Harvest (Short Stories)
This West Coast cornucopia of short stories and poems covers a wide range of nature and human life. In the prize-winning speculative story Guardians, nature reclaims power in a surprising way, while in Fishing Expedition, the cash-strapped narrator uses a lesson learned from birdwatching. In Grand Slam the characters discover there’s many a slip between brownie and lip, and the hero of A Muse For Michael learns to be careful what he wishes for. A few short poems round out this banquet of obsessions, dangerous secrets and unique snapshots of the human condition.
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THE BUTTER TART WAR
He was buying bird seed in a pet store when I first saw him and my heart thumped so loudly I knew he was the man for me. I’d always been attracted to big, broad-shouldered men with warm smiles and I had a hunch his would sparkle like champagne. His hair was black and wavy, reminding me of twisted licorice sticks. And, though the paunch and adorable double chin indicated he might be courting heart problems, they looked good on him. Dumping cat food into my basket as I went, I contrived to trip over him.
His smile was everything I’d hoped for. The apologies became a conversation, which continued in the coffee shop next door. He told me he was a master chef and invited me to his apartment for dinner. “What’s your favorite dessert?”
“Peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies.”
“Oh dear. Could you possibly live without them? I’m highly allergic to peanuts. And chocolate, to my sorrow, gives me hives.”
Bad news. Though I restricted myself to eating the cookies perhaps once every month or two, I adored the taste and I’d hoped a master chef could produce some even more delectable than those I bought at the grocery store.
“Of course I can.” Poor man, not able to eat either peanuts or chocolate!
I knew my instincts had been right when, after a candle-lit dinner of Cornish game hen spiced to perfection and basted with wine and butter, he presented me with two fresh, flaky tarts on a lace-covered gold-edged plate.
“These are butter tarts,” he said. “You’ll love them.”
He was right. They were far better than the cookies. Deliciously rich. Ambrosial, even. Two months later I married my King of Hearts.
At first life was idyllic. He adored my cats; I began feeding his birds. He told me he’d always yearned for a tall, thin woman of his own to cook for, which suited me perfectly; I could barely boil water. His greatest joy was making gourmet meals for me to eat and I loved him far too much to insult him by leaving anything on my plate. By the end of the first year I was thirty pounds overweight.
The second year saw the peach fuzz of love begin to turn brown. I noticed he no longer shaved twice a day. He said I put toilet paper on the roller the wrong way around. He didn’t like my family or my friends; he apparently had neither.
He even accused me of being thoughtless when I bought a little bag of peanuts for myself. “Suppose I accidentally touched them, or the bag they came in?” he said. “That would make me ill. It might even kill me.” Needless to say, I immediately put the bag of peanuts in the garbage and scrubbed my mouth in case he decided to kiss me.
But he continued to give me fresh butter tarts every day and the combination of my sugar addiction and my desire to make him happy rendered them impossible to resist. I gained more weight, bought more clothes, found new ways to avoid looking at myself in the mirror.
It was irritating, of course, to discover that no matter how much he ate — and he ate a lot — my King of Hearts never added an ounce to the 300 pounds he’d been when we married. I often had to remind myself that not all of us are blessed with perfect metabolism. His canaries didn’t have a problem, either; they remained svelte and sang from dawn till dusk. The cats, on the other hand, grew fat on filet and pheasant and lay around in sleeping on soft pillows, no longer indulging in the mouse carnage that had been their life work when they were subsisting on canned cat food.
One day I came face to face with myself in a mirror I hadn’t anticipated. There was too much of me. A thousand butter tarts too much. Something had to be done.
That evening, I said, “Darling, please don’t give me so much food. None of my clothes fit any more. I must buy another whole new wardrobe.”
“You don’t need new clothes, my precious Queen of Hearts. Quit your job and stay home so I can look after you twenty-four hours a day, as the Fates intended me to do. I know of a store that sells lovely silk caftans.”
Just what I needed: a silk tent to lumber around in. I’d already given up my bowling team and reading club because he wanted us to spend more time together. “I’m serious. It’s hard work packing around all this fat.”
He piled my plate like a logger’s. “The more weight you gain,” he said, “the more of you there is to love.”
I melted. What woman could resist such tender passion? Besides, I’ve always loved food and he was a marvelous cook. Then there was Mother’s voice, in the back of my head, telling me to clean up my plate because the starving children in China would love to have the leftovers.
I tried to think of a way out of the trap but I couldn’t bear to hurt him by spurning his love offering of butter tarts. It might even take away his pleasure in eating butter tarts himself. He liked them so much that he’d pop a whole tart into his mouth and swallow it before I’d taken my first bite. Four would have disappeared off his plate before I finished the second bite. No, I couldn’t be so selfish as to refuse his butter tarts when it gave him such happiness to watch me eat. Nonetheless, my pride went on fighting my inner glutton.
One evening, after searching his cookbooks for a recipe I could manage without ruining it, I prepared a fresh fruit salad with a piquant touch of ginger in the yogurt and honey dressing. “I’ve decided to specialize in desserts,” I said, hoping that my concoctions would be so luscious that he’d forget about butter tarts.
My King of Hearts gulped the salad with every evidence of delight, then went to the kitchen and brought back a plate of butter tarts. “Your salad was very tasty,” he said, “but we must have the tarts you love so much. After all, what better way to celebrate the day we met?”
The man was incredibly romantic. “The king of hearts, he made some tarts,” I said. “I think I’ll start calling you my King of Tarts.”
He smiled his heart-stopping smile. “My precious! Making you happy with good food has given my life such depth and meaning. I will allow no one, not even a Knave of Hearts, to steal away your daily butter tart morsel.”
My next ploy was to eat so much of the main course — a delectable roast of pork, with real gravy — that I could honestly plead satiety when he brought out the butter tarts. He looked crushed and, impossible though it seemed, the load of guilt in my heart was even heavier than the pork loin, gravy, and buttery mashed potatoes in my stomach.
He continued to make butter tarts, humming happily. I continued to eat them, reminding myself that I was, after all, being unselfish. But did unselfishness have to carry such a heavy price?
I confided my woes to a friend who said I’d got things wrong way round. In her opinion, it was my King of Hearts who was being selfish in demanding that I eat sweet things when I didn’t want to — or rather, when I knew I shouldn’t. “If he really loved you,” she said, “he would respect your right to choose what goes into your mouth.”
I hugged my King of Tarts that evening and announced in a gentle but firm tone that I was giving up butter tarts because I wanted to lose weight.
“But you love them so! Surely you can allow yourself such tiny treats.”
Hardly tiny, at 300 calories per tart. “Actually,” I said, reckless in my desperation, “I’m bored with them.”
“Bored!” His expression was one of hurt amazement. “Impossible!”
He went out to the kitchen and made a fresh batch, placing one beside my coffee cup after dinner. I thought of the waste, the cost and his feelings and ate it, hating myself with every delicious bite.
By the end of the third year, I couldn’t even see my toes. To say I looked like a blimp was being kind. I had no lap left for the cats to sit on and his canaries’ dawn caroling was getting on my nerves. I told my King of Hearts that I was positively, emphatically, absolutely dead serious about giving up desserts forever. I intended to lose a hundred pounds or kill myself.
He chuckled at my humor and made more butter tarts. I was eating so little else I couldn’t help gorging on them. The sweetness was perfectly offset by bitter resentment.
The next time he took a pan of tarts from the oven, I gathered up my courage and said, “I’m afraid you’ll have to enjoy them by yourself, because I’m not going to eat any.” When he put one beside my coffee, I offered it to the animals. The canaries chirped, the cats yawned. I took the tart to the kitchen and put it in the garbage.
There were tears in his eyes. “How can you be so cruel when I love you so much? But I know you’ll come to your senses. Life is short and love is rare; taste as much of both as you can.”
For a couple of weeks, things went smoothly. Each evening he’d ask whether I wanted a butter tart, and each evening I said no. I lost five pounds and felt on top of the world, in control of my life. I’d won the battle. I preened in front of the mirror and imagined how thin I’d be in another six months.
Then, one night after dinner, he brought a tray and set it on the end table beside me. “I thought you’d like these for a change.”
I stared at the pecan tart, decorated with whole pecans and a swirl of whipped cream, resting on a heart-shaped serviette beside my coffee. My mouth watered, my body yearned for the sugar buzz. But I knew that eating it meant I’d lose not only this battle, but the war as well. If I left him and moved across town, he’d deliver butter tarts to my door. If I moved across the country, he’d send them in the mail. If I escaped to the Andes, he’d send them by llama train.
Well, now I knew the sweetest love can have a bitter aftertaste. There was only one thing to be done. It would take a great deal of thought to free both of us from the trap of addiction, but what did I have to lose?
Three weeks later I said, “I think it’s time I learned how to make butter tarts. You’ve been working so hard to make me happy, it’s only fair that I take my turn.”
“But it’s my job to look after you,” he said, looking worried. “Besides, you can’t cook. At least, not nearly as well as I can. Why not let me handle it? You know how much I love cooking.”
“I’m not a master chef but perhaps I’ll surprise you.”
I carefully lined his tart tins with pastry, which I’d made with peanut oil instead of corn oil. I thickened the sugar and raisin filling with ground peanuts instead of flour, poured it in and hid my recipe. I put the mixing things in the dishwasher and wiped the tins, then used oven mitts to put them in the oven so that my fingerprints wouldn’t be all over them.
When the tarts came out of the oven, I took one look at them and burst into tears. I couldn’t do it. I simply couldn’t do it.
I dumped the tarts in the garbage, scrubbed the pans, ripped up my recipe, and started all over again.
My tarts were lop-sided and slightly scorched but completely harmless — they contained not an atom of peanut. Or chocolate.
He came home from work, saw the butter tarts on the counter and gave me a brave smile. He downed the first tart in one bite and took another. My heart aching with despair over the war I’d lost, I ate one myself.
After the second tart, he said, “You’re wonderful to do this for me, but would you mind if I gave you a few pointers on how to make them?”
He opened the cupboard door, gasped, then turned to me, horror in his eyes. “You … you …” He wheezed, clawed at his chest and crashed to the floor.
I knelt and felt for his pulse. But he was gone. For a moment I was torn between grief and relief. Then curiosity overcame both emotions.
What had he seen in the cupboard? What had frightened him so much he’d had a heart attack? I pulled the door open wider and looked.
Darn, I’d forgotten to get rid of the jar of peanuts and the peanut oil.