Spice

By Kim Davis

Hope Larkwhistle, assistant librarian, went out with twenty-eight men in fourteen years. It was true; her friend Ted made her count. And each time, her pulse did not fail to race, her thoughts speeding along with it to match the poor fellow’s last name with her first. Never did she omit to examine before going on any rendezvous her hair her makeup her outfit for improvements that might at the last minute be made, and not once did she forego preparing on the second or third date a sumptuous meal displaying not only her culinary skill (which was admittedly limited since she mostly ate takeout) but also her style her taste her flare with the commonplace of the kitchen, her creativity with the quotidian. Somehow, only three of the twenty-eight – or was it twenty-nine? – turned into boyfriends of any duration. Of these, two ended up marrying women they had dated before Hope. She went out with the third for almost a year – until he broke it off just a month ago after saying what seemed to her some rather unkind things. The one that stuck in her mind was, “Jesus, Hope, will you relax?” He, Paul Westerfeld, said this on several occasions: when she was cooking him a special dinner (again, God help her!); when they were getting ready to go out New Year’s Eve and she was on her one-hundred and tenth iteration of the same outfit (scarf no scarf earrings no earrings big hair small hair etc.); and on a night (their last) when they were undressing each other and he (Paul) caught her thumbs plucking her cheeks pink. In the bedroom mirror. Over his naked shoulder.

Twenty-nine men, and she was only thirty-two years old. Almost as many men as years in her life.

But that was all water under the quay because tonight Hope was making paella for gorgeous George from her Wednesday adult education class, Birding by Ear. She’d heard that evening courses in outdoorsy things were an effective way to meet new better men. Birding by Ear, though, turned out to be mostly old ladies. Hope was ready to sprint for the exit when in the very door she was prepared to dash out of careered an incredibly handsome man. He stumbled through a thicket of empty chairlegs and lateness apologies, a study in black hair black eyes buff bod big ears. Big ears? Well, what did you expect? He said he’d been lying in bed mornings listening to spring birdsongs that poured through his window, so loud so thrilling so wonderful. Which kind? he asked himself. And how big what color etc.? He got up one morning, staggered to the phone and called, he said, just called, the adult education center. Yes, Hope said untruthfully, that’s exactly what happened to me.

“George?” the instructor asked, rapidly tapping her pen.

“Hor-hay,” said Jorge.

No, you are gorgeous George, Hope muttered.

The instructor played scratchy LP’s of birdsongs on a durable gray record player, then scheduled a Saturday morning birdwalk, while the old ladies commented on how tall and handsome and utterly dark George was, and, embarrassed by the attention, George explained rather too copiously that his grandmother was to blame, she being from Castille Spain, La Mancha actually, and, going back even further, a branch of her family being Jews from Morocco, so that he couldn’t really say if it was the Spanish fault or the Moroccan fault but in any event he himself didn’t have much to do with the way he looked. “And modest,” the old ladies added to his list of virtues, and poked Hope, who made a joke about tilting at windmills going after a guy that handsome that dark that self-effacing. The next thing she knew the class was over and she was trading phone numbers with him and, in a facetious voice, inviting him Saturday night for paella. “My specialty,” she said.

“Really?” George asked. “I haven’t had paella since my Abuela Siso died.” He looked faintly stricken when he said this revered name.

Uh oh, Hope thought, and against her better judgement pressed ahead. She could at that moment have laughed it off and said, no, I was just joking, paella isn’t my specialty, not even close. I only got bored last week at my post in the periodicals room and ended up reading the Spanish cooking issue of Bon Appetit. On the other hand, you could come over and we could try making it together. This, however, was not what she had said. What she said was, “Is red wine all right? I think I have a bottle around somewhere.” (She didn’t.) He was now due at seven expecting paella like Abuela Siso used to make, and Hope had already used up half her Saturday shopping for ingredients, and had come home from the Super Saver without the ingredient, the spice that put the pie in paella, saffron.

Bon Appetit, she remembered, had mentioned that saffron was expensive, but she’d had no idea. The recipe she Xeroxed at the library called for a “scant half-teaspoon.” She trawled the spice aisle expecting to see little bottles of the stuff, the way you bought cinnamon pepper cloves Xanax. She did locate a bottle, but it came up light in her hand, and when she peered through the wavy glass she saw a few red-gold threads wrapped in cellophane. Ten fifty said the white sticker on the lid. Ten fifty! Even if she could find them, it would take three bottles, maybe four, to come anywhere near that scant half-teaspoon, and she’d already spent twenty bucks at the fish store on shrimp and scallops. Not on what they pay me at the library, baby. She slammed the bottle back in the spice rack and ran home to check Craig Claiborne for substitutions. Craig made no mention that saffron was a wee bit pricey and her other cookbooks were no better. Most didn’t even have a paella recipe. The only other one that did, while it acknowledged the cost issue, said saffron was “well worth the investment for that special evening.” Oh, please, Hope thought. Who wrote this?

Out of ideas, she phoned her friend Ted who was not in fact a chef, but rather, as he liked to point out, the owner and sole proprietor of a small dog-walking service, which is to say that he had spent two-hundred and fifty dollars to corporate his own dog-walking services, resulting in a dog walking service of which he was the sole owner and which had one employee: himself. Ted was, however, not only an incorporated dog-walker, he was also known to take cooking classes and dreamed, somewhat realistically (he felt, having already started a business), of someday opening a restaurant.

“Paella without saffron,” Ted sniffed, “is like is like is like—”

“Like a pig without wings?” Hope said helpfully. “Like a headache without aspirin?”

“You know what I mean.”

“But I’ve already spent so much on seafood.”

“Who is this guy?” Ted said. “Make something else. This is so you, Hope.”

“I can’t,” Hope said, her cry rising like champagne bubbles. And she told Ted about the Spanish Moroccan Jewish thing and about Abuela Siso.

“Maybe you can use, I don’t know, curry cumin mustard something yellow. Try the Internet, ask one of the gourmet chatrooms.”

All right, Hope thought, okay. She was good on the computer; you couldn’t be an assistant librarian these days without being pretty darn good on the computer.

“Thanks, Ted,” she said brightly.

“Hope —”

“Yes?”

“Promise you won’t do this any more.”

“Do what?” she asked, her tone innocent yet with a pronounced note of aggravation.

“You’re a lousy cook.”

“I can read a recipe—”

“Don’t you ask yourself why you keep repeating your mistakes?”

“You know, Ted, if you weren’t so blissful with Peter these days, I’d accuse you of being jealous.”

“You’re not my type, sweetie. Now promise me it’s the last time—”

“Fine,” she said, “I promise,” and she hung up.

All the way to the library, walking past suburban gardens brimming with flowering bulbs, Hope fought in her mind an escalating disputation with Ted. Not that she had any intention of keeping her promise, but just what would he have her do? Give up altogether and start acquiring cats? Is that what Ted wanted, Ted who she could murder for having found true love before she did? Ted who hadn’t been that concerned with locating happy monogamy, who hadn’t even particularly gone searching for it, who had, in fact, discovered his soul mate at a leather bar? It was all so unfair it made her want to cry. Hope jabbed her ID tag through the electronic lock at the back entrance and rode the library’s wobbly elevator to her workstation on the third floor. There she pecked at her keyboard with the grim determination of someone trying to extract a sliver from her hand with dull tweezers.

After half a precious hour she got from the computer a lot of attitude. The chatroom consensus held that the most commonly used substitutes, turmeric and safflower (which was referred to as bastard saffron), were vastly too bitter for use in any self-respecting Paella recipe. Why don’t you just use yellow food coloring?, someone snidely wrote. I’d never sleep with a man, said another, who couldn’t tell saffron. You can tell saffron, Hope typed back, but you can’t tell it much. She shoved her chair away from her desk wondering who exactly these glorified short-order cooks thought they were. Cookery, she mused, is just chemistry; any freshman science major can do it. Then she thought, science!- and veered for that fork of the information highway. Right away she came up with a Scientific American article entitled, “Salivating for Saffron.”

Saffron, she read hopefully, is derived from the sex organs of the female crocus. The finest saffron comes from crocuses grown in “La Mancha, the land made famous by the wandering Don Quixote.” Great, Hope thought, if that isn’t perfect. Abuela Siso’s paella probably had gobs of the stuff. The article waxed on about “farmers bent low over purple blankets of crocus to gather the buds that house the world’s most expensive spice.” The expensive part I know, Hope thought gloomily. She could imagine Abuela Siso stooped over her own crocuses harvesting saffron in pint berry baskets. The article went on to explain that scientists are trying to breed a sexier crocus that will produce more of the “treasured stigmas” per flower but in trying to enhance the best features of the female crocus they are having difficulty “retaining the spice’s savory qualities.” Hope had read enough. She pushed back her chair and closed her eyes, rubbing the skin of her forehead. She’d be damned if she’d let some guy she’d just met and the still painful memory of Paul Westerfeld force her into spending forty bucks on a spice. Would paella taste like anything without it, she wondered, and decided probably not. Without saffron, paella was nothing but soggy rice in chicken broth.

Maybe Ted was right, maybe this should be the last time. The notion of darting around at thirty-five or forty to put on a fancy dinner for a new man was just too too depressing. After this, maybe she’d move to the country like Abuela Siso. She thought dreamily of, for example, keeping chickens, or perhaps – and this might be fun – a Guernsey cow; they were the cute brown ones, weren’t they? Hope’s pastoral fantasy did not include rural men. She was not an admirer of leathery skin overalls bad teeth fanatical religious beliefs. Yes, farm living, she thought. It would all be so bucolic so transporting so-. Then she thought, farming! Hadn’t she just strolled past beds and beds of crocuses? Why couldn’t she farm a little saffron for herself? Impulsive optimism surged afresh. She clicked the PRINT command and swiveled her chair to catch the falling paper.

The next thing Hope knew, she was up to her ankles in mud in somebody else’s flower bed. She herself had no croci, living as she did in a rented condo, but nearby was a row of single family homes. She sauntered up and down the street until she found one with no cars in the drive and a spring border that ran alongside until it disappeared behind a wooden lattice where, Hope prayed, she could do her dirty work without being seen by passing cars or snoopy neighbors. She scanned adjacent windows, checking for faces. Then she stepped briskly across the street and sloppy grass, the hair on her neck bristling with criminal intent. Up close, the crocuses looked a little funny, with white petals veined in blue and starlike yellow centers. Were they a special variety? She didn’t have time to ruminate. She yanked handfuls out of the ground and stuffed her coat pockets full, then beat it out of there, casting over her shoulder a guilty glance that took in the mutilated flower bed.

Back home, the crocuses lay limp and dirty on the kitchen counter while Hope went about her dinner preparations with the purposeful and manic energy of a caffeine-guzzling hummingbird. Her first task was to cook the chicken. She jiggered it under the faucet, shook off the water, tossed some salt at it, thunked it on the cookie sheet, and (forgetting to remove the giblet bag) heaved it in the oven. Then she plunged the wilting flowers into a bowl of water in hopes of keeping them fresh, and referred back to the Scientific American article. “The treasured stigma, the female organ-” Yes, yes, but what does it look like? Hope flipped impatiently for a diagram and didn’t find one. In the water, the flowers had begun to revive, but Hope was too hurried to admire either their beauty or the bewitching scent filling her kitchen, so like hyacinths, her favorite. She lifted a crocus from the water and exasperatedly tore open its petals. Inside was a tiny nosegay of yellow and orange protrusions, heavy at their ends and covered with a fine yellow dust. They had a sticky sexy look, but none seemed quite the red-gold thread she’d seen in the grocery. Oh well, she thought, here goes, and plucked with three fingers, flicking yellow fibers and dust into a small bowl. Doubtless, most of it was pollen, but how bad could pollen taste? Bees eat it, don’t they? Some people too. And with any luck there’d be some saffron in there. Later, in the emergency room, Hope would regret her reasoning, but at the time it seemed she couldn’t stop to entertain her doubts. She still had the seafood to prepare and the rice to cook, and then she had to start working on herself.

By seven, Hope was feeling rather elated, to say nothing of nervous lucky expectant demure and well-dressed. Cooling on the kitchen counter was a large and savory bowl of paella (at least she hoped it was savory, she hadn’t worked up the nerve to taste it), and a bottle of red Rioja panted on the dining room table. The clutter normally strewn about her apartment was packed tightly, if explosively, in the foyer closet. (Hope made a mental note to hang George’s coat elsewhere.) In the bathroom mirror, she ran a reproving thumb over the polished M of her lipline. Her shoulder length hair was blown smooth and rolled under, and she pushed up on it with her palms and fanned the lapels of her new black pantsuit. (She had engaged in some retail therapy at Ann Taylor after Paul’s defection.) Her living room clock chimed the hour and she went to the foyer where she struck a pose which involved leaning against the wall balanced unsteadily upon the palm of one hand. For the elapse of a full moment she could imagine hurling her bridal bouquet at Ted’s balding crown.

Breeeep,” went the buzzer on the intercom panel. “Hope,” said the loudspeaker, “it’s me, Hor-hay.”

Hope felt herself panic. She pushed the speaker button. “Just a moment.”

She made stabs at a few other elaborately casual poses all of which involved relating herself in some fashion to the wall, arriving at last at an attitude of Extreme Though Spurious Casualness which placed her left shoulder on the wall and both hands in the pockets of Ann Taylor’s pants. It was an awkward position to get into but quite comfortable once you actually were in it. As she struggled, Hope recalled a vision of her mother saying, in her mother’s most gentle and insincere way, “Just be yourself, honey”: this while giving hard and painful jerks to the ribbons in Hope’s prepubescent hair. Then Hope saw herself. She saw what she was doing and how ridiculous she was. She felt suddenly deflated grim ugly dull-witted self-loathing doomed. She scooted to the phone and dialed Ted. Be in be in be in.

“Hello?” said the phone.

“Help,” Hope whispered.

“Hope, are you okay?”

“No, he’s downstairs.”

“Who’s downstairs?” Ted asked, alarmed.

“I’m doing it again,” said Hope. “All the same things. What’s wrong with me?”

“Oh, Hope,” Ted said. He sighed.

“Tell me what to do.”

“You know the monkey puzzle? The one where the monkey puts his hand through the little hole and they give him a banana?

“Yeah, so —”

“The monkey can’t get his hand out because he won’t let go of the banana. That’s you, Hope.”

“What are you saying?”

“Drop the banana, Hope.”

“I call you, desperate,” Hope flared, “and this is the best you can offer?”

“It’s sound advice.”

The buzzer was buzzing insistently. “Are you going to let me in?” the loudspeaker asked.

“I gotta go,” Hope said. She hung up and scurried back to the intercom panel. “Yes,” she said. “Of course,” she said. “Come right up.” Listen to me. I sound like an idiot. She pressed the button that unlocked the building’s front door. Then she unlocked the condo’s front door. She’d just prop it open, she thought, with a sneaker. That way he’d walk right in and find her busy in the kitchen. She opened the foyer closet to get the sneaker and everything fell spectacularly out, the broom the mop the shovel, a pile of rags that once had been things like tee-shirts and washcloths, unused phone cords ant spray cat food (why did she save it? her cat had been dead two years), and her dirty little secret, a stack of stolen library books which she kept as a gesture of ill-will towards her boss her job and the library-going public at large, on bad days at work adding another book to the pile. She was on the floor frantically scooping arm loads of this stuff and shoving it back in the closet when the door swung open and in popped George’s head, the very bust of a young Raul Julia, she thought, in earmuffs.

“Is everything all right?” George asked.

Hope could just imagine the look of derision on Paul Westerfeld’s face if he had caught her in this way. So vividly could she imagine his look, in fact, that she actually saw a look of derision on George’s face. It therefore made very little sense to her when quite abruptly George was on the floor scooping alongside her and addressing the closet as though it were an obstinate person. “Shape up,” he told the closet, “or we’ll convert you to a bathroom. It’s been done, you know.” This behavior was inordinately confusing. George was acting exactly as if her little faux pas were endearing, or even perhaps expected. The paella, she thought. I’ll just feed it to him and get him out of here before I can do anything else stupid. Did he mind, she asked, if they ate right away so she didn’t have to reheat?

“Great,” he said agreeably, and flipped open the back cover of the last book remaining on the foyer floor, volume three of Audubon’s Master Guide to Birding. She had expropriated this particular book with the idea that she might try to appear knowledgeable about warblers in the adult education class, and also because lately she had begun to take an interest in pilfering from multi-volume sets. Replacement of such a book generally entailed an expensive repurchase of the entire set, which, she noted with pleasure, drove the head librarian absolutely berserk. More significantly, she enjoyed the idea of snatching a volume such as this one from its happy relationship with others of its own kind, of, in effect, decimating their smug little hardcover menage.

“You didn’t sign them out—”

“No.” Hope had fervently wished he wouldn’t notice.

“A librarian who steals books,” he said. “How very interesting.”

“Look,” she said. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone I have these.” She took Audubon and tossed him in the closet, and slammed the door. She could almost hear George snickering as she retreated to the kitchen.

“Paella?” he asked when she had set it on the table. “I thought you were kidding. I didn’t think you’d really go to all this trouble.”

You have no idea, she thought, and smiled weakly.

“I’m impressed,” he said. “This is wonderful.”

“Just like Abuela Siso used to make?”

“Better. My grandmother was too poor to afford real saffron.” He told her how, where Abuela Siso was from, saffron was only for export and to sell to the tourists. But this, he said, this is so nice and golden, you must have used lots. And something else, what’s that taste? I’ve never had anything quite like it. Different. Delicious, though. Very gourmet. “And the aroma, almost like perfume—”

As they ate, Hope could feel herself swooning under his praise. The paella really was surprisingly good, and the Rioja, so delightfully complicated. Might not the wine account for how very very light in the head she was beginning to feel?

After pumping their stomachs, it didn’t take long for poison control and the hospital emergency room staff to identify the rare and toxic wood hyacinth their two newest patients had ingested. First they injected Hope with something that sped her up so it felt as if her heart would pound right out of her chest, then they gave her something that slowed her down so it felt as if her brain were falling down a very deep well. By the time she hit bottom and was groggily working to tug her johnny down or the sheet up to hide her legs – she’d been too rushed to shave them – the doctor had appeared through an opening in the curtain surrounding her gurney and was asking a lot of embarrassing questions.

“I’m assuming you didn’t do this on purpose,” said Doctor Eider, a dark-haired woman her mother’s age who had an annoying habit of clacking her pearls together when one had the very worst of headaches. “This wasn’t a suicide pact or anything?”

“It was an accident,” Hope said. “I was making paella, and….” She trailed off wondering how exactly she was going to explain what had happened.

“I can’t wait to hear,” said the clacking doctor, “how you got around to putting poisonous hyacinths in paella.”

“This is going to sound pretty feeble,” Hope said, and explained about trying to farm saffron. “I was making dinner for this new guy, and I didn’t want to spend the money on a stupid spice, not after my last boyfriend, Paul—” At this point she burst into tears.

“There, there,” Dr. Pearls said, and gave Hope the most maternal hug possible given that the latter was hitched to an IV trolley. Hope cried all over the proffered lab coat shoulder, saturating the pink silk underneath. When her sobs had lessened, the good doctor said, “Pretty cute, huh? This new guy?”

“We’re talking Antonio Bandares,” Hope said, “with big ears.”

“Big ears?” the doctor laughed.

“Dumbo, on a bad-ear day.” Hope was starting to feel better.

“I think you’re going to be fine, ” Dr. Eider said. “I have to go now, but I’ll check on you later,” and she winked. As she breezed out, the doctor whisked open the curtain, and there, on the very next gurney, lay gorgeous George. He was staring straight at Hope. He looked shaken, bemused and a little angry. Had he heard what she had said? Are you kidding, with ears like that? Every word.

For a moment, the old habits kicked in. Hope thought of trying to get the sheet up, of arranging herself under it to give her hips their most attractive curve, the sheet its drapiest drape, of crossing her ankles the way, say, Marilyn might have. Then she thought, oh, what’s the use!

“I have to admit,” George said. “I’ve never ended up in the emergency room on a first date before.” His tone was openly hostile.

“I thought you’d like the excitement,” Hope said, sprawling back against her paper pillows. She figured she might as well get comfortable. If poisoning him hadn’t put him over the top, that crack about his ears clearly had.

“I’m glad you think this is funny,” he half-shouted at her. “You almost killed us both.”

Hope winced. It was true; she couldn’t argue. “Look,” she said, trying to sound conciliatory. “We’re not dead.”

“No, we’re not.”

There followed an uncomfortable pause in the conversation.

“Just out of curiosity,” Hope said, changing the subject, “what did Abuela Siso put in her paella? What spice? I couldn’t find a good substitution for saffron.”

“She used annatto,” George said. “It’s a reddish-yellow food dye.” He frowned. “I thought you said paella was your specialty.”

“I lied,” Hope admitted. “I only had the recipe.”

“Just out of curiosity,” George said, “since that’s the game we’re playing here, where did you get the flowers?”

Hope turned toward him, propping herself on an elbow. “Someone’s flower bed,” she said, beginning to luxuriate a bit in her squalor.

“You pulled them up?”

Hope nodded.

“Out of some stranger’s garden?”

She stared at him. He had a pleasantly oversized chin that balanced the ears, and licorice-dark eyes. God, he was cute. Too bad.

“I don’t suppose you asked—”

“They weren’t home.”

“No, of course not.” George’s head wagged slowly from side to side.

“Just out of curiosity,” Hope asked, “can you buy crocuses in bloom? I’d like to put them back.” Tomorrow, she knew, after she got out of here, she’d go by the house with the mutilated flowers, bringing her shovel with her, and ask if she could repair at least some of the damage she’d done.

George was laughing. “You mean wood hyacinths, don’t you?”

“Right,” Hope said, “hyacinths,” and, realizing she’d said “crocuses,” started to laugh along with him.

“Just out of curiosity,” George said, still smiling, “does insanity run in your family, or did it start with you?”

“Just out of curiosity,” Hope shot back, “where did you get those ears?”

He put a hand to one of them, surprised.

She drew a breath, amazed at her own temerity. “I’m guessing Abuela Siso had a pair of real monsters,” she said.

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About Kim Davis

Kimberly Davis is a poet and prose writer whose work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Nimrod International Journal, Cairn, The Briar Cliff Review, Literal Latte and other fine literary journals. Formerly a practicing attorney, Kim has her undergraduate degree from Brown University, her JD from Boston University School of Law, and her MFA from Emerson College. She teaches creative writing at the Cambridge Center in Harvard Square. Kim's poem “Thumbprint on Estate Papers” won first prize in Poetry and the Benefactor’s Prize at the 2007 Whidbey Island Writers Conference. Her poem "King Alfreds, First Light" was nominated by Nimrod for Best New Poets 2007. Kim’s short story “Spice” was a prizewinner in Literal Latte’s annual fiction contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Kim grew up with roots deep in the Adirondack foothills of Upstate New York. Her parents were both raised on dairy farms north of Utica, in the small town of Salisbury Center, New York. She relocated to the Boston area for college and graduate school, and now lives in historic Hingham, Massachusetts on Boston’s South Shore with her husband, Steve Rider, and son Daniel.

One Comment

  1. rachel cann
    Posted August 2009 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    “Spice” had me laughing myself silly! I can see why it was nominated for a Pushcart.

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