easy as pie

Fiction, 5/18/12

Elliot picked up his phone and dialed the airline again. After nearly a minute of ringing a male voice finally answered. “I’m very sorry, young man,” said the harried attendant, the same one he had spoken to earlier, “but all of the planes in Boise are still grounded; there will be no flights today, incoming or outgoing. Feel free to check back tomorrow in the morning, but conditions are likely to be the same.” It was the morning of Christmas Eve, and for the past two days Elliot had been trying in vain to fly home to his parents in Idaho. Twice already his flights had been canceled, and the day before he had spent six dreadful hours waiting at the airport in Bellingham, only to be turned away at the last minute. Elliot sighed and hung up the phone. Outside his apartment the snow continued to fall in fat flakes; all over the Northwest a blizzard raged, silent and implacable. Today was in all likelihood his last chance at getting home for Christmas. Marooned now, feeling helpless and hopeless, Elliot paced the room and weighed his options. All of his roommates had gone to their respective homes, weeks earlier. Most of his friends had done the same. Elliot thumbed through his phonebook and dialed his father’s number.

“Hey Dad…yeah, I just called them. The attendant said tomorrow they’ll probably be closed, too. So yeah…” They discussed plans for a belated gift exchange in the spring—maybe in February, weather permitting. Well, find something festive to do, his father told him, anything really. Don’t just mope around the empty apartment on Christmas Day. “I’ll call you guys tomorrow,” Elliot said with a sigh. “Stay warm over there.”

Elliot tried to recall who among his friends was staying in Bellingham over the break. Serah, for sure, but Serah was tricky: they had dated briefly in the fall, while Serah was between boyfriends, but things had soured and now she was back together with an old flame. Serah still wanted to be friends, though, inviting Elliot to all of her lavish potluck-style dinners and dancing parties. She had invited him to her Christmas Eve celebration several weeks ago, and at the time Elliot had felt relieved to have an excuse to decline. Now, however, he found himself in a slightly compromised position. There was no one else to call, he decided, and with the weather as bad as it was, the only other alternative was to stay home alone, in the drafty, barren apartment. Elliot shuddered at the thought and punched her number into his phone.

“Hello, Serah? Hey, it’s Elliot. Yes, I’m still here—yeah, the airport’s shut down over there. Yeah, I know…so I remember you saying that you were staying in town for Christmas, and that you were having a dinner party? Yeah…okay…cool…what should I bring? Okay, okay. Right on. I’ll be there in a while. Bye.” Because of the snow, and the two-and-a-half-mile trek involved, Serah had insisted that he bring no food, only himself—and that he spend the night so as not to walk back in darkness. Elliot had halfheartedly consented. To pass the time—and to assuage his guilty conscience—he made a Christmas card for Serah, drawing a line of snow-capped conifers huddled under an arcing, star-studded sky.

In the afternoon he set off toward Serah’s house, walking down Old Samish Way toward Fairhaven. There was perhaps a foot of snow on the ground—a crippling accumulation in a city so hilly. Cars were abandoned in the middle of the street; even the buses were out of commission. Elliot crunched through the partially-frozen drifts at a glacial pace, and by the time he had gone halfway to Serah’s he was drenched in sweat. It was almost dark when he reached the house. Even from the driveway he could smell delicious kitchen-born aromas wafting through the walls, and his stomach groaned with hunger. He knocked meekly at the door.

“Hey there! Merry Christmas!” Serah embraced him as they stood in the doorway. “Come in, come in! It’s freezing out there.” Indeed it was, and the temperature difference from outside to in brought a warm flush to Elliot’s cheeks. The house was redolent of sage and garlic and cinnamon. Elliot’s mouth watered. He remembered the card and reached into his pocket to fish it out. “I brought you a gift, because I felt like I couldn’t just show up empty-handed.” She laughed delightedly and took the card to the wall by the stairs, where a large paper Christmas tree-cutout was taped up. Finely-drawn ornaments decorated the boughs, and a big yellow star perched at the crown. “This is our tree! You like it?” Elliot nodded, genuinely impressed. She pinned the card to one of the branches and stepped back to admire it. “It’s a beautiful card, and it fits perfectly, don’t you think?”

She led him on an introductory tour of the partygoers, many of whom he did not know. Everyone was drinking spiced wine out of snifters and a man named Stephen passed him a warm, brimming glass. “Drink up, brother!” Stephen raised his glass and Elliot followed suit. Together they sipped their wine and watched the others bring dishes and platters of food to the table for dinner. Elliot noticed that Patrick, Serah’s boyfriend, was absent, and he decided to ask her about it. “Oh, he’s in Montana with his family,” she said casually, and this made Elliot feel substantially better. He was not the only one marooned.

They feasted on homemade stuffing, pumpkin soup, roasted sweet potatoes, and beet-kale salad. Someone produced a loaf of Irish soda bread and sawed into it, the fragrant slices dotted with walnuts, currants, and raisins. Another brought fresh-baked cheddar-jalapeno cornbread muffins. Elliot gorged himself and listened politely to the others carrying on, the stories and laughter flowing freely as the wine. A white-haired woman named Cathy—the mother of that Stephen guy—rose after a spell and excused herself, saying that she needed to check on the pie. “A pie?” Elliot asked suddenly, looking for a reason to leave the table. “What kind of pie?” Cathy laughed at him. “A pie fan, eh? It’s apple! Here, come and help me.” They walked into the kitchen, where the smell of baking apples became almost intoxicating. Serah had followed, too, so that the three of them crowded around the radiating oven. “Wow, it smells amazing in here,” Elliot said, stating the exquisitely obvious. Cathy laughed again. “The smell tells us we’re on the right track, but do you know what’s the best barometer for testing a pie’s doneness?” She looked from Serah to Elliot, who looked at each other and shrugged. Elliot allowed himself a smile, and Serah beamed back at him. “No idea,” he said, feeling a little drunk from the wine.

“The best way,” Cathy went on, opening the oven door, “is to listen to the pie. A pie that’s done will speak to you, not so much bubbling as murmuring softly through the crust. A pie that’s not quite there will bubble, but those whispered undertones, those murmurs, won’t be present.” She pulled out the pie and set it on the stovetop. “Here, get close, and listen.” They gathered their heads around the pie, tilting their ears toward the piping crust. It was murmuring, a papery hot-cinnamon crinkling that sounded, Elliot thought, similiar to what the cooling of lava might sound like. He was face-to-face with Serah, inches away from the pie, and they giggled at the absurdity of it. “Yes…this is good,” Cathy said, ignoring them. “This pie is done, can you hear it? It is proclaiming its doneness to us.”

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