Brandenburg races his fingers through his hair, squeezes the locks; they fall back to the brow the moment he releases, dangling over his eyes. The left finger extends above the table. Coconut cream, the crowd gasps; could it be? No. The finger scans across the chocolate pecan. No money changes hands; Brandenburg disparages the inclusion of nut pies at every opportunity. He waves the finger over the apple pie—his signature competition piece—to the judges’ choice, a cherry. The finger vacillates; not a show for the audience but true indecision. Brandenburg’s expressive character is the precise cause of his popularity. In a field of eccentrics, he’s the odd duck. He studies the crust of the apple: an undulating terrain of hardened dough, eager to flake. In the center, three cuneiform eyelets perfectly divided at 120º rotations. A scab of bronze syrup stains one of the eyelets; a minor flaw of the baker’s knife. A touch of imperfection. Evidence of a chaotic world that it is the art of the pie-eater to overcome.
A tight lattice, like a medieval portcullis, restrains the exuberant cherries, bursting within the judge’s choice. Thin, delicate, swaths of dough, loomed together. A workman’s weave. “Too much,” mutters Brandenburg to his own finger. The Maitre’d remains inscrutable. Echoes of his maxim are chanted by the crowd, scrawled on signs, printed on tee-shirts: “What is pie? Surely not cobbler.” Seven years of dominance and not once has Brandenburg selected a lattice crust.
Brandenburg selects the apple. Some cheer of the attending. Some groans. What the bookies call a safe bet. He rubs his hands frostily and again swoops his locks back. Chin up, brow up, he sees the audience as though for the first time, smiles in alarm, and steps back from the head table, nearly tumbling off the platform.
Next up, his former pupil, Goldberg. An inquisitive man, he leans over each of the pies, with two fingers placed over his mustache, and inhale lightly. First the coconut cream, then the chocolate pecan, and finally the judges’ cherry, wrapped in gold foil. He retracts from the cherry with a flourish, brows wag. Goldberg mutters to Brandenburg, inaudible. Brandenburg, roused from his private thoughts, responds with a hand to the bosom. “Yes, yes. Quite good.” A moment of camaraderie between rivals. To the shock of seemingly every seat in the auditorium, Goldberg selects the coconut cream. Significant money changes hands in the benches.
The outsider, Schübler, steps forward and thumbs boorishly at the cherry. Scattered onlookers voice their distaste. A cheap ploy, presumably, for the bonus points.
The Maitre’d snaps gloved fingers and the rotund baker emerges. He snatches the chocolate pecan, the unloved. As is customary, he digs a thumb in his creation, and scallops a bite of custard. It’s good, it’s good, he bellows playfully to the crowd. Meanwhile the contestants sit at their places; Brandenburg’s notorious wicker stool ever the eye-sore. He refuses to sit on any other chair during a competition. The table linen is brushed, the silver placed, and their pies presented before them. The baker carries the unchosen pecan down the platform to the Throne of the Pie Jester, an honorary role this year performed by a celebrity athlete. Some commotion. She asks the pecans be removed citing fears of bruises and scrapes. The baker shrugs and looks into the sky booth within which stands the television producer. A radio transmission sends a production assistant to the baker with an affirmative. The chef flicks the pecans from the pie onto the floor in rapid motion. Drum roll, cheers, then the baker presses the unwanted pie into the jester’s face. For the duration, she will wear the custard.
Each contestant is offered a single cut from a silver pie-knife. Brandenburg waves off the Maitre’d. Goldberg follows suit—the newspapers will derail him once again for plagiarism. Schübler beckons the blade. A single radius is sliced from the edge of the crust to the center point. The Maitre’d wipes the cherry filling from the blade and recedes. The competition begins.
Twenty-five minutes later, the Maitre’d again snaps gloved fingers. The crowd roars. Those in line for the washroom rush back to their seats. Goldberg removes the fork from his mouth and places it to the side. The bird’s-eye television cameras project the three pies on the screen behind the platform. Goldberg has eaten a perfect half of his pie.
Intermission. Tally. The aloof Schübler falls to second place, having earned zero points since the fifty bonus for selecting the judge’s pie. Goldberg’s early half earns him fifteen points, as expected; coconut cream rates highest for speed and mastication. Plus his delicate fork carving earned him two points per bite; pristine form. Brandenburg trails the younger contestants by twenty. His inflexible idiosyncrasies have grown loathsome to the judges who have not eaten in forty-eight hours hence. He splits the apple slices with the side of his fork and relayers them with crust before piercing both and bringing into his cautious mouth a perfect bite. Statisticians have mapped his scores since his thunderous debut seven years ago and replayed the footage of each performance. If anything, his form has only improved. And yet, his scores slide year after year. Brandenburg pauses for the intermission with fewer than thirty points, a new low mark in his career. The columnists take up their pens to begin their excoriations of the judges whose identities have been anonymized since the Leipzig incident.
Brandenburg, unlike his fans in the auditorium and in the press, relaxes.
The baker again emerges, now with a seltzer bottle. The jester shrieks. The baker sashays down the platform, swinging his rump side-to-side. The crowd cheers. Custard and water wash down her face. All in good fun, says the baker. All in good fun, says the jester.
The Maitre’d carries a crystal pitcher of spring water to Brandenburg’s place. He glances at his chalice; full. He takes a sip and asks the Maitre’d to refill it. Goldberg’s chalice is too refilled. Schübler the lout has drunk all of his water. Naturally he asks for the replenishment.
The second half begins. The contestants straighten their chairs and reach for their forks. Brandenburg’s fork slips from his grasp, bounces on the corner of the table with a sharp pring!, and strikes its syrupy tines against his starched tuxedo shirt. The crowd gasps. Brandenburg dips his napkin into his chalice and draws the napkin to the spot on his breast, trailing a sodden corner of the linen along the lip of the crystal which topples the glass and dumps the water all across the table into the surprised man’s lap.
Goldberg drops his jaw. The beastly Schübler continues to crack at the latticework like an ice-fisher, ignorant of all around him.
Goldberg’s gauche reaction costs him ten points; no longer the leader. Brandenburg’s misfortunes result in a combined seventy point deduction. A gentleman’s league, the IPEC states clearly in its coalition that unnatural numbers are anathema to the sport, and thus Brandenburg’s score falls to zero, and no further.
Leaning over to retrieve his fallen fork, he pushes back his wicker stool and it tips ever-so-slowly until it vanished over the edge of the platform. When Brandenburg arises with his fork and a curtain of hair fallen before his eyes, he no longer has a place to sit. The baker runs around the platform and lifts the stool for the champion.
The Maitre’d exposes a moment of empathy for his acquaintance. The jester is brought to tears. The baker removes his hat and wrenches it between his hands. No more will there be calm in the auditorium.
A legion of messages and phone calls emit from the crowd. Viewers at home call others into the room. Sports bar the world over reverberate with calls to turn to the pie eating contest. Broadcast ratings skyrocket. Seemingly everyone tunes in to watch Brandenburg’s heart wrenching fall from grace. Excoriations of the judges are crumbled and discarded. On fresh sheets of notepaper, the columnists spew synonyms for calamity, undoing, and indecorum.
Brandenburg rests his elbows on the table. Goldberg, his weather-eye on the leaderboard, returns to his own struggles. The third one, Schübler, shovels cherries into his bloodless face.
Brandenburg drops his cheek onto a fist and stares ruefully into his pie tin. Tomorrow’s newspapers and watercoolers will flood with conjecture. What is going through the man’s mind? Some say there are tears in his eyes. Some say he’ll retire. The man is stiller than his fans have ever seen. The hair remains suspended over his brow, untamed.
Glumly, he severs a forkful of pie and slides it into his mouth. Then another. Swift, mean motions; unlike any he’d displayed in competition before. His cheek still rests on his fist; his elbows still rest on the table. The cheeks bulge as he chews. The judges do not record the transgressions. Points are awarded instantly and chronologically. At zero points, he could set fire to the auditorium and thereafter execute a perfect triple without suffering the penalty for the arson. But points could not be further from Brandenburg’s mind.
This is the worst day of his life. Internationally televised humiliation. The ruin of his career. Five long months of practice collapsed in a single slip of the fingers. His mother is watching. He knows she is. He would be fine if she were not. His little mother is sitting in her little sitting room watching the broadcast on her little television set, wringing her little hands, wiping away little tears, worrying for her son who would not need to be worried over were she not worrying for him.
Brandenburg is thinking only of his mother.
Goldberg will need to perform flawlessly for the remainder if he wants to secure a victory against the unmentionably horrid Schübler. Speed would earn him twenty-five points, but etiquette could earn as many as eighty. He needs to pay more attention to his posture. He spine is sagging. The judges conspire. Should they deduct? Composure is the highest ranked category.
Goldberg resettles himself on the chair; straightening his back and delicately yanking on his cummerbund. The columnists whisper among themselves. Goldberg’s stomach capitulates. Cream pies take up less of the appetite, but the sugar demands water, which slows the competitor.
A susurration overwhelms the audience. In between garish mouthfuls of apple pie, Brandenburg’s lips roll into a smile. He hums to himself. The columnists bicker. Is he trying to nab the speed points, the first finished? If he trying to edge out whats-his-name the filth, to take home the silver? What is this new methodology?
He is not trying to win. He is not employing a strategy. Like every other turn in his career, the humming is authentic. Brandenburg, with nothing else to do at the table, eats his pie not thinking of weight or shape or wrist control or pattern or pace. Apple pie, eye-rollingly typical as it is, has been his favorite pie since he was a boy in boy stockings. He has claimed since his debut that he’s “just a natural born pie-man.”
His knuckles become sore. He lifts his head. Four discolorations mark his cheekbone. He takes a deep breath, realizing how many forkfuls of pie are in his belly. He looks up from his place to the crowd, swatting the lock of hair out of his eyes. His fans cheer. He smiles and shrugs. His fans cheer louder. He swoops a bite of pie into his mouth and lifts his eyebrows. Without his noticing, ten points are added under his name. He turns in his chair to find the baker. The round face is twisted down in anguish. Brandenburg doesn’t understand. He smiles wide to cheer his old acquaintance. “This is really quite good.” The baker’s eyes widen and his mouth form a tiny O. “You’re not my mother, are you?” says Brandenburg. The baker laughs, from the belly. A release of sorrow into splendor.
Brandenburg glances to his former pupil Goldberg. The younger man is astonished. Brandenburg cannot fathom the reaction. Surely Goldberg is set to win his first international competition. And now Brandenburg sees the leaderboard. He exclaims. Ninety points.
Goldberg reconfigures his strategy. He speeds through the final quarter of his pie. He is awarded his points perfunctorily. He is finished. Goldberg’s final rests at sixty-five.
Brandenburg in the meantime sets down his fork. Blithely, he lifts the final eighth of his pie with his delicate fingers and holds it up to his eyes, admiring the equal layers of crust on top and bottom, the balance of the apples, and the sturdiness of the filling. His eyes light up. The pie retains its form. He takes a bite and again examines the filling. There is the merest oozing. Brandenburg sets the pie down and dusts his fingers and thumb together. In three brief motions, he’s finished the pie. The overhead cameras zoom in on his perfectly clean pie-tin. The crowd erupts. Brandenburg is handed the golden kitten. The judges submit a ruling. Unanimous victory. For reminding us why we eat pie in the first place!
Brandenburg announces his retirement. He returns home to his mother. She bakes him a pie. He eats a slice. He looks around the room. He’s alone with his mother in her little kitchen. Nobody expects him to eat an entire pie by himself. That would be crazy. And rude. His mother only baked the one pie. She wants some.