Emperor of Nuts by Elaine Barnard

Emperor of Nuts

Elaine Barnard

You will find me in my kitchen every morning during the rainy season. Wind howls through the patio. Rain washes the clothes hung out to dry. My kittens yowl in their cages outside waiting for breakfast, for freedom from the night’s predators, feral cats and wild dogs roaming the alleys or other beasts descending from the hillsides surrounding us. Soon I will tend to them, allow them to play in the house, to sleep on the sofa despite my wife’s objections. “The sun will be out today,” I say to quiet them. But they do not believe me. Somehow they know it is a lie.

I buy my peanuts from the kampong market where they are cheap. In the city center of Kuala Lumpur, there are few small shops where you can bargain for shelled or unshelled. I always buy shelled. It would be less expensive to buy unshelled, but then I would have to crack them. At one time I would ask my daughters to do this. But they no longer live here. That is, they do and they don’t. One is at school in Australia. Another lives with her fiancé while we pretend she lives at home should the religious police inquire. A third lives here when it’s convenient and with her friends when it’s not.

All three are planning to marry this summer, in the dry season, when the sun scorches Malaysia and the sky is sultry with smog. The heat leaves you limp and perspiring, while the bill for air conditioning climbs. That is my worry. That is why I am making the peanut butter.  I will give it as gifts to their hundreds of friends and relatives. That way, I will build up a clientele who will surely love my product and order more.  Gradually, I will raise the price year by year, hardly noticeable. Eventually, I will hire some maciks from the kampong to help me. I will advertise. I will capture the market. Thus, I hope to repay the loans that will afford their nuptials.

I take my old food processor from the shelf and grind the nuts, praying the blades do not jam as they did yesterday. I love the smell of fresh peanuts, pungent but sweet. For a moment, I exist on a tidal wave of nuts. The whole room whirls like the blender. I add a pinch of salt to enhance the nutty flavor. I never add sugar or oil like Jiffy does, or Skippy, or other imported butters. No, my butter is pure, free from all preservatives, all additives. It is natural.  I will include this on the labels.

My wife, Fatimah, bought the jars yesterday on her way home from the law office where she is lucky enough to still have a temporary job. She has been passed over many times for promotions. I think it is her age, or the gray peeking from her dyed black hair, or her plump bottom spilling from her chair. Of course, I never mention such a thing as it would upset her. Then she would not speak to me for weeks, even though we share a bed and bathroom.

I pour the butter into the jars. They glisten beneath the lamplight, brown jewels worth much more than my asking price. Now you are probably wondering, why I must sell peanut butter when my wife has a job? Have you ever afforded three weddings in one summer, paid for the bridal gowns, the hotels, the kadis, the musicians, banquets, limousines, and so on?

Of course, I have always wished for my daughters to marry, but not all at once. That is why I have gotten many small jobs since my retirement from Lloyd’s Bumiputra Finance where I vetted commercial loans day in and day out. I hated that work. It did nothing for my soul, if such a thing exists. I am not a religious person, but still I feel there is something out there, a hint of something beyond us. I think that might be why I have also been getting fat. Eating peanut butter each day gives me comfort. It is filling and stays with you for hours like an old friend.

“Retire, Fatimah,” I say to her when she returns with the jars.

“Retire?” she grumbles. “Can the Emperor of Nuts pay for the weddings? Can he buy the feasts, the hotels for the friends we’ve never met, and the relatives so distant we can’t remember their names?”

Of course, she is right. My salary supported their education, all three of them in foreign universities where a degree guaranteed a good position in Malaysia. Here, there is no free university, not even public libraries. I, myself, was a graduate of the University of California. That’s how I got the job I hated.

The jars are full now, but I am empty. The house is silent. I wish for the laughter of my daughters when they were little, for their muddy footprints on the floor, their arms around my neck, the perfume of their freshly washed hair. I paste the labels on the jars, “EMPEROR OF NUTS,” and line them on my kitchen counter in gleaming rows. The glass reflects the promise of sunshine. But the rain keeps falling.

About the Author

Elaine Barnard’s stories have won awards and been published in such journals as Pearl, Southword, Timber Creek Review, Apple Valley Review, Emerge Literary Journal, Anak Sastra, Lowestoft Chronicle, and many others. She has been a finalist for Glimmer Train and Best of the Net and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine.