TUESDAY: Strawberry Tarts

BY SHARON FRAYNE

Copyright is held by the author.

HOLDING A shining silver platter of gooey crimson tarts high above his head, the tuxedoed waiter circulated the crowded room. The crystal chandeliers twinkled as the evening sky darkened outside the gallery windows. A large crowd of affluent clients was gathered around the painting collection on the opening night of my retrospective show. My agent was chatting up the art critics and nodding with approval when the red dots signifying a sale started to accumulate on the picture tags. A bright-eyed young reporter, excited to interview a famous artist approaching the end of a lucrative career, jostled my elbow. Her sticky pastry balanced awkwardly in her left hand; in the right she held out her voice recorder. I felt tired and looked for a place to sit and rest.

“ Your colours are so brilliant! The dynamic brushstrokes and energetic layering of hue and tone create a dramatic intensity. Something about that last piece really speaks to the viewer,” she gushed. She indicated the crowd grouped before an enormous canvas that was streaked with pale blue, vibrant green slashes and a large explosion of yellow. Two pale abstract shapes exuberantly spiraled amidst a myriad of red splotches. A dark shadow eased out of the bottom right corner.

“What was the inspiration for this masterpiece?”

I paused for a moment and studied her. She was so keen and naïve. Two empty chairs were lined up in a quiet corner where we could gaze at the painting. I motioned for her to join me.

“My dear, an artist finds a muse deep in their personal realm. Lifetime experiences and particularly poignant moments compel an artistic response. It’s difficult to explain this piece. But for me, it has significant meaning. Over time, things change. Yet of course, each
viewer can participate in the understanding of a painting in a unique manner.”

“Wow. It’s just so inspirational. The story of your challenge, rising from an impoverished childhood into one of the greatest international artists of this age. I can’t tell you how much I admire your work.” The reporter’s shiny white teeth bit into her gooey tart and she sighed.

That warm, juicy, red mouthful was our “get rich quick scheme.” My younger sister Judi and I had four acres of strawberries planted at the isolated area at the back of our father’s farm. The life cycle of a strawberry farm begins with the planting of young seedlings that will mature for a year before they fruit. The removal of all the blossoms in their first year encourages their root growth for future fruiting. The mother plant multiplies by producing young runner plants and then the farmer places the young plants into neat rows. After about three years, the plants lose their vigour and begin to advance towards senescence and death. Our berries were in their last year of heavy production, and the rows were deep and thick with sweet, clean yellow straw.

Mother would use the berries to make wonderful desserts, but nothing could beat the taste of her homemade strawberry tarts. She taught us to clean, crush, and sweeten the berries with sugar. She rolled out tender flaky pastry and dropped the berries into the tiny tin shells. After a few minutes in a hot oven, they would be done. Beautiful! The fresh strawberry tart was short lived, but it was special.

Early each morning, as the sun rose, we’d gather up our baskets and saunter through the heavy dew out to the berry patch. Floppy hats shielded our sweet adolescent faces from the promise of a scorching midday sun. Long sleeve shirts and pants helped us crawl comfortably along the rows and reach deep into the thick bushes to find hidden treasures of succulent scarlet fruit. The picking season was only a few weeks long. The outer berries that were more exposed to the sun and warm air ripened first. Gradually the hidden inner berries transformed from tiny hard white nuggets into ruby gems of plump perfection.

Under the relentless glare of the beating sun, we’d pick ripe berries into little green cardboard pints until we’d cleared off the day’s allocation. The filled pints were stacked near our pickup truck out at the front road. The plan was for customers to buy directly from the displayed fruit, or walk into the field and pick their own. “Help Yourself to Baskets” was scrawled on our hand made sign.

Whatever wasn’t sold to customers at the farm was to be loaded in the half-ton truck and rushed down to Freshway Growers before they closed at 3:00 p.m. They paid us cash for the boxes of berries we picked and delivered. Judi would flirt outrageously with the male staff while I unloaded the boxes and counted the money. I was heading off for university in the fall, and the money would help. The glossy fashion magazines I lusted over helped me plan the new wardrobe I’d buy with my hard earned summer cash. I had decided to leave behind my ultra conservative persona and re-invent myself as a trend setting arts diva. Judi was already a rebellious individualist. She’d experimented with hair dye, cigarettes, booze and lots of boyfriends. I was 18 and my sister was 16.

We’d had our “pick your own” strawberry farm open for two weeks and no customers in sight. It was depressing. That bright sunny day was the last day the nearly depleted fields would be in production. The plants had almost completed their fruiting cycle. The temperature was soaring and the cicadas were buzzing. We decided to give up, and work on our tans instead. Nude sunbathing.

“Let’s strip! Take your clothes off!” shrieked Judi.

“No way,” I said.

“Why not?” Judi said. “Don’t be such a friggin’ prude. We’ve been here for two weeks and haven’t seen anyone else. No one will see us.”

My sister yanked her hat and shirt off and threw them a few rows over. Her blond hair gleamed in the golden sunlight. I struggled for a moment with my self-conscious reserve, and decided it was time for me to do something wild and crazy. I wanted to be wild and crazy, didn’t I? Besides, I reasoned with myself, no one will ever know.

Giggling, we stripped off the rest of our clothes and exposed our pale virginal skin to the hot mouth of the sun. We crouched down and sprawled on beds of soft warm straw. The bright green bushes loaded with juicy, sweet smelling strawberries enveloped us. I grabbed a fat berry and stuffed it into my mouth. I bit hard and the luscious juices ran down my throat and dribbled out of my lips. I looked up at the azure sky and watched a tiny soft white cloud drift slowly by. It was peaceful and quiet. Heavenly. Judi and I closed our eyes and drifted off to sleep, confident that we were safe in the warm embrace of Mother Nature.

“Hey, where are the vendors?” A loud male voice woke us from our reverie.

“Boys!” screeched my sister. Was she delighted or scared? I couldn’t tell, but I knew we were in trouble. She started to get up.

“Shit!” I hissed. “Get down and lie still. There’s a big group of people coming down the rows! What if they see us? Keep your damn head down. Don’t let them know we are here.”

Despite the oppressive heat, we froze, horrified to discover that our first ever customers had found our little private patch. We scrambled down deep into the straw and tried to hide under the bushes. I grabbed handfuls of straw to cover myself. The straw tickled and scratched.

I could hear Judi snickering in the row beside me. I started to giggle and snorted as the dust from the straw irritated my nose and throat. Then we were both shaking with barely suppressed hysterical laughter.

Our customers wandered about the fields coming closer and closer to where we lay, quivering with fear and hilarity under the thin straw cover. Would we be discovered? One of the boys found Judi’s hat and plopped it on his head. He leapt about and pitched it high into the sky. It floated for a moment, and then crashed to the ground like a defective parachute. The group discovered the pints of strawberries we’d already picked and left behind in the rows. They greedily gathered up all our filled baskets and left, happy at their good fortune.

“Help yourself to baskets. That’s what the sign said at the road,” one guy said as they sauntered away. “I guess it’s our lucky day, boys.” Judi and I rolled over and lifted our heads above the bushes to watch their departure. They filled their trunk with our day’s profit and drove off the farm. A thick cloud of dust obscured their car and settled over our pickup.

“Those buggers,” said Judi.

“Well, this stupid mess is all your fault,” I said angrily. “It was your damn idea to strip and be nudists.”

I was steaming mad. To think that my hard earned money and planned new wardrobe had just disappeared! I looked over at her as she began crawling towards her abandoned clothing. Her hair was covered in straw and squashed strawberries tattooed her skinny androgynous body. She looked like a baby pink jaguar from a cartoon. Suddenly, it all seemed crazily ridiculous and comical. I grabbed a handful of overripe berries from a bush and threw them at her.

Judi yelped, and retaliated by whipping berries back at me. We ripped handfuls of berries and leaves and hurled them at each other. Soon we were covered with red blotches, straw, scratches and sunburn. We screamed and rolled around on the straw and crushed the bushes. We laughed until we wept strawberry tears that ran down our cheeks and into our mouths.

That was the last summer for our strawberry farm. Our father plowed the field under and replanted with apple trees. I went off to university in the fall and opened the door to a whole new world. Art and painting became my passion. Judi got pregnant. Our parents didn’t know.

I got the phone call one evening after classes. Our mother was crying. Dad was heading out in the truck to drive through the night to pick me up at school and bring me back for the funeral.

She died on a dirty table under the pale yellow light of a dingy bulb dangling from the ceiling of a dumpy motel room. Her fresh young blood flowed over the abortionist’s clumsy hands and pooled onto the dirty green linoleum.

I silently watched the reporter lick the scarlet goo off her manicured fingernails. We both quietly surveyed the big painting. My agent was talking price with an international client.

“How do you determine the value for your paintings?” the reporter asked.

“It’s difficult.” I said. “And this particular one is priceless.”

15 comments

  1. Mary Steer

    There are some lovely images here, but the central scene kicked me right out of the story. Straw is NOT comfortable to lie on, especially not with bare skin, and strawberry bushes are not big enough to hide in. Maybe those four acres rolled a little, so the girls could’ve hidden in a row that was lower down than the rest, behind a bit of a hill? But I don’t want to have to think about that kind of thing when I’m reading.

  2. Mary Steer

    Let me qualify that: the only strawberry fields I’ve ever seen did not have bushes big enough to hide in! (just had another look online and saw some that were much bigger and bushier — the ones in Prince Edward County and around Kingston where we used to live were much scrawnier and the fields themselves were flat as far as the eye could see). I guess it depends on a reader’s experience (or lack thereof). But I still say straw is NOT comfortable! Pokey nasty stuff.

  3. JAZZ

    I thought the abortion scene was quite OTT. All that was missing was Nurse Ratched.
    Why not just say her older sister died from having a backstreet abortion and leave it to the reader’s imagination.

  4. Sharon a Frayne

    Thanks for the feedback. The story that takes place is basically a true story. Four year old commercial berry fields in my neck of the woods have very large bushes. When the straw in the rows has accumulated for several years, it becomes very soft and deep. If you work on a farm, you find it much softer than the dirt to kneel in while picking. I appreciate your comments — thanks.

  5. Frank Sikora

    In fiction, truth is irrelevant. All that matters is believability. I believed.

  6. Mary Steer

    Sharon, thank you for explaining – I get it now.
    Jazz, my suspicion is that the abortion scene was meant to echo the colours in the painting, and vice versa, for literary effect. The reader then gets to choose which the painting reminds him or her of: the strawberry fields in the sun, or the abortion?

    Frank, you’re right: in fiction, what matters is what you believe. However, if a detail kicks you out of the story, it might be worth it for the writer to consider finding a way to help her readers suspend their disbelief.

  7. Dan Spence

    Interesting. I found the abortion paragraph quite effective but before that moment it felt like a girly girl story about two girls acting girly. Ho Hum. The process of strawberry farming was also tedious. And I couldn’t quite see how they could hide in a strawberry patch even if some strawberry bushes are big. These girls are 16 and 18. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, I just can’t picture it. And men appearing to buy strawberries at the moment of their nakedness was too obvious. Keep trying Sharon. There is something there.

  8. JAZZ

    I got the metaphor, Mary, I just felt like we went from rollicking through the strawberry patch to an abortion with no exposition. The where and whys, not to mention the whos, would have been come in useful.

  9. Mary Steer

    Jazz, I hadn’t got, from your comment about it being OTT, that you were objecting to it being dropped in; you suggest just mentioning it as a backstreet abortion and leaving it to the reader’s imagination. The description, though definitely de trop, worked for me as a counterpoint to the innocence of the strawberry fields, but you’re absolutely right and I had had the same thought myself: where did that come from? The timeline was unclear, the ending rushed. Looking at that part again, I also wonder how the narrator knows what it looked like where her sister died, given that her parents had to get her for the funeral — unless she was imagining it. Problematic all round.

  10. JAZZ

    Frank,
    “Suspension of Disbelief” comes from a conscious decision by the reader/observer to believe in make-believe (e.g. Banquo’s ghost). But come morning , Peter Pan can’t fly And Daddy is Santa Clause……but no harm done.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>