Continued from last week’s installment of Digging in the Dirt.
“Entering Dirt City, PA. Pop. 329, Elev. 994 ft.” Louisa swerved, just missing the sign. She corrected immediately and continued at exactly 45 mph. It didn’t happen all the time, but it happened enough that she was used to it.
She meditated on a checklist of concerns.
Stupid frogs, she thought. It seemed like a good idea, but now it felt dull, uninspired and silly. Was her sister just playing along? Did she really like them? Maybe she was just too kind to say.
She flipped on the radio, and let the insecurity of those thoughts settle behind her ears and slide down the back of her brain, where she kept them for later.
Her hand involuntarily tugged at the wheel, but she got it back under control. The curse. At least, that’s what they’d taken to calling it for the last three weeks. She couldn’t seem to hold anything. Her hands had a mind of their own. She’d gone to the doctor, but all tests were negative.
There was no doubt. It was some kind of curse. Louisa and Tabitha had been walking by Saint Mark’s Church, an old country church with peeling white paint and a dilapidated steeple, and ancient, thin headstones thrusting up at angles.
It was a pig. It came up to her out of nowhere. It was cute, she thought, and bent over to pet it. But the moment she touched it, she felt a strange energy–an electric flow but somehow hollow. The pig felt it too, and tromped through the cemetery and behind the church.
She hadn’t been able to pick up anything since, or hold her hands steady. The effects were always momentary. Momentary, and jarring, and persistent.
She had explained it to Jim. She showed him. She had been to the doctor. No one had answers.
She gripped the wheel. Well, one person might, she realized in that second.
Jim, sitting across from a placemat and utensils, looked over the paper menu that Dorothy had put on the table. At the top, in what Jim called “Superhero Font”–a diagonal Impact Bold in italics and set in colors that made it look like they might be on fire–was “Mud Pies Pie Shoppe”.
Dorothy Wilson opened up “Mud Pies” with her husband Max when they moved out to “the country”. She had retired from an overtaxing sales job. Max was just getting tired of everything. Dorothy was retired for six months before she couldn’t stand her own lack of utility, and opened up the pie shop after very little thought.
Max–67, quiet, and comfortable in a wide array of plaid shirts–worked in the pie shop a bit and did some taxidermy out of the basement of their house. Dorothy was a young 65, and she had not lost her knack for looking put-together, nor her salesperson’s habit of talking to everyone about everything.
“How’s your dad?” she asked Jim as she wiped down the lunch counter.
“Alright,” replied Jim, still looking down at the menu.
“Has he gotten lost lately? Scared the bejesus out of us last month. You know, you have to be careful. You can get in over your head pretty quick with that stuff.”
“Yeah, I know,” Jim tried to manage a polite look that also communicated that he didn’t wish to talk. Not about his father, at any rate.
“I had an aunt once, used to put graham crackers and peanut butter in her socks, then stick ‘em under the bed in a shopping bag. Her family didn’t know it until the ants came. She was funny though, used to say the craziest shit.” She stopped talking and Jim let the silence hang. “So, you know what you want?”
“Not yet. Waiting for Louisa.”
Finally sensing that her company wasn’t required, Dorothy went back into the kitchen. Too bad, she thought. First person to walk in for two hours. She started stacking cans, thinking about her marketing plan.
Louisa saw Jim for a moment, through the window, before she approached. He was a good looking guy. Younger than her, neat polo shirt, stylishly arranged short brown hair, a meditative habit, green thoughtful eyes. The bells on the door jingled as she pushed it open.
Jim stood up and gave her a hug and a happy smile. That was the way you greeted someone when you were dating for five months.
She sat down and picked up the menu.
“So, I’ve been thinking,” he said, “should I call myself ‘James’ instead of ‘Jim’? I like ‘James’. Seems more serious. More professional.”
Louisa, propped her tired head on her tired hand, elbow on table, and gazed dimly through him. “What?”
“I think maybe I should introduce myself as ‘James’. You know, in interviews.”
“Oh. Yeah. Maybe. Would I have to call you ‘James’?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Good. I don’t know if I could get used to that.” She glanced down at the menu. Peach pie. Peach pie sounded good. “Do you like my frogs? The pictures, I mean.”
“Yeah, they’re great,” Jim had decided on the sweet potato pie.
“Yeah. Cute. I’m not into frogs, but I’m sure some people are.”
Dorothy approached the table and they both placed an order, with coffee. Louisa was holding the menu with both hands, and when she went to pass it to Dorothy her right hand jerked and tore the top corner off. She handed the menu in both pieces to Dorothy, who ignored everything, as she was used to being diplomatic.
As she began to cut the pie, she called from the counter, “Hey, either of you know anything about cable? Mine’s not working. Cell phone’s out too, which is weird. Haven’t been able to get the internet all day.”
“Not really,” said Louisa, who then gestured to Jim. He shook his head, “no”, and Dorothy went back to slicing pie.
“Jim, I’ve been thinkin’ about this curse.”
“It’s not a curse. That’s silly. It’s got to be something else.” He began tapping the table lightly with his fingers. He hated talking about this.
“It’s not. I swear. I just know.”
“Ok, say it is a curse. What do you do about it?”
“Can you talk, maybe, to Rosie? Or get Russ to?” She brushed her long hair out of her face with the back of her hand.
“Yeah. You know, she started that church. Maybe she can help.”
“She’s a first-rate crackpot. Always has been.”
“I am willing to try anything. Crackpots included.” Louisa’s voice was getting louder and Dorothy looked up. They turned to her, and everyone smiled. Dorothy was fixing the coffee “I need someone to talk to Rosie.” She said in an urgent, hushed voice. Her eyes got wide.
Dorothy set the pies and coffee in front of them. “By the way, Jim, did you hear Larry’s hiring? He got the landscaping contract at the high school.”
“No, I didn’t. Thanks.” Jim decided that the pie was the only thing that wasn’t annoying him in that moment, and took a bite. Something was odd. Something was really… wonderful.
“Good Lord, Dorothy,’ Jim said, “This pie is fantastic. New recipe?”
“No.” Jim had been ordering the sweet potato pie off and on for the last year. “Same as always.”
“This is incredible.” His enthusiasm was bordering on lunatic. Louisa and Dorothy both stared at him. “I’m… I’m sorry.” Suddenly self-conscious, he fell silent as Louisa took a bite of hers. Her eyes grew wide, and she turned a surprised, contorted face to Dorothy.
“What?” asked Dorothy, now a little upset.
“This peach pie is… amazing!”
Dorothy slowly backed away from the table and looked behind the counter. Same pie as always. She got a fork and stuck it in the peach pie, and slowly, timidly took a bite. A shocked smile spread across her face, and they all nodded to each other excitedly.
It was so good, they agreed, it was almost scary.