There’s a worn out ol’ apple tree out there in Granny’s yard, and it’s about as old as Granny herself. That tree has faithfully gifted us with the best golden apples this side of Clinch Mountain. It looks give out and haggard, just like Granny does every now and then. Now Granny didn’t let what apples the Blue Jays and deer didn’t get go to waste. Lord, no. That poor ol’ tree had worked hard all summer to give us those apples, and it would’ve been a shame to let ‘em rot on the ground, Granny told us. So, we ate what we could of those smooth and good apples. We used some for good homemade applesauce, which we’d can up with plenty of sugar and cinnamon, for the coming Winter’s breakfast table and the next Thanksgiving’s apple cake.
Granny liked the bad apples the best, the ones christened with blister spots from the summer sun. The bad apples would almost fall off the tree into your hand, eager to be made into something delectable and worthy. The bad apples make the best pie, Granny would tell us.
Now I related to those apples that Granny liked best. I was a bad apple, too, you see. In a small town, you can’t run from your last name or dig a hole deep enough to bury what your folks did, never mind that you had nothing to do with the old beds they made. Everybody knew what my daddy had done before I was born. Oh, yes. Even if they didn’t say so out loud, they knew.
I recollect the Newberry girl I’d made fast friends with when we were 14, that wonderfully terrible age when we’re all figuring out who we are and how we fit into these oddly shaped, small town pegs. One day, right there in the school gymnasium before class, she asked me, out of the clear blue, “ain’t your daddy the one that shot and killed a man on Big Creek?” Now daddy’s past had never been denied or kept secret from me. “Yes,” I said. One word. I didn’t offer an excuse or an explanation, never mind that it had happened nearly 30 years ago by that time. There’s no excuse for murder. I knew that even then. Daddy was a bad apple, always had been and always would be, and I became one myself by destiny and default. “My mother says I can’t talk to you anymore then,” the Newberry girl said. And that was that.
Nobody is safe from the past.
And, Good Lord, we were all bad apples, I reckon. Granny, too. We’d sit around the kitchen table and slice up those blistered golden apples and talk about everything and nothing under the sun. I got kicked out of the Baptist church for cuttin’ my hair, Granny told us. And then I went and got divorced, and then they wouldn’t a’ let me back in if my hair growed back or not. Folks would talk about Uncle Jimmy, too, and they’d say he goes fishin’ every day and don’t catch nothing but a buzz. And Aunt Margene, she was the most beautiful woman that ever graced these hills in her glory days. She looked open-casket good with her perfectly hemmed pantsuits and bouffant blonde hair and Avon’s Cherry Jubilee lipstick, and always did, but she was a bad apple, too. They was jealous, is what they was, Aunt Margene said as she twiddled at the pearls around her neck. I might’ve looked at the fellas, but I never stole one. If jealous folks wanna find dirt on ya, they’ll dig to China to get to it.
And Mama, well, she was a bad apple from birth. Her own mother had five children out of wedlock back in the 1950s and put them all up for adoption. If you think you got it bad, sister, you need to talk to Mama. She’s been accused of things she never even thought of, and that’s the truth.
Now nobody knew about how Aunt Margene was so eaten up with rheumatism that she couldn’t have stolen some gal’s husband if she’d even wanted him. Or how Granny divorced the grandfather we never knew because he beat the tar out of her and she figured it was more Christian to leave him than to kill him. Nobody considered how Uncle Jimmy had been in Vietnam and, despite having made it back home in one piece, relived his nightmares in the daytime, and his daily trips to the river kept him from losing what was left of his mind.
Granny spread out those sun-blistered, weathered, and weary apples out on the table. They don’t need as much sugar, she said. They’re sweet enough already. And you look at these apples here, ya’ll. They’re bad, but they ain’t rotten. The rotten ones ain’t fit for nothin’ but makin’ the others look bad. Can’t do a thing with a rotten apple. But the bad ones? They’re the best that ol’ tree has to give. They take the blisters so the others can look good.
Bad apples like me and you and Mama know what Granny meant. We sure do.
That poor old tree has worked hard all summer to give us those apples, and it would’ve been a shame to let ‘em rot on the ground. We might we bad, but we ain’t rotten. Lord, no. We still have untouched and pure flesh beneath those blisters, no matter what folks think or say. As kids, we’d flock to get a peek when Granny was taking her pies and casseroles and cakes out of her wood-burning cook stove. Get behind my back, she’d say. And we’d do as she said and cloak ourselves in the shelter of her apron in case a burning ember came a’ flying from the stove. She’d say the same thing to folks that attempted to disturb her peace and put down her children.
Aunt Margene twiddles with her pearls and gives Granny a nod. Uncle Jimmy gives Granny a peck on the cheek and heads to the river. Mama peels the apples, freeing them of those blisters to show the untouched and pure flesh beneath. She smiles. Granny gives them some cinnamon and sugar and a soft bed of lard-leavened crust to revel in, and she places them in the belly of that old cook stove. I reckon that ol’ apple tree will be here long after I’m gone, she says. And I can’t help but recollect that Newberry girl again and again, never mind that I met her nearly 30 years ago by this time. My mother says I can’t talk to you anymore.
Get behind my back. Whether it’s been three decades or three days, that’s some pretty good advice.
We sat there at Granny’s table talking about nothing and everything under the sun. We ate every morsel of that bad apple pie with vanilla ice cream from Deskins Supermarket. It was more delectable and worthy than anything we’d ever had at that table. What I wouldn’t give for another generous slice.
There’s always that canned up applesauce, I reckon.