The Orton Park Festival cakewalk fires up at 2 p.m. Riley and I arrive a minute early. A line of children is drawn in the cool smudge of shade under an oak tree. This is an anxious lot, about 20 deep, average age 8. All eyes are on the table where rows of cakes, cakes of all shapes, cakes of all sizes, cakes of all flavors and décor, stand ready. Delicious, fresh-baked cakes, walked into the park like royalty on thrones of hot pads.
"Stay where you are, and we'll start in just a moment," instructs Joanna, the cakewalk field commander. She may as well be speaking in Malayan for all the attention the cakewalkers give. Their somber eyes remain fixed on the bakery booty. These are not children waiting in line to see the school nurse, or for a turn at four-square. These young Americans are on the verge of winning a free cake. One they can eat immediately. "This deal is bigger than both of us, lady," says the face of a blond boy in plaid shorts. "Let's get it on."
Doormat-size, hand-painted cardboard squares are arranged in the grass in a giant circle. Each one has a number on its face. Riley and I step into the center of the circle with our instruments. We've had bigger gigs than this, but never one with an audience as ready. We packed a banjo and ukulele. The banjo because it's happy. And loud. The soprano uke because it's nutty, the Andy Kaufman of stringed instruments; plus it, too, has a loud voice whose high strummed notes ring out over the five-string like a cheap mandolin.
Joanna unleashes the first eight contestants. They scramble over one another the way endangered animals do when released back into the wild. The kids find a starting square among the dozen available. Some do so with the careful precision of a chess master. Others end their sprint in a full hop and land on the first number they see. Now Riley and I are surrounded by eight small, trembling towers. Square number one looks like he's about to go number two.
I hit the walk-up notes to "John Henry," a mountain standard with a whiplash melody line. You'd think that'd be enough to get the masses marching, but instead they get amused and stare at us, content to enjoy the show for a moment. Riley chops the rhythm on the uke and Joanna yells, "Get going!"
Remember how it works? Contestants travel the circle, passing one square after the next, until the music stops. That's when one either stands on the closest square or makes a last-second decision to claim a luckier-looking open square. A number is drawn from a box and the winner of the round is called.
Ten measures into "John Henry" the group picks up the pace. If the contestants were harnessed, we could be milling grain. Riley and I stretch it out, playing bar after bar, showing no mercy. The participants are coming unglued. The circle is an autoclave of anxiety. Still, we play on. The squeal wheel moves faster and faster.
Riley catches my eye and signals his desire to end the torture. We bang out a final chord. All hell breaks loose. One child dives on a cardboard square like it's a live grenade. Another's feet are thrown straight up when her square squirts out from beneath her. Joanna climbs through the pile-up with the magic box. Riley reaches in and pulls out a piece of paper. "Number 2!"
Number 2, a delicate-looking girl with a crooked smile, is led to the cake table even as the next round of walkers discharges into the circle. The first cake chosen wins its baker the coveted Orton Park Festival Cakewalk apron, to be worn with pride and returned the next year. The winning cake is slid from the table into the outstretched hands of Madame Crooked Smile. She sprints away with it, as if in a rugby scrum, a comet tail of old and new friends trailing behind.
Riley and I bust into "Old Joe Clark." The next round starts to circle. It's hard to focus because of the Lord of the Flies scene taking shape 20 yards away. A clutch of children has descended onto the first cake, hands and knees, butts in the air, like hyenas over a fallen wildebeest. Every 10 seconds a furtive face, slathered with the chocolate markings of the kill, pops up above the pride and scans the grounds, searching for signs of rivals who may challenge their right to feed.
After the last round Riley and I move toward the main stage. Orton Park is a killing field of cakes. Mad huddles of feeding children. The mastication is audible. For this moment, as summer pulls to the curb, Orton Park is simultaneously the happiest and most hair-raising spot in the nation.