My mother had a deal with Purvis Lamm, the blind electrician. Every November, well before Thanksgiving, Purvis Lamm would arrive on my mother’s doorstep carrying a bottle of whiskey. My mother would take the bottle of whiskey from Purvis Lamm and tell him that he could come back later. She would close the screen door and tell him that, if he came back in two weeks, she would let him have his fruitcake.
Not once in her life had my mother ever walked into a liquor store. Only in the month of November was a bottle of whiskey ever allowed in her house. She did not approve of Purvis Lamm’s drinking whiskey. Because he was a drinkernot because he was a blind manshe said she would never trust his electrical work. She would not let him even enter her house. She worked her exchange with him, in broad daylight, standing on her front porch, wearing her housedress, a pair of leather lace-up shoes and an apron. My mother’s parents had built her house and had left it to her as a legacy. She was not about to let a drinking man like Purvis Lamm burn it down.
Still, from late November right up through Christmas, my mother’s kitchen reeked with the smooth, acrid odor of whiskey. It was a smell unlike anything else in her kitchen. It mixed with the smell of the oranges and coconut and vanilla she used in her candy. It mixed with the smell of sugar cookies and maraschino cherries and pecans and dried dates. Because my mother did not want a half-empty bottle of whiskey to be found in her pantry, a source of temptation to children and domestic help, she divided its entire contents between her two fruitcakes. The smell of it seeped through the walls and into every room of the house. It mixed with the smell of cedar branches and peppermint and moth balls and kerosene heaters. It oozed through the living room and mixed with the turpentine smell of the dripping sap from sawed-off pine-tree limbs.
My mother accepted her dealings with Purvis Lamm as a simple burden of dutiful womanhood. She made this concession, she said, for the sake of her children and her husband. She did not make fruitcakes, after all, to give away to other people. She only made her two fruitcakes. One was for Purvis Lamm, because there was no escaping him or his whiskey-soaked presence. The other was for her family to eat. It would be stored away, in an under-the-counter cabinet, wrapped in its bundling of whiskey-wet cloths, waiting for weeks until it could be brought out and broken up into whiskey-moist chunks, served late at night with cups of coffee, washed down with great gulping swallows of buttermilk. It could be served to friends and church people who stopped by to bring presents or plates piled high with fudge and coconut balls and divinity. It was not, however, to be taken from the house. It was not to be consumed in quantity. It was not to be distributed, without license, to common people out on the street.
I did not know, then, that fruitcake was a thing to be abhorred or derided. I did not know it could be ordered through the mail or used to raise money for high school athletic programs. I did not know it could be made in huge batches and wrapped up in cellophane and sold in grocery stores, where it was stacked away ignominiously, as if it were no better than a box of Vanilla Wafers or a pack of Moon Pies.
I did not know that it was a loathsome thing, the last resort of desperate maiden ladies on limited incomes, the terror of grammar-school teachers, more dreaded than a box of chocolate-covered cherries, more horrific than the dreaded sweater clip.
My mother served her fruitcake up as if it were a treasure, aged like good wine, unwrapped and revealed like some sacred relic, portioned out only to the solemn and chosen and then returned to its place where, no matter how long it waited alone in the darkness, it could not lose its freshness, it could never grow stale. Even at the end of the winter, when its last crumbs were spooned out on paper napkins, the fruitcake left little brown, whiskey-colored stains. People did not eat such a thing to fend off hunger or for purposes of simple, everyday pleasure. People took this fruitcake and consumed it because it was put before them, because to refuse it would be to refuse induction to a sacred rite.
It was only for the sake of her fruitcake that my mother consented to do businesss with a man like Purvis Lamm. It was only to make her fruitcake possible that she allowed a bottle of whiskey to enter her house. She returned the empty bottle to Purvis Lamm, handing it back to him in a sack of brown paper. She did not even want to have a whiskey bottle, she told him, discovered among any loads of trash that might be carried away from her house.
I did not know that, for other children’s mothers, the baking of a fruitcake was simply a matter of measuring out cupfuls of candied fruit and teaspoonfuls of cinnamon and nutmeg. I figured that, in every other house in Alabama, to bake a fruitcake was to risk the loss of an eternal soul. I could not understand why teachers could treat a gift of fruitcake lightly. I could not understand how children could be permitted to carry lumps of fruitcake in their lunchboxes, to be traded away for store-bought cream-filled cupcakes or 5 cent bags of ripple-cut potato chips.
My mother did not tell other people about the whiskey in her fruitcake. Unless she was forced, she did not mention her dealings with the blind electrician Purvis Lamm. If people recognized the smell and taste of whiskey, she figured, they were already people damned and forsaken by God. If they did not know what whiskey could do for a fruitcake, she figured, there was no point in telling them now.
There were people, she said, who did not understand the importance of Christmas, that it was a time for submitting to the most onerous of sacrifices. When Purvis Lamm appeared on her doorstep, shortly after Thanksgiving, she presented him with his fruitcake and his emptied-out whiskey bottle.
Every year, Purvis said, “Thank you for doing this again for me, Miss Margaret.”
Every year, my mother said, “Purvis, I hope you enjoy every bite.”
Every year, Purvis Lamm’s boy, Clovis, turned the key in the ignition and reached over and opened the car door for his father. Every year, before they were even out of the driveway, Purvis Lamm was cramming his mouth full of fruitcake.