Eight of us at a dinner party, four couples, nothing left to eat but dessert. Cathy, one of our hosts, has ordered a Bundt cake decorated with a large frosting flower and petals from a local bakery, and our friend Ruth volunteers to cut it, supposedly to help her. The plates are stacked on the side table beside the cake, all she has to do is slice and serve. She presents our pieces while Cathy is up getting a fresh bottle of red wine. Returning, Cathy puts the opened wine bottle down and lowers her eyes to her piece of cake.
“This is the thinnest slice of cake I’ve seen in my life.”
“It’s thick enough,” Ruth replies.
None of us comment, but our slices are so thin we can see through the cake. Ruth has a daughter who struggles with her weight, it occurs to me, and her husband, who is sitting at the table and is a legendary consumer of baked goods, chooses not to struggle with his. My husband, Ross, takes a deep breath, something he regularly does when he’s suppressing a wisecrack.
Cathy doesn’t argue. She picks up her plate, steps toward the cake and cuts herself two normal slices. She layers them on her plate and walks back to her chair.
“Anyone else need cake remediation?” she asks.
I raise my plate right away. “One piece, please.”
No one else speaks up. The Robertsons, sitting across from me, seem tempted but elect to remain neutral. Cathy takes my plate and cuts me a normal slice.
“What’s the point of serving a cake if we’re afraid to eat it?” she asks.
“I’m happy with my slice,” Ruth says.
Before she sits, Cathy shifts one of her slices to her husband’s plate. He thanks her and says he’ll be able to taste this one better.
Ross smacks his lips, yearning for more cake. I stare at him. He rises and cuts himself a thick slice.
“This is good cake,” he comments, eating it as he returns to the table.
Silence. Am I the only one still thinking of getting more cake? Is my intent to take revenge on Ruth? I imagine groaning with pleasure as I eat it.
I look around the table. Cathy’s eyes are on the cake. No one moves.
Vivian called to let me know she was on her way home with the painting. She’d honk her horn and I could come out and carry it into the house. She’d spent all afternoon with a group of her school-days girlfriends. One of them, Liz, had moved into a house with less wall space and couldn’t hang all the art she’d had in her previous house. She’d decided to give Viv an oil painting of a big red convertible on a beachside road. It reminded her of when they were teenagers and Viv had borrowed her mother’s convertible to drive Liz and other friends up and down the coast. The artist, Antonia, was one of those friends. Before passing the painting to Viv, Liz wanted to bring back shared memories by showing it to the group.
I heard the horn and went out to the garage. I waved at Viv and leaned into the car for the painting.
“It’s a striking image,” I said.
“I need to talk to you as soon as we get in,” she said.
She went straight to the bed and stretched out, propping herself up with a couple of pillows, puffing. I sat at the opposite end of the bed.
“I got there a little after most of them. Liz had leaned the painting against a wall and I wasn’t there to hear what they said about it. Antonia was two hours late, normal for her. She didn’t know the painting was coming, none of them did except me. Her mouth opened when she saw it. She started talking to Liz, and I eavesdropped. She thought about the painting all the time, she said, her hands over her heart. She doesn’t paint that way anymore, doesn’t use oils. She told Liz the painting was one of her favorites and she wanted it.”
“Did Liz buy it from her, decades ago?”
“Yes, she did. Liz told Antonia she wanted me to have it because of our drives on the beach. Antonia said the car in the painting was not the one I drove but a red convertible a neighbor of hers had. I think she made that up to persuade Liz to give it to her.”
“What did Liz say?”
“She was caught off guard. I didn’t hear every word, but I heard her say she’d told me I could have it. Antonia kept eyeing the painting from different angles. I went to her and we had a brief conversation. She suggested I keep it a few months and then she’d have it for a few months. Now I’m worried that if I let her have it she won’t give it back. She’s done things like that. She gave a friend one of her bracelets and when they had a falling out she demanded the friend return it. I could tell you others. What do you think?”
“I think it belonged to Liz and she gave it to you.”
“I’ll text Liz and ask what she said.”
She got up and sent the text. We then hung the picture near the bottom of the stairway so viewers would face it on the first two steps before turning left to go up.
“It looks like it was born there,” Viv said. “On the way home I was worried the sight of it would make me mad, but now I think it would make me madder if she took it away.”
“The car is vivid in the light.”
“Here’s Liz’s answer. She says she didn’t tell Antonia she could have the painting and she has no claim to it.”
“She’s not contradicting you.”
“I’m locking Antonia out of the car.”
Glen Pourciau’s fourth story collection will be published in 2025 by Four Way Books. His stories have been published by AGNI Online, Epoch, New England Review, New World Writing Quarterly, The Paris Review, Post Road, Witness, and others.