Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Pie and Whiskey

Samuel Ligon

I love Connie to death, really I do, but sometimes she takes things too far. Other times she won’t take things far enough, depending on the thing at hand, but mostly it’s too far she takes everything else. Her cold remedy includes a pound and a half of raw beef tenderloin, eight to twelve shots of bourbon, two Valiums, a pack of menthol cigarettes, three bottles of Robitussin, and a pound cake. “What about pie,” I asked her around two this morning. “As a replacement for the cake. Wouldn’t homemade pie be better than store-bought pound cake?”

I’ve been making a lot of pie lately, perfecting the crust, introducing lard—not Crisco but actual pork fat—to give my crust greater flake and dignity. She knows how hard I’ve been working that crust. She was still in the tub so early this morning, drinking from bottles of Old Grand-Dad and Robitussin, when I offered her a piece of ginger rhubarb, thinking the ginger might open her sinuses. Tissues littered the bathroom floor a foot deep, creating a kind of beautiful fluffiness across the tile, but it’s the worst summer cold I’ve seen. She’s been drunk fifteen weeks trying to kick it, switching between small-batch bourbons, sour mashes, and the cheap stuff, even working a gallon of homemade corn liquor her cousin Kenny brought up from Washburne. Nothing works, though she says she’d be dead if it weren’t for all the medicine she’s taking. She switches from Kools to Newports and back again, runs through every kind of cough syrup. We’re about broke keeping her in tenderloin, though she’s never more beautiful than when she’s in the tub, a flatman of whiskey in one hand, a fistful of raw beef in the other, the meat warming from the steam and dripping pinkish juice down her delicate forearm into the bath water as she alternates between medicines, seeking relief. Beautiful or not, she’s not getting better, despite what she takes. I thought maybe some pie would help, but she wouldn’t even look at the plate I held out to her just a few minutes ago. “Donny,” she finally said. “I told you—pie won’t do a damn thing for what I’ve got,” and I thought, No shit, babe, and walked my temper and loneliness back to the kitchen.

I know whiskey’s no cure for a cold, even if it has been known to cure genital warts. I take another hydrocodone with my coffee and return to the crust problem at hand—determining the perfect pork fat to butter ratio. Humidity’s always a factor with crust, and I try to account for it as I struggle with my flake and flavor balance. I’m the first to admit that I’ve failed these past few weeks to create a consistent crust, one that’s both flaky and flavorful. But at least I don’t have genital warts. Sometimes when I’m thinking about lard ratios, I catch myself whispering the name for those warts—Papilloma—until I can practically see this Italian girl, dark and strong and mysterious, and almost never drunk all night in the tub. I hear her grandfather calling to her in his rich Italian voice across the alps: Papilloma. Or, no, not her grandfather. Her lover. She lifts her beautiful face to the sound of his voice. Papilloma, he calls. I like saying it around the house, even though Connie gets pissed. She probably wonders if I’m thinking of someone else, and maybe I am a little. Not that I’d ever step out on her. Still, I wish she’d try another fix for this bug she’s got.

She won’t even consider my remedy. All these pies I’ve been baking, but also the Vicodin cure I’ve been studying since she gave me the clap last winter and it felt like someone had taken a hammer to my balls. She picked it up from a toilet seat in a gas station when she was visiting her mother. Antibiotics cleared up the infection and Vicodin took care of the pain, and Vicodin still makes me feel better than just about anything, though my neighbor Lloyd says it only masks symptoms. But so what? Masking symptoms is as good as not having symptoms. Maybe better. Vicodin or pie, I think, but she won’t try either. Two days ago, I made a peach bourbon tart, thinking the whiskey would entice Connie, but she wouldn’t even look at it.

How many times can a pie baker’s heart be broken?

Oh, we still love each other to death. I wouldn’t be doing all this if we didn’t, just like she wouldn’t be trying so hard to cure her cold. But I’m thinking about that Italian girl more and more, baking the sound of her name into my pies with all that love and lard, thinking that once the money runs out something will have to change. Until then, it’ll be Connie in the tub with whiskey and cough syrup and me in the kitchen on hydros and coffee, perfecting my crust. I know she’ll taste my pie sooner or later and realize what it is that can save her. But the way she looked at me from the tub tonight made me think we’re near the end of something here.

I bake until morning, until the sound of her coughing cuts into the kitchen and I know she’s awake. There’s a splash like she’s slapping the water, which must have gone cold long ago. “Papilloma,” I whisper, venting a top crust, my knife coming up purple with huckleberry juice. I wonder how many pies it would take to save her, how much whiskey and meat. “Donnie,” she calls, hacking. “My medicine.” I cut her a slice of lemon meringue and wonder how many Vicodins it would take, baked in a pie or cobbler, to end her suffering for good.