The Baker's Thief
Warm, ripe cherry goodness filled the air from the hot pie on the window sill.
It was worth burning my fingers.
I wrapped my shirt cuff around my hand, but still managed to jab my thumb deep into the piping hot filling. I ran from the house towards the woods.
My feet knew the footfalls between the tree roots. Keeping my eyes on the pie, I almost tripped. Stomach growled and heart raced as I booked it to my shack in the thicket.
By the time I crawled inside, cherry juice dripped from the baking dish. At three feet tall, my shack was just big enough to curl up inside. Two winters ago, I’d purloined some old boards along with a couple new ones to build myself a hiding spot outside. Warmth wasn’t everything, I’d found, especially when Pop was in one of his tirades. And where else could I hide my strawberry Christmas jam? First Presbyterian didn’t have their charity event but once a year.
I licked my burned thumb and savored the smell of ripe cherries while waiting for the deliciousness to cool. Sundown would come soon.
Before the pie cooled, I burned my fingers and tongue stuffing myself until I almost gagged. I wiped my face on my shirt, a third of the pie left. No going back.
I put a loose board over the last of the pie and hoped it would be safe ‘til the ‘morrow. I walked quickly while my stomach lurched, over-full. Too dark now; Harriet would ask where I’d been. Reaching our cabin, I took a deep breath and walked inside.
“George Evans! Where have you been?”
Cringing, I ignored Harriett’s pointed question and walked towards the attic ladder.
“Pop caught a rabbit this afternoon so I made stew. I saved you some, even though it’s cold now. You want it?”
My eyes got big. Hot dang! First time in months Pop actually gets something, and I’ve already gorged myself.
“Nah, that’s alright. I’ll eat it tomorrow,” I shrugged casually.
“Whaddaya mean you’ll eat it tomorrow? I cooked it tonight. It needs be eaten tonight. Besides,” she continued, “I want to wash my pot before bed.”
I sighed. There was no use.
I turned around and forced a closed-lip smile at my big sister. Her face filled with such worry and angst it made her look much older than seventeen. Playing galley maid in the greasy kitchen of a great house does that to a person.
“Alright, I’ll eat it tonight,” I said. “You go on to bed, and I’ll wash your pot.”
Her brows lowered ‘til her eyeballs were almost completely hidden.
“You? Wash my pot?” she asked, her voice dry with skepticism.
“Sure. It can’t be that hard,” I replied.
Her piercing gaze scanned the heavens in a dramatic eye roll.
“Alright, smart one, but you better scrub hard and don’t use any more than the tiniest bit of soda, d’ya hear?”
As she busied herself about the cabin, I rolled my own eyes at the sticky brown stew.
“It’s not my fault Ma died,” she said.
“Who said it was your fault?” I retorted, stirring the pot.
“I dunno…” She paused to bite her lip, then continued wiping the rickety table. “Maybe if I’d kept the house cleaner…”
“Or run to the doctor faster,” I interjected while poking my left pinky into the tepid stew.
Harriett’s face twisted like a fist. Tension built in the silent cabin until Harriet’s cut-open, black patent shoes stomped across the dirt floor. After some excessive fussing, she dropped her arms, sighed, and climbed up the attic ladder to bed. I licked my pinky to taste.
Now my face twisted. What a treacherous flavor to force down after the delight of cherry pie! I picked through the brown sauce for meat and chewed the tired rabbit with all the enthusiasm of an old cow.
When my stomach threatened to rebel, I heaved the pot outside and hid the rancid brown sauce in the scrub bushes, then did what I could to wash the pot.
Darn this luck! When Ma passed, it was like Pop lost all recollect of reason. I looked towards the woods and hoped he was lost out there getting bit. What entices a man, already down on his luck, to sabotage everything? To spend even my hard earned errand money on liquor?
Emotion gripped my throat, but I fought it off and scrubbed the pot harder. At least we still had the pot.
After propping it up to dry on the rock wall by the hedge, I trudged towards the cabin. Oiled paper nailed inside the broken windows tried to keep the bugs out.
Another mosquito pricked. I slapped it then slammed the rickety front door behind me (which still let them in between the cracks). My feet monkeyed up the ladder and I dropped onto my dirty cot across from where Harriett was already sleeping.
“Must you…?” Her weary voice protested my sudden arrival.
“Sorry. Them skeeters were starting to get me.”
She sighed. I lay on the cot staring at the ceiling, waiting for the sweat in my hair to dry. Crickets sang a poor man’s symphony. I slapped a mosquito and tried to sleep. Errand day tomorrow.
“… George Evans.”
Tingles pricked my spine as I walked into Dr. Morris’s backroom and heard my name from a woman in the front.
“Indeed, Mrs. Dubois. I will certainly speak to him about this,” the Doctor replied tersely. “He may be halfway an orphan, but there’s no excuse for such juvenile behavior.”
My ears tensed. I turned and scurried out as quickly as I could before Mrs. Dubois or Dr. Morris noticed my entry.
Feet ran ahead of thoughts and I found myself stumbling into my lean to. Hands shook as I pulled the board off of the pie dish only to discover ants ravaging the last of my thieving. Sitting down, I thought about crying. I actually tried. Nothing much happened except a sudden unease of stomach and an upchuck goodbye to the rabbit stew.
Acid burned my mouth. Fear paralyzed me while the sun rose hotter until I decided I should at least take the dish home. Harriett would ask questions but let her. Dirty hands carried the dirty dish wiped mostly clean of ants. Feet could not have dragged heavier if they'd plowed through mud. Sweat trickled down my forehead. Bile rested uneasily.
Finally reaching the wash pump at the house, I splashed my mouth with water. Heat seared my neck as I tried to wipe the dried cherry juice from the pie plate. Rubbed dry, I did the only thing left I could think to: I climbed up the attic and hid the plate under my dirty clothes.
I spent the rest of the day wandering the woods. I couldn’t pick a tree to sit under, so I walked until the blazing sun faded to orange. Every so often my stomach would pulse, but I kept on. I paid no attention to where I was or where I was going. Eventually, my feet found their way to a certain house. I was so tired; it took me half a stare to recognize the gingerbread carvings on the front porch.
What was I thinking? Sure, Mrs. Dubois baked us bread in the days after Ma died, but what right did I have to her cherry pie? I turned and trudged home, weary from the fruitless endeavor of running.
“George, have you seen my pot?”
Harriett’s question startled me into a throat-knotting gulp.
“I washed it last night and left it by the pump to dry. It was on the wall …” I muttered defensively. For this, I would not be blamed.
“George Marshall Evans!” Tone rose to screech while I braced myself for the piercing. “You left my pot outside all night? Just left it there?! And expected nobody to mess with it?”
I vomited again. Violently. Thankful only for the fact it missed Harriet.
“Please tell me that wasn’t the stew.” Her face turned pale as my stomach fought itself and brought me to my knees. I shook my head.
“Did you run hard at work today?” Water squeezed out of my eyes, but I refused to acknowledge it. I shook my head again.
Harriet brought me water to drink and helped me inside. She had some leftover bread from the great house. I barely managed a nibble. Night fell. I settled into my sweaty cot thankful for no more questions spoken aloud.
Sunrise came and Harriet left for her duties. I stared at the rotting boards while sunshine peaked in, begging me to acknowledge it.
Finally, I could bear it no longer. I sat up from my cot and reached for the dish. It was mostly clean but still smudged. Didn’t matter. A dirty dish would have to do. My slippery hand gripped the rim, and I planted one foot before the other.
I arrived at Mrs. Dubois’s house. Stomach gurgled but there was only diligence to be done. As each step brought me closer to the door, I felt my neck turn as bright hot as the cherries I’d gorged on two days before. The door opened before I could knock.
Mrs. Dubois looked down at me with eyebrows raised and lips pursed to the side.
“Did you come to return my pie plate?”
“Was it good, my cherry pie?”
Face squinched in shame, I forced my head up and down while staring at her shiny black shoes.
“It doesn’t look like you enjoyed it much.”
I shook my head side to side.
Water leaked out of my eyes again, and I studied the neatly pressed folds of her dress hanging from her matronly waist.
“Are you hungry, George?”
I looked up from my shame to see a warm face beaming with kindness. Eyes blurred with tears suddenly then spilled out over as I nodded affirmation. She beckoned inside.
Sitting in Mrs. Dubois’s kitchen, bread and milk satisfied my longings while I watched her wash the pie plate. Sunshine glistened through the yellow checkered curtains and gleamed on the wooden cabinets. She wiped the counter as the pie plate leaned to dry.
“So what do you think is fair, George?” She asked with her back to me still. I sipped the cold milk. White goodness calmed my taste buds and cooled my nerves.
“That I should help you. To make up for stealing the pie.”
“That sounds fair. How will you help me, George?”
I looked around the sparkling kitchen.
“I can help you clean. I can run errands for you.”
“But I do that already. And my husband takes care of everything else.”
I blinked back warm expression. I could do nothing for her.
“Do you do much on the weekends, George?”
I shook my head.
“Nah. I mostly just mill outside and try not to bother Harriet.”
Mrs. Dubois nodded.
“My husband was saying he could use some help in his cabinetry shop. Would you have time to help him out this Saturday?”
“I can do that,” I said.
“Well alright then.” She smiled. “Now how about you head over and apologize to Doctor Morris for being tardy. My husband will be expecting you Saturday at ten.
Doctor Morris was not terribly happy with my absent behavior but agreed to let me do the Friday deliveries.
“I’d appreciate it if you don’t pull that stunt again,” he sermonized over his glasses. “Times like these I can’t afford to keep a delivery boy who can’t decide when he wants to show up.”
I felt bad but got on with the deliveries. Old Mrs. Edison asked where I’d been. I kinda shrugged, couldn’t look her in the eye.
“You been getting yourself into trouble? Well don’t do that, you hear? This town don’t need you to turn out like your father.” She pat my back and sent me off with a cookie.
I ran hard between houses and got back to Doctor Morris’s office early. He had no words for me. Simply handed me a broom and pointed to the back office. An hour later, I’d found every corner I never before knew existed. Doctor Morris took the broom, then bent down and looked me in the eye.
“I’ll see you Monday,” he said, then shook my hand. Blood rushed to my face.
“Yes, sir,” I said, voice cracked. I walked home that day with a strange feeling of dirty hope.
Harriet didn’t have any food for me that night. Even so, I fell asleep with more peace than I’d felt in a long, long time.
“This is my workshop,” Mr. Dubois said. The room was filled with worktables and tools. Wood dust overflowing.
“These are my cabinets,” he said. Wooden boxes with doors and shelves sat next to each other with craftsmanship precision. “Today we are going to sand.”
Afternoons I didn’t deliver for Doctor Morris found me in Mr. Dubois’s workshop. Harriet was invited into Mrs. Dubois’s kitchen and indeed, she spent many a Saturday afternoon there making scones and tea. Saturday evenings stretched into Sundays. Oftentimes we joined them at church in the family pew. There we found the source of the love that flowed through them to us.
Mr. Dubois taught me his trade all the way through preparatory school. A few years later and they took me under their roof as an actual apprentice. Harriet ended up moving in as well. Eventually, I took over the business when his shoulder got bad. Harriet saved up her serving money and made a few trips to the sea. Afterwards, she married a country farmer who wrote poetry.
We never did figure out who took Harriett’s pot.