Food Fiction Friday: Mrs. Bushwick’s Blueberry Muffins

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Not every muffin inspires a story, but the one you see above did. That’s the muffin I had a few weeks ago at Flatbush Farm and it’s the best blueberry muffin I’ve ever had. In honor of it, I composed a short story for this, the first ever Food Fiction Friday. Will I write a new food-related story every Friday? Probably not. But who knows, maybe this’ll become a tradition. Either way, I hope you enjoy. (And if you’re inspired to write a short story about blueberry muffins, please do so and link to it in the comments.)

Mrs. Bushwick’s Blueberry Muffins

a short story by: Adam D. Roberts

The first time I had one of Mrs. Bushwick’s blueberry muffins was the day after Leonard killed himself. The media was circling around the house, the kids were home, and I was still in a state of shock. It’s not every day that the mayor of a small town kills himself with a staple gun (Leonard was building one of his birdhouses when he staplegunned himself to death) and my soul was shattered in a way that I didn’t know it could shatter—like a window with a beautiful crack in it, like a spiderweb, radiating out. It wasn’t that I was hurting or that I was grieving, it was just a new feeling, an unfamiliar feeling. A sudden emptiness. And that’s when Mrs. Bushwick rang my doorbell and I assumed it was a reporter so I didn’t answer. But then there was that smell: it seeped through the front door, beneath the mailslot, into the den where I was sitting with the TV Guide in my lap circling my shows for the week. The smell is what brought me to the door and there she was in a white hat standing patiently as I opened the door very slowly.

“Are you Carol?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered, studying her tiny frame, the white hair poking out from her hat and her plastic pink glasses. Her voice was raspy and only slightly friendly.

“Muffins,” she said, holding out a basket. “My famous blueberry muffins.”

“For me?” I answered. “Oh my, how thoughtful. Please, come in.”

She looked behind her at the reporters and then did what looked like a little curtsy before entering our house. She came in and studied the walls as if she were in an art museum or an important building from history. It was, after all, the Mayor’s mansion. I showed her into the living room and she sat nervously in a wicker chair.

“Can I get you anything?” I asked. “Tea? Lemonade?”

“No, ma’am,” she said. “I’ll just watch you eat a muffin and go.”

What a peculiar woman, I thought to myself. It was then that I realized that I didn’t know her name.

“Mrs. Bushwick,” she suddenly declared, anticipating my question. “Everyone calls me Mrs. Bushwick.”

“And where do you live, Mrs. Bushwick?”

“The big pink house just down the block.”

I’d seen the house: it was frilly and funny looking.

“This is so thoughtful,” I said as I reached for a muffin.

The one I chose was strangely shaped—like a chubby mushroom with a hump—and I unwrapped it carefully. The heat warmed my hands and the smell—it was beyond seductive.

“Do you bake often, Mrs. Bushwick?”

“Just my muffins,” she answered, watching me with great fascination. “Grew up on a blueberry farm,” she continued. “And these muffins were my mother’s specialty. She learned it from her mother and her mother learned it from her mother. It’s been in the family for generations.”

I bit into the muffin and it’s as if a geyser of joy erupted in my mouth. The outside was crisp and sugary, the inside light as a feather and moist, and then the bursts of blueberry were tart reminders that life isn’t all about misery and pain—not all husbands kill themselves with stapleguns.

“Oh, Mrs. Bushwick,” I said.

“I know, dear,” she said. “They’re the best.”

A tear streamed down my cheek. “Am I crying?” I asked.

She nodded solemnly. “Finish your muffin,” she counseled. “You’ll feel better.”

I finished it slowly and then reached into the basket for another.

“No, no,” she said. “Mustn’t overdo it. Save the rest for later. You’ll need them.”

I nodded and watched her rise from her chair. “Back to the house I go,” she said. “A pleasure.”

I couldn’t get up. I was too devastated, too immobilized from what I’d just tasted.

* * * * *

When the media circus ended and the kids went back to school, I became obsessed with Mrs. Bushwick. She was my mother’s age—or the age my mother would have been if my mother were still alive. She had a spectral presence—a strangeness about her that made me believe she wasn’t of this world, but a messenger from another plane of existence.

Two weeks after she’d visited and approximately one week after all the muffins were gone, I decided to pay her a visit. I wanted to repay the courtesy—to bring something to her place—but I couldn’t think of what to bake or what to bring. I’m not much of a baker, though I can churn out fairly decent chocolate chip cookies with the help of my Betty Crocker Cookbook. But how could a person bring such a pedestrian pastry to the home of a genius? It wasn’t just the recipe that made Mrs. Bushwick’s muffins great. It was the way she’d executed them: the lightness of the batter, the delicate distribution of the berries, the sparkling sprinkle of sugar on the top.

I decided to bring her a bottle of wine. Leonard was an oenophile, he kept a wine collection in the basement that no one was allowed to touch. But now that he was gone, those bottles had to be used or otherwise wasted forever.

I made my way down the stairs and tried to ignore the work station in the corner where Leonard did the deed. His birdhouse was still on the worktable, splattered, as it was, with blood. Instead, I focused on the wine collection to my left: rows upon rows of dark, dusty bottles.

Not knowing a Chablis from a Pinot Noir, I looked for the oldest, most treasured bottle I could. I knew how much he spent on them—I’d seen the receipts in the garbage when I threw away banana peels in the kitchen. The only time I confronted him was the time he spent $14,000 on a single bottle.

“You won’t understand,” he insisted. “It’s the one luxury I allow myself.”

“What are you talking about?” I replied. “Your life is nothing but a life of luxury.”

He never hit me but I thought he might when I said that. But who did he think he was fooling? His weekends at the spa, his nights out at the city’s finest restaurants: he was a dandy and a glutton and it’s a good thing he took himself out before the politicos did—and they would have, too, once they got a load of his spending.

The bottles were indecipherable: each one looked like the last, I couldn’t tell the difference. But then at the end of the row there was a glass cabinet with a lock and in that cabinet were four carefully placed bottles of what looked like very expensive wine. The key was nowhere to be found—I suppose Leonard kept it somewhere secret—so I did something irresponsible, but not really since it was my house now. I used a bottle from the rack to break the glass and once it was broken, I pulled the largest and most conspicuous looking bottle from the bunch. It was a 1903 Landowne Claret—it said so in Leonard’s handwriting on a sticky note attached to the bottle.

Could this be the $14,000 bottle? I didn’t know. But I knew one thing: I was going to take it to Mrs. Bushwick.

* * * * *

On the night in question, there was a storm and I almost didn’t go. I hadn’t been outside, really, since the media circus started but since it was two weeks later, there weren’t any reporters out there anymore. I put on my galoshes and my rain jacket and a plastic bag on my head, to protect my hair, and lifted my large yellow umbrella, grabbed the bottle and trudged out into the rain.

You might not believe this, but what got me through that storm to Mrs. Bushwick’s door wasn’t a wonderful sense of direction or a great ease of movement in bad weather, but my keen sense of smell. I sniffed my way over there: I sensed a hint of muffin in the air and I followed it and, sure enough, as I got closer the smell got stronger until my mouth was practically a swamp of moistness, eager—desperately eager—to have another taste of one of Mrs. Bushwick’s blueberry muffins.

The pink and white frilly house wasn’t lit up. There was candlelight coming from downstairs and it was there that I imagined Mrs. Bushwick was at the moment, stirring her batter, filling her muffin tins. I walked quickly towards the door—despite all my protection, my ankles were wet—and rang the doorbell without thinking too much about it. That’s one of the things Leonard taught me when he was alive: not to think too much about anything. “Paralysis of analysis,” he called it when I dwelled on a problem. “You never get anything done.”

I heard scurrying inside and then the door swung open. There was Mrs. Bushwick in her apron, flour on her cheek, looking up at me with wide eyes.

“Hello Mrs. Bushwick,” I said. “So sorry to bother you. Hope it’s not to late to call?”

She just stared at me. It wasn’t a mean stare or a threatening stare, just a stare filled with wonderment.

“I brought you a gift,” I said. “My husband collected wine when he was alive and I brought you his nicest bottle.”

She took the bottle from my hand and studied the label, lowering her glasses on to the bridge of her nose. She thrust it back into my hand.

“I can’t accept this,” she said. “Now please. I appreciate your visit, but I can’t have any guests. I hope you understand.”

I didn’t understand and I said so. “Mrs. Bushwick,” I begged. “I just wonder if maybe…”

“Hmmm?” she interrupted. “Speak up, I’m hard of hearing.”

“I was wondering,” I said louder, “If I could, maybe, have some more of your muffins?”

Mrs. Bushwick tut-tutted. “Certainly not,” she said. “I couldn’t just give them away, could I?”

“Oh, of course not,” I said. “I’d be happy to pay.”

“No, no, dear,” she said, shaking her head violently. “That’s not what I mean at all. I’ll have to ask you to go now.”

She closed the door and I stood there dumbstruck. It was a full five minutes before I left her porch and journeyed home. I left the bottle on her doorstep, just in case.

* * * * *

As I said, I’m not a baker, I’ve made cookies before but they were never very good. My kids would eat them hot out of the oven, but who wouldn’t? When they were cool they were like bricks. They were an embarrassment. Yet, still, after Mrs. Bushwick’s rejection I took to baking. If I couldn’t have her muffins, I would make my own. I’d experiment and tinker until they were just the same.

I started with the most basic recipe I could. I found it on the internet when I Googled “basic blueberry muffin.” Flour, sugar, butter, blueberries, milk. Simple, easy. I pre-heated our very expensive oven (Leonard insisted that they install a new kitchen when we moved into the mayor’s mansion), I greased the muffin tins, I waited for the butter to get to room temperature.

I’ll spare you all the details, but suffice it to say that while the muffins were very good—the blueberries I bought at our local organic market were excellent—they were pale shadows of Mrs. Bushwick’s. They were to Mrs. Bushwick’s muffins what Lee Harvey Oswald is to Lee Iacoca. How could such simple ingredients yield such different results?

The rest of the week, I attempted various other recipes. Brown sugar instead of white, European butter instead of American. It made no difference. There was Martha Stewart’s recipe, which was incredibly specific; there was James Beard’s, from a book I found at the library. They all tasted the same: mediocre, indistinguishable. What was I doing wrong? And why, for that matter, was Mrs. Bushwick so evasive?

After two weeks of failed experimentation, and almost a month after tasting those muffins for the first time, I decided to go back. And this time I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I had to know the secret of those muffins and I would find out with or without Mrs. Bushwick’s blessing.

* * * * *

The first shock, when I arrived there early in the afternoon on a breezy Spring Saturday, was that the bottle of wine that I’d left on the porch two weeks earlier was still there, untouched. This meant one of two things: (1) Mrs. Bushwick refused to accept it, even after I left it there; or (2) (and more likely) Mrs. Bushwick hadn’t left her house.

I decided to begin my proceedings the honorable way. I rang the bell again and waited. Sure enough, I heard the same scampering and then the opening of the door. There was Mrs. Bushwick, yet again, in her apron, white powder on her cheek.

“Yes?” she asked, this time more curtly than the last.

“Mrs. Bushwick,” I said. “I hate to be a burden. I’ve been baking muffins these last two weeks: I’ve tried every recipe I could get my hands on and nothing does the trick. No matter how hard I try, I can’t come close to replicating your muffins.”

She gave me a look, an angry look that I hadn’t thought possible on such a sweet face. “Well?” she asked.

“Please,” I said. “I’m still grieving for my husband. I’m still trying to cope with his loss. Couldn’t you find it in your heart—“

“Ma’am,” she interrupted. “I do not represent the Department of Emotional Welfare. I am not a saint or a guardian angel or, for that matter, a psychologist. I’m a simple old woman who likes to bake and the thing I like to bake most of all is my family’s recipe for blueberry muffins. It’s a family tradition that’s survived four generations and there’s only one other tradition that the Bushwick family follows and that’s to bring a batch of muffins to anyone in the town who’s suffered a loss. I’m not a social person, so it took great energy, when I read of your husband’s foolish suicide, to uphold that second tradition. And, honestly, because of your behavior I’m seriously considering putting that tradition to rest. Now if you’ll be so good as to leave my porch, I would be most grateful.”

She slammed the door with surprising energy. I decided, then, to go to plan B: honor be damned.

Plan B wasn’t fully formed in my head. Originally, I was going to force my way in, push Mrs. Bushwick aside—I do have strong arms, Leonard always thought so—and I knew that I could outmatch her in terms of physical strength. But then, after her second dismissal, I decided I didn’t want to deal with her face-to-face again. I’d have to get those muffins by sneaking in somehow.

Before I could find a second entrance or explore the perimeter of the house, though, I heard the sound of wheels in the driveway. I moved quickly to the bushes and crouched down and watched a blue van pull up slowly towards the garage. The driver was very careful, it seemed, to make a noiseless entrance. He opened his door slowly and exited the car with a large duffel bag on his shoulder. He made his way up the steps and he rang the doorbell.

Mrs. Bushwick swung the door open—I’m sure she thought it was me again—and then, seeing who it was, her face lit up and she embraced the man with the duffel bag.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying exactly—my face was just below the level of the porch—but I could sense the pleasantness of their tones. I heard Mrs. Bushwick say, “Wait right here” and then a few seconds passed and then she returned and I heard the man say, “They smell like heaven.”

The smell overpowered me. They were hot, right out of the oven. Hotter than the ones she brought to my house four weeks earlier. I couldn’t help myself: I leapt out of the bushes, I crawled my way on to the porch and I screamed. “Mrs. Bushwick!”

“My God, woman,” she said. “Have you no dignity?”

“I’m taking those muffins,” I said, the man regarding me like a giraffe might regard a yappy dog. I tugged the muffins out of his hand—they were in a basket, the same kind of basket she brought to my house—and I ran. I ran with all of my might. Reader, I’ve never run so hard in all of my life. The smell powered me and the thought of devouring those muffins powered me even more.

The townspeople, for I was a public figure, stared at me as I ran past them and maybe they thought I was in trouble.

“Are you OK, Mrs. Stanton?” asked Mike the Barber. But I ignored him. I just ran and ran and when I got home, I swung the door open and I slammed it shut. I locked every lock.

And then, I’m ashamed to admit it, I fell to the floor and ate that entire basket of Mrs. Bushwick’s blueberry muffins.

* * * * *

The news story that broke—for a news story did break—was not the one that I expected. I sat the whole night, my skin electric, my brain fried, watching the news, waiting for the story to come: Mayor’s Widow Robs Old Woman of Muffins. Crazed Wife of Mayor Runs Rampant on Town. I prepared for the worst.

What came, though, was far more surprising.

“We begin tonight,” said Peter Talon, of the 11 o’clock news, “with a story you won’t believe.”

A picture of Mrs. Bushwick appeared on the screen.

“She looks like a harmless old woman,” Peter narrated. “The kind of woman you might expect to host a charity dinner or drive the grandkids to school. But this woman, Maurine Bushwick, isn’t a sweet grandmother: she’s a drug dealer.”

Footage appeared on screen of police arresting Mrs. Bushwick at her home. “Turn those cameras off!” she barked. “Haven’t you anything better to do than to harass an old lady?”

“This old lady,” Peter continued, “is the head of one of the most notorious drug rings in the state of Maine. And wait ‘til you hear where she hides the drugs.”

A close-up of a can of baking powder made me fall out of my chair, on to the floor, where I think I had a seizure. I don’t know. I blacked out.

When I woke up, though, it was the middle of the night. My stomach ached in the most awful way and please forgive me if I tell you that I spent the next whole hour hovering over the toilet. But when I’d finished there, I headed back to Mrs. Bushwick’s just to see if what I’d seen on the television was real or a dream.

Walking down the street at night, I saw the town in a way I’d never seen it before. Leonard’s suicide surprised me because his dark feelings had never really surfaced; I knew he had anger, but I didn’t know he’d ever direct that anger towards himself. Similarly, the town was full of a darkness I didn’t know was possible. What else lurked around the corner? Who knows from where darkness might spring?

I approached Mrs. Bushwick’s porch and saw police tape wrapped around the perimeter. There weren’t any police cars, though, and why would there be? Once they had her, and once they’d collected their evidence, there wasn’t much more they needed, was there?

Except, there on the porch, was the large bottle of wine that I’d left. I crawled beneath the tape and went to retrieve it. It was still full, untouched.

Don’t ask me why, but I kissed it.

“I miss you, Leonard,” I said.

And though the bottle didn’t answer, I thought I heard Leonard’s laugh echoing around inside. That would make sense, too. Leonard did have a wonderful sense of the absurd: and wouldn’t he find it funny that his wife, the most straight-laced woman he ever knew (his words) had just consumed an entire basket of blueberry muffins laced with cocaine?

I took the bottle back home and placed it in Mrs. Bushwick’s basket, where it now sits on the mantle, never to be touched. Every so often, I hear it laughing and I laugh along with it. And God-damn it if I don’t still crave those muffins. It’s not the drugs I crave—I’m sure of it—just the muffins. Mrs. Bushwick, who died today because of stress-related issues behind bars, was a true artist and I was her greatest admirer.

My life will go on, I’ll find my way, but one thing’s for certain: I will never have a better muffin.

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