“You a pie fan?” the old man on the porch shouted at Judy. He was creaking back and forth in an old rocking chair, looking every bit like the beginning of that horror movie her brother made her watch last month. The man in the movie kept pieces of children in his basement refrigerator.
“Excuse me?” Judy asked, looking around, hoping he was talking to someone else. The sidewalk was void of life. Even the birds were silent.
“Pumpkin pie is God’s food, you know? Warms the soul!”
“It’s, um… I don’t know about that.” Judy looked around again. Sometimes, she hoped she could just latch onto some passing person’s underbelly like one of those little fish and get carried away from the dangers of awkward social encounters. No such luck today.
“Come on, girl! You either like it or you don’t! I have some cooling inside.” The man stood up on creaky legs. He lurched toward the rail to get his balance and catch his breath.
“No, really. I should get going.”
“Nonsense!” the exclamation triggered Judy’s fight-or-flight instincts. Her knees shook. “Who says ‘no’ to pie?” He tottered through his front door, swinging it open. It almost shut on its own, hanging there, creaking back and forth in the wind.
This was Judy’s chance to escape. She could just run to her house down the street and avoid this way home next week. There was still time, even if she was wearing heels. She’d never talked to this old man before, so who’s to say she would ever need to again? Still, good manners kept her locked in place, if a little fidgety. This was a neighbor after all. And he was so very old. She shifted to one foot, then the other, as if she had to go the bathroom. Maybe that’s what she should have told him. Maybe that’s what she will tell him.
Judy jumped a little as the door hinges squeaked open. Before she could open her mouth with a good excuse, the old man began rambling again. “You know, they say Van Gogh thought yella was God’s color. Now, I don’t know much about that art crap, but pumpkin pie is definitely something out of God’s cookbook.” He walked to the bottom step but no further. Judy tiptoed toward the shivering pie plate, taking hold of it like she would a live rat. “Now tell me how that is! I bin makin’ them pies for 30 years an’ I sell ‘em right outta my home.”
“Oh, really?” she said, flaking off the first bite. “I’ve never heard anything about pie sales. Do you do this every year?”
“Every Wednesday! Never sell anything, though. Just sit here waiting and nobody buys anything.”
“You don’t have any signs up or anything. Do you put ads in the paper?”
“Don’t need to! Pie sells itself. People just smell pie and come running.”
“But you just said…”
“Nonsense!” he exclaimed, giving Judy a startle. The old man smacked at his gums for a while, blank look in his eyes. Judy averted her gaze from his obvious signs of dementia. She felt ashamed for staring, like she’d walked in on him in the bathroom.
Judy dug at her pie again, observing a brown glob on her fork. Perhaps it was made of little bits of children like in her brother’s movie. The killer made the protagonist eat a plate full of that stuff. It was so gross. Still, the pie in front of her smelled pleasant enough. And it looked like pumpkin pie should. Judy didn’t want to make a bad impression with a neighbor, so she took a timid bite.
“Pretty damn good, eh? I make it with rat testes.”
Judy gagged the pie out onto the man’s lawn. The wretched geezer let out a wheeze that could have been a laugh. “I’m just messin’ wit’ ya! You shoulda seen your face! Ha!” He wheezed again. He might have asthma. Or he was really old and his lungs were giving out. Judy hoped it was the latter explanation.
“That wasn’t funny!”
“Cheer up, girly! If you weren’t you, it’d be hilarious! Isn’t that good pie? Try another bite.”
Judy thought of shoving the pie in the man’s face and smiled. She sunk her teeth into the next bite, this time able to pause and chew it. Even though she didn’t want it to be, it was unarguably delicious. The filling was hearty and creamy like a custard pie, but light and airy enough to melt on her tongue. The rich cinnamon and nutmeg flavors swirled together like the last sip of hot cocoa. The spices gingerly nipped at her tongue before going down, urging her to take another soothing mouthful. Judy bit her lip so as not to look like she was enjoying it.
In that slasher flick she watched, the only survivor at the end was a scrappy young woman who deceived the killer with kindness before stabbing him in the heart with his own knife and escaping in his pickup truck. It reminded her of the story of Hansel and Gretel that Pap Pap used to tell her and her brother when they visited him in the hospital. At the end, when Hansel and Gretel threw the witch into the oven, he’d say “now here’s a scary part coming up…” Pap Pap had told them that story a hundred times but didn’t always remember he had. Still, he always told it the same way, and Judy always felt there was something comforting about that.
“Would you mind if I stopped by next Wednesday to get some pie, Mr…?” She held on to that last word. “I never got your name.”
“Well… Curtis. Your pie was exquisite, but I really need to get home now.”
“You remind me of Shirley Temple when she and I were going steady. The only way I could snag a girl like that was through my cooking.”
Judy didn’t want to ask, but the bait was too tempting. “You… dated Shirley Temple?”
“Dated? Ha! Yeah, you could say that. She was newly divorced and I was around.”
“You were Shirley Temple’s rebound guy?” Judy wanted to wipe that image from her mind, especially since she could only think of Shirley Temple as a little girl and Curtis as, well, Curtis.
“Yeah, but then she started going steady with that Black fella. That was his name: Black. Charlie Black.” his eyes were awash with some old memory.
“Well, I’m sure he doesn’t make a pumpkin pie like you do.”
“Huh? Yeah. Yer damn for sure, woman!” He wheezed again, started coughing and rocking back in his chair.
“Are you all right?”
“Maaah!” He dismissed it with a hand.
Judy thought about getting home again to feed her little fuzzballs, Milo and Georgina, and watch Law and Order: SVU.
She set the plate back up on the rail. “Well, I should get going. Thank you for the pie and it was lovely to meet you, Curtis.”
He hacked up a wad of phlegm and spit it into a nearby bowl.
“Well, then,” Judy said, not certain what else to say, given that response. She rigidly spun on her heel to race toward home. But as she crossed the street, Judy took one last look back at the man. He was rocking in his chair, creaking like an old abandoned swing set.