by Debra H. Goldstein
Here is another Thanksgiving mystery short story, and this one has never before been published.
“As soon as you finish the marryin’ part, we’re gonna have cake.”
“Only cake?” Judge Ingram stared at Tommy and Melinda, the younger siblings of the couple whose Thanksgiving themed wedding he’d soon be officiating. He figured they were about eight or nine years old. “How about pumpkin pie, too?”
Tommy paused for a minute, chewing on a nail already bitten to the quick. He took his finger from his mouth and put the damp digit between his neck and the starched collar of his shirt. The judge noticed the boy’s shirt still had creases from being in its plastic wrapping. “Cake,” Tommy said. “My pa said this is like a big birthday party. So, there’s going to be cake and…”
“Tommy Hatfield,” the pig-tailed girl interrupted, “nobody’s going to have any cake until the judge here marries my brother and your sister. Then, we’ll have turkey, cranberry sauce, and all the other fixings for Thanksgiving.” She focused her violet eyes on the judge. “You know,” she said, “with a little help from Grammy, the two of them made all the food themselves.”
That made sense, Judge Ingram thought. During the pre-wedding conference, the couple, clutching hands, told how they’d met in culinary school. “But for the top of her pressure cooker sticking, our paths never would have crossed.”
“He unstuck it, and we’ve been together ever since.” The bride-to-be had squeezed her fiancé’s hand and given him the goofy look young couples often exchanged until the judge started raising the hard questions about their future life together.
“Judge,” Pigtails said. She was going to be a looker he thought, watching her push a pigtail back with a slender hand. “Grammy wants everything to go just right.”
“I do, too.” Judge Ingram busied himself readying the things he needed for the wedding. He checked that the Bible page he planned to read was correctly bookmarked, the unity candle ready to be lit, and his personalized script tucked into his little notebook. Running the correct pronunciation of the family names through his head, he wondered what the children’s families thought about the upcoming nuptials.
He knew they couldn’t be thrilled or one of their regular clergy would be officiating. Nobody requested the services of the “Go-to-Judge,” as he fancied himself, unless there was a problem. His scripts normally satisfied everyone by incorporating traditions from all faiths while sprinkling in enough loving passages from the Old and New Testaments to make the different factions feel comfortable. Most of the time, he figured, neither side realized his service was as vanilla as the icing on a wedding cake.
Turning back to the children, the judge saw the four rows of folding chairs on either side of the center aisle beginning to fill. A number of the men on the groom’s side were sporting collared shirts and a few baseball caps, while the men on the bride’s side uniformly wore blue blazers and grey slacks.
Judge Ingram glanced at his watch and told the children that it was time to spur the budding chefs to the altar. On the way to the kitchen, he calculated there were only thirty-two chairs, an underwhelming number considering how large both families were.
The sound of something backfiring or exploding from the kitchen area interfered with his mathematics. His first instinct was to cower behind the two children, but because they ran in the direction of the noise, he followed them.
The kitchen was quiet. The two mothers and grandmother stood silently on the far side of the island staring at the floor. From Judge Ingram’s vantage point nothing seemed out of place. He moved closer to the sideboard where an entire feast of Thanksgiving fixings was set out buffet style for after the wedding.
Two gorgeous browned turkeys ringed by small potatoes sat on identical platters. Next to them, was a bowl of green beans still bubbling with little French fried onions on top. The judge looked around for something that didn’t seem right. Gravy boats, plates with sliced jellied cranberry sauce, and yam casseroles with and without marshmallows sat waiting. Three cooling pumpkin pies and a small wedding cake were on the side counter on the far side of the kitchen.
He paused, hearing whimpering. Tommy and Melinda scurried around the kitchen’s center island toward the sound. Mother engulfed her in a hug. He had no choice but to follow them. At last minute, he avoided slipping in the yellow goop dripping from the end of the island onto the otherwise pristine floor.
The three stopped short at the sight of the bride-to-be sitting with her back to the island cradling her groom-to-be. A shard of glass shaped like an icicle was sticking from the young man’s chest. Judge Ingram stepped carefully toward the couple, avoiding the red and yellow mixture pooling on the linoleum floor. He reached forward to see if the groom-to-be still had a pulse.
Getting out of his way, the bride-to-be released one hand from her intended and gestured around the room at the splattered contents of what had been in the glass dish. “Corn puddin’,” she said between sobs.
Judge Ingram quickly knew there wasn’t going to be a wedding today or any other day. He straightened up, trying to calculate the odds of a man being impaled to death by a flying piece from a casserole dish, but it was too mind-boggling.
“Corn pudding?” he said.
“He didn’t think my recipe was natural enough,” the bride-to be said.
“So you killed him?”
“Oh no!” She clutched the silent groom closer to her. “It was an accident.”
“I don’t understand,” Ingram said.
The not-to-be bride held her intended closer. “Everything was almost ready. I was putting a finishing garnish on the corn puddin’ when he came around the island, nibbled my ear and decided to steal a taste.”
She stopped and sobbed. Judge Ingram cleared his throat to encourage her to continue. “I usually make sweet things, like the wedding cake. He specialized in savory dishes.” She smoothed her intended’s brow, leaving a dab of red on his forehead. “Even with his Grammy helping today, we all had so much to get ready that I made the corn puddin’. I was supposed to use his grandmother’s recipe, but I didn’t have time.”
Judge Ingram waited for her to go on. No sense rushing her. There would be enough commotion once the police came, and the guests were told why the wedding was being cancelled.
“He took a bite, screwed up his face, and then spit it right back into the casserole dish. ‘Trash! Absolute trash!’ Then, he went to throw my casserole in the garbage can.”
“But it didn’t end up in the garbage can?”
“No,” she said. “I called him some choice names and grabbed the dish from him.”
She nodded. “The dish slipped from my hand and shattered against the island.”
He couldn’t help but compare the trajectory of the shard and the blood splatter pattern on the bride-to-be’s shirt and hands. Even without a protractor, there was no question in his mind something didn’t add up. He knew he should get on with calling the police and an ambulance, but he felt a need to learn more before the authorities muddied up the situation.
There obviously had to be some extenuating circumstances. He wondered if she would continue claiming her fiancé’s death was an accident or switch to self-defense. At the very worst, surely a good attorney could cop a manslaughter plea on her behalf. Of course, Ingram realized, he would have to recuse himself from the case if it ended up on his docket. He cleared his throat. “You were saying.”
Rather than answer, she began to cry again.
The pig-tailed little girl planted herself between Judge Ingram and the couple on the floor. “You haven’t answered the most important question. What did my brother think was wrong with the corn puddin’? What could be this wrong?” She pointed at her brother and then crossed her arms and waited for an answer.
The bride-to be kept her eyes lowered and muttered, “He didn’t like my corn.”
“Your corn?” Judge Ingram was confused. This was sounding less like a legal defense with everything she said.
“It was canned corn.”
“You used canned corn for your own wedding corn puddin’?” Pigtails’ face flushed.
Judge Ingram tried to grasp why Pigtails was reacting more to the words “canned corn” than to the position her brother was in. “Don’t you use canned corn in corn pudding?”
“Not if you’re a real cook,” Pigtails said. The bride wailed again. “The recipe for Thanksgiving Corn Puddin’ like Grammy makes takes fresh corn kernels, eggs, real butter, honest to goodness sugar, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and milk. Grammy usually adds a drop of sweet shine, too.”
Pigtails shifted her eyes from Judge Ingram to the crying bride and then reached a finger out to the goop on the island. She licked her finger and immediately spit the pudding into the garbage can.
“Grammy taught us a real cook never uses anything but God’s given ingredients. A real cook doesn’t take short cuts. Grammy would have murdered my brother if he served anything with canned whole kernel corn and cream-style corn.” She bent her head closer to the woman who would have been her sister-in-law. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Grammy doesn’t consider killing you, too.”
The bride cried louder. She was still sobbing when the police led her away. Her younger brother stood by the now unneeded wedding cake licking icing off his fingers.
Eighteen years later, retired Judge Ingram picked up one of the food magazines his wife stacked on the table between their recliners. He stared at the two pictures under the headline, “Today’s Hottest TV Chefs Face Off.” Left of a lightning bolt was dimple-cheeked Cake King Tommy Hatfield behind a wedding cake waving fingers covered with white icing in the air. The other picture, of a woman with flowing auburn hair and violet eyes holding her signature Thanksgiving corn puddin’ casserole, was captioned “Melinda McCoy – from farm to table.”
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