In 2011 I published a short story that was inspired by the real life experience of my mother-in-law, Deena. Deena passed away this last November, so I’m re-printing the story here, making it available for your enjoyment.
The Peach Pies
Erik C. Martin
Copyright 2011 by Erik C. Martin
This story is dedicated to Deena, who inspired this story by living out the good parts.
Josie Vigilucci was widely acknowledged to be the best baker of all of the women in Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish. At every bake sale her pies, cakes, and brownies raised the most money for Our Lady of Mount Carmel Elementary School. Moist and rich, Josie’s creations were perfect.
Envy was a sin, but I hated everything about her.
It wasn’t just her baking. Her house was one of the nicest in the neighborhood. Her husband owned Vigilucci’s bakery on the corner of W. 69th and Detroit Avenue, the newly renovated Westside Market diner, and had a baked goods stand inside of the market. Of course, he had done none of the work himself. His grandfather, Joe Sr., had started the bakery and the stand, while his father, Joe Jr., had bought the diner. Her children were perfect. Her marriage was perfect.
Anyone would have hated her.
The morning when Father Michael announced the date for the fall bake sale, I vowed that I was going to show her up. Despite my oldest daughter’s insistence that I couldn’t bake, I would make something better than anything Josie might bring. I was going to knock her right off of her throne.
I needed a secret weapon.
I went up to the attic. Behind a thirty year old, silver Christmas tree I found the box I wanted. It was dusty and was held together with stiff, yellow tape. Inside were old, black and white photo albums. Beneath those was my grandmother’s cookbook.
My grandmother had been able to bake—I mean really bake. Surely, somewhere in that tattered, black folder with its faded, handwritten treasures was just what I required.
I carried the book downstairs, excited now. Sitting down at the kitchen table, I opened the dusty cookbook with the same reverence one might afford a Gutenberg Bible.
The first recipe was for a pineapple carrot cake. I didn’t like carrot cake. Coffee cake? I’d never win acclaim with a coffee cake. Red velvet cake? Too bright, no one would take it seriously. Coconut cream pound cake? Yuck. Maybe something Italian. Cannoli? I’d tried to make them once and it had been a disaster. Pizzelles? Easy, but too boring.
A slip of paper fell out of its own accord. I picked it up. Old world peach pie, it said. I read the rest. It sounded delicious and not too hard to make. But the clincher was that the peach tree in the Delveccios’ back yard was ripe and ready for picking. Between my grandmother’s recipe and fresh peaches off of the tree, I couldn’t lose.
My oldest daughter came in and saw me looking at recipes. She rolled her eyes.
“Mom, you can’t bake,” she said. “What are you doing now?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Watch your sister. I’m going out. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”
“Where are you going? It’s after dark.”
I ignored her and grabbed two plastic Giant Eagle bags from under the sink. I went out into the night. Despite the fact that we were only half a mile from Lake Erie, it was unbearably muggy with no breeze. People think Cleveland is cold and gray all of the time. That’s wrong. The summers are stifling hot and humid and there is no transition period. It will be ninety degrees and humid out, then suddenly, usually around Halloween, it turns frigid and cloudy.
The Delveccios lived about halfway down the block on the west side of the street. There was a cut-through on the side of their yard. The neighborhood had lots of cuts, mostly used by the local kids. The lights were on in the house, but the back yard was dark and there was an empty factory to the rear of the house. I knew for a fact that they did not have a dog.
The Delveccios’ fence was about forty years old and rickety. When I climbed over, the whole fence rocked and almost pitched me to the ground. But I kept my balance and got over it.
I considered my task. The first problem was that I was short and most of the peaches were out of my reach. Second, was the darkness itself. The light that filtered back from the house, once my eyes had adjusted, made it possible to see somewhat, but not well enough to know if I was getting good peaches.
One problem at a time. Quietly, I found a small step ladder next to the Delveccios’ dilapidated, aluminum shed and carried it over to the tree. If I stood on the very top, I could reach enough of the fruit to fill my bags. There wasn’t much that I could do about the light. I would just stuff as many of the peaches into my bags as I could and hope I got good ones. I was pretty confident. This whole affair seemed preordained. Someone, maybe my grandmother, was looking out for me. I crossed myself for good measure.
I started picking. I was drenched in nervous sweat, but in less than two or three minutes my Giant Eagle bags were full. Each one must have weighed at least ten pounds. I wanted to make three, maybe four pies. I hefted the bulging bags and decided that I had plenty.
I set the laden bags down on the other side of the fence. When I went to put the step ladder back from where I had found it, a light on the corner of the house came on and lit up the backyard. I didn’t know and I still don’t know if someone had turned it on, or if it was attached to a motion sensor. I suspected that it was the latter. For a second I froze. Then I turned and ran.
I scrambled over the rickety fence in no time, but my pant leg caught on the very top. My knee twisted and I heard my jeans rip. Something scratched my calf. I pitched forward and scuffed my palms on the hard, packed dirt and gravel. I couldn’t see how my pant leg was caught. I just pulled hard. There was the sound of tearing denim and my leg came free.
Afraid to turn around and look at the Delveccios’ house for fear that someone would be there, I picked up my bags and set off at a limping trot. I had to go toward the vacant business, as the cut leading back out to my street was too brightly lit now for me to chance it.
A minute later, I came out onto the street a block over from where I lived. It was all businesses here. At least half of them were vacant—warehouses, heating and cooling, industrial chrome plating, and others. Despite the relative security of our little Italian pocket, all of the surrounding areas were trash, occupied by homeless vagrants, druggies, and gangs. So even though I was only a block from my house, it was dark and isolated where I was. I wanted to get home as quickly as I could.
Besides, I really had to pee.
I got home all right and went straight to the bathroom. I had scratched my leg and scuffed up my hands, but nothing too serious. I took a shower and then went to examine my plunder.
I could hear my youngest daughter watching America’s Got Talent. My oldest came into the kitchen and sat down at the table when she heard me.
“What are you doing, mom? You go to the store?” she asked.
“Yes. I’m going to make some pies for the school bake sale,” I said.
I thought she might make fun of me, or plead with me to finally give it up, but she didn’t say anything. She just poured herself a glass of raspberry ice Crystal Light.
“Have you seen the book I was reading?” she asked.
“No. Go watch television,” I told her.
“Nah, she’s watching something stupid. I’m going to go look for my book.”
I sat down and emptied my bags onto the table. It had been a good haul. I rejected a few of the fruits, but for the most part the peaches were firm, ripe, and healthy. I figured I had enough to make four pies.
I thought that I had better check my other ingredients. I had stuck the yellowed recipe to the fridge with a Dean Martin refrigerator magnet. I took it down and read the ingredients listed in my grandmother’s precise and florid handwriting. I had enough eggs, flour, cinnamon, and salt. I would need to pick up some more sugar, butter, and some nutmeg in the morning. I made a list.
The next day, I went to the grocery store as soon as the girls had left for school. When I got home, I pulled out the recipe and got to work.
I made the dough first and then lined my pie tins, brushing the dough with egg just like the recipe said to. I put those away in the refrigerator and started slicing my peaches. I put the sliced peaches into a large bowl and sprinkled in the lemon juice and mixed that together. I pulled out another large bowl. In this bowl, I mixed together the flour, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg. I poured the contents over my peaches and mixed it all together gently. I filled the pie crusts and added butter. I covered each pie carefully with more dough, slitting the tops and fluting the edges. (I’d looked up what fluting meant online.) I brushed on more egg. Three hours had passed, but I was almost done. Now all I had to do was bake the pies.
The actual baking was a little tricky. My oven tended to cook a little slow. That’s why a lot of what I make can be underdone, or sometimes overdone if I try and compensate by raising the temperature. I’d have to stay on top things to get it just right.
I put the pies in to bake and made a sandwich. I’d worked all morning and was famished. I ate in the kitchen, checking on the pies about every ten minutes until they looked golden and perfect. I pulled them out and set them on the stovetop to cool.
At three o’clock I went down the street to walk my youngest girl home from school. I saw Josie Vigilucci waiting for her kids in the parking lot. I pretended like I didn’t see her.
My oldest got home from high school shortly after four.
“It actually smells good in here,” she said, surprised. “What did you make?”
“I just baked a few peach pies from my grandmother’s recipe. Three of them are for the bake sale, but I made one for us. You can have some after dinner,” I told her.
I had been so preoccupied with baking the pies, that I had not planned anything for dinner. I put water on to boil and pulled out a pound of angel hair pasta and a jar of Paul Newman’s sauce. The jar was only half-full so I mixed in some ketchup to fill it out. I hadn’t bought any bread, so I toasted Wonder Bread, buttered it, and sprinkled on some Gallucci’s garlic powder.
“Fancy, mom,” said my oldest.
“Quiet. Eat so you can have some pie later.”
After dinner, I made the girls clean the kitchen while I changed the laundry. I could hear strains of The Simpsons theme song coming from the small television in the kitchen.
When everyone’s chores were done and the girl’s homework finished, it was time for dessert. I cut three pieces and topped each one with a dollop of Cool Whip. I poured two glasses of raspberry ice Crystal Light for the girls and a glass of merlot for me.
“Here it is,” I said grandly as I served the pie.
I sat down and took a bite.
My oldest daughter’s frown when she tasted hers mirrored my own. Something was wrong. The pie wasn’t good at all. It was bitter, bordering on terrible. Only my youngest daughter seemed oblivious.
“You say this is your grandmother’s recipe?” my oldest asked.
“Yes,” I said. I wanted to cry. What had gone wrong?
“Did you follow the recipe?” she asked.
“Of course I did!” I said.
“Did the recipe have sugar in it?”
“Did you put sugar in it?” she asked.
I started to say something in anger, but stopped. Instead I thought back to baking. I honestly could not remember putting in sugar. I had bought sugar. I got up and went into the kitchen. I opened the cupboard. The bag of sugar that I had bought sat there unopened.
I had forgotten to put sugar into the pies.
There was no way that I would beat Josie now. The bake sale was tomorrow morning. It had taken me all day to make the pies and I had used up most of the ingredients, including the pilfered peaches. The only thing that I had in the house was a box of instant brownie mix.
I almost threw all of the pies away right then, but I stopped myself. They didn’t look bad. They looked really good. I did throw out the pie that I had made for me and the girls, but I kept the other three. I poured another glass of merlot and dumped the brownie powder into a bowl and added water.
The next day at the bake sale, my hard, dry brownies sat there looking as rugged and cracked as the land around the steel mills had before the mills had been turned into a strip mall. An index card bearing my name was scotch taped to the side of the pan. As usual, my entry went practically untouched.
On the table were also three peach pies. They looked delicious and the slices were selling fast. And why shouldn’t they? According to the name on the attached index cards they had been baked by the best baker in the neighborhood—by none other than Josie Vigilucci herself.
I watched, smirking inwardly, as someone would come up and buy a slice. They would walk away and take a bite with the anticipation of culinary ecstasy. Then their faces would screw up and their foreheads would wrinkle. They would choke down a bite, maybe two, and then the rest would be discreetly dumped into the trash.
It was too bad that Josie wasn’t here to experience her disgrace. Of course, if she had been she probably would have noticed her name on pies that she had not made. She had made sugar cookies with green, white, and red sprinkles, which she had sent to school with her daughter. They were delicious.
Josie did stop in around lunch time. I had volunteered to staff the tables until then and was almost done. She came in, smiling and greeting everyone cheerfully. She walked by the tables and asked me how the sale was going.
“It’s good,” I said. “Everyone loved your cookies. They’re almost all gone.”
She moved on, going off to chat with Father Michael.
Then a funny thing happened.
I watched Josie Vigilucci flit about, with her fake laugh and artificial smile, oblivious to the damage that I had done to her reputation. I began to feel guilty about what I had done. It would have been one thing to have made something that everyone had loved, that had surpassed Josie’s selection. But putting her name on the pies that I had ruined…my damned Catholic upbringing was already causing me to feel bad.
So, being a good Catholic, what did I do? I confessed.
My shift was through. I made my way over to where Josie was performing her socialite’s dance. When she was between partners, I caught her and, after taking a deep breath, told her what I had done. Then I braced for an angry, Italian outburst, or ridicule and public scorn.
“That’s hilarious! You are so funny,” she said. “You know that half of time I don’t make the things I bring anyway? No, mostly I just have them make something for me at the Joey’s bakery.”
She didn’t care. What’s more, she had just confessed to me that she often did not even bake her own entries—and no one seemed to care about that.
And so the moment of my revenge came and went unnoticed. Everyone still loved Josie Vigilucci. The thought that she might have made some bad pies did not ruin her.
I felt better as I left the school. I realized that I had been a little crazed during the last few days, but the insanity had lifted. There was little in the cupboard for dinner so I went to the grocery store. And maybe on the way home, I thought, I would get the girls a treat and stop at Vigilucci’s.