“Now, none of us knows what to expect from Mavis Wilkerson,” my mother said, looking back in my direction from her position in the front passenger seat.
Several white sheets fluttered in the wind, hanging loosely to clotheslines. I’d started counting them a ways back, as my father drove us, winding in-and-out through back country roads.
In those days, I often found myself sitting in the backseat of my parents’ white Oldsmobile, driven from one supper to the next across the expanse of the Texas Panhandle. The trip to the Wilkersons’ farm was no different.
At nine-years of age, I was a plump pastor’s child who took pride in comprehending that to cut a brisket correctly, one must cut the meat on a bias, lest it be too tough. To reduce the bitterness in collard greens, one must soak the greens in vinegar for at least an hour prior to cooking. For a bowl of sweet turnips, always choose turnips with unblemished skin that are heavy and firm to the touch.
“I’ve never met a lobotomy survivor before. Have you Charles?” my mother continued.
“I’ve never met a lobotomy survivor,” my dad answered.
My father was known as Brother Charles to most of the flocks he shepherded in Southern Baptist churches throughout Texas.
He and my mother, LaVon, married young, becoming missionaries in the Middle East, spending years in Beirut and Sidon, which they both preferred to small Texas towns.
One of my mother’s favorite stories was relating the drive to catch the plane to Lebanon from LaGuardia in 1969; they passed Woodstock rocking in full swing and didn’t pull over.
“We didn’t have time for that nonsense. We had plans,” she always said. “We wanted to save the world, not get drunk and roll around on it.”
My mother fell in love with the Middle East, purchasing a gold-threaded Bedouin bridal dress that she later wore to women’s luncheons. She would stand before a rapt group of Texas women, speak Arabic, and feed them all hummus, a food that, at the time, could be found nowhere in Texas. My parents left Lebanon when the Civil War started with a promise to return, but as the years passed, it seemed less likely they would ever go back.
“I loved Lebanon,” my mother would say. “Americans think Middle Eastern women are quiet and submissive, cloistered up. Nothing could be further from the truth. They might wear the hijab, but that means nothing. It’s about modesty. A Middle Eastern woman runs her own home. Most of them have Master’s degrees. Many are doctors. All of them have strong opinions and they don’t apologize.”
My mother embraced everything about Middle Eastern culture except the Holy Prophet Muhammad. She would drink Jasmine tea and sometimes cry, longing for a return trip.
“Texas bores the hell out of me,” she would say. “I was once held at gun point at a post office in Syria. I once stopped traffic walking down the street in Beirut in high heels. Now it’s all chicken fried steak and prayer meetings.”
This is one reason I think she was looking forward to the luncheon with Mavis.
“I’m excited about meeting her, though also a little scared,” she told my father that day in the car. “They told me Mavis was lobotomized in Dallas after some time in an institution. James never brings her to church.”
“James is a strange man. He’s always loitering around there, even when he doesn’t have to be. It’s weird.”
“Listen to you. You’re the preacher. No one loiters around there more than you. James and Mavis don’t have any children. They’re on up in years. Maybe he’s lonely. How much friendship can you get from a lobotomy survivor?”
“We’re about to find out,” my dad said. “We’ll eat and leave.”
“What are they cooking?” I asked, ready for the whole thing to be over with.
“Does it matter?”
“I just want to know what I have to be prepared for. It’s one thing to meet crazy people. It’s another thing to eat their cooking.”
My dad laughed.
“Stop encouraging her smart mouth,” my mother told him.
My mother was adamant that we were to eat whatever we were given, and offend no one in the process. Otherwise, it might misrepresent the message of Christ, which was, I guess, “Eat everything.”
In truth, I couldn’t have been more surprised by Mavis Wilkerson. She was a pleasant woman with a vacant stare. She welcomed us into their home, a large farmhouse, mostly decorated in white with large hand-crocheted afghans draped around things that gave it a cozy quality.
“Glad to have you,” Mavis said, welcoming us into the dining room, set with china.
My eyes rested immediately on the honey-glazed ham, surrounded by hot sweet potatoes in the center of the table, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Her lobotomy hadn’t stopped her from cooking like a sane-minded southerner.
“Glad to have you here, Preacher,” James said, taking the head seat at the table. James was an older gentleman of around sixty-five, but was strong and husky. He was clean-shaven, and dressed in a fine suit. He stretched his arm over to Mavis and gave her a squeeze on the shoulders. “Mavis here cooked this whole meal herself. Didn’t give her a bit of help. She’s a good cook, this one. Think I might have to keep her.”
She didn’t respond to his touch, other than to keep the same smile, and the same vacant look. “James loves my cooking,” she said pleasantly.
“You’re a fine cook, Mavis,” he told her. “You do things perfect without a complaint.”
It was an odd thing to say. But Mavis looked toward James, and he at her, sharing a small moment that could’ve been a tender one.
Then she began serving up the food.
“This is quite a spread,” my mother told her. “These creamed potatoes look delicious.”
“They’re James’ favorite,” Mavis answered. “Bacon bits. Sour Cream. Pepper. Buuuu……” and her voice trailed off. She stared ahead like she’d been entranced by some invisible thing in the distance.
James put his hand on her shoulder and gave her a little shake. “Butter,” he said. “She uses butter.”
“Butter,” she said, looking back at my mother. “Thank you.”
“You went off into Crazy Land again,” he said gruffly, as she put ham and potatoes onto his plate.
“I. I have trouble…staying focused,” she said, looking at my mother.
“I know what you mean,” my mother answered, trying to lighten the mood. “I often lose track of my thinking.”
“Not the way Mavis does,” James laughed.
Mavis looked over at James and laughed too.
“Mavis would stare like that for an hour if you didn’t give her a little shake now-and-again. A restart. But she sure is cooperative. Wasn’t always that way, were you?”
“I had a little bit of a temper,” she said. “Depressed.”
“Enough of that,” James said, cutting her off. “This isn’t a therapy session.”
Everything was quiet.
“You know what?” my dad said, breaking the tension. “We haven’t blessed this meal.”
Though farmers are generally quiet-natured, James talked a blue streak, telling stories about the town, commenting on the weather, even giving a run-down of the church books at one point, listing the tithers.
Mostly, whatever James would say, Mavis would agree with, smiling in a hollow way and wiping her hands on her lap napkin.
I stuffed my face and watched her closely. Something wasn’t right with her. Sure, if you were to take her out in public, she could get along okay. She could smile and exchange pleasantries like the rest of us, but if you watched closely, there were cracks. Maybe that was why she never left the house. Maybe that was why he never brought her to church.
When Mavis refilled my potatoes, I thanked her. She looked at me then and said, “You are an obedient child. That is the work of the mother.”
She looked at my mom.
“Amy is an obedient girl,” Mavis said again, smiling. Then she looked over at James. “Amy is an obedient girl, isn’t she, James?”
“She’s quiet. She does what she’s told. Hardly see that anymore,” James answered.
“Thanks,” I whispered, and somehow, though Mavis meant it with the best of intentions, it didn’t feel at all like a compliment. My stomach was hurting, but I kept eating the potatoes. James was right about Mavis. She was an excellent cook.
Shortly thereafter, my obedience paid off when Mavis announced, “I made a pie. Special for you, Amy. A lime-flavored Refrigerator Pie.” She saw the delight in my eyes. The Refrigerator Pie was my favorite of all pies. It was a staple among small country potlucks. The pie was never cooked, but cooled in the refrigerator.
“I’ll give you the biggest piece. I’ll serve you first.”
I was thrilled with Mavis at this point, and could’ve seen myself heading over there after school in the future for cookies and homework.
James got up from the table, looked at my dad and said, “I have something to show you, Preacher.”
For a moment, I thought I saw a break in Mavis’ demeanor; something that perhaps indicated not all was sunshine and unicorns.
“James doesn’t like sweets,” she said, handing me the pie. Her hand was shaking. Was it nerves? A side effect of the lobotomy? “I always wanted a daughter.”
The thoughts were not connected, but at this point, I didn’t care.
The sensation of biting into that pie, the creamy sweetness was euphoric. Though my stomach felt nervous, I couldn’t stop eating. I didn’t notice when James re-entered the room. I vaguely remember thinking, Is he wearing a choir robe?
The pie was a beautiful combination of citrus and cream, delicate yet strong. It was put together perfectly, then topped off with a homemade whipped frosting that was light airy perfection.
I was brought out suddenly by James’ clear and sharp voice. “I’ve brought you some reading materials, Preacher.”
There was a sharp thud at the end of the table. A large stack of about seven Aryan Nation magazines landed between the half-eaten ham and the silver coffee pot.
There was a moment of silence before my Dad said, “What is this?”
James Wilkerson then reached into the pocket of his long white choir robe, and pulled out a white hood with eye-holes cut out of the front of it, and a pointy top. He pulled it onto his head, making one thing clear to all of us: The tone of the meal had changed. This was no longer a simple luncheon, hosted by a gracious farmer and his lobotomized wife. This was James Wilkerson’s coming-out party as a regular member of the KKK.
He stood silently at the head of the table. This was, in fact, the first time he’d been silent through the entirety of the meal.
We all sat in shocked horror, unable to eat—except for Mavis, who continued to enjoy her pie, same as before. She wore a kind of ho-hum expression that said, Just another day with a six-foot Klansman making threats at the head of the dinner table.
“You like this pie, don’t you, Amy?” Mavis asked me, noticing I’d paused.
“Yes ma’am,” I answered.
“Then, have some more,” she told me, digging into the pan to serve me another piece. I didn’t want anymore. As good as it was, my stomach was turning. I looked at my mother, expecting her to put an end to the pie pig-out. But she sat in stone silence with her eyes glued to James.
James raised his right hand, and in a loud voice said, “As Imperial Kleagle, it has come to my attention that you have been busing Mexicans into Sunday school.”
I knew my Dad had been using the church bus to pick up some Latino children for Sunday school. That was true.
But none of us had any idea what an Imperial Kleagle was. It sounded like a Star Wars villain. (We have since learned that it’s the title given to a recruiter for the Klan.) At the time, however, and judging by the enraged authority with which James made his statement, I didn’t think he was complimenting my father.
“You’re right I’ve been picking them up,” my dad said, “and I’m gonna keep doing it.”
The tension in the room made me eat. I could feel my stomach expanding, but I couldn’t stop.
“I always serve pie with forks,” Mavis said, as if it were just the two of us there in the room. “When I used to have electro-shocks, they’d stick spoons in our mouths and instead of screaming we’d bite them. I’d always gag on those spoons so now I don’t use them.”
“What are electro-shocks?” I asked.
My mother reached her hand over and gave me a pinch on the leg. “Let’s go,” she said, taking me by the hand and heading fast for the door.
“Ya’ll taking off?” Mavis called behind us.
“You’re gonna have a problem with us, Brother Charles.” James’ voice was loud and stern.
“Don’t try to intimidate me.”
My stomach had turned completely over, the sour from the lime pie trickling up my throat like hot acid.
I felt my mother’s hand.
“Get to the car,” she said, shoving me out the front door.
My dad’s voice was behind me, strong and fierce. “You are a coward,” he told James. “You need to get yourself right with God.”
The pie was hot slime in my throat. It wasn’t the delicious creaminess from before. Now it was Mavis’ brains erupting from deep inside me. With each step toward the car, it was coming up.
My dad was behind us when it happened. My mother’s hand pushed me on, the hot green vomit shooting out of me. The pie was an ugly lake stretching from the front door of the Wilkerson’s to the side of the car, then pooling in my lap and the floorboards in the backseat beneath me, all of Mavis Wilkerson’s hard work coming up in hot and terrible chunks.
The sound as we pulled away from the Wilkerson’s was the gravel road, my mother’s sobs, and my own retching.
Amy is an obedient girl.
The Refrigerator Pie was a wet, green baptism.
A final image of the Wilkersons that stays with me: a lovely farmhouse with a strange ghost man shrouded in white. The woman standing next to him has a pleasant expression.
They are both wearing masks.