People who know me well know that my mind can work in mysterious ways. Case in point: “Jam”.
A sentence popped into my brain one day, out of the blue. This is it: “From the forest, Ted watched as Helen licked the jam off the sleeping cow.” Where did this come from, and what did it mean? Only my neurons know. What was I to do with this but turn it into a painting? So I did. This was done probably in the last year before I went really mad, and stopped teaching. Some time later, I was taking a writing class and decided to compose a story based on the bizarre phrase/painting. The result was “Jam”. Read it through, though it’s a bit longish. I think it will reward the effort as it’s quite the tale! Don’t forget to comment and tell me what you think!
Helen lived for jam. “Jam, jam, my pretty preserves!” she would sing with glee. Jam was her whole world, indeed, her universe; the big bang that would sustain her during the orbit of her day.
One Sunday, as she opened a jar of her favorite (raspberry), its fruity aroma embracing her, she prepared to coat a crumpet with its heavenly plumpness. Helen reflected on how lucky she was. Raspberries had had an abundant year, and she had been told by her cousin Alberta, who lived in Georgia, that there was a bumper crop of peaches. The future prospect for wonderful, fruity jams was in the jar.
Helen had a routine: On Sunday it was raspberry, Monday apricot, Tuesday strawberry, Wednesday peach, Thursday raspberry again, Friday quince, and Saturday blueberry. It soothed her to have a schedule, knowing the jam was in the pantry.
Sometimes, without thinking, Ted would bring it home: jelly. Helen couldn’t understand it. Didn’t he care for her? How could he be so cruel and insensitive? She could never cover her crumpets with jam one day and jelly the next. Although she knew Ted preferred jelly, she believed the issue had been resolved. He knew she considered jelly nothing but jam with the life drained out of it; and this was how she felt when Ted did this to her. Drained of life, as if he had betrayed her for a purpose. The brutality was especially worse as she had begun to think of him as a soul mate, a fellow conserve connoisseur.
Now Ted was gone. Gone. She knew why their relationship could not be preserved, yet Helen felt no overwhelming emptiness, no cri de coeur. Her beloved jam remained with her, and for now, that was enough.
They had met casually one morning in June, the day bright with speckled sunshine and promises. Helen had gone into the neighborhood pastry shop, asking for a raspberry jam filled doughnut. Her mind danced with a vision of this treasure, filled with ruby red splendor. Later, she would remember specifically asking the clerk if the doughnut was filled with jelly or jam. Upon being reassured that it was, indeed, filled with raspberry jam, she purchased it and placed her order for her customary “Joe with Jam” as she liked to refer to her half decaf mug of coffee. As she turned from the counter, Helen awkwardly bumped into a surprised but friendly looking stranger who was holding a doughnut and an empty cup. He was in line for a refill of his customary caramel macchiato. His hands flew up in the air, and with a surprising aggressiveness, so did the doughnut that he had been holding. Helen’s jam-filled jewel followed suit, momentarily doing a tango with the stranger’s. Then, like two dying lovers locked together, both fried treats arced to the floor, crumbling.
With a quick “Oh excuse me!” and a face which was turning as red as her now decimated raspberry filling, Helen bent to pick up the shattered doughnut pieces. “I’m so, so sorry” she cried as she dumped the shards of the wasted doughnuts in the trash bin. “Can I buy you another?” “Oh that won’t be necessary”, the flustered stranger explained, “I didn’t really like that type anyway. It had an awful filling I don’t care for. However”, he said with a shy grin, deciding this interloper was very attractive, “there is something you could do for me: let me join you for coffee”.
With the briefest of hesitations, Helen accepted his invitation. He seemed like a nice fellow, and after all, she had destroyed his doughnut. Purchasing a replacement, with its longed for bounty, and retrieving her half decaf, Helen took a table. The stranger found her, and sat down with a smile. After quick introductions, Helen learned his name was Ted. She began their conversation with another apology. “I’m so sorry about your doughnut. What kind was it, if you don’t mind my asking?” “Oh, it was just one of those jam filled ones, you know” Ted replied. “Don’t mind me though, go ahead and eat yours”. As Helen began to take a bite, a vague unease overcame her. “What was it he had said when I charged into him…? Something about his doughnut being awful?”
Helen’s brief reverie came to a sudden and horrifying halt. “Wha…WHAT!?” she cried as she spit out sodden bits of doughnut into her napkin. “Lord preserve me- it’s Jelly!” Helen dropped the offending remains on the floor and stomped on them. She rushed toward the ladies room, leaving a trail of smeared crimson goo in her wake.
Remaining at the scene of the crime, Ted sat, stunned into silence. The blood red stain of jelly lead the way to the restroom as muffled sobs penetrated the pastry shop. He wondered what he should do. Is this woman crazy? What was there so horribly wrong with that doughnut? I think jelly is great.
After a few moments, Helen returned, out of breath with her sorrow. “Are you alright?” Ted enquired gently. He had decided to stay and find out more about this mysterious jelly-phobe.
“Oh, you must think me a fool”, Helen answered. “I expected that you would have run off by now.” “Well, truth be told…”chuckled Ted.
“I wouldn’t blame you”, sighed Helen. “I did look a fool. It’s just that the clerk promised me my raspberry jam in the middle, and that…that jelly oozing out and mocking me with its deathly transparency was such a shock. It was more than I could bear.”
“Yes…” said Ted, with a look of sly humor. “If I’d gotten jelly instead of jam I too would have jumped up screaming bloody murder”. Oblivious to his subtle sarcasm, Helen cried out “Exactly!”. “Well, shall we complain to the clerk?” asked Ted. “No, no…I’d rather just finish my half decaf now”, Helen said with a quiet sob. “It’s too late, it’s over. I couldn’t possibly face any jam right now”. Recomposing herself, and with a little blush, Helen asked “Are you still willing to sit with me?” “Willing? I think I can jam it into my schedule”, laughed Ted, gazing at her over his now lukewarm caramel macchia
It was a golden October, five blissful months since Helen and Ted had met. At first merely lovers, now, sharing an apartment, their relationship had jelled. Ted hadn’t had very much to move, as he had actually just come to the village, having taken a job as the local veterinarian.
Helen was working at the local market (part of her secret for securing the best of jams). It did seem slightly odd to Ted that there was an entire pantry devoted to jam, but regardless, he continued to enjoy Helen’s jam and crumpets at breakfast, her jam filled cookies at tea time, and of course, the requisite raspberry jam topping on their ice cream desserts.
Though their first meeting had involved a jelly genocide, on those few occasions that Ted returned home with jelly instead of jam, he couldn’t quite understand Helen’s violent reactions. Nevertheless, all seemed bright, assured, and ready for a fruitful future: Helen, Ted, and jam.
Then slowly, it began.
“Oops, some jam spilled onto my plate! Let me just spoon it up.” “Oh dear, I dropped a bit on the floor. Well you know the 3 second rule…!” “Ted, dear, can I just have a nick of yours?” “I can’t waste a bit! I’d better lick my plate clean!”
And so it went. Helen’s bond with jam was being raised to a new level.
Ted felt more and more left out. Gradually, a jam seemed to form in their relationship, as Helen became increasingly possessed by preserves. It was so painful to him that one afternoon (a quince day) Ted began to hatch a plan. He would dribble a bit of jam in odd places-say the coffee table, or in the bathroom sink. Places that Helen would normally, if dirty, wipe clean. He wanted to see what her reaction would be to a ramped up invasion of jam. Would she clean it up, or would she…? Ted shuddered at the thought.
Soon it would be time to start implementing “Operation Jam Spread”.
“Now’s my chance!” thought Ted one Saturday afternoon when he arrived home before Helen. “I’ll just try some blueberry on the coffee table. Since it’s a blueberry day, and since she’s already had quite a bit, maybe she’ll just want to wipe it down” he reflected with an optimism bound by desperation. As he heard Helen’s car pull up in the driveway, Ted grabbed the newspaper, his heart throbbing, and sat down on the couch opposite the coffee table. Helen entered with a cheery greeting. “Hello darling-how was your blueberry day?” “Just peachy!” replied Ted, as he tried to conceal his ever increasing feeling of dread. “I helped down at the McKaskill’s farm with birthing a calf. You know, however many times I’ve done it, it never gets old with me. But enough about cows, I’m exhausted and starving. What about going out tonight? There’s a new steakhouse in town I’ve heard rave reviews about.” “Hmm, that sounds delightful”, cooed Helen as she sat opposite Ted.
Then Ted watched as Helen’s eyes slowly registered the glistening violet jam resting on the coffee table. A sudden change came over her face. Within seconds her countenance transformed to a look of shock and awe. He waited, desperately hoping with all his heart that Helen’s need for the “jam du jour” would have been already satisfied.
“It really is blueberry day-in spades! Oh, my dear, dear friend” she squealed with delight. With this, Helen bent down and licked the jam off the table. As she sat back in rapture, Ted knew a threshold had been passed. Even though his experiment would cease with the coffee table incident, he knew that for Helen, jam was no longer just the provenance of the kitchen, and her imagination had been sparked. “Go west, young jam”, would now be Helen’s rallying cry.
It seemed to be anywhere, anytime. Ted would wake to find jam on the bedside table or on the dresser, standing like an accusing witness. Coming from the bathroom after his morning ablutions he would see that the jam had vanished. This scenario seemed to play out in any room of the house. Ted never knew where he would encounter an offending daub of jam. Oddly, though he and Helen continued to interact normally, he never saw the placement or the licking of the jam taking place.
Time went by. Ted began to be inured to seeing jam in strange places. It would, after all, disappear quickly, and though it seemed that there was always a faint smell of sweetened fruit in the air, he began to ignore it.
Then, one day, with surprise, Ted realized he really hadn’t seen any stray jam lately. Perhaps Helen had become bored with it, or better yet, he thought, maybe she had developed a falling out with her beloved and jelly could re-enter his life. Yet at the end of that day, as Ted bent down to bestow a kiss on Helen’s waiting lips, he was convinced that he detected the tiniest amount of jam in the corners of her mouth.
Things had changed around “chez confiture”. Helen began staying out later and later each night. Upon arriving home, instead of a cheery greeting, Helen would just walk by Ted, guilt trailing her like that smear of jelly a lifetime ago.
Finally, one cold December morning, Ted feigned sickness and Helen went off to work without speaking to him. The chill between them had grown so cold it would have made jam gelato. Deciding he needed warming up, Ted made up his mind to go out for a caramel macchiato at their old haunt. Standing in line, as he had on that morning so many mornings ago, he overheard a conversation behind him.
“I saw the strangest thing yesterday. I was in front of the bank, and a woman took a jar of jam out of her purse, opened it, and dribbled a bit on the flowerpot sitting there. Then she bent down, licked it off, and let out a little sigh. It was the oddest thing!” “That must be the crazy lady that Monica in produce told me about” said another voice. “I think her name is Helen. She swears that she saw her licking jam off the mac and cheese display.” “How do these people escape? I thought they had locks at the loony bin!” And with that, both speakers chuckled.
Ted had heard enough. He made a sudden decision. Leaving the line without his caramel macchiato, he decided to return to the spread that he shared with Helen. Then, impulsively, he dropped to his knees and cried out “Saints preserve me! I am jam-filled! I can’t take it anymore! I’ve got to escape from this madness!” Wending his way to the apartment, he walked with a growing purposefulness.
But before arriving at what had been his beloved hearth and home, Ted made a little detour…
He hadn’t come to their cohabitation with many worldly goods, so for Ted it was quick packing. Hearing the horn of the cab he had called, he picked up his suitcases to go, but then placed something carefully down in the middle of the room.
It was a jar of jelly.
A year passed. For Helen it had meant escalating jam journeys-flying around the globe searching for preserve perfection. For Ted, time had crept slowly, dripping like the jam that had oozed out of Helen’s jars. Sometimes he would awaken, in a cold sweat, chased by visions of raspberries or peaches morphed into giant jars of jam coming to devour him.
As more time flowed by, Ted began to pine for Helen and the life that had been theirs. He began researching jams, and determined to create a raspberry jam of such sublime beauty, such perfect scrumptiousness, that he could win her back into his life. He would learn to give up jelly and love jam with such an ardor that the two of them would blend together into one transcendent conserve.
Meanwhile, Helen too was longing for Ted. She had traveled far and wide in her pursuit of ultimate jam joy, but now, alone in the desolate apartment; her life didn’t seem complete without him. In her abject isolation, jam tasted bitter to her. She decided to abandon it. Ted’s love was more important to her than the finest preserve in the world. With a trembling heart, she began to plan a final farewell to her beloved jam.
Well into his jelly reassignment therapy, Ted was enjoying a caramel macchiato and jam filled doughnut one morning in the now bittersweet surroundings of the pastry shop. Helen didn’t notice him as she took a seat in the adjacent booth with a woman he didn’t recognize. “I’ve decided that I’m giving up jam” Helen confided to her companion (Ted’s ears pricked up at the sound of her voice). “Why?” he heard Helen’s friend asking. “Oh Sylvia, I confess that jam has been like a lover to me”, choked Helen. I must put an end to the affair in order to win Ted’s forgiveness. From now on, I will only eat…” and lowering her voice to an almost inaudible whisper she said: “jelly.” “But…but how can you possibly do it?” Sylvia asked with a gasp. “Will you go cold turkey?”
No, Helen replied with a mischievous grin: “cold cow!”
Ted was still the village veterinarian, and during their time together, he would come home from his office and customarily chat with Helen about his day (before the requisite jam filled cookies and tea). Whenever he had been to the McKaskill’s farm he would extol to her the virtues of that first calf he had birthed for them. The calf, who had been named Blueberry (a thrill went through Helen at the thought of it), was now grown. Ted would speak of the cow with what at the time, Helen had thought of as excessive passion. Now, Blueberry figured into her plan.
In the pastry shop, Helen continued to regale Sylvia while Ted listened eagerly. Tomorrow at 3:00, she knew (from Ted’s enthusiastic tales) that the cows at the McKaskill’s would be taking naps. She would sneak through the forest adjacent to the farm, and carefully drip some raspberry jam upon Blueberry’s sleeping form. Then, as a last homage to her beloved jam, and to Ted, she would have one final lick. Then, her long affair would not be preserved, and she would be able to approach Ted as a new woman-jam free.
As Helen and her friend stood up to leave, Ted, by turning his head and drinking his caramel macchiato, was careful that they not see him, for now he too knew what must be done on the morrow.
Ted furtively waited outside Helen’s apartment, his insides twisting like a cruller. A wave of nostalgia overcame him: this used to be his home too. As she emerged, walking with a determined and purposeful gait, Ted followed Helen. Soon they were at the forest’s edge, walking through the lovely woodland, dappled with light like sugar sprinkles. Helen was unaware of Ted’s presence, but both she and Ted ruminated upon what had been, and what could yet come to be.
As the forest thinned out, soon to become farmland, Ted, still hiding, stopped to allow Helen unfettered access to Blueberry’s sleeping form. Then Helen approached the cow, brought out a jar of jam, and dribbled some raspberry on Blueberry. Ted watched as Helen licked the jam off the sleeping cow.
He allowed Helen a few moments of reflection, and then Ted reverently approached her, jam jar in hand. She looked up and uttered a loud gasp. Ted quickly went down on his knees, and held out the precious homemade jam he had developed just for her.
Helen, with surprised confusion, explained to Ted that, in order to win him back, she had renounced jam and henceforth would only be beholden to jelly. With the realization dawning on her that she had gotten herself into a real jam, Helen cried “Oh Ted, but how can we reunite, when though reversed, our differences remain?”
“My love!” exclaimed Ted, “I’ve worked through my jelly jollies in order to preserve our love! I’ve now pledged myself to jam. Will you return with me and with our love finally and truly jelled, spread happiness throughout the land?”
“I never knew I wanted anything so much in my life!” exclaimed Helen. “My mind had been jammed with the wrong priorities, but now we are free! Dearest, why don’t we return home, and to celebrate our new life together, make peanut butter and jam sandwiches!
“Oh, my sweet”, exclaimed Ted. “It’s a new love for us both in so many ways. Both of us loving jam combined with the love of a sublime crunchy peanut butter! Always my crunchy! I will live for you all! We’ll christen our re-born love and cement it between two pieces of bread!”
Helen gazed at Ted with glowing eyes. Yet, if Ted had looked deeply into the creamy pools that were those eyes…
Waiting in the darkness of the pantry like soldiers ready for battle, where jam was once king, stood a dozen jars of smooth peanut butter.