As American As Apple Pie
by E. J. Pace
Jenny’s brow furrowed in momentary confusion. The long, dangling apple peel had broken. The stains in the porcelain sink were hidden by the moist coils of the four apples she had already pared, which were beginning to blush as they drained on the linoleum countertop. From above the kitchen cabinets, in the dark recesses near the ceiling, Jenny’s mother’s accusing voice seemed to echo from the shadows:
“The good cook pares an unbroken skin,
Or else the pie sours in the tin!”
Jenny finished peeling the fifth apple, not bothering to try and keep the rest of the skin in one piece. She hated the way her mother could still intimidate her, even from the grave. She had told herself, just this morning, her mother had been dead now for nearly eight months and maybe her meanness had left the house, too, like her body had. But she guessed that would take a while longer.
Longer! She’d lived with her mother and Walter for thirty-seven years. That should be enough for anybody to have to put up with, in one lifetime.
Placing the apples one at a time on a cutting board, Jenny began to cut them into quarters and then into eighths. Her mother had insisted she and Walter live here with her, from the day they got married. So she could make sure Jenny was “more secure,” she said.
Walter didn’t object and, at the time, Jenny thought he was being easy to get along with. It didn’t take her long to find out differently. He was just plain lazy. And mean as a snake. He didn’t want the responsibility of her by himself, with her spells and all. Or of having to take care of a place of their own.
Jenny’s three sisters had all married and moved out of town by then. And right after she and Walter got married, her mother came down with the rheumatism, real bad. Walter had made her feel guilty after that, for whispering she wished they could leave. Back in those days, she had thought she could talk to Walter, but that soon proved to be impossible, too.
With the tip of a paring knife, Jenny began to flick the apple seeds out of the cores, placing them aside in a neat line. Her whole life had become impossible, when she stopped and thought about it. She had become her mother’s nurse and Walter’s doormat. And their cook and maid.
Jenny’s eyes narrowed into slits as her mind worked its clouded way over the past thirty-seven years. Walter and her mother had played with her, just as she remembered her father playing with the bass in the river, when he teased ’em with a night crawler on the end of his hook. When one of ’em was on a toot and demanding too much of her, the other one was sweet as pie.
Pie. Jenny glanced nervously at the clock over the stove and began slicing the apples into the piecrust draped in the tin. Usually she made two pies at the same time, but this one was special, and she wanted to give it her undivided attention. For years she had believed that one day Walter would have a steady job and one day her mother would notice how much she, Jenny, had done for her and, at least, say something nice about it.
But Walter had gone from one job to another all his live-long life and in between real jobs had pretended to help “Miz Murphy” — he had called Jenny’s mother by that name since the day they met — with work around the house and in the vegetable garden. He couldn’t do piddledy-squat by himself.
Jenny snorted to herself as she remembered how he had, ever’ single time, hollered for her to hand him the hammer, or the screwdriver, or push the wheelbarrow around to the back, or hold the fence posts up straight while he tightened the wire, or help him pick the beans and corn and then she was the one who had to clean up behind him and shuck the peas and the corn and snap the beans. And then do all the cooking.
And the ironing nearly killed her. Especially when her mother yelled at her because she said the sheets were too “wrinkledy” and made her joints ache at night. And neither her mother nor Walter had ever picked up a towel off the bathroom floor.
Jenny began to get a little dizzy, just thinking about all the years of waiting on those two. Her three sisters hadn’t been any help, either. No siree, not those smart cookies! They had come for visits and sat there in the parlor, twitching themselves all around on the horsehair sofa telling Mama how good she looked and then, in the same breath, sighing with self-pity about how hard their lives were, what with their families and all.
One of ’em had four kids, another had two, and the oldest had adopted twins. You’d a’thought they had signed on for life imprisonment, to hear them tell it. And ever’ time Jenny tried to speak up for herself and get one of ’em to take Mama home with them for a visit, just a short visit, why, they thought of a million and one reasons why Mama was so much better off here, even with Jenny’s “problem.”
They said Jenny’s “problem” was a blessing, ’cause she was always so “sweet-tempered.” Shoot. They weren’t fooling Jenny. It got to where she was glad when they stopped coming around three or four times a year. All they did was eat, complain, and then leave without ever helping Jenny clean up after them.
Jenny had hardly said three words to any of ’em at Mama’s funderal, and they were glad to hurry away when it was over. They had all spoken honey-dripped words of sympathy for Jenny because she had been the one to find Mama dead at the bottom of the stairs. And she’d kept her eyes down and sniffled into her handkerchief the whole time. Nobody knew she was trying to keep from laughing. And now, at last, Walter would be out of the way, too. Very shortly.
Jenny pushed the filled pie shell off to one side and probed around in the shelves of a lower cupboard. The nested pots and pans clattered in protest as she lifted the heavy food grinder out of its resting place from the rear of the crowded shelf. Attaching it to the end of the countertop, she twisted the vise beneath it, tightening it securely.
She reached into the pantry and tugged two slices of bread from the cellophane wrapper, forcing them through the grinder. As she turned the handle, the compressed curls of bread oozed from the opening, bringing with them bits of rust-colored sediment and the dried remains of a dead roach. She poked at the roach’s legs with her finger and wondered where its head was, then promptly forgot about it. When the last of the bread emerged clean, Jenny knew the grinder was ready.
Scooping the dirty pieces of bread into her wrinkled palm, she dropped them into a paper sack along with the apple parings then stuffed the sack into an already overflowing garbage can near the back door. Excitement flushed her cheeks. Wiping her hands down the front of her apron, she placed a bowl under the mouth of the grinder and carefully, almost tenderly, dropped the seeds into the maw of the chopper, studiously watching them disappear into the dark hole.
Then she ducked her frizzled white head back under the counter-top to peer into the farthest recesses of the lower cabinet. She hummed to herself as she rummaged around, then an involuntary squeal of pleasure escaped her lips as she pulled out the object of her search: a quart jar, three-quarters full of black apple seeds, from countless apples, from countless pies. These, too, she fed into the grinder, turning the handle apprehensively, as if she were afraid the seeds might not come out like she had hoped during all these months of saving and planning. She sighed with relief as the ground seeds emerged a beautiful crunchy mass, brownish-black in color, almost identical in appearance to chopped pecans.
A faint line of perspiration formed on Jenny’s soft, white mustache as she finished grinding up the rest of the apple seeds. Unscrewing the grinder from the counter, she rinsed it out and replaced it, still dripping, back in the cupboard, shutting the door with her knee.
Moving quickly now, she mixed brown sugar, white sugar, cinnamon and bits of raw dough in a large bowl, then dumped the ground-up seeds on top and blended the ingredients together with her fingers. She patted the topping into the cast iron skillet on the front burner and lowered the gas flame to its smallest size. Then she patted the raw apple slices waiting on the counter and slid the pie into the warm oven, setting the timer for 40 minutes.
The kitchen filled with the spicy aroma of cinnamon, and Jenny busied herself cleaning off the drainboard while the pie baked. She couldn’t resist peeking at it twice. Four minutes before the timer rang, she took it out and turned off the burner under the skillet. Crushed apple seeds browned much faster than chopped pecans, and she smiled with pride as she scooped the browned topping onto the pie itself, pressing it firmly all around the edges.
The back door slammed as Walter stormed into the kitchen, letting his dripping raincoat slide to the floor and banging his lunch pail on the table.
“You old witch! I’ve tol’ ya’ a hunnert’ times, don’t ever gimme no more baloney sanwiches. Couldn’t eat the damn things. And now I’m starved. Didja’ git my beer?”
“Yes, Walter. In the fridge.” Jenny kept her voice low and quiet.
“Well, well! The retard did somethin’ right, for a change! And I did somethin’ right today, too! I quit that ball-bustin’ job with Old Man Jenkins. We got us enough money from Miz Murphy’s insurance for me to take it easy for a while. I’m wore out.” Walter finished his beer in one gulp and opened another. “What’s that you’re cookin’, dummy? That one of your so-called famous pecan-apple pies?”
“Yes, Walter. For... for the bake sale. At church. Tomorrow.” Jenny heard the lie come out just like she’d rehearsed it. Soft and apologetic.
“How come you didn’t make one for me, too, like you usually do?” Walter sidled over to the drainboard and leaned over the pie, sniffing.
“Guess... guess I forgot?”
“God, I don’t know how I’ve stood it so damn long with somebody as dim-witted as you. Well, the hell with the bake sale. I’m hungry.”
Walter removed a large butcher knife from the hanging rack and began to slice the pie.
“Shut up. Your pie won’t be missed. You can just tell ’em you got the days mixed up, like you do most of the time anyhow. And don’t gimme none of your garbled talk tonight, either.” Walter took a huge bite of the pie, put a large slice on a saucer and stomped off into the parlor. Jenny heard him flick on the television set and knew by the sound of the creaking springs he’d sat down in his chair. Then she heard him belch and listened to the sound of the fork hitting against the plate. Her eyes sparkled with delight and she covered her mouth with her hand, trying to control a tremulous smile.
“This one ain’t as good as you usually make, but at least it’s better’n baloney. Bring me another piece, old woman, and make it snappy!”
“Yes, Walter.” Jenny reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a threadbare newspaper clipping. It was so yellowed and frayed she could barely make out the words, but that didn’t matter. She couldn’t understand most of the larger ones anyway, but she had them memorized. She stared at the clipping, mouthing the sentences rapidly, as if they were her sacred mantra.
“INGESTION OF APPLE SEEDS PROVES FATAL. An elderly gentleman, whose strange habit it was to save apple seeds, died recently from cyanide poisoning as a result of eating several ounces of apple seeds while watching television. A jar of peanuts and an apple core were found on the coffee table, next to a jar of apple seeds. The Medical Examiner surmised that due to senility and the distraction of television, the apple seeds were eaten instead of the peanuts.”
Jenny folded the small piece of newspaper and slipped it back into her pocket. Then she cut another large slice of pie and scraped it out of the pie tin, onto a clean dinner plate. She thought it fitting that the plate, with the scalloped edge trimmed in fading violets, was her mother’s favorite. Jenny hated it. Lifting the plate high with both hands, Jenny carried it into Walter as if she were making a reverent offering to a personal deity.
Copyright © 2019 by E. J. Pace