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Archive for April, 2008

Toothless

 “I think I ripped off part of my gum,” Arden boasted just moments ago. He showed me a tooth with blooded roots that came out of his mouth. All weekend he has been grasping inside his mouth with fingers caked with dirt under the nails, trying to yank free the jaws of childhood.

At eleven he has lost most of his teeth. This one came from far back, on the top row, probably a bicuspid or maybe a molar.

“When I was your age, we tied strings around our loose teeth and to door knobs. When then slammed the door shut. That will yank your tooth out in seconds,” I advised.

“No way!” He cried, holding the side of his face.

“It will eventually come out. The one underneath will grow in more and push it out,” I promised.

His constant prodding worked. The tooth came out.

Why must children show off lost teeth like precious gems?

Yuck!

That does look like a piece of his gum.

“Get that away from me,” I cried. “I’m not a tooth fairy.”

He laughed.

“How did you get it out?” I asked.

Dental floss and the bathroom door,” he explained. “You didn’t hear the door slam?” He asked. “You were right, Chals. It didn’t hurt very much.”

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The following essay on H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was written by a close friend I met in an on-line literary forum.

Years ago, when I started this blog, and there was nobody reading me, I met a stranger on line who encouraged me to press on.

He has granted me permission to publish his literary review of War of the Worlds here.  We read this book together, in an Oprah like book club. I’m trying to send some of this search engine charma his way…

(Please do me a favor and click on his blog, and show this sexy man my support to his literary genius.)

Literary Review of “War of the Worlds” By ghostofmajestic

On the surface, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is about a Martian invasion of Earth. Well actually Southern England seems to be the target of our rivals from the war god planet. As to be expected, the Martians wreak havoc over the countryside, using in a very literal sense scorched earth tactics and, in scenes eerily prophetic of the first world war, chemical weapons. Presenting a narrative of the lives of two brothers witnessing the penultimate breath of human civilization, this is apocalyptic prose at its highest apex – at the point at which there appears no hope, only resignation.

As a suspenseful tale of Martian vs. Earthling conflict, the story is satisfying. The action is persistent and the tension builds as the Tripods approach London. However, again this is the story as it appears to the reader on the surface. Further examination forces this reader to conclude that Wells aspires to explore the same lines of metaphysical conjecture as both Gottfried Leibniz and his satiric critic Voltaire. The telling clue is on the very first page of Chapter 13.

Wells mentions the destruction of the city of Lisbon from earthquake, compounded by tsunami, compounded by fire. Perhaps in a comical sleight, the narrator believes the destruction to have occurred a century ago, but as we all know the date of the catastrophe was 1755, nearly 150 years preceding the setting of the novel.

The sudden destruction of Lisbon and the great suffering in its aftermath are important and vital scenes in Voltaire’s great satire Candide, a cutting criticism of the metaphysical optimism put forth by Gottfried Leibniz, the mathematician, philosopher and general polymath in his 1710 treatise Theodicy. It is title character Candide’s and his tutor Pangloss’ visit to Lisbon just after the earthquake (so soon after that their ship is nearly swallowed up by the ensuing tsunami and their traveling commrade the Anabaptist is lost to the rising waters of the bay) that begins sewing the seeds of doubt in Candide’s belief that this world is indeed “the best of all possible worlds.”

According to Leibniz, our reality, our world, is the best off all possible worlds – the very optimal that God, in his omnipotent concern and care for us, could create. Since God is good and omnipotent, and since He chose this world out of all possibilities, this world must be good–in fact, this world is the best. Even suffering and evil has its place in this best of worlds, because if there could possibly be one better, with a little less suffering and not as much evil, then God would have created that. Voltaire thought this idea to be ludicrous, and he sends his naive yet thoughtful protagonist Candide on adventures throughout Europe and the New World to reveal the very weaknesses of Leibniz’s argument. We witness the great suffering and evil that Candide witnesses, and consequently our own belief, if we had any, in the optimism of Leibniz is all but crushed like a monk under a huge stone hurled from the roof of a cathedral in Lisbon in 1755.

The events in Lisbon caused seismic tremors all throughout the intellectual strata of Europe. The earthquake struck in the morning, killing many Catholic celebrants at mass on All Saints Day. Who would blame any citizen of Lisbon for resigning himself to the revelation that this was the end of time? The horrific events of these few days would force many to ask again those ageless questions:

Why does God allow suffering?

If God is all-seeing and all-powerful, why is there evil?

These are the very questions at the root of Theodicy. This is what Leibniz attempted to answer through reason, and it is toward Leibniz’s answer that Voltaire, by way of his fictional ego Candide, thumbed his nose at.

It can be argued that Voltaire, like most deists of his era, believed that God simply did not care about the plight of man – that he had set the clockwork of creation in motion but then had left it at home by his bedside to enjoy some rest and recreation down at the beach. Many came around to adopt similar paradigms of reason and enlightenment. Events like the great earthquake in Lisbon had shaken the very foundation of faith in 18th century Europe, but what does this have to do with Mars?

In War of the Worlds, London is the new Lisbon. Instead of a comprehensive faith in the almighty, there is now faith in industry, in technology, in the projection of power, all things that have made the British Empire king. The sun does not set on the empire. Religious conviction has been subjugated to commerce, the smokestack and the exploitation of colonial possessions. Little do the imperial subjects realize that they are being watched by an intelligence far more advanced than their own, an intelligence that has plans upon their blue-green world.

What once was the best of all possible worlds for a Martian, is no longer suitable at all. Due to entropic decay, it has become a cold world depleted of the necessary resources to keep Martians free of suffering. Naturally the dark, black eyes of the Martian looked upon the warm Earth with jealousy. Plans were put into play.

Who would blame any citizen of the empire, his stiff upper lip quivering in fear, for believing that what he was witnessing with the death throes of human progress, eventually of all humanity? It must have felt something like a quaking in the earth to see the artillery batteries melt under the Martians’ mysteries heat rays. One would wonder what Candide would have thought surveying the ravaged towns and the mass of humanity fleeing, tearing at each other for advantage . . . Oh screw it, I liked War of the World best for all the ‘spolosions. I give H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds five tentacles up.

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Catholic Child

Raquan’s orange Gideon Bible is hidden behind his 8th grade school portrait in my living room. I placed it there several years ago so the cats wouldn’t shred the thin pieces of paper on which the books of Psalms and Proverbs have been published next to the complete New Testament collection. Why he brought his palm-pilot like Bible to our house several years ago is a great mystery to his brother Bradley and me. Raquan’s mom went off to Atlantic City one weekend and we had to baby sit Raquan and his little brother Arden. The kids came over with their usual backpack full of clothing. Raquan pulled out his little Bible and showed it to me.

“Oh, I had one of these when I was in the Army,” I said to him. “This is nice.”

Bradley just rolled his eyes. Bradley hates anything to do with religion, especially after his older sister married a Muslim and now dresses the part, covering herself with garments like that of a nun.

“He’s going to a Catholic Church now,” Bradley explained. “Mom said he went there on his own. It’s right down the street from their house and he was lured in there by a summer camp they have every summer.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” I said to Bradley so that Raquan could here me.

 

Months later, we learned the real reason why Raquan was going to Catholic Mass. He had a crush on a Catholic girl and used the church’s summer camp as an excuse to get to know her. He picked up the Bible in a strategic love gesture, I imagined.

He left that Bible at our place purposely. He placed it on the bookcase next to my camelback sofa alongside my complete version of the Holy Bible and went home for the weekend. I thought nothing of it. The kids leave stuff at our house all the time.

“Why did Raquan bring his Bible over here?” Bradley asked. “I don’t want to look at it. That book is filled with so many lies and I don’t want my little brother led astray by the Catholic Church. Aren’t they the people who walk around with ashes on their faces?”

“Yes. And they pray on little boys,” I reminded him. “Be glad that Bible is over here and not in his hands,” I replied coldly to my lover. Bradley wanted to throw the little Bible in the trash. He didn’t seem to mind when our cat Link carried around the orange little book in his mouth as if he had caught a mouse from a toxic dump. I quickly saved Raquan’s Gideon Bible from the mouth of our cat and put it behind his school portrait. I forgot it was there until this past weekend when I decided to do some dusting. Had it really been three years since I last dusted?

The picture frame that housed his school photograph and hid the Gideon Bible was from Bed, Bath & Beyond. It was a high-tech picture frame and has a tiny electronic contraption on the back that can be used to record voices. Suddenly I remembered the weekend when the kids were over and they were recording their voices into the picture frame. I wondered if the batteries were still good.
I pressed the button on Raquan’s picture frame. Already his voice has deepened. His childhood voice echoed from the dusty shelf, reminding both Bradley and me of how innocent he once was—

“Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you,” the childhood voice of Raquan echoed over and over again.

I made the sign of the cross and quickly returned the undusted frame and Bible to their proper burial location.

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 I lived in Bed-Stuy for three years before discovering the Home Depot around the corner. The superstore is just three blocks away. Rarely do I ever head in the direction of Nostrand Avenue. That’s why I didn’t know the store was there. I use the subway station just out the door, on the corner of Bedford, in the opposite direction of that fabulous warehouse. Several years ago, the lock on our door came undone. Little metal beads fell from the doorlock after I turned the key. It was obvious someone was trying to break into the house. The screwdriver or whatever tool the thieves were using didn’t work. They didn’t get inside, but our lock was ruined.

I didn’t want to go to bed in Bed-Stuy knowing that my door did not have a lock on it, so I walked around the neighborhood, in an attempt to find a hardware store that sold locking mechanisms, like the one inside my steel door that was broken. That’s when I discovered the Home Depot around the corner. The place is endless and they have a garden center. I’m one of a few New Yorkers with a back yard and garden. I went to the Depot today because the weather turned surprisingly warm and I got the urge to fix up my back yard.

My initial morning plans involved only a few Yoga maneuvers in the back yard. I sipped my coffee in the reclining chair in the spare bedroom next to the pool table, believing I would spend my day writing. My lover B. was still in bed. Thankfully he left me a little gift in the ash tray. Soon after my mind began to wonder like a wild weed in a flowerbed, I decided to crawl out the window into the back yard and fix up things a little.

Remnants from last season’s ten foot tall sunflower plants were still sticking out of the dirt like long shoots of bamboo in Asia. The place was an absolute mess. Jose, the Pureto Rican who lives upstairs with that woman with the hair weave and her five kids has been sitting on his fire escape all winter and tossing white cigarette butts into my landscaped paradise. There were so many to be found. His poor lungs, I thought as I finished the roach that B. had left for me. I lit my own Newport before picking up all those cigarette butts.

It took only 10 minutes to toss the sunflower stalks to the compost pile at the back of my lot. The beauty of this sacred place started to return under the warm glow of a bright April sun after completing a few light chores. The cherry tree next door has started to show promise of tiny white flowers. The apple trees already have green leaves. I was inspired by the trees to remove all the other rubbish from winter. Potato chip bags and lids from beer bottles were everywhere. I cleaned them up. I grabbed my spade shovel and turned all the soil in the flower and vegetable beds over. I used a metal hand rake to break up the large clumps of soil. Eventually, everything was done. I took a deep breath, bent over and touched my toes and decided I had done enough exercise for the day and the Yoga stretching would not be necessary.

A warm spring breeze caressed my still glowing cheeks and a slight ding, almost like that of a church bell graced my garden. Brooklyn was still quiet at 8 a.m. It was so beautiful back there this morning.

Home Depot called to me moments later. Surely by now the danger of frost has past in New York City, I realized, noting that the trees must know when its safe to release their blossoms.

Burpless cucumbers have been planted near the wire fence again.

I’m attempting to grow miniature watermelons this summer. Home Depot promises 300 lb pumpkins on the cover of the seed package I purchased for $1.99. There were only three pumpkin seeds inside. They must be the real thing. On the cover of the seed package, the pumpkins are larger than the children who are posed upon their orange skin.

Marigolds went in right under the limbs of the cherry tree and the wind chime that I have hanging back there.

Everything is done. The hard work is over. All I have to do is water now, and pick the weeds and remove the cigarette butts that fall from my neighbor’s lips like careless whispers. He will not be getting any of my vegetables this year, like he did last growing season, I thought as I heard B. scream from inside–

“You fucking pot-heat!”

 

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Sink and Run

Uncle Frank missed killing the same eight-point buck that escaped the cross hairs of my 30-30 rifle. By the time the whitetail crossed an opening in a wooded area fifty yards below the quarry road where Frank was sitting in his jeep, the animal was traveling at top speed. When I shot and missed the most beautiful creature ever covered in brown and white, the game before me stood perfectly still, antlers high up in the air.  The shot was a clear one. I even had a scope. Somehow the graceful unicorn of sorts escaped death that day. I was glad that Frank missed shooting at the same deer too.

“The damned thing must have been running forty miles an hour. I hardly had a chance to get my gun up,” Frank told the other men in our hunting clan as he sipped on a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer near the wood stove in my father’s garage. Frank’s hair was as white as the tail of the deer. His blue eyes shifted to me. He smiled, offering a look of condolence. I had hunted since the age of 12 and at 17, despite the long hours I spent outside in the cold December air of Pennsylvania, I never managed to kill my first buck. A boy does not become a man in Pennsylvania until he shoots his first deer. It was the last day of buck season that year– 1986. This was my last chance to become a man. I had enlisted and was  leaving for the Army in June. It appeared that I would never truly become a man and kill a buck. I was sad and felt like a sissy. Frank knew the deer was not running when I shot at it.

“Yes. I never saw a deer move so fast,” I added while handing Frank a fresh beer. I got one too. We were in the garage where the family had gathered to butcher six other animals that were bagged earlier that season. Dad let us drink beer when we were butchering. The women didn’t like us drinking, especially when we were working with knives but the buzz made the meat come off the bone more efficiently.

We were driving deer earlier that day. Everyone was tired. The beer went straight to my head. I tried to forget the fact that I missed such an easy shot. Frank and I were “flankers”. Our purpose was to head off any deer that did not run straight from the thicket into the waiting guns of the ‘headers’—my brothers Barron and Bill who were positioned near a set of abandoned railroad tracks, approximately a half mile from where I was sitting in the cold.

The men dropped me off along the quarry road, at the very top of the mountain at a place known as “Sink and Run”. This is where the stream that feeds the town reservoir originates. I slipped on an ice covered rock as I was preparing a place to rest along a tree while the other men were escorted in my Uncle Daryl’s Ford pickup to the very end of the quarry floor where an old sandstone crusher remains standing. Although the sandstone mining industry had ended decades before, the crusher was left to rust in the overgrowth.

There were always deer in the woods below the crusher. Because at one time the forest had been cleared by loggers, the new growth was mostly brush and briers—a perfect hiding place for deer on the run. I was happy not have been one chosen to walk through the thick brush to scare the deer out. Everyone knew I had never shot a deer, so I was offered the chance as a flanker to shoot at one after they were chased out of hiding.

My rifle slipped out of my hands and bounced on the ground. I was happy that safety switch was on. It didn’t go off. I quickly picked it up and brushed off wet leaves and inspected my father’s prized gun. He used it as a kid. Thankfully there were no noticeable marks on it. That’s when I spotted the eight-point. It was standing in Sink and Run and seemed to be enjoying my clumsiness. I carefully removed the safety switch and placed the pretty, soft face of the deer in the cross hairs.

Bam!

The deer seemed surprised that I shot at it. It didn’t fall.

Bam!

The animal then realized I was trying to kill it.

Off it darted in the direction of Frank.

Bam!

Bam!

Bam!

Bam!

Bam!

“Shit!” I shouted.

Frank grabbed another beer and started talking about the fast moving deer.

“Where did you say that deer was coming from?” Frank asked, realizing, only during his high that the deer was not one that had been driven from the thicket, but happened to be traveling in the opposite direction.

“It came out of Sink and Run,” I explained again.

My father went and picked up the rifle I used earlier that day.

“Where did you bump your gun?” He laughed.

“I dropped it when I was sitting down.”

“Christ almighty, boy! What kind of hunter are you? You should have used the open sight. Look at the scope on this gun, Frank. Is it any wonder he missed it?”

I had only inspected the gun. I never thought about the possibility that it may have been knocked off sight during my fall.

“Well forgive me!” I shouted in my first drunken rage of my life. “I was taking a shit in the woods. My pants were down. I couldn’t hold the gun still.”

The men and women laughed.

“Well, Charlie,” my Dad said. “Not even I would have killed that deer with a scope like this. Did you remember to wipe your ass?”

I realized I hadn’t. I went running towards Frank’s jeep where I heard the shots.

My face turned red from the beer.


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Until today, Grandma Miller has never mentioned Grandma Taylor in casual conversation with me. She has kept quiet, about the other side of the family, pretending not to know very much about Esther “Meme” Taylor. Mom and Dad were divorced 30 years ago. Perhaps grandma Miller remains bitter at my father, for how he treated Mom. The drinking. The other women. The abuse. Some things are best left unspoken, and that is how Grandma Miller handled the family matter of my parents unfortunate separation. She hardly even talks about my Dad. It surprised me when she shared rumors of my other grandmother with me.

It should not surprise me that Maw Maw Miller has waited all these years to spread gossip about the Taylor’s of Stone Creek Ridge; the family from which another half of me originates, the ones that were left behind soon after Mom got full custody of my two brothers and me and whisked us away from that possessed mountain and the wealthy farming family that came with it.

Meme Taylor is dead now. Has been for almost twenty years. Perhaps as both grandma Miller and me enter our golden years, now is the time to share what we know about the past. The truth. Information that leads to great novels.

It makes our old age worth laughing about together, in the least. Grandma and me are both alone now. Shawn and Pap Pap died just days apart. I remember confusion during my time of mourning. Who was I crying for? My lover or my grandfather? I missed them both terribly and they both went out horrendously. I said prayers over the death beds of both of these men during my time of psychosis. Is it any wonder I lost my mind. So much pain. So much sadness. All I knew was prayer. At least I didn’t speak in tongues when I prayed over Pap Pap, like I had over Shawn when his body convulsed in the emergency room.

Grandma Miller pulled me through that dark time. The depression. The haunting feeling of endlessness to the bitterness that dwelled within the very core of my sole. The aching for it to be over. The question as to why am I still alive if it must hurt so much. Pain. Sadness. Pure despair. Grandma got her wish after I said that prayer. I asked her in the hospital room if she wanted to say a prayer for Pap Pap. Doctors gave him just days to live– perhaps hours.

“What would you like to pray for?” I asked.

“I want God to let me have him for our fiftieth wedding anniversary next month. Then he can take him. I want that– just a little more time with him.

That’s what we prayed for and it was answered. Pap Pap took a surprising turn for the better. They released him. Sent him home for the anniversary which I missed because I was locked away in a psychiatric ward in Elizabeth, NJ. Just thinking I was a prophet and a man of God. That’s all.

“I’ve been through that too, Charlie. It’s the change of life. I had to see a doctor too. I needed those pills. But you are going to make it and it gets better.”

“How long will it be before I feel alive again?”

“A long, long time. But hang in there— It’s the change of life you are going through.

She is so simple in her explanations. So many big words are deleted and replaced with the simple truth terminology. No medical terminologies like ‘schizophrenia’ are used when she explains the ‘gift of the touched’ from the Amish in our Miller/ Kauffman genes. Thank God she was there to talk to me about it. Nobody else was. The truth was almost forbidden– what a shame to have a mental illness, despite its biological nature. Grandma pulled me through it. She knew that the prayer pulled something from out of me. It set something off in me, a Kundalini awakening, perhaps.

Grandma Miller shares everything with me now. She’s not afraid of nothing it seems, ever since we said that prayer while holding hands. More like a best friend than a grandmother, she hides nothing from me.

Dad will never confess everything to me about his mom. He loves Grandma Taylor too much. Her bright red hair was not devilish at all. Her freckled-face was like that of an angel. She is the lady that raised me on the Taylor farm. I didn’t see grandma Miller as often. Meme Taylor lived right next door in a pink mobile home under the refreshing canopy of her apple orchard. Had my first hit of hard cider before I could spell Charles. She gave me coffee too– always the grown up stuff.

I could only imagine what my grandmother was really like in her youth and was eager to hear what my other grandmother had to say about her. Dad is so over protective of his mom. I never remember seeing Meme Taylor with another man. She always spoke highly of my dead grandfather, George– never a mean thing to say about him. If she had boyfriends, I certainly do not remember them. She seemed to love George the most. Dad never told me much about the other men she married, including a Staub, whose name she took over that of Taylor after George had died.

I still miss Meme terribly. In all honesty, I almost do not want to hear ‘bad’ things about her, especially from my other grandmother. Meme’s not here to defend herself or to tell her side of the story. Maw Maw should have kept quiet, but like any prophetess attempting to pass the gift of life that comes after “going through the change of life”, she spit the truth at me today as if I were a priest in a confession booth. She bawled out the truth about Meme today. Whether I was ready to hear it or not– here it came, the vicious gossip about my beloved, departed red headed grandmother…

Pap Pap Miller was always at the American Legion in Petersburg. He liked his beer, according to Maw Maw, who absolutely hates such dance places where people drink. Maw Maw never drinks. She hates it, even though Pap Pap liked his beer. Maw Maw claims to have never ingested any alcoholic beverage in her life, despite the track record of her husband.

Me Me Taylor went square dancing (and drinking) at the same American Legion in Petersburg where Pap Pap Miller went most evenings. Maw Maw was there making sure Pap Pap was just drinking and not chasing the girls. That’s where she saw my other grandmother. In a wig. Lots of make-up. She knew how to make herself look ‘real young’, according to Maw Maw.

“Men much younger, much younger, Charlie. She was pretty old, you know. She met that guy Jim– I don’t know if you ever knew him. I can’t remember his last name now. He may have been dead before you were born. Anyway. Me Me took him home with her. He didn’t know she was wearing a wig. Everybody at the bar was talking about it.”

“She should have done it before taking off her wig,” I laughed.

Grandma Miller either didn’t get it or she didn’t laugh because she didn’t think it was funny.

“Always the rich men. There were two brothers. One of them died when he was with her. Fell right over in a chair, I hear. Then she ran off with his brother and went with him for a while. I’ve always liked Esther, though. She was a hard worker up on that farm. In a way, I admire her.”

“Well, I guess that’s where I get it from,” I said, in defense of my dead grandmother.

“Must be,” Mal Mal insisted. “Love ya. Gotta go!”

 

 

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Meme’s Apple Cake

 

 My grandmother had an apple orchard. There were approximately fifty trees behind her pink mobile home. In the valley just below her cozy tin can, my grandfather George built a place to store the bushels of fruit. Within this cool, dark cavern the apples were stored on crates upon wooden shelves. There were no real walls inside the cave. Bare roots from trees above lined the attic- like walls like veins upon the heart of Mother Nature. The smell of the cave was sweet and tangy.

Growing up in an apple orchard made one weary of the forbidden fruits. When summer rolled around and Meme needed to get rid of all the apples from last season, she would bake this apple cake. With the aroma like an apple pie but with all the sweetness of a cake, her “Holiday Cake”, is the most unusual and delightful of recipes I have ever followed.

My mother has made this cake for decades– long after that apple orchard and Meme were gone. For years I have asked her to write it down for me.

“Oh sure, I’ll write it down and mail it to you,” she promised years ago.

Mom seemed as though she were guarding a secret family recipe. Finally while on the phone today, Mom agreed to pull out the faded, brown piece of paper on which my grandmother had written down the ingredients and read them aloud to me:

The Cake:

2 C. Sugar

2/3 C. Crisco Shortening

2 Eggs

2 tsp. Vanilla extract

1 tsp. Cinnamon

3 C. Flour

2 tsp. Baking Soda

Pinch of Salt

6 C. Chopped Apples

The Crunchy Topping:

2/3 C. Brown Sugar

1/3 C. Flour

1 Stick of Butter (Softened)

1 C. Walnuts (Chopped)

 

I didn’t bother asking mom the step by step process. I think I remember watching Meme do it. That was almost 40 years ago. I mixed the shortening, eggs, vanilla with an electric mixer. In a separate bowl I blended the remainder of the dry ingredients before adding the apples.

Place the glob in a well- greased pan and apply the topping.

Bake for 55 minutes at 350.

This is what farmers with caves of apples do with so much fruit without tiring of its forbidden nature.

 

 

 

 

 

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