By Debra H. Goldstein
- Derringer 2020 Short Story Finalist
- Mystery Most Edible – Malice Domestic Anthology (2019)
My mama knew how to make a cake. You could guarantee if there was a church bazaar or potluck where desserts were going to be auctioned off, Father Horst would stop by our house a few weeks ahead of time to ask Mama to donate two of her cakes. Normally, he didn’t care what kind of cakes Mama made, but for the annual Ladies Auxiliary Fourth of July Potluck fundraiser, he’d come, hat in hand, sweet talking her to bake two of her Pig Lickin’ cakes. He’d tell her there wasn’t anyone else in the whole county who made a cake as light and moist as her Mandarin orange specialty.
Even though she hated the ladies of the auxiliary, she’d do anything for him—even breaking the promise she made every year to never make another Pig Lickin’ cake. According to Mama, she owed him. Father Horst was the only one who spoke up and said Daddy shouldn’t be on death row.
Not that it had made a difference. Everyone from around here, ‘cept Mama and Father Horst, knew it was an open and shut case. After all, they had a dead man, a suspect standing over the body, and a bloody knife pried from Daddy’s left hand. The jury wasn’t even out for an hour before it came back with its guilty verdict. It was clear to the jurors that Daddy had killed Judd Brown.
The first few times we went to church after the trial, we sat in the same center pew we always had. Mama stared straight ahead, but I saw the ladies of the auxiliary point at us and I heard their whispers. They thought an eight-year-old was too young to understand what they were saying, but I wasn’t. That’s how I learned the details of Daddy’s trial, and that while nobody was particularly sorry Judd Brown was dead, they sure pitied Mama and me.
On the Sunday right after the hearing, instead of listening to Father Horst’s sermon, Ms. Ida and Ms. Mae, the president and vice-president of the auxiliary, whispered in hushed tones to anyone who hadn’t crowded into the courtroom about how they testified, hand on the Bible. They wanted everyone to know that the last day Judd Brown took a breath on this earth, they walked into the church’s kitchen and saw Judd lying on the ground with Daddy bent over him. Daddy’s left hand was curled around the handle of the knife stuck in Judd’s chest. He used his right hand to wave them back.
Even though Ms. Ida kept her voice low, I heard every word she said. “I screamed! He turned and stared at me with the coldest eyes I’ve ever seen. Even now, if I shut my eyes, I can still see those—hard and cold pieces of coal twinkling with the brilliance of a diamond.”
I squeezed my eyes as tightly closed as I could, but the only eyes that came into my mind were soft brown ones that matched my cocker spaniel’s.
The year after Daddy went away, after Father Horst came by the house before the Fourth of July Potluck, Mama started letting me help her make her Pig Lickin’ cakes. My job, like Daddy’s used to be when he helped her, was gathering up the ingredients to make the second cake. I got a yellow cake mix, can of mandarin oranges, vanilla pudding mix, powdered sugar, vanilla extract, and a can of crushed pineapple out of the pantry. The margarine, four eggs, and Cool Whip came from our refrigerator.
Once I placed the ingredients on the table, I kept quiet so instead of sending me out to play, she’d let me watch her add the cake mix, stick of softened margarine, teaspoon of vanilla extract, and half cup of the orange syrup drained from the canned oranges into the bowl of her electric mixer. After she mixed everything on medium-high for four minutes, she declared the mix to be well-blended. I didn’t know about that, but it sure looked real light and fluffy before she dumped the drained oranges into the bowl. She mixed those up, too, until they broke into itty bitty pieces.
Satisfied, she tipped the mixer back and poured the batter from the bowl into a nine-by-thirteen pan and put it into the oven at 350 degrees. After she set a timer for thirty minutes, she returned to where I waited near the mixer.
When she said “Go,” we each reached for a beater to lick clean. It felt a little funny. For the first time since I’d ever played the beater game, Daddy wasn’t there jostling me before he let me grab the right beater.
As the years went by, Mama and I fell into a pattern of making the cakes together and then I’d deliver them to the church. I think Ms. Mae, still a fixture of the Ladies Auxiliary, must have forgotten who I was because whenever she told the story of her day in court, she stopped whispering around me.
I heard her tale so many times I got so I could predict when she was going to pause and pull out her hanky, monogrammed with its big M, to dab her eyes. After her silent moment, she’d look at whoever was listening and tell them how she cried on the stand as she explained to the jury how she screamed when Daddy yanked the cake knife out of Judd’s chest. “He held it in his hand. We weren’t going to wait and see what he did with it. Ida and I ran from that kitchen. We were plumb afraid he was going to use that knife on us. It’s a miracle he didn’t follow us.”
He didn’t. He simply stood there according to our police chief’s testimony that I read in a copy of the trial transcript Mama left on the kitchen counter one night. I guess she’d been trying to write something to convince the governor not to electrocute Daddy. Usually she worked on things to save Daddy only when I went to bed or wasn’t home, but I guess something had distracted her and she forgot to put the transcript up. What with the date set for Daddy’s electrocution and me getting ready to graduate high school and move on to Mississippi State, she might have forgotten to make the Pig Lickin’ cakes if Father Horst hadn’t reminded her about them when he made a special trip to our house to pick up the letter to the governor.
She couldn’t say no to the good father, but for the first time that day, after the cake cooled and I washed the mixing bowl and beaters, Mama let me make the icing. Under her watchful eye, I carefully drained the can of pineapple, putting its liquid aside. I put the vanilla pudding mix in my clean mixing bowl, poured the pineapple juice onto it, and added half a cup of powdered sugar. I ran the mixer until all my ingredients were combined. Then, I whipped in about half a carton of the Cool Whip that had softened in the refrigerator. Once everything looked fluffy, I stirred in the drained crushed pineapple.
Mama ran her index finger over her beater. When she plopped her finger into her mouth, the shine of the wedding ring she still wore caught my eye.
“Perfect. I think the cake is cool, so you can turn it over onto the white platter and then spread the icing onto it.”
I kept silent. Mama wasn’t done talking.
“Don’t forget to cover the sides. You wouldn’t believe how many people forget to cover an entire cake.”
I nodded. I’d seen plenty of cakes at the church bazaars that were heavy on icing on the top but barely touched on the sides.
“Once you spread that icing evenly, put the cakes in the refrigerator until you take them to the church tomorrow. I’m going to bed. I’m tired.” She kissed my head and left me with the two cakes to ice and the transcript sitting on the counter to read.
The police chief’s testimony was straightforward. “I pulled my gun before I walked into the kitchen in case he went crazy on us like Ida and Mae seemed to think he would, but he simply stood between the kitchen counter and where Judd lay. He still was holding that big cake knife in his left hand. I told him to drop it. He stared at me for a second before he let the knife fall from his fingers and held his hands out toward me. I guess he thought I’d handcuff him immediately. Instead, I kept my gun pointed at him while my deputy bagged the knife. Once my deputy was beyond his reach, I holstered my gun and cuffed him. He came peacefully with me.”
After Daddy was sent to meet his maker, Mama hid the transcript in a drawer with a lock of his hair, a picture of the two of them and a very young Father Horst cutting up when the three might have been in high school, and a picture someone snapped of a more serious Father Horst marrying Mama and Daddy. Because nothing in that drawer ever moved between the times I looked through it, I decided Mama never opened the drawer. That’s why, the year I went to law school, I took the Pig Lickin’ cake recipe she’d written out and the transcript from the drawer with me. I don’t know what I hoped to do with the transcript, but I thought having it might help me find answers to the many questions running around inside my head.
In law school, I was taught never to ask a question in a courtroom if I didn’t already know the answer to it. My instructor used the example of a man accused of biting off the nose of the man he was fighting with. A witness had identified the lawyer’s client. The lawyer asked, “Did you see my client bite off the plaintiff’s nose?”
“No, sir,” the witness answered.
Triumphantly, the lawyer postured for the entire courtroom. “Then, how can you say my client is the guilty party?”
“Because I saw him spit it out.”
I guess Daddy’s court-appointed lawyer missed that lesson because he asked the police chief, “How can you say my client is guilty?”
The police chief’s answer was short and sweet. “The icing on his fingers.”
“Yes. There was a Pig Lickin’ cake sitting on the counter. I guess he tried to cut himself a piece with the knife before he ended up using it on Judd.”
“What makes you so sure he’d used the knife?”
“There was an indentation in the icing of the cake and icing on both the defendant’s hand and the knife. There wasn’t icing anywhere else in the kitchen except on the cake itself.”
The transcript reported a laugh, but I don’t know if it was the police chief reacting to his joke or from the courtroom audience chuckling. It didn’t matter; the jury agreed the icing on his fingers and knife was enough evidence for Daddy’s conviction. Still, something gnawed at me whenever I made and brought one of those easy-to-make Pig Lickin’ cakes to a potluck or a party.
I’d take my finished cake from the refrigerator, cut it in squares, and at the last minute carefully place a mandarin orange on top of each square exactly like I’d done before I took Mama’s cakes to the church. I had to be careful not to graze the top of the cake as I placed the oranges on each piece to avoid messing up the icing.
That’s when it probably hit me, but I didn’t put it all together until I came home for Mama’s funeral after Father Horst called me at my New York law office to tell me she’d died unexpectedly. Crazed by the empty house, I made two Pig Lickin’ cakes for the coffee and cake reception that was going to be held after her memorial service.
Father Horst came by the house to pay his respects the night before the funeral. He followed me into the kitchen after I offered to make him a cup of coffee. When I reached into the refrigerator for milk, he saw the iced cakes.
“They’re for the reception. I had to make something.”
“Those are perfect. I’m going back to the church when I leave here. Would you like me to put them in the fellowship hall refrigerator for you?”
“That would be most kind, but do you have the time to wait while I top each square with a mandarin orange?”
“No problem.” He took the milk container from me, poured some into his coffee, and handed the container back to me. While it was still hot, he picked up the mug and turned its handle away from where I stood to his left. My eyes rested on his hands while he continued talking until I had to concentrate on putting the mandarin slices on each piece of cake without getting icing on my hand.
“I’m going to miss your mother. You know, your daddy and she were my friends long before they ever got married. Why, if she hadn’t had eyes only for him, I might not have taken my vows and could have ended up being your daddy.”
I kept my lips pressed together.
Father Horst smiled as he leaned forward, giving his lips a little lick. “Know what I’m going to miss the most?”
“No, sir. I don’t.”
He pointed toward where I was placing mandarin orange slices on the last few cake squares. “Her Pig Lickin’ cakes.”
“But she only made those once a year.” I glanced at my hand. As much as I’d tried to be careful, I’d still gotten a little icing on it.
“Not until . . .” his voice trailed off. When he spoke again, he’d moved on to a slight variation of his topic. “Of all her cakes, these were always my favorite. I used to run the bidding up on them during the church’s silent auction until I could guarantee winning one of them. I’d pay for it and while everyone was busy eating, I’d slip away from the social hall to take my cake to the rectory. I wasn’t going to share it with anyone.”
He laughed. “I confess and hope you’ll absolve me of my guilt about loving your mother’s Pig Lickin’ cakes.”
“And should I absolve you of loving her so much you let an innocent man be put to death?”
Father Horst moved away from me. “I don’t understand.”
“But I do.” I held up my right hand which still had traces of icing on it. I got up and walked toward the sink. Deliberately, I washed my hands and dried them with a dishtowel. Turning back, I met his gaze.
“Daddy was right-handed like me, but the police chief mentioned Daddy’s left hand when he testified about the icing and the knife. If Daddy tasted the icing or put an orange on the cake, he would have instinctively used his right hand, so the icing would have been on his right hand like it was on mine. That means he intentionally got icing on his left hand.”
Father Horst narrowed his eyes, so I could barely see his pupils. “You’re not making sense. We all unconsciously use different hands to do different things depending upon how we’re standing.”
“When you pointed, took the milk container from me, or poured milk into your coffee, you used your dominant right hand. You even turned the coffee mug so you could hold its handle with your right hand. That’s what we do unconsciously. Mama was a lefty. That’s why she always grabbed the left mixing bowl beater while Daddy and I fought over the right one. She would have gotten icing on her left hand while putting the last touches on the cake. From the things I’ve heard about Judd Brown’s lewd behavior, you probably know why she stabbed him, but that doesn’t matter anymore. I gather when she came to you to confess, she told you something like Daddy came in, sized up the situation, sent her from the room, and grabbed the knife with his left hand to make it look like he was the one who’d killed Judd.”
Father Horst stood silently in front of me, his mouth clenched tightly.
“Did you love her so much you wouldn’t turn her in?”
“No, I loved God and my vows more than her. I took a vow of confidentiality, respecting matters heard in confession. I couldn’t convince her to go against the agreement to be silent she’d made with your father, but I spoke out on his behalf and against capital punishment.”
Now it was my turn to be confused. “But you tormented her by coming around every Fourth of July for those blasted Pig Lickin’ cakes. That’s a strange way to show you love someone.”
“You misunderstand. That was my way of showing God’s love for your mother. Her penance was having to make two Pig Lickin’ cakes on each anniversary of the murder. I simply helped give her an avenue through which to make her act of penance.”
He reached for my hand, but I shook him away. I got through the service and returned to New York that night. The first thing I did was tear up the Pig Lickin’ cake recipe Mama had written out for me. It didn’t matter how Pig Lickin’ good or easy that cake was, I knew I’d never make one again.