"The Cake Eater" by Jason Thornberry

Updated: Apr 3

The heavy door opens, and I check in. Someone pats me down. When they finish, I put my keys, my wallet, and my Chapstick back in my pockets. Then I grab a magazine with the cover missing, find a seat, and listen to the heavy door, sliding closed behind me. The magazine is swollen and stiff with old rain.

Eventually, somebody calls my name and I graduate to a steel bench in another, smaller room. I wait some more, shifting, listening, smelling an invisible hovering armpit, staring at my reflection in the wall. The wall of plexiglass. I see an arrangement of fingerprints and palm prints, and a set of boxy initials carved into the corner near a scuffed red telephone.

The light flicks on and an officer hauls my brother into the other room. Ronnie catches his balance. Then he sits. Then I notice the dark purple bruises crisscrossing his throat. We face each other, separated by that transparent wall. My brother gazes at me without blinking. Then he reaches for the telephone receiver.

"It’s your barber’s fault,” he finally says.

Ronnie’s a painter. He paints condominiums here, in Seattle. I see him sometimes on my way to the office. Ronnie’s easy to distinguish from the others in their baggy bright yellow, scrambling about, carrying and stacking and piling and packing and hammering and hauling and cementing and sawing and listening to mariachis. Ronnie never comes to a job without his baggy blue jeans. And a tie-dyed t-shirt.

Now that our parents are gone, I see him less and less. I get occasional glimpses of Ronnie, suspended near the tip of a three-story multiplex or apartment block. I’ll see him and drive by slowly some days and look up at him. I wonder if he ever notices me. I wonder if he wonders how I’m doing, wonder if he wishes we saw each other more often. Until he got a job on 26th Street, a few doors down from where I just moved with Sandy.

Sunday morning, I put my slippers on while Sandy was still asleep. I poured a couple of cups and crossed the noisy street. And then I asked one of the guys in yellow to get my brother’s attention.

Every Sunday, the man across the street from me makes love to his maroon SUV. He scrubs and sprays and polishes away to the sound of pulsing electro-pop anthems with frenzied vocals pitched to the key of infinity. Machine gun drumrolls. Cardiac arrest choruses. They smash me in the face like a car door.

At the construction site, a hundred feet away, a hand with a yellow sleeve adjusts the volume on a boombox aboard a 2 x 4. While I wait for Ronnie, my ears bear witness to the musical car accident of drum machines, synthesizers, and sequencers colliding with trumpets, accordions, guitars, and violin. And I distract myself remembering the faded green cottage that once occupied this construction site. The owner was a soft-spoken old man with a bad back and a blind dog. He used to bring us tomatoes from his garden.

Getting out of my car one day, I realized I hadn’t seen the old man in weeks. And then I saw a turmeric yellow Notice of Land Use Action billboard sticking up and out of the overgrown grass on his lawn. A few months later, I returned from work to find his little place squashed flat. A yellow backhoe with faded black stripes rested atop what might have once been the old man’s bedroom. A bearded man in sunglasses and overalls earnestly sprayed the debris with a garden hose. The soaking wet pile of broken furniture, broken glass, broken appliances, and shattered walls lay there all night, dripping quietly. I wondered where the man and his dog had gone. I dreamt that night about someone knocking at our door. I opened it and there he was.

“Have you seen Cassius?”

I told him his dog was probably out playing with the other dogs at the park down the street.

“He’ll come home soon,” I said. “I promise.”

He looked up into my face.

“You do? I haven’t seen him in so long.”

I woke up the next morning, opened the blinds and looked out. The dripping rubble of the old house was still there. Beside a knot of broken trees.

Suddenly, a season passes, and a slender new townhouse is already looming in where the old man’s house stood. Nearly finished. All it needs now is a coat of paint. That’s where my brother comes in.

Ronnie tips his mask, pushes back his bulky headphones, climbs down from the second floor and approaches me. I hand him a cup.

“Seen you in a while,” he says and takes a sip. “The fuck is this?”

I smile. I haven’t seen my brother up close in a year.

“You call this coffee?”

It’s already been four years since Mom died. (Dad’s been gone nearly ten.) We were there at the end. In the mobile home. Ronnie was out in the living room. I was in a scratchy chair at the foot of her bed. We’d been there with her for a week. My neck was killing me.