- Tim Conrad
FICTION | Cakewalk
You first see her at Polish Town Polka Days. She’s the one in mismatched costume, dancing confidently with men twice her age and singing aloud. She is, in this moment, a poster-child for the chamber of commerce, for sunlit, Midwestern towns and meat stew. She’s not what you’d consider your type, although lately “your type” has become a fading illusion, something you can no longer articulate to yourself, its possessive quality an absurdity. When she passes you, she winks either at you or the red-faced accordion player behind you. You can’t tell for sure, and that may be part of what makes an impression.
Without being fully conscious of it, you remember her. For the next week at work, you think back on the way she danced—more arms than legs—and the ridiculous outfit—that outfit of a wannabe Swiss maiden. You’re sure you’ll never see her again.
You don’t believe in serendipity, in soul mates, in love at first sight. Maybe you should. You’re worth it.
The next time you see her, you’re at a bland festival in the town of Stacy, an hour from the Twin Cities. There’s no theme, only a light spoofing of the spelling of “Days,” as in “Stacy Daze.” It reminds you of someone you went to high school with, the girl with the hairspray that once caught fire during a candlelight vigil. This is what you’re thinking of when you see her again. She’s eating cotton candy, a large, pink wad of it. You watch her from afar, not sure it’s her. You divide your time between eating and reconnaissance. And there’s a water fight in progress. They’ve backed the town’s two fire trucks up against each other and are spraying at a giant red ball on a wire, the type they put on power lines near airstrips to keep planes from hitting them. Neither team seems to be winning, but you watch anyway, convinced that if you’re patient, something will happen.
You feel a surge of adrenaline. You’ve never imagined a scenario, or at least you’ve never dared to admit it to yourself. You might have confessed to more innocent fantasies of bumping elbows with a reserved and like-minded bookworm in the library, or sharing neighboring seats on a crowded bus, or even getting stood up on a blind date and meeting an attractive woman in the exact same situation. That sort of serendipity could be wished for, even expected, but not this.
And it’s not what you thought she’d look like, but it’s her. You recognize it the third time you see her, at Montevideo’s Fiesta Days, a celebration of the town’s improbable namesake and sister city in Uruguay. You see her at the coronation as she watches from stage left. She wears a dress that reminds you more of a pioneer woman than a Spanish courtesan. She looks misplaced in her costume, but even in everyday, appropriate clothes, you began to believe you could pick her out of a crowd.
This is how you’ve reached this point: you lived previously in a world that doesn’t exist in most imaginations or in some road atlases. Your hometown has one flashing yellow light and a high school. You were a farmer’s firstborn, the one who was supposed to stay, to keep the family on the land, but you neglected—in your father’s words—“your duty” and emigrated to the cities for an entry-level office job with the city of St. Paul, which means you spend most of your days filing building permits and communicating with property owners.
This is the world you’ve chosen, and yet, it doesn’t suit you fully. You remain of the land, of the soil, and on the weekends, the land draws you out. You travel to towns that remind you of the one you left in Iowa. You tell yourself it is ironic. You tell yourself that you do this to remind yourself why you left. You tell yourself you do it to marvel at the people in the countryside, the ones decked out for their annual festivals, their enthusiasm masking the undeniable farce.
You tell yourself many things, but don’t believe most of them. You’ve stopped telling others what you do for a living. At the singles mixers you sometimes attend, you’ve begun lying and telling people you’re an architect or an aspiring Olympian. Once, you said that you were working on the annex to the Mall of America, but it got you in trouble, and you had to reach deep into your shallow reservoir of architectural knowledge and mall composition to rescue yourself. And another night, you claimed to be an all-American pole-vaulter who worked at Home Depot, only to discover the woman asking—a sandy-blond from White Bear Lake—had been a champion pole-vaulter in college.
Face it, you think, others have more exciting lives. Face it, you think, others are better liars.
You take up smoking. You try karaoke. You begin to imagine that your life will take shape if you just meet the right girl. It’s the sort of hooey you rejected back in Iowa, but there the women were burly, sported uniform hairstyles. Here, the women are marginally more exotic, and one of them, you believe, might find you worthy.
On the other hand, you have stopped lying to your father. He still calls sometimes, but only when he has business to discuss. Inevitably, your departure left loose ends, and he calls to straighten them out. He asks after your car, your removal from the family health insurance. Your mother asks about things left in your room and in the communal storage spaces. Can she get rid of your roller blades? Your lava lamp? Your old winter coat? It was a hand-me-down to begin with. The school’s having a coat drive. She’s getting an exchange student, she tells you, a petite Japanese girl with a name she can’t yet pronounce. She needs to put her in your room. At church, everyone asks about you and how you like your new job. She’s embarrassed, she says, that she’s not sure what to tell them.
At work, you’ve befriended the stranger of the office’s characters. You eventually confess the happenings with the mystery woman to Ashua, a yogi originally from Boulder. Given your roots, you can’t bring yourself to seek a more professional mystic. And while you don’t share her beliefs, you find your beliefs are changing.
“I don’t understand why I keep seeing her,” you tell Ashua.
“What is she doing when she appears in your life?” she asks.
The word appears bothers you. It makes it sound as if you’ve dreamt everything. You tell her so.
“Did or didn’t. What difference would it make?” she asks.
She is always asking questions.
“When I see her, she’s usually watching. Sometimes she eats, and once, she was dancing.”
“Do you dance?”
“No,” you say. “I don’t.” It’s a touchy subject; you’ve had friends and acquaintances condemn you for it as though it’s a character flaw, as though you can’t laugh.
Ashua merely nods, but it stings. Then, something that surprises you: she smiles. “I think maybe you are falling in love with yourself.”
You don’t take her seriously. This is about soul mates, or at least something lightly cosmic. This is about disproving your father’s assertion: “There are a dozen women a man could be perfectly happy with.” You’ve always been a romantic, and you’re determined to stay so.
The next few weeks, you go to festivals, but the woman is not there, and as a result, the festivals fade and blur in your memory almost as soon as they’ve happened. Nothing about them seems new or innovative. Then, just as you begin to think you’ve outgrown your new world, you head for the Bunyan Bonanza. It’s a last-ditch effort. It’s upstate, and so you work a half-day on Friday and drive north, beating traffic while listening to Muddy Waters through your tape deck.
As you come into town, you enter a world that resembles your old hometown. It is what some might call a hamlet. Its skyline consists of a handful of church steeples, a water tower, and a grain elevator. You expect to see a lumber mill or two. You expect to see the Paul Bunyan statue looming at the edge of town like a sentry.
You do pass Paul on the way in, just past a set of fast food restaurants and retail stores, and since you have the time, since the festivities start the next morning, you stop to stretch. Signs welcome you: “Welcome to Paul’s Patio,” “For events, please make reservations,” and “No loitering.” And closer to the statue: “Caution: In summer, Paul may become too hot to touch.”
There are two women there, working silently. One looks like your aunt, at least from her profile. You watch her as she plants limp American flags around the edge of the cement. Tomorrow, this will be the center of things.
Neither woman acknowledges you.
You proceed toward Paul and examine him in the fading light. You’re aware that both Bemidji and Brainerd have larger statues, but there’s something compelling about this version, a pose that has him kneeling to the masses, leaning on his axe handle and extending a hand as though he’s lifting water from a creek. It’s a gesture of cordiality, you suppose, but it’s one that’s hard to accept from such a large creation. Even in his crouch, he’s nearly thirty feet tall. His hand is three feet wide. It says so on a plaque beside his axe blade.
He’s hairier than you anticipated. His metal beard extends to the top of his shirt front and obscures his Adam’s apple. Hair covers his arms and peeks out of the top of his shirt. Elsewhere, it’s clothes—a hat, suspenders and a trademark flannel shirt. You approach cautiously and run your hand over the worn place in his palm where visiting couples have their pictures taken. You’ve read about it online.
The woman who resembles your aunt clears her throat behind you, and you turn. “We’re not letting him talk today,” she says.
You nod, confused.
“Normally, he talks, welcomes you to his patio, imparts wisdom, and so forth, but we’re letting him rest up for the big day tomorrow.”
You had no idea.
“He’ll be back on tomorrow. Would you like me to take your picture?” she asks. She makes a camera motion with her hands for emphasis.
“I don’t have a camera,” you say. It is a lie, but you’re not ready to be here, to document this. “And besides, I don’t think he’s having his best day.”
She nods and resumes her work.
You face Paul again, and for lack of anything more creative, you attempt to shake his hand before turning to leave.
Your hometown used to have a festival—something called “the festival of flags.” It was surprisingly liberal in its conception, a festival of heritage and pride, and for the weekend, the town park would fill with tents and campers, and the sky would fill with kites. Norwegian, Swiss, German, Irish, Dutch. It was a celebration of similar origin and common destiny, a festival celebrating the journey made by most of the area’s residents, a journey of homesteaders who came and plowed the prairie and resumed lives much like the ones they’d left behind in Europe.
You remember it fondly, but at the time, you wanted nothing to do with it, with the parade. Your father mandated that your family participate, and so you had to dress in ludicrous Danish clothes that you’d never seen anyone in your family wear, even in old photographs. It seemed like the same sort of patriotism and nationalism that made your father hum the school fight song on Friday nights as he washed up after milking. You never understood, and at parades and football games, you reluctantly participated, but you didn’t wave and didn’t cheer. Always, you felt your father’s judgment. He said, “You need to believe in things bigger than yourself.”
And that was when you told him to go to hell and received the only slap he ever gave you.
The next day, the festivities begin with a parade, but you’re up before that. You leave “Babe’s Lodgings”—a motel littered with pictures of the blue ox—and head to the firehouse for a pancake breakfast. You’ve done your research, and among other things, this festival has promised that “you can eat and eat and eat.”And, if you’re honest, this excites you.
The man working the griddle is a performer of sorts, and as soon as you have a plate, he begins slinging pancakes across the garage. “Tell me when!” he yells, and everyone claps as you catch the first two. You miss the next two and tell him to stop after you catch a third. A mismatched set of dogs materialize from under the folding tables in front of you to clean up the drops.
You sit down beside a man wearing a shirt that reads “Nothing beats fatherhood except hunting.” There are no children nearby, and you don’t know how to interpret this sign.
The pancakes are dry but delicious with syrup. It’s been months since you’ve had a good flapjack.
At work, your sense of humor has worn thin with colleagues. Ashua is the only one who still has patience with you. She indulges the stories you tell and the pictures you bring back from your travels. No one else does. Chip, your appointed mentor, looks over your most recent ones with disdain. “I’ve been to Eau Claire before,” he says. “Looks about the same as when I left it.”
And this is a moment you’ll remember: You press him. “But don’t you think the festival is sort of, you know, weird?”
Chip stands up from behind his desk. He’s a large man, an ex-athlete who doesn’t always know what to do with his hands. “Let me tell you what’s weird,” he says, and you know you’re in trouble. “One: It’s weird that you still wear shirts with button holes in the collar. Two: It’s weird that you have no idea what ‘business casual’ means. And three: I think it’s weird that you keep taking these trips when it’s the same story week after week, place after place.”
You take the pictures from his desk. You’re shamed, not by the content or cruelty of his comments, but by your lack of a response. You’re supposed to be assertive. You say, “Thanks for taking an interest in me”—something you said a year and a half ago in your job interview and haven’t used since.
He’s done acknowledging you. You leave as he picks up the phone to order lunch.
At the parade, the floats represent civic groups and churches, small businesses and school groups. Most rely heavily on crepe paper and look like they were assembled in a single afternoon. The route is short enough that you hear the high school marching band through the duration of the parade, and the fight song dries like plaster in your ears.
You follow the end of the parade. The last float—a convertible wearing a skirt of cardboard—carries the festival princess toward the patio, toward Paul, her waiting lumberjack. She waves with energy but without discipline. And every few seconds, she leans over to whisper something to the woman sitting next to her.
The names of businesses on the way to the patio delight you: The Woodtick Theatre, The Velvet Antler, The Hairport.
At the patio, the crowds are larger than you expected, but you’re overwhelmed by the sensation that she is present. You recognize now the workings of fate in your life.
The rotary club serves lunch. A live, spray-painted blue ox reclines in Paul’s shadow. The main event of the afternoon is the lumberjack showdown, a contest of masculinity that pits a red-flannel team against a blue-flannel team. You watch. You scan the crowd.
During the first event, a hybrid contest of tree climbing and axe wielding, you see her on the far side of the crowd. Or you imagine you do. You’re not sure until the log-rolling contest down at the pond. You see her. She claps, she cheers, she delights in the absurdity of the contest. You can tell this. But when you move back to the patio, she disappears, and the crowd closes around you. Meanwhile, the lumberjacks throw axes at targets. They climb taller poles. They take out crosscut saws and work in tandem. They grapple. The crowd cheers, but you’re no longer sure what’s happening or why it’s happening. You don’t know the score. And when the teams switch to chainsaws during a crosscut saw contest, you’re momentarily afraid until you realize that this is a premeditated part of the show, that the miniature chairs they’re tossing into the crowd are meant as souvenirs.
And that’s when you see her. She’s nearby, just a few people over. She looks disoriented, unimpressed, much like yourself. But when she looks over at you, there is no recognition. She looks through you and beyond you. One of the miniature chairs hits you on the shoulder, and children wash around you, searching for where it landed. The show ends, and the lumberjacks take a bow.
You feel her leave, and when you look back, a plain woman with a baby in a sling has taken her place.
The week before this, your father visited you in the cities. You hadn’t been expecting him, but he had wanted to bring you a washer and dryer. You’d recently tried to tell a story about the laundromat to liven up a phone conversation. Your mother took it as a complaint, and someone from church happened to be replacing machines. In other words, they were cheap and working, reason enough for your father to drive ten hours to come see you.
Although you can see your mother’s hand in it, she doesn’t offer to come. Instead it is just you and your father. And after the work of moving the appliances is completed, you are forced to pass hours of silence together. The inside of your apartment reveals your Spartan nature. You thought your self-discipline and asceticism might please your father, but he gives no indication that it does. Instead, he asks about dinner, and of the available seating, he chooses to sit on a stack of old milk crates. He flips through a road atlas you’ve left by the couch, already plotting the drive back.
On the way to get something to eat from a local fast food restaurant, your father comments on the noises your car has been making for months. “You should get that checked out,” he says.
“What do you think it is?”
Your father looks at you, and you can sense his disappointment. He says, “Sounds like it’s the transmission. Don’t you think?”
It feels like it could be a trick question, but you agree.
“Who’s your mechanic?” he asks.
Of course you don’t have one, unless you count the JVS grads at the local Jiffy Lube. You’re forced to admit this, and as a result your father is quiet through most of dinner.
The next day, you offer to show him your office, but he declines. He’s eager to make time on the trip back.
After you leave Paul’s Patio, you spend the evening in search of her. Even though you don’t know her, you imagine a life for her, try to think like she might. But as you do, you’re aware that if you overanalyze the situation, you might throw fate an unhittable curveball. If you’re meant to be, you think, you’ll end up together at the same place. You try to think what you normally do at these festivals, but you can’t remember. You’re growing disoriented. The crowds drift by you, but you don’t know where they’re headed.
When you finally spot her, she’s blocks ahead of you on Lumberjack Lane, a thoroughfare you’ve already walked several times. She turns onto a side street and you follow. She turns in a church, and you follow. This is where you’ll meet her, you decide, which is as it should be. “You should only meet people in places where you could get married,” your father always told you.
At the door, a teenager stops you. He wears a hockey jamboree t-shirt and sits behind a collapsible card table.
“Five dollars for the spaghetti,” he says. “And three more if you want in on the cakewalk.”
You have no idea what a cakewalk is, and he recognizes this.
“Think of it as if a game of musical chairs and a bake sale had a kid together and named it Raffle,” he says. This feels rehearsed. “You walk around a circle while the music plays, and then, when it stops, they draw a number, and you’re standing by that number, you get to take home a baked good. The proceeds go to Little Wolves Hockey.”
He looks at you in assessment. A ten wavers in your hand. You hardly know how it got there. “You’ve sold me,” you say and walk away before he can give you your two dollars.
You follow the signs and wind up in the church’s basement—a narrow fellowship hall dominated by orange-yellow carpet and metal folding tables. Along one wall, a set of translucent windows glow from the setting sun. Only a few of the tables are filled. The woman is nowhere to be seen.
A man intercepts you and tells you he’s glad you’ve come. He asks for your name, hometown and occupation. He’s a large man with a firm handshake and skin the color of pie crust. You assume by his cheerfulness that he’s an associate pastor. He gestures toward the food. He says, “Eat inside or out,” and hands you a tray.
You take it and try to avoid making eye contact.
“Have at it,” he says. “The cakewalk’s in fifteen minutes.”
The Monday after your father leaves, you go to lunch with Ashua, to a Middle Eastern restaurant around the corner from your office. You are celebrating her promotion, but you don’t talk about it. Instead, you rehash all that has happened in your life, and she advises you to let go. “We struggle because we grasp,” she says.
But you don’t want to hear it. You take your food seriously instead. You devour your falafel in three bites and then eat half of Ashua’s tomato salad as well. She pretends not to notice your gluttony.
“I don’t know what to make of it all,” you say. You tell her your plans for the Bunyan Bonanza. She listens.You tell her about your father coming to town. And she listens.
You attempt your own truths. You say, “I doubt I’ll ever see that woman again.”
You say, “She’s probably gone. The world gives and the world takes.” You say, “It’s just another missed connection, and everyone has those."
Ashua nods. “We do,” she says. “We believe in them though, because the world is large and it helps to see meaning where there possibly is none.”
You’re astonished at how often Ashua uses the pronoun ‘we.’
You finish eating. You start to move toward the restroom, but Ashua is not through with her speech. She says, “The truth is, we could find happiness and compatibility with any number of people, but we get in the way of ourselves.”
This is more than you wanted. You can feel yourself smirking. You say, “You sound like my father.”
She falls silent but looks you in the eye. She says, “You need to forgive your father.”
The restaurant is crowded, and you’d rather not make a scene, so instead of arguing, you stand and walk out. She doesn’t stop you, and as you pass the front window, you look inside to see her sipping tea, the check still face down on the table in front of her.
Outside the church, you sit along the periphery and sip institutional lemonade. People crowd around the desserts and point out the ones they donated.
You spot her among them as the people scatter to form a rough circle.
The cakewalk begins. On the far side of the circle, an emcee ascends a milk crate and bellows over the music. At first, you don’t connect this man with the one in the basement. You stare. You watch. The stereo plays bluegrass, and when the man isn’t speaking, he holds the microphone up to the speaker.
You watch her as she dances among the contestants. A surprising number of men participate. They stare at her backside as she dances. There are no holy places where such dancing is done.
You stare. You eat. She catches your eye from across the circle and motions for you to join. You’ve just now finished your garlic bread, and so you do. You dance near her, trying to discern which of the men is most lascivious. Most threatening.
The emcee rhapsodizes about the round’s desserts. There’s a cheesecake. Cherry dumplings. Something with both chocolate and rhubarb. An apple pie. This round, the emcee announces, will be a marathon round. Then, as you are bracing yourself for purgatory, he reveals that he was kidding and stops the record player.
You weren’t ready for it. You tumble into the man in front of you. Or nearly do. You sidestep him at the last moment, but as you do, you bump into the table of deserts, knocking it aslant, knocking some of the deserts to the lawn, and it’s then that you feel the sensation of your foot landing in some sort of pie. It squishes. Your foot slides forward and nearly sends you to the ground. There is a small gasp from those nearby. Everyone turns to look at you. You look at your shoes.
After a pause, as those in charge rush over to salvage what can be salvaged, the announcer reprimands you. He says, “Uh oh, party foul!” He’s standing three feet away, and yet he proclaims it into the microphone. The comment was not for you anyway. None of this was. You apologize, and you mean it. A hand claps you on the back. Someone tells you not to worry about it. There’s nervous laughter from a group that surrounds the woman who brought the pie. You move away from them and reclaim your old seat away from the circle. You can feel your how red your face it but you can do nothing about it.
When she comes to you, she does so with napkins. Your left shoe is in your hand. This is not how it was supposed to be. She offers her name and the napkins. It’s Annie. You didn’t know.
“I’m you,” you say. At least that’s what you think comes out.
She must have heard something. She blushes and proffers the napkins. You wipe at your shoes, but the cinnamon filling smears and refuses to come out of the tread completely.
“I can go back and get your pie,” Annie says. “Technically, I think it’s yours.”
You nod, recognize it for the joke that it is. Yet, she heads back toward the cakewalk, which has resumed in your absence, larger and brighter than before. She comes back with the pie rubble in her hand. “Here,” she says.
“Yes, here,” you say.
“I should change my shoes,” you say. “I have others in my car.”
She looks at you. She’s quiet and expectant.
“I didn’t mean that as any kind of proposition. I just mean that I have shoes in my car. And I’m going to go get them.”
This is only partly true, of course. You do have shoes, but have no plans on changing into them. Now that your moment has arrived, you’ve botched your lines. Your shoes are messy. The light is fading. A part of you is already in your car driving away. You trust that she’ll understand.
“Sure,” she says. “Sure.”
And with that, you dismiss her.
This is the familiar ending where you run away: On Lumberjack Lane, no one seems to notice your flight. It’s been a while since anyone has. And yet you feel pursued. You run past the theatre, the bars, the market; a blur of Americana. When you get to your motel, your momentum carries you past it, onward toward the hill.
The events have ended for the night, and Paul’s Patio is abandoned.
Nearing Paul, you take him in fully: his oafish smile and unbuttoned flannel shirt, his awful beard. How could they ever be proud of you?
You look around. There is no one.
Paul says, “I’m the biggest lumberjack in the world.”
Paul says, “I made Mount St. Helens when I piled rocks to put out my campfire.”
You close the gap between the two of you and kick Paul in the knee as a sort of experiment. The metal is hollow, and your blow reverberates like a tympani.
Paul says, “Thanks for coming to see me.”
You look toward his hand. It’s possibly his weakest spot. You climb on and stomp, desperate to wound him, break a finger, to somehow leave a mark.
And after you fail at this, you sink down into his palm, dejected. The night around you is full of sound, cicadas and katydids, bullfrogs down at the pond, and in the distance, music from town. But Paul has nothing more to say. You lie back and let the night continue without you. You are without plan, open to suggestion.
How, you wonder, do you get to the moment where Annie comes for you? How do you get anyone to notice your absence, to track you like a wounded creature, pausing at the places you’ve been, aware of the pain you must be in? You know it’s foolish. You can’t help but imagine though, what it might be like now, if she found you here in Paul’s hand, if she knew to come, if she had the generosity not to judge. You strain to imagine it to where it’s almost real: the confident crunch of gravel, her voice calling out to you, her warm hand on your shoulder. Paul might call out to her in the darkness with something wiser and less egotistical than before, something about love and loyalty and how everything he did would not have been possible without his trusty ox.
The night is timeless. It all might happen, you think. You just have to wait. And so you do. You slide over on Paul’s palm, leaving a space for her, and you wait.
Tim Conrad is a graduate of the University of North Carolina Wilmington's MFA program and a current PhD candidate at Western Michigan University. His fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming with Emrys Journal, New Limestone Review, and Tahoma Literary Review.
Photo by r. nial bradshaw.