Diamond Pete Lansing, aged sixty-eight, slammed his red-faced fists on the conference room table. “No! No! No!” he screamed, each word accented with a slam and followed by a mist of spittle. “Gonna git my trucks! Gonna git my guns!”
Virginia and Wilson Buss, aged sixty-four and sixty-five, glanced at each other. Their faces were tight and they held hands beneath the table. Father Norval, a spry fifty-five, stood up and licked his lips. “Peter, please–”
“-Aww, hell naw!” Diamond Pete said. He threw his white Stetson cowboy hat down on the table. Peter Lansing, born in Iowa, didn’t have any appreciable accent. But Diamond Pete, from the Diamond Pete’s Quality Used Fords ads, spoke in a cartoon southern drawl that sounded fine for selling cars and otherwise didn’t pass muster. “Those git-danged son-of-a-guns! I ain’t never! I ain’t never!”
His voice cut out, replaced by wheezing. Replaced by coughing.
Dr. Crully, aged seventy-seven, pushed himself to standing with his reed thin arms. “Peter, please,” he said. A lifetime of wrangling patients had given his smoker’s voice a deep, warm quality. It was comfortable confidence, appealing authority, and it brooked no back-talk. “Your heart.”
Dave Fuller, Diamond Pete’s fifty-two year old nephew, clapped his uncle on the back. Diamond Pete waved him away after the fifth clap and then he downed the rest of his bottled water. “I need,” he rasped, shook his head. “I need some git-danged air.” He stalked out of the conference room, out of city hall. Dave followed, ever his shadow.
Mayor Robert Wardell, aged seventy-three, let out a long breath. He glanced at Sheriff MacAvery. “Colton,” he said, “would you mind? Make sure Pete’s all right?” And what went unsaid: make sure he doesn’t do anything regrettable.
Sheriff MacAvery, aged sixty-two, nodded. “Will do, Mr. Mayor.” He departed, and for a moment nobody said anything in the stuffy conference room. The meeting had run late. It was supposed to be about the Independence Day festivities, but then Lorraine van der Meer, fifty-six year old editor of the Shirleyville Tribune, dropped her bombshell.
“Pete’s got a point,” Lorraine said, breaking the silence.
“No,” Robert said, slapping the table with both palms, “he doesn’t. We are not forming… some kind of pickup truck posse, all right? We’re not driving down to Patriciaburg and– and– and what? Shooting the place up? Please, be reasonable.”
Another silence. Robert looked up at the clock over the door, dragging out the seconds. Then he looked to the left, to the cross, seeking any guidance whatsoever. Finally, he looked to the right, to the portrait of Shirley Levard, namesake and heroine of the town. Even she was silent tonight.
“Well, we gotta do something,” Virginia Buss said, pulling her purse to her chest. “They stole our pie.”
June 21st, 1908, in the hours before dawn…
“You promised!” Shirley shrieked, tears stinging her eyes. She stamped her foot for emphasis. Doris, her eldest sister, sat impassive in her chair. She always sat in that chair, since her legs were useless – dead since birth. Patricia, the middle sister, stomped about elsewhere in the house, slamming some unknown thing. The three of them had been simmering in silence on the way home from the festival, but now the house had boiled over. “It was the Levard Sisters’ Pie!”
“Well, come now,” Doris said, in that horrid patronizing nasal voice of hers. “It was my recipe, after all.”
“We wouldn’t even have had a pie if it wasn’t for my rhubarb!” Shirley said.
“Oh!” Patricia said, storming into the kitchen. She threw her hands in the air. “Please do stop talking about that vile weed you pulled up!” Shirley recoiled, as though slapped. “Any old rhubarb will do in the hands of a skilled cook, and I baked that pie! That’s Patricia’s Rhubarb Pie and you know it!”
Doris snorted. “Hardly!”
“You’re a treacherous snake, Doris Josephine Levard,” Patricia said, levelling her finger at her sister. “You stole my pie and you stole my Stanley!”
“Your Stanley!?” Shirley said, incredulous. It was bad enough Doris was angling for her man, but Patricia too?
Patricia ignored her and continued. “I’ll not forget this. I’ll never speak to you again!” She stepped back, then took in both of her sisters with an intense glare. “Either of you! Jezebels!”
“Fine by me!” Doris shouted after her. Elsewhere, a door slammed.
Shirley felt something in her break. Something resilient, something fragile, some last vestige of childhood. But it was reforged in a righteous, angry fire, and it hardened into a bitter alloy. “Neither shall I!” she hissed, and she too fled the family home, never to return.
Robert pinched the bridge of his nose. He’d defused all the talk of trucks and guns and theft of building materials. He didn’t begrudge his fellow Shirleyvillers their town pride – on the contrary, he loved his home and the people that lived there – but there were limits to what you could do in civil society.
Shirleyville’s pride had been wounded a decade ago, when Doristown commissioned a new work of art and became the “Home of the World’s Biggest Rhubarb Pie!” That act of unneighbourly aggression pushed Shirleyville to the dubious title of “Home of the World’s Second Biggest Rhubarb Pie!”
And then today, Lorraine’s ominous revelation: Patriciaburg commissioned their own pie, bigger than all the others. Reinforced plaster on a modern concrete base, with a six foot bronze plaque commemorating a false history. Even though it’d be in the centre of town, it would be visible from the freeway. And it would push the current number one pie to number two. And it would push the current number two pie to… a measly number three.
“We’ll just build a bigger pie!” Father Norval said. They all loved that idea and argued over it for an hour and a half. Robert checked his notes while the others yammered. It wasn’t a terrible idea – certainly better than Pete’s – but there just wasn’t any money in the budget.
“We’ll raise money,” Lorraine said. “We can host a concert. A real one! A friend of mine, Johnny Bannatyne, knows Dolly Parton! We can get her to come down.”
“You say that every year,” Wilson Buss spat. “And she’s never been here even once.” And then more arguing.
June 20th, 1908, late evening…
Doris felt her heart hammering in her chest as the judges drew closer to the sisters’ table. And chief among them of course was the dashing Stanley Carmody. She felt her cheeks burn when she met his eyes and she quickly glanced away.
They had no chance of winning, of course, what with that exotic lemon meringue to their left, or the classically divine apple to the right. But then Stanley Carmody stopped at the Levard sisters’ table, and Doris couldn’t breathe. She felt an intense energy radiating from both her younger sisters, felt their hands on her shoulders.
“Hello, dear,” said Stanley. His smile could melt winter itself. “And what did you say this pie was called?”
Doris’ head spun, but she felt the reassuring warmth of her sisters’ hands on her back, felt their strength and encouragement, and she found her voice. “D-Doris’s Rhubarb Pie!”
Stanley beamed at her. “Doris’ Rhubarb pie,” he said, his husky voice for their table alone. “Breathtaking.” He leaned in, met her eyes – winked! – and then turned to the gathered crowd. “And the winner of this year’s festival is Doris’s Rhubarb Pie!”
Doris felt such a swell of pride – of other things – she could almost stand up. They won! And Stanley met her gaze again as the crowd cheered. What an amazing feeling! What a sublime evening!
Except… the warmth she felt a moment ago had withdrawn, and her sisters had grown silent.
“We don’t have the budget,” Robert said, for the nth time that night. He was getting tired of the sound of his own voice. We haven’t had the budget for years, he thought. Not for this, not for anything.
“All we gotta do is get people to come here,” Andy Myers, fifty-nine year old proprietor of the Wholesome Inn Motel, said. “We get tourists, we get money.”
“We need the pie to get tourists,” Wilson said.
Robert buried his face in his palms.
“Robert,” said Virginia Buss, “let’s put an item on the agenda. Let’s find a contractor to start on expanding our pie–”
“–We don’t have the budget.”
Lorraine started, “What if–”
“–Stop!” Robert interrupted. It was late, far too late. They were all fighting sleep, and only the adrenaline of indignation was keeping them up at this point. "Please, stop. And listen.
“We don’t have the budget. We don’t have the budget because we don’t have the taxes.” He raised his hands, forestalling any arguments. “I’m not saying we raise them. What I’m saying is… we’re dying.”
The others shifted in their seats, maybe listening a little more closely, but nobody interrupted.
“Shirleyville is dying. And we’ve been dying for a long while now.”
“C’mon, you’re exaggerating,” said Andy. “We’re doing just fine.”
“Are we? Where are your kids?”
Andy frowned. “Wally’s out in Phoenix, at that big time accounting firm. And Jenny’s off at college.” His frown turned into a proud father’s grin.
“Right,” Robert said. “Out of town. Out of state. Who’s going to take over the Wholesome when you can’t tend to guests anymore?”
An uncomfortable ripple went through the gathered crowd. The gathered seniors, Robert thought. We’re a retirement home pretending to be a town.
“No amount of tourists will save us,” he said. “We’re behind on everything. Our roads are worse every year. We’ve had those garbage collection issues. Our wastewater treatment plant is in desperate need of maintenance, and we keep pushing it off each year. And there’s fewer of us able to work, every day seems like.”
Dr. Crully nodded, as though he had delivered the speech himself. The others remained silent and cast worried looks around the room. Finally Virginia Buss spoke. “So what are you saying, Bobby? We… do like a job fair?”
Robert looked down at his ledger, at the numbers he’s been following for years. At the gymnastics he’s done with them, twisting them until they couldn’t be twisted any more, squeezing every cent he possibly could. Then he looked up at the portrait of Shirley Levard. It was silent of course, but maybe, he thought, there was something in her eyes. Something that encouraged him.
“Maybe it’s time we ended this feud.”
June 13th, 1908, midday…
Patricia pulled the pie out of the oven and carefully set it on the counter. It wasn’t the first she’d ever made, but this was a new recipe. Shirley appeared by her side, a cheery spring flower in bloom. She stood on her toes and sniffed the air with a big grin, and hugged Patricia. “Oh, it smells lovely!”
“I don’t know,” Patricia said, biting her lip. She pictured the handsome Stanley Carmody eating a slice… but would he like it?
“She’s right,” said Doris. She sat behind them, ever in her kitchen chair. “It smells simply heavenly!”
Patricia smiled. Doris was always so smart, so wise. She came up with the best recipes, and she was a wellspring of humility. That Patricia was able to bake the recipes for her sister was an immense source of pride. And it was lucky Shirley had such a green thumb, as this rhubarb really was outstanding. “Do you… do you really think we can win?”
Doris waved her sisters closer and she took their hands. “What’s most important is that we tried our hardest. The Good Lord loves honest, righteous labour.” Then her solemn features cracked into a toothy grin. “But yes, I think we can win!”
The Levard sisters embraced in a giggle.
“That’s one hell of an idea,” said Lester Green, sixty-six year old mayor of Doristown, the next day in the very same conference room.
Albert Coupland, sixty-four year old mayor of Patriciaburg, just wheezed a high pitched giggle. “A mighty bad idea. What’s the matter, Bobby? After forty years, have the Shirleyvillains finally run you out? Have you finally driven this dump into the ground?”
Robert let that slide and waited for Albert to finish. “You’re not in any better shape than we are, Albert. I know you can’t afford that pie, even if you don’t.” The way Albert shut up and gulped, perhaps he did know it.
“Let’s say I’m inclined to believe you,” Lester said. “You raise a good point about dramatically cutting costs and improving services, even if that means two of us are out a job. Fine, numbers don’t lie. But, there’s no way the people will accept this. The sisters are sacred in this county. There’s a lot of old loyalty there. Nobody will ever give theirs up, especially not for one of the other two.”
Robert nodded. “I agree.”
Albert sniffed. “So what’s your plan about that, bigshot?”
Robert sat back in his chair. “We keep all three. When we merge, we merge as the City of Levard.”
Lester and Albert leaned back in their chairs. They pondered it, and Lester was the first to crack a smile. Then Albert nodded slowly. It just might work.
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The writing here is very visceral, you captured the tone really well as you went back and forwards.
Thanks, Graham! I don't normally play around with chronology like this, so I'm glad it worked out :)
It’s a little difficult because it’s experimental but that’s part of the fun.
Old Timey and smart. I was reminded of Twain's frog, the Japanese saying they found the oldest city in the world and J Spyri gentle prose. Thank you.
Thanks, Tommy! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)
Yep. Did you say you were a computer programmer?
Yes, that's right. Writing of a (significantly) different sort :)
Michal, thank you for another wonderful story. I could almost visualize the triangle of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia in this story. You captured the small southern towns, USA, very well. I liked the back and forth between the present and past lives of the current town folks and the sisters of the past. Loved that they were able to come to a solution after so many years. I will be discussing 10 Days to Mindfulness Monday and will give you feedback.
Thanks, Cal! Small towns definitely have their share of problems, and just because outsiders might not care about them doesn't mean they're not real problems. But we can lose sight of what's important too, maybe doubling-down on something out of habit or loyalty, even if it no longer makes sense. Thanks for reading! I hope your discussion goes well, and I look forward to hearing from you :)
Can't believe I've just got around to reading this, Michal! I love the concept and the beautiful pettiness of the feudal origins. There's something both wholesome and very off about it. I can picture it as a short film, the early scenes full sepia. I thought I was a bit distracted by the ages at the start, then realised I wasn't (if that doesn't sound too barking) and I get what that's telling us about the age of the feud/ decaying of the residents. I could almost hear it narrated by a southern drawl, giving the third person a charact...
Thanks, Jay! Always appreciate your feedback. "both wholesome and very off" Thanks! I like the idea of things having vastly different, perhaps conflicting, meanings depending on how you look at them, so I'm happy some of that comes through the writing. Diamond Pete sounds like a fun guy. I have this image in my mind that even Peter Lansing prefers him to the real thing. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)
Ah, the idyllic small-town atmosphere… This is very entertaining. I grew up in a town that has grown from 5,000 (when my grandparents were young) to 15,000 (when I was in high school) to over 60,000 - but still has some small-town attitude. (Too big for its britches! Google “tubs on stilts”… ooh, that may be a future story!) Noticed there’s a bit of controversy about the “age-dropping” - so here’s my thought: it got my attention and drove home the point about the town dying. I think it works, in the context of this story. Also - great double...
Thanks, Cindy! I thought "tubs on stilts" was maybe an idiom I wasn't familiar with. Then I got a bunch of hits on Google about Petaluma, and literal tubs on stilts :D If you write that, I'll gladly read it. I'm glad the ages worked or you. I didn't expect it to be such a contentious point but I can think of much worse ways to be a "controversial writer", so all in all I think it worked out :) I appreciate the feedback!
An idiom - Ha ha! Love that thought! Maybe something could be “as practical as a tub on stilts”. (Yeah, unfortunately, they are a big issue…)
Ooh, such darkness in this town! It's as delicious as a rhubarb pie. I was expecting something more violent, more atrocious, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that pie and sisters were the roots of all that evil. I loved the play between past and present and all the neverending silliness we recycle through the years. How delightful that the seasoned men agreed on a down-to-earth solution to a century of grief. Great story!
Thanks, Carolyn! "all the neverending silliness we recycle through the years" -- history, in a nutshell :P I'm glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for the feedback :)
This is a truly funny piece with a very creative, almost cartoon-like quality. I think my favorite lines come from near the beginning: "Peter Lansing, born in Iowa, didn’t have any appreciable accent. But Diamond Pete, from the Diamond Pete’s Quality Used Fords ads, spoke in a cartoon southern drawl that sounded fine for selling cars and otherwise didn’t pass muster." Well done!
Thanks, Katy! Sometimes we play a role so well it creeps into real life, which I suspect happened with Pete. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)
This is exceptional story telling. Revealing a town's history through its people (and their feuds) was a stroke of genius. When I read the line '“Well, we gotta do something,” Virginia Buss said, pulling her purse to her chest. “They stole our pie”' I knew I was going to be in for something great. So funny, so realistic, and a perfect slice (hah) of small-town life. I noticed there were some other comments mentioning the ages you provided in the beginning. I actually enjoyed them quite a bit (character-wise) and found them important toward t...
Thanks, Robin! Yeah, feuds can tell us a lot about what matters to people, and by their nature they're rooted in history. It's an unresolved fight. "and a perfect slice" lol :D I'm glad you enjoyed it!
Another excellent story, brilliantly written and I loved the humour. I don't have much to add to what so many others here have said except that I particularly enjoyed the dialogue. You write this so well and I could hear the voices of these characters in my head as I read. I thoroughly enjoyed this.
Thanks, Chris! Very happy to hear the dialogue worked for you :)
Things I loved in no particular order: It was comfortable confidence, appealing authority, and it brooked no back-talk. Pickup Truck Posse The part where we realize why Diamond Pete is so mad and all because- They stole our pie. The three of them had been simmering in silence on the way home from the festival, but now the house had boiled over. Okay my initial thoughts: You certainly mis-genre'd this one. It should be Western, Sad, Funny. The diction, the relationships, the feuds, the stealing of men from one another, sister loyalty-- I ...
Thanks, Shea! Always appreciate your feedback. "Western, Sad, Funny" Heh, you're probably right. I struggle with tags most weeks. I think this one could have hit American too. I'm glad you found parts of it funny. Life often is :)
I made strawberry rhubarb this week too! Great pie
Great story and story telling. Kept my interest all the way through.
Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it.
I like the premise a lot. The way you weaved the past into the present to reach a solution and including my favorite pie as the center of it all :) Rhubarb, yum! I didn't need to know the age of the people when introduced in the story. You use the fact that the town is small and aged later when talking about the next generation being all but gone on work and college. A fun use of the prompt! Well done :)
Thanks, Jeanette! I appreciate the read and the feedback. Yes, perhaps the ages weren't strictly necessary. Not sure I would do it again.
Hello Michał, Another great entry from you. I enjoyed the vibe out of this one quite a bit. The way you managed to build an entire town, complete with the effective use of flashbacks to tell a parallel story that revealed what's happening at the end, was marvelous! I found it interesting how you introduced each character with what their role and age were. It definitely was an efficient use of words since it gave just enough to help paint the picture of the town, as well as give us something to imagine for backstory without having to go int...
Thanks, J.C.! Always happy to get your feedback. I'm glad the town and its history came through well, and that it all tied together well in the end. The flashbacks came to me mid-writing and I was initially leery of them, but I think they added some needed context. There was definitely potential to blow past 3k though. "I couldn't help but laugh at the beginning when they were upset about the stolen pie." :D
This was a terrific and satirical rendering of small town Americana. The vernacular as well as the depiction of how petty squabbles can lead to the founding of towns were both spot on. A very ambitious take on the prompt. The kudos are well deserved, and hopefully the criticism will fortify your next effort.
Thanks, Mike! I appreciate the feedback, and yeah, I find all feedback helpful for future stories :)
Great use of the prompt, Michał. I was never gonna touch this one with a ten-foot pole, because telling the history of a whole town in 3k words is playing the writing game on hard mode, but you managed to make it work. Kudos. Really enjoyed the storytelling in this one. Thought it was very clever to start the backstory of the three girls from the explosive moment of impact and work backwards to show how we got there. I think three was the appropriate number of flashbacks necessary to reveal the information - two would've made Shirley and Pa...
Hey Zack! First off, thanks for catching that line! Definite typo. I actually glossed over the mistake in your feedback too, the first time. Too close to the writing, I guess. You raise a good point about the 5-6 characters. I'm glad it was manageable, but it probably was too many. I actually wanted even more of them, and there's a small pile of people (and backstories, and side stories, etc) that didn't make the cut. This is what was threatening to make this one balloon past 3k, but the town and history were well enough established witho...
Hey Michał! This reminded me of a Pixar movie I haven't actually seen, but I mean the one where little pople in people's head run the show and I was just picturing the town's meeting happening in the sisters' heads without them being aware at all. Love the Doristown, Shirleywille and Patriciaburg for town names with their pictures in the meeting room - and "Shirleyvillains" LOL. It was an interesting structure for this one, with the sisters story to reveal backstory starting at the end and the "meeting" progressing forwards in time, but bot...
Hey Riel! Happy to hear from you. I haven't seen that movie either (Inside Out, I think?) but holy crap, that's an awesome idea! That might have to make it into another story :) The structure was for sure experimental. Conflict to peace, as you pointed out. I had actually done it 100% chronological initially, but it seemed to read better this way. Hopefully it wasn't too ham fisted. Nothing wrong with rhubarb crumble! Thanks for reading :)
"It was comfortable confidence, appealing authority, and it brooked no back-talk." I spent a little time on that line and finally looked up the word, "Brooked." What a great use of it. I love finding and using similar unfamiliar words to describe things. This was a great read with fantastic accented dialogue. Well done.
Thanks, Chris! Yeah, I think every week I'm finding at least a couple new words, or new uses for old words, just by reading other people's stories. Lots of creative people here.
First of all, I don’t know how you pump your stories out so quickly. We’re all over here still mulling over idea and you’ve already finished yours! Great job. I loved how immersive this story is. The dialect, the characters, the setting—you nailed small town politics! Part of me was wondering if this was allegorical as I was reading, but I wasn’t confident enough to guess at anything. What a fun story. I am always impressed by the variety of genres and styles you write in.
Thanks for reading, Aeris! "pump your stories out so quickly" -- dealines make my skin crawl :P I have submitted a few on Fridays, with just hours to go, but that's super stressful. I find it's easier to start a new one if I write at least a sentence/idea for each of the five prompts -- especially the ones I blank on -- and then let that simmer in the brain overnight. Usually leads to something over the weekend. I'm glad you liked the story! It wasn't intended to be allegorical, but I'm not against allegory and I'd love to hear your inte...
I had thought that the pie was representative of petty issues in general, but maybe in a grander sense of causing division among generations, or in religious institutions/small town churches, or in a nation on a political level. But either way, the same truth rings out, that letting small issues mushroom into something big enough to cause division and damage to relationships just isn’t worth it. And I agree! Waiting to turn in stories until Friday night is super stressful! But that’s about the extend of “living life on the edge” that I’m w...
All great points :) On the other hand, if we have time to bicker about a pie, maybe life isn't so bad.
I'm split on how I feel about the ages at the beginning; they are a little distracting (another way to look at it is that they're unnecessarily pedantic or splitting hairs, like these arguments--in which case they actually serve the tone.) Enjoyed the ride. Favorite line was: 'They all loved that idea and argued over it for an hour and a half.'
Thanks for reading! And for bringing up the ages -- "they are a little distracting" that's very useful feedback. My goal was to drive home the point that this is an old community, but maybe this approach was a little much. This was very much a tell-not-show, so maybe showing would have been a better way to do it. Perhaps the Busses have walkers. Maybe Dr. Crully needs help getting to his feet. Physical traits -- white hair, poor eyesight/hearing, aching joints, things like that. Something I'll need to keep in mind going forward. I apprecia...
Michal: Again, you got my story, sliced and diced to the core. Being a Florida transplant for five decades, rhubarb with strawberries is my nostalgic favorite and my grandmother grew a long furrow of each, side by side in her back yard garden every year. I couldn't resist. I have finally been able to grow strawberries in south Florida, but the rhubarb just doesn't seem to like to grow here. And the rancor and hankering over petty shit sounds like when I used to play outside the meeting room when my great uncle was mayor for decades and ...
Thanks for reading! I appreciate the feedback, and I'm glad to hear it came across as believable. "Little people in these towns can really make mountains out of mole hills" -- yes, I think we can all get wrapped up in the little things a little too easily, missing the big picture. Missing the forest for the trees, as it were, which can be dangerous when the forest is on fire.