“Morning, Phil.” Vivian called out, as the bell above the door chimed. She didn’t bother looking up from the coffee machine as the old man grabbed a seat at the counter. He rested the cane against his stool and removed his hat. “Your Saturday usual?” she asked, mug of steaming hot chocolate and a fresh slice of chocolate cake, the very first of the day, in hand.
“Thank you, Viv.” He offered her a small smile. “The first slice is…”
“Magic,” Vivian finished for him with a fond eyeroll. “Sure it is.” The bell above the door rang once more, and she hurried over with her coffee pot. “Enjoy!” she called over her shoulder. He planned to.
Alone with his breakfast, he began his ritual. He closed his eyes, brought a forkful to his lips, and breathed in deep. His mouth watered at the rich chocolate and sweet frosting. As the first bite touched his tongue, the moist cake enveloped his tastebuds, and the smell of newspaper and dark-roast, no-sugar coffee surrounded him like a hug.
He could hear his father’s voice, deep and rumbling, as he ordered it…
Back then, the waitress was Gertrude, a sweet woman who often gave him extra whipped cream in his hot chocolate. He felt so grown up, sitting there with his dad, early in the morning.
“You gotta be up and ready if you want to join me,” his dad would tell him. His dad liked to beat the crowd and the food was always fresh. “The best cup is always the first.” Phil often wondered if the coffee had the same effect.
Every Friday night, Phil was too excited to sleep. His father worked long-hours and, between school and work, there were whole days they barely exchanged a word. But, Saturday mornings were theirs. Just the two of them.
Gertrude brought them their mugs, and his father opened the newspaper. The sound of the thin paper crinkling still made Phil’s chest puff out with pride. His father would pass him the funny pages, and he’d take the sports for himself. They’d read until Gertrude brought them each a slice of chocolate cake. Phil always knew it was coming, but his face still lit up at the sight.
“Just don’t tell your mother.” His father winked at him over the top of his paper.
Phil sat back with a sigh as the bitter coffee and crinkle of newspaper faded back into the edges of his memory. He settled in for another bite.
It was strawberry milkshake this time and rose perfume. She was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen and, even decades later at eighty-five, he had yet to figure out how he managed to get her to agree to go out with him. She thought he was absolutely ridiculous.
“I never get up this early on a Saturday,” she told him. He could count the numbers of freckles on her nose when she’d smile and the dimple in her cheek was endearing. “And for chocolate cake of all things!”
“It’s magic!” Phil insisted, taking a sip of the milkshake between them. At the time, he thought there was nothing more intimate and romantic than sharing a straw.
“If you say so.” She laughed, and he thought there was nothing in the world that sounded better. Right then and there, he knew. She was the one he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
Betsy was the waitress, then. She made sure to give them an extra big slice. Phil thanked her when she delivered the cake and, when he turned back, the girl of his dreams wiped a finger of frosting on the tip of his nose.
It was the same cake they ordered for their wedding. “Only fitting,” she told him. Magical cake on a magical day with a magical girl… He couldn’t agree more. She wiped frosting on his nose that day, too. The photo of it was his all time favorite and still sat on the mantle at home.
Phil ran his finger over the frosting on his slice and popped it in his mouth, as the strawberry and roses and her laughter, too, dimmed like the flashing end of an old movie reel.
Only one more bit remained. It was always sad, the way you don’t want a good day to end. But, it was a bite that Phil always cherished.
This time, when the cake passed his lips, it was apple juice. A stranger combination never existed, he still thought, but when his daughter insisted, who was he to say no? He didn’t like to deny her much of anything, and his wife often warned that he’d spoil her. He supposed he did, but he was of the mindset that every child needed a good spoiling every once in a while.
He realized, a bit too late perhaps, that he was more like his father than he would’ve liked. He, too, worked long hours and, even with his best efforts to beat traffic home, often found her tucked into her bed asleep by the time he got there. He still gave her a kiss each night and hoped it would be enough. That she somehow would know, still be aware of it. It was what most parents hoped, he guessed.
It wasn’t every Saturday like it was with his father. Every once in a while, though, he’d get her up early, her still dressed in her pajamas, and he’d take her to that same diner. He’d order his hot chocolate and she’d order her juice. It was right around when Vivian first started. They were both less gray in those days. She’d bring their drinks and paper placemats with crayons.
Phil would listen to his daughter’s stories, and they’d color together until the cake arrived. Her little face would light up each time.
“Just don’t tell your mother,” he’d tell her with a wink.
They continued throughout the years, even after she moved away to college. Even these days, when she’d visit with a little one of her own, the three of them would wake early to beat the crowds and enjoy the first slice.
Phil washed that last bite down with the last sip of his hot chocolate. He reached in his pocket, counted the bills carefully, and laid them on the counter by his empty plate.
“One day,” Phil told Vivian as he put on his hat and grabbed his cane, “you’ll have to tell me what you put in that chocolate cake.”
“You know what they say,” she replied with a shrug and wink. “The secret ingredient is love.”