Fiction Issue 2012, Editor's pick: "Red Velvet" | Fiction | Chicago Reader

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Fiction Issue 2012, Editor's pick: "Red Velvet"

The bar was closing, and Paul wanted to go home with something sweet


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After Uncle Paul's fifth gin and tonic of the night, he began to sense a buzzing around him, like an old neon light. He looked up to see that Winnie's Grill had got crowded with men, a knot of whom stood behind Paul, swaying in unison and singing along with the hopeful piano of Mary J. Blige's "Real Love," which played on the house stereo. Paul pressed forward in his cushion-backed stool so that his head hung over the bar. That's when he saw the red velvet cake, white frosting glowing like a winter moon in its glass-topped dish, tucked onto the shelf under the register since it was after 1 AM and the kitchen had been closed for over three hours.

Winnie herself, pretty and ageless but with a face hard enough to break cinder blocks, saw Paul staring at the cake. She strutted towards him, fingers pinched into three dirty highball glasses.

"Finally see something you like, honey?"

Paul jerked his head up and scanned the room behind him by looking in the swatch of bar mirror that wasn't covered with brittle dollar bills and Polaroids of posing regulars, himself included. He cocked an eyebrow at Winnie. She pointed at the cake. Paul smiled and played along.

"Yeah baby, I'm ready to take that home with me."

He licked his top lip and began working his head side to side, locking into the quarter cake with his wide-set eyes.

"You know what? Josephine gonna fix a fresh one tomorrow. Why don't you take that red velvet with you?"

While Paul was picturing a milk chocolate man with wiry muscles unbuttoning a red velvet shirt, Winnie stooped, lifted the dish to the counter behind the bar, and used a square bar napkin to slide the cake onto a plate, which she deposited in front of Paul.

"Here you go."

"Thank you," Paul murmured, and fingered the wad of cash in his pants pocket, wondering if he should tip. I'll get her extra on my next drink, he decided and sat back in his chair, smelling the citrus of CK-One cologne on one of the divas standing behind him. "Real Love" had ended and one of them said, "Bitch, it's 'I'm searchin' for a real love,' not 'RE-searchin' for a real love.' You ain't in school!"

Paul sat with the cake in front of him, nursing a final gin until last call caused a crush of bodies at the bar, ordering final beers and colorful liquor drinks. Three fingers swatted his chest, in the taut spot between armpit and nipple, and a playful voice said, "You didn't tell me it was your birthday, Paul."

He looked up from his drink to see Xavier, a cutie with chubby cheeks and bleached orange hair, smiling down at him with his lips pursed. Xavier was in his early 20s. Paul had just a couple years on him.

"You 21 yet?" Xavier asked, then leaned back and giggled. Paul cracked a sheepish smile. He was barely old enough to rent a car, and already felt like the old man at the party.

Winnie walked past, deposited a sweating glass of blue booze on the bar in front of Xavier and said, "It's five for the Alize, honey," before turning away to point at a man who was breathing fast through his mouth and waving a limp 20-dollar bill with a look of panic in his eyes.

Xavier fumbled for the back pocket of his jeans and Paul asked, "Just one drink?"

"I had a couple earlier, too." Xavier pulled out a shiny red leather wallet.

"You ain't buying no one else drinks?"

"Mmm-mmm," Xavier replied and lowered his head, casting his eyes up to meet Paul's in a flirtatious manner.

"Put that wallet up, I got you," Paul said, and leaned back to reach into his pocket and fish out his roll, which had become damp from being stuck to his thigh all night.

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