Delia O'Hara

Our mother was one of those women who could make a perfect apple pie in half an hour, and she made one every Sunday from Labor Day until Christmas.  She didn’t measure the ingredients, just cut a hunk of shortening into a pile of salted flour with two kitchen knives until it was the size of peas, threw in a little more flour dabbed up into a paste with cold water, and gathered the mixture together first with a fork and then with her hands.  The dough chilled in the fridge while she stripped eight Mackintosh apples of their jackets, one continuous ribbon apiece — red mottled with that true apple green.  She rolled out the first piecrust round, sliced apples into the bottom, covered them with sugar, butter and a good dash of cinnamon, rolled out the second crust to a uniform thickness, fit it over the mound of apples, secured it to the bottom crust with drops of water, trimmed it, fluted the edge with her fingers, picked out an “A” on the top crust with the tines of a fork, and eased the pie into the oven. 

When it was done, she set it on a metal rack on the counter to cool, then the roast went into the oven.  Peeled potatoes rested in cold water in a heavy pot and the succotash was ready for steaming.  At that, she went off to visit her own mother in the nursing home.  It was our job to keep an eye on things while she was gone. 

That first Sunday the crust disappeared, Mom saw what had happened as soon as she got home.  When she called us out to the kitchen, her voice jagged with anger, we could see the cinnamon-crusted apples through a hole that began at the right leg of the A and went all the way out to the edge of the glass dish. 

Tom and I had been doing homework, drawing, watching TV, all the things we did on Sundays between church and dinner.  Dad and Claire had gone to the park to find leaves for her biology project.  Mom called us to the kitchen by name — Tom! Laura! 

“Who did this?” Mom demanded, one hand splayed on the counter next to the pie, the other on her hip. 

Tom and I looked from her face to the pie to one another.  We were standing in our cheerful yellow kitchen, redolent with the smell of roast beef, both of us in jeans and t-shirts and stocking feet.  Mom ran her hand over the spotless Formica counter, as if it might hold a clue. I should have been the prime suspect, because I loved pie more than anyone else.  That wasn’t how Mom saw it, though. 

“Tom! Did you wreck this crust?” 

Tom had been slouching against the refrigerator, picking at a scab on his arm.

“Hey! Why me?” he cried, pushing himself up and out into the middle of the room.  A piece of his long brown hair slipped from behind his ear into his eyes. 

“This looks like your handiwork, that’s why,” Mom said, her mouth a tight line.

“What does that mean?” Tom said.

"You're always ruining things," Mom said.  "You broke that blue glass vase, remember?  I loved that vase!  It was a wedding present.  And then you lied about that, at first, too." 

That had happened weeks before.

"That was an accident!" Tom shouted.

"Maybe this was an accident, too," Mom said darkly. 

Things were heating up more than I liked.  I edged toward the door.

Mom said, “Do you know anything about this, Laura?” 

“No!” I said.

“Well, this crust didn’t pick itself out of that pie,” she said, and glared at Tom again.  

This didn't seem to me like something Tom would do.  He didn't even like pie.  But I knew I hadn't done it, and he was the only other person who'd been home.  He'd been lying to all of us lately, too.  He'd used one of my favorite t-shirts to wax his car, and then, when I found it in the trash all covered with gunk, he'd claimed he didn't know how it got there.  Tom was the only person in our household who would spend one minute waxing a car. 

"It had to have been Tom," I said. 

“I didn't eat your stupid crust!” Tom shouted.  

He pushed past me out of the room, and as he went, he punched me hard in the shoulder. 

"What do you think you're doing, hitting your sister?" Mom yelled, chasing after him.  "Come back here!" 

A moment later I heard him slam out of the house. He did not come back for dinner. 

* * *

The second time was a rainy Sunday. All us kids were home, and so was Dad. He came out to the kitchen when Mom called us all together, and peered at the ruined pie.  Almost half the crust was gone.  Tom didn't come down at first.  Mom had to send Claire to get him, and when he arrived, he stood sullenly just inside the kitchen door.  We all watched him, to see what he would do. 

"Well, this seems to be Tom's idea of a practical joke," Mom said, her face red with anger. 

Tom rolled his eyes. "Why do think this was me?" he said. "Why?"

"Laura said it wasn't her," Mom said.

"said it wasn't me," Tom said.

"Oh, but you lie, Tom — all the time!" Mom said. "You told me you were going to stay after school for stamp club, and I found out later you were hanging around the mall with your worthless friends." 

Mom never permitted any of us to go to the mall just to hang out, and I had some sympathy with Tom's trying to get around her on that one.  I actually liked quite a few of his friends.  That rainy weekend, though, Tom and I had quarreled constantly, over what TV shows to watch, who ought to take the garbage out to the alley in the rain, who deserved the last Coke in the fridge — that kind of thing. 

"Laura? Claire? Do you know anything about this?" Mom said. 

"No," the two of us said in unison. I added, "Tom did leave the TV room for a while this afternoon, and I heard him out in the kitchen." 

Tom looked murder at me. "I was getting lunch," he said. "Is that a crime now?"

“What’s this about, Tom?” Dad said in a rough voice.

“I didn't do this,” Tom said.

“The worst part is the lying about it,” Dad told him heavily. 

“The worst part is the disrespect,” Mom said, her voice catching.  “I try to make a nice meal on Sundays.  I try to make a nice home, and this is the thanks I get.” 

Tom started laughing.  “I didn’t take your crust.” 

Dad stepped forward and slapped Tom hard across the face.  

"You think this is funny?" he said. 

Tom stood his ground, making his hands into fists. 

"Oh, you want some more?" Dad said with mock wonder, and pushed Tom's chest lightly with his fingers. "You want to fight me?" 

Tom's hands dropped to his sides.  He looked dejectedly at the side of the cupboard. 

Dad said, “There’ll be no pie for you tonight, Tom.  You've got no right to act like some hooligan.  In fact, you can stay in your room during dinner and think about how you've been treating your mother." 

"I'm not staying here," Tom said.  "You can't make me."  

He pushed the door open and left.  Dad let him go. 

"He's totally out of control," Mom said to Dad.

I was already feeling guilty for implicating Tom.  Maybe he had just been getting lunch. 

Dad said, “The lying is a really bad part of this. The disrespect, and the lying.”

Mom burst into tears. “I don’t know why I bother. No one cares.”

“I care, Mom,” I said. 

She looked at me with suspicion, and then she glanced at Claire, who was standing by the counter poking with a fork at the innards of the pie, but Claire had been away from the house the first time the crust had been ruined, so it couldn't be her.  It wasn't me.  It had to be Tom. 

* * *

Thanksgiving.  Everybody was coming.  Aunt Susan would pick Gram up from the nursing home and bring her to our house.  Mom got up early and made two pies, one apple and one pumpkin, before the turkey went into the oven.  She and Tom had a row upstairs, right when he got up, over his plan to hang out at the mall with his friends after dinner instead of staying home with the family.  The rest of us were all up and dressed. Mom was already wearing her brown skirt with the big felt turkey appliquéd onto it when she stomped back through the house, her face flushed from arguing with Tom. 

We had a swinging door between the dining room and the kitchen.  Mom whammed it open and saw, there on the counter, our big gray cat, Jerome, crouching over the pie.  She started shouting.  Claire and I ran from upstairs to see what was going on, wearing our own special outfits for the day.  By the time we got there, Jerome had taken up an attitude on the counter, all injured dignity, flecks of piecrust clinging to his snout. 

He hadn't had time to do much damage to the pie, Mom would laugh to listeners much later, relating a pleasing sketch of that portion of that day that would become one of the stories we told about our family.  She never mentioned that she had accused Tom, or that our father had hit and shamed him, or that I had betrayed him not once but twice.  If Claire was there when the story was told, she might fill in some of the parts Mom left out, that we'd run from all over the house in our harvest colors to see Jerome, caught in the act, but no one ever put in that Tom had not been there with us, that while we were in the kitchen, he got dressed, and left, and ate Thanksgiving dinner at a friend's house — or that he never spent another Thanksgiving with us, not ever.  I certainly never put in those parts about Tom, and I was brought up to believe it's a terrible thing, to lie. 

Tom joined the Navy the day he turned 18, and we never saw or heard from him again.  He's all right, apparently.  You can Google him.  He has a family, and he's head of sales for a company you've never heard of in Minneapolis.  That morning, though, none of the rest of us could take our eyes off Jerome as he slunk off down the counter toward his cat door, licking his chops, slipping down and out the low flap in the larger door in one long, fluid motion.

Delia O’Hara was a longtime features reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, and has also been an adjunct professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill. She is a graduate of the Marquette University Journalism School, Milwaukee, Wis., and is now an independent journalist, writing mostly about science, medicine and the arts. (See Her short story, "Jonah," was a runner-up in the 2013 Nelson Algren Award competition.