by Carla Damron
Callie stands in the cloud of flour, and, when the specks drift down onto her eyelashes, it’s like seeing the world through fairy dust. She approaches the kitchen table, her nose scarcely reaching the metal-rimmed edge, to watch her grandmother pound the dough. Gram’s hands are wrinkled like a crumpled paper sack, but they are strong and determined as they add lard to flour.
“How much water did you use?” Callie’s mother asks. She’s standing by the icebox, an index card and pencil in hand. “A half cup?”
“I don’t know cups,” Gram says, lifting the dough in a ball and blopping it back onto the table so that even more flour billows up. “I know feel.”
Callie holds up her hand to catch the snowfall in their tiny kitchen. “Can I taste it?”
“No child, not ‘til it’s pie.” Gram taps Callie’s nose with a flour-covered finger and Callie giggles until she sees the quick scowl on her mother’s face.
“It looked like you used a little over a quarter cup,” Momma says. She scribbles on the card.
Gram lifts the wooden rolling pin and bangs it into one of two balls of dough. Callie blinks at the violence of it. “Come here, child. You can help with this part.”
Callie smiles, eager to touch the smooth wood of the rolling pin, but she hears a muted tsk and her grin vanishes. Her mother comes closer. “She’s already wearing more of the flour than you have in the dough.”
Gram says with a hint of pride, “She takes after me. Alfred always said I wore my supper before I served it. Hard to cook without getting messy.”
Yet Momma never does. As she lights the gas oven with a wooden match, a loud swoosh sounds and blue flames erupt. She crosses to Callie and tucks a towel into the collar of her dress. Gram lifts Callie onto the stool and Callie reaches for the fat ball of dough.
Gram intercepts her hands and attaches them to the red handles on the rolling pin. They make clicking, scraping noises as Gram helps Callie press into the pale mound, flatten it, pull back the pin and begin again. She loves the feel of squishing the batter. The transformation amazes; the ball becomes pancake-thin, almost as wide as the table. Before anyone can stop her, Callie sneaks a pinch into her mouth.
Why isn’t it sweet? Pies are sweet. The substance gloms onto her teeth and she wants to spit it out.
“Don’t swallow! It might make you sick!” Momma exclaims, but it’s too late, she feels the glob working its way down her throat.
“A little dough won’t hurt her,” Gram says.
“What if it swells in her stomach?” Momma looks worried now, her hand patting under Callie’s ribs.
“She didn’t eat enough. Now hand me that pie plate,” Gram answers as she lifts the white circle into the air.
Callie wants to poke her finger in the middle of it. When Momma places the Pyrex dish on the table, Gram lays the dough atop, gently guiding and molding it into the curve of glass. Within minutes apple slices mixed with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg are placed inside and Gram places a second pancake on top. After she pinches the edges closed, she helps Callie slice vents into the top with a butter knife.
“How long do you cook it?” Momma asks, index card in hand.
“Until it’s done.”
Momma releases an annoyed sigh, like air out of a balloon. “Really? Is that thirty minutes? Seven hours?”
Gram laughs. “If it takes seven hours, you’ve got a problem. Check the color—you want a light golden crust, and apple juice will bubble up. About an hour.”
Momma quickly writes this down then twists the knob on the timer. And in an hour it is done, and sweet apple smells fill the kitchen, and Callie reaches for the delicious smelling pie. Momma grabs her hand. “No! It will burn you,” she says sternly.
“It will indeed,” Gram agrees. So Callie waits.
Her family takes its time eating the baked chicken and rice dinner. Daddy keeps talking about “that damn Roosevelt” and a war overseas, but all Callie can think about is the pie. Finally, Momma places it on dining room table. The first slice goes to Daddy, who “Mmmms” when he takes a bite. The second goes to Gram, who says, “Not so big for me.” When the third slice is placed before Callie, she pricks it with her fork, and slides sweet tender apples and crisp golden crust into her waiting mouth. Nothing tastes better than this. Nothing.
“Crust’s a little tough,” Gram comments.
And with a barely hidden smile, Momma writes this on her index card.
With quick, nimble fingers, Callie peels and slices the apples (Granny Smith, because Momma didn’t bring home the Cortlands that she wanted) into a metal bowl. She glances up at the wall clock: only 3:00 P.M. She’ll have time to finish the pie, put the noodle casserole in the oven, and get dressed before Spence arrives. On their Zenith radio, Chuck Berry sings “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and Callie hums along. She’ll be sixteen in less than a year.
She’s never had Spence over for supper—or any other boy, for that matter—so she wants everything to be perfect.
Less-than-perfect little brother comes charging through the back door, smears of dirt across his face and t-shirt, plastic sword in hand. “Do you yield? Do you?” He points the sword at her as he repeats the words from the new Robin Hood movie, the first either of them had seen in color. Though with his uncombed red hair and freckles, Larry looks nothing like the handsome star Jon Hall.
“Take your mess out of this kitchen,” Callie responds, aware that she sounds exactly like Momma.
With his sword, he attacks the bowl of apples, lifts a slice onto the plastic blade, and tosses it out of the bowl.
“Larry! Stop it!” She slaps the sword away but he already has the piece of fruit in his mouth.
“I steal from the rich to give to the poor.” He sheathes the sword within his leather belt. He does this all the time—pretends he’s the lord of the forest and asks the world to treat him like one. “What times does the squire get here?”
“About six-thirty. You better be cleaned up by then.”
“When will the pie be ready?”
“It doesn’t matter when it’s ready. It won’t get served until after dinner.” She rises on her toes to tower over him, a subtle sister threat, which he ignores.
Larry snatches another bit of apple. “See you later, Milady.” He bows and hurries away with his stolen fruit.
Callie did not need Larry to be a pain in her butt on this particular day. She’d only been dating Spence for five weeks, the longest she’d dated anyone. When she told her best friend that Spence was coming over, she’d flushed like a Pink Lady apple with jealousy. But then she’d asked, “Y’all are serious?” and Callie started having doubts. What if Spence thinks having him meet her parents is rushing things? She adds water to the dough for the crust. What if Larry acts like a b-hole during dinner? She bangs a fist into the white lump. What if, after golf, Daddy stops at the Elk’s Club for a few drinks, which he often does, and comes home slurring his words? She flips the dough and pounds it again.
What if this is all just a big, stupid, typical Callie mistake?
No. It’s not. It can’t be. She kneads and squeezes and punches the mixture, and blops it onto the table.
The texture is wrong. When she presses the rolling pin—the one Gram gave her—the mixture does not stretch like bubble gum, but crumbles apart. This has never happened before. She pushes harder with the pin, but more white clumps break off and she feels panic like hummingbird wings inside her.
Spence is coming and her pie will be terrible.
Only one thing to do. She wipes her hands on the gingham apron and heads to the telephone in the hallway. Calling Gram in the middle of the day is expensive, and Momma will be furious, but what choice does she have? She sucks in a stuttery breath and dials the retirement home in Georgia.
She hears Gram’s loud breathing as she describes the problem. Gram has a bad heart and her arthritis has gotten so bad that her once strong hands curl into claws, but her mind is sharp as ever. Callie loves her almost more than her parents.
“You’ve overworked … the dough,” Gram says.
“What do I do?” Would she have to start over? Momma would be furious at the waste.
“Add a little water. Work it in slowly. Be gentle. It should give you the stretch back.”
“Does Sara know you called me?” Gram asks.
“No.” Guilt rings in Callie’s voice.
“Next time … reverse the charges.”
An hour later, Gram’s magic has worked. When Callie pulls the pie from the hot oven, the crust is the perfect shade of golden brown, and cinnamony steam escapes the vents. With a relieved sigh, Callie rests her masterpiece on the table, puts Momma’s casserole in the oven, and hurries upstairs to dress.
Later, they are all seated at the dinner table, Daddy in his green cardigan sweater, Larry in an almost-clean plaid shirt (his hair spit-slicked back), and Momma wearing her blue dotted Swiss dress and pearls. Callie wonders about Spence. He is not talking her ears off or giving her that cute wink like he usually does. He’s across the table, in his letter sweater that clashes with the blue t-shirt underneath it. Daddy hasn’t commented on Spence’s Levis, but Momma’s arched brows spoke volumes. It troubles her that Spence doesn’t look at her as he answers each question with a quick “yessum” or “yessir,” and that he keeps eyeing the front door.
Callie glares when Larry mimics the way Spence holds his fork (in a fist). “Do you like Momma’s chicken casserole?” she asks him.
His head jerks up. “Huh? Uhm … yeah. It’s real good.”
Momma pushes her plate away and reaches for her Marlboros. Momma looks elegant when she smokes: the cigarette balanced between two delicate fingers, her bright red lips puffing as though kissing the filter, blue threads of smoke rising over her head.
Daddy lowers his fork onto the empty plate.
Momma says: “Looks like we’re all through. Callie, you can clear the table.”
She hurries to collect the plates and takes them to the kitchen. Momma enters and says, “I’ll get the dessert plates,” and Callie reaches for the foil-covered pie.
She has imagined the moment all afternoon: she places the pie on the table, lifting the foil with a magician’s flourish, her family “Ahhhing” at the delicious sight. Spence says in astonishment, “You made this? It’s perfect!” as he beams at her. But this is not what happens. When she removes the foil, the pie is incomplete: someone has cut a piece. Someone has helped themselves to a wedge of this pie, and broken the crust along the side, and left a collapsed mess in the middle.
“Wha…. Who …” but she knows who. Larry busies himself with his milk as Momma hurries to slice the rest of the pie.
“How could you?” Callie explodes at her brother, smacking her hand against the table. “I told you it was for tonight.”
“Now Callie,” Momma says, sliding the plates around the table, “it’s not a big deal. There’s plenty left.”
Angry tears fill her eyes. Daddy hurriedly takes a bite. “Delicious, Peanut. Your best yet. Isn’t it good, Vince?”
“Who’s Vince? It’s Spence,” Larry says in a laugh.
She dares not look up at their guest. Her eye makeup must be trailing down her cheeks, her pie is ruined, and her brother is making fun of the boy she brought home to them.
“It’s good,” Spence says.
She blinks up in time to see him eat his piece in three massive bites. Couldn’t he even bother to taste it? Doesn’t he know how hard she worked to make it right?
Momma, who cut herself only a sliver of a slice, has finished hers, too, and reaches for the cigarettes again.
Spence pushes his plate aside. “Thanks for dinner, Mr. and Mrs. Brentwood. And Callie, your pie was great. But I need to get going.” He stands. Without so much as a glance at Callie, he leaves her to her broken pie and dirty dishes and a ruined life.
As the front door shuts, Daddy says, “Well, he was a nice young fella.”
“I suppose.” Momma puffs out a plume of smoke and squints at Callie. “I suppose he was.”
Callie holds the index card on her protruding stomach and tries to summon the energy to begin the pie. Everything is so hard now; she can’t even tie her own shoes, and she has three more weeks before the baby comes. When she sits at the table to cut the apples, she must sit with her belly to the side, an awkward bend in her arm to peel and slice, but she gets it done.
She looks around the tiny kitchen. Elvis croons on the radio. The refrigerator, bought at a used appliance store, barely fits beside the sink. The four-burner stove came with the house, but only three burners work. The small red metal table had come from Harold’s mom as a house-warming present. Callie’s parents gave them the GE toaster with adjustable settings; dry toast got her through five weeks of morning sickness.
The baby will sleep in their room for the first six months because the second bedroom needs a lot of work, which Harold promises to “get to” soon. He worries about the extra mouth to feed, but so far, they’ve managed. If only the radio station owner would give Harold a raise.
When her husband comes through the kitchen door, she has lunch waiting: a bologna sandwich, potato salad, and a tall glass of milk. He kisses her forehead, pats her tummy, and drops into the chair.
“How’s the pie coming?” he asks between slurps.
“I got the apples ready,” she says with a nervous laugh, wondering if she can stand long enough to tackle the dough. “How’s your day?”
Harold swipes the mustard from his mouth with the back of his hand. Will their baby have his full lips, his thick black hair?
“I’m still trying to get that Chevy dealer account. The owner says easy listening music sells more cars than rock ‘n’ roll.” Harold gestures with a triangle of sandwich. “He’s got this gorgeous Bel Air Sport Coupe—bright red and white—just came in. So I tell him it’s our generation that will buy a car like that. I tell him to picture James Dean behind the wheel of that car, because that’s who every man under thirty wants to be, cruising down the highway in a convertible.”
Does Harold imagine himself to be James Dean? Does he wish Callie was Natalie Wood, instead of a pale, lumpy hippo?
Harold continues: “But the guy’s pushing fifty. Probably thinks Chuck Berry is Satan.”
She fell in love with Harold over music. He worked in the record store and talked her into buying Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” A week later, he drove her to all the way to Atlanta to dance like maniacs in a rock ‘n’ roll club, and Momma nearly had a stroke. She knew then he’d be the man she would marry.
“What time is your mom coming over?” he asked.
“At four,” she says with a sigh. She hopes to have the pie ready by then. They have an hour and a half drive to the nursing home where Gram lives. Her weak heart has her bed-bound, and her vision is failing now, too, but her brain is sharper than a paring knife. She loves visitors, and this visitor is bringing pie.
“So you won’t be here for dinner.”
“There’s leftover chicken from last night. And potatoes. You can heat a can of green beans, too.” She meets his gaze, determined not to feel guilty.
“I may work late, anyway.”
“I should be home by eight thirty.” And in bed by eight thirty-five.
Harold carries his dishes to the sink and rinses them. She is grateful that Mrs. Valencia raised a son who actually does things around the house. “I better get back to the salt mine,” he says.
She waddles over to him. He bends over her stomach and says, “Okay, squirt. Be nice to Mommy. She has a long day ahead of her.”
She loves that he talks to the baby, like it’s already real and there in the center of their lives. Harold gives her a kiss and hurries out the door.
When Momma arrives, Callie has just rolled out the dough for the top crust. She has flour on her apron, maternity smock, and pants, and probably her hair. She had hoped the pie would be ready but Momma is almost an hour early, dressed in a linen sheath, patent pumps, and pearls. She looks at Callie with raised eyebrows.
“I’m running behind.” Callie’s voice is louder, trembling, because she’s lost control of her pie. “It’s okay if we go a little late, isn’t it?”
“We said four o’clock,” Momma berates. Her frown is familiar, but cuts deeper this time. “But I suppose Gram isn’t going anywhere. Do you want help?”
The offer is nothing more than a courtesy. Momma sits at the table and slides a cigarette from its pack.
“No. The apples are ready.” Callie struggles with the rolling pin. As she pushes into the dough, her weight shifts, the baby tilting her downwards, so she slides her left foot forward to regain her balance. Everything little God forsaken thing is harder in this pregnancy.Momma lights her Marlboro. Heat from the oven has Callie sweating as she rolls, huffs, rebalances herself and rolls again. The dough is not as thin as she’d like but it will do. She piles the apple mixture into the bottom crust, places the other sheet of dough on top, and pinches the edges closed.
After gliding the pie pan into the oven, Callie collapses in the chair. She needs to change clothes, but hasn’t the energy just yet.
Momma regards her as she puffs. “The last month is always the hardest. You think the first part, when you’re so sick, is, but it’s not.”
Callie remembers when Momma was pregnant with her brother. She had never looked like Callie feels—sweaty and red-faced and spent. She had looked calm, pink-cheeked, and attractively round. Elegantly pregnant.
“It was tougher when I had you,” Momma says. “You were my first. I didn’t know what to expect. I got so big.” She angles her mouth to blow smoke away. A gray cloud escapes like car exhaust. “Nearly as big as you.”
What if, after the baby comes, Callie can’t lose the weight? It happens to other women—that thickness in the middle, the extra chin, the comments from unkind neighbors that “she’s let herself go.”
“Labor was something else,” Momma adds. “I thought I’d crawl out of my skin.”
Callie touches her stomach, promising her unborn child to never hold birthing pains over her head.
“You were bald as an egg. I was so glad you were a girl. Most mothers want to have a son first, but not me.”
“Because I knew a girl would help me. From the time you were five, you knew how to make a bed and sweep a floor. My mother was the same with me.”
This house isn’t much to take care of, Callie reflects, yet it keeps her busy. She worries about sleepless nights with a crying infant, Harold complaining about needing rest for his work, the nursery never being completed despite Harold’s promise.
“Maybe you should get dressed,” Momma says. “I’ll keep an eye on your pie.”
Callie sucks in a breath and heaves herself out of the chair.
Two hours later she stands beside Gram’s adjustable bed. Gram’s gray hair is coming out of its bun; wisps like cobwebs frame her face. She wears a white night dress with a blue crocheted shawl around her knobby shoulders.
“Come here, child,” she says, as though Callie is still five years old and helping her in the kitchen.
Callie come closer, resting her hippo stomach on the edge of the mattress. Gram strokes the curve of her middle with her curled hand. “You’re carrying high. Probably a girl.”
“A girl.” Callie wonders if it’s true. Her neighbor insists it’s a boy because “you’re not wide, you’re more pooched out.”
Gram smiles. “Can’t wait to meet my great grandbaby.”
The door opens and an aide enters, carrying a tray.
“Callie made you an apple pie, Mother,” Momma says from her chair by the window. “I had the staff cut you a piece.”
The woman asks, “You want it now?”
“Not just yet. I’m not hungry.”
“Not hungry?” Momma frowns. “Callie worked hard on that pie.”
The aide places the slice of pie on the counter across the room. “Let me know when you’re ready,” she says, and leaves them
“It looks delicious,” Gram says.
Callie looks down at the clawed hand resting on her arm, its blue veins bulging. Knuckles the size of plums. How long has it been since Gram could straighten her fingers? Or grip a pencil? Or hold a fork? When she sees the firm line in Gram’s mouth as she glances at Callie’s mother, she understands.
Callie turns to Momma. “Why don’t you go on out back for a smoke? I just want a few more minutes with Gram.”
“I could use one.” Momma has the cigarette dangling from her lips before she reaches the door.
Once she’s gone, Callie takes Gram’s hand. “Do you want to try my pie? Maybe a bite?”
Gram’s eyes narrow and crinkle at the corners as she nods.
Callie brings the pie to the bed, carefully pries off a bite and balances it on the fork, which she places in her grandmother’s mouth. Gram chews and closes her eyes.
“You did good, Callie. It tastes just right.”
“Crust’s a little tough. I probably overworked the dough.” She readies another bite.
Gram opens her mouth like a baby bird and Callie imagines another mouth, a tiny hand curled for different reasons, pink petal lips smacking at the taste of fresh apple pie.
Her little girl.
“Pearline? Did you get the apple slices out of the freezer?” Callie finds her maid standing over the sink, which is filled with Gram’s sterling flatware. An open can of Wrights Silver Polish rests at her elbows. She buffs a dessert fork with a chamois rag.
“Yes ma’am.” Pearline cocks her head toward the kitchen table where three Tupperware containers await.
“Good.” Callie glances at the clock. “Margo will be home soon. I’ll get her to help me with the pies.”
Pearline’s brows lift but she doesn’t say anything. She has skin the color of toast. Her black hair is pulled back, held in place by a dozen bobby pins. She wears a plaid blouse half-tucked into a brown skirt.
Callie hadn’t wanted a maid, but Harold had insisted after they moved to the bigger house. “Everybody on this block has help. You should have it, too,” he had said, and she isn’t sure if his motive is more status than support for Callie. She has to admit, though, that Pearline has made her life much easier these past two years.
Callie sits at the table and reviews her list. Harold is to pick up the alcohol on his way home. The cheese straws and deviled eggs are ready. “Ham biscuits?” she asks Pearline.
“In the refrigerator.”
“Perfect.” She scrolls down the sheet. All the glassware has been cleaned in the dishwasher, the table linens still tumble in the dryer. They’ll need to be ironed, but she’s not mentioning that to Pearline until she’s done with the silver.
“I checked with Alfred about me staying to work the party,” Pearline says. “He can pick me up at ten. Would that be okay?”
Callie knows the party won’t be over until after midnight, and then comes clean-up, but she doesn’t want to push things with her help. “I suppose.”
Pearline adds, “I’ll be here first thing that next morning to help with the cleaning.”
“Thank you, Pearline. I really appreciate it.”
An hour later, the back door opens and Margo stomps in. She is fifteen going on thirty, irate about who-knew-what, though it’s probably the braces. She has Harold’s hair, black as a crow’s, and hums Carole King tunes during the few hours she’s in a good mood.
“Wash your hands,” Callie tells her. “We have four pies to make.”
“How many people are coming to this thing?” Margo asks.
“Harold invited all the sales staff. And of course his biggest clients.” This is what has her nervous. Ever since Harold purchased the radio station, and converted it to a complete rock ’n’ roll format, he’s wanted to celebrate, but why couldn’t he have done it at the country club?
“So how many is that?” Margo persists.
“Twenty-three.” Her voice catches in her throat.
“We are not making pies for twenty-three people. You have to be crazy, Mom. We should go buy Twinkies or something.”
“Your daddy loves my pie and this celebration is for him.” Though she has to admit, the idea of four pies is daunting. The most she’d ever made at once was three for a family reunion. She has a fleeting thought of purchasing from the local bakery but Harold would know the difference.
“What exactly is Daddy celebrating? It’s not his birthday.” Margo studies the fringe of her pigtail. She’s dressed in a tie-dyed shirt and blue jeans, the outfit Harold hates, with a leather string dangling from her wrist for no apparent reason.
“He won an award from the NAACP for that Gospel radio show he has on Sunday mornings. We’re the first AM radio station in South Carolina with integrated programming.” Callie glances over at Pearline, wanting her to smile or nod, to look impressed, but she simply wipes her hands on her apron and says she’s going to check the wash.
“Wonder what the NAACP would say about Pearline,” Margo says.
Callie closes her eyes and mentally counts to ten. “They’d probably say it’s good we hired her. We’re helping her provide for her family.”
“Don’t you think it’s hypocritical? I mean, Dad takes this award like he’s some civil rights maverick while his colored maid’s cleaning the toilet upstairs.”
“Margo!” Callie feels a hot burst of anger, like a balloon, that heats her cheeks and fingers and she imagines the sting of slapping her child.
“What?” Margo rolls her eyes while Callie struggles to collect herself, flattening her hand on the table. Margo will not misbehave at the party.
Her child drifts over to the cupboard for the flour, two bowls, and shortening. She assembles the dough with confidence, tossing shortening and salt and ice water into the mixture without measuring. She has always baked this way, with abandon, like her great grandmother, while Callie’s approach is cautious hesitancy, even after twenty-four years of making pie.
When Callie pulls the rolling pin from the drawer, she clutches the faded red handles and thinks of Gram in the kitchen of Momma’s old house, her crinkled hands working the dough. Gram has been dead eight years but holding her rolling pin is like holding her hand again and she feels a rush of love. Why had she always felt closer to Gram than her own mother?
Margo doesn’t bother with an apron, so flour speckles the blue and rust target on her shirt. Callie hopes Margo escapes this tie-dye phase soon; she does not need another Saturday afternoon of giant pots boiling on the stove, shirts and kerchiefs knotted and dipped, dye dripped on the floor between the stove and the sink.
“Do we have more shortening?” Margo asks.
Callie retrieves the new can from the pantry and opens it with the electric can opener. When Gram made pies, she had used lard, separating clumps with her fingers to knead into the flour. Shortening had been Callie’s single change to the old recipe.
The phone rings; Callie’s mother asks how things are going. “We’re working on the pies now,” Callie says.
“This isn’t a dinner party, is it? Why on earth are you making pies?”
Callie gives a nervous glance to the project on the table. “I thought we’d have dessert.”
“Petit fours, maybe, but you don’t serve pie at a cocktail gathering!”
Callie can hear the tsk-ing of her mother’s tongue and feels like a fool.
Momma continues. “But it’s your party. I’ll get there early to help with last minute things.”
As Callie hangs up the phone, she wonders if she should abort the pie making. She can run to the bakery for petit fours. Will she look like an idiot serving apple pie to twenty-eight people?
Margo sprinkles Gram’s rolling pin with flour and presses it into the dough. She rolls, pats, rolls again, and soon her crust is perfectly pancake-thin. Gram is here, Callie thinks, in the rolling pin, in Margo’s confident hands, in the pies about to be made.
Gram is here.
And twenty-three people will savor the taste of her apple pie.
Callie sits on the bed, still wearing the black dress and pumps, though the jacket she’s draped across the pillows. She can hear people arriving downstairs. She just needs a few minutes alone.
She is tired of death. Momma’s funeral ended the five months of watching her suffer. Daddy’s death years ago had been sudden: a heart attack at his desk and he was gone. But Momma’s battle with lung cancer had been all-out war: chemo and radiation that took her hair and made her skeletal. In the last weeks, a desperate hunger for air left her rasping and breathless, but still, she fought to hang on.
She’d always been so strong.
That last night, Callie had kissed her papery forehead and promised to see her in the morning. She’d gone home and drawn herself a bath. The call came before she removed her robe. Harold drove Callie back to the hospital where the staff had asked if she wanted to see her. Callie wishes now she hadn’t said yes, hadn’t seen Momma’s face before the funeral home had taken her, seen her mouth open, eyes milky, skin nearly gray—an image that remained in her mind.
Callie wraps her hand around Momma’s pearls. She wants to remember the Momma who wore them at dinners and holidays, always confident, elegant, and in control. The Momma who’d been prettier than the bride on Callie’s wedding day. The Momma who insisted Margo call her “Grandmother” rather than “Grandma.”
The door inches open and Harold slips in. He’s removed his suit jacket and loosened his tie. His hair, streaked with white, lies meticulously in place, though more forehead shows now. When he comes to her, and slides an arm around her shoulders, she smells his citrusy aftershave and salty sweat.
“You okay, honey?” he asked.
She looks in the mirror at the two of them. The pearls gleam like a string of moons on her neck. His touch is no comfort, but she says nothing. Her grief is an island. She’s been alone in tending to her mother. Alone in planning the funeral. Her brother Larry didn’t even arrive until the arrangements were made. And Harold—he only went to the hospital three times because he hates being around sick people, and it makes her wonder what would happen should she ever need him.
“Do you—uh—plan on coming down anytime soon?”
“Yes.” But not yet. She needs a few minutes on her island.
“Margo has things handled in the kitchen. She’s serving all that food people keep bringing over. What is about funerals and casseroles?” He huffs out a little laugh.
“People being thoughtful.” She eyes the door.
“Okay then. See you in a few minutes?”
She nods, and he leaves, closing the door with a muted click.
Callie’s gaze travels to the pictures on the dresser: Margo as a teenager at the lake, laughing in front of a smooth puddle of blue. The other photo, more recent: a wide-eyed Margo, a hand around each of her young sons, a look of incredulity that she had responsibility for these new souls. “I’m sorry, Mom,” she once said, “I had no clue motherhood was so damn hard.”
The sound of the doorbell reminds her of the guests downstairs. Momma would want her to be the proper hostess and Callie won’t disappoint her. Not today.
As she descends the stairs, the conversation lulls, and it feels like a hundred pairs of eyes fix on her. She tries a little smile that says, I’m fine, really, and Harold guides her to the living room.
She should help Margo in the kitchen. She should stay at the door and welcome the visitors. There so many people to thank and … Tiny hands wind around her knees, halting her mid-stride. Martin Devereaux, grandchild number two, peers up at her and grins. “Gram Callie!”
“How’s my monkey?” She lays a hand on his blond head.
“Gots a surprise for you,” he answers, tugging at her hand.
“Leave your grandmother alone.” Margo appears, holding the hand of grandchild number one, Andy, named for Margo’s husband.
“Gots a surprise!” Martin repeats.
Margo points at the yellow chair by the fireplace. “You sit, Mom. It’s been a long day. Hell, a long few months.”
She should chastise her daughter for cursing except Margo is right. “I really should…” but she drops into the chair and glances at the sea of butts around her. Martin pats the black fabric of her dress.
“Come on, Martin. Let’s get Gram Callie something to eat,” Margo says, scooting her boys away, but Callie isn’t hungry.
Her mother never told Callie she loved her until a few weeks ago. Callie had helped her with supper, and supported her on the slow, sliding trip to the bathroom, and returned her to bed, retying the uneven strings to her hospital gown, and Momma said, “I love you.”
Callie knows this. Sometimes.
A red plastic cup is shoved in her hand. “I can slip in some bourbon if you want,” her brother Larry whispers.
She shakes her head. Bourbon is more his answer to things than hers. He sits on the coffee table which she hopes is stable enough to hold him. He has Daddy’s jowly face, Momma’s small nose, but his girth came from neither parent. “You doing alright, Sis?”
She sees that he is looking all around, in that fidgety, Larry way.
“Don’t you mean, Milady?”
Her answer seems to startle him. “Huh?”
“That whole summer when you were Robin Hood.”
A smile quivers on his lips. He clears his throat. “I was a little shit, wasn’t I?”
He sips from his own red cup. “I thought she’d live forever.”
Momma had tried so hard to do just that. “Nobody does.”
“No.” Larry sighs as he stands, looks down at her. “Just hope I go before you.”
She wonders at this comment but before she can ask, he’s moved on. Child-giggles erupt and two little boys enter again, one carrying a plate balanced in tiny hands like it’s a crown on a pillow.
“What’s this?” she asks Martin.
“We made it!” Martin puts the plate on her lap.
“You did?” Callie squeezes him, and his brother, two arms around the future. On the plate there’s golden crust, apple slices bathed in syrup, the scent of cinnamon wafting up.
“I’ll get you something else,” Margo says. “There’s macaroni and ham—but the boys wanted you to have this.”
With a dessert fork, she breaks off a bite.
“Marty is really in to baking,” Margo continues with a laugh. “I mean, really into it. Andrew’s trying not to act concerned.”
“I patted the dough.” Martin pats her dress. “It was squishy.”
Callie tastes the pie. The apples cooked just right—not too mushy or firm. The delicate flakes of crust. “You used Cortlands,” she says.
“Like my mom taught me,” Margo answers.
Martin pushes the plate away and climbs into Callie’s lap. She rests her chin on his head as she feeds him a bite. And it is in this moment—this tiny, wonderful moment—that she feels comforted.
Callie stares into the large ceramic bowl and can’t remember. Did she put it two cups of flour? Or just one? She looks at the index card. The Morton’s Salt container is right there on the table but has she added it? She’s put in the shortening, she can see it in lumps in the dough. As she digs her fingers in the mixture, the feel is off. Did she forget the water, too?
Her mind is like this now. Memories jumbled like clothes in a dryer. Harold puts Post-it notes around the house: brush your teeth. Take this medicine when you get up. Lock the front door. Turn off coffee maker. It makes her mad; does he think her an imbecile? But then she does forget the medicine and the chain lock on the door and … what was she doing?
It definitely needs water. She reads Momma’s notes on the card and measures out four tablespoons which she dumps them in the bowl. She squeezes and presses to mix shortening and flour and water, though her hands aren’t as strong as they used to be. Margo is coming with her family, and she wants to surprise them with this dessert. Her daughter has always loved surprises.
When she plops the dough onto the table, she remembers she was supposed to add water, so she dribbles in four spoonfuls. But now the mixture clings to her fingers and smears into the creases of her palm and has texture of bubble gum. Something’s wrong.
Callie sits and studies hands. Gram’s had curled like claws in her last years.
Why are her fingers covered with white stuff?
The back door opening startles her. Harold comes in, moving like a rickety old man. Still has his hair, a wispy white on his head. “I got Pearline home. What are you doing, honey?”
“I was … I was …” She fights a flutter of panic then spots the bowl. “Making a pie.”
“I see. Why?”
“Because Margo’s coming over tonight. That’s what you said, right?”
“Right. But you don’t have to cook. They’re bringing dinner over, remember? For our anniversary?”
“Oh.” Another memory lost in the sieve of her brain.
He sits and takes her dough-covered hand. “Do you remember how long?”
How long? “The pie takes an hour in the oven.” She is proud that she recalls this. Once Momma got frustrated when Gram wouldn’t say how long a pie takes. Momma never made a good pie.
“No, I mean how long we’ve been together. Fifty-four years, honey. We’ve been married for fifty-four years.” He kisses her fingers. A glob of dough remains on his lip. She tries to brush it away but more comes off, covering his mouth, and they laugh.
He stands, still gripping her hand. “Let’s get you cleaned up. You’ll want to be pretty for the kids.”
When they come, they fill the living room. They are laughing and toasting Callie and Harold with drinks. She recognizes Margo, so pretty in her blue scarf, her arm around a gray- haired man Callie should know. The others, too—she should know them but doesn’t. They introduce themselves but the names vanish before she can catch them.
Children make a racket at the dining room table. A little boy crawls under a chair, a blond-haired girl pulls a flower from a vase. A man approaches her. He has gray eyes like Daddy. Behind him is another man, olive-skinned, with a goatee. The man with Daddy’s eyes says, “Gram Callie? I’m Martin. Remember me?”
She likes his dimpled grin.
“And I’m Phillip,” the other man says. “We met … a time or two before.”
Marty stoops down in front of her. “I want to show you something. It’s silly really but—”
“It’s not silly,” the other man insists.
“But here,” Martin thrusts something in her hand: a thick frame with a blue ribbon in the middle. There’s a photo, too, of a golden brown, glistening pie.
“Martin won first prize in the state fair,” the other man says.
“It’s not a big deal.” Martin says. “But really, Gram Callie, you won this. It’s your recipe after all.”
“My recipe,” she repeats. She thinks of Gram’s strong hands pounding the dough, flour puffing up around them. Of a young man coming to dinner, Callie’s pie ruined by a sneaky brother. Of feeding warm pie to Gram, her mouth opening like a baby bird’s to take a bite. Of teen-aged Margo elbow-deep in pie dough and ranting about civil rights. Of retying the strings on Momma’s hospital gown. Of the smell of a little boy’s head when he climbed in her lap for pie. Tiny moments that remain.
In the people gathered around her, she sees Momma’s strong chin and Gram’s gentle smile. If only she could remember the names, but her thoughts cloud like billows of flour, like fairy dust.