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.