Aimee Bender's "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake"

Read an excerpt from Aimee Bender's novel.

ByABC News via via logo
June 04, 2010, 1:13 PM

June 8, 2010— -- "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" is a story about a young girl who has a peculiar gift: sensing the emotional state of the person who prepared her food. She can tell one baker was late, while another hates his job. But it is the cake her mother bakes for her that becomes most troubling, as it opens a world of hidden emotions.

Read an excerpt of the book below, and then head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.


It happened for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon,a warm spring day in the flatlands near Hollywood, a lightbreeze moving east from the ocean and stirring the black- eyedpansy petals newly planted in our flower boxes.

My mother was home, baking me a cake. When I tripped upthe walkway, she opened the front door before I could knock.

How about a practice round? she said, leaning past the doorframe. She pulled me in for a hello hug, pressing me close to myfavorite of her aprons, the worn cotton one trimmed in sketchesof twinned red cherries.

On the kitchen counter, she'd set out the ingredients: Flourbag, sugar box, two brown eggs nestled in the grooves betweentiles. A yellow block of butter blurring at the edges. A shallowglass bowl of lemon peel. I toured the row. This was the week ofmy ninth birthday, and it had been a long day at school of cursivelessons, which I hated, and playground yelling about pointscoring, and the sunlit kitchen and my warm- eyed mother werewelcome arms, open. I dipped a finger into the wax baggie ofbrown- sugar crystals, murmured yes, please, yes.

She said there was about an hour to go, so I pulled out myspelling booklet. Can I help? I asked, spreading out pencils andpapers on the vinyl place mats.

Nah, said Mom, whisking the flour and baking sodatogether.

My birthday is in March, and that year it fell during anespecially bright spring week, vivid and clear in the narrow residentialstreets where we lived just a handful of blocks south ofSunset. The night- blooming jasmine that crawled up our neighbor'sfront gate released its heady scent at dusk, and to the north,the hills rolled charmingly over the horizon, houses tucked intothe brown. Soon, daylight savings time would arrive, and even atnearly nine, I associated my birthday with the first hint of summer,with the feeling in classrooms of open windows and lighterclothing and in a few months no more homework. My hair gotlighter in spring, from light brown to nearly blond, almost likemy mother's ponytail tassel. In the neighborhood gardens, theagapanthus plants started to push out their long green robotstems to open up to soft purples and blues.

Mom was stirring eggs; she was sifting flour. She had onebowl of chocolate icing set aside, another with rainbow sprinkles.

A cake challenge like this wasn't a usual afternoon activity;my mother didn't bake all that often, but what she enjoyed mostwas anything tactile, and this cake was just one in a long line ofrecent varied hands- on experiments. In the last six months, she'dcoaxed a strawberry plant into a vine, stitched doilies from vintagelace, and in a burst of motivation installed an oak side doorin my brother's bedroom with the help of a hired contractor.

She'd been working as an office administrator, but she didn'tlike copy machines, or work shoes, or computers, and when myfather paid off the last of his law school debt, she asked him ifshe could take some time off and learn to do more with herhands. My hands, she told him, in the hallway, leaning her hipsagainst his; my hands have had no lessons in anything.Anything? he'd asked, holding tight to those hands. Shelaughed, low. Anything practical, she said.

They were right in the way, in the middle of the hall, as Iwas leaping from room to room with a plastic leopard. Excuseme, I said.

He breathed in her hair, the sweet- smelling thickness of it.

My father usually agreed with her requests, because stamped inhis two- footed stance and jaw was the word Provider, and heloved her the way a bird- watcher's heart leaps when he hears thecall of the roseate spoonbill, a fluffy pink wader, calling its liltingcoo- coo from the mangroves. Check, says the bird- watcher.

Sure, said my father, tapping a handful of mail against her back.

Rah, said the leopard, heading back to its lair.

At the kitchen table, I flipped through my workbook, baskingin the clicking sounds of a warming oven. If I felt a hint of anythingunsettling, it was like the sun going swiftly behind a cloudonly to shine straight seconds later. I knew vaguely that my parentshad had an argument the night before, but parents hadarguments all the time, at home and on TV. Plus, I was still busilygoing over the bad point scoring from lunch, called by EddieOakley with the freckles, who never called fairly. I read throughmy spelling booklet: knack, knick, knot; cartwheel, wheelbarrow,wheelie. At the counter, Mom poured thick yellow batter into agreased cake pan, and smoothed the top with the flat end of apink plastic spatula. She checked the oven temperature, brusheda sweaty strand of hair off her forehead with the knob of herwrist.

Here we go, she said, slipping the cake pan into the oven.When I looked up, she was rubbing her eyelids with the padsof her fingertips. She blew me a kiss and said she was going to liedown for a little bit. Okay, I nodded. Two birds bickered outside.

In my booklet, I picked the person doing a cartwheel and coloredher shoes with red laces, her face a light orange. I made avow to bounce the ball harder on the playground, and to bounceit right into Eddie Oakley's corner. I added some apples to thewheelbarrow freehand.

The room filled with the smell of warming butter and sugarand lemon and eggs, and at five, the timer buzzed and I pulledout the cake and placed it on the stovetop. The house was quiet.

The bowl of icing was right there on the counter, ready to go,and cakes are best when just out of the oven, and I reallycouldn't possibly wait, so I reached to the side of the cake pan,to the least obvious part, and pulled off a small warm spongychunk of deep gold. Iced it all over with chocolate. Popped thewhole thing into my mouth.

Copyright © 2010 by Aimee Bender

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