Death, Taxes, and Pecan Pie

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Chapter One

Let’s Roll


At 8:30 on a Saturday morning in late September, my fiancé Nick drove pulled his pickup truck into a recently mowed hayfield next to the high school in Pecan Crossing, a small town in northeast Texas. Today, the land would serve as a makeshift parking lot. Nick, his mother Bonnie, and I had driven out from Dallas for Pecan Palooza, a full-day festival dedicated to celebrating the nut that had put the tiny town on the map. The event would be held at the town park directly across the street. Of course things would kick off with a parade. Floats, a marching band, and performers were already lining up in the school’s parking lot. A team of volunteers in impossible-to-miss bright yellow T-shirts scurried around with clipboards in their hands, making sure everyone was in their correct places.   

            Just after Nick cut the engine, a grrrowwwl came from my belly. He turned his whiskey-colored eyes my way, amusement dancing in them. “Your stomach’s growling like a pissed-off tomcat looking for a fight.”

            I put a hand on my abdomen as if that could somehow silence its groans. I hadn’t eaten breakfast before we’d left Dallas so I could save room in my tummy for one of the oversized caramel pecan rolls they sold at the festival. Or two. Or three . . . “It’ll stop once I get a pecan roll in it.”  

            On Bonnie’s lap sat the pecan pie she’d baked last night. Terrified she’d damage the crust she’d carefully crimped, she’d wrapped the pie in clear cling wrap surrounded by three layers of heavy-duty bubble wrap. Heck, she could probably bounce the thing off the ground and the crust would remain intact. But I couldn’t blame her for being so careful. Whoever won the pecan pie bakeoff today would not only get a picture in the local weekly newspaper, but also take home a blue ribbon and a grand prize of $500.00. Not too shabby.

            Bonnie tucked her dark brown, silver-streaked hair behind her ear and looked lovingly down at her pie. “I’ve been thinking. If I win first prize, I’m going to buy myself a fancy fountain for the backyard. Maybe one of those waterfall types.”

            Nick reached for his door handle. “Don’t go hog wild, Mom. Remember you’ll owe taxes on your winnings.”

            She slid him a scowl in return. “You’re a killjoy.”

            “I’m a special agent for the IRS,” Nick said as he pushed his door open. “Killing joy is in my job description.”

            Like Nick, I worked as a criminal investigator for the IRS. But rather than killjoys, I preferred to think of us agents as financial avengers, superheroes who fought for truth and justice and ensured tax cheats paid their fair share so that honest, hardworking folks wouldn’t shoulder the burden. Of course I didn’t wear a cape or tights or a leotard with a big S on the front, but maybe I should consider getting one custom-made with a dollar sign on it. It would be fitting, no pun intended.

But lest you think I have a big head about my role in the world, know that I don’t do my job for entirely selfless reasons. In fact, many of my reasons for serving as a special agent were selfish. I’d never been one who could sit at a desk for hours, and I loved that my job took me out in the field on a regular basis. I also loved that I got to carry a gun. As an expert marksman, I enjoyed hitting the firing range to keep my skills up and blow off steam. It might be wrong of me, but I also liked that my position caused people to fear me. During my nearly three decades on the planet, I’d been called “scrawny” or “runt” or “pipsqueak” more times than I cared to recall. That’s what happens when you’re small boned and stand only five-feet-two-inches tall. People tended not to take me seriously until I flashed my badge, brandished my weapon, or garnished their bank accounts. Neener-neener. But enough about me . . .

Given her expert pie-baking skills, Bonnie had a good chance of bringing that blue ribbon and prize money home with her. That is, if my mother didn’t win the ribbon and cash herself. If anyone could give Bonnie a run for her money in the pecan pie department, it was Mom. My mother also made the best pecan pralines on the planet. She’d be competing for a prize for her pralines today, too.

            Speaking of Mom, there she is now.

            My mother waved from a few spots away, where she and my father were helping my favorite niece, Jesse, down from my father’s truck. My mother had pulled Jesse’s chestnut hair back into a braid and tied a pink ribbon on the end. As usual, Jesse wore jeans and her favorite pink cowgirl boots, which she wore every day, come hell or high water. Surely she’d be outgrowing the things soon. I made a mental note to buy her a new, bigger pair for Christmas. Wouldn’t want her poor little toes to get pinched.

            I waved to the three of them as Nick climbed out of his pickup and circled around to the passenger side to take the pie from his mother.

            “Careful now,” she said as he gingerly handed it to him.  

            Nick scoffed. “This pie means more to you than I do.”

            “You know that’s not true,” Bonnie retorted. “But it did take me longer to make the pie than it did to make you.”

            Nick’s lip quirked in disgust. “I did not need to hear that.”

            Bonnie merely chuckled in return and slid out of the truck. I slid out after her.

            We walked over to greet my family. My mother shared my chestnut hair and petite build, though she had a few pounds on me. Dad had weatherworn skin and a strong, square build, but he was the one who’d given me my gray-blue eyes and first taught me how to handle a gun. He’d line empty root beer cans along the top of the picnic table in the backyard and I’d shoot at them, picking them off one by one. Ping, ping, ping. Yep, while Mom and I were certainly close, I’d always been a daddy’s girl.   

            Mom pulled me in and held me in a tight bear hug. “It’s so good to see you, hon.”

            “You, too, Mom,” I said into her hair.

            When she released me, Dad stepped in for his turn. “You doin’ all right?”

            “Good as ever, Dad.”

Jesse was last. I picked her up from the ground and swung her around while she giggled in glee. “Ready to have some fun?”

            “You know I am!” she cried with a smile.

After the hugs and handshakes were exchanged, my mother retrieved her pie from the floorboards. Unlike Bonnie’s pie, Mom’s had a lattice top. It also had a secret ingredient that would set it apart—a generous dash of Southern Comfort. 

            Bonnie eyed my mother’s pie. “That looks delicious!”

            Mom eyed Bonnie’s pie in return, though it was difficult to see much through all the plastic and bubble wrap. “Not as delicious as yours, I’ll bet.”

            Bonnie smiled and shrugged. “I guess that’s up to the judges to decide.”

            Dad retrieved the box of my mother’s pecan pralines, too. I reached my hand toward it, hoping to snag one, but my mother swatted my hand away. “Don’t you dare! Those are for the contest.”

            “But they’re so good!” I cried. My mother knew I loved the things. How could she be so cruel?

            Turns out she couldn’t. She unzipped the purse slung over her shoulder, reached inside, and pulled out a plastic bag with three pralines inside. “Here you go.”

            I gave her a smile as I took them from her. “You’re the best.”

            I slid the bag into my own purse for later, took Jesse’s hand, and the six of us headed toward the street, kicking up a trail of dust until we reached the pavement. There we found a yellow-shirted volunteer handing out a schedule of events. My mother and Bonnie each took one, as did I. “Thanks.”

            My eyes ran down the page. In addition to the pecan pie and praline contests, there would be three other baking competitions. A pecan cookie contest, a pecan brittle contest, and a candied pecan contest. Obviously, the organizers of the festival wanted to push pecans as much as possible to pad the profits of local industry.

We crossed the road with a steady stream of festival goers making their way to the food booths or seeking a good spot for watching the parade, which would start in just a few minutes.

            Jesse raised her nose in the air as we approached the park. “What smells so good?”

            “Caramel pecan rolls.” I squeezed my niece’s hand. “Want one?”

            She gasped in delight and pumped her other fist. “Yes!”

            A girl after my own heart.

            We followed the scent of warm rolls and coffee past the midway, where people who worked for the carnival company were setting up game booths and technicians were testing the Tilt-a-whirl and kiddie rides.

            Jesse pointed to a ride called the Octopus, which had eight arms extending from a center axis, each with a car at the end that swiveled as the axis spun around and the arms went up and down. She looked up at my mother. “Can we go on that ride if I’m tall enough?”

            My mother groaned. “Those spinning rides make my stomach churn.”

            Jesse turned her fresh, freckled face up to me and blinked her eyes. “You’ll ride it with me, won’t you, Aunt Tara?”

            How could I say no to such a cute face? “Of course!”

When we reached the food stands, Nick, Jesse, and I took our place in line, while Bonnie and my parents carried the pies and pralines to the nearby tables where contestants were to drop off their edible entries.

As we waited in line, my gaze wandered about. Tucked among the trees behind the booths were several RVs and travel trailers, including a silver Airstream Sport model that gleamed in the morning sun. It was hooked up to an SUV. A large sign had been taped to the door, the word PRIVATE written in large red lettering. More than likely, the RVs and campers belonged to the carnival barkers and ride operators, modern-day nomads who’d been hired to provide entertainment at today’s event. The Pecan Crossing Police Department had brought its own mobile command center, a custom-painted fifth wheel pulled by a heavy-duty pickup. Bright orange extension cords ran from the trailers to the outlets in the large covered pavilion twenty yards away.

My father’s voice drew my attention back. “Would you look at that?”

A man dressed in a brown squirrel costume headed up the midway toward us, working the crowd along the route, stopping to pose for selfies—squirrelies?— with those waiting in line. When he spotted Jesse, he stepped over and bent down to her level, his muffled voice coming out of the squirrel’s smiling mouth. “What’s this behind your ear, young lady?” He reached out and pretended to pull something from her ear. When he opened his hand, a striped pecan lay in his palm. “There’s one behind your other ear, too!” he exclaimed, pretending to pull a nut from the other side. He tucked them both into his right hand before pretending to sneeze into his left. “Achoo!” When he opened his left hand, it held a pecan, too. “Goodness! How’d that get up my nose?”

“Yuck!” Jesse cried as the rest of us laughed.

“Y’all enjoy yourselves,” the squirrel said before heading off to amuse a trio of toddlers nearby.

The line inched forward until—finally!—we were sinking our teeth into soft, sticky rolls topped with chopped nuts. Mmm. I swear I heard my stomach sigh in bliss. No doubt the caramel-coated things contained the full recommended daily allowance of carbs and sugar, but I told myself that because the nuts contained protein, the rolls were essentially a health food. Self-deception was one of my greatest virtues.

            Nick gestured to a spot down the sidewalk where there was a break in the crowd wide enough to accommodate our group. “Why don’t we grab that spot to watch the parade?”

            I swallowed my bite of pecan roll. “Good idea.”

            As we made our way down the pavement and took our places among those waiting for the parade to begin, the bells on the clock tower atop the county courthouse on the square chimed to ring in the nine o’clock hour. Dong! Dong! Dong! . . .

            My father bent down so he’d be eye-level with Jesse. “Want to sit on my shoulders?”

            Her sticky face brightened and she looked up at my mother. “Can I?”

            My mother whipped a wet wipe from her purse. “Let me clean you up first.” She proceeded to wipe my niece’s face and hands, removing the sticky caramel and glaze. When Mom pronounced her “done,” Nick helped Jesse onto my father’s shoulders and Dad stood, holding tight to her skinny legs to keep her secure.

            “Wow!” Jesse looked around in awe. “I can see everything from up here!”

            Dad cut a look my way. “Remember when you used to ride on my shoulders?”

            I nodded and smiled in reply. It seemed like only yesterday. And now, here I was, about to get married myself in a few short weeks. Before long, maybe Nick and I would have our own little girl who’d enjoy riding on her daddy’s shoulders.

            Rat-a-tat-tat!  The sound of a snare drum coming up the street pulled me from my reverie. The parade had started promptly at nine as scheduled. Whoever was in charge of things this morning deserved their own blue ribbon. I couldn’t even imagine what a headache it would be to manage so many people and keep things running on time.

The crowd turned their heads in unison to look down the road. Two teenaged girls in marching band uniforms strode proudly at the front of the oncoming parade, a banner that read WELCOME TO PECAN PALOOZA! stretched between them. They were flanked by a baby-faced boy from the high school marching band’s drum line, who launched into a funky beat. Ba-ba-dum-dum-da-da-da-dum! The crowd roared as the trio reached us, everyone ready to have a good time today.

            Next came a John Deere tractor pulling a float adorned with thousands of painted pecan shells that spelled out PECAN CROSSING – THE NUTTIEST PLACE ON EARTH. The fifth-term mayor Reynaldo Ledesma and his wife, the town’s first lady, stood at the front of the float and waved to the crowd. Members of the city council perched on benches behind the couple and tossed out sample-sized packets of roasted pecans that had been made right here in town by one of the many nut processing facilities that employed the majority of the residents.

Nick caught the eye of one of the female council members. No surprise there. With his dark hair, tall statute, and broad shoulders, he tended to turn women’s heads. The attention Nick drew from women used to make me jealous, but turning their heads didn’t seem to go to his own so I no longer let it go to mine. The woman pointed at Nick and tossed a packet of cinnamon roasted pecans his way. Nick snatched it out of the air, sent the woman a smile in return, and tore the packet open with his teeth, sharing the tasty treat with me.

After the mayor’s float marched a group of Girl Scouts in uniform, the tallest of whom carried the United States flag. They were flanked by the local Boy Scouts carrying the Texas flag. Behind the scout troops rolled an antique fire truck with a number one painted on the side. Firefighters decked out in their gear hung from the truck, flexing their muscles and waving their bright red hard hats. The females watching from the sidelines wolf-whistled and catcalled. An elderly woman on a scooter beeped her horn raised a hand off the handlebars to fan herself. Looked like those hunky younger men had sent her into a hot flash.

A group of veterans marched next, some of the older soldiers in wheelchairs or assisted by walkers. The crowd applauded in appreciation again, though this was an entirely different type of appreciation.

             The high school’s marching band came up the road, dressed in their red and black uniforms. Leading the way were a girl in a glittery leotard twirling a baton and a boy in the Logger mascot costume, complete with a knit cap, a black and red plaid shirt, suspenders, jeans, and boots. He brandished a large axe, ready to reduce the hardiest pecan tree to two-by-fours— symbolically, at least. He wouldn’t actually get far with the blade he wielded. For safety purposes, it was made of plastic, hardly a match for a tree trunk. The band played the school’s fight song and the crowd around us sang along, blading their hands in improvised axes and moving them up and down in a chopping motion. “Go Loggers!” they hollered when the fight song wrapped up, adding an elongated, “Timmmberrr!” The band launched into an instrumental version of the Queen classic We Will Rock You.  

            Behind the band scrambled the football team, jogging back and forth across the pavement, tossing a ball to each other. The girls’ and boys’ basketball teams followed, dribbling their balls or spinning them atop their index fingers. One girl performed fancy moves worthy of the Harlem Globetrotters, rolling the ball over her shoulders and passing it between her legs like a pro. Not to be outdone, the baseball and volleyball teams showed off their skills, too, tossing or bumping balls up into the air, passing them to their teammates as they strode along.

            Various other groups from the local schools came along after the sports teams. The chess club had an impressive float. Not only was the flooring painted to resemble a chess board, but the students were dressed as knights, pawns, or bishops, with a king and queen standing together at the end. I suspected they’d received some input and borrowed costumes from the Drama Club, whose float followed. The sign on the front invited the crowd to their upcoming performance of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. The thespians’ float featured Snoopy’s red doghouse and a cast dressed up like the Peanuts characters. The teen playing everyone’s favorite sad sack had fully committed to the role, having shaved his head bald and drawing a single curly hair on his forehead with a black marker. 

            When the student dressed as the beloved beagle waved a paw at Jesse, she waved back and hollered, “Hi, Snoopy!”

Each of the town’s pecan companies had a float in the parade, including the two competing furniture makers who made dining room tables, dressers, and headboards from the wood. The employees rode upon the floats, holding up signs that noted anyone placing an order at their company’s booth today would be entitled to a special Pecan Palooza discount.

The man next to me, a fortyish dark-haired, bearded guy, readied his cell phone to snap pictures. “Here they come!” he called to the sandy-haired woman standing next to him. She raised up on tiptoe for a better look.

The final float approached, a monstrosity festooned with approximately eight-million yards of pink tulle. On an elevated chair covered in white velvet sat the young woman who’d reigned as “Pecan Princess” since winning the title at the preceding year’s Pecan Palooza. She wore a blue satin off-the-shoulder dress with a sequined waistband. Her blond hair was swept up in a pile on her head, the coveted Pecan Princess tiara, adorned with glitter-coated pecans and Swarovski crystals, twinkling atop her glossy locks. She perched primly on the edge of her throne, waving to the crowd in that rotating-hand manner a la the former Princess Diana.

A dozen pretty young women who’d be vying for this year’s title—and the grand prize of a $10,000 college scholarship—formed a semi-circle around the throne. Despite the fact that a mere twenty minutes earlier the clock had struck nine in the morning, each of them wore an elegant evening gown, as if they were on their way to Cinderella’s ball. They wore practiced smiles, too, as they waved to the crowd. 

The man standing next to me cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Looking great, Cassidy!”

A girl with glossy black hair, a silvery sequined gown, and an abundance of scarlet lipstick blew a kiss to the man, who beamed with pride. He turned to the woman next to him, who I took to be his wife and the girl’s mother. “I guaran-damn-tee you she’s going to win this thing. None of those other girls hold a candle to Cassidy.”

While their daughter was certainly pretty, the other girls were, too. Some might even be prettier. And the one with the ginger curls and the purple polka-dot dress who waved happily with both hands had a lively, unique style that was sure to score her extra points. Still, I couldn’t fault Cassidy’s father for being biased, could I?

Her mother, though, was more realistic. She looked up at her husband, “Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched, Wyatt. Cassidy’s got some tough competition. The important thing is that she’s willing to put herself out there.”

Wyatt scowled down at his wife. “That’s a bunch of bull crap. The important thing is winning.”

His wife shrugged, apparently already tired of bickering. “Well, I suppose that attitude is how you led the team to the state championship in ninety-four.”

Wyatt rocked back on his heels and beamed. “You got that right.”