My wife Ashley recently celebrated a birthday. I won’t say how old she is, cause she’ll hit me, but she’s two years older than I am and I’m 32. You do the math. (Hey, she was probably gonna hit me anyway.)
Since we left higher paying gigs in the big city to move to West Virginia, for med-school and library servitude respectively, we’ve not done any major birthday presents for one another. We always get one another a birthday card and maybe something small, but nothing too expensive.
Still, at the beginning of the month in which Ash’s birthday fell, I spent quite a bit of time trying to come up with what I was going to do for her. I knew she wouldn’t want anything huge, but I felt I still needed to do something. Fortunately, Ash’s a fairly simple gal who cares not for diamonds, pearls or expensive fru-fru. She doesn’t wear a lot of jewelry—usually just her wedding set and a pair of earrings or maybe her favorite necklace that features a small gold nugget that was one of the only products of her father’s former Alaskan gold mine. She does like shoes quite a bit, but not excessively so.
What to get her? What to get her?
Then I thought of it…
One of our last major purchases was a brand new clothes washer. It’s a Big ol’ Kenmore, the kind with the porcelain on steel top—which somehow seemed an important option to take back when we bought it, but dadgum if I can figure out if that’s done us any good since. We purchased the washer shortly after moving into the house we now rent, in April of 2003, and we love it as much as two people can love a major appliance. It’s nice and roomy and is so much more efficient at washing our clothes than the tiny apartment-style washer we had been using since we got married.
Once we had the new Mo’ Better washer firmly installed, we had the question of what to do with the old washer. We don’t own a truck, so we couldn’t just haul it off ourselves. Having dropped a lot of cash in the moving process itself, not to mention on the new washer, we also didn’t want to spend any more money in order to get rid of it; so renting a truck seemed out of the question. We called around to the local shelters and charity organizations, but while they would all have gladly accepted it, none of them had the capability to come and remove it from our home. As a temporary measure, we rolled it into the kitchen and used it as an island for a while until we could come up with some ingenious way to get rid of it.
Eventually, Ashley got it in her head that she wanted to build a real kitchen island to replace the defunct washer. She marched right down to the hardware store, told them what she wanted to do
“I take it you’re the handyman in your house?” the hardware store man asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Ash said.
They then spent an hour or so drawing up plans and selecting and ordering the butcher-block top. She bought most of the materials she would need from them, then got me to drive her to the nearest city with a Lowes for what the local store didn’t have. She then spent all her spare time for a month sawing, sanding and assembling the island. When she was finished, she had a beautiful and sturdy butcher-block island to call her very own.
Once we had the new Mo’ Better island firmly installed, we again had the question of what to do with our old apartment-style washer. We still didn’t own a truck, still couldn’t find any charitable organizations that did either and we were still too cheap to call U-Haul. Ash was all for putting a sign out by the road or an ad in the classifieds to sell it. Trouble was, while the washer does work it doesn’t work as well as you would hope a washer you paid good money for might. It would do in a pinch, if you didn’t have one at all, but you would probably have to do the spin cycle a couple of times to get all the soap and water out of your clothes. With no obvious solution, we finally just rolled the washer over into a corner of the kitchen, in front of our cookbook shelf, and began piling junk mail on top of it.
Months passed. In fact, a year passed and suddenly it was early October and I’d started wondering what to do for her birthday. That’s when I hit upon the idea of getting rid of the washer once and for all.
“How would you do it?” you might ask.
Ah, I would rent a truck.
“Hey, but I thought you were cheap, and stuff,” you might also say.
Sure am. However, I was going to spend $20 at the bare minimum for a birthday present anyway, so why not funnel that Yuppie $5 into renting a truck, getting rid of the devil-washer and securing myself a warm place in my wife’s affections for the effort?
I could just picture her coming home on Saturday, from her month-long emergency room rotation, in Princeton, WV, walking in the door and spying the 3’x2’x2′ patch of open space where the washer once sat. And on the floor, in the middle of the patch of glorious emptiness, would be the beautiful birthday card I had already purchased for her at a local downtown gallery. Sounded like a plan.
Trouble is, my surprises like this NEVER work out and I have a long and storied history of them not working out.
Why do they not work out? Well, for one thing, I have a wife who insists on pestering me for hints about her birthday present until she gets enough to put it together. Doing this is one of her greatest joys in life. Preventing her from doing this is my eternal challenge—a very difficult one, cause she’s smarter than me. It also doesn’t help that I have a big mouth and let it be known that I had something planned for her.
So Wednesday night, the night before the actual move, she called from Princeton to interrogate me about her present.
“It’s green, right? You said it was green,” she said as a clever ruse to get me to admit to something. I was steadfastly not admitting anything if I could keep from doing so. Should have just hung up right then.
“Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?” she continued.
“Um… none of the above,” I said. At its core, her present was essentially empty space, which is—subtracting the minerals, pollen, bugs and cat-hair that might be floating through it—none of the above. She didn’t believe this part and continued plying me with questions. I, in turn, continued being evasive and assured her that while she would really really love her present, she was never ever going to guess what it was.
After a goodly number of other questions, during which I let it slip that I’d had to make a phone call to make arrangements for her present, she asked, “Is this something that’s going to help me cook?”
I could guess what she might be thinking, which I theorized was that she thought I’d ordered her a Kitchen-Aid—a device she has always wanted and which I will one day buy for her when we have money. However, it was still a perfect chance for a veiled hint, because once the washing machine was out of the way we would finally be able to get to the shelf of cookbooks its been blocking for the past year and a half.
“It might help with cooking,” I said. “It might indeed.”
Oddly, this was not the clue that tipped her off. What tipped her was what I said shortly after she said she wished she could come home on Thursday instead of Saturday, as scheduled. I became fearful that she might actually mean it, or worse yet, do it. It would be just like her to have secured an extra two days off somehow and come home early. She’s done similar sneak-arrivals many a time before and she never tells me in advance, allowing me to be happily surprised when she pops in the door, or scared out of my wits when she pops in the door in the middle of the night. The idea that she might pop by in the middle of the washer moving process was not one I fancied.
“Uhm, well if you do come home tomorrow, make it tomorrow afternoon,” I said. Stupid.
“Why is that?” she said with justifiable suspicion.
“Uh… cause the… um… dancing midgets might not be gone by then,” I lamely said. “They, uh… they gotta practice for your party, you know.”
There passed a long silence.
“I know what you’re going to do,” Ashley said with a sudden assurance.
“You… you do?”
“Yep. I know what it is, but I’m not going to tell you because it will just piss you off.”
I could tell by her voice this was not a bluff. Somewhere in that long silence, understanding had dawned on her and I had no doubt that she had figured it out. I don’t know if it was a stray phone-routed psychic signal from me or just that she’s smarter than the average she-bear. Bottom line: she knew and now I had to know for certain that she knew.
“No, go ahead and guess,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. There was a dangerous pause. “You’re getting rid of the washer, aren’t you?”
I cursed, loudly. As she predicted, I was instantly pissed. Once again my big surprise was ruined due to my own stupid mouth and her woman’s intuition. Why? Why can’t I just shut up about it all and keep things a surprise? Why do I have this Blofeld-like need to show off with crafty clues? Why do I let her draw me into these hint-sparring matches in the first place? Why, WHY, WHYYYYY?!
Ashley laughed and laughed as I ranted and cursed some more and pounded the couch cushions. When I was finished and had calmed down, she told me that it was a very thoughtful and sweet present that she did love. And not only was it a very nice present, but it had the added bonus of allowing her to guess what the present was through constant pestering, which she really really loves and is frankly more enjoyable for her than being surprised in the first place.
So the next day, I went and picked up the U-Haul, hand-trucked the washer up the ramp and hauled it down the hill to the charity second-hand store. (And, yes, I did warn them about the washer’s somewhat wonky working-status—I’m not so much of a cheap jerk that I would foist an unreliable appliance onto a charity organization with no warning.) At the end of the job, with mileage and a few gallons of diesel factored in, my total price came to around $30, which I figure is a respectable amount to spend on a birthday present.
At the moment, there is only stray cat food in the space where the washer once stood, but I’ll soon have that cleaned up and her card in its place, ready for her arrival tomorrow. She may not be surprised, but she’ll be considerably less cluttered.
Back before Ashley guessed what her birthday present was, she asked if I was going to make her a birthday cake and buy tooters. I hadn’t actually considered either a cake or tooters, but decided that at least one of those was a good idea. She even suggested I make the fantastic carrot cake recipe she’d found on the internet. And after Ashley ruined her own surprise by guessing her present, the only thing I had left going for me was possibly surprising her with cake.
I’d never actually made a carrot cake before, but figured it couldn’t be too hard so I dug out the recipe. It had lots of other yummy stuff in it, like raisins, crushed pineapple, dates, coconut, cinnamon, vanilla, pecans and a cream cheese icing. I had a lot of the ingredients on hand, but did have to go to the store to pick up dates and carrots all the same. I also decided to cheat on the homemade icing and just buy some Duncan Hines cream cheese icing. It’s good stuff and I probably couldn’t make better by myself.
Friday night I started preparing it. It’s kind of a three bowl affair with a dry ingredients bowl, a wet ingredients bowl and a fruit, veggies and nuts ingredient bowl. You mix the first two together then mix in the third, slap it in the oven and take it out in an hour. Well I gathered what I thought were all of my ingredients and put them in their respective bowls, mixed them in the proper order and poured the mixture into the first of two floured cake pans I’d prepared. I was supposed to fill the pan to 3/4ths from the pan’s top and I did this, but I had no cake batter left over afterward to fill the second pan. I had somehow expected there would be more batter than that. How the heck am I supposed to make a double layer carrot cake if I’ve only got one layer?
Oh, well, I thought. It’ll work out. I slapped it on in the oven.
Can you guess which ingredient I left out?
That’s right: THE CARROTS—only the MOST important ingredient of a Carrot Cake.
I’d been trying so hard not to screw it all up and had been very careful to set out all of my ingredients ahead of time, except, apparently, the stinking carrots, which remained in the fridge. I only realized my mistake when removing the cake from the oven, whereupon I surveyed its beautiful brown surface and thought to myself, “Oh man, now that’s going to be one badass tasty carrot ca–aaahhhhhHHHHH!!”
In the end, though, it turned out just fine. We learned that you can make a carrot cake without the carrots and it’s still absolutely delicious. It had plenty of other nummy ingredients to make it interesting. Sure, it was a little bit drier than we might have liked, but still just… Mwahh!
In fact, here’s the recipe. Go try it yourself and see if I’m not right.
JUICE’S LACK OF CARROT CAKE
Preheat Oven to 375 degrees
In first bowl mix
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
In second bowl mix
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cup corn oil
In third bowl mix
3 cups shredded carrots *
1 16 oz can crushed pineapple
1 box dates (shredded)
1 cup flake coconut **
1 cup pecan halves
1 cup raisins
Thoroughly mix first and second bowls, then stir in ingredients from third bowl. Pour into floured cake pans until the pan is 3/4 full. Bake at 375 for 1 hour or until toothpick comes out clean.
** If you leave out the carrots, you might put an extra cup of coconut in. I think I did by accident and my cake was scrumptious.
Cream Cheese Icing
4 cups powdered sugar
28 oz cream cheese at room temp
1/2/ cup unsalted butter at room temp
4 teaspoons vanilla