Pop Alston’s death was pending, so pending in fact, it was impending. Norm Swanson, Pop’s son-in-law was sitting vigil. His wife, Connie, Pop’s daughter, was nowhere to be found and she wasn’t answering Norm’s calls. Finally, he left a message, “Pop won’t last much longer; you better get down here.”
As Norm hung up, Pop stirred a little, causing Norm to reach for the cup of ice chips. “Here Pop take a couple of these, but only a couple.” Pressing the button to elevate the hospital bed, he held the cup to his father-in-law’s lips. The old man sucked in a couple of chips. Norm wondered if Pop would last long enough for Connie to arrive.
The hospice nurse had warned him, “He may get physical or say some crazy things. It’s a sign the end is near.” So, when Pop grabbed Norm’s arm saying, “There is something you need to know about Connie and your garden,” Norm, while not surprised, was curious. He leaned in closer to the old man.
“Take it easy, Pop. I’m here. Do you want more ice chips?”
With a negative shake of his head, the old man, his voice barely a whisper, repeated, “Listen, it’s important. Connie is like my Grandma; you have to be careful.”
Norm knew Connie and Pop didn’t get along. The old man always sensed there was a darkness about her. When Norm tried to find out the source of the problem between them, all Pop would say is, “She’s not my kind of people.”
Now, Norm had a chance to find out. “What does your grandmother have to do with Connie or our garden?” He had heard stories that the grandmother was “odd” but that’s all he knew about it.
“Look in the garden. That’s where you’ll find them.”
“Find who?” Pop didn’t say.
Norm and Connie lived in the house once owned by Pop’s parents. It was an older, well maintained, two-story, situated in a quiet neighborhood. Its most prominent feature was the large, raised garden space in the backyard.
Accessible by a crushed stone path from the patio, a tall wooden fence surrounded the garden. It was short enough that sun got in to warm the soil during the summer months, yet high enough to keep out prying eyes. Each season it produced a fine crop of vegetables and sunflowers.
Connie never told Norm why she didn’t want people to see inside the garden. Only she had the keys to the double locked wooden gate. Being particular about who entered that space, not even Norm got in unless she wanted him there. That never bothered him though since he preferred not to be out in the summer heat and humidity. If asked, he would help her move things to the garden, but what went on in there was up to her.
Pop started to speak again, “When I was a boy, Connie’s great grandma ran a tourist house where you now live. Back then, the neighborhood was rundown. Your house was close to rail yards and the wallpaper factory, in the High Bank area, next to the Niagara Gorge. Now that the factories and trains are gone, your neighborhood is much nicer.
“Grandma took in the transients who ‘rode the rails.’ They weren’t tourists and didn’t come to see the wonders of Niagara Falls. They were bums, hobos and drifters.”
Even this little bit of talking exhausted Pop and was causing him pain. Norm said, “Pop, hit the morphine button.”
As the drug took effect, Pop was quiet for a few minutes. Once rested, he said, “My grandfather was one of the bosses at the wallpaper factory until he died. That left Grandma with a big house and no money. That’s why she decided to run the tourist house, to make ends meet.
“She always had borders. No one knew how she made any money from these guys. They were broke, but she always seemed to have clothes and small items of theirs to sell once a border moved on.”
In-between coughing jags, Pop said, “Grandma was a killer, I’m sure of it. The borders made perfect victims. They had no family or connections, no real friends, they were not missed. When they left stuff behind she claimed she was selling it to cover the unpaid rent for the rooms. Nobody asked any questions.
“She didn’t kill them all, just the ones that got on her nerves and it seemed like a lot of them did.”
Norm thought, “That morphine button must work pretty well. Poor Pop, this is crazy talk, just like the nurse said.”
Starting to speak again, Pop said, “From time to time, my mother left me with Grandma while she ran errands. I loved playing in her garden. I used to dig in it, until one day, Grandma caught me. She didn’t raise her voice; she lowered her glasses and bathed me in her icy stare. It was unnerving. She made it very clear I couldn’t play in there.
“Worried I’d keep going back, she had one of the borders build a sandbox for me. She could be nice to me like that, but when it came to the garden, it was off limits. Grandma was very strict about that, and you didn’t cross her.
“She didn’t get many new things, but I remember when she had new linoleum put down in the kitchen. She was so proud of the selection she made. The pattern looked like little rectangular mosaic tiles of different sizes. They were off white, light brown, and orange. There were these blue-green lines running between the rectangles. They looked like the leading in the stained glass windows at church.” Pop took a moment, then continued.
“Not too long after the floor went down, the guy who built the sandbox dropped a cigarette and melted a hole in the linoleum. The fool thought it funny, Grandma didn’t.
“The next time I came over, he didn’t live there anymore. All Grandma said was, ‘He left, wanted to see the red clay in Georgia.’ Back then, I didn’t know dirt came in different colors.
“Later that day, Grandma was standing in the kitchen, exhaling the smoke from the last puffs on her Lucky Strike, waiting for the timer to count down to zero. I remember the kitchen being hot, but soon she took a cherry pie out of the oven. I never saw such a funny looking thing.
“Instead of the normal crisscross lattice crust on the top, it had rounded pieces of crust floating on the surface of the pie filling. The crust almost looked like parts of fingers.”
I asked her, “How come it looks like that?”
“She told me she laid the fluted crust dough on the pie filling to give it a different look. Grandma broke off a small piece of crust and let me have it. She said the pie was for the borders only and I was not to eat any of it.
“I remember saying, ‘That pie looks rugged.’ From that time forward she called each of those pies, Rugged Cherry Pie.
“She didn’t make them often, only whipping up one when a border left who hadn’t paid his rent. When one of them took off, it was a sure bet Grandma was gonna make one of those pies. Each time she did, she buried something among the sunflowers out back in the garden, but I don’t know what.”
Pop’s pain returned. He labored to form words and to speak. Reaching out a bony hand, he grabbed Norm’s arm, “I’ve always worried Connie’s like my Grandma.”
Now Norm was sure the old man was delusional and close to death. As Pop tried to keep talking, laboring with each breath, Norm listened but he didn’t want to hear anything bad about his wife. He tried to change the subject.
“Pop everything’s fine. You’re worrying about nothing.”
As Norm said those words, Connie showed up at the hospital carrying a bag. She walked over to Pop’s bedside, leaned down and kissed his forehead. Connie’s presence seemed to upset him.
“Hi, Dad. How are you?” Pop mustered a weak smile.
Norm asked, “What’s in the bag?”
“I’ll get to that, but first, I need you to move a large black garbage bag out to the garden when you get home. It’s in the kitchen. I’m going to put some scraps from baking in my compost pile. All you have to do is get the bag out there by the gate. I’ll handle everything else.”
Since he often moved heavy things to the garden for her, he said, “Sure.”
Connie lowered her glasses and cast an icy stare toward Norm. A little surprised, he figured she was on edge with her father this close to death. Since Connie could get into “a mood”, he was always careful not to provoke her. At the same time he resented walking on eggshells around her, something he seemed to be doing more of lately.
“Okay, I’ll do it when I get home.”
When Pop heard this he became agitated again. Norm thought about what Pop told him. He then looked over at Connie. She said, “So, tell me, what did you two talk about?”
Thinking, “I can’t tell her Pop thinks she’s a killer”, Norm dodged the question. “Connie, he’s been in and out, not making much sense.”
Smiling at Pop, she said, “Guess what I found, Dad, your Grandma’s old recipe card file. She used to make something called Rugged Cherry Pie, so I made one last night to bring to you.”
Norm’s eyes widened. He read an article in the morning paper about a person that had gone missing in their neighborhood the day before last.
“Where’d you get the ingredients? We don’t have any cherries; they aren’t in season, and I didn’t see any cherry pie filling in the pantry.”
“I was able to whip up something from what I scrounged from around the house. It’s an interesting recipe. I brought the pie in for Pop, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be eating any. Since Dad can’t eat, I expect you’ll have a piece. You won’t believe how hard this was to make. Here Norm, try some.”
Having placed the bag containing the pie on the table next to Pop’s bed, as she went to lift the cherry pie from the bag, the old man reached out and with the last of his strength, knocked the pie to the floor. It was the last thing he ever did.
Startled, Connie said, “What the hell, Dad.” Connie yelled for the nurse who came in and checked the old man’s pulse. He was dead.
Connie flashed another angry look at Norm. He tried to deflect things by saying, “I’m sure it was an accident. He’s been out of his head for a while now.” But Norm knew the old man was trying to protect him.
Looking at the mess on the floor, Connie said, “It figures Dad would ruin it. He always ruined everything. Now I have to find the ingredients again to make another pie. Damn.”
As Norm looked at her, then to Pop’s lifeless body, for the first time since he married Connie, he felt unsafe. Suspecting the old man was right about his wife, he thought, “Maybe Pop’s the luckiest person in this room, he’ll never have to find out what’s really in a Rugged Cherry Pie.”