August 27, 2022
Welcome to RUBY Issue Three! We are delighted to invite you to enjoy seven author's beautifully crafted words. Bon Appétit! Much love, April
My uncle was ninety-two when his daughter and son-in-law moved him out of their basement apartment to the New Haven Jewish Home for the Aged. He was self-sufficient, never bothered anyone and had occasional bouts of clean joke-telling, sans punchline. My cousin and her husband and daughter were Orthodox Jews who did some unorthodox things on Friday nights such as calling around their circle to make sure there was a minyan for the next day and occasionally driving to the mall in the adjoining town. Real Orthodox Jews don’t do that, I told them one Friday night over the bountiful Shabbos dinner cooked by the husband in traditional Yiddish style: the roast cooked until there was no juice, the chicken, when the pop-up connoting ready, was followed by, “The chicken’s almost ready. We’ll eat in a half hour.” They had sent their daughter to a religious high school in New York, but I, as their closest cousin, begged her not to go. They’ll rot your mind and try to marry you off to some loser before you’re twenty. I was close. She got engaged to a loser at seventeen and was going to an all-Jewish Orthodox college the following year. She was a great kid but when I asked her parents what this guy did for a living they said, “Oh you know, “A little of this . . . a little of that.” Which translated to spending the day in Shul while his wife worked. “Don’t do it,” I told her. “Your daughter’s got too much on the ball for this shmo,” I told her parents, but they were excited to meet him, and his wealthy family and they worried that my uncle might say something that could make them break the engagement. “Great,” I said. “I’ll be at your house for the meeting of the hypocrites.” But when I got to the house my uncle was nowhere to be found. “What closet did you put your father in?” I asked. “He decided he would be happier in the Jewish Home for the Aged,” she said, and walked away. The New Yorkers came with their “I know everything” son and eight more of their obnoxious relatives. And just as my cousin’s husband was setting up the grill for the Glatt Kosher burgers and dogs the intended groom and his father pushed him away and commandeered the grill and spoke. We are the pros at this. They were like watching an old black and white movie moving at double time with the father barking orders to his son, “Flip! Turn! Press! Cook more! Don’t forget both sides! Salt! More salt!” And I was fascinated at this and pissed at my cousin who, although she never said anything, didn’t want her father around to embarrass her with these annoying New Yorkers. I faded away in a Jewish exit. With hamburgers on my mind, I stopped at McDonalds for a pair of quarter pounders and then drove off to see my uncle. I stopped and bought him two chunks of halvah and went through the piss-smelling halls until I got to his room. The first thing I noticed was that he had aged, if one can look older in a couple of weeks when you’re ninety-two. There are good old age homes around but they’re not cheap. So here was my uncle, the curtain around his bed, and the TV silently on a ball game. I woke Unk up and he smiled and said, “Welcome to my new apartment.” “Why now?” I asked. “Esta said they had an opening, and we should grab it,” he said in his beaten old man voice. I opened the bag and showed him the Halvah. He panicked. “Quick hide it,” he said. “I’m not supposed to bring in food. It’s against the rules. Besides, my roommate could blow the whistle on me, and I’d be back in Esta’s basement.” “That sounds like the best solution to get you out of this joint. How can you stay here, you don’t even play checkers?” “What’s your roommate’s name?” I asked pointing at the man only three feet away on the other side of the curtain. “Homer, but don’t you go starting something with him, or he’ll get thrown out too.” “Hi, I’m Saul, Seymour’s nephew.” “Pleased to meet you,” he said. “I’m going out for a bite. Can I bring you anything?” “They have my wallet locked away.” “No problem. I’m buying. What would you like?” “Well, I’m partial to ice cream.” “What flavor?” “I like it all. Butter pecan.” “Second choice?” “Anything else.” “How about you, Unk. Can I bring you ice cream back too?” “You’re going to get me in trouble,” he said in a whisper. I broke off a chunk of halvah and said, “Open wide.” “What flavor ice cream?” “Strawberry,” and he snatched the bag out of my hand and put it under his pillow.
Unk and Mr. Homer O’Hara
Unk and his roommate, at the Jewish Home for the Aged (open to all faiths), Homer O’Hara, got along well. They spoke in conspiratorial whispers with one watching the door for “the warden” as they took to calling the Jewish Home for the Aged Manager, and then they would giggle like schoolboys and bite their fists to keep the laughter in all the while slapping the bed with their free hand. They had me talk in the same stage whisper as them and after a bit my uncle would ask, “Nu?” I’m so sorry. I forgot. And then before they became too crestfallen, I whipped out two bags from my jacket pocket. “Halvah?” Unk asked, and I told him the new batch hadn’t come in yet, but I got something just as good, maybe better, and I opened the bag and took out a box of Hamantaschen. They were miniature but I got him three each of apricot, prune, cherry, and muhn. “Oh, now I’m going to get it,” Unk said. “You want I should take them back?” “Not if you know what’s good for you,” he said in his best threatening whisper. “Ahem, Ahem,” Homer kind of said. I took out the other bag and he opened it and squealed. “Sha,” said Unk. “This fine lad got me six cherry Tootsie Pops. How did you know?”, he asked. “Mr. O’Hara, you sometimes talk in your sleep.” “We better hide these,” Unk said. “My granddaughter and her boyfriend are coming for a visit.” “Good,” I said. “I’m looking forward to seeing them.” “They’re not my family so I can have a Tootsie Pop,” Homer said. “Not fair,” my uncle said. “Enjoy,” I said. “Quick, hide the Hamantaschen,” Unk said, and I put them in his pajama leg from the blue pajamas. (He was wearing the red). I tied them in a loose, easy-to-open knot. The young lovers walked in. I could already tell she’d begun cutting her hair off and was wearing a wig. Schlomo handed my uncle a small bag which he opened and took out a smaller bag of M&Ms. “We checked,” Schlomo said. “And they said it was okay and a nice gesture.” He looked pleased with himself. I asked him, “So Schlomo what kind of work are you doing now?” Without skipping a beat, he said, “Oh, a little of this and a little of that.” I kissed my uncle goodbye on his bald head and said, “You’re getting to look more like Zeyde every time I see you.” “Go on,” he said. “My father never had any hair.” I kissed my niece Esta goodbye, shook the hand of her intended, said my goodbyes, walked over to Homer and said goodbye, and shook his hand. He motioned for me to bend closer, and I did, “Your uncle says he’s a shmu.” I smiled, not correcting his attempt at Yiddish, and gave his cheek a light pinch and said, “See you next week, Mr. O’Hara.” The following week I showed up with two goodie bags, but Homer was not in his bed and his nightstand was cleaned and his locker open and empty. “Say, Unk, where’s Homer?” “He died the night you left last time.” “That’s too bad. He was such a nice man and a good roommate.” “He was a diabetic. He shouldn’t have eaten those Tootsie Pops.” “Did he eat them all that night?” “No. One was enough.” “How old was he?” “Does it matter?” “Not really, just curious.” “He was getting ready to turn ninety-five.” “I brought you some Halvah.” “Don’t want it. I’m tired and I want to sleep.” “I leaned over to kiss him goodbye, and he said, “You shouldn’t have done it.” “Neither of you told me he was a diabetic.” “That’s not what I’m talking about.” “Help me out here, Unk. I shouldn’t have done what?” “You shouldn’t have made your mother cry.” “Did you dream she was crying?” “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “My mother’s been dead for over a dozen years.” “Right, but before she died, she sat up in bed and cried.” “And how is that my fault?” “She knows you went to see your father when you were in California.” “It wasn’t a secret. I told her I was going.” “She said she begged you not to go.” “My father’s sister bought a new car and told me if I would just visit him for even one day, I could have her old car. I hadn’t seen or heard from him in over twenty years, so I figured what’s the harm? I’d rather drive to my next Air Force base than take a bus. I thought about it and agreed to see him. What’s the harm? I haven’t had any contact with him since and I have no desire to ever see him again.” “The harm is you made your mother cry. I’m going to sleep now.” “I’ll leave the bag of Halvah in your nightstand drawer.” “Don’t want it,” he said and rolled over turning his back to me.
I stopped in at the Jewish Home for the Aged to see Unk and he was sleeping. I sat by his bed for a while and then walked to the Home’s small store and bought a package of spice drops. I sat eating watching him with his labored breathing and stuck my fingers into the spice drops and pulled out a red one. I gently opened his hand, placed the spice drop inside and then closed his hand, gave him a kiss on the head and left. That night my cousin Esta called and told me her father died and asked if I knew anything about the spice drop in his hand. “What color?” I asked and she said “Red.” “Nope,” I said, and she told me she’d call me with the arrangements. The funeral was planned for Wednesday, and it was to be a graveside service since Unk did not belong to a synagogue. Aaron Cohen, my cousin’s husband and chief hypocrite told us that since he was a Kohane he could not go into the cemetery but would watch from outside the iron gate praying. I asked him where the Chevra Kadisha would perform the ritual cleaning and who would stay with Unk through the night. He said the funeral parlor would have people from the Brooklyn Chevra Kadisha Society take care of everything. My wife and I got to the cemetery early and waited for the hearse and friends and family members to arrive. The gravediggers had already dug the hole and stood off to the side. The son-in-law was there but no one from his family so I didn’t have to worry about the father-in-law barking out orders, lift, turn, the other way, hold, tilt, be careful, don’t drop the coffin, and on and on. Schlomo, Esta’s husband, tried to play the role and I caught his eye and shook my head. He backed off. The Rabbi, not knowing Unk, did a generic funeral where he had to keep looking up Unk’s name. At one point he said unless we had more males, we wouldn’t have a minyan to say Kaddish. Everyone looked up and saw Aaron backing his car into the cemetery. I look at Esta and she shrugged so I told the Rabbi to wait I’d be back in a few minutes. “I have another funeral to officiate at,” he said. “Good for you, a two-banger. Just wait.” I walked over to Aaron, and I asked if he came to make the minyan. “I can’t, I’m a Kohane.” “Then what the hell are you doing at the cemetery?” He said this Rabbi, a very learned man, said he could come part way into the cemetery if he backed in. You’ve been a Kohane your whole life and you just heard of this? “First time,” he said. “So, if we speak loudly can you join us in the Kaddish?” I asked, and the Rabbi said no. “Well, what about him?” I asked. “He’s a Kohane also so he can’t.” “How much did he charge you for the back in advice?” “He said he doesn’t charge but a donation would be nice, so I gave him the twelve dollars I had on me.” I walked over to the Rabbi and said, “We need one more man for a minyan. How about I donate to you this fifty, and you tell Aaron over there he can go if he walks in backwards.” “I can’t do that,” he said so I reached into my pocket, took out a C note, and said “You can even come for the Shiva Dinner.” He was weakening but didn’t give in. Meanwhile I saw the officiating Rabbi drive off. I nodded to the funeral director, and he had his men lower the coffin into the grave. I grabbed one of the prayer books and asked Esta who would be giving the eulogy. She said, “I assumed you would, and you can take over the service. I then passed the prayer book to my older brother. His Hebrew reading was flawless, and he said, “After we read the 23rd Psalm we will say Kaddish and then those of you who would like to be respectful can shovel some dirt onto the casket. Remember, the first shovelful is scooped on the back end of the shovel and the rest the normal way.” “Wait,” said a cousin no one liked. “You can’t have women as part of the minyan.” “Well, we are going to. I’m not sending my uncle off without a proper Kaddish. I belong to a Reform Synagogue and Unk didn’t belong to any. So, everyone counts.” And with that, all of the men and my cousin Esta walked away, but enough of the widows and me and my brother’s wife stayed, and we had Kaddish with our rag-tag minyan. My brother began, “Yisgadal v’yishkadash sh’mei raba…” Everyone returned for the 23rd Psalm and I was asked to say a few words. I talked about waiting for the weekends so I could watch the Friday Night Fights with Unk and how he made me army eggs for breakfast and my mowing his lawn and other chores that didn’t seem like chores. My voice cracked and I teared up when I said I wish he’d been my father. We shoveled the dirt and I waited alone until the grave diggers finished and then I drove to the Jewish Home to get his belongings which were waiting at the front desk in a shopping bag. I drove to my cousin’s house to drop off her father’s belongings, but before going in, I stood at the stoop, picked up the pitcher of water in my right hand and poured it on my left, saying the appropriate prayer, and then reversed the process, dried my hands and walked inside, touching the Mezuzah with my right hand then putting my fingers to my lips.
Paul Beckman’s a Connecticut writer whose flash collection, Kiss Kiss (Truth Serum Press) was a finalist for the 2019 Indie Book Awards. Some of his stories have appeared in Spelk, ConnotationPress, Anti-HeroinChic, NecessaryFiction, Litro, Pank, Playboy, Monkey, WINK, JellyfishReview, YellowMama, WaxPaper, Blink-Ink, PureSlush, and The Lost Balloon. Paul’s work appears in The Best of Small Fictions 2016 and the 2020 National Flash Fiction Day Anthology Lineup. Paul curates the monthly Zoom Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series.
Patricia Q. Bidar
The Polish Bride
It's Gil’s 60th. We’re putting on the dog at a white-tablecloth restaurant near our apartment. The place’s window of success is likely short here in Freeport. It is also my friend Sylvie’s birthday. I’ve never forgotten that. Also, I ran into her mother in our apartment’s laundry room today. She told me Sylvie married her pierogi-making paramour. His family had money, it turned out. Sylvie brought him to New York, where she lives now, it turns out. Doorman, chandeliered foyer. Perfect baby. Back in high school, Sylvie and I were BFFs. But she was the kind of bestie who relished repeating to me the bad things other people said about me and my family. About my brother, on parole for selling stolen CZ rings at the Angleton Bowl. About me, lingering behind with Mr. Ursich after Biology with my top buttons undone. Sylvie’s father was a big shot down at the Port. While mine liked quaffing port and pissing in the alley next to Tracey’s Tavern. It was Sylvie and me, dressed alike in our white shorts and halter tops. I’d set off walking to school and she’d pull over in her convertible. She wore sunglasses and a scarf over her hair like Jacy Farrow in The Last Picture Show. Only I, not she, was the prettiest girl in town. We attended our prom with the same guy, the towering Lane Scognamillo. He asked me. I was the one who suggested the three of us go together. If we were in another time, in another place, perhaps Sylvie and I would have shown up as a duo. But in a Texas port town in the 1990s, that kind of thing was unimaginable. Then Sylvie left Freeport for a private college in New England. I began working at the hatchery and didn’t know what to do with all the money I was making. The grown men I worked for cracked jokes about being scared of me and the powers of my youth and sex appeal. I was 17 and hence, jailbait. To me, work was one big party. I signed my paychecks over to my mother. It was around that time that I read in the Brazoria County Bulletin Sylvie was in Warsaw, Poland. Local girl makes good. An important fellowship. A male companion who taught Sylvie to cook pierogi, the article said. But the picture was of Sylvie and me, on a school trip to Crocodile Encounter. Me in tight shortalls standing with hip cocked on a little pier over the baby crocs. Her onshore in the foreground, laughing like crazy. The caption referred to me — the one who still lives here — as “a comely chum.” I married one of those older hatchery men. A tall man with kind eyes. That was Gil. He only met Sylvie the one time. That time Sylvie brought her Polish prince to Texas. Her parents were fighting. Her mother had uncovered some incriminating Polaroids Sylvie’s dad had stashed. Girls who’d attended high school with Sylvie and me, cavorting around with their clothes off right there in Sylvie’s parent’s bedroom. It was after that that Sylvie’s mother moved to our complex. The new restaurant features a jazz combo. It adds a touch of class. Gil knows these guys from the hatchery. We clink and marvel over our rib-eyes. The staff is all dressed smartly, and everything smells marvelous. We order dessert to share. Gil says softly as I tap my spoon against the brittle lid of our crème brûlée: “They all say you’ll leave me.” His eyes are so kind. The grins of his jazzy friends, just a few feet away, suddenly seem cruel. Behind Gil in the alcove where the restrooms are, a woman paces. She is talking on her phone. She’s dressed in a halter top and short white skirt, talking fast. Which makes me think of Sylvie. How she’d called me from Poland not long after Gil and I were married. It was 5:30 in the morning and he and I were still in bed. I left the warm room with my phone. I got coffee going and took a seat on our little patio. The sky was pink at the horizon. Our complex has a pool. I watched the still, unlit water as I listened. Sylvie was saying she never again wanted to lose sight of simple happiness and its importance. Forget status, she urged. As if I’d ever really considered it. I saw Sylvie as finished and perfect, existing in another world and time. Gil and I stroll home together holding hands. Night blooming jasmine perfumes the heavy air. We turn on the tube, then doze on the couch; pants unzipped. Our clock strikes ten and we rouse and dress for bed. Before sleep overtakes me, the thought strikes me: I have always assumed it was I who would lose Gil. That Gil, so much older, would leave me behind in sickness, then death. At one time, 60 would have seemed ancient to me. He and I turn toward each other between our crisp sheets. Gil takes off his glasses and places them on his end table. On my side, I do the same. We kiss, exchange I love yous. He always calls this the best part of the day. I used to think that was a little sad. Now I think it’s a pretty marvelous time, myself. My husband begins to snore. Sometimes I give him a little shove or scream-whisper, Shh! Tonight, his buzzsaw drone is endearing. My heart clutches a little. The one summer, Sylvie brought her Polish lover to see me and Gil. I remember Gil grilling up steaks in the courtyard. I stood in the kitchen fixing a salad. Sylvie and her man sat at the edge of the pool with their legs in, each holding with a bottle of Lone Star. I wondered if they’d accepted the beer ironically, somehow. Sylvie was probably used to wine now, I remember thinking. They were polite, displaying the good manners you would with an older couple, an aunt and uncle, maybe. Later, in the night’s felty black middle, I’d entered the guest bedroom. To ask if they needed anything, or at least that was what I told myself. Sylvie’s breath was deep and even. I stopped at her man’s side of the bed and dropped to my knees. I drew the comforter back. Made the rustling motions as quiet as I could. Placed my hand on his tight stomach, above the waistband of his pajama bottoms. His low, clear voice said, “Och, nie, dzieki slonce. I go sleep, now. You also go to sleep now.” Sylvie might have been proud and smug of her man’s response. She might have been enraged. But the next morning, she gave no sign of knowing what had happened. Gil was at work. Sylvie’s man had decided on an early walk, she told me. They’d meet later at her parents’ place. Even now, after all this time has passed, I draw the memory out for myself to consider, when I am in a mood to feel wild and uncertain. The feel of that taut belly, the gentle way he’d lifted my hand from his body. “No thank you.” Gil and I have made our apartment a cozy home. No pets, or doorman, or chandelier. No kids. I will never leave him. I may give him a little surprise before our alarm clock sounds. With the blackness surrounding us and the smells of the refinery and the wholesale bakery and the jasmine tree drifting in from the courtyard. While, in the distance, alligators slumber in warm waters.
Patricia Quintana Bidar is a writer from the American West. An alum of the U.C. Davis Graduate Writing Program, she also holds a BA in filmmaking. Her work has been included in numerous journals and anthologies including Flash Fiction America (W.W. Norton, 2023), Best Small Fictions (Alternating Current, 2023), and Best Microfiction (Pelekinesis Press, 2023). Patricia’s book of short fiction, Pardon Me For Moonwalking, will be published by Unsolicited Press in 2025. She lives with her family and unusual dog outside of Oakland, CA.
We’re still young when our mother stops feeding us. She’s too emotional—too angry, too sad—and when she haunts the common rooms of the house, we retreat—shaking, terrified—to our shared bedroom and emerge into the kitchen only when she turns from a normal human woman to the sounds of crying and the shape of a closed door. No light at the cracks. We count ourselves lucky when she’s sealed inside. We make cakes from the instructions on the backs of boxes. Soon, the boxes dry up, and so do the cakes, until my sister suggests that the bags hadn’t been filled with magic, after all. They were only the same flour and sugar and other mysterious powders that we can scrounge up from the back corners of our pantry. The first few cakes are sheer improvisation: dented, dinged, collapsed, mealy, heavy, oily, strange. We never really get it right. But it’s so much better than our canned-vegetable stews, which only ever seem to taste like the can. The cakes are a celebration, not of a birthday or a gathering, but of our instincts for survival. Every day we make a cake is a day worth celebrating. Our mother never partakes, never pokes a head out of her room and asks us, What is that smell? Never licks the crumbs from her fork or joins us in swiping a finger through the batter that’s left at the bottom of the bowl. The first time our mother catches us baking is the first time we get it wrong. Not a little wrong—we always get it a little wrong. But really wrong. Half a cup of salt where half a teaspoon would have sufficed. Blame it on the scientist in us. Blame it on getting worse as a means of getting better. The cupcakes are dense, inedible, concave. They stare like a dozen eye sockets out of the muffin tin. My sister and I laugh, realizing our mistake—look at us! we're learning!—and suddenly, there is our mother’s voice, vicious over our shoulders. What have you done? The waste, the waste. We have so little. Already we have her shopping in the clearance grocery section, scooping up the dinted cans, the torn bags, the fruits turned away to hide their secret bruises. It isn’t an innocent mistake anymore. It’s a wrongdoing deserving of punishment. And punishment—unlike food—is something our mother understands. You can’t have anything else until you’ve eaten every bite. The first bite tastes like the desert. It sucks our tongues dry. The second bite tastes of seawater. I feel it high in my nose, like a sneeze that won’t leave me. Before we’ve even managed to eat a single cupcake apiece, we have to leave the table. My stomach swims, wiggles, cramps, cries. The next time it’s safe to enter the kitchen again, the cupcakes are still there, waiting. Every bite. We scare up some honey from the back of the pantry. We empty the tin this way, broken into little morsels and drenched, sopping. We might have used this honey for something beautiful— pancake mixed in with tinned fruit cocktail. But it’s more important here, like this—a precious amber armor of sweetness that helps us swallow the pain.
A reader once told me that the food in my essays was always grotesque. This surprised me, considering how much I adore food; truly, cooking, baking, and eating are my three favorite activities. Perhaps this love of food I enjoy today magnifies the memories in which food was absent, or disgusting, or the moments when what I ate failed to nourish me. Or perhaps it’s the other way around: I treasure the good food in my life now because I lacked it then. In either case, food awakens all the senses in a way nothing else does and allows me to reanimate dead memories, accessing narrative through the smells and tastes that somehow haven’t faded with time. It also provides a concrete way to explore the neglect and abuse my siblings and I experienced at home. Abuse can be hard to quantify or to point to directly, but any kid knows when they’re hungry, and the memory of hunger is something that doesn’t die, either.
Rachel Cochran’s debut novel, The Gulf, was published by HarperCollins in June 2023. Her short stories and essays have been featured in The Rumpus, Masters Review, and more. Find her on Twitter at @_rachelcochran, and see more of her writing on her website, www.rachelcochran.net
Cooking as Therapy
Measuring loss in two-and-a-half cups. Scrambling exclamations with eggs, sautéing the sounds of sleep and sex, melting into a soupy harmony. Whisking battered ideas with milk and salted wishes. Adding a dollop of forgotten dreams, a teaspoon of honey to sweeten it on the tongue. Tossing leafy laments with Ranch dressing, black olives, and sun-dried sayonara. Setting the table with hope spoons, fear as forks, knives so dull they only cut run-on sentences. Inviting the neighbors, the sandman, the sleeping cats on the streets, your dead lover, your dead mother, and the clown from the carnival. When they arrive, at quarter ‘till nine, opening the door on your dread, releasing the smell of toasted apple tarts and scorched sanity’s crispy death in the microwave, again in the frying pan.
“Cooking as Therapy” is a fictional piece, but there’s a nugget of emotional truth in it. I have a complicated relationship with food and cooking, in part because of food allergies and sensitivities. While cooking and eating can be therapeutic or relationship/community building for many, that is not usually my experience.
Bethany Jarmul is a writer, editor, and poet. Her work has appeared in more than 50 literary magazines and has been nominated for Best of the Net and Best Spiritual Literature. Bethany enjoys chai lattes, nature walks, and memoirs. She lives near Pittsburgh with her family. Connect with her at bethanyjarmul.com or on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.
The marinade recipe called for something entirely different, but Agnes liked the sound: Champagne Vinegar, Delicious & Live. Fuck it, really. No one would know the difference. One tablespoon kerplopped into a giant vat of goo poured over a mountain of steaks for a ridiculous display of Labor Day bonhomie. The other politicians’ wives boasted in terms of time spent NOT doing things; not changing sheets, not weeding gardens, not grocery shopping, not making school lunches, not wiping their own babies’ butts. Not cooking was a given. The fact that Agnes was even in the kitchen today was a joke. She hadn’t cooked a meal in here since Doug took office two years earlier, since they’d moved into this embarrassing fortress. Their private chef, Pedro, usually took care of everything food-related. The other wives told Agnes she’d get used to having ‘staff’, but she still felt awkward with people bustling around her house, fluffing already plump pillows, vacuuming invisible dust, cooking impossibly perfect meals. Agnes remembers that first night, when it all seemed so promising, when they thought they’d be different, more authentic. Their little family of four sitting on the living room floor eating pizza, Doug full of promises—to her, to the kids, to his constituents. Just right of center, her virtuous soldier, but easily swayed to the left if the morally just decision lay on that side of the Great Divide. So, when Doug remained solidly fixed, Agnes thought he’d been seduced, swayed. But Doug wasn’t weak, he was calculating. Doug and his true colors. His true colors, shining through. The kids didn’t even speak to him anymore. Body took all his meals in his room. Mary shot daggers from her eyes like a professional hit woman. Though both kids did show up for press events under threat of complete financial cut-off. Body hid his tattoo sleeve beneath a white button down and Mary removed the nose ring. They stood by their father’s side in matching outfits with parallel fake smiles, internally combusting and eyeing the nearest exits. Agnes looks out the giant kitchen window—so clean it seems there’s not even any glass separating her from the outlandish display of red, white, and blue paraphernalia that Courtney from PR had arranged in the backyard to create the proper patriotic vibe. There’s a giant tent covered in American Flag decals and shiny blue vinyl covers on all twenty tables. In a nod to the overgrown fratty bro energy soon to invade, red Solo cups are stacked next to a keg of Michelob Ultra. The white plates are plastic and probably not recyclable. Does Agnes even remember how to turn on the grill? She looks at the giant mound of steaks she’s supposed to care for. According to Courtney’s plan, Agnes will bring the marinated meat out to the grill wearing a peppy stars and stripes apron with a matching smile. She’ll then toss the steaks on the grill with glee, and finally--FINALLY Pedro will take over and finish them off to rare perfection. This scheme concocted by Courtney will make for good press; a domesticated Agnes doing her wifely duty. It will counteract reports of Doug’s lavish spending and possible extra-marital affairs. Courtney, gazelle limbed and perfectly coiffed, has firsthand knowledge of both. Courtney, who favors retro-sweater sets and pearls, whose cryptic texts to Doug are perfectly understandable to Agnes when she sneaks peeks at his phone. “Not tonight.” “Later.” “Just wait.” “Stay put.” “Okay.” “You there?” Delicious & Live. Take away one letter, thinks Agnes, and you get a delicious lie. Agnes grabs the pile of champagne vinegared T-bones, wraps them in her apron and binds the meat up with one apron strap. She grabs hold of the other strap like a leash and drags the bundle across the kitchen floor. Blood oozes through the peppy patriotic fabric, blending hemic red with rosy colonial stripes. Agnes leaves a long, gory trail as she makes her way through the kitchen and patio to the yard, where Doug is already drinking and yucking it up with some younger staff members, Courtney by his side. “Agie,” he cries when he sees her. “Babe, come here. I was just telling these guys about the time—” Agnes swings the meat package around her head lasso-style. She whoops it up like a real cowboy before letting the whole seeping mess fly with awe-inspiring momentum. Courtney squeals as Doug is nailed square in the stomach by a glorious explosion of meat and guts. He reels backwards into a tent post, knocking it over, the tent losing its stronghold, wilting sideways, collapsing over the whole charade, with enough deflation to cement the last American smile on Agnes’ face.
Alice Kaltman is the author of the story collection Staggerwing, the novels Wavehouse, The Tantalizing Tale of Grace Minnaugh, and Dawg Towne. Her latest linked collection, Almost Deadly, Almost Good is based on the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Heavenly Virtues. Alice’s stories appear in journals like Lost Balloon, The Pinch, Joyland, Fractured Lit and BULL, and in numerous anthologies.. Alice splits her time between Brooklyn and Montauk, New York where she lives, surfs, and swims with her husband the sculptor Daniel Wiener and Ollie the Wonder Dog.
At Weekends Mama’s Carnivore
At weekends we wake to smoke from breakfast barbecues, rising from the valley, and help Papa gather wood, and wheel ours out onto the scorched and mottled patch of lawn. At weekends we wear our weekday worst, the ones with rips and tears or bobbles that no-one else but us will see, moth-eaten, worn, with stains, hanging threads and unravelled knit and missing buttons and broken zips—if we get dressed at all. At weekends Mama doesn’t dress, though what she wears some might call a dressing gown, and she calls a house coat, though she doesn’t leave the house. At weekends she smokes more, not having chores and because Papa cooks, while she sits on the porch and watches, always a cigarette burning down, like a tongue in her mouth, to ash, until a breeze whips it away or it collapses on her chest. At weekends she doesn’t wear a bra, bathe or brush her hair, just puts it in a clip or if it’s cold, wears a hat or drags a sleeping bag up from the basement and draws the bungee cord tight around her face.
Weekdays she’s uniformed, under-weared and under rules she doesn’t make. Weekdays she longs for the end, of work, of chores, of going places she doesn't want to be. Weekdays, she's an addict for weekends.
Weekends Papa plays the mandolin, serenading her while meat cooks and we scavenger hunt for bugs in the scrub and try to spot caterpillars pretending to be twigs. Mama says she once saw one trap a snail in its web of threads. I tell her I once saw one grab and stab a fly. Mama says some larvae hatch and eat their own mother. I tell her some moths suck the tears from birds for salt. Mama says some moths suck the blood from us. I tell her some moths live in the fur of sloths and lay eggs in their dung. Papa says male mandolin moths serenade their mates with just their legs and Mama says she’d like to see him try.
Papa told me once, but I’m not sure it’s true, that Mama grew up on a farm with apple trees and maize, and all the days were the same until she was old enough to go to school and they made her go to church, and those days she still had to do her chores, so she prayed and studied to find pests that might destroy the crops, and a winged angel came one day, she said, in the shape of a moth, and the codling moth got the apples and the corn-borer the maize, and when pesticides didn’t work on the moths but on her own mother, that was the last time she prayed or went to church, he said.
And Mama named us Darwin and Wallace, though we’re both girls, to remind us of what we inherit and what we can decide to pass on. And she tells us to grow our tongues like hawkmoths, and not to keep them curled up unused, that if we work for it, we can have the nectar of the Star of Bethlehem orchid, but not to just adapt to survive, we should thrive, evolve into a new species if we have to. Moths have been around since dinosaurs, she says, when we try to shoo them from the house. She asks us why we let the butterflies alone, why we leave them be and we tell her that we like them better because they're pretty. Ash falls as she shakes her head and says, looking at us both, back and forth, there are beautiful moths and ugly butterflies.
I listen to Mama talking to the moths circling the porch light at night. I hear her talking to her mother and listening to the flittering as if her Mama's talking back. I hear her say that she'll be good. I hear her say she'll do what she can. I hear her say to watch her children, and her children's children and to pass it on in sloth dung, or the music of the mandolin, and to guard each threshold like this one, with a porch light on.
Weekdays, Mama's back to being Mama. Back to being vegan again. And back to being Papa's wife. Weekdays, she's back down the valley being the village nurse. Weekdays, she's back to being the super-fucking-woman of her life. Weekends, she doesn’t want to care—she wants to just eat meat, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and at night with the porch light on.
This story started at a Kathy Fish workshop, ‘Embracing your Inner Wild’ at the Dahlia Publishing online Short Story September Festival 2021. The prompt was to use anaphora like a heartbeat, repeating a word/phrase like ‘Tomorrow we will…’, and switching it up. I’d been living for weekends so long I went with a weekdays contrast, thinking of the freedom of barbecues in my daughter’s backyard during lockdown and the lack of pressure at weekends to be out in the working world, switching my Zoom video off, as if the story’s sleeping-bag hood bungee-cord, is pulled tight, hiding my face, as I retreat into the chrysalis to recharge.
The story explores how food might figure in the work-life balance and the constant pressure a woman can be under from her underwear to her uniform, and how they fit, society’s rules and expectations of a woman, and eating and domestic habits, from a young girl, and the calamities when she doesn’t want to conform, and how we are blamed or blame ourselves for things out of our control like moths killing crops, and our physical attributes, as if they weren’t subjective. The story touches on climate change, mental health and resilience, and the role food can play in our identities, for good or ill, as a signifier of our ethics, our aesthetics and our worth. How food can sustain and be a symbol of anything we let it be, from the values we pass on, to the traditions we evolve from.
Rosaleen Lynch, is an Irish youth and community worker and writer in the East End of London with words in journals including New Flash Fiction Review, HAD, Fractured Lit, Craft, SmokeLong Quarterly, Jellyfish Review, EllipsisZine, Mslexia, Litro and Fish, and has been shortlisted by Quiet Man Dave, Bath and the Bridport Prize, is a winner of the HISSAC Flash Fiction Competition and the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize, and has a collection/workbook 52 Stories: A Toolkit for Readers and Writers, coming out in 2023 with Adhoc Fiction and can be found on 52quotes.blogspot.com
I walk in to find Grandma clawing at fried chicken with her freshly lacquered fingers. The soggy box holding her Popeye’s 3-piece scoots across the faux-wood table. Crumbs of extra-crispy skin are scattered across the indoor-outdoor carpet. Hungry, Grandma? I laugh. A crane-mount TV shouts middays soaps. She doesn’t answer. It’s just us in the hospital lounge down the hall from the room smelling of band-aids and burnt coffee, where Grandpa thrashes against cancer that soon triumphs. He hadn’t shed the blue hospital gown at awkward times—dementia will hold off til the end. But Cajun French from childhood has resurfaced, confounding doctors. It’s Grandma's first reprieve from grandpa's damn room in days. Both hands dive and she shreds a drumstick. Merciless. Grease slides beneath the wedding band on her delicate hand. I’ve never seen Grandma like this. And so begins a flurry of firsts. Beauty is the word I always attributed to Grandma. A great beauty, some said. That black-and-white photo, the intently wavy hair and beguiling half smile. But also beauty of spirit. Of intention. Grandma hangs paper towels to dry. (Depression-era kids reduced-reused-recycled long before Sesame Street.) Grandma makes my first coffee cuz I wanna be like the grown-ups who sip alive each morning. Grandma buys the sugary cereal mom won’t. Grandma sits at the piano and calls me over, smiling as the musical grandchild gayly pounds out God knows what. Grandma teaches me to pluck honeysuckle creeping around her massive backyard tree, releasing one drop of sweet nectar. Grandma sits on the shaded back porch, slingshot in one hand, Tupperware holding raw black-eyed peas in the other, and fires at the neighbor’s cat scratching around her garden, careful to aim near and not at the pesky animal, all the while exuding calm. Don’t hit him, she says. Just close enough to make him get outta there! Good aim, I must say. But singular moments hang heaviest in the mobiles of memory. Weeks later, after Grandpa's burial in the shaded cemetery, where an adjacent plot lies, waiting, we will stand in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. And Grandma will holler, Get a half-gallon of butter pecan! as I hurry inside. Don't forget, damn-it! And she will stamp her low-slung pump on the dusty gravel. A demand so pointed, so petulant, so not her, it shakes me from melancholy. And then, one year after Grandpa is gone, Grandma settled into solitude, she will drive for the first time on the highway she'd avoided, where Grandpa always took the wheel, and an 18-wheeler will pull in front of her sedan. No time to brake, Grandma will slam beneath the hulking machine, the roof of her car ripping back like a tin can. And Grandma will find herself in a sterile room like Grandpa’s—cold as a mausoleum. And her own rapid, brain-damaged decline will begin. A violent end at odds with the life of a gentle soul. Of course, I knew none of this. I just stare as Grandma devours slimy pieces shoved between lightly painted lips. Not a hair from her weekly beauty-parlor coif has fallen. I sit next to her on the frayed, itchy-fabric sofa. Her hand-sewn dress, ironed, still impeccable. I grabbed the remote on the table and motion at the TV. Susan Lucci is slapping some hapless woman. Wanna watch something else? I press mute. Grandma and I have a special relationship, my aunt once said. Grandma looks up. I hardly recognize her. Steely eyes so direct they pierce me. Grandma doesn’t say anything, just bends over the table, abandoning perfect posture, and continues ripping into her lunch special. The fried foul is helpless in her clutch. And I see something else for the first time—the beauty that exists in breakdown. I turn off the mute and turn up the volume and leave her to it. Grandpa is dying, after all. And Grandma is pissed.
Kevin is a Cajun-born, Texas-raised, New York-adopted, queer editor, writer and writing coach now living in Barcelona, Spain. A former educator, Kevin has taught at the elementary and university levels and presented nationally on social justice teaching. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Fast Company, The TODAY Show, Witness Magazine, Brevity, American Chordata and Litro Magazine, among others. Kevin is currently working on a prose collection and practicing in earnest to become fluent Spanish. | web: kevinewood.me | X: @simplifythenow