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The Blackberry Dumpling Incident

Dena brought a large box out into the dining room, where her guests were gathered around her table at the end of the evening’s meal. She bobbed from the knees like an excited schoolgirl, and smiled with eyes wide, as she introduced the object to her friends.

“We’re so lucky that Joaquin has a friend in Seattle who invents things, and let’s us be his guinea pigs!”

Joaquin beamed as his wife effortlessly brought the box to the table, and set it down inside the perimeter of coffee cups and dessert plates with half eaten pound cake slices bathed in pools of strawberries in custard sauce. She moved to open the top of the box, but he touched her hand and motioned for her to wait. She sat down again by her own plate, and listened as he spoke. “Andy’s come up with some cool things before, maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but still great things. But this one — he’s outdone himself this time. He’s still wondering about it, but his wife and family, and us — we’re all sure he’s going to be famous for this!

“The point is, that weΒ are his guinea pigs and we’d like you to be, too! But rest assured, it’ll be fun, and it’s not in any way dangerous. He wants us all to know that he hasn’t used anything like microwaves, or whatever that is in cell phones that we’re supposed to be careful about. He’s not even sure why the components he put together make it work. He just knows that they do. He calls it a Comprehensor.” Joaquin stood up and opened the box. He drew out a large, hard, grayish cap that looked much like a smoother and less angular sort of bicycle helmet, and put it on his head. He stretched out his arms and said, “Ta-daaaa!”

Some of his guests laughed outright. Some twittered about how ridiculous he looked in it. Dena was still smiling while she shushed her guests a bit and said, “Come on! It’s what it does — not what it looks like!”

Joaquin took off the cap and put it down beside his plate. He removed the box to the floor by the wall, and looked at Dena’s sister, Vicky. “To help illustrate what the Comprehensor does, Dena got your mom’s recipe for Blackberry Dumplings, and made some to augment our meal.”

Vicky looked as if she had just smelled something odd. “Excuse me?” she said.

“I know, I know,” Dena said patting her sister’s hand. “I was the only one in the house who loved Mom’s Blackberry Dumplings, but trust us.” She reached out to her husband, and he placed the Comprehensor in her hands. Then she told him, “We’ll get this on while you get the dumplings.” She paused, holding the cap in her hands, asking her sister with her eyes. Vicky sat still and said nothing as her sister gently placed the Comprehensor on her head.

Joaquin came back with a small plate of the dreaded dessert, putting it next to Vicky’s plate of pound cake. “It’s worked every time we used it, but if it doesn’t this time you’ve at least got cake to make the flavor go away.”

Vicky was tight-lipped for a moment, but finally said, “I take it that this thing is supposed to make the Blackberry Dumplings taste better?”

“Yes,” said Dena, “because I’m sitting next to you, and I like them.”

“I see a practical joke coming on!” said Dena’s boyfriend, Bill, laughing. “I can’t just sit by and let this happen. Don’t eat it, Vicky!”

Dena stopped smiling. “I would never do something like that. It’s just easier to explain what it does, if we show you first. It’s worked every time.”

Vicky shot a quick look at Joaquin, and he stopped smiling, too. The three of them were the only ones who seemed to have lost touch with the humor of the situation. Before the uncomfortableness took complete hold of the room, Vicky went ahead and lifted a spoonful of the dumpling with blackberries, closed her eyes, and put it in her mouth. There was a quietness, combined with breathy snickering and prickly anticipation, throughout the room as they all waited for whatever came next.

“What the… ,” said Vicky. She chewed, then swallowed. “This is a joke! What’s in this? How did you make it taste so good?”

The room came alive again as everyone began to speak at once.

“Wait. What just happened?”

“It is a joke, right?”

“How does it do that?”

“Is that really her mom’s Blackberry Dumplings?”

“Okay, somebody explain to me what just happened!”

Dena caught their attention as her sister continued to eat the plate of dumplings. “That’s what it does! The Comprehensor helps you understand what another person feels, as long as they’re physically close to you, like I am to Vicky right now. She can taste how good I think Mom’s dumplings are!”

Bill watched Vicky use the spoon to scrape her plate clean, and struck by the sight, he turned to Dena, “She’s sitting next to me, too–how can I make it happen with me?”

“You have to precipitate it somehow,” Dena answered. “That’s why we used the dumplings. Try asking her a question, or just mention something you feel strongly about.”

Vicky stopped eating and looked expectantly at Bill. She waited for him to think of something.

He smiled, then his smile faltered as he looked down at what remained of his dessert. Softly, he said, “The Three Stooges.”

There were chuckles around the table, and though his skin was the color of a golden brown caramel, the blush in his cheeks could still be seen.

Vicky took his hand under the table, and leaned in to her boyfriend, looking him in the eye. “The Three Stooges are funny!” she said, her excitement clear to everyone. “Watching them is like being very young again, when life was simpler…” She giggled, and took off the cap. “Now you try!”

Joaquin was beaming again, and their dining room was filled with sounds of excitement and the murmur of imminent possibility. In turn, they were each trying the cap, to have someone understand why they felt what they felt, to know that their point of view would be understood, even if later it wouldn’t be agreed with — it would at least, for now, for always, be understood.

After nearly an hour, the cap came to the last friend at the table, Annette. As she stared at it in her hands, the others wound down again as they had for each of them, quieting as the focus shifted entirely to her, waiting for her to take her turn. She lifted her chin and sniffed as she turned it around in her hands and finally placed it on the table.

“What’s wrong, Annette?” Joaquin asked. “Don’t you want to try the cap?”

She looked around the room at the others, and said, “Really? You’ve got to be kidding. You should all have seen yourselves. This thing is so ugly. I wouldn’t be caught dead in it.”

Joaquin searched her face for something, for anything. He opened his mouth, but had no words. As he sat frozen next to Annette, he heard his wife ask her if she was joking. Annette sniffed again as she shook her head, then asked if there was any more cake. Joaquin reached for the cap as his wife slowly got up and went to the kitchen to oblige their friend. He moved to put the cap on, but stopped and only held it in front of his head for a moment, then turned and placed it carefully back into its box and closed the lid.

The dinner party was nearly done, winding down naturally, the way those parties generally do, despite the feeling that there was now something clinging in the air, words unspoken. Later, alone, Joaquin and Dena were happy that most of their friends were delighted with the cap. They decided to tell the good news to their friend in Seattle the next day. Then they wondered why, underneath, they were feeling so uneasy, and they began to search for those words that were still around them that seemed to encroach openness and light, eager to explain what they didn’t want to comprehend, still clinging, like weights.

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14 thoughts on “The Blackberry Dumpling Incident

  1. This story is sort of the flip-side to your last story: instead of the group trying to change one person’s thinking, one person’s thinking changes the group. But in both stories, one individual is able to resist (although for vastly different motivations).
    I wonder what some of the other things that were understood that evening– seems like culinary preferences are just the tip of the iceberg of what amazing epiphanies might be had with a gadget like that!
    Does he resist putting it on in the end because he does not want to understand what Annette is thinking — because he knows he’d no longer want her for a friend? Or did you mean to imply that by understanding other people, even for a moment, we are permanently changed (and in this case possibly damaged)? That there is a downside to empathy?
    This piece made me think. Thank you for that!
    Love the name Annette–for me, it always invokes Annette Funicello, the prudish Mousketeer.

    • I love the idea of my stories getting people thinking. I had a pretty emotional day yesterday, with lots of words from another person getting me thinking, but not quite understanding. This other person seemed to be out of control, and lacking empathy, and that reminded me of other unpleasant times in my life involving lack of empathy — so instead of just feeling icky, I wrote this.

      I definitely don’t think there is any downside to empathy. Some emotions may hurt, but I don’t think we can ever get rid of things like war if we can’t somehow make empathy a priority. Part of me doesn’t want to say what I thought the ending meant, because I want to be able to release it and let it be what it is. And if it didn’t say what I intended it to, then I should learn to do it better; but if I’m practicing, then this discussion can help me figure out how to make it better. So… you are right about Joaquin not putting the cap back on because he wasn’t sure he wanted to know if Annette was actually so shallow. It seemed to me that if Annette had any sort of problem with the ethics or privacy issues involved, she could have stated that and been respected by her friends. To have something so potentially important, or at least interesting in her hands, and fixate on how it looks — in my mind, that was creepy. Like anyone who hates the very idea of everyone having access to affordable health care.

      One thing I think I should do, is add in one other instance of ’empathy’ (which I didn’t explore because I’m trying to practice not throwing in ‘kitchen sinks”.) Since you were wondering, maybe my first impulse was right, and I should find a way to get that in. Thanks for reading this and making me think, too!

      • I was wondering about your impetus for writing this story. πŸ™‚ Thank you for it — it was such a fun, lighthearted and yet serious, way of exploring empathy and human interactions. It gets at the heart of what I always think of as the mind-reading dilemma: Would it be amazing to know what other people are really thinking… or would it be soul-crushing? Annette’s remarks speak to that, but I was a little confused about the relationship between what she said and the last lines of the piece. I figured they were related, and I love the wording of the last lines, but somehow I can’t map out the exact emotions/sensations happening there.

        Oh, and I love that photo you used too. πŸ™‚

      • Thanks for your feedback here, Lisa. I really appreciate it. Sometimes I wonder if I’m some kind of uber neurotypical — because when I encounter people who resist the fact that we all need to find common language, and care about doing the work to find it, I actually feel hurt in mind and body. A vitriolic encounter feels worse than a comment like Annette’s. (The last two missives E. lobbed at me last night actually hurt even though I wanted, and tried, to let them go.) But I still have a physical response to comments like Annette’s. It’s like my muscles get queasy (?) or there’s something strange going on under my skin like carbonation bubbles or something. There was a time when I didn’t talk about that feeling because I hadn’t quite identified why I was feeling it. I hadn’t talked it out yet. In this story I was trying to describe that moment of personal critical mass, when it becomes time to identify it, and say out loud that you feel that indifference is dangerous, and creepy. I know that not everyone feels that way, but I can’t believe that I’m alone. I think I’ll have to keep trying, with other stories, to communicate this better. It may be impossible, because we are each so different (even though very much the same at the core), but it feels important to me to try. As I look back, the permutations of the struggle to communicate, and be heard, seem to be what my writing is all about.

        I’m glad you liked the photo. πŸ™‚ It took a while to find.

  2. If you’re weird for feeling hurt when you encounter “people who resist the fact that we all need to find common language, and care about doing the work to find it,” then I’m weird too. I actually had an email exchange with Tamgerines about this experience of feeling physically hurt, or ill, when dealing with situations like this. I think this may be one of the reasons I have a hard time following the news (especially the pronouncements of right-wing extremists). It hurts me to read divisive, arrogant words — and they always seem to be blasted at such high (figurative) volume, too, and repeated over and over again. I do not like to think that most people are so self-celebrating and unwilling to connect with others, and if that means I have to tune out the people who are that way, then I will tune them out.

    I love that you are exploring “that moment of personal critical mass” because it’s something I think about a lot (especially this week). Where do you identify that moment in this story? I think if it’s in here, it’s in the reactions after Annette’s pronouncement, but it gets moved over quickly. I’d love to see you (as writer) sit with that space after Annette makes her remark — if you feel you can sit with that space, since it sounds like that might be painful for you — and really draw out what happens there: emotionally, action-wise, relationally (between characters).

    • Thank you for this! I don’t want anyone to hurt this way, but still, I feel better really knowing that I’m not alone in it. I think you’re right about that being the pivotal space in the story, and I think I should elaborate on it — bring the reader along through it, instead of glossing over it. I realize now, that I was afraid to do that. Afraid of trying to do that and failing the story. I’m going to give myself a little space and see what I come up with. Thanks.

      • I don’t think you’ll fail the story. πŸ™‚ At any rate, even if it doesn’t make the story better (though I think it will), it’ll probably teach you something!

        Good luck and love to you. πŸ™‚

  3. Pingback: The Spark of Creativity « Woman Wielding Words

  4. Hello Re, why can,t I find that stupid accent?! LOL! And I can’t go back and make the 1st correction on can’t! Now u may laugh! What excites me about a good story, shall I say what makes a good story is its ability to get me to think about what lies beneath, ie., what issues are the characters struggling with – fear, insecurity, inadequacy, etc. I was intrigued by Annette’s refusal to try the Comprehensor, but identified greatly with her all at once. What we posess in our minds is all that remains private. In such a voyeuristic world, every thing is up for grabs. Nothing seems to be sacred, nothing private… All lines are blurred. To peer into someone’s mind seems like quite an interesting concept,but then what…what do we do with that information? The questions are rhetorical, but definitely thought-provoking. This piece definitely has the makings of a good story. It drew me in; left me wanting for more; and made me ask questions. Thank you, Lady Sparks!

    Keep on writing, and I’ll keep on reading!

    • Certainly not what I intended, but it’s good for me to know that something I’ve written can be seen so differently by the reader. I guess we’ve all had the experience of not agreeing with the writer, when reading their work. I wonder how we humans eventually solve the problem of communication, i. e., how can it be truly accomplished when the thing we say can be heard in so many different ways — some being almost opposite?

  5. I am just getting around to reading the short story and realized I read with expectations and sometimes add ideas that aren’t there. For instance I had to read the first part twice. Not because it was written badly, it’s purely me thinking too hard before I get to information. I read up to the part in which Joaquin put the hat on his head and realized I thought they were about to eat something from the box. So in my head I saw the title and thought food, then sentences mentioned people gathered for a meal. I was still thinking “food”. I saw Seattle and thought “Oh I saw that Anthony Bourdain show talking about it being a great foodie place and he visited this great unusual doughnut place there. ” So with food firmly on my mind I thought they were about to try out some new pastries. Suddenly Joaquin takes a helmet out a box and I think “what? rewind. Take 2: reading the blackberry incident”

    So anyway after I read it I realized I had expected something at the and to give me an unknown bit of information which would have made me understand the reaction of Annette. I realized then I was projecting an ending I had seen in a Roald Dahl story called “Taste” that takes place at a dinner party. But I think it’s brilliant that your story is “Roald Dahlesque” (made up term)

    So with that being said, I wonder if a comprehensor would start smoking if it tried to relay my feelings about the story considering I kept in a kinda round about path. But the character “Annette” is a truly unsettling character. It’s like learning that something startling about a friend who you always felt simpatico with in the past. There’s a vague feeling of betrayal and then fear that maybe since you are friends with them maybe there’s a flaw in your nature as well.

    In the story the moment jumps out like someone just farted in the room. And I get the impression that Joaquin was very tempted to put on that hat and try and understand Annette’s point of view but realized he might find that too troubling to bear. Also I wonder about Annette’s decision to not participate when it got to her. Her attitude seemed to suggest a cover up of fear. So I wondered how could her getting insight to someone’s point of view be a danger to her. So I wondered whose point of view would she have been about to understand in the room? Or did she feel the machine could transmit uncensored point of views. Like if someone in the room really hated her she would understand it fully. I actually almost wondered if there was some scandal in the room we didn’t know about concerning Annette and another person at the dinner party.

    Anyway I love provocative stories. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks for reading. I appreciate what you’ve said here about the whole Annette situation, and I’m still reeling from the reactions to this story. I’ve got to use Lisa’s tip and add some more conversation after Joaquin doesn’t put the cap back on, to see if I can get my original meaning across better. I’m learning that what I have in mind isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to the reader’s mind. It’s fine with me if they don’t agree (it has to be), but it feels unsettling to have them go in this other direction. I think I said it before somewhere in these comments, but this is turning into quite a learning situation. I’m still working on it.

  6. Hey, great story! I feel like every time you write a short like this I ask you to expand on it but from reading the other comments I guess I’m not alone on this one. I’m glad you’re thinking about going back to the Annette part. I had a similar reaction to Anty’s. At first I thought Annette would be afraid of finding out how someone really felt about her, but then I remembered that earlier in the story Dena explained that the person wearing the cap needed a trigger, like the blackberry dumplings or the words “three stooges” said out loud. So Annette would have probably been more afraid to talk to someone else wearing the cap, moreso than wearing it herself, as the other person has control over what the capwearer “sees” inside of them. Like Anty said, generally people who come off this shallow and snotty are covering up fear, specifically insecurities. So wouldn’t she be afraid of saying something to someone else wearing the cap for fear that they would realize how bad she feels inside, thus destroying whatever persona she’s created for herself? Anywho, I don’t really get why she wouldn’t put the thing on, because it seems to me that even some evil right-wing type might be intrigued enough to try it just to see if it could be useful as some military mind control project down the line. So why not Annette?

    From a writer’s point of view I felt like you glossed it over because you yourself don’t fully understand why a person would act that way, therefore couldn’t offer a scenario in which Joaquin actually put the cap on to “understand” her. If Annette represents someone real in your life, it is probably an emotionally draining task for you to really sit with this person in your mind and try to pick apart their intentions and motives. Which leads me to an ironic thought about how writing is the proverbial “understanding cap.” Since this awesome invention doesn’t exist (yet?) writing is probably the closest we can come to expressing our deepest selves and exploring the deepest parts of others. So it’s kind of funny that the issue with Annette and the cap seems to parallel your issues with writing about Annette.

    I get that what people are speculating about the Annette situation may not be what you were originally going for, and I hope that this story will grow as the lovechild/reconciliation of your original intention and our response. There are lots of interesting possibilities here. I know that they always say “write what you know,” but as someone who has known you for 25 years, you explore yourself a whole lot in your characters, which is great and what you should do. But this is a wonderful opportunity to try giving a genuine inner voice to the “others” in your story, the antagonists I suppose. Remember “The True Story of The Three Little Pigs?” Someone thought to sit down and write the wolf’s side of the story and it was hilarious! This is kind of like the grownup’s version of that.

    Anywho, I really enjoyed this story. It felt a lot lighter than some of your other works even though it tackles some very thought provoking issues. Keep up the good work and can’t wait to see a second draft!

    • Wow, wow, and wow!! You’ve brought up some extremely thought provoking points here, many reaching so much farther than just this story. Thank you so much for your input, your ideas, and your wonderful insight. πŸ™‚

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