by Holly Tominack i work as a reference librarian for a criminally underfunded public library system in Baltimore City, and anything— anything at all—that improves morale is very important to our small staff. One such morale booster is the office birthday party.
Perhaps I should explain what passes for a "party" in my workplace. On the big day, one of us drags out a rickety folding table and covers it with a well-worn, light-blue tablecloth. Then we arrange a cake, some chips and cookies, and the cards and gifts on the table, and someone prints out a Word document that reads happy birthday, whoever! and tapes it to the tablecloth. The birthday person cuts the cake around noon or one, and then everybody just sort of grazes for the rest of the day. It's kinda lame, but it's all we've got.
Bill's birthday falls in late August. Bill is probably my favorite coworker in the history of the world. He's fiftysome-thing, about twenty years my senior, and has worked at the library (as a reference librarian) since the year I was born. His hair and close-cropped beard are white, his blue eyes sparkle behind his glasses, and he has an open, friendly smile. He's also a big guy—a little less than three hundred pounds—and nobody messes with him. He's always treating me to lunch, fetching me cans of Diet Dr Pepper from the vending machine, finding the funniest stuff online (Herbert Kornfeld's column in the Onion, for example, or Engrish.com, a site that documents hilarious uses of the English language in Japanese advertising), and keeping my spirits up when things get especially miserable around here. Bill is also responsible for turning me on to the silly, operatic pleasures of Godzilla movies, and our neighboring cubicles are decorated with Godzilla posters and toys, most notably a big plastic rendering of Godzilla himself. So when Bill's birthday came around, it was an honor and a pleasure to be the one to provide the cake—that is, procure the cake from the bakery section of the nearest Safeway— for his party.
My main mode of transportation is an orange and silver BMW 650 CS motorcycle with a blue weatherproof canvas bag above the rear tire. I can carry loads of things in that bag (pocketbook, water bottle, change of clothes, shoes, books, etc.), and thought that carrying a cake in it would be (heh) a piece of cake. I figured if I put the cake box in the bag, then secured it by packing my work clothes and rain gear tightly around it, the yummy German chocolate cake (Bill's favorite!) would survive the ride to work. I figured wrong.
I was working the noon-8 p.m. shift on Bill's birthday, so I'd asked a coworker to set up the traditional blue-tablecloth-covered-table in advance. I rode carefully to work and parked the motorcycle on the sidewalk in front of the library. Then I detached the bag from the back of my bike, carried it up the stairs to the office, unzipped it, removed the box, and placed it on the table in front of the happy birthday, bill! sign.
But when I opened the lid of the box, I discovered that my transportation plan hadn't worked so well. The cake had shifted in transit, and now one side was completely smooshed against the side of the box. I carefully removed the cake from the box to see if I could sculpt it back into shape, but that made it even worse—most of the damaged icing stuck to the box, leaving a big naked patch of icingless cake. Bill's once-beautiful birthday cake looked terrible, and no amount of creative re-icing could save it. The party was due to start any minute; I had no time to get another cake. Now, Bill and the other folks in my office are not the types to turn their noses up at free food, no matter how smooshed, but I was not about to serve a maimed cake to my favorite colleague.
My heart sank. Tears welled in my eyes. Bill's cake! I destroyed Bill's cake!
But I didn't do it on purpose, I told myself. It wasn't my fault. It was the laws of nature. Physics or something. Yes— it was physics that caused the cake to lurch forward whenever I hit the brakes. It was physics that transformed Bill's lovely cake into something that looked like Godzilla had torn up.
AHA! Godzilla . . . of course! If I can't fix the cake, I thought to myself, I'll just make it look like the damage was intentional. I ran to my cube and retrieved my big plastic Godzilla doll.
After giving Godzilla a lovely antibacterial bath in the washroom sink and thoroughly drying him off, I planted his feet directly down into the smashed part of the cake. I put little smudges of icing on his nose and in his hands to make it look like he had helped himself to a bite. And as a final touch, I took a yellow Post-it note and fashioned it into a cone-shaped birthday hat and taped it to Godzilla's head.
The result? Bill loved it. His sparkly eyes sparkled even more, he started speaking excitedly in broken Japanese (yes, he knows a little), and he even helped Godzilla stomp the cake a little more. The rest of our coworkers enjoyed it, too. (Some even took pictures.) And nobody knew that it was me—not Godzilla, and not even physics—who maimed Bill's cake.
Holly Tominack lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and is married to a Johns Hopkins psychiatrist whose entire life has been a busman's holiday since the day they met.
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