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The Tap Dancing Birthday Cake

by Marylu Downing

  Fall 2013 Fiction, Memoir & Poetry Anthology  |  Contents  |  Authors  |


The cake costume, an ingenious, lovely construction of wooden bars and wire covered in white satin, has no armholes. Like ballast, arms are necessary to keep the tap dancer going, generate energy, and balance the legs with the rest of the body.

It's not just the lack of arms, which means less of a dance, the shape of the costume itself is limiting. Like a belly in the last months of pregnancy, the cake’s in the way. There will be no hugging, no leaning into a good looking man. I can't shake hands, or take a potty break.

Tonight I'm doing my second gig as The Tap Dancing Birthday Cake. It’s a step above jumping out of a cake. This new job came with the new house, new schools and new car pool. It came with the “start over.” The job is in Marin County, where  people have the money to pay for a singing, or in this case, a tap-dancing greeting card, just for the hell of it.

end of story

I’ve navigated two sets of stairs and knocked on the door with my shoe, the front tap making a loud clatter that immediately brings the hostess to the door. She’s wearing a sexy black negligee. When I look around the room, everyone is in some sort of sleeping attire. “It’s a slumber party,” she explains.

Now the music starts. “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” the Beatles ask. The insecurity of relationships and aging. I over-exaggerate the steps to draw attention away from the lack of arms as I clinch my teeth into a great big smile because, if nothing else, a dancing cake who is only 37 years old should be happy!

A man calls out, “Beautiful!” I don’t know if he means the dancing or me, but it keeps me tapping. A small droplet of perspiration clings to my chin just below the place where the strap from the cone-shaped hat digs into skin at the juncture of cheek and jaw. Now I’ve come to the part of “trenches” where arms, if I could use them, would swing rapidly back and forth along with the legs. Instead, my arms lie trapped beneath frothy fabric icing, squished below the shoulder mechanism that holds the costume together. Inadvertently arm and finger muscles twitch inside the cake. Out of habit they want to be part of the act.

My new friend, Sara, describes this job as “a perverse form of therapy.” I’m working my way back to being the fast-paced mother-worker-bee. The cake is part of the plan. If I can be the cake, then it will all work out somehow.

I haven’t told my husband about the underpants, satin to match the cake, with the words “Happy Birthday” written on the backside. His response to the new job has been, “When are you going to get over it? Now you’re just making a spectacle of yourself!”

The panties, my little secret, stretching tightly across my rear. Intended to get a laugh, or something else.

It’s not necessarily sexy being a tap dancing birthday cake. The job just doesn’t feel right and I know I’ve got to quit, but just when I don’t know. The question whirls through my mind in time to the music. The binding discomfort of the costume feels familiar, like a swaddling cloth meant to keep the baby from crying.

I almost trip just now on the “maxi ford,jump shuffle jump, probably too much for the plywood platform’s uneven surface. The plywood, delivered with the music earlier in the day, a surprise for the two birthday boys’ 40th. One of their wives has told me that they were fraternity brothers at Stanford.

Finally the sweat droplet falls from my chin, leaving a small round mark as it soaks into the wood. Claustrophobia is only a few tap steps away. The golden rosettes bounce around as I dance. This cake is about to slide off its platter onto the ground and ruin a good party.

tap dancing birthday cakeThe music concludes, and I turn away and tip the cake to get the Happy Birthday laugh and titillate the easy marks. Then I bow. I want it sort of balletic, except that without arms extended, I simply wobble. For a minute, the room spins in a haze of color. This is the time that’s hardest, when people expect the cake to stick around and join the party. Be good for a few more laughs. Fear lights up my eyes, but the crowd probably sees it as excitement, the two emotions like fraternal twins.

“Fantastic legs,” one of the birthday boys says, lips curling back to expose a perfect set of white teeth. Probably an orthodontist. “Can I get you a drink? Oh, no, I guess unless I pour the drink down your throat...there’s no way for you to drink, is there?”

 “Thanks anyway,” I say through clenched teeth, “Oh yes, and Happy Birthday!”

A short, rotund man spews bits of alcohol-laden saliva into my face as he says, “You know, I can get you a job that will make you some real money!” If I had a hand, I would slap him, but I simply pull a cake-like u-turn and walk toward the door, my face red and sweaty.

The hostess comes over with an envelope of money for the talent agency. “Oh, dear, well, I guess I’ll just tuck this under your hat,” she says, pulling the already strained rubber chinstrap aside and sticking the envelope up into the cone, wriggling the silver mylar flames that are affixed to the top of the hat. My curly hair, unleashed for a minute, springs out from under the cone.

“Thanks,” I mutter, as the strap snaps back into its comfortable fleshy niche. “You were great, everyone loved you. Can’t you stay a little longer?” coos the co-hostess.

“‘Got to get home,” I say. “I’m glad it all worked out,” I add, no real personality coming through. Just trying to maintain before I scream. At least I can run and scream, if I need to. No arms required. She opens the door for me, bell shaped cake knocking against the door frame.

 The stairs are misted by fog. I take a deep breath. My heart pounds and for a minute I stand frozen at the top. The thought of going back into a mob of drunken party-goers seems even scarier, so I Ginger Rogerly take that first step down, aware that taps can be very slippery. On the second step, I curse the lack of arms again.

It would be easy to fall to the bottom, creating a fatal head injury and ripping the cake costume into tiny, shiny shards. The girls would cry and my husband might miss me, might have regrets about his fondness for moms in the car pool. I think of a perfectly round little yellow pill with a heart shaped cutout in the center, a Mother’s Little Helper, but there is none of that now.

As I reach the landing at the bottom of the stairs, I let out the breath I’d been holding and take in another, cold air stinging a little. Maybe disappearing isn’t such a bad idea. I could fling myself down, falling and tumbling, rolling like an unexploded stick of dynamite down the hilly streets. Arms pinned to my sides, panties bumping against cement, wire twisting free. Gaining momentum, I’d disappear, never to be seen or heard from again. A blur of white, scattering a trail of tattered rosettes, hat a madly whirling glow of silver and neon pink against the darkness.

end of story

© 2013, Marylu Downing. “Tap Dancing Birthday Cake,” original painting © by Marylu Downing Go to top