Fiction by Meredith Lindgren
If the Morrisons couldn’t come together as a family in life, they would come together in death. Annette, the matriarch of the Morrison family, had decided and would execute this on her own and without consultation.
She was making two pies. One would be served after dinner. The other would not.
After weeks of aimless longing and efforts, months really, having a plan made it impossible to get a handle on her mood. She would swing from giddiness to preemptive remorse before obsessing over how they got there in the first place.
She was so distracted that while shopping for the ingredients to make the pie and the dinner she had almost forgotten the vanilla. And the roast. But not the poison.
Passing the papers and the magazines she imagined that the four of them dying would be a front page story. The children’s teachers and James’s secretary would be interviewed. Perhaps it would be revealed whether or not James was having the affair Annette suspected.
Better that this was revealed post-mortem. If he was, he was awful for his betrayal. If not, she was awful for her suspicions. She swung back for the items she needed, feeling foolish for she had been in the aisles where they were kept.
The limitless potential of her children would be covered journalistically. In an instant, all their unrealizable dreams would have been able to come true and all their limitations would be washed away, the reasons for them being impediments having become obsolete in death.
Annette would be a monster. Any of her flaws could be touted, they would all be made to point to the evidence of her one big flaw.
Her aloof manner at James’s office Christmas party would become a warning of homicidal tendencies that she had been hiding all along. Her role as a stay at home mother would be twisted and integral in driving her toward her awful deeds. It would become that she lacked the competency to perform in the workforce.
Her inability to build rapport with Martha Petersen as a volunteer at vacation bible school would become an inability to get along with anyone. The warning signs all there.
She smiled at the cashier. Perhaps they would trace the credit card receipt and interview him. He would say that she seemed nervous or too calm or he would make something up because she suspected that he wouldn’t actually remember her in five minutes.
Driving home, passing perfect hydrangeas and embarrassing dandelions, she imagined that she wasn’t the only one. She couldn’t be. There had to be other women in other houses, wanting to bring their families together. Frustrated to the point of drastic action. Desperate to the point that even survival is secondary. There had to be others somewhere.
She had always used food to achieve her purposes and secretly feared that no one liked her much at all, but they loved her muffins. Her wellingtons and tarts. She could make anything.
She had always felt bad for really beautiful girls whose looks mattered more than anything else about them. She was beautiful but had learned skills, household skills and how to politely establish boundaries, in order to be more than her face. Looks fade and talent remains, but she had tricked herself, expertise wasn’t the same as being liked.
And while she could cook as well as ever, better even, her recent attempts to bring the family together to enjoy the fruits of her labor had not gone as hoped. In the past month, she had made dinner every night, and she had made special dinner thrice. None of the meals, special or otherwise had been eaten together as a family.
It didn’t matter tonight. She had told Jeanette that she would sign her permission slip for drama camp that evening, after they had dinner together and only if they had dinner together. She had taken Brody’s game controller while cleaning his room and would not return it until they had dined.
As for James, his secretary must have had something on Wednesday nights. He kept bringing her supermarket flowers on Wednesdays, she suspected that he wanted to be seen doing so. He would park in the driveway instead of the garage or otherwise find a reason to go around the side and use the front door. Better than giving a gift, being seen doing so.
Annette wondered how her flowers compared to the ones he got for his paramour. Maybe he liked her because she didn’t require gifts, not that Annette did either. She had once told him that the greatest gift would be his presence at home. He’d accused her of being ungrateful for all the work he did and she never brought it up again leaving him to give to each woman as he felt appropriate.
Part of the appeal of the household arts was that, so long as they were valued and respected, they gave her a domain over which she would have control while at the same time letting her offer a comfortable and comforting environment to her family. She hadn’t anticipated that her family might not be so obliging.
Her butterscotch meringue pie was challenging and detailed which meant that it was unique. She had given out the recipe before, but had always been told that the recipient was unable to execute a final product comparable to her own.
The pie was the ultimate product of her finesse and her family had never refused it. And if they couldn’t manage to eat together, it just made her decision that much easier. She would offer them the poison pie.
If they had dinner together, well, she would see how it went.
She took out the mixer and the paddle attachment to make the crust. Part of her wanted to do it by hand. She enjoyed cooking and it could be her last chance to do so, but it would take longer and there was dinner to prepare as well.
Besides, James had bought her the mixer for Christmas. He had written on the tag that it was from Jeanette and Brody to be cute.
She put in the dry ingredients first. Flour, salt, sugar. The mixer had been on for just a few seconds when it all looked the same. Passing through the holes in the paddle, despite how it looked, it was best to mix it for a minute.
Cute had been put away, a childish thing. If James still did cute it wasn’t for her.
Next she put in the butter. Three sticks of the real stuff.
As long as pies were made of magic, instead of real ingredients, no one’s doctor or coach could protest. She could imagine lying, telling the family that she’d used healthy alternatives and achieved the same results.
She imagined saying the words, egg substitute, butter alternative, and holding either pie. The only difference was that when she imagined the clean pie, she was looking at herself from outside her body. When she offered them the poison pie, it was right there in her hands.
She tried to imagine holding the clean pie and telling them the truth. She got so far out of her body that she saw her roof. She saw the earth from space.
The paddle had broken apart the butter. Now little pea sized bits coated in flour shifted through the holes as they went around.
For one of the previous meals, a Wednesday when Jeanette had been at Kath’s, she’d put butter out with the biscuits. James asked if she was trying to kill him. She’d stared at her plate, filled with buttermilk fried chicken, okra and mashed potatoes, none of which had caused him pause. Just the butter.
Seeing her sad he said he was only kidding. That one of the things he loved about her was how sensitive she was. He kissed her head on the way to the kitchen to get a beer she hadn’t seen him bring into the house. Another thing the cardiologist had recommended against.
When they had courted, he said her sensitivity meant that she’d be a good mother. Emotionally compelled to extra devotion.
It was part of the reason he asked her to marry him. She’d said yes because it felt like he appreciated the tacit parts of her being, not to mention her cooking.
She strained the ice water until nothing solid remained and mixed in the vinegar. She drizzled it into the mixer. The balls transformed to become larger and more connected.
Little bits of butter could still be seen when she removed the single ball of dough, halved it and wrapped the balls in plastic wrap before placing them in the refrigerator where they needed to chill for an hour. She decided to get herself a glass of Riesling, even though it was only ten a.m.
She and James had brought home a case of it from the Finger Lakes. Almost a case, he’d taken more than one business call during that trip, leaving her with not much else to do but drink. An hour gave her time for a second glass.
She put the oven on 400. While it heated, she rolled out the crusts. She placed them in the pan and pinched the edges into perfection.
She brushed them with egg whites. The oven beeped ready. She cooked the crusts for about ten minutes until they were light and crisp. Not so much that they would burn when they went back in the oven with the filling and topping. Not so little that they would come out soggy.
Few things could be timed so cleanly. A watchful eye was key.
The first time she ever made a butterscotch pie was Jeanette’s fifth birthday, Brody still on her hip. Jeanette had insisted on pie rather than cake, always wanting to be different.
Sometimes Annette loved and sometimes she hated that about her daughter. She’d given up on it being one or the other.
The birthday pie had had a whipped cream topping. At the time Annette had been intimidated by meringue, which made for a better pie.
It was Jeanette who had talked her into her first attempt at making meringue as an adult, after having failed to as a child. She had made cookies. It was the same concept. The same steps were taken. There was the potential for the same failures.
That was ten years before. Jeanette was five. What she had said was that Annette could cook anything. My whole life that’s been true, she’d said, looking up at her mom with huge adoring eyes that had since been eclipsed with squinting, disdainful lids.
When she was young, Jeanette was so sure of Annette. Much more than the elder had ever been of herself. It had given Annette a boost, but when Jeanette’s light left her the buildup seemed kind of pointless.
Plus nostalgia was a beautiful distortion. Those years weren’t all easy. Children always grew heavy to the arms that they returned to.
The butter melted. Annette separated the eggs. When she was learning how to make meringue, she’d needed three bowls. One for whites, one for yolks and one for ruined eggs which she would put in a Tupperware for future use.
She just used two anymore. She put the whites in the copper bowl where she would mix the meringue. The yolks were set aside for the filling.
The most common reason meringue falls flat is because of fat. Even the tiniest bit of yolk dooms the thing. If it can at all be avoided, a plastic bowl should never be used. No matter how clean it is, plastic has tiny cracks in its surface where fat can hide.
For a month Jeanette had refused to eat eggs, milk or meat, claiming that she wanted to lose weight and it had helped one of her friends. Was it Megan? Sarah? Hannah? Was she even friends with those girls anymore?
Annette used to have all of Jeanette’s friend’s names along with their mother’s phone numbers. That had been years ago and they’d drifted away one by one. To better neighborhoods, worse ones, into more hidden parts of Jeanette’s life.
After insisting that Jeanette needed to eat eggs, milk and meat, Annette had found that she couldn’t force her daughter to do anything. To try to make peace, she made a full meal that abided by her daughter’s restrictions. Aloo gobi, basmati rice and naan.
Jeanette had come in, passed everything and said that she was done with all that. She’d gotten a burger on the way home.
Brody and James were politely unimpressed by all the vegetables which they pushed around their plates, claiming small appetites which they found again when she brought out the rice pudding.
Annette put the brown sugar into the melted butter. A true butterscotch was defined by this time which allowed the two flavors to fuse into something singular.
If she was only making the one pie, it would be right after this was achieved that she would put the arsenic in. This was only because she was worried that if she added it at the end the poison pie might have a slightly grainy texture, but it was a risk she had to take.
She stirred as she added the evaporated milk. She did not stop as it boiled. There had been a time when it had felt so hot doing that. When Brody was young he’d watch wide eyed as her hand remained down in the steam. Not much could make him look up from his phone anymore.
She added vanilla, switching to the whisk. She added the yolks and cornstarch. She poured half into a crust. She stirred the arsenic into the other mixture and continued stirring with the whisk. It was her habit to taste after adding any new ingredient. She resisted the impulse.
The poison pudding went into the other crust. They looked identical. She pressed a fork into the crust of the poison pie, four times, until there were twelve little divots, one right next to the other. They would not be obscured by the meringue.
She anchored the meringue to the crust, covering the filling completely. Otherwise, it would pull into the middle.
The filling would scorch, the meringue would be inconsistent, harder in the middle and squishy on the edges. It wouldn’t do anything negative to the crust, but at that point it would hardly matter. The pie would be ruined.
She added sugar to the egg whites. She used a copper bowl and cream of tartar. She whipped the mixture with everything she had. She did it by hand because, while it was faster and easier, to use a mixer risked overbeating and the whole mixture would be less stable.
It was a time sensitive process. To pour a meringue over a cold filling was to cause it to weep. And a weeping meringue would slide. Time was also a factor because it was hard to look at the poisoned pie.
At ten, Brody’s main transgression was inattentiveness to all but the electronic world. His life had only begun. Perhaps he would come around.
Yet, when Jeanette was ten Annette had felt the same way and the child’s shortcomings had just grown more pronounced. She couldn’t imagine Brody as a successful adult, nor did he seem equipped to have meaningful relationships.
In her last attempt at togetherness, she had ruined the lasagna. She’d burned it on purpose in order to draw her family’s criticism. Better that they come together against her than not at all.
When it had just been Annette and Brody at the table, it wasn’t just that he had not pretended to like it. He had pushed it around and mentioned that it was burnt enough that it was hard to eat, which was somewhat of an exaggeration.
Later that night when he had mentioned to his father and sister that they hadn’t missed much at dinner, he said it without looking up from his tablet. He said suggested that James talk to his wife, find out what had her off her game. He’d suggested that James check with his woman to find out why she was off her game. He was mean and mouthy.
She whipped harder. Dinner would decide which pie she would serve, but she didn’t want to look at them. Once they were covered with meringue peaks, everything would be better.
The mixture stiffened under her hand. She spooned it onto the filing, creating downy peaks that would turn gold in the heat. She put them into the oven.
She was careful not to overcook. That would cause beading, which wasn’t such a disaster as weeping, but was still unappealing.
She put the finished pies in the fridge. The fork marks faced out.
Under the pretense of a nap she went and laid down. She stayed that way until she heard both children come in, at which point she got up to cook dinner. Beef wellington and risotto. James got home on time, which was a good start to dinner.
She had Jeanette set the table. She had Brody wash his hands. They all sat down together.
“Shall we eat?” she said.
The fridge hummed with anticipation.