Gwendoline Margaret Spurll

Chocolate Cake

On a beautiful Winnipeg winter day Jake Sartle set out to buy groceries at the Foodfare grocery on Maryland. The sun reflecting on the pure white snow was so bright that he could hardly keep his eyes open.

As he walked, he could see cross county skiers passing on the river. The architecture gradually changed from the dated mansions of Armstrong Point in various stages of decay, to small dingy apartment buildings inhabited by poor and largely First Nations residents. He turned onto Maryland, and passed a daycare run by the Indian and Metis Friendship Centre out of a shabby storefront.

Suddenly he felt a push from behind, and fell to the ground.

A young woman came running out of the daycare and helped him to his feet. She took him inside, gave him a cloth to wipe his face, and called the police.

The police showed up a few minutes later. "What happened to you?" Officer Erin Waxman asked.

"I was just walking down Maryland. Suddenly I was pushed over. I think my wallet was stolen."

"Are you injured?"

"Just a small scrape on my face."

"Is there anyone at home who can come to get you?"

"No, I live alone."

"I can walk him home. I was just about to go on my lunch break," volunteered the day care worker. “My name is Lorraine," she told Jake. She put on her coat, scarf, hat, and mitts.

Jake did up his coat and Lorraine invited him to take her arm, and helped him along the icy sidewalks. They arrived at a two story house almost hidden behind a forest of trees which had been allowed to grow, unchecked, in the front garden. The drive was covered with snow and ice.

Jake took out his keys and opened the front door, and Lorraine helped him into the house. She looked around. On the left was the dining room with a table, chairs, and buffet, which would have been elegant but for the books and paper which covered every surface. The only area on the table free of books was a space just large enough for his breakfast bread plate and coffee cup, which were still there.

In the living room there was a large brown sofa. The sofa and floor were also covered with papers. Over the sofa there was a painting of a Phoenician sailing ship. A table in front of the window held pots of dying plants. On a small end table by the sofa there was a cluster of photos.

The one chair free of clutter was a comfortable looking recliner by the front window. On the floor at the foot of the chair a needlework bag overflowed with wool and knitting needles.

As Lorraine looked at the needlework bag, Jake thought of his late wife Nell. How much she had enjoyed working with her hands, knitting and sewing. The wonderful sweaters she had made for him. At the end she could no longer knit or sew, because her right arm was so swollen with the fluid that could not escape past her cancer-filled lymph nodes. The only thing Jake could do for her was to arrange her pillows so the arm was elevated and the fluid would drain a bit by gravity, and feed her the pills the doctor had supplied. He would give her a narcotic for the pain. Add an anti-inflammatory to help the narcotic. And a little of the other one which gets more of the nerve pain. If it worked, and sometimes it did, she would relax as the pain eased off, and a smile would settle on her face as she drowsed off to sleep. Sometimes her breathing would slow a bit as she fell asleep, and Jake would worry that he might have given her too much. But she had to have the relief. And the blessed sleep.

Jake had retired to care for her. But now, six years later, he missed his work. He had been a student of the ancient trade of garum, a fermented fish extract, in the Mediterranean. He had been lucky enough to be invited, in spite of being retired, to a dive in the Mediterranean in 2009. Five sunken boats had been found near the island of Ventotene, and it was suspected that one of them might have been carrying garum, which would have been worth almost it's weight in gold. The expedition had hired divers who were experienced in ultra-deep sea diving, and had a five day plan to explore these wrecks. To Jake's great disappointment, the day they were to dive to the ship thought to be carrying garum there was a storm warning, and they dared not risk the dive.


A week after Jake was mugged Ellen, the secretary of the History Department where Jake had worked, called Jake to tell him that his colleague Mike Feary had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. The funeral was to be the following day.

Jake went out and cleared the snow off his driveway. In the morning, without ever really making a decision as to go to the funeral or not, he dressed in his brown tweed jacket and brown pants, the closest thing he had to a dark suit. He polished his shoes, and he found a tie that nearly did not clash with his jacket. He arrived at St. Matthew's Church 20 minutes early for the service, and found the place packed. He looked around for a place to sit, and one of his colleagues, seeing him standing, removed his coat from the seat beside him.

Afterwards the reception in the church hall was packed. Jake thought he recognized Mary, Mike's widow, standing in one corner with a friend. He started walking over to give her his condolences. He wanted to tell her that he knew how difficult it was to lose a spouse. Tears filled his eyes, and he turned on his heel and walked out.


Jake's phone rang. "This is Officer Erin Waxman. We think we have the man who attacked you. Can you come down to the station to identify him?"

Jake had not seen his attacker, but the evidence was quite clear, since Sam Desmarais had tried to use one of Jake's credit cards.

Jake attended the trial. The judge was worried about the number of times that Sam had been involved with the law. The judge felt that Sam's problems went back to his childhood. He thought that his repeated crimes were due to dependence on alcohol and marijuana and the need for money to pay for them, and resultant involvement with gangs. He asked for a circle sentencing recommendation from the reservation that his family came, because that might give a better chance of rehabilitation.


Jake visited Lorraine in the day care with a bunch of flowers, to thank her for her help on the day of the mugging.

"They have found the person who stole my wallet. His name is Sam Desmarais."

"Oh, my, I went to school with him. If it is the same one. We were almost the only First Nations students in our class. He was a nice kid. We hung out together for a while. His father was verger at St Matthews. But he got in with the wrong crowd and I stopped seeing him."

"The judge has asked for a circle sentencing recommendation from the Swan Lake reserve. It is kind of truth and reconciliation process looking for a way for him to make restitution -- make it up to the ones he has injured -- and to help him to return to a useful life. They may ask me to have him to my home to do work for me aa part of the process.."

"Well the Sam Desmarais I knew was a nice kid and would not have hurt anyone he knew."


The circle sentencing hearing was held at the Swan Lake Reserve where Sam's grandmother lived. The chief was a rotund man with a deeply carved dignified face and long greying hair pulled back in a braid. He greeted Jake, and introduced him to Sam's grandmother and other relatives, Sam's lawyer, and the judge.

They started with an account of the mugging, then went on to Sam's childhood as a First Nations youngster among white kids. He was teased and bullied by the other kids at school. Sam had spent a lot of summers with his grandmother as a child because of this. When he was in the city he got involved with alcohol and marijuana, and ended up dealing in drugs to pay for his habit. Having been jailed for drug dealing, it would have been hard for him to avoid involvement in the aboriginal gangs.

"You almost have to join a gang to stay alive in there," said the judge. "And once you get out it is hard to leave the gangs, not only because of their power, but because they provide a peer group and a sense of belonging."

The chief felt the only hope for Sam was to stay clear of drugs and alcohol, find a legitimate way of earning a living, and somehow get a sense of belonging outside of the gangs.

The chief recommended that Sam repay Jake for his injuries and the community for the time they spent on his hearing with community service, join a job training course, and attend five AA meetings at week as a condition of parole.


The doorbell rang. Jake opened the door.

"Have you ever done any gardening before?" Jake asked Sam.

"Well, I helped my father when I was a kid. But I don't remember very much about it by now."

"Did you bring a hat?"

Sam shook his head.

"Put this on, and lets go round back." Jake put his Tilley hat on, and Sam put on the straw hat that Jake gave him. Jake led Sam round the house.

"This is where I keep my tools," said Jake. "Use this gardening apron keep your tools handy. You will need a trowel and some clippers."

"We need to start the spring clean-up by removing the old dead growth from last year," Jake said. ”Cut off the dead leaves and branches and put them in the compost heap by the boathouse. Then we will dig up the soil around the perennials, and mix in some finished compost."

"What are you growing here?" Sam asked.

Jake said,"This is a flower garden. My wife was fond of flowers and I grow them in her memory. ”

"Boy, there is lots of space here," Sam said. "You could grow all kind of things. Weed for example. You can make lots of money growing weed. I could help you sell it."

Jake could hear the eagerness in his voice.

"I do not grow weed," said Jake.

"Why not? It's a great cash crop."

"It's illegal and it's not what I want to grow."

"Or vegetables. A lot of people can't afford to buy their vegetables at the store. We could grow vegetables and sell them at the farmers market."

"We could grow vegetables. My wife used to have a vegetable garden. She put down enough vegetables to feed us all year. But I am growing flowers here. You're here to help me. When you are working for yourself you can grow what you want to. And maybe when you have some experience gardening you can get a job where you might earn enough money that you don't need to go around mugging people."

The two grew quiet as they worked.

"It's getting a bit warm, Sam. Would you like a glass of lemonade? I think we've probably done enough for today." Jake went into the kitchen for the drinks and they sat on the patio to drink them.

"You know that in nature the deadwood in a forest is cleared by fire?" Sam asked.


"Well if your front garden is not cleared for firewood, it may be cleared by fire."

"I see," said Jake. "Perhaps we should tackle that next."


Ellen called Jake to invite him to the annual History Department picnic.

"Jake, do you think you could pick Mary up as well? She doesn't have a car.”

So on a sunny warm June day Jake arrived at Mary's place. He had brought cucumber sandwiches for the picnic. Mary had baked a chocolate cake.

"I guess we had better find a place for that chocolate cake in the trunk because otherwise it's likely to spill all over the car."

They crossed the Maryland Bridge and turned right towards Assiniboine Park."

"How are things going for you, Mary?"

"Not too bad," said Mary. "The kids came over and packed up Mike's clothes and trundled them off to the Salvation Army. They've donated his books to the University. But it sure is lonely in that house all alone. Plus he had a pretty good income, but now that he's no longer alive the money coming in really isn't enough to maintain the house. I'm going to have to look for smaller place to live. You don't realize all these things before you have to live on what one person is earning."

Jake thought about his own life. He had a good pension. The house was paid for. He had no financial worries at all. Just the loneliness.

"I'm dreading seeing all of Mike's colleagues." said Mary.

"Yes…," said Jake.

"I can't understand what happened,” said Mary. ”One day Mike was there as usual and everything was okay and the next day he was gone. My life is empty. Sure, I still have my job in the dental office and my kids, but the kids are grown and the job is not enough to keep my mind busy. I always looked forward to hearing what Mike was writing about and thinking about. We really talked about everything and he was my best friend. We just wanted to grow old together."

"Yeah….," Jake breathed. He wasn't sure how to say that he knew how she felt, and wasn't sure he could say it without crying. "Well," he said, "Do we really want to go to this picnic?"

Mary said, "They've gone to the trouble of inviting us, and we can't eat the whole chocolate cake by ourselves, so I guess I'd better try to put on a smile and join in. Let's talk about something more cheerful."

They drove along Wellington Crescent towards the park. On the river they could see families of ducks and some people passing by in a canoe.

”Do you ever go canoeing,?” Jake asked Mary.

”Yes, I love to go on the water. I find it very relaxing. It takes me into another world," said Mary.”Only Mike was a land lover, so it's a long time since I was out on the water.”

”I have an old birchbark canoe which belonged to my grandfather. It probably could be repaired."


Jake called Sam to discuss the work to be done the following week. "By the way, Sam, do you remember that old birchbark canoe in the boathouse. Could that be fixed up?"

Sam laughed. "I don't think so. The birchbark is all dried out so you would have to replace it. To re-skin the canoe you would need a large piece of birchbark, and you just can't get the big pieces any more."

"Besides, birchbark canoes are always having to be repaired."

“What do you suggest, then?”

"You should buy yourself a nice fibreglass canoe.”

"By the way, have you thought any more about my idea of growing weed? My friends are anxious to find another source. They are putting a bit of pressure on," Sam said. "It would help me, because I owe them a lot of money."


"You can wash your hands in the bathroom," Jake said to Sam as he led him through the kitchen. Sam went into the bathroom and washed the dirt off his hands. When he came out Jake directed him into the living room and invited him to sit down. Jake handed Sam a bottle of lemonade.

‎Sam looked around for a place to set it down. "Who are all these people?" asked Sam looking at the photographs on the end table./

Jake picked up the largest photograph, a portrait of a middle-aged woman with a large kindly smile. He said, "This was my wife Nell."

Jake picked up another picture. "This is my son Noah and his wife and their two children. They live in California." He pointed to the third picture. "This is my other son. He and his wife and their two children live in West Kildonan. But I hardly see them since Nell died."


As Jake was returning home one evening he noticed a sign at the end of Westgate advertising a canoe for sale. He called Sam to ask whether he would be willing to come with him to look at the canoe. He also called Mary to find out whether she wanted ro come. The next day Sam, Mary and Jake went to look at the boat. It was obviously not new but it seemed seaworthy. For $150 Jake had a canoe and paddles. He headed off to Canadian Tire to buy some lifejackets. He was just about to pay for two large adult jackets, when on second thought he went back and, thinking of his grand-children, got two more jackets, in a child's size.


The following week Sam did not turn up to help with the gardening. Jake called Sam's cell phone number but he got a recorded message. Jake then tried the number he had for Sam's father. After some time the phone was answered.

Jake said "I was expecting Sam over today to help with the gardening. Do you know if he's been delayed?"

Sam's father said, "I guess you haven't heard. He was found shot to death in his rooming house."

Jake put the phone down. He thought for moment. Then he looked up Mary's phone number. He called her and explained what had happened. "Do you think you could come round? I don't think I can get through this alone."