Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Purloined Pie

“Didn’t think you’d be open today,” Benny Spinosa said, glancing around and seeing he had his choice of stools at the bar. Donovan, the owner, was the only other person in the place.

“What? Why would I close when I know I got friends like you with nowhere else to go. You want a beer?”

“Sure. And maybe you could fix me a sandwich, too.”

Donovan’s eyebrows rose as he gazed at his friend. “You’re gonna spoil your dinner.”

Spinosa shrugged. He was surprised Donovan had opened since most of his trade had families and other places to be on a day like this. Spinosa wouldn’t have stopped if he hadn’t seen the lights as he drove by.

“You’re not havin’ a Thanksgiving dinner?”

“Where would I have it? Like you said, I got nobody. Besides—like you—I’m workin’. Just because it’s a holiday don’t mean there aren’t people gonna need a cab.”

Donovan tapped a Yuengling and sat the mug on the bar. Spinosa straddled a stool and drew it closer. The legs of the stool made an irritating noise as they scraped the linoleum. “You gonna make that sandwich or what?”

Donovan studied him a moment, then he grinned. “Tell you what,” he said, coming around from behind the bar and crossing to the door. He flipped the lock and turned toward Spinosa.

“What?” Spinosa asked, scrunching up his face.

“Whyncha bring that beer and come on upstairs.”
Spinosa scowled. “Upstairs? To your apartment?”

“Uh-huh. You can have dinner with us. Ain’t gonna be no trade down here anyways.”

Spinosa didn’t argue but his doubts were confirmed when he followed Donovan upstairs and Charmaine gave him a look that froze him in his tracks. Donovan’s wife was on the sofa watching the Macy’s parade. “What’s he doin’ here?” she snapped in a voice as cold as winter wind.

“I invited him to join us for dinner. We got plenty and he don’t got no place else to go.” He gestured to a chair opposite Charmaine. “Have a seat.”

Reluctantly, Spinosa folded his thin frame into the chair, shooting a cursory glance at Charmaine. She worked her lips and rolled her eyes for a moment, but didn’t say anything more. Then: “You close up?” she asked her husband.

“Yeah.” He sat next to her on the sofa. “Don’t seem like nobody else is comin’ around. If anyone gets desperate for a drink, they can ring the bell.”

Charmaine turned her attention back to their guest. “Didn’t think your people celebrated Thanksgiving.”

“What, you think because I’m a Jew I don’t like turkey?”

“How the hell would I know? I’m a Catholic. Don’t know nothin’ about your kind.”

“Everybody celebrates Thanksgiving, babe,” Donovan told her.

She shot him a look. “Just so’s he don’t go lightin’ up none of those stinky cigars he likes while he’s in my house.”

“Don’t worry,” Spinosa said, “I won’t. I’m tryin’ to quit anyways.”

They sat in silence, Spinosa sipping his beer and having a look around the place while Donovan and Charmaine stared at the TV. Benny figured he was probably the only one of Donovan’s customers who’d ever been invited up to the living quarters. If it weren’t for Charmaine’s attitude he might have considered it an honor.

“Everything’s ready,” a dulcet voice broke into his reverie.

Kelly, Donovan’s daughter, leaned in the doorway to what must be the dining room. If he was ten—well, okay, twenty—years younger and a bit better looking, Spinosa thought he might have been inclined to ask Kelly out. She was the prettiest, nicest girl he’d ever met. Okay, so she wouldn’t go out with a schmuck like him even if he was twenty years younger and had a lot more money than he did. You can’t blame a man for dreaming. Anyway, he was glad she was the one doing the cooking and not her mother. Charmaine would probably lace his food with arsenic if she had her way.

“Come on,” Donovan said, waving him up from his seat.

“How are you, Benny?” Kelly said and she patted his shoulder as he walked by her. “Glad you could join us. There’s plenty of food. So be sure and eat up.” Her smile melted his hesitation. “I’ll bring the rest of the food.”

Donovan took a seat at the head of the table where a platter with a golden-brown turkey awaited carving. “Sit,” he said to Spinosa. “Anywhere you want.”

Charmaine flopped onto the chair at the other end of the table, which meant the place left for him would be opposite Kelly. “Can I help you, Kelly?” he asked, taking a step toward her.

She graced him with another smile that made him blush. “Why that’s so nice of you, Benny.”

They bumped hips and elbows entering the tiny kitchen and Spinosa experienced a reaction he hoped none of them would notice. “Just grab whatever you can and put it wherever there’s room on the table,” Kelly told him, hefting a large bowl of mashed and sweet potatoes. The pleasant odor of the food and the sweet scent of her swept over him as they passed in the close quarters. Spinosa grabbed a couple more bowls and followed her back to the dining room.

“You don’t have to work for your dinner,” Donovan said, looking up from slicing the turkey.

“He’s a gentleman, Daddy,” Kelly said, giving Spinosa another pat on the shoulder. “Not like some of the other lugs who come in downstairs.” Their hips bumped again as they made another foray to the kitchen. Spinosa felt the heat rise over him and quickly turned his back to Kelly.

All the food transferred, they joined her parents at the table. Spinosa’s gaze swept over the array of vittles and he was amazed. His usual idea of a meal was a can of Campbell’s soup or a corned beef sandwich. This was a feast in comparison. There was the turkey, half a ham (glazed with pineapple), mashed potatoes and sweets, several varieties of vegetables (including a few he couldn’t identify), cranberry sauce, and an array of other holiday treats.

Spreading a napkin across his lap, Spinosa shook his head in wonder. “This is amazing,” he said to Kelly. “I never seen so much food on one table. And it all looks so delicious. It must have taken you a week to do all this.”

It was Kelly’s turn to blush. “Ah, it was nothing,” she said, waving a hand and lowering her head. “I love cooking.”

“Kel does all our cookin’ now,” Donovan said, pride in his voice. “She went to culinary school you know. Wants to be a chef.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.”

“It’s not like she’d be advertisin’ it to the likes of you,” Charmaine snarled.

“I hope you enjoy it,” Kelly said, ignoring her mother. “Please. Eat up. Before it gets cold.”

Spinosa took the suggestion as soon as he saw they were done with their Catholic ministrations. And he was right—everything was delicious.  He took a moment to compliment Kelly again.

“My Grammy taught me to cook,” she told him, her face going a pleasant rosy hue. “These are all her recipes.”

“Well you’ve made good use of the training.” He felt the heat of Charmaine’s gaze upon him. What? She don’t even like somebody complimenting her daughter?

“We lost Grammy last year, but I wish Poppy could be here,” Kelly said.

“They’d both be proud of you, honey,” Donovan said.

Charmaine snorted. “Only thing the old lady could do was cook—I’ll grant her that. But your old man is a lush.”


Spinosa had no idea what this was about. He concentrated on cleaning his plate as a pall of silence fell over the room. He was so stuffed he didn’t think he could eat another bite when Kelly finally broke the silence. “Anybody ready for dessert?”

“I shouldn’t,” Donovan said, “but…”

“There wasn’t room in the fridge,” Kelly said. “It’s downstairs in the cooler.”

Donovan pushed back his chair and started to rise.

“Lemme get it,” Spinosa said.

“Nah. You’re a guest…”
Spinosa tossed his napkin aside and stood. “Please. It’s the least I can do after what you guys have done for me today. Besides, I’ll need the exercise if I’m gonna eat anything else.”

With no further protests, Spinosa went downstairs, passed behind the bar and opened the big cooler. A pumpkin pie with whipped cream topping sat on the shelf.  Spinosa smiled. Hang around this girl long and I’ll look like a blimp.

“Where’s the mince-meat?” Donovan asked as Spinosa sat the pumpkin pie on the table.

“Huh? I didn’t see no other pie.”

Kelly gave him a chagrined look. “I put them both in the cooler this morning. Maybe you didn’t see it.”

Spinosa shook his head. “There was nothin’ else but bar stuff.”

Kelly was headed for the stairs. “It’s got to be there.”

Spinosa and Donovan followed in her wake.

“Oh, Daddy,” Kelly wailed as she peered in the cooler. “Somebody must have stole it.”

“But who? I locked the door when we came up.”

“There were some people in the bar when I brought the pies down this morning.”

“Do you remember who?” Spinosa asked.

Donovan scratched his head, thinking. “Jimmy Steele. He was here—like he is every day for his morning pick-me-up. And—oh, yeah—Rod, the refrigerator guy. Remember, Kel? We been havin’ problems with the little cooler. Rod was kind of miffed I called him out on a holiday.”

Kelly waved a hand in dismissal. “I don’t see Rod as the kind who would steal a pie. Besides I’m sure he’ll add a stiff surcharge on his bill. Was there anyone else?”

“What about Jimmy?” Spinosa asked.

Donovan and Kelly both laughed. “If it haint alcohol Jimmy haint interested,” Donovan said.

“But isn’t there some booze in mince-meat?”

“Not enough for a guy like Jimmy to notice.”
Kelly pondered. “There was someone else when I came down. Over there,” she said, pointing to a stool at the far end of the bar.

“Sparky,” Donovan said, dipping his head in agreement.

“Sparky Kohl?” Benny asked. “That old guy who’s always bragging about his high school football days?”

“He left before you came,” Donovan said. Then, exchanging a quick glance with Kelly, he crossed to the door and turned the knob. “Damn him,” he grumbled as the door opened.

“But I saw you lock it before we went upstairs.”

Donovan nodded. “Sparky was a locksmith.”

Spinosa gave him a puzzled look. “He always seemed like an honest old guy to me. Why would he steal your pie?”

Kelly exchanged another look with her father. “I think we know why. Benny, you have your cab, don’t you? Care to go for a little ride?”

“Sure. Just tell me…”

Kelly turned to Donovan. “Daddy?”

Donovan shook his head. “Just let it go, Kel.”

“No, Daddy. It’s your fault. Your’s and Mom’s. You should have made up with him along ago. The past is past. Live and forgive. He should have been here with us today. Are you coming?”

“You know I can’t, sweetie. Your Mom would skin me alive.”

“Well, I’m going. Benny?”

“Sure.” He opened the door for her and they went out to his cab. Spinosa turned the key in the ignition. He rubbed his hands together, briskly. “Brrr, maybe we should have grabbed our coats.”

“It’s not far. Turn your heater up. We’ll survive.”

“Okay. Just tell me where we’re going.”

Kelly snapped on her seatbelt and gave him directions.

“I still don’t understand why Sparky would steal your pie.”

“You’ll see,” Kelly said. “Family feuds are a bitch.” She leaned back in the seat next to him, staring straight ahead.

Puzzled, Spinosa drove.

Kelly jumped out as soon as he pulled into the parking lot of the Comfort Retirement Home. By the time Spinosa switched off the engine and followed she was already halfway up the steps to the entrance of the brick facility. “Wait up,” he called after her.

“Come on.”

“Does Sparky live here?”

“His best buddy does.” Kelly signed in at the reception desk and walked quickly down a hallway paying no attention to a cluster of elderly men and women whose attention she’d drawn away from a blaring TV.

“I’m glad you know where you’re going,” Spinosa complained, hurrying after her. “I sure don’t.”

He nearly bumped into her as she drew up suddenly at the open door of one of the rooms. “A-hah!” Kelly said and darted into the room. A white-haired man who looked vaguely familiar to Benny sat facing them in a rocking chair. Sparky Kohl was in an armchair next to him. The remains of Kelly’s pie sat on a coffee table between the two.

“Hello, sweetie,” the old man said to Kelly and gave her a toothy grin.

Kelly went over and gave him a hug. “Hello, Poppy,” she said, straightening up. “I see you enjoyed my pie.”

“Sure did. Your mince-meat has always been my favorite,” he said with a wink. “Thanks for sendin’ it over with Sparky.”

Hands on her hips, Kelly smiled down at Sparky who sank lower in his seat with a sheepish grin.

Kelly’s grandfather tilted to look past her at Spinosa standing in the doorway. “Whose this, darlin’, your boyfriend?”

Kelly grinned at Spinosa. “A friend, Poppy. Benny Spinosa. A good friend.”

“Spinosa? Your old man the cabbie?”

“He’s retired now. I drive the hack.”
“Youse want some pie?” Sparky asked. “There’s still some left.”

“No, thanks. We just came by to wish Poppy a happy Thanksgiving and see if you guys enjoyed the pie.” She knelt to give her grandfather a hug, then went over and hugged Sparky, too. “You’re a good friend, Mr. Kohl.” Placing a hand on her grandfather’s shoulder, she added, “Sorry you couldn’t come for dinner today. I’ll stop by to see you again over the weekend.”

As they walked back out the hall, Kelly brushed tears from her eyes.

“What’s the beef between him and your parents?” Spinosa asked.

Kelly made a sound half between a laugh and a sob. “Something that happened so long ago none of them remember exactly what it was. But you know my Mom, how she can hold a grudge. I hope one of these days Daddy will get the nerve to stand up to her on this. Poppy isn’t getting any younger.”

“Well, at least he has you.” He threw an arm around Kelly’s shoulders and was glad when she didn’t object.

They were nearly back to the bar before he built up the courage to blurt out, “Kelly, I was wondering—that is—if you’d like to—do you think we could go out sometime?”

Kelly shifted a little closer on the seat and laid a hand on his arm. “I thought you’d never get around to asking.”


Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Woman's Compassion May Have Helped

"The grim expressions of the twelve men gave little doubt as to how the circumstantial evidence stacked up for them. Roth almost wished women were allowed to serve on juries, though he doubted even a feminine presence would have earned the boy much compassion."

This quote from my novel Something So Divine illustrates one of those injustices afflicting women throughout our history--they did not serve on juries in the 19th century in the United States. In fact, it wasn't until late in the 20th century they were finally accorded that right in all states of the union (And the rest of the world wasn't more advanced).

In my novel, Ned Gebhardt, a mentally challenged youth, has been accused in the murder of a 16-year-old girl in 1897. Though the evidence against him is circumstantial, only Ellen Kauffman, village storekeeper, and Iris, Ned's stepsister, believe him innocent. Influenced by them, Simon Roth, the investigator, is inclined to give Ned benefit of the doubt, pending discovery of more evidence.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 gave states authority to set rules for jury service. As with suffrage, Wyoming was the first state to permit women to serve on juries in 1870. Eliza Stewart Boyd, a Pennsylvania native, was the first U.S. woman to serve when her name was drawn for that Wyoming  jury.  Unfortunately, objection by lawyers and the press put an end to the practice the following year.

Utah opened jury service to women in 1898 and more states followed in the first decades of the 20th century. Women in Pennsylvania--where my story takes place--didn't win the right to serve on juries until 1921.

Many reasons were espoused over the years for denying women this fundamental right. These included the old saws women lacked the mental and emotional capacities to render a just decision. Another standard argument was the belief  jury duty would take women away from their responsibilities as wives, mothers and homemakers--this opinion was particularly strong in agricultural communities. Even many women's organizations advocating female rights stood in the way of jury service, contending it would expose women to unseemly and disgusting situations.

By the 1960s most states permitted women to serve on juries, though some made it a voluntary and not a mandatory issue. A few states complied but with the added provision a judge could bar women from serving at his discretion.  It wasn't until 1975 when a U.S. Supreme Court decision affirmed that states must treat men and women equally with respect to jury service.

Of course, by then it was way too late for my character.