Chocolate Cream Pie

It felt like the right time for another pie story. This story is based loosely on an incident that actually did occur when Peggy Jean's was at their downtown location on Broadway. Her hands failed her. Time and again, she went to measure a simple cup of sugar from the bag on the counter into the bowl. Her shaking hands left sugar crystals across the worn countertop of her small kitchen. She swept the crystals off the counter and into the kitchen sink with the sweep of her kitchen towel and turned toward the Hershey’s cocoa powder. She needed a mere three-fourths cup, but again her hands failed her. She trembled as she scooped her measuring cup into the small container. Cocoa covered her countertop, mixing with the left behind of the sugar. She sighed.

Her grandson was coming with his family in two short days. “A chocolate pie”, he said on the phone. “Can you make me a chocolate pie?” His voice had been so earnest. “Yes. Yes, I will have you a chocolate pie.” She said it before thinking, before wishing him safe travels.

She went to sit in her overstuffed chair and considered the last time she had actually baked a pie. It could have been five years before, or even eight. And it wasn’t chocolate pie then. She thought for a moment. Strawberry Rhubarb…that is what it had been. She couldn’t remember where she got the recipe, but she remembered it had been good. The strawberries had been sweet and the rhubarb tangy.

But now chocolate pie was on her mind. For her grandson, whom she loved so much and whom she was so anxious to see on Thursday afternoon. Pie crust, filling, and meringue. It sounded so simple, but how she shook now in her arms and her hands, and even in her brain. She sat and she thought. Her mind was shaky, but it worked well enough when she gave it enough time. She remembered quite a few women in her weekly luncheon group discussing a pie shop that had opened not long ago downtown. Could she…should she buy a pie? She sat again for another moment. She weighed her desire to bake against her desire to sit and rest and not struggle against her tremors while cracking and separating five eggs. She thought she might even be out of eggs. She thought about expiration dates. She sighed.

She pulled a notebook from her handbag. Occasionally, she jotted down notes during her weekly women’s lunch. The names of books to read, television shows her friends recommended she watch, and the like. She flipped through and there a few weeks past, she had written the name of the pie shop down. She had drawn a circle around in case she needed to find it, and now she did. She slowly made her way to her desk built in the kitchen by her long gone husband. He used to sit there and pay the bills on Monday nights. She opened the cabinet and pulled down the phone book. It was out-of-date because no one used the phone book now. They all used the Internet, but she didn’t believe it in. So she turned in the Yellow Pages and looked under “Bakery.” But she didn’t see the name written in her book listed in the yellow pages. They probably weren’t listed because the book was old. Instead, she reached for the phone and called her best friend, who then called someone, who called someone, and a few minutes later, her phone rang and her friend slowly read to her the phone number to the bakery in question. Finally.

She dialed, slowly, so as not to push the wrong number. After four rings, a woman answered: “Peggy Jean’s Pies” “Yes, do you sell chocolate pies? “We certainly do” “Do they have meringue or whipped cream topping?” “Meringue, ma’am” “Are they good chocolate pies? Will they taste homemade?” “Yes, ma’am. We use recipes that are 80 years old and the pies are completely from scratch. For a $4.00 deposit, we will even bake it in a glass Pyrex dish, so it will look like it came from your kitchen.” “I’ll take it. Could I have one for tomorrow, please?”

She provided her name and her phone number and arranged to pick it up tomorrow. She called her best friend back and explained what she had done. Her friend was quiet for a moment, and then agreed it was the best decision. Growing older was hard and she didn’t have to say that to her friend. She too understood. They were quiet for another moment until her friend said she had heard those pies were just delicious. They agreed the extra $4.00 Pyrex dish was an even better decision. A smart decision. She felt a little excited by the possibility and by the idea of putting the sugar and the cocoa back in her pantry. She asked her friend for a ride downtown tomorrow. Her friend apologized. She had a doctor’s appointment in another town and would be gone all day. Together, they exhausted the list of friends who might be able to drive her to collect the pie. Friends who drove were in short supply these days, most surrendering their licenses to their children and selling their sedans, unable to drive at night because of sight and overwhelmed to drive at day because of the sheer volume of cars on the road in their growing town these days.

She called the pie shop back. “Peggy Jean’s Pies” “Yes, I just called and ordered a chocolate pie not long ago.” “Yes. Did you need to change your order?” “No, but I wondered if you delivered.” “No, ma’am, I’m sorry, but I don’t.” “I have a problem. I need that pie and I can’t drive. Is there anything that can be done?” The woman asked her to hold and she was gone a long time. So long a time that she wondered if the call had been disconnected. She considered hanging up, but just then the woman returned. “We don’t normally deliver, but Peggy has made an exception in this case.”

The woman sighed a deep sigh of relief and thanked the woman on the other end of the phone line profusely. They agreed the pie would be delivered by 4pm the next day and would be fine in the refrigerator until her grandson and his family arrived. She hung up and sighed. She was thankful.

The next day she cleaned her house a bit and considered what to wear to see her family. She watched the clock and hoped no one at Peggy Jean’s forgot about her pie. She dozed off in her chair watching television, but was awoken by the doorbell. She so seldom had visitors, and she was confused for a moment out of her sleep, and then remembered the pie. She opened the door and unlocked the screen door. She saw a pleasant woman on her doorstep holding a brown box with a string tied around it. A Peggy Jean’s Pie sticker was on the top of the box. The woman instructed her to remove the pie from the box and put the pie in the refrigerator. She could throw the box to the trash and no one would know the pie hadn’t been made in the kitchen in that house. This made her happy.

So, she followed the woman’s instructions. She slid the string off the box and opened the flaps of cardboard. She gasped. The pie was beautiful. There were luscious high peaks of meringue. The crust looked golden brown through the glass dish. It was heavy and substantial. Not a grocery store pie of aluminum pan and cheap whipped topping. It made her think of her own grandmother.

She slid the pie in the refrigerator and softly shut the door. She returned to the living room, but kept thinking about that pie. How long had it been since she had chocolate pie? A very long time. And now it sounded so good. And while it looked so pretty, she was worried about it being a runny mess on the inside. Her grandson would know then that she hadn’t made it. He remembered all the chocolate pies she had made when he grew up down the road. She got up to look at it again. She shut the door. Satisfied.

Dinnertime came and went. She wasn’t hungry, so she read the paper. Night started to fall and she sat on her back porch and watched the birds come and go. She thought of the pie again. To settle herself, she decided to cut into it, just to check the consistency.

Perfect. Not watery. Not thick. She could tell by the way her knife sliced through the layers. So she pulled the knife out and licked it.

Perfect. She licked her lips and rolled her eyes. She stood at her kitchen counter in the dark with the light of the open refrigerator casting a light on her pie. She dipped her knife again and pulled it out and licked it again. And again. Her knife cuts had left a dent in the pie, so she took a fork and attempted to push the dent out. It didn’t work and the meringue fell into the dent. So she cut that part out. She figured that when her grandson arrived, she would cut the pie in the kitchen and serve it in the dining room, so know would ever know a small piece was missing. She quickly ate the small piece and considered the pie. The slice that had been removed left the pie uneven, so she used her fork and knife to even up the slice removal. The pie was so good. It was rich with chocolate, but light in flavor. The meringue hadn’t wept and the crust wasn’t soggy. She wasn’t sure she had ever had a chocolate pie so good.

While she had been thinking about the pie, she had continued to take small tweaks of filling, and of crust, and of meringue. She attempted to even it out, but she could never get it even, so she kept eating and evening. Eating and evening. Eating and evening. She poured a glass of cold milk. She couldn’t remember being so content. It was delicious. It made her miss her mother and her childhood and her twenties, when she learned to cook, and her thirties, when she was busy raising children. She was lost in thought as she cut and ate.

She looked down and was horrified. Over half the pie was gone. And she was in trouble, but at that moment she didn’t care. She decided she would finish the pie. She was 85 and if she wanted to finish the pie, well then she would. She decided it easily. And she ate and she went to bed, with her stomach full. But she wasn’t miserable.

Too soon, the light of morning streamed through her window and she opened her eyes. Panic surrounded her. Eating in the cover of night in the kitchen while she considered her past was one thing. Thirsty and clouded with the knowledge she had no pie to serve and guests arriving in a mere seven hours was another thing entirely. She was so worried and she didn’t even know where to begin. She swallowed a whole pie. Now she would swallow her pride.

She put on her housecoat and went to her kitchen, with a quick glance to the empty Pyrex dish and fork and knife in the sink. She started her coffee pot and lifted the phone off the hook. She glanced down, took a breath and dialed a number.

“Peggy Jean’s Pies” “Yes, I ordered a chocolate pie yesterday and had it delivered.” “Oh yes. I was actually the person that delivered it. Is everything ok?” “Well.” She paused. Inexplicably, she felt tears leap to the back of her eyes. She was embarrassed. Her voice cracked. “I ate the whole pie.” And she started to cry a bit. “I don’t understand,” the woman said on the other end. Gently. “I ate the whole pie last night and I needed that pie for my grandson and his family, who are coming today and I don’t know what to do.”

The woman at Peggy Jean’s was quiet. The caller held her breath and was hopeful. Hopeful for what…she wasn’t sure. She had never been in such a situation before and her embarrassment had eclipsed her rationality.

“I’m not sure how we can help you, ma’am. Let me see if Peg is available to talk to you. Hold just a moment.”

She held. She clutched her dusty pink wall phone in her hand and wondered if she should start to look for the Cream of Tartar in her pantry and wondered what she did with the meringue recipe her mother had written on a scrap of paper so long ago. She worried. Then a woman’s voice came over the line. It didn’t sound much younger than her own voice.

“This is Peg. I hear you have a small problem.”

She carefully explained her situation to Peg, sparing no detail, except of her satisfaction upon finishing the pie and her pleasantly full stomach when she went to bed. Somewhere in her story though, her voice started to waiver and tears sprang to her eyes. How had she arrived at this moment in her life? Hands too shaky to allow her to bake, pleading with a stranger to replace a pie AS SOON AS POSSIBLE because she had eaten it all. She was surprised. At her age, she had learned something new about herself.

Peg caught the panic in the woman’s voice and heard the tears building. “Yes,” she said with empathy, but not pity. “Yes, I will get you that second pie.” “And your grandson will love it.” She placed the phone back in the cradle and dabbed her eyes, sighing relief and gratitude and expectation all in one breath.