy!