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Claudia C. Hinz

An acquired accent

The cake lady’s lesson on keeping to the brain’s sunny side

By Claudia C. Hinz
May 2, 2011

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I KNOW just the design I want on the birthday cake for my friend. I bring a greeting card with a picture of a serene woman yogi with a sleepy smile, legs crossed in lotus position, her hands in prayer; around her, the words dusted in glitter: “shine,’’ “radiance,’’ “inspire.’’

The cake lady takes out an old-fashioned looking writing tablet. The woman in line behind me squirms, her boots impatient on the linoleum. I lean into the glass display and watch the cake lady draw the cake in three dimensions. For a moment, I forget the next two errands on my list, the pick-up and drop-off schedule for my three children.

The cake lady does a squiggle line to show where I want chocolate on the edges, butter cream on the top. She asks what I want for the filling. Her voice is foreign and lovely. In it, I hear the tinkle of sheep bells. I see the lazy nudge of cows, Easter green grass, hills in every direction. I see baskets of wool and cable-knit sweaters.

“Raspberry cream?’’ she asks. I am envious of this voice, this “I’m-in-no-hurry’’ drawl. It is something, I think, to aspire to in my frenzied life, my over-heated engine running overtime, all the time, the constant babble, the jabbering on the phone in the car, squeezing in one more phone call to check off the to-do list.

She asks, do I want to take this picture of the yoga lady to OfficeMax to get it photocopied and enlarged so she can transfer it to the cake?

No, I don’t. I have a memorial service to attend tomorrow and too much to do before I leave town.

That’s not a problem. She can do it but she has to charge extra. She asks, “Where’d you have to go?’’ San Francisco. Do I have to drive?

No, I will fly out first thing. She says she is sorry for me, sorry that I have to go, sorry for my loss. “But I get to see both my parents, so I am looking forward to that.’’

“Oh, that’s nice. There’s always something good in the bad, isn’t there?’’ she says, and I know to lean in, that she is going to give me something that I really need. Her voice is now unnaturally slow. “Whenever my brain wants to go over to the bad side, the sad side, I just tell it, ‘No, I’m sorry. I am going to stay over here in the good place.’ ’’

I’d like to tell her that my brain strays all the time, like those sheep on her Irish hillside. I’m constantly sounding the alarm. Get back! Stay here. Stay on the good side!

Tomorrow, I will stand in the half-circle of my aunt’s grandchildren, her friends and her sister, and my cousin will speak of the choices his mother made — the choice not to panic when she was told she was dying, the choice to keep living even when she was dying. He will speak of the pointlessness of making art when she is not there to enjoy it. And then, he will speak of joy, how his mother always favored joy, and my cousin will urge us to keep choosing joy, even when it is hard work.

“You’re right,’’ I say to the cake lady. “That’s exactly right.’’ And then, I ask a stupid question: “Where are you from originally?’’

She names a ranch way east of town.

“But you hear my Irish accent, right?’’ She asks. I am slipping. Something is wrong. She is slipping, too, but she already knew she was slipping, the words themselves slippery. I watch her seize them, one by one. “I had brain surgery.’’ She shows me three fingers. “Three times and when I woke up, I had an Irish accent. When I am tired, you can hear it more.’’

“Is your brain OK now? Do you need more surgery?’’

“No, I gotta go back in. I got this. . .’’ She fingers loops in her hair, just above her temple. There is a valley next to her eyes, a sunken part. Her hair hangs in that space. She points to her left eye.

“I’m going blind.’’ She explains that the surgeon nicked the parts of her brain that control vision and speech. She taps the dent. “Right here.’’

The woman behind me says she needs to be somewhere and can she place her order now? The cake lady wishes me a safe trip, a nice visit with my parents. I ask her name. Mary, she says, and I extend my hand over the counter to shake hers. I don’t know what to wish her in return, so in my head I bless her to stay on the good side.

Claudia C. Hinz, an Oregon resident, reviews books and is writing her first novel, “A House of Bones,’’ set in Barcelona.