Copyright 2017 Anna Scott Graham
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
Thank you for downloading this ebook. It is the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this novel, please encourage your friends to download their own copies at , where they can also discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.
This is a work of fiction. Names and characters, incidents and places are either products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
For my husband, his unwavering love and support over the last thirty years making my life, and those of our family, well worth the journey.
The morning was cool, with a slight breeze from the west. Tommie Smith stood on his front porch, taking a deep breath. It smelled like rain, but being it was Oregon, many days possessed that damp, earthy scent.
Tommie went back inside and started the coffee. As his wife Rae shuffled to the bathroom, Tommie got out another mug. A few minutes passed, then Rae joined him, walking slowly with a cane in her right hand. Tommie mumbled good morning, and Rae nodded. She sat at the table as Tommie brought them each a cup of black coffee. Then he sat across from her.
For ten minutes neither spoke, which was odd in that Rae could talk a streak, her booming voice not having lost much of its spark, even for her age. It was age that kept them hushed, age and death and reality. Not that Todd Lambert was a part of the family, or not by blood. But then, within their clan, blood counted for so little. Todd was a part of them due to… Tommie smiled. “I hope they buried him with a few spliffs for the road.”
Rae nodded thoughtfully, tapping the top of her cane.
Tommie sipped from the edge of his mug. Then he smiled. “I can see the kids now, shaking their heads, thinking that’d be a waste. You could make a batch of pound cake instead, send him off with a real tribute. But damnit, Todd should get to take a few joints with him.”
Rae kept quiet, which bothered Tommie. She’d been hushed since the middle of last week, when Todd died suddenly of a stroke. They had just seen him the week before, at the family barbecue, and he looked fine, that thin gray ponytail not tucked into the back of his collar. He had spent most of the evening speaking with Sam and Jenny Cassel, whose son Eric had taken over for Todd, at least within this family. Todd had grown the best medicinal weed within Oregon’s Willamette Valley, probably some of the best pot in the whole state. Of course, it wasn’t for just anyone’s use; it was for Rae and Jenny, and whoever else needed a healing boost.
But since last week, Rae had barely had a toke, nor had she baked any pound cake. Not that she cooked like she used to; she had just turned seventy-five a few days before Todd passed away. Tommie knew it wasn’t another birthday to quiet his wife. And it wasn’t all about Todd dying either, but that was a notable chunk of her mood.
Tommie gazed at her cane, then into her tired gray eyes. He wouldn’t say anything that early in the morning, he might not mention it for another day or three. Todd’s funeral had just taken place yesterday, quite a crowd for the seventy-six-year-old. Few Lamberts had been there, most of the mourners were Smiths and Cassels. It hadn’t been the kind of service that called for black suits and ties; Todd Lambert wasn’t the sort to demand fuss and feathers. That it had been held at the local Catholic Church was as elaborate as it got, and Tommie still hoped three or four joints had been waiting in the casket. Todd deserved a proper send-off.
Most mornings Tommie woke with one ache or another, but he refrained from getting high. Abstinence had been a hard-fought battle, with a few spills along the road. Only if he got a terminal disease would Tommie light up, or indulge in his wife’s famous chocolate pound cake. Everyone in Linn County quietly raved about Rae’s specialty, which according to Rae had changed somewhat when Todd handed over the cultivating duties to Eric. It was sweeter now, and certainly more potent. How one variety of weed could be sweeter than another, Tommie wasn’t certain. As for the strength of the herb…
Tommie smiled, then finished his coffee. He poured another cup, then glanced at his wife. Rae wasn’t even half-done with her first mug.
She didn’t meet his gaze, but nodded her head. So many years they had been married, and while the last few had been filled with great-grandchildren, death was never far away. It had steered clear of their inner circle, but Todd had been like one of the family, and if nothing else, there weren’t many old-timers left. If not for all of Tommie’s clan, the church would have been nearly empty, but kids had jostled amid the priest’s solemn words. Tommie had been glad for the buzz, it reaffirmed that life continued. Others Tommie had loved, then lost, were probably helping Todd get acclimated to where joints weren’t necessary, although God probably wouldn’t mind if they all lit up right before St. Peter led Todd through the pearly gates.
Tommie nearly chuckled, then he sighed. Down here, where physical ailments were prevalent, it was the women to suffer. Rae hated her cane, but it was better than a walker, or God forbid, a chair like Jenny’s. Yet, pot kept Jenny on her feet most of the time, and it had done wonders for Rae’s bad leg, the injury a remnant of childhood polio. Tommie glanced back at his wife, who was dabbing at her eyes with a napkin. Soon enough Rae would have a good cry, but that would be behind their closed bedroom door, long after the last great-grandchild had said goodnight. And once that was over, Tommie hoped that Rae’s recent malaise would lift. Life and death intermingled, there was no way to get around it.
Tommie spent most of that morning checking the cows. When he came in at ten, Rae was on the phone, probably with Jenny, from the sounds of the conversation. Tommie poured more coffee, but didn’t sit. The women were speaking about Thursday’s lunch, which according to Rae would be chicken soup. Tommie sighed inwardly; that meant Rae would be on her feet for much of tomorrow, her cane set aside. Rae had only been using the cane since spring, when Jenny was bedridden from a bad flare-up of her multiple sclerosis. Jenny was better now, although she had been in her wheelchair at the funeral, at her husband Sam’s insistence. Rae hadn’t said anything about that chair, nor did she speak much about Jenny’s walker. But a walker was looming for Rae, and probably wasn’t too far off in the future. While Jenny had accepted her illness’s demands, Rae had fought accessories tooth and nail.
Tommie never chided his wife, for only in that manner had she balked. It had taken ages for them to convince Jenny to try cannabis, yet Rae had first used beer, then weed, to remove the edge. But self-medication was one thing, equipment was another. Rae hadn’t permitted a ramp to be built at their farmhouse, nor had she allowed hand rails to be installed alongside the toilet or within their shower. Tommie didn’t fear she would slip, only because if he did, he would then worry about another dozen possible scenarios in which Rae might lose her balance, then break a hip. If she broke her hip…
Tommie inhaled, still smelling that dampness from the morning. He sniffed again, but didn’t note the distinctive whiff of pot that permeated his kitchen when Rae got high, or every few months when she and their daughters made a batch of cannabutter for Rae to bake with. The scent was new to Tommie, and not altogether pleasant. It was change, he realized, as Rae shifted from foot to foot, trying to ease her sore leg.
“All right honey, we’ll see you and Sam tomorrow.” Rae huffed slightly, only because she was tired of standing. She hung up the phone, then gripped the counter, gazing for her cane, her good right leg taking the brunt of her weight.
Tommie brought the stick to his wife, but didn’t say anything, as Rae noted that the Cassels were bringing dessert. Tommie nodded as Rae grasped the cane’s handle with as much force as Jenny gripped her walker. Change was indeed afoot in the Smith household, but perhaps Rae wouldn’t fight it the way Jenny had bristled about smoking pot.
Two days later, Sam and Jenny came for lunch. For many years, Tommie and Rae had gone to the Cassels every Thursday for the noon meal. But when Jenny got her walker, Rae had insisted that the location change. Tommie hadn’t missed how Rae took umbrage at Jenny’s decline, and once Rae made up her mind, there was no altering it.
To Rae, it was silly for Sam to make lunch, but left unstated was that for the last several years, Jenny had stopped making her usual contributions to the August barbecue and other family functions. Sam fixed the potato salad and baked the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with assistance from many grandchildren. Sam was seven years younger than Tommie, and he’d gotten a much later start on fatherhood. As Tommie bobbed great-grandchildren on his aged knees, Sam was still gathering grandsons and granddaughters onto his lap.
But those years mattered not to Rae, who had assumed the Thursday luncheon duties early in 2011. Now in September of 2013, it was like Sam and Jenny had always been coming to Tommie’s. Maybe that was due to how this house still welcomed a raft of familial get-togethers. As they sat for chicken soup and crackers, Tommie considered the recent barbecue; everyone had been there, even the farthest flung members. The grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren, were usually split at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, but every Smith and Cassel came together in summer. Thinking about the recent reunion, Tommie laughed out loud, and three faces turned his way.
“What’s gotten into you?” Jenny asked.
“You realize everybody was at the reunion?” Tommie grasped Jenny’s hand, then smiled at Sam. “Even Todd. We’re gonna remember that party for a long, long time.”
Tommie then considered that it was also the first barbecue where Sam and Jenny did not dance together. They had gracefully excused themselves, while their children and Tommie’s twirled all across Tommie’s front lawn.
It had been a night full of reminiscing, but two weeks later, Todd was dead. Yet, as Sam smiled, holding his wife’s other hand, the better memories prevailed. “You’re right, farmer,” Sam said, finishing his soup. “I’ll remember that night until I can’t anymore.”
Rae rolled her eyes as Jenny chuckled. Jenny then she steered the conversation to some of the newest Smith descendants. As Rae started talking about great-grandchildren, Tommie observed his wife; her demeanor hadn’t picked up since Todd’s funeral, but chatting about toddlers lifted her. Jenny mentioned that her youngest daughter was starting to hint about having another baby, and that Eric and his wife were thinking similar thoughts, which was news to Tommie. He spooned up the last bite of soup as the women began to laugh.
Once lunch was finished, Tommie and Sam took all the empty soup bowls to the sink. The women were still discussing their descendants, but Tommie wasn’t quite ready for dessert. Sam stepped out of Tommie’s back kitchen door, and Tommie followed, the day bright and warm. Yet Tommie felt chilled, and he wondered if Sam had picked up on his mood. Maybe Todd’s passing was hard on all of them, and perhaps for Jenny and Sam it was most difficult. Since Jenny’s multiple sclerosis was diagnosed, Todd had become a part of their circle, although often staying on the outskirts, just like he’d lived his whole life about a mile and a half out of Arkendale, down a deserted lane, in an old trailer. His isolation had initially been to thwart law enforcement, but over the years, Todd had preferred the solitude, breached only by those in need. Tommie had approached Todd first, not long before Jenny fell ill. Rae’s nightly beers had stopped easing her pain, and Tommie had wondered if pot might do the trick.
Just over the last couple of years had Todd accepted Tommie’s invitation to the barbecue, at about the same time Sam’s youngest son had started growing weed. It was relatively legal for Eric to do so, on behalf of his mother and her medical marijuana card. He didn’t till a big patch, just enough for Jenny and Rae to smoke, and for Rae to bake with. Todd had wanted to cut back on his clients, and Eric had the time, when not busy helping his dad with their apple orchard. Tommie had smiled when learning of the handover; it was in Eric’s genes to be a tiller of the land, even if cannabis was the crop.
Tommie didn’t know who was taking over the rest of Todd’s exploits; those sorts of questions weren’t important, not when compared with the women Tommie and Sam loved. The men kept glancing at the kitchen, and finally Tommie spoke. “Jenny doing okay?”
Sam sighed. “Yeah, but it’s strange. She never had any deep love for Todd, but his death hit her hard, or harder than I expected. Rae seems the same.”
“Yeah, I can’t say she loved him either.” Tommie smiled. “But she respected him. I suppose at the end, that’s something.”
Sam thrust his hands into his pockets. “Gonna be weird, not seeing him around. Not too many of us left, you know.”
“Oh now Sam, you’re barely seventy.” Tommie grinned, then kicked the ground with his boot. “But you’re right, not gonna see that long ponytail blowing in the wind anymore.”
The only hint to their youth was that slender gray braid that had dangled from the back of Todd’s head, often tucked into his collar. Yet, his marijuana use hadn’t all been for personal relaxation. Initially Todd had started growing pot to ease the suffering of his sister Brenda, who had died of multiple sclerosis before she reached thirty years of age.
Tommie shivered; Sam and Jenny would gain a few more grandchildren before it was all said and done, but if Jenny lived another eight or ten years, Tommie would be giving thanks. He rarely thought about it so blatantly, but she had been confined to bed for much of spring, not even pot alleviating her aches. That was when Rae finally agreed to use a cane, accepting that while she wasn’t as spry as before, at least she could still get around on two feet and one stick.
But a walker was waiting, because once Rae acquiesced to a cane, it was as if her bad leg had grown weaker. After Sam and Jenny left, Rae would smoke a joint, then take a long nap. She might wake for dinner, but Tommie would spend much of the day by himself, which wasn’t altogether bad. There were cows to look after, perhaps a visit from one of his kids, or from one of Sam’s kids. Tommie saw as much of the Cassels as he did his own. Living just a couple hundred yards down from Sam was part of it. That these two families had been in each other’s back pockets for nearly forty years was another. Then Tommie stared at Sam, saw the same ideas on his face. And the least favorable one, that these two men might be living alone in their farmhouses one day while the women they loved were up smoking joints with Todd Lambert and the rest.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Sam said, as if having read Tommie’s mind. Sam scuffed his foot against the dirt, then wandered toward the barn. Barring some unfortunate accident, it was going to be Jenny or Rae next. And to Tommie, who thought of Jenny as his sister, he wasn’t quite sure which would hurt him the deepest.
There was no question, however, for Sam. “There might not be too much time left.” Sam’s voice cracked, then he gazed at Tommie. “She says she doesn’t think she can use the walker anymore. Says the chair is easier.”
Sam cleared his throat, then continued. “She says if Rae needs it, well, best to keep it in the family.”
Tommie nodded, noticing how Sam couldn’t utter his wife’s name in conjunction with this information. Jenny hadn’t looked particularly weary at the barbecue, but that she and Sam hadn’t danced together had been telling. No one had said anything aloud, but later Tommie had mentioned it to his daughters. He hadn’t said anything about it to Rae.
“Can Eric do something, I mean…” Then Tommie sighed. Pot wouldn’t heal Jenny, but it kept her feeling good, and fuzzy. But she had decided it was better to be light-headed than constantly stuck in bed. “Is she really gonna give up the walker?”
“She’s telling Rae right now. And she’s hoping Rae will take it, God knows she could use it. She gonna get high after we leave?”
Sam wore a small smile, which roused Tommie’s. “I bet she’s already broke out the goods. By now they’re both probably three sheets to the wind.”
Sam’s ensuing laugher was honest, and it stirred some relief in Tommie. Only Jenny would be able to convince Rae to use a walker, but Rae had twisted Jenny’s arm about trying pot. Her Todd Lambert special, Rae had called that batch of chocolate pound cake that Jenny had been tricked into tasting. Now Rae also baked it in cookie bars, and at Christmas she made a fruitcake that was shared only between a few. But while chocolate pound cake possessed the most medicinal properties, even that enhanced dessert wasn’t enough to halt an illness that in all likelihood would separate Sam from the woman he loved.
Tommie blinked away tears, then nodded. “Well, about time to get us an oatmeal cookie, doncha think?”
“Yeah, the grandkids helped me bake them yesterday when they got done with school.” Sam smiled, wiping the corners of his eyes. He listed names Tommie knew well, a growing brood who would never recall Grandma Jenny taking that task, but at least she was still here, even if it meant spending the rest of her life seated in a wheelchair. Tommie let that idea slip away as he and Sam reached the house, hearing their wives cackling like two hens as the familiar scent of pot drifted through the back screen door.
Two days later, Rae was standing behind Jenny’s walker, and less than a week after that she was actually quite capable with the contraption, as she called it, negotiating Sam and Jenny’s kitchen at Sam’s seventieth birthday party. Rae directed the kitchen traffic, gripping the sides of the walker like a general. By the time dinner was eaten, she was seated, gabbing with her daughters and nieces. She had been much like her old self, bossy and slightly acerbic. And everyone was glad to see her that way.
Those most pleased were Tommie, Sam, and Jenny, who chatted with their relations in the living room amid wobbly toddlers and swift youngsters, who nimbly weaved around those elders. Tommie smiled, gripping Jenny’s hand. She had used the wheelchair exclusively since speaking with Rae, but while Rae had graciously taken to her walker, Jenny was having a harder time no longer being vertical.
Tommie saw it in her cloudy brown eyes, and the way her shoulders slumped. She was trying to hide it, especially on Sam’s birthday, and maybe from most she had. Tommie stood, then got behind her chair. “Gonna take Grandma here for a little stroll.”
Sam nodded, fully aware of the toll the chair exacted. “Well, don’t be too long, or Rae’ll make a fuss.”
Tommie smiled. “Won’t be more than two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” He wheeled Jenny from that corner, then past kids calling for both of them. Tommie maneuvered through the open front door, then they took the ramp all the way to the grass, which was covered in children’s toys. Then Tommie inhaled the heady scent of roses, and he smiled, thinking about others that had at one time graced this house with their presence. Tommie swallowed hard, not wishing to think of Jenny amid those who no longer stood on this farm, within that house, next to him. Tommie walked to where he faced Jenny, then on aged, creaky knees he knelt in front of her. Tears pooled along her cheeks, reaching her jaw, where Tommie caught them with his wrinkled hand.
They didn’t speak, but he knew her thoughts. After so many years, he knew her nearly as well as Sam did. Then Tommie felt a piercing ache in his chest. Only this woman’s death might bring him to get drunk. Rae’s passing wouldn’t, which didn’t make him feel guilty. But Jenny, and all she had suffered before reaching this farm, when she died… Tommie inhaled, then let it out slowly. “How’s it going honey?”
Her smile was weak, then she snorted, much in the manner Rae did. “You know Tommie, I’m just not sure anymore.”
The chill started at his spine, traveling all through him. He wasn’t at death’s door, but Tommie would be seventy-seven before Christmas, and here was Jenny, a decade younger, talking about… “Honey, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Stand up before you fall over,” she smiled. “Then take me over to the roses.”
Tommie grinned, then chuckled, glad to get back, albeit slowly, on his feet. He stepped behind her, then pushed with some force, reaching grooves that had been worn in the grass. The path led right to the fence, where a winding ribbon of roses in a variety of shades had grown for over thirty years. The aroma was powerful, also healing.
“Help me up,” Jenny said. “I wanna stand for a minute, about all I can manage.”
Tommie came to her side, hoisting her shaky frame. Her legs were weak, her hips aching, which he could tell from how she trembled, and from her tears. She took shuffling steps to the biggest plant, drenched in creamy yellow blooms. Then she leaned toward the largest flower. She took a long sniff and smiled. “I told him not to plant any after I’m gone. God, can you imagine how long that would take, and what this place would smell like afterwards?”
Her voice was light, also honest. And like Sam, Jenny didn’t use her spouse’s name in relaying this unpleasant information. Tommie nodded, then cleared his throat. “Whatever you want honey.”
She gazed at him, then stroked his cheek. “I told him I didn’t want him to suffer. I can take a lot, but Tommie, he, he’s…”
That they had discussed this topic made Tommie crave a beer, three or four of them actually, plus another six-pack to boot. Then he smiled. In the old days, that would have just dulled the edge. Now that much alcohol would put him six feet under.
That’s what she meant; Tommie knew that as sure as standing. And bless Rae’s heart, but this woman here was the best of her gender. Tommie loved Rae, but Jenny meant more.
When she died, he might just get plastered, he and Sam both, along with a collection of their sons and grandsons, and a few of the women as well. Or maybe they’d get as stoned as this woman sometimes did, alongside Tommie’s wife, just to function. Sometimes Jenny and Rae were higher than kites simply to manage one more day.
“Honey, that’s a good ways away, I mean…”
“It’s not as many days as you think.”
He stared at her, then wiped away the last of her tears. “Yeah?”
She motioned to the chair, and he helped her to get seated. She sighed. “I told him I didn’t wanna live constantly in bed, out of my head. When it gets to that point, it won’t be me anymore.”
Tommie’s stomach rolled. He gazed at Jenny, her face still dotted with freckles, just like when he’d met her nearly four decades ago. But time stood still for no one.
“Hey you two,” Sam called from the front porch. “Rae says it’s about time for cake.”
Tommie nodded, then forced a smile. Sam’s mood was hard to gauge, but distance played a part, also the grandchildren tugging on Sam’s hands. Sam’s voice was jovial, but as Jenny sniffled, Tommie heard a different message in Sam’s tone.
“Tell her we’re on our way,” Tommie called.
Sam nodded, then headed back inside as kids hollered for their uncle and grandmother to hurry.
Over the next few days, Tommie pondered Jenny’s request, wondering how Sam felt about it. Tommie also wondered if they had actually spoken those sentiments, words that near the roses Jenny hadn’t had time to say. She’d had just enough time to introduce the idea, which hit Tommie like a sledgehammer whenever he went to the Cassels that autumn. That autumn Tommie felt Jenny’s unstated appeal with each aromatic breath taken.
Walking through his own pastures, Tommie considered Jenny’s passing; it would signal the end of an era, yet, no one lived forever. Still, just thinking about it made Tommie’s flesh crawl. If Jenny was gone…
He didn’t imagine her falling into a severe decline immediately, but the stark truth remained; she didn’t want to live in a fuzzy twilight, incapacitated in bed. He knew why; it would remind her of that helpless, futile existence that had only been broken when she left home at seventeen. Her father had threatened to divorce her mother, and take Jenny with him. The idea of such carnal brutality had made Jenny flee with little more than the clothes on her back. No matter how much she loved her husband, their children, and grandkids, or even him, her brother separated at birth, Jenny Cassel couldn’t live as a shell of herself again.
Blinking away tears, Tommie removed his glasses, then took an old handkerchief from his back pocket. He wiped his eyes, then blew his nose, gazing toward his farmhouse. Rae had been baking since lunch, and Tommie smiled, wondering how many loaves of chocolate pound cake now lined the counters, maybe some lemon pound cake too, what he enjoyed, as well as their grandkids and the rest. Tommie sighed, then felt a spark in the center of his chest. There had to be something Eric could do, Eric or… Tommie shook his head, scattered moo’s ringing throughout the field. Rae could bake all the damned pound cake she wanted, but at the end of the day, all it did was alleviate symptoms. What Jenny needed was more than relief measures.
When Tommie stepped through the back kitchen door, most of the chocolate pound cake was wrapped up, the cookie bars too. A slice of lemon cake was waiting on a plate, the sweet citrus scent leading Tommie to his chair at the kitchen table. Rae didn’t ask about the cows, but she gently tapped her foot. Tommie took a bite, then smiled at her. “Well, you left it here. I’ll eat my dinner too you know.”
She sat across from him, then cracked her knuckles. “You need to leave this to the expert.”
“You know what. Why do you think I was baking all day, to feed your face?”
He took a sip of decaf coffee that had also been waiting for him, then he stared at her. Gray irises were similar in color to Sam’s, but weren’t as wary. Then Rae rolled her eyes. “I was talking to Jenny’s girls today, said they’d been investigating all sorts of MS remedies, and I told them the same thing I’m telling you. Let me sort this out.”
“What, you gonna bake some super-stoner pound cake that’s gonna make MS disappear?”
Rae snorted, then pinched off the corner from Tommie’s slice. “Like I said, you just leave this to me.”
Tommie sat back, then gazed at her. Rae could bake pot into a variety of goodies, but it wasn’t how she employed the weed. Eric had learned plenty from Todd, but cannabis couldn’t heal multiple sclerosis.
Rae snorted, as if she’d been reading Tommie’s mind. “You men, think you’re so goddamned superior. You don’t know anything about making pound cake. Shit, you’re not good for much more than…”
“Making babies,” Tommie teased.
Rae’s eyebrows shot up. “Who’s pregnant?”
“Well, nobody yet. But…” He reiterated the desires of the two youngest Cassel kids, which Rae had forgotten. That made her smile. Then she stared at Tommie’s lemon pound cake. She pinched off another corner, popping it in her mouth, humming as she ate. Then she slowly stood, grabbing her walker, moving to the stove where her recipe box waited.
Tommie chuckled as she thumbed through to the back, where those special concoctions were noted. Copies were stashed at their daughters’ houses, with Jenny’s girls too, as if chocolate pound cake was a national secret. Tommie knew the ingredients; instant chocolate pudding and chocolate cake mixes, plenty of eggs, hot water, and cannabutter. Chocolate was best for baking, for it concealed the small hint of green that permeated the butter. Rae always made fruitcake at Christmas, which was packed with nuts and dried fruits, but still it looked green. Sometimes she made it on St. Patrick’s Day, just for laughs. Only those with a strong constitution enjoyed a piece, but Tommie had never sampled any of his wife’s illicit efforts.
Then Tommie stared at what remained of his pound cake. “Did you put something in this?”
“It’s not green, is it?” Rae said, tapping her foot.
“Well no, but you seem to like it all right.”
Rae turned around, giving him a look. “I like lemon, I always have.”
“I know,” he smiled. Jenny had been the one to bake with chocolate until Rae made her first Todd Lambert dessert. “I’m just teasing.”
“Humph.” Rae returned to the table, the recipe box in hand. She set it down, then took her chair, gazing at Tommie. “Like I said, you leave this to the expert.”
Rae pulled a card from the middle of the box and studied it. “What’s that one?” Tommie asked.
“Lemon meringue pie,” Rae said quietly.
Tommie laughed. “Lemon meringue pie? How’n the hell are you gonna get weed into lemon meringue pie?”
But Rae didn’t answer. Instead she glared at him, then gazed back at the recipe. Tommie finished the rest of his pound cake, then stood for another cup of decaf. Rae gripped the card, then wiped her eyes, which Tommie missed as he refilled his mug, setting the pot back in the coffeemaker.
Throughout the rest of autumn, Rae baked more lemon meringue pies than pound cake, and often Tommie was shooed away, as well as the rest of Rae’s usual assistants. Every Thursday, when Sam and Jenny came for lunch, Rae had a freshly baked pie waiting, and while Tommie and Sam munched on oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, the ladies enjoyed pie, sometimes with cookie bars and thin slices of chocolate pound cake on the side. By Thanksgiving, rumors swirled about that altered lemon meringue recipe. Jenny’s improved health and demeanor were proof enough, as well as slices sampled by the rest of Rae’s circle. Her giddy daughters all agreed that the pie had been juiced, and not merely with ordinary lemons.
Thanksgiving was a small gathering that year, what with various members celebrating with their in-laws. After dinner was served, those in attendance were eager for dessert, and Rae’s pie was the main feature. Relatives giggled at white meringue, yellow filling, even the golden crust, which seemed like every other meringue pie Rae had baked. If it had been chocolate, the weed could have been concealed in the pudding base, but no hint of green could be found.
Much teasing ensued, then those with small children made their farewells. Tommie walked those families to where their youngsters were secured in car seats, then he stepped back as vehicles ambled down his driveway. The night was quiet, and he peered into the sky, stars dotting the darkened heavens. Jenny was indeed feeling better, for which he quietly gave thanks, then he smiled. “What did Rae put in that goddamned pie?” he said aloud, as if beseeching all of those just beyond the veil.
But their collective voices were silent, although Tommie heard faint chuckles. He gazed at his house, seeing Jenny being escorted out by his sons as Sam waited at the bottom of the steps, gripping the handles of her wheelchair. Rae had agreed to a ramp being built, but not to accommodate the walker. It was for that woman, who was livelier since eating Rae’s altered pie.
Tommie met them at Sam’s car, then he helped Jenny into her seat while Sam put the chair into the trunk. Tommie wanted to kneel in front of Jenny, but his legs ached. Then Tommie found himself squatting. He wanted to see Jenny’s face, even if the only light was from his front porch. Yet, her wide smile was like a shining sun. “Tommie, what?”
Sam was sitting beside her, and he leaned toward his wife. “Tommie, you okay?”
Tommie stroked Jenny’s cheek. She was high, yet not in a manner that muddied conscious thought. “Honey, you seem…”
Sam’s laughter filled the car’s interior. “Tommie, what the hell’s in that pie?”
Tommie smiled. “I was just asking Todd the same damned question.”
Jenny chuckled. “Well, good luck getting an answer outta him, or any of the rest. Although, maybe God knows.”
Tommie nodded. “Yeah, maybe he does. I sure as hell don’t. She didn’t write it down, ’cause I looked all through her recipe box. She didn’t even give it to our girls.”
“Well, if they don’t have it, it’s going with Rae to…” Jenny smiled, then squeezed Tommie’s hand. “Only Todd knows what she put into it.”
“Todd and Jesus Christ,” Tommie grinned. “Now, how the hell am I gonna get back on two feet?”
“Just a minute.” Sam got out of the car, then walked to where Tommie crouched. Sam hoisted Tommie aloft, then gave him a hug. “You find out what she put in that pie, I’ll give you ten bucks.”
“Oh now, that’s big money Sam. Shit, I’ll start torturing her tonight.” Tommie stepped away, letting Sam return to the driver’s seat. Then Tommie shut Jenny’s door, waving to that couple the short distance down the driveway. Tommie stayed outside, watching as Sam turned left. Then he took a quick right, into their farm. Tommie stared into the twinkling night sky, again asking that question. But no one answered him.
A few weeks later at Tommie’s seventy-seventh birthday party, everyone pestered Rae, who rolled her eyes, saying nothing about any illicit ingredients. Lemon meringue pie was served alongside Tommie’s cake, and the pie’s effects were plain on Jenny and a few others. Even Eric had a slice, and he was helped to the family car as his wife Pru got into the driver’s seat. Eric couldn’t stop laughing as Tommie said goodnight to them. Pru gave Tommie a look, but Tommie still had no answers for her or anyone else. Rae always made the pie when he was away, and while he had searched all through their kitchen, nothing seemed out of place.
On Christmas, everyone was in attendance, and the weather was similar to temperatures of an August barbecue. Many of the younger members congregated outside, sitting at hastily cleaned picnic tables that Tommie’s older grandchildren retrieved from the barn. Tommie visited with those in the front yard, another generation playing hide and seek, but these were Sam and Jenny’s grandchildren. Jenny sat in her wheelchair, which was pulled up to the end of a table that had already been staked out by Sam, and Tommie headed their way.
Sam stood, meeting him a few feet from the table, his grin infectious. “She didn’t wanna sit inside, said the day was too pretty not to be enjoyed.”
Tommie nodded, gazing at Jenny, who smiled at him. Tommie sat next to her and they gabbed for ten minutes, then were joined by Sam and Jenny’s offspring and a plethora of little ones. Then all were called inside; dinner was ready.
An hour later Tommie’s plate was mostly empty, but the chatter was lively, and so was Jenny. She cuddled small grandchildren on her lap, then all were taken for a spin by Eric. While they were gone, Tommie asked Sam if Jenny had been this well all day, and Sam nodded. She hadn’t had a toke that morning, or any pound cake.
Yet now she was ready for dessert, and the adults didn’t need to ask what she wanted. Tommie went to fetch the pie, Sam at his side. When they reached the kitchen, Tommie’s daughters and oldest granddaughters were busy arranging various treats. Tommie asked for peach cobbler while Sam grabbed two slices of lemon meringue. “One for Jenny and one for me,” he said.
“Well, good thing you don’t have far to drive home,” Tommie smiled.
“It’s a damn good thing,” Sam chuckled, grabbing two plastic forks. “So how many pies did you make Rae?”
“I made enough,” Rae smirked. Then she gave a broad smile.
“Well, I hope one of them is for Jenny and me to take home,” Sam teased. “But if there’s a big rush, a half will do us.”
“One slice will do you,” Rae said to Sam.
“You got that right,” Sam laughed. “Maybe a sliver, but I’ll let you know.”
“Well, you just do that,” Rae said as those around her giggled.
Sam nodded, then kissed Rae’s cheek. Then he slipped out of the kitchen, pie and forks in hand. Tommie watched him go, then gazed at his wife as daughters and granddaughters begged to know what was in the pie. Sam rarely drank, although sometimes he lit up with Jenny, sympathy tokes they joked. But Sam never ate chocolate pound cake, or cookie bars, or Christmas fruitcake. Perhaps he wanted to see if Eric’s jovial mood on Tommie’s birthday was an isolated case. Or maybe Sam felt that what was good for the goose was good for the gander.
Tommie took one bite of cobbler, catching Rae’s gaze. She had made this too, but it wasn’t off limits. “Well, as usual, this’s the best damned cobbler I’ve ever had.”
“Uh-huh,” Rae nodded. “You need some coffee to go with it?”
“Tell you what,” Tommie said. “I’ll fetch some for Sam and Jenny too.”
Rae rolled her eyes. “You won’t be able to carry all that.” She poured three cups, then set them on a tray. Then she cut a sliver from the lemon meringue, placing it and a cookie bar on a small plate. “Can you take all this?” Rae said, putting his cobbler on the tray next to his mug.
“And who are those goodies for?” Tommie smiled.
“Certainly not for you or Sam. If Jenny needs seconds, none of you will have to make an extra trip.”
“I’ll carry it Dad,” one of Tommie’s daughters said.
Rae handed over the tray as Tommie stared at her. Rae said nothing more, huffing as she turned to face one of their grandchildren, who asked for dessert.
Right before Tommie went to bed that night, Jenny called. Sam was already snoozing, she chuckled, but she wanted Tommie to thank Rae for the extra pie. Sam had enjoyed another half-slice once they were home, and he had fallen asleep not long afterwards. Tommie had seen Rae wrap up more than half a pie, then hand it to Sam, her eyebrows raised, but no verbal admonitions spoken. If both Sam and Jenny got something out of that dessert, where was the harm?
Where was the harm indeed, Tommie wondered, hanging up the phone in the kitchen, then turning off the light. Jenny’s health was vastly improved, and Sam could use a lift too. Jenny’s battle with multiple sclerosis had taken a toll on a wife and her husband, and letting down one’s hair every now and then wasn’t a bad thing.
Tommie locked the front door, then joined his wife, already in bed. Rae spoke about how wonderful it was that everyone had been there. They discussed the plethora of descendants in attendance, also that Sam and Jenny’s youngest daughter was expecting a baby next summer. Rae reached for a Kleenex, blowing her nose, then wiping her eyes. Tommie wondered if that was her way of opening the door to a question he’d set aside, until Rae allowed Sam to take home extra pie. Jenny had only been eating lemon meringue at the Smiths’, but maybe it wasn’t much different than the chocolate pound cake or cookie bars that Rae sent Jenny’s way. Yet, the pie looked exactly as it always had, and Rae had been baking lemon meringue for years. With Jenny’s obvious improvement, Tommie had been happy to let his wife keep her little secret, but now all he wanted to know was… “So Rae, I’m only gonna ask you one more time. After tonight, que sera sera, but honey…”
“Nothing Tommie. There’s nothing special in it.”
Tommie smiled. “Now, don’t tell me there’s nothing in that pie.”
“There isn’t. It’s the same recipe I’ve always used.”
“Humph. Don’t give me that line of bull…”
Rae sat up and glared at him. “Tommie Smith, have I ever lied to you?”
Her tone was pained, and he winced, for gazing into her eyes, he saw she wasn’t being deceitful. Yet, flickers in those gray irises caused him to wonder. “No, you never have, but everyone who’s had a slice acts like they’re stoned outta their gourds.”
“They might act that way, but it’s not because of my pie.”
Tommie heard her indignation, also some pleasure. He sighed, then sat up, taking her into his arms. “All right then, why is Jenny so much better and why’d you let them take home pie? If there’s nothing special about it…”
Rae blinked away tears. “Tommie, there’s no way in hell I’m going to Jenny’s funeral.”
Rae’s tone was often blunt, but this time, Tommie heard more than her candor. “Honey, we don’t get to make those kinds of choices.”
“Well damnit, I am. I will not watch Sam and those kids mourn her. I cannot do that Tommie, I cannot…”
Her tears were soft, at first. Within seconds a dam burst, but Tommie didn’t lose his grip, tenderly kissing Rae, telling her that he loved her, and that it would be all right. Perhaps after this meltdown, one of her biggest ever, she would accept that in all probability, Jenny would be the first of the oldsters to go.
But he hated thinking of that, not that he wished ill for Sam or himself or the woman still trembling in his arms. But one of them would pass away, then another. Life was a cycle, nothing to change it.
Once Rae had stopped crying, Tommie released her, reaching over her for the box of tissues. She used several, then she stared at him. “Tommie, I meant what I said.”
“So you gonna take yourself out before she dies?” His tone was slightly flippant.
“No, just that I’ll be gone long before she is.”
Now Tommie rolled his eyes. Then he stared at her. “There something else you gotta tell me?”
“No.” She shook her head. “Just that Jenny will be keeping an eye on our great-grandbabies after I’m…” Rae paused, cleared her throat, then clucked. “After I’m here, haunting you.”
“Uh-huh.” He inhaled; had Rae put something into the pie? He’d found her with a generous slice after everyone else had finished. “Are you sure there’s nothing in that pie?”
“Nothing but eggs, lemon juice, and the usual. And,” she sniffed, “faith. Tommie, I’ll love you till the day I die, but there’s just some things I can’t do. Watching Jenny deteriorate is one of them.”
Rarely were Rae’s words so plain, or her words about death. Tommie nodded, wondering if she had made a deal with God, or maybe with Todd Lambert. While Tommie believed her about the pie, there was still something squirrely about how everyone who ate a slice seemed high. The power of suggestion was one thing, and prayer was good too, but…
“I know what you’re thinking,” Rae said. “Tommie, I had a long talk with… with God. I told him everything I’ve told you, and that if there was anything I could do to make her better, to just give me a sign. Whatever it takes Tommie, that’s what I’d told him I’d do, even lying. One little lie isn’t gonna hurt anyone.”
Rae smiled. “You think I’d let just anybody have a piece of that pie if there was something strong in it?” She shook her head. “I don’t think so. No use wasting good weed on those who don’t need it.”
“You let Eric sample a slice on my birthday,” Tommie smirked. “And a cookie bar too.”
“Well, he’d been bugging me about trying that pie, and he’s my supplier. Gotta keep him thinking what he’s doing is the right thing. And it is,” she said. “He’s been working his tail off, and as long as Jenny keeps having pound cake here and there…”
“But Sam said she didn’t have anything this morning, not even a joint.”
“Tommie, did you see her yesterday?”
“Well, yes, we had dinner with all of them.”
“Did you see how many slices of fruitcake she had?”
“I wasn’t really paying attention to Jenny’s culinary choices.”
Rae huffed, then she grew quiet. “After Annette Funicello died, Eric told me about some special pot he was growing. He wasn’t sure if it would help his mother, or me.” Rae permitted a small smile. “He brought me some after Jenny gave me her walker. I wasn’t so sure about it at first, but let me tell you, whatever he did, it’s the real deal.”
Tommie recalled that when Funicello died in April, the mood at Sam’s had plummeted. The plucky Mouseketeer and 1960s beach-movie star had suffered greatly in her battle with multiple sclerosis, losing the ability to walk in 2004 and to speak in 2009. She was completely incapacitated when she passed away at the age of seventy, which wasn’t that much older than Jenny. Tommie wondered how much of Annette Funicello’s death had hastened Jenny’s decision to use the wheelchair full-time, to conserve the energy she still had.
“So that’s what you’ve been putting in stuff lately?” he asked.
Rae nodded. “I didn’t wanna use it until it was necessary. I wanted to, well, try an experiment.”
Tommie smiled. Most took for granted Rae’s baking prowess. Eric garnered much of the respect, just as Todd Lambert always had. Yet what about those who combined the cannabis with flour and eggs, pudding and cake mixes? “So, you put some of that super-pot into a few selected items and…”
“Well, Eric got pretty loaded just from nibbling one of those cookie bars. Jenny had a couple too. Then both had a slice of something they thought was even more potent.” Rae chuckled, then shook her head. “Humph. People will believe anything if you sell it the right way.”
Tommie laughed out loud. “So all this time I’ve been living with a marketing genius, as well as a master chef. I’ll be goddamned. What’s next?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out.” She sighed, then smiled. “But I plan on making fruitcake for St. Patrick’s Day. Whatever you do, don’t you touch one bite.”
“Oh, I won’t.” Tommie caressed her cheek. “But will it beat lemon meringue pie?”
“I doubt it. But maybe I’ll add green food coloring to the meringue, that’ll make them wonder.”
“Oh Jesus, you do that, God only knows what’ll happen.”
Rae nodded, turning off the lamp. She snuggled against him, then cleared her throat. “I mean it Tommie, about Jenny.”
He stroked her hair. “I know you do, but honey…”
“We don’t get to choose who we love, or our kids, or how they live their lives. But we get to make a few decisions. I love you, and I know I haven’t always been…” She sighed. “The easiest person to live with.”
“Well, neither have I.”
“No, you haven’t,” she snorted. “But I’ll be eighty in a few years. It’s a good age to…”
He nodded, but it felt strange, as if she was planning the end. “We’ll just take each day as it comes, one slice of pie at a time.” Then he smiled. “Speaking of that pie, any of it left?”
“About a quarter. I let Sam and Jenny have most of it.”
“It won’t last long,” Tommie chuckled.
“Well, if they’re not going anywhere tomorrow, Sam might have another slice.”
“Rae, I’d like to.”
She moved away, then clucked. “You wanna do what?”
Tommie laughed hard. “Have some pie. If there’s really nothing in it, I’d like to test your theory about the power of positive thinking.”
“Well, hmmm, I don’t know.” She sighed several times, making Tommie again wonder if perhaps she had tinkered with it. “Honey, all I can say is that on our great-grandkids’ lives I did not add anything to that pie that isn’t on the recipe card.” Then she nodded. “Maybe you should have a piece. That way we’ll know just how special it is.”
“A Todd Lambert kind of special,” Tommie grinned.
“Something like that,” Rae huffed.
At that late hour, the couple got out of bed, put on their robes, then headed into the kitchen. Tommie took the pie from the refrigerator, slicing himself a thin piece as Rae sat at the table. “Get me one too,” she said.
He nodded, then cut another sliver from what remained, which was a good-sized serving. “If all goes well, I’m having this for breakfast,” Tommie quipped.
“You do that, you’ll make yourself sick,” Rae replied.
Tommie smiled. “Well, let’s see.”
He brought their plates to the table, sitting across from her. Taking the first bite, Tommie savored the familiar lemon, tangy and delicious. As the meringue dissolved against his tongue, he closed his eyes, memories from many years spent on this farm swirling through his head. More bites led to further recollections and always the good outweighed the bad, even if at the time, Tommie had no clue where to go next.
Then he gazed at Rae, who seemed lost in her own thoughts. Tommie smiled, reaching across the table, gripping her hand. She grinned at him, then took a bite. After she swallowed, she spoke. “So, how do you feel?”
“Good. Pretty damned fine actually. You’re right. This pie is special. But not toxic,” he chuckled.
“I should think not. But we should give it time to settle, make sure you’re really okay.”
Tommie laughed. The few times he’d gone off the wagon, the effects were immediately noticeable, a tiny sense of relief engulfed by an overwhelming notion of futility. He felt none of that now, just a rising pleasure, and the knowledge that he would only eat this pie in secret.
Then he grinned at Rae. “You know, I do feel something.”
“Yeah?” she said, raising one eyebrow.
“Yup.” He finished the last morsel of crust, setting his fork on the plate.
Rae stared at him. “So you gonna tell me, or make me read your mind?”
“Merry Christmas Rae.”
She glared at him. “Tommie, what?”
“You’re looking mighty pretty tonight.”
She sighed, shook her head, then gazed at him again. Then she giggled. “Oh Tommie, now it’s late and I’m…”
“You’re absolutely beautiful. C’mon, let’s go back to bed.”
“I haven’t finished my pie, thank you very much.”
“Well, you can have it in the morning while I’m eating that last slice. We’ll both start off the day with something sweet.”
“After ending this day with something sweet, I imagine?”
Her tone wasn’t chastising, but eager, which made Tommie laugh. He stood, putting his plate and Rae’s fork in the sink. He set her unfinished pie on top of foil-covered leftovers, then closed the fridge. Tommie joined his wife at the table, offering his hand to her. “Let me make love to the best baker this side of Portland.”
“Just Portland, huh?” Rae said, slowly getting to her feet.
“You’re tops all along the West Coast, but thank God only those south of Portland know it. Otherwise we’d never have any peace.”
“Mmmhmmm,” she murmured in a seductive tone that made Tommie shiver. Then he chuckled, walking at her side, until they reached their bedroom. The walker was abandoned as Tommie escorted his wife into bed. Then he stripped off his clothes, and got in beside her. Maybe there was something in that damned pie, he thought, as Rae removed her nightgown. If nothing else, Rae’s latest Todd Lambert special wasn’t only for Jenny’s benefit. Tommie was planning on having a nightly slice of lemon meringue pie, once all his kinfolk had said their farewells for the evening.
Originally published in 2013 for a Top Writers Block anthology, “The Todd Lambert Special” is an ode to the Alvin’s Farm series, as well as a writing assignment related to meringue. Something about these characters draws me back to them, and after recently revisiting the entire series, I decided to separately publish this tale as a way to best conclude a collection of books and characters that are well-stitched into my heart. May you enjoy it as either a standalone short story or an epilogue to one of my favorite literary creations, a cup of coffee and slice of pie at your side.
Anna Scott Graham was born in 1966 in Northern California. A mother and grandmother, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, some hummingbirds, and numerous quilts.
Other books by [+ Anna Scott Graham+] are available on Shakespir.