Sara sliced into the pie as if to commence a betrayal. Devoured a piece without remorse now that the measuring of flour and butter, the sweeping of spilled baking powder from the wood slats, and the apportioning of the day’s “splurge” calories all had been accomplished. The dessert was her only occupation for the next ten minutes, the filling’s sugar particles glimmering beneath the crust, the burnt outer layers crunching subtly between her molars. She vacillated between chewing rapidly, gulps of quickly-cooling coffee between bites, and slowing until she felt each fiber of the pie moisten and yield to the force of the mastication and the charms of her saliva.
She knew this mouth well: the lips she conserved with glossy Vaseline each morning, the tongue she used to tut at slow pedestrians during her twilight power walks and with which she’d murmured words soft and harsh in the years that lay behind her. Yet the mind, this mind she possessed and had, over her many years, solidified, she knew not at all. What was it but an enabler of worry and false dreams, a universe whose cacophony at its most muted remained the troubling hum of a running refrigerator.
The cherries of her pie gleamed bright as the glowing organs of a cadaver. They were sweet, she knew, for she had carefully mixed the brown-grained sugar into their boiling syrup bath. As she chewed, however, she hardly tasted them. Instead, she stared at the next morsel of the slice while rushing unconsciously, mechanically, to finish the last. Soon she would feel full and this would reassure her that there had been a point to the energy she had expended, the care she had taken.
In a few hours, the vague tang of the filling’s least-ripe cherries would remind her of nothing so much as the obligation to clean the baking bowls and rearrange the sugar types. The delights of messy consumption, sold by the wide smiles of TV chefs, she had simply never grasped.
It had been three days since the news of him. Sometimes her heart seemed to buzz from the memory of it, beating quickly and shallowly like her KitchenAid on its highest speed. The day before, rolling croissant dough, she had felt dampness on the neck strap of her apron. Had she left an onion out on the corner cutting board? No, the vegetables were all put away, and the tears, though she was conscious of them now, went on a minute more.
Always the hope of him had kept her going, a piece of it laid out before bedtime each night, the way her splurge calories sorted themselves into her Body Beautiful organizer. And from day to day she had the pies and tarts. Sunday, the chocolate éclairs; Tuesday, meringues and mousse. Her freezer would be full before the end of this week, and she knew no children whom she might palm things off on before she opened her cookbooks again. Considering the compact proportions of her kitchen, she resolved that she really would have to find something else to do soon. Stamps or sailing lessons. Something that would spare her the cabinet space.
The slice was gone now, even the crumbs, without her attendance, yet several minutes from the allotted ten remained. She thought of singing out in the empty flat, old dirges from the war or ABBA. Who would complain but Roksanda in the attic apartment—No more noise, Miss Sara Lane, no good for the herbs, the H in the final word aspirated in keeping with her accent. The options for distraction were too many, and all amounted to so little. And tomorrow it would be four days.
The gray gloves, finally returned to her on Monday evening, still rested on the mantelpiece, the snow crystals that had adorned them having seeped deep into the grains of oak. Next week she might start wearing them on her walks, begin to strip the things of their significance. She imagined slipping one on this moment, stretching and bending her thick fingers beneath the wide-eyed knit. Dreaming of their owner’s hands, twenty years ago, in spite of herself. But the pie would be cooled by now; time to place it on its glass dish and soak the baking pan in suds in the sink.
As she walked to the counter to start the cleaning, the doorbell rang gently from the other end of the apartment. “Sara Lane,” called a gusty voice from the hallway, “I have the rosemary, dear! Pomegranates, too.”
Roksanda, a ruddy-faced Hungarian and Sara’s only friend in the building, had occupied the attic apartment for eight years. She believed in black soil and its boundless potential. With these faiths in mind, she had constructed a fine rooftop garden that she tended in every season. Her plants bore the names of her great-nieces and nephews on the other side of the ocean, and she pruned the sprouts and buds with the care she would have given those children’s fine hairs and smooth skin. Her berries were sweet and her herbs, fragrant.
“They’re very nice,” Sara said once she’d opened the door and received the basket of purpled orbs that the neighbor thrust at her.
“What do I smell today, bakerwoman?” Roksanda asked eagerly, as if the scent of the customary Thursday pie were a surprise despite the fact that she herself had grown and delivered the fruit inside it.
“Cherry pie. I finished my slice—take the rest upstairs with you?”
Roksanda smiled and her cheekbones ripened like berries. “No more weight on my belly. Maybe when I was younger… No sharing it with the young man who was here?”
Sara paused. She was unprepared to talk of the visit, and knew the conversation would occasion from Roksanda a list of platitudes about endings and chances at reinvention which Sara would barely manage to hear. Now that she had turned the oven off, gooseflesh was sprouting on her forearms.
After a moment, the neighbor, unbothered at Sara’s silence, smiled again and gave a little sigh. “All right, time for trimming my string beans,” she announced. “The blackberries I am growing will make excellent spring strudel if you want recipe. And turn some heat on in here, mm? Cold without the light.”
“All right, I will. And I’ll be up to you Saturday with cake,” Sara said as she moved to shut the door. “No refusing it.”
Before the baking and the brisk walks, the timed life, a love had begun in words. She was teaching onomastics at the college; he was a secretary for the linguistics department. At the time she cooked only pasta, but her skills in tomato sauce had moved her to invite the serious-looking young man from the office desk to share a pot of it in her yellow kitchen. She wore a red dress, and he showed up to her door in a tie on a Saturday night, more formal than she’d expected. He suggested dancing after the tagliatelle and told bright stories as they stumbled over each other’s feet.
Months of Saturday dinners grew into two years of twilit Sunday walks around the nearby park. They would discuss authors and Chopin, and his laugh would imprint itself behind her eardrums. After fourteen months she accepted a yearlong visiting professorship on the opposite coast, and he remained to care for his ailing mother. They agreed to write letters like John Adams and Abigail (she was no good on the phone), but most of hers went, bewilderingly, unreturned. In a year, when she came home, he had gone.
Now she wore beige out of sensibility. Desire was quelled with habit: each day brought its shopping lists and recipes, general errands, and perfunctory calls to make. To her sister, her cousin June, and Mamie, her Catholic high school roommate, now a grandmother and devoted parishioner of the Lutheran Church.
They stayed in touch mostly about bake sales benefiting Mamie’s church “causes,” to which Sara would contribute her plentiful surplus of goods. Though she was happy to declutter the freezer, selling her desserts always struck Sara as silly. She baked because it arranged her life. The petit fours might be oversalted, the cake a little viscous in the middle. Whatever the outcome, she would have moved on to something else long before the product was evaluated, enjoyed or cast aside. Every week she washed the ginger and baking soda from her apron. Sometimes as she worked, it seemed that the chaos latent in the collisions of variables would swallow her, but she conquered this feeling with a scrub of lavender soap and a little bleach. A new week always began. And on this one, his son had arrived.
She knew the boy from the instant she opened the door to his knock. The eyes were just the same: earnest and warm, yet alarming in their clarity. When she met them with her own, she felt as if she were still standing by the just-freezing lake, where the man had implored her not to leave her position and him, had warned of his inconstancy. She had taken his gloved hands in hers and chosen not to hear him.
“Ms. Lane,” the boy had said from the hallway. “I’m sorry to barge in on you like this.” Though they had never met, she could see he knew he wouldn’t need to clarify his presence at her home. She sidestepped slightly to suggest that he enter the apartment and gestured to an under-stuffed sofa. He positioned himself on the edge of a cushion and spoke again.
“The shiva was last week.”
Opposite him, she sat stilly, her hands in her lap. The reasons for the death she would not trouble herself with. Concern seemed feigned and she did not wish to mock the boy—a stranger, after all—with shows of sympathy. She would simply ask the questions which, thrumming unanswered in her mind, had come to weary her. “Your mother?”
“They split ten years ago. She came in from Key West for the funeral, but she left me and Dad’s sisters to clean out his things.”
“Matt,” he decided to say. “I’m home from Penn for the holidays. Dad made me executor of the will. He’d written down your address.” The boy paused, shifted in his seat. “I could have mailed them, but I decided to drive down and bring them to you myself.”
“Well,” she responded evenly, “that was kind of you.”
“Yeah, I’m… sorry I didn’t call. I couldn’t find a phone number, but I hoped I’d catch you home.” Now he brightened, the corners of his smile straining upwards as if against perilous weight. “And I guess I did.”
Sara decided not to pose her last question, as the boy would have to bring it up before he could leave her. Instead, she rose, straight-spined, and tried to return his smile, though she was sure the eyes betrayed it. “I have gingersnaps and cheesecake in the freezer,” she said. “What may I bring you?”
Matt of Penn looked surprised. She had barely spoken to him and now she wanted to feed him? “I’m not hungry just now, Ms. Lane, but that’s very nice of you, thanks. There’s been a lot of food around Dad’s place this week, as you can imagine.”
She moved to the kitchen anyway and, forsaking the frozen goods, selected a fresh apple tart. If she put out the vibrant dish with utensils and all, he would be unlikely to resist. She even cut herself the smallest second piece of the day, making a mental note to add ten minutes to that evening’s walk.
Matt simply sat on the couch and watched her begin to eat. Realizing she wouldn’t be saying anything else, he stood halfway up and reached into the back pocket of his chinos. “So, Dad mentioned these in the will, and I was able to find them in one of the drawers we never opened, with a bunch of old pairs of glasses from the eighties. It was Mom’s drawer, actually. But he said they should be given to you.”
The gloves in the boy’s hand were care-worn and fuzzy at the fingertips, but still bore the impression of the large, smooth hands that had occupied them once. David had worn them on their last walk; she recalled him slipping them on as he waltzed her away from her reading, out the door to the path around the lake.
“If you’d only buy warmer things,” she’d said to him then, noticing his skin turn red in the holes between the woolen strands. “No reason to skimp on necessary comforts.”
“I have you. That’s my comfort.” And his warm eyes had shone in hers.
Matt stepped around the coffee table and held the artifacts out to Sara Lane. She gazed at them a long moment more, then took the cold things and set them on the mantle, out of her sight.
“Were they important?” Matt asked, less hesitant than he might have been.
“No, no. But it was good of you to bring them.” Now she rose to meet him, wrapped up a slice of the pie, and, guiding the boy gently to the door, thrust the item in his hand. She thought the boy would go with a simple thank-you, but as he began to turn away, he paused.
“I’m sorry about my father,” he said, and looked deeply at her. And she heard him.
As twilight settled outside her window, Sara wrapped up the three-quarters of cherry pie that remained and stacked them atop the week’s previous goods in the orderly freezer. A change of clothes prepared her for her walk, though a chill that promised bare winter to come left her neck and hands feeling unprotected. She picked up the gloves then, no longer damp from the snow that had greeted Matt on his visit. She walked into the hallway and climbed a small flight of stairs.
“Roksanda,” she called from the neighbor’s door.
A moment passed; the gracious laughter of the boy’s father rung in her ears. When the door opened, Sara found Roksanda with gardening gloves on her hands and a red scarf covering her head. “Now Sara,” the woman started, if you are bringing up that pie, I don’t need it still.”
“No, I don’t have the pie,” said Sara. “I came to ask: Will you come walking with me?”
And the woman removed her gloves and nodded, that the bakerwoman should finally have wished to share in her habits, to open her life.
Sara slipped on the gloves then, and stretched out her hands and shivered. Then she led her companion down the stairs into the hushed evening and, at the pace of the rustling final leaves on the trees, together the women began to move.
Rebecca Pittel, Mount Holyoke Class of 2017, is an English and French major. Having written creatively from a young age, Rebecca has presented her work at the Texas Book Festival and Texas State Fair and published work in Badgerdog Press’s Youth Voices in Ink anthologies and Quick Brown Fox, the Five College literary magazine. Inspired by her studies with Karen Osborn and Corinne Demas, Rebecca hopes to pursue a career in writing and literary editing while continuing to fulfill her passion for the performing arts. When not rehearsing with Mount Holyoke’s Theatre Department or Jazz Ensembles or overannotating Shakespeare’s Collected Works, Rebecca swoons over the oeuvre of Sondheim and pursues the spirits of those great Pioneer Valley-based literary women, Wendy Wasserstein and Emily Dickinson.
Rebecca served as the Historian for the 2016 Blackstick Review.