Eileen lets Denise lick the wooden spoon. Mighty Mouse has just started, but the warm smell of vanilla carries Denise off the couch. She brings the pink step stool from beside the toy chest. The green linoleum is cold beneath her tiny feet, but the oven warms her head and shoulders.
“Here,” says Eileen, “careful.”
The spoon is too big, but Denise won’t be deterred—she jams its grainy well into her mouth.
Eileen laughs at her daughter’s duck-billed lips, then nearly cries thinking of her own prognosis, sees a motherless duckling waddling toward a chaotic current.
The golden goop drips to the floor; Denise fumes over the spilled sweetness. She places the spoon in the batter-stained bowl, descends the two plastic steps, gets on her hands and knees—duckling turned dog—and licks the linoleum; it tastes like sugared dirt.
“Yuck, Denise, filthy,” Eileen says.
The licking persists.
A gentle tug on the collar is Eileen’s only solution, but Denise registers the contact as a violent yank; her mother has forgotten herself lately, raged furious over nothing. Denise doesn’t know the tumor presses on important parts of her mother’s brain, turns her at times into an irritable stranger, a potential threat. Dragged to her feet, Denise is appalled at the view through the oven window: two dozen cupcakes bloom like golden, doughy mushrooms.
“It was supposed to be a cake,” she says. She doesn’t like dessert when it’s already portioned.
Her pudgy kick connects with the step stool, sends it skidding. Time is dwindling—the cupcakes will be ready in four minutes, the hospital will admit Eileen again in the morning.
“They’re not for you,” Eileen says, “so there.”
Denise rubs her neck where the collar chafed, peers into the hot oven. Not for her? Who in the world are they for?
Eileen steps back, ashamed—she replays her tone and phrasing, returns to her body, remembers her own strength; she’s the mother for fuck’s sake, not the six year old.
She offers the bowl again. Denise marches away.
Mighty Mouse has the blue cape on, not the red one. Denise hates the blue cape. She puts the dolls to sleep in the doll house, lines up her shoes in a tidy row, rolls her plastic red shopping cart to the market in the den, fills it with hollow tomatoes, single-serving cereals, perfectly round eggs sunny-side-up. Every single doll is invited to her tea party—her mother can make her own tea, all by herself. Malibu Barbie, Twinkle Toes, and Curious George request cake with their tea, shun cupcakes.
That night, the cupcakes sit on the counter under a flimsy roof of plastic wrap, scattered toothpicks poking from their delicate pink frosting caps, the thinnest of beams preventing a sticky collapse. The bowl soaks beside the sink, its crusty swirl of un-licked batter dissolving in a bath of Palmolive suds. The spoon still has comfort to offer, laying there on the counter’s edge, but Denise’s step stool has been placed out of reach. In bed, Denise hears her mother say the cupcakes are for the nurses, who have taken such good care. When Denise unlatches her lunchbox the next day, there’s a cupcake with extra frosting nestled into the dessert compartment; it tastes exactly like cake, not a bit of difference.
Eileen stays at the hospital for three weeks this time, and visiting hours don’t exist during this stage. Denise retroactively wishes on every birthday candle she’s ever blown out on every cake Eileen has ever baked that she had invited her mother to her tea party.