Well, it seems that the technical problems that have kept me from posting updates since earlier this summer have finally been resolved. So I thought I'd better post the entries I'd written for the weekly "Spohn Challenge" project during that time so they'll all be here in one place. (During the duration I posted each new story on my Facebook wall in order to stay on schedule and not forfeit my participation in the project.) Some of the stories are longer than others, so I'm splitting this update up into more than one post just to keep it from becoming too extraordinarily long.

So without further ado...

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Then, much to my surprise, I was dead.

To this day I never have found out what happened to the other guy.

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Marie LePanto had lived in that little white house on the corner of Michigan and Grand for more years than any of the rest of us in the neighborhood could remember. 

When we were kids some of us would gather together almost every day and play in her front yard, laughing and roughhousing and climbing that big mulberry tree in the corner of the yard just off the sidewalk, and generally making a frightful nuisance of ourselves. And almost every day she would storm out onto her front porch, shaking a fist or waving a broom in our direction and telling us in no uncertain terms what would happen to us if she ever got her hands on us. Who were we – upstart little booger-nosed hellions that we were – to disregard the privacy of one of the oldest and most respected residents of the town? Or so she argued.

In response we would just laugh and taunt her, daring her to try to do something about it, secure in the belief that our youth - not to mention our sheer numbers - would give us the advantage should she ever try to make good on her threats. At that age it did not even begin to dawn on us that one day that might be one of us standing on our porch, chasing off a mob of neighborhood brats. Years later, of course, we would come to realize just how fortunate we were that she didn’t do anything more than stand there and yell at us...

Say what you will, she was right about one thing: the adults in town did seem to have a great deal of respect for the woman. Which I always thought was a little odd, seeing as how she was also the subject of most of the gossip that circulated throughout the community. 

Apparently she had been – way, way back there in the old days, when she was still young enough and pretty enough that such stories might have been believable (and I’ve seen pictures of the woman from those days; she would have made one hell of a centerfold) – the subject of a great deal of controversy. Rumors had circulated for years concerning Miss Marie’s behavior in those days just before her husband, the wealthy industrialist Oliver Q. LePanto, had passed away.  

Besides, they were all too busy gossiping about the rest of the story to be overly concerned with just that one aspect of the strange goings-on.

According to popular rumor, Miss Marie had been sneaking around behind Oliver’s back for several years; the identity of her mystery suitor had never been verified, although it always seemed just a bit too coincidental for some folks that Oliver’s best friend, Scottie Pearlman, should have decided to leave town so soon after Oliver’s passing. Some said that wail that erupted from his throat upon hearing of his friend’s death was born not so much of grief as it was of guilt. Nobody ever knew where he ran off to; to be honest, I don’t think that anybody really cared. All anybody really knew for sure was that he left suddenly – so suddenly, in fact, that most of his belongings had been left behind.  As near as anyone could figure, he only took one set of everyday clothes, his Sunday go-to-meeting suit, and that stupid umbrella with the goose-shaped handle he always carried everywhere he went. Folks figured that anybody who left town in that much of a hurry had to have been trying to run away from something..

It soon became "common knowledge" – which we all know is just a fancy way of describing popular rumor – that Miss Marie had in fact been having a rather torrid affair with Scottie for some time. According to Old Lady McGinnis (the town's resident expert on just about everything that was none of her business, never mind that she had been but a child herself when it had all supposedly taken place), Oliver had unexpectedly returned a day early from one of his many business trips and had walked in just in time to catch them in the act of… well, let's just say you'd have a heart attack, too, if you walked in to find your wife doing something like that and it wasn't you she was doing it to.  

Whether any of this was true or not simply did not matter. It was enough that someone had said it had happened. And while nobody ever worked up the nerve to question Miss Marie on the matter directly, at least not so far as I had ever heard tell of, it was not uncommon for many years afterward to hear people on the street whisper amongst themselves after she'd walk by…

Anyway, all that happened well before I was born; by the time I'd gotten to be old enough to have heard the story, Oliver's death and Scottie's disappearance were pretty much ancient history. By that time the woman was known more for her pies than for any indiscretions she may have committed as a girl. 

One of the things I remember most about her is that we only rarely saw her out and about. Oh, she’d walk downtown occasionally to get groceries or visit a friend, but more often than not she could be found at home, hard at work in the kitchen. Sometimes entire days would pass before we’d see her step out to check the mail, or to take her laundry in or out, or even to pay the paper boy. 

Such behavior was easily forgiven, though. She didn’t have the time; she was too busy baking some of those famous pies of hers.

Miss Marie's fame as a pastry chef began several years before poor Oliver died, and was apparently something of an accident. That was the summer of Vicki Panozzo's wedding, which of course was one of the biggest social events of the decade. 

Vicki, the only daughter of the city's widowed postmaster, had finally gotten engaged at the ripe old age of thirty to a up-and-coming young lawyer who had moved north from Dallas. The ladies at Our Saviour Lutheran Church were so tickled to finally see the poor girl about to be married off that they immediately volunteered to handle all the arrangements for Mr. Panozzo, so that he wouldn't have to foot too extravagant a bill. The minister's wife assigned each lady her own specific task to perform for the wedding, and it was Miss Marie who drew the assignment of whipping up another dessert, just in case there might be anyone present who didn't especially care for cake.

Well, sir, just where she got the recipe nobody ever knew. She wasn't about to tell, and after a while the other ladies stopped pressing the matter. The only thing that anyone knew for certain was that Miss Marie's pies were quite possibly the finest example of the culinary arts that anyone had ever happened upon; indeed, the general consensus of those attending the wedding reception was that Miss Marie might make herself a rather considerable fortune should she decide to market her talents at pastry making. 

Apparently she thought so, too, because it was not long afterward that she began selling pies to anyone who asked, charging two bits for each pie she made. Two bits, no more, no less. It doesn't seem like much, and that probably had as much to do with the popularity of her pies as did the recipes she steadfastly refused to divulge.

For a few years she even entered her pies in the county fair, and of course she came home with first place every time she did. It got to the point that the other ladies stopped entering; they knew their own efforts were no match for Miss Marie's pies, so they didn't see the point in trying. Once that happened, Miss Marie announced she would no longer enter the contest. Making a little extra spending money here and there was one thing, but it had never been her intent to rob others of the joy she herself derived from baking. Once it became obvious that this was what was happening, she withdrew herself from the contest circuit and concentrated solely on selling her wares for various social occasions. The other ladies in town thought it a particularly gracious gesture on her part and made it a point to call upon her services quite often, even those who were excellent bakers in their own right.

Every so often someone would call upon Miss Marie to cater an entire meal for some event or another, no doubt believing that anyone who could turn out such delicious pies must also be capable of some pretty wonderful main courses. But she was always quick to turn down such requests. “If it's roast beef or chicken you're after, you'd best go call on someone else,” she was heard to have said more than once.  I'm sure a few must have considered this odd, but few if anyone ever complained; indeed, most folks probably were of the opinion that anything that diverting Miss Marie's attention from those wonderful pies might very well be considered a crime.

Getting back into the kitchen seemed to provide a certain degree of therapy at a time when Miss Marie certainly needed it. In addition to having just lost her husband and becoming the subject of the sort of vicious rumors that might have driven a weaker woman out of town, there was also the little matter of her son.

The "official" story had always been that Simon LePlanto had left home not long after his father's death to go to work for the railroad; supposedly he'd wanted to make his own way in the world, and prove that he didn't have to use his status as son of a wealthy businessman as a social or economic crutch.

That was the story that Miss Marie would have the town believe. The truth – it was no great secret, and yet nobody ever let on to Miss Marie that they knew – was that Simon had been placed in some big asylum up north. What wasn't known was why he'd been sent there; most folks just assumed that it had something to do with the rumored sequence of events that had led to Oliver's death in the first place, but of course this was nothing more than speculation.

Simon's name didn't come up much in conversation. Every now and then some well-meaning person would ask how the boy was doing; Miss Marie would always just smile and say, “Oh, he’s fine.  But I surely do wish he’d find himself a wife.”  Then she'd giggle softly, as if thinking of some private little joke, and change the subject. It was just another one of those odd little things about her that folks eventually learned to take for granted.

Another was the fact that she walked everywhere she went. She had a car, but she never used it; Simon's '62 Volkswagen convertible (you'd have thought the son of a well-to-do industrialist would have bought himself a fancier car, but Simon loved that Beetle) had been locked up in the garage since he left town. After that, Miss Marie did all of her travelling by foot; she never accepted a ride, even from friends, and if she had to deliver one of her pies she's pack it nice and neat in a cardboard box and carry it to the customer herself. If she had a bulk order to fill, she'd be certain to make arrangements to either have the customer come for the pies or to have them delivered by some third party.

"This isn't Chicago or New York, for goodness sakes," she'd say whenever someone would try to offer her a ride. "If I can't get there on foot, I probably don't have any business going."

Twice she broke this rule. The first was when she travelled to Illinois to bury her husband. Simon drove his mother there and brought her home again; a few months later, Simon was sitting in a rubber room somewhere and Miss Marie was walking again.

The second time was something of a mystery. One morning old Sheriff Thompson was walking down the block from his office to the Rexall Drug Store for his morning doughnut and mug of Merle's special coffee and happened to see Miss Marie standing at the bus stop in front of the post office. When he asked where she was headed, she just smiled and said she had some personal business to attend to out of state. Nothing more. A few days later she was back home turning out a fresh batch of those marvelous pies as if she had never been gone, and no explanation for her trip was ever offered. I vaguely recall my mother ordering a mince meat pie for her sister's birthday around that time. Mother said later she'd heard a rumor that Miss Marie finally found out where Scottie Pearlman had run off to and had gone to pay him a visit. "But you know how rumors are," she said.

That was the extent of Miss Marie's travels abroad for years. Then one day she called the boys down at Despain's Garage and asked them to come fetch Simon's Volkswagen out of the garage and get it back in running condition. Word spread like wildfire throughout the town that Miss Marie was finally learning how to drive a car, and there was some genuine concern that she might be considering moving out of town. Which would have been her right, of course, but those of us who had gotten used to them had trouble trying to imagine life without Miss Marie's pies.

Then one day she was gone. No word, no warning. Packed her bags, got in the car and went off to God only knew where. This time she was gone for a solid week before she returned, at which point she explained to a lady who had ordered a blueberry pie for her daughter's wedding that she had gone to visit her sister in Indiana. It seemed like a perfectly legitimate story, and it's not likely that anyone would have thought otherwise if not for a couple of minor details that kept nagging on a few minds: not only would it have been next to impossible for her to have gotten all the way to Indiana and back in that amount of time – especially in that little Volkswagen – but there was also the fact that Miss Marie was an only child to consider. It was just the latest in a long string of mysteries surrounding the woman, but once again most folks reacted by simply shrugging their shoulders and going on about their business.

A month later she was dead. Apparently she had dozed off on the sofa that evening watching Jay Leno (he was her favorite television personality; she often commented how she wished her son Simon might have turned out more like Jay) and simply never woke up. A neighbor lady found her there on the sofa late the next morning when she came to pick up a pie she'd ordered for her grandson's birthday. It was the first time Miss Marie had ever missed filling an order.

Even in death Miss Marie left us plenty to talk about. Turns out she'd made arrangements to be buried up in Illinois alongside Oliver, whose first wife had been laid to rest on the opposite side of him. We all agreed that this took a lot of nerve, and yet we couldn't help but admire the woman for seeing that such arrangements were made.

One of the ladies at the church, and I forget who right off, had the notion that the reception should be held at Miss Marie's house following the interment service. A few people wondered if that would be such a good idea, seeing as how there wouldn't be any members of her family there. But Rev. Hanson pointed out that the LePlanto home was alive with the memories of those who had lived there, and that those memories were like having members of the family there with us. That sounded just a little bit too metaphysical to me, especially coming from a respected clergyman like Rev. Hanson, but enough people agreed with him and so it was done.

It was the first time anyone had been inside her house since Oliver had died – well, except for Mrs. Kelly, who had found her there dead on the couch, but we figured that didn't count. We were touched by just how lovely and immaculate the old place was, the manner in which it had been so richly decorated with an old woman’s loving touch.  On the wall there were dozens of pictures of Simon, ranging all the way back from earliest childhood to just before he'd been sent away. I'd never met Simon myself, but I'd heard from some of the ladies for years just how handsome a man he was and the photos certainly proved it.  

One odd thing did strike me: in his adult pictures, Simon never smiled.  I also noticed that there were no pictures of Simon with another woman, no evidence of any grandchildren.  I remembered my mother's stories about how Miss Marie always used to wish he'd find himself a wife, but I guess this was the first time any of us had realized that her wish had never come true. There was one picture of Simon sitting on a sofa next to someone else; the picture had been cut in two, apparently to eliminate the other person, but we could see that Simon was holding someone else's hand in his own. Somebody remarked that it looked to be a man's hand, but it was difficult to tell for sure. 

Folks gathered in the living room with their pies and took to talking about Miss Marie and some of the stories that had circulated over the years. At some point the conversation turned back to the subject of pies, with several of the church ladies expressing dismay that Miss Marie had apparently never bothered to write down any of her pie recipes. It seemed a downright shame that the woman had taken her secrets to the grave with her, and despite the occasion there were a few petty comments made about what was perceived to be selfishness on the part of the dearly departed.

About that time there was a blood-curdling scream from the kitchen. Rev. Hanson, Sheriff Thompson and I ran across the house and found Mrs. McGinnis standing there in the middle of the kitchen, all bent over and clutching her stomach like she'd been hit by a sudden case of the flu or something. She bolted past us and headed for the bathroom, leaving the three of us standing there wondering just what had happened. Then Sheriff Thompson happened to glance over and notice that the door to the refrigerator's freezer unit was opened; apparently Mrs. McGinnis had been snooping around again and came across something she wished she hadn't.


The reverend reached into the freezer and pulled out three Tupperware bowls full of what appeared to be filling for Miss Marie's mince meat pies. On each was a paper label with her handwriting scrawled across it in blood-red ink.

One label read "Oliver," another read "Scottie" and the third read "Simon."

Rev. Hanson and I exchanged astonished glances as the rest of the guests made a beeline for the back door and followed Sheriff Thompson's example…

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Tina Robinson thought she'd had it figured out.

She saw the commercials on TV advertising that popular new facelift procedure guaranteed to make you look and feel younger. Though not quite 60 years old, she decided that this was just the thing for her. So she scrimped and saved for the better part of a year, and finally managed to put together enough to get the procedure done herself.

And you know something? Those ads were absolutely right - Tina DID look and feel younger. 

Old friends said she looked like she did back when she was in her twenties. (They were right, she realized as she gazed at herself in the mirror one night before going to bed - she looked pretty darn good.) 

The boy recently out of high school who bagged her groceries at the local supermarket the night after she got home from the clinic asked her out for a date. (She declined - politely - but briefly toyed with the notion of going back and taking him up on the offer after all, just to see what her friends might say.) 

Her ex-husband, who had left her for his much-younger secretary two years earlier, ran into her at the bank one day and was so taken by her renewed visage of youth that he offered to take her back. (She took great satisfaction in telling him where to stick it.)

The impact of the facelift delighted Tina greatly. She truly believed that an exciting new chapter of her life was just beginning. And for about twelve days Tina Robinson was, almost without question, the single happiest woman on the face of the earth.

And on the morning of the thirteenth day she got out of bed, took a shower, ate breakfast, put on her nicest dress, and fell over dead from a heart attack as she to leave the house and visit a friend.

Hey, don't act so surprised. You should have seen it coming.

After all, facelifts do absolutely nothing for bad hearts and high cholesterol counts...

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More to come...

(The above stories are Copyright 2014 by John Allen Small)