Cake Walk excerpt

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From Cakewalk, a Memoir
By Kate Moses

Alligator Toes

Disneyland! It was the Mecca of childhood, only the words “Christmas” and “birthday” more evocative of carefree innocence and unfettered gluttonous glee to an American kid in the 1960s. In our house the sainted genius Walt Disney had exalted status on par with President Kennedy, Santa Claus, and the Beatles. Billy and John and I had watched The Mickey Mouse Club five days a week since we were old enough to sit up by ourselves, and every Sunday night we warbled soulfully along with Jiminy Cricket as he sang “When You Wish Upon a Star” on The Wonderful World of Disney. My mother had regaled us from time immemorial about her trip to Disneyland the first summer it opened, driving with a friend in a convertible down the palm-dotted California coast when she was eighteen. She described the miniature train chugging through history into dinosaur days, at first the peaceful brontosauri blissfully chewing their prehistoric cud among the giant ferns and dragonflies, then the ferocious tyrannosaur and razor-teethed flying lizard battling it out against a backdrop of fiery volcanic destruction. She told us about the Jungle Cruise and the waggling ears of surfacing hippos, Tom Sawyer’s island with its swaggering rope bridges and hidden caves. She said there was a candy kitchen on Main Street where you could press your face to the window as they poured out copper vats of molten chocolate fudge.

“Not as good as Pa’s,” I said, loyal acolyte of the family faith.

“No, not as good as Pa’s,” my mother confirmed, her eyes dark and serious before they shimmered with anticipation, “but almost!”

My parents had decided that we were ready for our first trip to the Magic Kingdom, and to make things even more unbearably exciting, we were going to Disneyland on the same weekend I was turning five. My mother packed our car the night before we left, flattening the back seat and loading it with our suitcases and books and games and a cooler full of baloney sandwiches for the daylong drive to southern California. In the morning my brothers and I were carried out of the house in our pajamas while the dawn sky was still bruised and dreamlike, and for breakfast my mom handed around miniature boxes of our favorite cereals that you ate right from the cardboard containers, cutting through the top with the picnic knife and pouring in about a teaspoon of milk before it overflowed and Sugar Pops slopped all over the back seat.  Lainey and Thor were conveniently available to lick the car upholstery clean because Walt Disney had thought of everything – there was a dog kennel right next to the park’s entrance, so everyone’s mutts could bark at each other to their heart’s content while their owners spent great moments with Mr. Lincoln and marveled at Monsanto’s House of the Future.

That evening I had my birthday dinner across from Disneyland at Howard Johnson’s, instantaneously proclaimed by Billy and John and me as our family’s favorite motel chain, a bar already set low since we’d never stayed in a hotel before, or eaten in a restaurant that didn’t have a drive-through window. But just like McDonald’s, HoJo’s had french fries, served alongside our other new favorite thing, fried clams, in greasy paper-lined orange baskets matching the rest of the turquoise-and-orange décor.

I was busy scribbling on my paper placemat after eating my fried clams, bickering with my brothers over the crayons the waitress had given to us, when she came back carrying a cake lit by the nimbus of a single candle. Not just a piece of cake, but a whole, petite cake, a snowy coconut dome just the right size for a little girl turning five, and the entire restaurant full of Disney-frantic children and their parents sang to me before I made my wish and blew. Inside, the cake had a filling that tasted like an Almond Joy candy bar, and outside it was covered in fluffy marshmallow frosting flecked all over with shredded coconut flakes. I didn’t have to share; Billy and John grimaced at the coconut and ate ice cream from frosty silver bowls instead. The leftover cake was even better the next morning, when the frosting had siezed up into a sugary crust along the edges.

Everything was blissfully sweet, in fact, right up until my family of five walked hand in swinging hand through the Main Street gates.  That’s when the difference between my mother’s childlike relish of the world and my father’s glum despotism became as glaring as the strong Orange County sun beating down on our mouse-eared heads.

My father was constitutionally incapable of having fun. He didn’t know how to relax, let alone surrender to the make-believe world of blithe amusement and wholesome indulgence that was Disneyland’s ethos. We were going to put out an eye at the shooting gallery or see something inappropriately salacious at the Horseshoe Review. We were going to ruin our teeth on frozen lemonade, our appetites for lunch on Frito-Lay. We were going to lose John-John in the crowds, or he’d fall through the elevated walkways at the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse – we’d better keep him on that leash we brought! We were the Swiss Family Robinson as far as my father was concerned, washed ashore to a threatening land of weird animals and pirates and palm trees, but our chances for survival were slim.

While my mother scurried with us from Main Street to Frontierland to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and back again, squealling beside us on every ride, singing along to the glitter-sparkled dolls in “It’s a Small World” and gullibly convinced by the simulated tropical rainstorm at the end of the Tiki Room’s animatronic show, my dad stood by the turnstiles in the unforgiving sun, holding John-John’s limp leash between his hands, glancing at his watch and counting the minutes until our family fun, our Disneyland, our childhood was over.

“C’mon, Daddy, ride the Matterhorn with us!” we cried, wanting him to be with us, to let us know that our pleasure was allowable by having some himself.

“I’ll wait here,” he’d answer every time, setting his jaw. As we whirled in the teacups and watched our mother’s fine Black Irish hair fly out from her head, I saw my dad standing alone under the miserly shade of some spindly tree, dizzying multiples of his unsmiling, refusenik, not-having-a-good-time self repeating back to me again and again as we turned.

By lunchtime on Sunday it was legitimately time for us to head toward the gates for the long afternoon of driving back to northern California, but my dad had also long before hit the limit of his limited patience for frivolity. My mother had promised we could each choose some trinket to take home with us, prompting an apoplexy of indecision and the necessity of racing once again from land to land in search of the perfect Disney souvenirs, or risk the despair of making a wrong and irredeemable choice. We were loitering indecisively at the Jungle Cruise’s souvenir stand, listening to the ride operators broadcast the same hokey jokes we’d heard during our ride the day before, my brothers and I fingering giant conch shells and coconuts carved into monkey faces, when amenable John settled on the trinket right in front of him: a rubber alligator as long as his arm.

“Okay, but the rest of you kids, hurry up,” my dad ordered, stony faced and glancing again at his watch.

Then Billy, the responsible eldest child, decided he would be satisfied with an alligator, too.

“Fine, give it to me,” my dad said, pulling out his wallet. “Cissy, you’ve got one minute, we have to leave.”

Nearly vibrating with the panic of having to make an instantaneous choice, my eyes darted over the stuff in the bins. This wasn’t just my first-Disneyland-trip trinket, it was my birthday-at-Disneyland trinket, too. It had to be good. We’d looked at Tinkerbell necklaces, Minnie Mouse dolls, Cinderella jewelry boxes, and I couldn’t decide – it was too much pressure, and I felt like I was going to wet my pants. Compulsively squeezing the squishy belly of one of the rubber alligators my brothers were getting, I realized that a rubber alligator was the one thing I couldn’t live without.

“You can’t have one of those. Those are for boys,” my father said, turning back to the cash register clerk and cutting off further discussion.

But I knew: I wanted an alligator. It was the only thing I wanted.

NO,” my father barked conclusively, handing Billy and John their yellow Disneyland bags with Mickey Mouse’s face stamped all over. “Alligators are for boys. Besides, you already had a treat – you got your own cake.”

I was far from being any kind of precocious feminist. Though my mother was unequivocal in telling my brothers and me that we could be anything we wanted, her marriage and our family spun its wheels in the deeply rutted trench of the traditional gender divide: men got to be president and the breadwinners, women got to be mommies and, as a bonus, keep the house clean. I was as girly a girl as you could find, convinced early by my unashamedly feminista mother that it was the luckiest thing in the world to be a girl, with all its arabesques of lipstick samples and nail polish and hair ribbons and Kool-Aid tea parties with dolls. I was a girl who would ask for a toy vacuum cleaner when I was in kindergarten and refuse to even try on a pair of pants until we moved to Alaska when I was eleven.

Still, I knew it was grossly, perversely unfair that my dad was refusing to let me have an alligator like my brothers, let alone that he was citing my birthday cake as a secondary justification for his arbitrary tyranny. I could tell that Billy and John knew it, too – they hadn’t even wanted any of my birthday cake, and it was my birthday!  I watched them shuffle uncomfortably, heads down, kneading their crinkling Disney bags at their chests. We were not children who risked tantrums, but I was on the verge of a major meltdown of powerless, weeping frustration, as furious at the hot tears I could feel springing to my eyes as I was at my unjust father.

My mother went into a fluster of last-ditch diplomacy, pulling my dad aside and trying to reason with him as he scowled with his arms knotted across his chest, her wispy hair flying out of her bun, just like it had in the Mad Hatter’s teacups, as she cajoled and pacified.  My father stood glowering by the Dole pineapple juice concession as my mother scurried back to my brothers and me, gathering us like a flock of wayward chicks before a tornado and telling us we had to hurry to the car, it would all be okay, Daddy said it was all right if I chose a souvenir from somewhere along Main Street as we headed for the exit.

Running alongside my scrambling mother, holding her hand and swinging my head right and left as she pointed out possibilities in the store windows of Main Street, I couldn’t imagine what we might find that would be as good as a rubber alligator.

“How about a Donald Duck pencil? How about a Snow White locket?”  My mom ticked off items hopefully as we darted through the crowds, trying to keep up with my dad, who was far ahead tugging Billy and John by the hands. There were Mickey Mouse balloons – too ephemeral — and autograph books with Bambi on them – no time to find any characters to get their signatures — and splotches of fake dog vomit in the magic shop, something I had plenty of, for real, at home. I was still fighting back tears when my mom jerked to a halt in front of the hat shop. There, in the window, was a Mary Poppins hat with three glossy, fake cherries adorning the polka-dot ribboned brim. It wasn’t an alligator, but it wasn’t dog vomit, either.

We raced inside, my mom babbling to the hat store lady that we wanted a Mary Poppins hat with cherries. The lady smiled and turned her back to us, sorting through her stock, and presented us with a Mary Poppins hat – but instead of cherries it had a fake flower, a limp daisy that looked like a fried egg. All of the Mary Poppins hats behind the counter had fried eggs.

“What about the one in the window?” my mom asked, a whinge of desperation in her voice. The one in the window, we were graciously informed, was glued to the hat stand. And I’d run completely out of time.

The Mary Poppins hat’s elastic was so tight under my chin that it cut off the circulation under my ears. I rubbed under my jaw and stomped to our car with the fried egg on my head, my mother shooting me encouraging looks, my brothers oblivious to my outraged, disappointed sulk as they peeked at the good souvenirs inside their bags.

When we got to our car out in the frying parking lot, my brothers threw their alligator bags into the way back of the car with all of our other stuff, and I climbed in there too, dumping my hat into the corner by the empty cooler. I didn’t want to sit with my brothers, even if it wasn’t their fault. I sat with the dogs and the dirty laundry and pouted as my father steered us toward the freeway.

I sighed as loudly as I dared. I tossed my hair and harrumphed, crossing my arms violently over my chest. I turned my head and glared at my father just long enough to feel brave and righteous but not so long that he’d see me in the rearview mirror. My dad, for no good reason at all, had ruined the perfect happiness of my birthday trip to Disneyland, but nobody was paying any attention. My brothers were poring over the Disneyland map in the middle seat, my parents were busy not speaking to each other up front. I kicked out my feet at my dumb fried-egg hat, and that’s when I heard the crinkle of Billy and John’s yellow Disney bags by the wheelwell.

Very, very quietly I pulled the alligators from their bags. It isn’t fair! I kept thinking as I kneaded the green rubber, the dogs panting on either side of me. The alligators I’d been denied had the same satisfying texture as a gumdrop. I squeezed their faces so their jaws opened and closed. I thought about how much fun I could have had if I’d gotten one, too: when my brothers got tired of theirs I could dress all three in dolls’ clothes and play family, with a mommy alligator, a daddy alligator, and a little girl.

I already knew it was going to be a long, long ride home. I turned my head to the front of the car one last time to make sure no one was watching me. And then like a cowboy who shoots his horse to take cover behind its body during a gun battle, I held the rubber alligators to my mouth and one by one bit off all their toes.

…Want to make your own Coconut Cake? Here’s the recipe, straight from the pages of Cakewalk.