In a mega-fat future not too far from now, cake is like gold and it’s a currency that can take you places. In the inevitable fringe, life imitates good order, but Mason Well is a forgotten promise where life isn’t good… not one little bit.
Every day, to Jon’s simple way of seeing things, the yellow sun rises like a fried egg in butter and sizzles relentlessly with the sole aim of searing his already tiny balls — till they are bone fucking dry. That’s what it wants. He’ll rock in the porch, drain his espresso and set the cup down on the porch table. From his Rubbin500 slogan — (“The weightiest reinforced rocker in Nevada”) — he can survey everything, and nothing. The sky stretches down to the flat, unrelenting sand. Not even a floater will be passing at this hour, but he squints and scans the desert turning his head in a languid arc. Just. In. Case. He uses his crook stick to give himself a push; gently does it, so the sweat doesn’t leave him feeling like a pig dipped in grease.
“Marj… ” He hollers, barely parting his cracked lips. Her shuffling footsteps start on the kitchen linoleum, then floorboards — more because her hips are shot through from years of dehydration and foul fluids, than the recent fight with Flo. The swing door opens with its usual creak. “Coffee, Son?” Marj is holding the carafe, her round liver-spotted face framed by sparse grey hair. Her right eye is puffy and ringed by a blue-grey bruise. A faded green apron hangs down over her bloated belly so she resembles a hillock like in the old school books. From the side she looks like a block of lard with a sloped top half.
Jon decides from now ‘I’m gonna get up in a while’ but asks “What we gonna eat later?” Marj frowns and heads back to the kitchen and her pot of boiling water with a sprig of carrot skin dancing in it. “Soup,” she croaks, “… it’s Friday.” Jon rocks easy, imagining beyond the horizon to The Strip to where the Sallys are. Where life is under spotlights and fountains of whisky make the air smell alive.
How do people get to live there? He could have been a croupier, he was smart enough. Maybe. Marj knows what he’s thinking, and she’s thinking ‘Probably not.’ They needed to stay together; it was what every mother and child did.
The rocker creaks as Jon pushes himself onto two sausage legs, thighs blistered from years of chaffing. He waddles through the swing door. Inside, the cabin is cast in an eerie light from the frayed blue tarpaulin that filters the sunlight. It once covered his fishing trawler. When there was water. He heaves himself past his grubby mattress and tries not to make eye contact with Flo. But even from the corners of his eyes he can see her propped up, her week-old blood soaked into the termitey boards that fabricate the walls. He reaches the backdoor, flings it open with a thwack and starts to piss on an abandoned wheelchair in windswept sand. It feels like a stream of pins. Marj smirks, pretending not to hear him wince — that’s good water the idiot refuses to recycle. Still, at least that’s their only wastage. He knows very well where his stinkin’ ‘coffee’ comes from.
The cabin is starting to get a bad stench. Probably Flo. So finally the prospect of cakes makes life seem so much more palatable. He zips up and goes to the couch opposite the poor stiff bitch, and keeps his eyes on the rug that almost fills the room. Marj has all four burners of the stove going and a large enamel bowl on the counter filled with her special mix: part sawdust, a pinch of sand, and some homemade bean powder that gives her cakes an almost edible quality. She keeps her eyes on her work, stirring each with the same wooden spoon; only the skillet remains empty, but hot, waiting for Jon to produce their one remaining ingredient. “You’re gonna have to get me the … grease, Son.” Marj says ‘grease’ almost as a whisper, as though it offends her. Jon shudders, flashing back to Monday night. He stands up, his breath smelling of shit. He waddles across to Flo, sits down by the old woman in her bra and panties, and puts a hand on her now solid left breast.
Turning their ‘book club’ into a ‘cake club’ had been a wave of genius, before the desert had stripped the cupboards bare. Then, the community had been 150 people. Families like the Masons and Aldwyns had founded their lives around a small tar pit that produced a special kind of asphalt in small quantities. The kids needed a school, the older heads needed a church. There was one doctor, and tradesmen who dug the tar, and transporters.
The Mason’s well served the whole village and brought up a rich mineral water — not to everyone’s liking because its taste was a punch to the throat — but it irrigated the crops like a showering of angel tears. Father Hubert Francis Aquinas Rodriguez often included the special crops in his sermons, and the two-room school taught that the oversized vegetables were a miracle.
Jon had long had his doubts. What did he know? He was a trawler skipper, dragging up shrimp from a hypersaline lake that shimmered like a giant black disc. From space it was a mole on the desert’s chin. He would curse and say everything was “mutant” when people turned down his shrimp. Marrows grew to four-feet wide and carrots to the size of cricket bats.
The church elders fed-up of the mountains of rotting fruit took it to the harvest festival committee and by unanimous vote Marj, Flo and Edith — who could wile away hours discussing the furnishings pictured in their women’s magazines — decided they should turn God’s bounty into food. Cake. That was before the lake had shrunk, first rapidly to the size of a small stadium, like water draining through a plughole, then little by little, till from space it became a pinprick. At its edge, fish fluttered like sardines set out to grill, but nobody ate them. When Mason Well lost its water, that was the last straw and the big families who could afford to drove South.
The cakes marked the bounty years: spiced with ginger; sweetened with carrot; toffee; syrup butter sponge; heavy with fruit and rum; vanilla custard filling, and cream an inch thick that topped everything.
The school kitchen became a hub, and The Strip was like an open mouth. “Flo, dear, chopped nuts please,” Marj says. Flo’s fingers are like cornmeal dumplings and her upper arms like jello. She stretches across the counter and her flowery dress shifts like a pair of summer curtains across her broad chest. Only her wheelchair stops her from toppling over, her legs having long given up with the sheer weight of her guts. She last saw her feet when the lake was still fishable.
Marj beats the batter until it gets heavy and then folds the nuts into its layers. “Issch cake’ll drive schem wild,” Flo says, her dentures clacking, and she looks over her horn-rimmed glasses, eye-level with the counter. They put the cake in the school oven and Marj turns a sand timer, beckoning Flo to come across to the visualizer: the small black box the size of a matchbox is set in the wall, its screen able to project holo-images onto a shelf. Marj presses a small clicker resting on the coffee table and projected figurines start to dance. It’s a talent show and there’s a girl on stage dressed as Buddha saying she’s going to levitate. Flo looks transfixed. Marj picks up the clicker and types “mood swings” and hits search.
By the time Jon gets home Marj has traipsed the cakes across from the school and there are four perfectly formed eight-layer sponges on the counter. He beams, waddling into the house stinkin’ of salt and sea. Miss Flo has wheeled across the single tar track that winds around a small manicured garden to the row of houses. “Miss Flo, yo’ cooking smells mmm mmm,” he says, causing her to grin. “Shhannks.” The foamy corners of her mouth turn up, but her eyes remain transfixed on a celebrity holo projection show. Marj scowls, heaves herself up and takes the few steps to the counter, while in the background the TV ads talk of life on The Strip, advertising sex homes for the elderly, animal-hair wigs and the upcoming Miss Huge Nevada for “heavy loaders with looks”: last year’s winner, Sharleen, came from the Grayson Quarter and had features like nubs of melted white chocolate on an unblemished pancake.
Jon catches the holo-image and lets out a wolf whistle. Marj cuts a wedge of chocolate cake and her fingers press through the dark brown frosting. She takes a bite and passes the handful of cake to Jon, which he fists easily into his “cake hole.” It’s thanks to Mason Well the dictionary gained “cake hole” as an entry: “noun (vernacular): mouth, often used offensively, as in: “Shut your cake hole, you disgusting pisshead.”
That was in the good days. When the ‘temporary’ cabins set up by NevDevCo Holdings were artisan and the intentionally retro furniture seemed chic.
Now, on the tatty couch, Flo’s eyes in a perpetual sleep, sand blows in through the gap under the cabin door. Jon presses his cracked lips together as a mantra for forgiveness, and redemption runs through his head on automatic, like ‘send me your money’ requests from a call centre bot. Marj’s voice breaks the wave: “Son. Now!” Flo’s head is cricked over the backrest, her bra just shy of her skin tone covers her breasts that resemble two half-squeezed piping bags. Jon is holding a small kitchen knife with a worn handle. He places the blade against Flo’s bosom.
The fight, if you could pinpoint a start… was it because of the chatter… On the radio? Outside the desert night was cold, which was keeping Jon up. He lay restless on his mattress, the cover so threadbare the sponge pricked his back. Marj was asleep in her room, so he turned the dial on his small radio propped on his pillow and it whistled through the regular late-night drivel. Then he heard a Sally talking, her voice timid. It was a late night phone — in from The Strip, she was complaining about the sexual demands of her husband. Jon reached into his boxers and with pudgy fingers he scratched at his groin. The host cut her short. A jingle for Cake-o-rama started — the annual grand fiesta of cakes celebrated on The Strip:
“It’s the cake that makes,
Your life so great.
Choc — lat surprise,
Va — nil — la de — light.
If you can cook,
Then make sure an’ book.
We’re waiting for,
Your cake tonight.”
Jon grips his cock, his mouth moistening as he drifts off, the waft of treacle pudding dredged from his memory; the warm breeze drifting through the school kitchen, children gorging themselves at tables with white bowls heaped with sticky amber sponge. Come morning he’s famished, again, and hints to Marj they should try for Cake-o-rama, like the old days.” With what?” she snorts.
Jon heads to the porch to do nothing in particular. Maybe just sit, pretend he can hear the music and the bars, and the Sallys from thousands of miles away. He sees their thighs and imagines an unknowable liaison between him and a woman with sleek black hair and skin the cool white colour of Italian ice cream, so white it almost emits a faint blue aura resembling sky. Marj’s hips ache, as much from boredom as anything. She never much cared for the bustle that always seems to get Jon so fired-up. Why couldn’t the man just rest?
Officially, Mason Well died slowly — it was lingering, like the death from growing grey and flatulent, a survival of the fattest. But in Marj’s mind it was struck down by God. The records will show that its weather was unremarkable, its people too few, its ridiculous vegetables a one-time news bulletin that was hardly going to end world famine. The rest of the region was expanding, enriching itself from making crap out of coloured plastic, but here had been set aside as a blemish; where the nuclear trails barely reached. He should never have brought them here in the first place. Look how the boy and her were living: finding edible scraps blown off floaters, loaded buildings — high with years of compacted rubbish, drifting on automated routes to the fires.
Marj winces her way to the kitchen; it’s a bad day. Jon and his fucking radio. Like he has a hope of doing anything. Maybe she should let him try. Get him to see for himself yet again how uneven things are. Jon is rocking outside, she can hear his chair creaking. Marj reaches into a cupboard near the back door and runs a finger across a line of small bottles. Each has varying amounts of coloured liquid, for various jobs; distillates of humanity — for mechanical worries, for flavouring, poison for wild dogs, something to make you sleep. Something to rev you up. She takes down a bottle and holds it up to the light, deciding to add it to the espresso.
Much later, when it’s cool enough for her to sit outside, Marj creaks open the screen door to rock with Jon. He grunts an acknowledgment, his gaze on the horizon. Marj surveys the changing tinges to the sky. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she says, breathing heavily. Jon wants to get up… leave. “Yeah,” is all he manages. Marj waits a while before speaking again, the brightest star now punctuating the bluey horizon. “Cake-o-rama expects something different every year. I don’t know how it’s humanly possible.”
That night, Jon clicks on his radio as he’s trying to sleep, hoping to find the advert again. But it never runs.
As the week passes nothing much happens. One day Jon sees Flo wheeling herself toward the abandoned school. Now the track that once went all the way peters off into sand. He watches from his rocker, hollers her name, and she raises a fat arm to wave hello without looking around. What is she doing? That evening Jon is on the porch and feels the familiar vibration of a floater moving at a snail’s pace, somewhere deep off in the desert. “Mom, bring the scope,” he shouts. Marj is in her room, lying on a sheet, on the wooden floor, her head propped on a stack of old papers as she stares up at the only remaining galvanise part of the roof. She was trying to sleep and is already in a thin nightie that rests on her body like a gossamer drape. He bloody knows it will take her a while to get up. Idiot. She feels down the side of her body for the nylon rope tethered to the upright beam and loops the other end around her left wrist to pull herself upright. The house makes its familiar creak. It’ll be tomorrow before the floater is even near the house and Jon damn well knows it.
Outside Jon stares into the black, the deep drone of the floater’s creaking turbines barely audible. Floaters edge their way over the landscape 40 feet above ground, normally hundreds of miles from civilization. Mason Well and its like don’t count — nobody is supposed to be there anymore.
Eventually Marj creaks open the porch door and hands Jon a narrow black tube that has a laser tracker on top, set to the vibrational frequency of the platform. But he won’t see anything in this light. She huffs and labours her way back inside.
The next morning when Marj wakes up, Jon has left the house. She shuffles to the porch, her head already stuffy from the baking sun. He’s taken the scope and is standing not more than a hundred feet from the house, she can make out a blob shimmering in the unswept expanse. Even from this distance she can see his bare arms in a loose-fitting flak jacket and his wide shorts. She hopes he took the plastic bags that she long ago fashioned into the most unhygienic undergarments known to man — they’ll need the salt if they have any chance of baking something edible: she made them when Jon’s thighs still allowed air to circulate around them, and when lifting his hands in the air meant his upper arms would peel away from the sides of his body. Now, he hadn’t a hope in hell. His skin was tough like a buzzard’s and his arms flapped like a frayed kite when he raised them to eat.
She moves to her Rubbin500 and flops into a rocking motion. She waves but can’t tell which way Jon is looking. She stays staring out until she sees him start to move, then goes inside to make some espresso. At the kitchen counter she looks out to Flo’s cabin. She can make out her neighbour wheeling along the side of her house so she hails her out.
Even before Jon squelches in his sappy bin-bag up the porch steps, he knows something is up. Marj is shouting, and he can he hear Flo: “Shhuuck the fffuutt kupp,” Flo is screaming. Jon hits the steps like a walrus coming out the water, his mass propelling him and simultaneously making him unbalanced as hefts of loose skin swing back. He crashes through the screen door and Flo is wheeling at slow speed into the kitchen. Marj has an empty skillet barely at shoulder height but she holds it bottom outwards like a child might a tennis racket. “What in God’s name… ?” is all he can muster before the women clash. Two drained espresso cups on the table clatter to the floor as Marj lunges forward and the floor bows, the skillet sounds like a low gong as it pans Miss Flo’s face front on. “Jeeeez Ma!” Jon is by the two women, his arms out trying to form a barricade.
When the skillet swings back, Flo’s face is a bloody mess. He reaches out with his hand and Flo gnashes at him like a wild dog. She catches his soft flesh, and he yelps, flinging his arm up, knocking Flo’s dentures from her mouth. Her wheelchair is forced back toward the couch and as he steps back, he sees the glint of something metal. Marj is by his side, and in a sickening slow motion he feels the cool air of metal pass his cheek. The holes in the tarp dapple the blue light and as Marj leans forward she catches her foot on the edge of the rug. She starts to yell, and like a macabre disco scene in strobe lighting she tumbles onto Flo and the pair meld into one heap of nightgown and old woman frump. Flo’s chair topples backwards craning the couch off its feet; Marj’s breasts push up against Flo’s face and carry the pair of women down. Jon catches the unsightly soft pink material of his Ma’s knickers as her feet swing awkwardly, but gracefully, into the air. The cabin reverberates from the crash; sand and dust hover to a chorus of syncopated raspy breathing.
Before Marj says a word, Flo lets out the sound of a deflating balloon. Jon hears his Mom start to whimper and he peers over the bottom of the couch. Flo’s neck glints from the blade plunged deep into the rolls that are neither chin nor shoulder, yet both. A fine spray of her sticky blood is painting the back cabin wall and Marj is starting to panic, and slide. She starts: “Oh my God, Jon. Look what you did!” His breathing is shallow. He’s frozen on the spot, watching the fine jet of red and Flo’s rolling eyes. “Ma… she’s alive.” Flo flaps open her mouth like a silent fish but her arms remain still and splayed out.
This kind of thing never ends well: Jon, as he is wont to, blames himself. Marj tells him Flo wanted to enter Cake-o-rama, came over all spittle and excitement, said she had been collecting edible morsels for months, in secret. “She was going to kill your dream, Son.” Jon now holding Flo’s hard flesh looks away with these words. He and Marj have barely shared a word this week. Marj was sick of the simple bitch: Flo couldn’t speak without spitting in everything. Jon was going to end up fucking the old bat, she just knew it. He was listening to Sallys and making his pipe hard but with nowhere to put it.
He holds a tin basin under Flo’s hardened breast and as he slides the old blade across her skin, her raspberry-coloured syrupy blood drips into the pan. It falls with a pat, pat, pat sound. “The grease, Boy… ” Marj says, and Jon peels back a flap of skin to carve off a hunk of pink and yellow fat, lumpy like old clotted cream. If it weren’t for the hum of flies and the sour stink of gas from Flo’s distended belly, the pail of ‘ingredients’ might actually resemble a beetroot reduction over plump ocean scallops. But this ain’t no fancy restaurant — that would be so last century.
Stirring the mix into the batter, Marj adds a small cup of pissy-orange liquid to it, for sweetness. She watches Jon before she goes to pour the mess into a tin and put it into her makeshift oven. He’s sitting next to Flo looking pathetic. “Only a man’s stuff can make this cake… nutritious.” Her smile is fake encouragement. She lets her eyes drop to the floor, and Jon heaves himself to go to the back door.
Judge Idris Cooper J862 surveys the 32 cakes at the long table that have come in from across Nevada. “Gentlemen. Mam. I hope you’re hungry.” He chuckles shifting in his three-man wide seat, his buttocks spreading out to the armrests. The four judges lick their dry mouths. Jennifer Forres #213, who favours this competition in her annual cycle of eating, is unimpressed. Last year there were over 40 entries. Maybe the hotdog and sausage show will turn out to be her favourite for the year after all. She’s already done the math: 32 cakes, four judges — it doesn’t leave them each with very much.
They start with the three ‘eight-layers,’ then there’s a rainbow cake, and another shaped to look like an open mouth, which impresses them all. By 3 pm they’re still less than halfway through. When Cooper reaches the triple-decker sponge the colour of mud he doesn’t give it a second thought. It has a pinkish smear of folded cream between each layer, and the top is dusted with little white crumbles that resemble… well, he’s not sure, really. The others are still debating their scoresheets for an earlier entry. He’s about to call them, but then goes on ahead. As he swallows, he realises something is strange, but it’s too late — it is gritty, sandy almost, and the unusual butteryness has a foul taste of burnt plastic to it. He looks down and squints at the card: Mason Well cake xxx. Where is that, he wonders? He clacks his tongue to the roof of his mouth. They certainly produced something memorable. “Judges,” he hollers sternly, “come check this out.”
One by one they heft their quarter of cake into their mouths, each trying to make sense of the mud cake. Everyone turns to Jennifer; she’s an expert of the unusual. “I’m getting hints of goose fat.” She smiles. The men nod. They blabber about its unique savouriness. Is that iron they can taste? Could it be their winner? There will a TV show to celebrate, a big unveiling; contracts will have to be drawn up. This could be what The Strip needs. Something different. Idris Cooper J862 reaches across the white tablecloth for his stumpy glass of reused water, to wash it down. The other judges are nodding ravenously. All that’s on Cooper’s mind is imagining what this Mason Well cook looks like. His crotch twitches. He’s imagining a next-door type in a pinafore, desperate to escape her heavy-handed father. He could take a trip out there. Rescue her. Put Mason Well back on the map, he thinks, give this young girl everything she ever dreamed of.
Jon is on the porch one afternoon when he starts to notice a timid vibration out in the desert’s distance. It’s too fragile to be a floater, but Jon is engrossed in eating cake and doesn’t notice the register of three hover bikes heading toward Mason Well, hefting the load of a particularly horny cake judge who is flanked by two nerdy production execs. Jon swigs a mouthful of coffee causing Marj’s latest lumpy cake to slip down his throat. He’ll help her clean up the cabin when he’s good and fucking ready, when the bitch stops ranting and sobbing about the mess she’s made of things — how it’ll be so lonely, now it’s just the two of them. His Mom is sounding shrill and as he hears the cadence of her voice an idea starts to coalesce in him like curdling milk, if only he could get more ingredients, he might try and make a cake of his own.
He feels so ready to finally spread his wings.