I remember a Halloween festival of sorts at the First Baptist Church in Indianola, Mississippi. It oozes and merges in my memory with another, later memory of a summer vacation Bible school. There we tunneled through dimly lit refrigerator boxes and reached ordinary classrooms that became new kingdoms. One had a fish mouth as the entrance and an adult volunteer dressed as Jonah, one had a paper scene of the den, and my daddy greeted our crawling group in the character of David. I remember crawling through the tunnels in a fit of joy, our church transformed, for once, into something new and fun.
The festival that our new church had for Halloween did not have tunnels through the hallways and Bible scenes in each of the classrooms like I would experience the following summer. There were no parents dressed up in middle-eastern costumes. Instead, there were barrels filled with water and floating apples. There were pumpkins for carving. There were refreshments in the fellowship hall—for all the darting children in remnants of Halloween costumes, their sweat falling and drawing flesh-colored lines through makeup on their faces. We scurried outside as seven-year-old boys do. My new friend Trey made me aware of the next activity on the list.
“We’re fixin’ to go to the cake walk.”
“What’s that?” I had no idea about this “cake walk.” I did not even know what a cake walk was.
“It’s in the choir room. Come on. I’ll show you. It’s easy.” Trey rushed me into compliance, and I barely kept up with his sprint for the choir room where I heard the faint playing and stopping of a boom-box behind the closed door. After the pause, cheering and chatter.
I barely had time to take in the room, the back wall clad with tall wooden cabinets for the hanging of the choir’s gowns, the three rows of folding chairs filled with adults, the diagonally lined backside of a piano, the chair holding the boom-box, the table on the opposite of the room from me holding cakes—each of which I lusted after—orange cake, coconut cake, devil’s food, angel food, strawberry cake, caramel cake. Separating me from the table loaded with cakes was a rotating group of walkers—orbiting within a divided circle taped onto the floor. Each section of the circle had a number. Trey soon snatched my attention.
“Let’s go! Its time!” he said as he herded me toward the circle in the middle of the floor.
“It’s alright. You go. I’ll watch,” I said.
“Come on. You could win one of those cakes!”
I followed him with my head down and walked into the circle. The music began and a group of us rounded the circle. It was like musical chairs. We made a couple of laps before the music stopped and so did we. Each of us looked down to see the number we stood on.
I looked down to see the number seven under my feet.
“Seven!” I heard a lady call out, looking at me with ecstatic on her face. I wore confusion on mine.
“What do I do?”
The tightly standing, smiling Belle crooned. “Well, Sam, you get to pick out one of these nice cakes!”
My eyes and mouth widened as I walked nearer to the folding table holding the prizes.
“Well, yes! Congratulations!”
I felt like I had just barged in with Trey, who now looked a little disappointed, and barged out the door with a cake in my hands. I felt like an intruder. I felt like a thief.
Truly, the moments before and after that cake walk do not stick firmly in my memory. I remember the feel of the cardboard platter on my both hands, moistened with oil from the cake and wetly bending at the opposing, soft pressure of my supporting hands and the heavy, perfect cake. I remember walking carefully through the crowds and searching for my parents. I remember being ravenous for this cake.
I set the prize on our countertop at home when we arrived. I thought of saving the cake—hoarding and preserving the trophy of my unearned victory. This urge was not stronger than the opposite urges of my own and of every other member of my family. For a moment all of us sat and stood around the breakfast bar in our kitchen and beheld the beautiful cake, a microcosm of our new home, the Mississippi Delta. Sweet. Refined. White.