Mrs. Carmichael’s Best
by Shaun Hayes
The old woman expected as much. Whole town knew for decades that Hattie Carmichael would have a pie in every category. The last time she had done less was her first entry. She was just eight years old then, and she’d stood on a wooden stool in the kitchen to craft her first big winner: lemon meringue. But that sort of thing didn’t fly anymore, it seemed. Out with old, in with the tawdry.
Tina leaned out over Hattie’s table, bosoms fighting with each other for attention, and said, “Just between us, Hattie, what did you make this year? Everybody’s dying to know.”
Hattie shook her head. “You’ll find out when you come on back after the judging starts. Now scoot before you pop out of that dress, for Chrissakes.”
Tina gaped and pressed a palm to her cleavage. After a beat of tense silence, she glanced over at Daryl and laughed, an obnoxious tinkling titter that set Mrs. Carmichael’s teeth on edge. “Hattie, you are absolutely precious. Isn’t she, Daryl?”
Hattie was sure she saw Daryl wiggle his nose self-consciously before he squeezed out a tight smile and said, “She sure is something.”
The young couple blathered a bit more about the competition, lied about the amount of luck they hoped would shine down on Mrs. Carmichael, and finally wandered off, just barely keeping their hands from each other’s tender parts in front of all the squealing kids and schnauzing couples.
Hattie, left alone at last, opened the closest pie box. Hints of rich roasted coffee; a twist of sour cherry and the sweet promise of dark chocolate wafted out. And nothing else. Just right. Mocha Cherry Surprise. The product of days — days — of painstaking work. Precise measurements taken dozens upon dozens of times to be sure her ultimate recipe was precisely what she wanted, each step agonized over night after sleepless night.
It had been nearly impossible to find anything to cut the incredibly bitter smell from the filling. The old woman’s will finally broke late into the third night, and she’d collapsed into a fitful sleep.
The next morning, Mrs. Carmichael woke to the acrid scent of burnt coffee. And the answer suddenly seemed obvious. Don’t mask the bitterness. Change it. Shift it to something familiar and make it sweet, sweet, sweet.
Then no one will be able to tell.
The bell clanged inside the pavilion. Wade stepped into the sun, waving the hand bell around, sweating under his ridiculous straw boater and winking at everything that moved. It was noon, then: the contest was afoot. Entrants had ten minutes to make any final touches on their submissions and bring their pies over for tasting and judgment.
Nervous laughter drifted over the splashing and chatter. A legion of strollers squeaked as the crowds drifted in for the main event. Mrs. Carmichael squinted down at her creation. The latticework was exquisite, even by her veteran standards — the right angles crisp and clean as a pressed suit. The filling was darker than any she’d ever made, the texture closely resembling shoofly with all the bits of ground beans sparkling in the little shaft of light.
“Time to show them,” Hattie mumbled, slipping the lid closed and smoothing down her long skirt before carefully lifting the box. On her way to drop off her creation, Mrs. Carmichael scanned the other tents, saw townsfolk she’d handily defeated year after year scamper like lost children around their inferior submissions, squirting whipped cream onto flat and uninspired pastry.
Many of the more-tenured contestants stared at Mrs. Carmichael as she tottered past, calves pulsing in her support hose. She saw pity in a few of their faces. Arrogant grins on more than a handful. And not a bit of respect. Not one jot.
She watched several younger women high-step their way to the submission table ahead of her, deposit boxes onto tables marked out for each category and then rush to Tina’s tent where they jabbered and giggled. They in their flouncy, deep-cut blouses and their professionally-tended, shimmering fingernails.
Most of Hattie’s old friends — tough-as-nails ladies of a time when baking meant more than clickety-click on some computer and learning a recipe quick-as-you-please — were dead and gone. Felt like most of these people were waiting for Hattie to hurry up and drop dead herself.
Make room, Hattie. Take your turn, Hattie. Fine day for a dirt nap, eh, Hattie?
At the pavilion, Hattie pushed her way past a clot of rank children and searched the “Specialty” pie table for the taped-off square with her name on it. She found it — positioned, of course, at the far left of the table, in a spot that would be snug for a cupcake — and deposited the box of Mocha Cherry Surprise next to Mrs. Egan’s absurd “Marshmallow Fluff’n’Stuff.”
Taking a moment to catch her breath, Hattie peered at the other entry tables, noticing little to be appreciated. She limped to the overcrowded “Fruit Pie” section — her sciatica scoring her back like a boning knife — and gasped. Front and center was a bright yellow box adorned with butterflies, balloons and, scrawled in looping glitter: Tina Statham’s Famous “Pie Love You” Lemon Meringue Pie.
The box was open. And empty.
Hattie looked over at the officials’ table and saw the collection of fat-bottomed judges — Mayor Wade’s awful suit tucked right in their midst — forking glowing yellow mouthfuls into their heads and beaming at one another. Several of the First Methodist busybodies were scribbling on scorecards. They hadn’t even rung the bell signaling the start of judging and the town’s pretty little angel was already on her way to a second undeserved crown.
And the tart was claiming fame — fame! — for lemon meringue of all flavors.
Hattie put a hand to her chest. Took three deep breaths. Reminded herself she expected as much. Now she could rest easy, at least.
Ignoring the pincers in her joints and the web of fire in her spine, Hattie Carmichael struggled back to her tent, head held high against the pain. The indignity. Back behind her worktable — having been knocked aside without apology by several squeaking biddies and their late entries — Hattie opened the rest of her boxes.
Inside, each pie was perfect, identical to the one she’d taken up to be dismissed in honor of Tina’s lemon meringue injustice. She opened a box of plastic spoons and forks, dumped the utensils on the stack of paper plates she’d brought from home and settled, as comfortably as possible, into her lawn chair. She closed her eyes and thought of Harold; how he’d puff out his lips about now, tell Hattie it didn’t matter who won, as long as they got home before the mad rush of wild drivers filled the road.
Well, that won’t be a problem this year, Hattie thought, and couldn’t help but chuckle. Amidst the din of the fair, she picked up a sniffle close by, heard the flat rustle of grass under approaching feet. She kept her eyes closed, though, held to her private joke with her Harold.
Copyright © 2013 by Shaun Hayes