Butter Tarts and Little Swords
Updated: Jul 15
My mother broke a thirty second window of silence with a random question. “Did you know they made a movie about this town?”
I shook my head and continued to scan street corners and driveways for signs of life.
“Well, it’s not really about this town, but it’s named after it.”
I took a sip of coffee and sighed. I had no clue where we were. All I knew is that no one was having a yard sale.
“Yep. Pontypool, it’s a horror movie, something about a DJ and zombies.” My mother has a habit of doing this. She enjoys sharing unsolicited factoids during car rides. It’s like having Siri, only she gets to choose which questions she answers. She also gets to pick the questions. It sounds annoying, and it would be, except my mother is undeniably sweet. Her tour-guide-esque information blips are always shared with a smile – a smile that makes her eyes disappear and demands you find her cute. If she says something particularly out there, you can make fun of her – liberally – and she will smile even more.
I felt a bit guilty for not recognizing Pontypool. For almost five years, I taught at an elementary school only minutes away. Though, one could be forgiven for missing “the signs”, as the only recognizable landmark was a grain elevator that we had yet to drive by. The rest looked exactly the same as all central Ontario hamlets or villages. I don’t have the architectural acumen to describe it with any accuracy. But, here’s the root of it:
Farm. Farm. Variety store (with LCBO licensing). House. Forest. House. Farm. Arena. House. Really big house (that’s where the local doctor, lawyer, or person who does a job that people can’t believe can pay for that kind of lifestyle lives – townsfolk gossip regarding the source of their money and wonder if they sell drugs because… small towns). Library. Chinese Takeaway (if you’re lucky). Defunct Gas Station. Farm.
Rinse and repeat.
My mother was two paragraphs into a synopsis of the film before I interrupted.
“Have you seen it?” I asked.
“We need to find a yard sale.” I said, in a way that intimated I wasn’t thrilled to listen to the remainder of the film's Wikipedia page.
I tried adjusting the seat in the RAV. We had swapped the Caravan for my mother’s new(ish) SUV under the faux concern that Bronwyn might need a vehicle. This was a clever way of saying: I don’t want to ride in your mulch-mobile. I was fine with it. Neither did I.
Instead of moving my seat an inch forward, I had stumbled upon one of those “pre-set” buttons and was embarking on an automated collision course with the pedals and wheel. This must’ve been my mother’s setting.
“How do I stop it?” I yelled, jokingly (sort of).
“I don’t know. Just press the button.”
The button. Just press THE button. Excellent advice. You were a teacher, right? My thighs were about to be pushed through the steering wheel and I all had to do was press the right button to stop it. Brilliant. You’ve been a wonderful help and an even better tour guide. Please continue reading me plot summaries of indie horror flicks.
“Which button is the button?”. There were so many buttons.
The ride stopped before I could find the one to rule them all. I was spared any mortal wounds. Everything was fine, save for the fact that I could now honk the horn with my chest.
“We need some luck,” I said hunched over the wheel, not daring to fiddle again and be sent on a second seat voyage. “We need Seal.”
In an act that can only be described as light treason, my mother began playing some sort of new-age Seal blues album. Almost as if last summer hadn’t happened.
“THIS IS NOT THE RIGHT SEAL,” I cried. 
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” my mother apologized as she thumbed through her phone and found “Bring It On”.
“So, how did that Pontypool movie end?”
 Cried is appropriate here. Said is my go-to dialogue tag, but I definitely cried this sentence.
Horror movies don’t scare me anymore. Not really. They can make me jump and the occasional scene will leave me gritting my teeth in disgust, but nothing stays with me. Nothing lingers – not like it used to.
I thought about this as I scanned the spines of nearly fifty bootlegged DVDs. They were almost all contemporary horror films – often more gross than scary. Jeepers Creepers, Drag Me to Hell, fourteen iterations of Saw, It, and dozens of movies that looked like they never made it to a theatre.
I took a moment to consider our hosts. An elderly couple of perhaps eighty years each, sitting in complete silence. Somehow their silence seemed damning. The man reminded me of the main character from Up. He had the same glasses and haircut. Despite the heat, the woman wore a sweater over her buttoned blouse. She had a poof of hair that looked a bit like a white dandelion. I smiled at her and she ignored the gesture with a sip of tea. I blame my mask. It was too early to declare these people evil. Though, something seemed off. This movie collection didn’t match its owners. I could buy the horror interest – people like stranger things than this – but, I was deeply confused about the bootlegged part. Where was this couple buying black market copies of Insidious from? It was just… weird. I glanced back at the DVDs and found one that truly scared me.
I remember watching it in a friend’s basement. He had a horror obsession that I had managed to avoid until this point. The first time I excused myself to use the washroom, he continued to watch without me. The second time, he paused it. Damn. I was eleven years old. I’ve been told that sleep is critical for the health and growth of a young body. If it wasn’t for The Exorcist, I would probably be six feet tall today.
The Other Movies That Ruined Me
Child’s Play – A very young version of myself accidentally caught a bit of this charmer on tv and was instantly traumatized.
The Neverending Story – Everything scared me about this movie. Even the good characters, like that giant dog-thing, spawned countless nightmares.
Jaws – Swimming in lakes was out. Pools were a hard maybe. I still remember standing on the edge of my grandmother’s pool and coaching myself (repeatedly), “There is no shark.”
Hamburger Hill – My father and I used to watch R-rated movies when my mother was out of town. Rambo was cool, Hamburger Hill wasn’t. In retrospect, perhaps these rentals were a touch ill-advised. Nightmare city.
Event Horizon – I can pinpoint the last time a movie robbed me of anything resembling innocence. It was Dan Kitchen’s thirteenth birthday party. My man Dr. Grant had his eyes ripped out by a naked demonized version of his wife. That was it. I had nothing left to lose after that.
I looked for my mother, who was holding a figurine and inspecting a table with some actual potential. She was the only one working. I instantly recognized the piece she had was something called Lladro. My grandmother used to collect it.
Feeling a bit silly for my movie conspiracy, I moved to a new table. It was filled with books – a strange amount of bathroom readers on the occult, murder mysteries, and drugstore romance novellas. Who were these people?
As I got closer to the garage, the woman offered me a butter tart. I wasn’t sure about the pandemic protocol for baked goods, but there was no way I was going to be eating one.
First of all, it could have raisins. Excuse me, while I die.
Second, at the risk of turning this entry into a full-blown therapy session, butter tarts shared by the elderly is a very specific fear of mine.  It dates to my formative years (as most trauma does). My father used to door knock. Door knocking is the cold-calling of the antique business. He would drive around neighbourhoods knocking on stranger’s doors and asking if they would sell him their old and unwanted possessions. I was brought along to lessen the perceived threat he might pose to the general safety of the families and homes. I suppose there aren’t many father and eight-year-old-son criminal duos. Once, a woman offered me a small piece of fudge. The fudge looked toxic. Carbon dating suggested it was at least forty years old. With wide eyes, I politely declined. My father later scolded my decision. He felt like it might have hurt the woman’s feelings. It was just a piece of fudge. It wouldn’t have killed me to say yes.
But it almost did.
Later that summer, we were in a house I can’t remember, with another friendly old lady that I can’t describe, and a plastic wrapped tray of butter tarts. The tray was covered in a thin layer of scuzz. I didn’t recognize it as having any modern grocery packaging, but I was sure they were purchased somewhere. Pffft, I thought, she didn’t even make these. I should be able to refuse what I knew was coming next.
“Would you like a butter tart, dear?”
I accepted her offer with trembling hands. The butter tart felt like a baseball. I thought the pastry was stale until I bit into a raisin. Bit into is misleading, as my teeth were unable to pierce the now stone-like hide of the former grape. Appearances be damned, I wasn’t swallowing a raisin-turned-rock. In a half-assed attempt to disguise my palm-refund, I turned my back on the lady. When she asked me, what was the matter? I froze.
The adult in me now wants to yell “You fed me an antique butter tart! That’s what’s the matter!”
But, I was eight. I just stayed quiet until she did the thing that some adults do when a child looks as if they might cry. She started listing things that could be wrong and let me silently nod at the one that made the most sense: Did you hurt your tooth? I nodded. It wasn’t even a lie. I had just chewed on iron-ore. My teeth ached. So did my soul.
 My only other real fears are guinea pigs and porta potties. You know all my secrets now.
I stared blankly as my mother handed the couple a twoonie for the figurine. I followed her back to the RAV.
The butter tart offer had sent me on a trauma-soaked journey to the past, but now I was just hungry. On a mission for goods baked inside of twenty-four hours (and not twenty-four years), we found our way to Hank’s Pastries in Port Perry. I had been there once before, so I knew what Hank and co. were capable of. Three days earlier, I had started a very strict diet. This wasn’t going to derail things per se, but I felt like I needed to show some level of restraint. So, for discipline purposes, I decided I would only purchase a single item. This was proving to be a more difficult task than I had anticipated. Hank’s is one of those places that everything looks good. Cinnamon buns, donuts, cookies, and butter tarts – breads and buns – it’s sugar-laden, carb-sensory overload.
I somehow managed to refuse these glorious creations.
Instead, I opted to purchase a timeless classic. The apple fritter. The fritter might seem like a questionable selection (given my options) however, the size of the donut was what made my decision for me. If I could only have one, it must be this. My daughter, Ellia, has been included for scale.
We drove from town to town without a yard sale in sight. I don’t think either of us cared very much. Last summer we spent every Saturday together searching Ontario (and later PEI) for profitable knickknacks, but since the pandemic hit, we hadn’t spent much time alone – certainly not like this. I missed it. Even if it meant listening to a series of somewhat inane stories at a machine-gun pace.
As the end of our day neared, we found a handful of sales. It seemed as if each one was competing with the other to see who could sell the most useless item. In the end, it was a three-way tie between a box of ink cartridges from a printer circa 1992, a Coleman cooler with a missing lid, and plastic bowling set (half of the pins were smashed beyond recognition - their previous owner must have been prone to fits of black-out rage).
It’s trickier to find anything of quality laying on a driveway at later hours. Sales in rural areas tend to get less traffic, which can help your case. Sometimes items are less obviously valuable or, the prices are perceived as too high (relative to other garage sales). Instead of twenty cents, someone might want twenty dollars. The item could be worth hundreds – even thousands – but that twenty dollars will ward off a surprising number of your competition.
I assumed the reason the bayonet I was inspecting now had failed to sell was because of some combination thereof. I should admit that I didn’t know it was a bayonet. My first thought was: Oh, that’s a neat little sword. Wonder what that was for? Maybe a lucky kid. Kids had way cooler toys back in the day.
Eventually the sale’s host, a slight woman in a sleeveless purple blouse, asked me if I collected bayonets.
Bayonets. Not little swords. Phew. That was close. Also, now I know what it was used for: stabbing an enemy during combat because there was a good chance you didn’t have time to reload your rifle. Not as fun to wonder about that. Certainly not as fun as thinking what the little sword might have been.
I didn’t have any experience with buying military items, but for thirty dollars, I was willing to learn something. The blade was marked 1907, but it also had an 11 and 16 marked below it. I had no idea if bayonets made in 1907 were used in WWI or if only new weapons were used. I thought about asking for details, but the sale was starting to get busy and I didn’t want to draw attention to my find.
Unofficial rule to profitable yard-saling: Once you have something in your hands that you believe is valuable, never let it go. And, get it out of sight as fast as possible.
I considered asking for a lower price, but military items are personal. The potential for insult was real. I imagined what that negotiation might sound like:
Hey, you know that little sword… err… bayonet… that your grandfather used to protect my freedom with? Can I buy it for ten dollars less than you’re asking? I need that extra money to buy head-sized donuts. Would that be okay?
I paid for the bayonet in full and bid her farewell. I had no idea what it was worth, but I calculated that the potential mockery I could receive from my father would easier to stomach than haggling with a possible descendant of a veteran of the Great War.