Salt in the Crust

Friday, May 5th, 2017

 

The egg sizzled on the blacktop. Charles David called over for me to come; I had been under the mulberry tree pretending to make juice with my bare feet-- we weren’t allowed to talk about wine. My stained feet raced across to see my first sidewalk-fried egg. So far the summer had been the hottest on record; all of Oklahoma State braced themselves. It was just June and things would be getting much hotter. We were all together in the summer of 1977, one of the last times before the older cousins started moving off for college, babies etc. Charlie had stolen the egg from my grandma, someone who after this summer I would only call Charlotte May.

The cousins came together for three long months every year. We had cousins from all the way out in California and cousins from next door. Charlie was the next-door kind, and I was the Kansas kind. Charlie was lucky, at least that’s what Charlotte May thought. Charlie had been named after her by her youngest son—my mom said he had always been a kiss ass, but I wasn’t supposed to say that word around the other cousins. I wasn’t lucky, I didn’t think according to Charlotte May. I had been named after a magazine and my dad. When my dad left, I just was named after a magazine.

“Who just took my egg?” Charlotte May screeched from the window. I had what Charlotte May called “the timing of Job.”  If there was trouble to be gotten in, it found me. Grant it I was usually looking for it, but normally not alone. My fingers were barely on the egg white when she came out of the kitchen. (This was never a good thing). Like always, I turned around and Charles David was a red headed blur around the corner, behind the tree, or underneath a tablecloth. Didn’t matter he was always getting away.

“Now, Fairy baby, why on earth would you take grandma’s egg when you know she needs it for the pastor’s pie?” I paused, wondering if I should try the “but Charles David.” That hardly ever worked, and I was thinking about who got in trouble for Charlie when I wasn’t around, when Charlotte May said, “Well if it takes you this long to think of a reason it must be a lie.” I turned red for two reasons: One I was stealing from the preacher’s pie, and two I wasn’t even smart enough to think of a good lie.

Sunday came around in the slow way that it does between May and September. I had long forgotten about the egg and the pie because I had done about a dozen different wrong things since (left the baby with a bottle in its mouth, broken a couple cups, stained a few dresses, and poured out the ‘perfectly good milk’). But boy, Charlotte May had not forgotten.

Remember my birthday that was the week before last?  Nope.

Remember that I accidentally didn’t take the egg? Of course.

“Now, Brother Ryan, you should know that pie was homemade so it should be one of the best you’ve had.”

And she was right. The pie filling lone was award winning, but her crusts were art. Braided together, cut out in little shapes. Brother Ryan’s were always biblically based with little crosses laid over the outer rim and piled high with meringue.

“Mrs. Wright, I told you not to worry about us, but it does look amazing.”

Charlotte May started to ruffle my dress, this is how I knew it was about to happen.

“Well if it isn’t as good as normal, just blame poor Fairy dear. She just can’t seem to figure out all ten of the commandments apply to her.”

Brother Ryan laughed, the way everyone who had known Charlotte May since childhood laughs. I hadn’t quite learned this kind of laugh yet. As she shamed me, my piano practices, and my Sunday school behavior, the rest of the cousins, Charles David included, tore through the church pews like twisters—hymnals flying and babies crying.

I had started to learn piano from Charlotte May last summer. She made every cousin start, but only those who caught her eye had to keep it up. Charles David was the best, of course. My fingers could never keep up with my eyes, but I became one of her most regular students.

As Charlotte May headed up to the piano, I noticed the look. Her eyes had grown wide, her smile large and like someone had it pinned in place. Her finger motioned for me to come and suddenly I was to play the left hand of all the hymnals for that service. Looking back the church was small not many paying attention and most of the kids playing bulletin poker, but in June 1977 the carpet glowed red and thousands of people stared at me as I clunked along. Charlotte May played the hymnal like it was on fire every Sunday and this one was no exception at all. My knees shook as we walked off the platform together at the end of service, “Well baby, at least we need to know what we have to work on during our lesson this week.” Just as we walked by Brother Ryan’s office a horrible thought popped in my head. One of my best horrible thoughts. I snuck in, took the checked paper off, and ate it. Ate the whole pie. My sweet tooth was unrivaled. And Her chocolate pie was really one of the best. My nine-year-old belly was all stretched out, but I kept going. Knees shaking. The whole thing.

I waddled back to Charlotte May’s, up the drive of the hundred acres, and sat on the porch swing. I had eaten a pie but I would have eaten another; I was ornery as ever. Charles David came to me on the porch. He patted my shoulder like his ten was way older than my just nine.

“Fair…”

“Yah, Charles David?”

“Do you think she’ll notice?”

“Notice what?”

As the words came out of my mouth, Charles David unpocketed keys-- piano keys. The usual excitement for our antics was lost. I had kind of like playing when Charlotte May wasn’t there.

“Awe Charlie. You know I’ll get in trouble for it.”

“I just thought maybe you wouldn’t have to play again…”

That was Charles David. A little sweetness to get by.

At Sunday dinner, grandpa told us a long anecdote about some history he knew, and Charlotte May petted the newest cousin. Charles David hid rolls full of peas under the table, and I dreamt of more pie. It was until the last toddler finished their peas, did it hit Charlie and me. In a matter of moments, Charlotte May would stand and say, “Who’s ready for some entertainment?” and go on to play the piano while the older ones cleaned and the little ones danced and the middle one stood there not knowing which to be. On a usual Sunday this would last for hours. But that Sunday, Charlotte May stood up, looked right at me, and said, “Well I think someone deserves a pie for playing in church today.”

Following her through the swinging door, this was the first time she had ever invited me into the kitchen, this was a place for the older cousins to clean, her and her daughters to cook, and the children and men to be pushed out. We started with the pudding, Charlotte May and I. Mixed all the important chocolates, creams, and sugars. I stirred really slowly. Charlotte May sang out the ingredients really loudly. The pudding set up, bubbly and dark. Charlotte May’s black hair was behind her back, and the apron I always loved was around her waist.

It was time for the crust. This according to Charlotte May was what made or ruined a pie. No butter or too thick, and it might as well have been a Steery-In pie. The recipe she used was so messily exact, I watched like she was a mad scientist. Flour, icy cold water, and quite a bit of salt. That was Charlotte May’s secret. “You have to have some salt to cut all that sweetness that is where everyone goes wrong, Fair James.  This generation with there 'be nice to everyone.' Well to hell with some people, take a little saltiness. It’s biblical, baby. I don’t think I have to worry about you though; your momma isn’t the kind that would ruin you. She wasn’t every a very sweet girl.” That was a complement from Charlotte May. She let me roll the pie crust with her wooden rolling pin, its handles were ceramic farm hens like the ones grandpa would never let her have.

It was flattened out, butter speckling through. This was when the magic happened. My mom told me later that Charlotte May had spent time learning to sculpt. I watched her work, her knife moved like a stream. Crafting music notes, crosses, and what I guessed were little eggs, she sang out little songs and then I sang them with her.

“I had a little chicken that wouldn’t lay an egg…”

“So I poured hot water up and down his legs”

Cousins, little and big, drifted in and out of the kitchen, but it was just Charlotte May and me. I washed the crust with egg wash and swept the flour off the floor. If Charles David was up to something, he was up to it by himself. For the first time, I felt a little guilty for the pie and the egg. She didn’t know about one, but that might not matter. My hands shook as I laid the little decorations around the edges. So small, like Christmas ornaments. When the crust came out of the oven, the filling was poured in. “It has to set or else it will run, go and grab the percolator. You should know how to make a pie and fix a cup of coffee, girlish or not.”

“Isn’t it late for coffee?”

“Not when you have company coming, go and get it.”

Company? That was the first I had heard of it. I had never been asked to make a pie before and in my eight summers; the only people who visited were the pastors, the parents, and the Jehovah witness’s. I didn’t feel prepared to be making a pie for any of them. Off the top shelf I got the coffee things and heard the screen dorm slam. Apron pockets full, I snuck past the library. I heard Sister Ryan’s voice above the rough growl of my grandpa. I heard my kneecaps knock as the percolator hit the floor. “The pie will be a minute more, James come back in the kitchen.”

Charlotte May pushed me into the kitchen. Her face had that same wide smile.

“Get five cups and saucers down, Fairy. And quickly, please. Do you feel okay? You look startled. Close your mouth and hop to it. They were expecting coffee and pie almost half an hour ago. We can’t let the man of god wait, Fairy. That’s one of the ten commandment, not that you ever remember them.” She rattled on as I got the cups and saucers. The mystery of the fifth person who would be drinking coffee kept me from listening. “And the other day your Sunday School teacher told me that you didn’t even make a paper bag cross for the door. She was a little disappointed Fair. People in this town don’t expect that behavior from the Wrights.” What did it matter? At nine, I knew I was just barely a Wright anyways. As I set the coffee table with cups, coffee, sugar, and the Bible, Charlotte May carried out the beautiful pie and set in on the glass cake plate way up high.

Just as formal as country church people always visit, the pastors and grandparents came in sat down. “Well Fair James by all means sit down and join us for this delicious pie.” I sat in the chair, completely shocked by everything that happened that day. Charlotte May started cutting the pie. She put a piece on my plate, then another, another, three more, and the last one. Her smile grew larger and her eyes wider. I started to cry as I lifted the spoon to my mouth. “Now Fairy, we know you can eat a whole pie so go ahead and eat the whole thing right now.” I ate the saltiest bite of chocolate pudding pie in my life. I glanced around the table. Brother Ryan small eyes were tearful. I kept eating. The pie was like a salt slab mixed with my tears; I couldn’t take it. Three pieces in and I threw up that pie, the dinner, and the other chocolate pie all over Charlotte May’s fanciest tablecloth. Crust and all.

I saw a red blur out of the corner of my eye. I cried harder again thinking that Charles David had seen me eat salty pie and cry. They all took turns looking at me.

“Fair James. We better be on our way. Listen to your grandparents, read your Bible.”

“Brother Ryan, don’t worry about her at all. She’s got more summers with me to learn. She is slower, but I think she’ll pick up I have always been good with moral lessons. You know that of course. Her mom, that was the James boy’s fault, we all know I tried my best but her mother was so stubborn. Maybe not as stubborn as this one, but we’ll see.”

There wasn’t an understanding laugh this time.

I heard the rattling motor of VW engine and realized who would drink the fifth cup. My mom walked in, covered in sweat and dirt from the long drive. I wondered, silently I thought, what she was doing there. She answered out loud, “Well damn it, Fair James Wright what did you get yourself into this time?”