This story got pulled from the contest site (at least as far as I could tell because my link went dead and a site search proved unsuccessful) where it won best amateur short two years ago. We were tasked to write a story based on the awesome photograph by Ms. Villenueva below. The piece is still on the other two judges’ sites as far as I can tell, but I’ve never published it on my own.
I thought I’d post it today as sort of a breast cancer awareness PSA because my mother is three-time survivor and I’m due for a mammogram, so it’s on my mind. I’ll just state upfront that this particular story is fictional (thank goodness), though the area and character accents described are very real (with some name changes). My mother’s health is currently fine, I’m very happy to report.
“When you see the red wagon wheel on the left side of the road, turn right and you’re there.” My mother’s thin voice had detailed the ten mile route to the only country store that carried her beloved Tastee Cakes. During her better days, she drove herself once a week.
I hadn’t lived in the back woods of North Carolina in over two decades, so I’d taken meticulous notes. Five turns, she’d told me, marked by a graffiti-covered boulder, a burnt trailer, a bait shop named Frosty’s, a volunteer fire station and a red wagon wheel.
After several wrong turns, I pulled into Lou’s Little Store and began my search. I scanned the most logical places, but couldn’t find any Tastee Cakes.
“Can I help you find somethin’, honey?” A blonde wearing foundation a shade too dark called out from behind the counter.
“I’m looking for Tastee Cakes.” I don’t normally ask for help in convenience stores. I shouldn’t have to because it’s supposed to be convenient which is supposed to mean easy to find.
“Sorry, we’re all out.” The woman walked to where I stood and pointed to a rack on my left. “But we got Little Debbie’s right here. They’s just as good.”
“No. I don’t want anything but Tastee Cakes. Are you sure you don’t have any in the back?” I began to gnaw on the inside of my mouth as I considered the consequences of returning empty-handed.
“I’m sure.” She shrugged and returned to her station behind the counter.
“Could you please check?” My breath came faster and my voice rose.
“There’s nowhere to check, honey. What you see is all we got.”
I caught a glimpse of a nearly naked man on the pages of the magazine she flipped. “Do you know any other places near here that sell Tastee Cakes?”
“No. Sorry. I think you should just try the Little Debbie’s. They’re fine.” Another naked man flashed by on a new page.
Hysteria shoved at the edge of my self-control. Between clenched teeth I said, “I don’t want Little Debbie. I want Tastee Cake! My mother used to come here every week for them. She doesn’t eat much these days, but I know she’ll eat one of those.” I choked back the tears that formed. If I hadn’t allowed myself to cry thus far, I’d be damned if I’d do it over a cupcake.
She put down her magazine and looked at me with new interest. “Is your mamma Miz Carolyn Teague?”
“Oh, well why didn’t you say so? I got Miz Teague’s cakes right here.” She pulled out five packages of chocolate cup cakes and two coffee cakes from a box beneath the counter.
The cellophane wrapped treats caught the light and winked at me. “Oh. Oh, thank you so much.”
“You tell your mamma we’re prayin’ real hard for her.”
I nodded and fished out my wallet. “How much?”
She patted my hand, smiled and shook her head. “We don’t never charge for these.”
I exhaled the breath I hadn’t even realized I’d held and gave her a long teary smile. “Thank you.”
“See you next week?”
“I hope so.”
My mother’s cakes in hand, I began my trip home, making a left at the red wagon wheel.