Mrs. Carmichael’s Best
by Shaun Hayes
The sun bloomed lemon-bright over Fountain Hill, chasing away all but the most promising clouds the morning of the town’s 112th Annual Pie Festival. The fairgrounds sloped out of the nearby woods and spread across several grassy acres of colorful bunting, banners and tents before sweeping down to the lake. At water’s edge, the bristling piers were filled with two-dollar a ride dinghies and a few stocky pontoon boats drumming lazily against their moorings.
Families meandered around tables, tents and game booths, heads bobbing in time to polka music. They passed paper plates back and forth, sampling pies and touching arms. Children fussed and laughed and cried, their mouths neon shades of filling and fruit juice. Sunbeams streamed through the tallest oaks and maple trees at the forest edge, festooning the nearby pie-contest tents with kaleidoscopic leaf shadows.
Mrs. Carmichael’s tent, as the old woman noted loudly and repeatedly, squatted just outside the shade and was buffeted with dank lakeside air instead of the fine-smelling forest breeze the other ladies — and the handful of oddball men who’d started joining in recently — were treated to.
The tents were arranged in a horseshoe around the large central pavilion, and Mrs. Carmichael — rather than being given her customary honor spot in the dead-center of the arc — had been shunted to the very last tent on her side. It was, she thought, nothing short of a travesty, a slap in the face to her decades of slavish and thankless work.
The center spot this year was for Tina Statham. Young, fresh, Tina. Tina with the kindergarten class so happy with their new out-of-towner teacher. Tina with the tarty gold hair grown down to her backside like some kind of hippie. Tina with the single entry last year — Mango Chili Crumb, the harlot — that just stole the show.
Ken Wade, the deputy mayor, leaned on Mrs. Carmichael’s table, his tweed-sleeved elbow perched between two of Hattie’s new secret-recipe pies. He stared out at the milling townsfolk, sporting a satisfied grin.
“This,” the old woman said, jabbing a finger at the blue “Event Coordinator” pin tacked to his straw hat, “is as big a goddamned disgrace to my sixty years of participating in this festival as I could ever fathom.”
Wade’s smile grew, both rows of little pebble teeth on display. He said, “Nothing to be done, I’m afraid,” and reminded Mrs. Carmichael that, with the exception of the past year’s Best Pie In Show winner, the tent assignments were selected at random. “Can’t win ‘em all, Hattie, but from the smell of things here, I’ll bet you have every bit a chance as little Ms. Statham this year.”
Mrs. Carmichael swatted Wade’s elbow from her table. “There ought to be a better way. Some consideration for tradition. For people,” she said, straightening up as much as her bones would permit, “with a history of winning.”
Wade brushed something from his jacket and sighed. “Well I’ll see what I can do. I surely will,” he said and shuffled off to schmooze with the Biedermans, who’d trundled over with their double-wide stroller full of sticky pink babies. He pulled a handful of balloons from a cart and started making an idiotic fuss over the lot of them.
Mrs. Carmichael sank back, creaking, into her chair. Things had gone straight to hell since Harold went and keeled over. Mornings, the bus-stop brats took turns wandering through her yard until she had to come out waving her cane and, sometimes, toss a few crabapples at their heads. Evenings she had to turn Wheel up so loud it made her head ache just so she didn’t have to hear the young couple next door futzing with landscaping that was fine already, having been shaped and cared for by more decent folk in years past.
And now she’d been stuck in the darkest, coldest corner of the fairgrounds. And it smelled like hotdogs passed as gas over here. Hattie glared at the knot of teenagers — a few boys, shirtless and peacock-proud — standing on the longest dock, throwing things into the lake and guffawing like a pack of fools. She chewed the inside of her cheek and turned, muttering, to the row of multi-colored ribbons lining the back wall of her tent.
This was the second festival Mrs. Carmichael was attending without Harold. She clucked her tongue and straightened the red “First Place!” ribbon from the last one they’d spent together. He’d stood, like always, in the back corner of her tent, wrinkling his nose at the heat, batting at flies while he bent to whatever task Hattie found to keep him busy.
She’d made his favorite last summer: strawberry rhubarb, as her centerpiece. Until this year she never worked harder on a pie. Did the whole thing in memory of big, dumb, toothless Harold who passed on so damned fast. And didn’t it figure that going sentimental landed her not a prize at all — had, in fact, allowed the First Valley Methodist snipes to “randomly” banish her to the rankest tent in town?
This year her plan was simpler. Selfish, maybe — well, selfish surely but where in heck did thinking of others get her? And if anything was ever clear to Hattie Carmichael, mother of six kids all run off to big city life, retired typist and candy crafter and homemaker, it was that the time of considering the feelings of others was long past.
“Sure smells like heaven over here, Mrs. Carmichael,” said a voice so thick with honey it turned Hattie’s stomach. She responded without turning.
“Miss Statham, you’d best scoot over to that winner’s tent o’yours, yep. Don’t want folks nosing around and finding out your secrets now, do you?”
Pretty, perfect Tina cleared her throat. “Well I came to make sure and wish you luck, Mrs. Carmichael. Maybe, you know,” a tinkling laugh on top of that slathered-on sweetness, “get some pointers from someone who’s been around this a lot longer than me and what is that smell? It’s out of this world.”
Hattie turned and saw Tina, her sundress clinging every which where, a thumb under a pie box lid, shyly easing it open. “Shoo, shoo outta there with you,” the old woman said, batting her wasted arms, sweeping Little Miss Perky Chest away from the display, “Don’t you got yourself anything better to do than nose around bothering everybody?”
Tina’s mouth dropped and the lank summer breeze raised a question mark of blonde hair over the young woman’s head as she moved away from Hattie’s display table.
Mrs. Carmichael crossed her arms. “Now, wait,” she said, and when Tina turned back the old woman softened her face as best she knew how. “Once the judges get their share, you come on back and I promise a big old slice just for you.” She smiled and felt atrophy in her face.
Tina grinned. “Well, alright. We’ll go ahead and trade. Maybe learn something from each other, you never know.”
Hattie clenched her teeth, hoped the twitch in her cheeks wasn’t visible across the space of the tent. “Never do,” she said.
Tina bit her lip and then, her doe eyes alight with excitement, said, “I did a pie for every category this year. Even whipped up a macaroni and cheese pie for the Savory category, can you believe it? It just came to me one night and I couldn’t resist!”
Before Hattie could think of a better answer than spitting on Tina’s sparkly flip-flops, Daryl Hendrick, the gym teacher at Fountain Hill Elementary, came chuckling his way through the milling crowds, all cologne and swagger. Time was, Daryl was one of the brats Hattie chased from her yard. One blustery morning, Hattie had landed a crabapple right in the middle of his smirking face and sent him bawling all the way home. From then on, he wisely kept his distance from Hattie. At least until today.
A hip jauntily braced against one of Mrs. Carmichael’s tent supports, Daryl slung an arm around Tina’s waist.
Oh, of course, Hattie thought behind her vise-grip smile.
“Miss Statham,” he said, chest puffed out, “You are wanted over at the winners’ circle.” His beaming faltered under Hattie’s attention and his eyes flicked to the ground before he met her gaze. “Fine kind of day, Mrs. Carmichael, isn’t it?”
“Fine,” Hattie said, nodding, “Just fine.”
Truth was, the wet air over here in the dark was creeping into Mrs. Carmichael’s skin, grinding down into her joints and making this day long already, but no way Hattie was mentioning any such thing. She wasn’t giving these snots the damned satisfaction.
Daryl lifted his nostrils at the line of boxes on Hattie’s table and asked, “One for all six categories like always, huh, Mrs. C.?”
“No,” Hattie said. “If you must know, I only brought one flavor this year. Just made a lot of it, yep.”
Daryl jerked his head back. He looked more dumbfounded than usual.
Copyright © 2013 by Shaun Hayes