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"The Cake Eater" by Jason Thornberry

Updated: Apr 3, 2022

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.


I had no idea how long she’d been awake.



“I’m right here, Mother. I’m right here.”


“Do you need anything, Mother? Are you dreaming? Mother?


I took her hand when she started whispering my name, getting farther and farther away, fainter and fainter. We buried her that weekend.

I couldn’t go far in my slippers, so Ronnie and I try the bakery around the corner. When we sit down, Ronnie tells me about his problems at home.

“They’re gonna fumigate us!”

My brother lives down in Federal Way with his wife and her kids. He says the oldest boy drives him crazy. But he loves the youngest. Todd’s six. And my brother’s turned that little boy into the biggest Deadhead in Kindergarten. Ronnie’s got a little girl of his own. But his ex moved to Idaho after the election.

Meantime, Sandy’s been marking days on the calendar before our next trip to Orcas Island. Every year, we book a tiny vacation rental next to the docks and spend a week sleeping in, wandering, buying trinkets, eating out, being tourists.

I manage the client support team of a software development company. I fell into this job—starting as a temp in a windowless room, getting eyeball headaches from an avalanche of data entry, eating Advil like Skittles, walking to Pike Place on my lunch breaks. Now I run my own small team, staying late and working weekends to keep up with the other teams and to keep Orville the CEO off my back. Competing with the others to impress him at the Monday morning concept meetings, the Wednesday morning dashboard meetings, the Friday morning progress meetings. We’re getting ready to launch a new design at the end of summer. Orville wants whoever intends to go on vacation to do it, pronto.

I wonder if my brother wouldn’t like a little break from his commute. They’re welcome to stay at our place while they debug his apartment.

“I might leave the oldest one behind,” Ronnie laughs.

We both laugh. And I missed him, just then.

I know I’ll feel safer with a relative at home, even if Ronnie and his family get fingerprints and Cheeto smears all over my record collection. Even if they leave crumbs on the hardwood floor. Even if they wreck the couch. Sandy and I usually come back to a condo full of dead plants anyway, and a mailbox you can’t open for all the junk crammed sideways. We’ve tried putting a hold on our mail. But the Ballard Post Office can never find any of it when we do.


That night, I open the door, and there he is. In a t-shirt and baggy shorts, his padded dome of grey fuzz makes Ronnie a foot taller than me. Seconds later, a car turns the corner. That sphere of curls glows in the headlights like a jack-o-lantern. And then I can see the others standing around him.

“Boy needs your bathroom,” Ronnie says.

A tiny shape brushes quickly past me.

“It’s towards the back on your left,” I say to the boy over my shoulder.

“How long do we have to be here?” asks a tall sulking teenager, slouching beside my brother.

My brother smirks. “You got an appointment to be somewhere else?”

I asked Ronnie if he painted my condo.

“Don’t think I did. Guess I could check.”


“Oh. Yeah,” he says and puts his arm around the woman standing beside him. “This is Debra. And that one with the long face is Sidney. Say hello to your Uncle Milo, Sid. And that was Todd,” he says pointing over my shoulder.

“Your little protégé,” I say.

“My little what?

“He means your partner,” says Sidney.

“What grade’re you in again?”

Debra pulls on his long-sleeved t-shirt.


“He’s right.”

Up the steps they go. The toilet flushes. I close the door and give the family a quick tour. Debra asks about my wife. I tell her Sandy ran to the grocery store for a few last-minute things. The truth is, Sandy never cared for my brother. They met at our wedding. I spent most of the day talking her into this arrangement. Debra looks down. She seems unconvinced. So, I change the subject. I tell Ronnie and Debra about the finicky oven and the remote controls and I ask them to please try and water our plants every other day and I say anything in the fridge is fair game, including the beer.

Only later do I realize they weren’t carrying any suitcases.


As morning breaks, the sun beats its fists against a mattress of clouds covering the bay at Eastsound. Light hasn’t yet penetrated the gaps where the vertical blinds meet the window frame of our vacation rental. And while I nestle against Sandy, my brother is back in Seattle at my place. I can’t see him, but I know now that on that particular morning, he was buttoning one of my long-sleeved dress shirts. Slacks, belt. Socks, loafers. Tie. A wristwatch from the drawer next to my bed.

Where I work, people show up in the kind of stuff you’d expect them to wear around the house if they called in sick. One of my team—I guess to test the boundaries of my patience—wore his jammies. For two days. Slippers included. But that’s the story working in Seattle. Especially tech in Seattle. What dress code? It puzzled me at first. Now I wear t-shirts most of the time. And I save the things with buttons for Friday night.

Silvio has been cutting my hair for a long time, and he does quite a number on my brother. Silvio even got Ronnie to give up the sideburns and handlebars. Ronnie tipped my barber from the silver dollar collection I inherited from our dad. It was under the bed.

And while I’m asleep Ronnie calls in sick to his construction job and, according to reports, reports to work Monday morning bright and early—at my office, where everybody greets him like the overdressed sunburnt doppelganger that he is. Did I forget to mention we were born eleven minutes apart?

Someone must have asked him if he was all right. Wasn’t he supposed to be on vacation? They might have thought I had gotten stuck inside a tanning bed. But Ronnie does his best to fit right in. He finds my office, and after a few tries logs onto my computer.

Orville the CEO told everybody he’d be back on Friday, which would be fine if Ronnie didn’t spend the whole week pretending he was me, sitting in meetings, drinking out of my coffee cup and squinting at my monitor, deleting my emails, shopping online and watching Grateful Dead videos with the sound up. He even finds my spare key and drives to work, parking in my spot.


As we sit across from each other in Inmate Visiting, Ronnie tells me a story. It’s about a man from Queen Anne, a local neighborhood on a hill overlooking the Space Needle. This man was a visionary in the world of technology. And he owned a great deal of property, some of it in the form of luxury apartments, sprinkled like tiny jewels across the city.

As I listen, I picture the man existing in a state of bewildering splendor. Paying a butler to polish his car so he can read the Wall Street Journal and listen to Gershwin while a panel of chefs puzzles over his dinner. I picture the man trading texts and phone calls with his accountants. I see him visualizing methods to make more money than he did last year and last month and last week and yesterday and two minutes ago.

I observe his supple hands. His pristine cuticles. His gleaming fingernails. His freshly shaven Adam’s Apple. The mass of thick, regal white hair adorning his head and playing hide and seek from one nostril—an imperfection dangerously overlooked by his valet’s tiny scissors. I see the man’s breath come in through his nose and go out of his mouth. I hear his heart knock patiently at the door of his sternum like a distant reggae song. I listen to his purple blood bombard the highway of his arteries, enriched by deep breaths of air. I watch his liver pulse. Weirdly familiar, the picture Ronnie paints is vivid, despite the staticky telephone connection and the commotion of the jail.

This is the man who came to formulate my brother’s ruin.

“I call him the Cake Eater,” Ronnie says.

A long time ago, Ronnie was commissioned to paint the Cake Eater’s château. Considering its size, this was a long, tricky job, one exceptionally hot summer. And when Ronnie finally finished, he applied one final touch.

Ronnie approaches his work from a perspective unfamiliar, he says, to others of the same profession:

“Whatever anybody else does doesn’t matter much to me,” he says. “It’s not just a job. To me. No,” and he pauses to cover his mouth for a moment. “It’s, it’s, it’s its own thing. And I won’t try and stop it bein’ what it becomes. Know what I mean?”

What I think Ronnie means is that an apartment building or a condo or a house is more than the utility borne out of its designation. Every project Ronnie undertakes is more than just a job. A layer of paint is more than just a paint job. A meticulous craftsman, when he finishes each project, my brother is compelled to add his signature to it. Somewhere, across the surface of every building Ronnie’s ever painted, you’ll find his mark. And he says that, in twenty-one years, his thousands of signatures have gone unnoticed. That is until the Cake Eater hired someone to repaint the dome on the roof of his château. By sheer luck, they located a set of tiny initials.

The Cake Eater did not appreciate this reasonless blemish, as he called it, even if it had to be photographed and enlarged so he could see it. Suddenly, I can hear the Cake Eater’s voice and its subtle drawl as he spoke of his “law-yer.” Ronnie was always good at voices. He used to crank call me in the old days, pretending to be Bruce, my now-father-in-law. Back then, it scared the living shit out of me. With a lightning stroke from his mighty pen, the Cake Eater cast Ronnie out of the kingdom of housepainters and into the village of the broke. This explains the long winter my brother spent in a wasteland of depression and unemployment. We spoke even less back then. He sold off part of his Grateful Dead collection. But then he met Debra. Debra’s brother helped get Ronnie back on his feet and painting again. A part of him remained bitter.

“Cake Eater knew everybody,” Ronnie says. “Developer bosses, foremen, business dudes, those serious money guys you read about. At least maybe you do. I don’t. I don’t care. And just like that,” Ronnie snaps his finger. Then he opens his hand, pressing it to the oily plexiglass. “Blacklisted: King County.”


From where I sit in my office, the rolling clatter of fingers on keyboards reminds me of the sound of the ocean. The vibrations of feverish productivity come and goes, increasing and decreasing as the day dwindles. It's a music of its own. I contribute to it. But by the end of the day, I'm usually bored at my desk, typing with indifferent strokes. Looking at news sites, stocks, whatever, waiting for the vibrations to be replaced by the sound of Happy Hour.

Around four o'clock on Fridays, we all stop working. Most of us meander toward the middle of the office. There, we sit in a circle and we drink. Beer, mostly. The loosening of invisible neckties. Everyone gives their eyes and elbow joints a rest. Notable topics of recent Friday drinking sessions have included:



Bike lanes

Local beer

Star Wars

and Seamus

Seamus is the CEO's assistant. We call him the Office Butler. Seamus works out of a portable-toilet-sized room next door to Orville. I think my graduation from beneath the staircase and through the ranks of the company was an insult to whatever conception of hierarchy governs Seamus’s life. And he's always hated me for it. I stay out of his way. Most of us do. When Orville's around, Seamus is devoted to him like a barnacle to the bottom of an old boat. When Orville isn't around, Seamus likes to lean against the wall and stare at me while he cracks his knuckles.

Happy Hour is not something in which Seamus participates. Ronnie certainly did. Ronnie suggested everyone begin drinking after lunch. He invited the entire office over to Reggie Ray's, for their infamous pub burgers and the gastrointestinal rite of passage of their two-pound chili dogs. By then they had fallen in love with this uncouth, carefree new Milo. I could almost see them carrying him back to the office on their shoulders, chanting his name. I mean, my name.

Happy Hour is the first my brother hears of the Office Butler—a towering, potbellied man in a tight black suit, whose backward-brill-creamed hair shows off a jagged, bumpy scar above his eyebrows. When Orville’s around, it's the Office Butler's job to run official errands and stand around, like a Frankensteinian Secret Service agent.

Late Friday afternoon found my brother wandering the office, bumping, and spilling beer on the carpet when he came across a collection of photographs on the walls of the reception area. The photos depicted our CEO with various city and state politicians. Members of Congress, mayors. Members of the city council, etc. Some photos were taken right here in the office, as Orville summoned the civic leaders, who curtseyed beside his imposing desk. Orville cherishes that desk, which he purchased from the estate of Richard Nixon.

An original Kholfield from 1890, it's a breathtaking piece of wood, dense and infinite and somber and grand, designed with meticulous care during the last years of Kholfield's creative life. Crafted from rosewood—residing in the attenuated distance between august brown, deep plum, and the color of midnight—the aging fibers are, in several places, two or three shades darker than pitch.

These gradients of color enable the desk to swallow the room, especially when Orville, a slight man, sits behind it. The famous wood sculptor Rols Kholfield created only four such desks. This was supposedly his favorite. It’s so large that Orville had a wall removed from his office, replacing it with an enormous sheet of Egyptian blue glass. Orville maintains that the light cast onto him through this glass inspired him to engineer radical developments in software and civic development. And to write his memoir: Mighty Desk, Mighty Charge, in which he charts the accomplishments of Richard Nixon, combining them with Kholfield's and his own. Orville enjoys giving away signed copies lining the shelves of his office. Orville gave me one the day he hired me away from the temp agency.

What begins for my brother, on Monday, as a childish, prank becomes something totally different and considerably worse when he sees those photographs.


The Office Butler, like his boss, maintains an unconventional schedule. And he turns up after the office party is well underway. Probably to fetch something for Orville and check on us.

Computer scientists and data analysts dance on top of their desks. They kick over their monitors, tipping over bottles of IPA and oatmeal stout, clinking mugs, singing offkey to stupid songs as loudly as they can. When Seamus arrives, he finds my brother drunkenly carving his initials into the top of the antique desk with a silver letter opener.

Employees drift toward the scene, hands over their mouths.

One of them recounts seeing Ronnie laying across the CEO's desk, convulsing as Seamus throttles him. My brother reaches behind him. But his fingers barely reach the binding of Orville's books. Ronnie’s eyes bulge. His legs twitch beneath the man holding him down. His desperate fingers locate the upper binding of one of the books arranged behind the desk. Sliding from its shelf, the hardcover surges toward the Office Butler's face, striking him in the mouth. Seamus tightens his grip on Ronnie's throat, growling through gritted teeth and bleeding gums. A row of books falls to the ground before another strikes the Office Butler's broad forehead, inflaming his ragged scar. Roaring, Seamus hoists Ronnie up, shaking him like a fish, delivering him back down to the desk, sweeping him across its scarred surface like a polishing cloth. Just then, a lamp falls, its bulb popping, darkening the room. Reaching, reaching, reaching, Ronnie's fingers reunite with a shiny pointed object resting near the edge of the desk. He drives it into the Office Butler. Twice. Then twice more.

Gasping and coughing, my brother drops the silver letter opener, stepping over the body, stumbling through the crowd, toward the elevators.


The week on Orcas flies. In the shower that last morning, shampoo in my hair, I think again about what our separation must have meant for Ronnie. When our parents split up, my brother and I were split up too. Dad took my brother and moved south. And while mom accepted the trickling news of my father’s difficulties and disappointments with grim satisfaction, the obstacles which beset her distant son caused a visible sadness to well up under her skin. I know she blamed herself for the divorce. And I know she took those feelings to bed with her on the night she passed away.

It’s the middle of the afternoon when we reach the mainland, disembarking from the ferry. I fall asleep as Sandy drives us back to Seattle. I’m dreaming about my mother and a pair of birthday cakes with three candles each.




I hear the echo of children.

For a moment, I think they’ve all come to the birthday party.

Then I hear my wife’s voice again. Through the windshield, I see a summer waterfall in the sky, coming closer as we inch our way up the block and through our neighborhood. Out in the street, children dart and skip. A little girl sings, reaching for the sky to catch the water as it comes down. Across the street from where we live, a silver Mercedes Benz 1100 is up and over the curbside, resting against a busted fire hydrant.

A volcanic spray of water shimmers down in sheets over our condominium, pelting the trees and roof. Gushing over our front door. Running down the stoop.

When I realize it’s my silver Mercedes Benz 1100, Sandy begins to shout. And I turn to see the Seattle PD escorting my brother from our condominium. By the time I catch up to the group of officers surrounding him, they’re muscling him into the back of a midnight-blue SUV with swirling lights.


“Do you have any idea what this means?” I start to say. Our visiting time is almost up.

Ronnie holds the phone between his cheek and shoulder, the cord is so short he leans into the glass. I look at him and his orange jumpsuit. For once, he passes for a construction worker. His eyes plead with mine for a moment before he looks away.

“I prob’ly lost my job again.”

Jason M. Thornberry’s work appears in The Los Angeles Review of Books, North Dakota Quarterly, Adirondack Review, and elsewhere. Jason performed with numerous post-punk and alternative bands before being suffering a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic epilepsy. Relearning to walk and speak, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University.

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