“Milagros, la verdad ó te atreves?”
“Did you make-out with the panadero on Monday?”
We all giggle. Rumor has it that half of the seventh grade has been fingered by the baker during
recess behind the basketball court. Rumor also has it that Milagros was seen running out of the
bakery, fixing her skirt after the bell rang on Monday.
The Coca-Cola bottle points at Milagros’ black shoes. You take a drag from your cigarette. You
feel the smoke inflating your lungs— you can almost picture your lungs like two black balloons
united below your heart, underneath the blue checkered uniform and the little virgencita hanging on your chest. The four of you smoke Kool Lights in a circle on the floor. The room is hazy and you wonder about María’s mother, how could she possibly never notice we are in here drinking her aguardiente? Milagros hugs both of her knees, highlights on her bangs. You remember the day she first arrived at school from Barranquilla with the yellow streaks on her long hair and how you thought she totally passed for those naïve, voluptuous mulas you see in the noticiero bowed headed, handcuffed to a gringo policeman, caught sneaking cocaine into Miami and, that day, you thought she only wanted attention because— big deal— her father had died after drinking poison used to clean a cow’s four stomachs and, you remember, all the girls in blue checkered uniform gave Milagros hugs and kisses and poor Milagritos mua-mua-mua and fake tears and colorful letters with hearts and stars in them and you remember wishing, just for one day, you remember wishing that you had a family tragedy, you wish the principal informing you your mother just died of a heart attack we are so sorry, or, better, Doña Rosaura hanged herself— mi sentido pésame Josefina, so for a day you could have as much attention and fake tears and letters with hearts as Milagros.
“Well, Milagros” you blow smoke out, “responde, we don’t have the entire afternoon. I have to be home by 8pm.”
Milagros half-closes her eyes, flips her hair awkwardly ” I already told you all on Tuesday, it is a stupid chisme started by Martica, yes Martica fromeighth grade, because Martica is the real slut here and she doesn’t want anyone to know she likes the baker. She told me, she is embarrassed about it. ”
Milagros could do a little better with her lying. Sometimes, like now, Milagros bores you, her voice a constant whine and all those layers of clothing and her arms crossed on her chest and those enormous titties squished like arepas. She talks from behind the multicolored braces, tightening her arms thinking, you wonder, that this would make her breasts invisible.
She always does that, that crossing of arms to squish the tetas and then she gazes at you surveilling your response—like you care. Milagros is not the only one. Nobody is pleased with their breasts when they are fourteen. You’ve seen them. Milagros and a few other ones in your class developed quickly (las “desarrolladitas”) and by thirteen already had back problems and wore two sweaters over the uniform. You’ve seen them. María and Leticia are part of the timbronas wearing nothing underneath or still using little girls’ acostumbradores, tiny amorphous beans rising on the white shirt pointing straight ahead or to the sides. You’ve seen them Josefina, the plague of young women born yearning to be the cover of Soho and go to Dr. Whatever Family Friend in Medellín and inject their A cups with D silicone, the same ones wearing oversized womanly bras filled with cotton balls or socks; their growing grapes incongruous mountains of chewed bubble gum.
Leticia pours everyone another shot in the minuscule, almost toy-like, plastic cups of the aguardiente. The first shot is always the hardest to get down, after that is like water. You hear the same thing every Thursday night as the four of you get together after school to drink at María’s when her mom is away playing cards with her friends, you all meet and play this stupid game with no boys and a bottle of Coca-Cola the only phallic object. No one new, nothing exciting, everyone indulging in fake grandiosity. You know Leticia, María, Milagros and you all lie to each other about Carlos and Juan digging their tongues deep in your throat or Pablo writing love letters, or that boy Martín who supposedly all of you dated and fought over, where is Martín now? But it all feels good and after two shots the aguardiente feels wonderful and all those boys feel so real you could even feel the acne on their faces if you closed your eyes tight.
Bogotá is like a cavernous freezer right now. Through the window you see grey cotton balls hanging low against a pale halo and, Josefina, you will ride a buseta to your house and you imagine yourself on an aisle seat with a damp uniform next to some bald dude who will try to rob you with a pocket knife asking you: a ver mamita, see this? You will sigh, call him an imbécil, spit on his face, walk to the back of the bus, ring the bell, yell at the bus driver: acá me bajo! And you will come home, your white socks brown and you all wet with that sticky, uncomfortable feeling while the elegant back of your mother listens to the Beeges barely holding a glass of whiskey.
María spins the bottle again.
The Coca-Cola bottle points at your white socks. Your turn Josefina.
“La verdad ó te atreves Josefina. And you already exhausted your two truths so you have to take a dare.”
“Entonces, I dare. But I’m not going out and showing my breasts to anyone in this weather.”
Milagros laughs and chokes on the cigarette smoke. Oh she is teasing, María says. But then she coughs and coughs and turns bright red and spits on the carpet and her braces shine like disco balls and her head hangs like a decapitated animal. She sounds like a tired dog or a dying dog and we all point at her and ha, ha, ha and we ask her to please Milagritos, don’t die today, please Milagritos, don’t fuck up María’s carpet, please Milagritos clean your babas, please Milagritos, please. Ha. Ha. Ha.
Milagros is red, her eyes fountains. She is an ugly mannequin gasping for air. María gives her some water then turns to you: ”I know what you’re going to do, Josefina. You have to kiss Milagros. But don’t just give her a pico, you need to kiss her like this”
We all turn to María who starts sucking and licking her right hand, violently thrusting her tongue against her palm like she is at an eating contest while Leticia rocks herself in laughter and Milagros still coughing moves her head, and index finger, in disapproval.
Milagros coughs while it pours outside. That rainy sound. The same rainy sound as this morning, in the shower, while putting both your index fingers inside both your ears, the water drops went plung-plung on your head, drops on your tongue while you hum Britney’s I’m a Slave For You cutting off your mother’s Josefina carajo! You little piece of shit.
That rainy sound.
Your heart gains some speed, it bumps like house music in your rib cage against the two-black balloons. In your head Milagros’ red face smeared with spit tries to pull you in and kiss you. You imagine every girl from Santa Francisca Romana School inside María’s room watching in excitement and disgust, the ones in the inner circle like cannibals with their faces dimly lit as Milagros licks your lips, then your hollow cheekbones and while you try to follow her pace with your tiny tongue you cant, rather you feel immensely sad and alone. You try to lick her face but fail and everyone points at you and calls you a lesbiana and nobody sits next to you during Spanish class and the nuns find out and the nuns slap you across the face and obligate you to pray one thousand hail maries and clean their kitchen and you are doomed, doomed because you kiss Milagros.
“Qué? Asco! I’m not kissing a girl. I’m not kissing Milagros. That’s against the rules. I rather kiss the dog.”
You immediately feel bad after saying this. You lower your eyes to the brown carpet, light another Kool Light. You didn’t mean to say the dog but why Milagros? And why don’t we ever have boys over? We don’t have any boy friends. Milagros stops coughing, her right hand shinning with saliva, she fixes her hair and yells you Josefina are a puta engreída and she would never want to kiss you even if you were a boy. You hold the cigarette with your lips, squinting at her because the smoke gets into your eyes; the aguardiente has warmed your body. You tell her you are sorry and would she please forgive you and…. Milagritos… would you want to…. kiss me now?
María and Leticia are rocking themselves going ha ha ha wild but Milagros doesn’t say anything. There are two empty bottles of aguardiente and Milagros picks on the label of one of them. She is really considering kissing you. You stare at her unibrow, stare at the shadow on her upper lip, you are hypnotized by her thick lips like two chorizos embracing that Kool Light, maybe you could kiss Milagros if she were not a girl, maybe you have enough aguardiente to bite off her chorizos and chew them. Maybe.
“Okay,” You say, “I will kiss Milagros but not in front of you two. I can’t do it in front of both of you”
They both stop laughing and Milagros nods in agreement. Maybe she is excited to kiss you, maybe she has enough aguardiente but your lips are thin and pale and there is nothing to chew on.
“Ay no Josefina! Cual es la gracia, if we don’t see you kissing then how do we know it happened?”
María talks to you with her eyes closed and she licks her lips after every sentence.
“If you don’t trust me then I’m not doing it. Give me another dare.”
She sighs heavily, looks at Leticia, looks at Milagros. Milagros agrees that she would only kiss you if the other two don’t watch; it is not even my dare! She says and she is right.
“Bueno bueno. Go into the bathroom.”
You wonder who appointed María the owner of the fucking game, the leader of the group for her to be delegating like that. Leticia tries to light another cigarette but she is too clumsy or too drunk and just laughs and nods at whatever María says.
How do you do this? You wonder, how do you stand up and walk to the bathroom and kiss Milagritos? Do you hold her hand and help her get up? Is she going to think you are a lesbian if you do that? Do you wrap your arms around her uniform or do you hold her face probably feeling her pimples? You anticipate Milagros’ tongue on your lips and you lick them. Will she scratch you with her braces? Is closing your eyes too much? Would she think you are into her? Do you turn the light off?
“One last thing” you say as you get up. “This has to stay in here. None of you can tell anyone. You know what happens if the nuns find out.” You take one last drag, putting out the cigarette on the ashtray.
“Ay Josefina, why would we say anything? Like always, everything stays in this room. I mean, Leticia is not even going to remember. Now go before Milagros decides she doesn’t want your precious kisses”. María makes kissing noises and chuckles after saying this and you know how much she enjoys having you kiss Milagritos.
You could have probably kiss María. If María and you had to make out it would be a violent competition. María will push you against the bathroom wall and you will feel her thick blonde hair poking at your eyes and she will hold your wrists tight against your legs with one hand and grab your jaw with the other and then softly bite you. You saw her do this with a boy at Leticia’s birthday party and you envied her determination. For her, you thought, even kissing is about winning.
Juliana Delgado Colombian writer residing in San Francisco is better known for her array of secret love affairs with right wing women ranging from conservative enthusiast Sarah Palin to second wave feminist Ann Romney and, more recently, engaged to one of Michelle Bachman’s infinite collection of foster girls. Raised in Bogotá she believes the third world still sells better deodorant and has a higher chance of surviving a zombie apocalypse. “Josefina” is part of a collection of short stories she’s currently working on inspired by Oprah, La Virgen del Carmen, condoms from The Dollar Store and confession booths.
This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.
You’ve been one-legged since the lasso trap. Your personal ad says “Kids: undecided” even though you desperately want two.
When the maître d’ shows you to your blind date’s table, you are pleased with her prominent forehead and symmetric face. She has potential.
Before you can sit, her eyes drift to where your missing leg would be and snap back to your face. She forces a smile.
You talk menu.
She likes the braised shank.
You are relieved they have salads. “I ate barbecue last weekend,” you lie. “I’m in a tuna salad mood.”
“We don’t do fins or hooves,” the waiter says. “How about torn hamstring on lettuce topped with blocked arteries? Or liver simmered in stomach juice?”
“Seahorse salad,” you say and close the menu. You’ve never had seahorse but you do The Seahorse – a side split by a one-legged dancer – for a living.
“Salad number three,” the waiter says, writing slowly.
She orders the braised shank on garlic spinach.
You sip your wine and give the weather report. You’re not ready to explain how a fact checker for a weekly tabloid became the warm-up act at Ole Ole six nights a week. Your specialty is one-legged pole dancing. The tips are fantastic.
“Sooooo, you’re a journalist?” she says.
Uh oh. She must believe all those lies in your ad.
“I freelance,” you say, spearing a seahorse. It tastes like black licorice.
“Cool. My brother consults.” She cuts a bite of shank and chews. “How’s your seahorse?”
Reminded of The Seahorse, you twirl the spine of your wine glass. “Perfect,” you say. “Try?”
She looks straight through your thick lenses into your eyes. “I had three dates with a weirdo who wouldn’t admit that he had never eaten human flesh,” she says. “I hope you’re not one of those.”
You squint. “I was raised Catholic. Mom didn’t cook body parts at home. But I partake now.”
You rummage your brain for suitable conversation. Ole Ole features midget wrestling, ex-basketball players stripping, and pole dancing. Your act closes with The Seahorse. If the crowd is drunk enough, this flourish earns you a shower of coins and bills. You doubt this would impress.
“Try my shank,” she says. “The meat is falling off the bone.”
You scrape off a sliver and chew. To the casual diner, braised shank tastes like the beef pot roast served in high school cafeterias. But you taste the tang of a single mother who lost her shin when her biker boyfriend sped into a double-parked ice cream truck. You smile for the first time. “Delicious,” you say. “I love the dissonance.”
She smiles back.
You notice dimples when she smiles.
She leans forward and spears a seahorse. “I live for flesh. My last boyfriend and I tried a new species every weekend.”
You worry that she had a white-bread childhood and would never understand your scars. When six, you stepped into a lasso trap during a cub scout outing and dangled upside down against an oak tree for two nights before a birdwatcher sighted you in his binoculars. They amputated your gangrened right leg to save your life. You refused prosthetics and learned to hop. In high school, you competed against the best soccer players. You are as able as any biped.
She doesn’t know any of this. She saw only that your one leg is thicker than two normal legs.
You clear your throat and lean forward only to hear your voice squeak. “You up for some something-something next Saturday?”
She reaches for her glass and crinkles the prominent forehead. Maybe she sees you as a bouncing pogo stick. Maybe she doesn’t want to dance the yoyo at her wedding. Maybe she didn’t hear you.
“Oh, I won’t embarrass you,” you say. “Let me walk you home tonight.”
“Oh no,” she says. “I wasn’t worried about that! Not at all. I’m a physical therapist. And my brother had his leg blown off in Iraq too.”
Now you worry. A physical therapist that eats amputated shanks might like your nub a tad too much. But seahorses have limited opportunities. So you lean back and point your thick leg between hers.
She doesn’t scream.
“Well, then,” you say, “ever had a Bloody Mary of your own blood? I know a place.”
And you know that place. It’s Ole Ole.
Kenton K. Yee has placed poetry and fiction in The Los Angeles Review, Hobart, PANK, Word Riot, elimae, Mud Luscious, Monkeybicycle, Every Day Fiction, Every Day Poets, Brain Harvest, Bartleby Snopes, Apollo’s Lyre, Liquid Imaginations, and Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, among others. A theoretical physicist working in finance, he is studying in Stanford’s Online Novel Certificate program. He’s working on a hardboiled detective novel involving space travel and cockroaches, and that I eat a scary amount of raw fish. Tonight’s story, Try My Shank first appeared in PANK Magazine (May 2012).
This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by the San Francisco Writers Community, Fiction365 and Omnibucket.
That I was six years old and in the company of my father, whose inapproachability was increased by certain spatial proximities such as that which our weekly drive to the old-age home involved, with me seated next to him, silently counting the telephone poles flitting by my hand-cranked window, from whose glass I was all crew cut, forehead, and conveyant eyes which, due to a congenital neuromuscular defect, bulged unnaturally, making me appear as if I were in a continuous state of shock about what- or whomever I was looking at, which expression my father described as endemic to a category of individuals linked by a mutuality of affliction whom he referred to as social misfits, saying it in a way that caused the tendons in his neck to become pronounced, that I was six years old and in the company of my father, whose inapproachability was increased by certain spatial proximities, made it easier for me to participate in the fraudulence which our weekly visits to the old-age home became. Visiting hours were rigidly circumscribed in accordance with a schedule that appeared to accommodate the old-age home’s personnel more than its residents, and, by extension, its residents’ families, by which I mean to invoke my father and myself. My father worked in an office building whose tinted glass windows I imagined lent its interior a corresponding darkness which necessitated the use of flashlights, headlamps, glow sticks, and other illuminatory devices; the sound of him in our utility closet each morning as he opened and closed the drawers of a plastic storage cabinet filled with Duracell-brand batteries I supposed he used to power his illuminatory device only reinforced that image. That my father was in a foul mood when he picked me up after school each Wednesday on the way to the old-age home accordingly surprised me since the mid-afternoon visits allowed him a respite from the darkness I believed enveloped his workday, a darkness that had a corollary in the inclement state of his health, of which his foul mood, neck’s pronounced tendons, and inapproachability were evidence. I didn’t know what my father did for a living other than that it involved the use of a large number of pens, which he always spent a quiet few seconds emptying his trouser, shirt, and suit jacket pockets of upon returning home from work each evening; his was an undeviating choreography I often found myself miming in front of the bathroom mirror when I was not otherwise occupied with such time-consumptive things as homework, chores, and TV. They were the kind of pen, popularized by Bic, whose clear plastic construction allowed you to see how much ink was left in the ink reservoir tube, which I always regarded as a sly move on the part of the pen manufacturer considering that, by revealing the ink level, the person using the pen would theoretically be more inclined to replace the pen before it ran out of ink than if the ink level were unknown, and, in so doing, would wind up using, and buying, more pens than he or she otherwise would. I admit that I’m basing my theory on a number of assumptions about human nature for which I haven’t provided any proof; still, I think it’s a good one. My father would put the pens in the junk drawer by our telephone, which was also where we kept our pencils, rubber erasers, letter openers, rulers, scissors, and writing pads, so that each time someone called for him when he wasn’t home, I would use one to take a message; that my pulse quickened whenever the telephone rang was a function less of the telephone’s ringing than of my anticipatory use of something connected with the person of my father. Given that my accompanying my father to the old-age home appeared not to please him, or, more accurately, that my presence failed to temper his mood, I suspected, in his inclusion of me in his weekly visits, an ulteriority which I believed would reveal itself during the course of our trips to and from the facility, despite my father’s parsimony of conversation, and my disinclination to test the limits of his reservedness. My father was a thin man of medium height whose slightness of build and fine hair suggested a subtraction, or deprivation, which his economy of movement, both gestural and transportive, helped convey; impulsivity, in its broadest, most far-flung application, had no associations with his person. My mother, insofar as I could tell in the photographs I found in a shoebox emblazoned with the trademark and name of a sports company whose connection with my discovery prompted my ambivalence towards its brand of athletic product, and towards sports in general, was a pretty woman whose attractiveness was enhanced by her occupying the narrative center of each photograph; her running away with my father’s accountant, whose industriousness my father regarded as an asset in the context of his finances without ever suspecting that the compulsivity which fueled the industriousness he so valued, and willingly paid a premium for, would be incapable of resisting the allure of an altogether different kind of challenge, precipitated my lifelong distrust of brunettes, to which my own dye job attests. They were a couple, my father and mother, whose tensive gesturology, in those photographs, bespoke fracture. My father’s statement one Wednesday as I opened the car door and crinkled my nose in response to the smell emitted by a new air freshener from his favorite car wash, whose service he valued not for its prettification of his car but for what he believed his paying someone to wash it said about him, that the old-age home’s personnel were troubled by my unnaturally bulging eyes struck me as odd; given all the sensorially assaultive things I envisioned the personnel being subjected to on a daily basis, the effect my eyes had on them had to have been negligible at most. I mean, in the brevity of each of our visits, at least one resident would do something whose shock quotient would redouble my resolve to halt my maturation into adulthood. On the other hand, it explained the staff’s reticence to engage us in conversation, or even make eye contact. The old-age home was located about ten minutes by car from Pomelo Drive Elementary by way of a minimally exertive route sequentially composed of Highlander Road, Platt Avenue, and Vanowen Street, with most of the driving taking place on Vanowen, a sweeping arterial road whose compact single-story homes harked back to a more modest, and practical-minded, period in the San Fernando Valley’s evolution. I highlight the logistical simplicity of our route so as to convey an absence of what would have otherwise usurped my father’s attention, as our driver, and deprived us of an opportunity for conversation; that our drive required but a minimal degree of mechanical, and cognitive, application and yet was shrouded in a dense silence said things which required roads longer than those which took us to and from the old-age home to sort through. That said, I viewed our silence as appropriate, and even natural, in the context of the solemnity of our weekly visits. By my saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that our visiting the old-age home was disagreeable. While it wasn’t the most joyous of places, there were worse ones, like my school’s study hall and detention room, as well as the principal’s office. Also, I saw our visits through a prism that did not allow for the hypothecation of my not going; that scenario simply did not occur to me. Getting back to the silence part, my point is that I didn’t think it had anything to do with me. I was an unself-reflective six-year-old with a simplicity of outlook whose motivating influence was a hallowed trinity composed of a TV tray, a bowl of Fruity Pebbles, and a homework-free afternoon of The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Tom and Jerry. Right after my father told me that my eyes troubled the old-age home’s personnel, he reached under his seat and produced a small lidded box which he then handed to me, nodding in a way that was his invitation for me to open it. My excitement was tempered only by my attempt to control, and thus prolong, my joy over my father’s thoughtful whimsy. As I removed the lid and looked inside, my initial reaction was not to associate the goggles with what my father told me about the old-age home’s personnel, but to view them within the parameters established by the physical componentry of the goggles themselves. Their unorthodox design consisted of a strap which ran, longitudinally, from between the goggles’ lenses to the main strap, to which it attached, at the back of the wearer’s head, and another one that ran under the wearer’s jaw. The goggles’ architecture was such that it kept them uncompromisingly in place, over the wearer’s eyes, while disallowing their speedy removal. As for the lenses, their opaqueness reduced the wearer’s vision to a negligibility approximating blindness; the goggles’ utility as a safety device was evidently secondary to their functionality as a blindfold. My father explained that the decision was mine as to whether to wear them inside the old-age home, but he added that my not doing so would upset him considering all the trouble he went to in acquiring them, and also given the ameliorative effect he was convinced my wearing them would have on our relations with the old-age home’s personnel. But I needed no coaxing and, in fact, had them on by the time he stopped talking and turned towards me. The distortion to which my vision was subject prevented me from discerning my father’s expression, though I suspected it was a softened one given the calm attentiveness with which he applied himself to securing the jaw strap. I wore the goggles during each of our successive visits, obligingly, cognizant of the effect they had on my father’s mood. And, also, of their role in enabling the fraudulence which our visits became after grandmother passed, the woman assigned to her room greeting us, each week, with little-girl giggles, her skin smelling of chamomile and milk, and my father addressing her as Mother, his face, from the distortive perspective of my goggles, evincing something I could not definitively say was sincerity, as I endured our visits, uncomplainingly, determined to resolve still greater mysteries.
Salvatore Zoida’s fiction has appeared in Rutgers University’sWriters’ Bloc, Ravenna Press’s The Anemone Sidecar, The Catalonian Review, Foundling Review, Wigleaf, and Prick of the Spindle. In 2011, the San Francisco Litquake Literary Festival named him as an up-and-coming Bay Area author. He recently finished writing my first novel, Bucolic Apologia. Tonight’s story, “Photographed in Drag” was published in Writers’ Bloc.
This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Omnibucket, Fiction365, and the San Francisco Writers Community
Abstract Art tends to get bad press, routinely calling it “inaccessible” when it can be beautiful.
Omnibucket co-founder Dave Senecal has taken a step to correct the record, opening an exhibit at the City Art Center in Delaware, Ohio, that serves as a 101 class in abstract art.
Aimed at people who don’t know what to look for when approaching pictures that don’t look like something, the exhibit “Color, Line, and Shape” also features the work of Jay Moffett, Peggy Mintun, Michael Bush, and Tom Dewey.
I can picture the faces of the executives as the film begins. It’s the first time they’ve seen it, the first time the director’s let anyone with money, or marketing savvy, or a neck-tie enter the screening room. The director’s taken precious care with this cut, with this sound mix. He personally supervised yesterday’s dry run to make sure every seat in the house is comfortable and free of squeaks, that every line of dialog is audible and every low tone rumbles the house (but doesn’t blow the speakers.) The projector has been calibrated, the lens cleaned, the bulb (or Blu-Ray laser) tuned to perfection.
But, despite this, what’s up there on the screen… is… well… odd. At least to the suits. Maybe they weren’t at every meeting. Maybe they didn’t pay attention during principal photography. Oh, sure, they read the script. Well, a couple of them did. Most just read the coverage, watched a few dailies, maybe drooled over the publicity photos of the leading lady, and, of course, the fiscal ledgers from the director’s previous film. They knew what they were getting. Sorta. They knew it would be a “tough sell.” Probably. But the real question comes at the final frame: did we just make an arty picture?
The executives narrow their gazes, exchange glances. A few cough. Who will speak first? Who? Doesn’t matter. It comes out something like this:
“This movie (2001) (Repo Man) (After Hours) (The Big Lebowski) (Blue Velvet) (Rocky Horror) (Donnie Darko) (Rushmore) (Brazil) (Pink Flamingos) (Shock Corridor) (Re-Animator) (Freaks) (Shivers) (Shakes the Clown) will get someone fired. Probably me. We’re in trouble, boys. Not because the film is bad. It’s actually pretty good. It’s obviously a personal vision well executed. But we’ll never say that. Or, if we do say it, we’ll say it so damn loud the whole world will just have to go along with us. To change it is impossible/too late/too costly. It is what it is. What we have here, boys, is a cult movie.”
Cult (n. kuhlt): a group of people bound together by devotion to an object, a rite, a set of rituals, symbols, ideals, a person, etc. Or, some fucking movie.
Enter Don Thacker, writer and director of a movie that’s not even out yet. It’s called Motivational Growth – a one-location story with less than a half-dozen characters split into ten “episodes” and made on a budget of less than a quarter million dollars.
Don’s an affable kid with a dream – to make you like the unlikeable. It’s hard to declare his new horror (?) comedy (?) the feel-good movie of 2013, but something makes we want to say just that. Sure, it has blood and dismemberment, and vomit (lots of green vomit,) a talking patch of mold (more on that later,) and is about a suicidal shut-in named Ian who, when we meet him, has rice in his Iron & Wine beard and hasn’t bathed or cleaned his apartment in a very, very long time.
But, despite this, you really like Ian. You feel for his circumstance, even though we are never told the reason for his isolation. Ian is who we all would be if we were stranded on a desert island. On purpose. With a television. That breaks. In the first scene. And leads us into Ian’s story as strongly as ‘an arrival’ or a ‘meet cute.’
Recently, Motivational Growth had a private screening at one of the big ol’ movie houses in Chicago. Sponsored by the filmmakers, it was an invitation-only affair. Not a premiere, more like a rewarding social experiment. In some ways, it was not too different from the executive screenings of previous cult classics, except that in this case the movie and the moment were low-budget, low-risk, and high-reward.
After being taken in by the film and its qualities, I stayed for the obligatory Q & A where Thacker revealed that he hadn’t intended to make a horror movie. When I cornered him later, he added, “I have been calling it a dark comedy, but I feel that a story with the sole purpose of getting you thinking has a hard time being labeled with a genre. I'm not saying it's a ‘genre defying mind bender’ or anything. In fact, locking a genre would really help me get it sold, so I'm not trying to be arty. I ask what genre people think it is. I've gotten everything. I can tell you, though, that it seems to resonate most with horror and sci-fi fans.”
Adding to that connection is the casting of two actors with strong genre pedigrees.
Rising horror starlet, Danielle Doetsch is certainly eye-candy, but also delivers a genuine and charming performance. In the films Under the Table, Bikini Girls on Ice, Weapon, and The Catastrophe at Catalina, she is, in the most literal sense, a scream queen, having screamed her way through all of these films with operatic perfection. In Motivational Growth, Doetsch plays Leah, the love interest. Producer Alexis Nordling once declared, “The film would not work without Danielle’s performance. She’s the ideal, all-American, girl-next-door – someone Ian can fall in love with at first sight and still be considered attainable. When she arrives at his door, there had to be chemistry and with Danielle and Adrian (DiGiovanni, who plays Ian) it was definite. We looked a long time for an actor like Danielle and she was perfection.”
And then there is The Mold. Yes, that’s the character’s actual name. And it’s actually mold – the gross kind (well, not to be all behind-the-scenes, but essentially a sophisticated puppet that resembles a talking patch of mold.) Having trouble picturing? Does it help to know that The Mold is voiced by Jeffrey Combs, the legendary character actor, star of the Re-Animator films, as well as From Beyond and Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners? Combs brings big choices to such parts. And, boy, does he bring ‘em here. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you could Oscar campaign for mold, there’s a good case to be made for his performance in Motivational Growth.
So – you’re getting the picture, right? Vomit, blood, talking mold, a pretty girl with a good scream, a guy with rice in his beard… This is where the executives start to sweat. But I’m here to say, they shouldn’t. This movie aims to entertain and succeeds. People will talk about it, recommend it, find it. Cult, yeah, sure – but that Rocky Horror cult sure racked up some dough. It’ll play at midnight screenings, but could as easily be a prime-time ick-fest choice or even shown with the sound down at a college party. It’ll definitely get a reaction. It’ll definitely be remembers. And there’ll be the gossip. For a film like this, there’s always gossip. There’s plenty to see here, folks. Plenty to see.
In fact, buzz has already started about the film for 2013. Director Patrick Rea (Nailbiter) has said, "Motivational Growth is a zany and twisted tale that is well-crafted and entertaining." Nationally-known horrorhound columnist Dr. AC (Horror 101) raves, “A terrific exception to micro-budget filmmaking, one that requires no forgiveness for technical shortcomings (i.e. there are none) despite its ambitious scope and vision.”
But how gross is gross?
“The trash, the set design, the blood and the goo, the vomit, The Mold – these are things that I wrote, sure,” says Thacker. “When I hired my department heads, though, I did so after examining who would best lift my ideas beyond my own ability to execute them. I provided a huge amount of artistic freedom to the Art, SFX/Creature and Makeup teams and that paid off on a colossal scale. I relied on the professional artists I'd hired to make professional art. Achieving ‘just the right amount of gross’ is where I step in. My responsibility is the through-line. I say, ‘needs more blood’ or ‘wow, I just threw up a little in my mouth, maybe pull the puss back a bit,’ or whatever.”
Despite these tactile elements, you still like Ian and his story. Actor Adrian DiGiovanni is in every scene, up against some great character actors such as Pete Giovagnoli, Ken Brown, Hannah Stevenson, and others. Physically demanding, the role of Ian was not an easy one to cast or to play, but DiGiovanni is certainly a talent to watch, as he carries a ninety minute movie on his shoulders with great skill. Thacker adds, “There is a certain amount of lethargy built into the experience, especially at the front of the piece. It's a film about an agoraphobic slob and I needed to express that. I want the audience to be the slightest bit annoyed to be stuck with this guy for the opening fifteen minutes before everything starts to go bonkers.”
With one bonkers film under his belt, what’s next for Don Thacker and his fledgling film company, Imagos Films? “I am most excited about this twisted little mind-break sci-fi thriller,” he says. “It’s about a group of pink-slipped particle physicists with access to a mothballed super-collider who, in an attempt to make themselves relevant again, fold reality in half. I've been working with Fermilab and the folks at the Tevatron site in Batavia, IL, on and off for a year now on the story. I want to tell a human story wrapped in hard science fact.”
Motivational Growth will be released to festivals in 2013 and wider distribution thereafter. You heard it here first (or maybe second or third), people. Consider yourself part of a cult.
Motivational Growth trailer can be found here:
Imagos Films Corporation Website:
Darren Callahan has written drama for the BBC, SyFy Channel, National Public Radio, and Radio Pacifica New York. As the author of several successful stage plays, including The White Airplane and Horror Academy, both published by Polarity Books, he is highly involved in theatre as a writer and a director. Novels include The Audrey Green Chronicles and City of Human Remains. Screenplays include Documentia, Nerves and Summer of Ghosts. He is writer, director, and composer of the films Under the Table and Children of the Invisible Man. He is also a musician and has released many records, including film soundtracks, on various labels. His website is darrencallahan.com.
The phone will ring, a knock will come at the door “tattarattat,” a voice on the other end of the line will mention murder, and Sorenson’s partner, a detective he has been working with for the past fifteen years, will ask him to come down where the squad car will be waiting. This is routine, an almost nightly event—ten years.
Crime of passion.
Sorenson has seen it all. The voice on the phone will say this murder is different. Can’t be different. We all die the same, no matter how it comes. In the end it’s just darkness, and the darkness has no direction, just like emotion, just like a flash of thought–played backwards, it all looks the same.
He waits for the phone and takes a drink of a Reisling—a two hundred-dollar bottle of wine, which is usually out of his budget, but not tonight, not when it’s only him, the wine, a nine-millimeter, Jay Leno (and whatever actor is the heartthrob or scandal of the week), and a book that Sorenson picked up on a train about ten years ago.
The wine washes over his tongue. He looks to where a small button and a box—about the size of a ring box—sit on the open page. Sorenson’s eyes catch a glimpse of the words written beside the box: Trains in these parts went from East to West and from West to East.
He waits for the phone call; the police cruiser may already be outside his window, perhaps waiting for the call too.
Leno takes a good-natured jab at his celebrity guest’s history with alcohol and drugs, and the audience will roar with laughter, and the celebrity will feign anger, stomping halfway across the stage until Leno will lure him back, with an offer to advance the conversation to the actor’s new film.
The choices are clear—press the button sitting on the book or pull the trigger of the nine-millimeter—and his decision is made.
He presses the button.
The tranquility in Sorenson’s apartment is broken: the phone rings.
“His name is Sieman Sih,” says Sorenson’s partner at the crime scene.
German, Sorenson thinks, as he and his partner stand over the bodies. A book sits on a nightstand beside the bed. Sih is in bed with a brunette—slender, soft features, milky complexion, and tenderness in the hands; a wonderful lover—Sorenson’s lover before Sih’s.
He wonders if he’ll break down. Emotions have no direction, after all; they are as painful coming as going.
The killer surprised them—not in flagrante, but not long afterward either. Along with the blood, the forensic team finds semen on the sheets.
“He lived as a devil, eh?” his partner says as consolation and an attempt at levity, after apparently seeing Sorenson’s gaze rest on the man and the anger and pain overtake his face.
The blood soaked knife is still near the bed on the floor. It has created its own outline there—a bloody exclamation mark on the carpet—written its own entry into the history of this murder, proclaims emphatically that it was here. That wood-handled butcher knife will ultimately pronounce that the killer was here. Bill was here! The knife was here and so was Bill! He slashed them both after watching them in a moment of heat. It was the tenderness afterward, not the passion that set him off. Passion was fleeting, an act with direction. Tenderness, an emotion, goes from East to West and from West to East.
The blood spatter on the walls says the knife—left where it fell—is right.
A crime of passion. The murderer was not in the frame of mind to question whether or not he was leaving tell-tale signs of his identity. The least investigation will reveal the killer—in fact, the police will be outside the killer’s door by the end of the night–after this long on the job, you instinctively know these things.
Sorenson picks up a picture of his former love from the nightstand, hears his name and puts the picture down.
“…Was I…?” a man in a brown raincoat says. A police officer, a woman, steps in the way. “Ma’am.” the man just inside the entryway says before an officer places a hand on his chest, and he backs out of the apartment, looking from Sorenson to his partner.
Sorenson’s partner, standing beside him, asks if he is all right and whether he can handle this.
“…I…” Sorenson wants to speak, but the words are stuck inside, and his mind is repeating “His name is Sieman Sih.” He looks over his shoulder at the room, the blood on the walls. His ex-love wrapped around this man. Rage is directionless too. Sorenson just nods to his partner and continues to look around the apartment, his lover’s apartment, where Sorenson and she had spent days locked away from the world like cave dwellers with just their primal instincts to keep them occupied; they wouldn’t even order delivery because then they would have to take attention away from each other; instead they raided the refrigerator for whatever was available, emptied it to the last morsel, and only then would they emerge from the cave, hand in hand and re-engage with the outer world.
Right in this chair, she had told Sorenson about the possibility of a child. She said it haltingly. Her hand trembled on the glass she held, and she turned away, telling him she couldn’t keep it—not now.
He proposed, made a ring from paper and put it on her finger.
She took a trembling hand, placed it on his cheek, drew him into her, kissed him and smiled. He had never realized before, but the best kind of kiss was the one with the lips drawn back in a grin—not sexy, but tender, loving—more like standing face-to-face and pressing yourselves together.
Right in this apartment, Sorenson’s love had told him she miscarried, and they never married, but she forced herself to play the role of lover for a while.
He looks around the apartment, where investigators are dusting for prints, snapping pictures and talking. The noise is unbearable. Sorenson has to get away, hide himself away in darkness.
The closet encases Sorenson. The voices of a man and a woman are outside the door at some distance; he can make out their forms between the louvers. There will be violence. It is inevitable. The knife says so: Blood will spray the walls; I am here; I am here and Bill is here. Sorenson’s decision will be made. No real choice. Only one decision is left up to him, but that’s not here, rather in his apartment with the button and the nine millimeter.
It’s finally quiet, save the sound of breathing. The figure of the man passes across the room, flips a light switch and clicks the door. The man is absent for some time, and then emerges, his steps punctuated by a squeak on the wooden floor.
Sorenson tries not to focus on what is outside the closet. It’s only him. He has come for a reason, on a task, and it has to be finished to set things right again with the world. He can’t break down.
The sounds from outside sear his brain and pain wells up. He needs an aspirin, a Tylenol, something to put down the pain. He wants to destroy the sound. Make them go, the man and the woman, just make them go.
The sound dies down.
He sees the man and woman move closer, pass by him. They linger close together. He hears voices, laughter, a feeling of lightness passes between the shutters and weighs down on him.
“Sruo,” he hears the woman say, “Sruo. Sruo si ybab siht. His nameis.”
Sorenson can’t understand it, doesn’t want to understand it, though he knows already.
Laughter. The sound of intimacy, of kisses, of whispered moments and then the door clicks.
Sorenson is left alone in the darkness that is the same coming and going, from East to
West and from West to East.
The closet around him now suffocates him.
He moves around the living room, picks up the picture of his love, a tear falls onto its face, and he puts it back on the table. He continues to the bathroom, where he finds evidence of a sexual relationship. He moves to the bedroom and picks up a pillow. He’s in the kitchen now and has already picked up the wood-handled butcher knife from the counter. Rage is directionless.
He feels the change, the forward progression, much more fluid now, that reels like the seamless advance of a movie and loses the sense of jumping frame by frame to the beginning.
Sorenson’s love sits beside him now, holding his wrist with her tender hands. He studies her soft features, her milky complexion as if he’s never seen these elements of her before. She pushes his head away, turns it to look out the window, and plants a smiling kiss on his cheek, tightened lips pressed gently against him, warming him. They’re not alone, but Sorenson cannot help his feeling of playfulness, giddiness, as if he’s been transported into a child’s body.
His love’s hand stops. Sorenson follows her gaze to an old man, slightly Asiatic, across the aisle. He’s staring at them. Sorenson wants to be sarcastic, but the pathos the man invokes makes him hold his tongue.
“Sir,” she says, “are you all right?”
A hollow smile rises on his face. “You get off at the next stop.”
Behind the man in the frame of the window, buildings slide in and out of view, gray blurs of scenery and life.
“You get off at the next stop. She’ll kiss you and both of you watch the train pass in silence. She looks sad, like she has something to tell you, but has been putting it off.”
Her face pales. Her hands drop.
“Look, just leave us alone.” Sorenson says.
“I can’t. I have to give it to you, or I’ll go through this for another twenty years.”
Sorenson turns away and looks at her–and over his shoulder says, “Go back to what you were smoking, old man.”
But she can’t take her eyes off the man, watches his every move as if he’s ripped himself apart in front of her, or the pit of hell has opened before her and swallowed him whole. “How do you know?” she says, and then quieter, “How do you…” Either she trails off or the sound of the train interferes.
“Years. I’ve been watching for years,” he says. “You look like nice people. And maybe it will work for you. Maybe it will be good, you’ll be happy. You’ll use it to be happy. Maybe you’ll press it and that sad face I see outside this train again and again will disappear. But only one of you can use it.”
Sorenson stands up. “That’s enough.”
She pulls him back down into the seat.
“You’re scaring her, you old bastard.”
The man leans forward and as if to keep what he has to say away from the other passengers, he lowers his voice. “I don’t mean to. I want…” He thinks about it. “…to save you.” He reaches behind him. “It’s a time machine.” He is holding a book and a box.
“The book?” she says.
“The box. Take it. You’ll have to take it.”
The box looks as if it has come from a jewelry store—all but the little red button on the top.
“You can go forward and back, in a time loop, but only the period where you have the box. You need to press the button.”
“Back in time?” Sorenson waves a hand. “Drugs? Is that it? Do I need to take you in?”
“You can’t change anything, but you can relive it again. Are you the police?”
“Detective William Sorenson, Chicago PD.”
“You’ll be good for it. But you have to take it.” The old man looks out the window toward the gray blur. “Going back is sort of like watching a movie in rewind. Disorienting, at first. You get used to it. You know what everybody is going to say anyway. You can even tell yourself a different story, possibly with a happy ending. And you might get to keep that smile.” A crooked finger points to her face, a face that no longer has the smile. “That smile is worth it.” He lowers his finger, and uses his hand to push himself out of the seat. He gently places the box and book in the seat and walks away. Sorenson watches him disappear into the next car.
“Take it,” she says.
“The book, the box. Take it.”
“The man is crazy.”
“Maybe. But take it.”
Sorenson picks up the book and the box. The gray blur slows into a building, a station. They step off the train and onto the platform. She gives him a kiss, not a smiling kiss, one more meaningful, and tinged with a certain sadness. They watch the train pull away. He opens the book to where the old man had marked and underlined a passage: Trains in these parts went from East to West and from West to East.
They walk through the station, the sound of life pulses around them. She’s grown silent. He’s silent too.
“I didn’t lose it,” she says.
“I lied. I needed time.” She pushes the hair away from her face. “It’s not yours. But I had to know for sure.”
“Who’s the father?”
“You don’t know him. His name is Sieman Sih.”
They hear a concussive explosion from the track, and the crowd in the station erupts in panic.Sorenson feels that he needs to run to help, but he’s paralyzed by what she told him. And she continues walking.
Note from the author: This short story has been written so that sections 1 – 3 can be read from the end to the beginning (as well as beginning to end) and that quoted speech is either palindromic or gives a different meaning backward than forward. The line “Trains in these parts went from East to West and from West to East.” is quoted from the Novel The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov.
Denise kicked me out of our apartment two weeks before my 30th birthday, and Roy said I’d always have a place to crash with him, no problem. But my habit of working late into the night, of getting phone calls when he was trying to soak his feet, and the fact that I’m a terrible wing-man all added up fast. A week later I was going to a conference, and he offered to drive me to the airport, and Roy told me, on the way, that he’d be changing the locks while I was gone and giving my stuff to Shane to hold on to. I was leaving Chicago a homeless man.
“You’re just impossible,” he said, right before pulling up to the United terminal.
I flew to Missouri, for the 9th annual Midwest Regional Philosophy Symposium. I forgot to bring toothpaste. The room at the University of Missouri campus was nice and there was a manmade lake with swans. The food was good, and included in the package. But the campus store sold tooth paste at a ridiculous $5 mark-up, and I decided I couldn’t afford it.
I went to the opening seminar on the state of philosophy in America, and heard that the future is in experimentation: not thinking great thoughts, but thoughts that are provable under laboratory conditions. At the reception afterwards, a blonde woman from Oberlin was the first to notice that my nametag didn’t have a university affiliation. “I’m not a philosopher,” I said. “It’s just a hobby. I’m more of an amateur intellectual historian.”
She said “that’s charming,” in a way that made me realize I wasn’t going to make any friends.
“You pricks,” I wanted to say after a half-hour. “Aren’t I the public you want to be reaching?”
I walked outside and over to the lake. With no moon it looked like it went on forever, merging with the ground on the other side … and yet somehow there were still dark hills over the horizon. I stared at this for a long time, trying to square that odd image in my mind: an infinite lake, and hills beyond it.
The next morning seminar was on using computers in analytic philosophy. It was my birthday. After lunch it was using MRI scans in philosophy of language. A department chair from Purdue said that all real thinking happens at the level of the neuron. It was my birthday. By dinner it had hit me that I might never talk with Denise again, and that I didn’t have any friends left in Chicago. There was no one left who I could crash with. I should be doing something about this. Instead I went the evening keynote on statistical analysis. It was my 30th birthday.
And it was wrong. All wrong.
During the Q&A I went up to the microphone. I waited in line. I could see the people I’d met the night before staring at me, wondering. “I’m sorry,” I said when it was my turn. “I’m so sorry. But it seems to me that the most interesting, important, thoughts are the ones that only happen outside of the laboratory. Shouldn’t we be thinking those thoughts?”
“Where do you teach?” the speaker asked.
I walked out. I walked back to the lake. To the infinite lake and the dark mountain. This time, the swans were sitting quietly under the new moon. This time, there was a paddle boat sitting at the dock.
I got in. I paddled with my feet and did my best to steer. I glided out into what might have been the center of the lake. All alone, even more alone than when I’d been tossed out of two homes in two weeks, I stared up at the stars and cried.
Eventually I asked “What am I going to do?”
I stayed there until morning, and had no good ideas. I watched the sun come up, and paddled back to the dock.
I went back to my room. I passed a group of people from the symposium on their way to breakfast, two old men, one young guy … younger than me … and two attractive women.
“Hey,” said the old man.
“Hey!” he said again, to get my attention. I turned, bleary eyed. I stared. “Yes?”
They gathered around me. The old man shook my hand. One of the women put her hand on my shoulder.
“Thank you,” the old man said. “Thank you for having the courage to say that!”
“Somebody had to,” said the young guy.
“You’re a hero,” said one of the women.
It was the first time anyone ever told me that.
A solo sailor is one thing. A solo flyer is one thing. People get used to the idea that a girl in her mid-teens can face air or water or wind on her own. They don’t trust her to face people. Not without being overborne in some way or other. A girl needs a protector on land. That’s what they tell her, sometimes they’re right.
She was only fifteen. She lived in a railroad flat in Queens with no locks on the doors, and this was the early ’80s. It was a building full of crazy friends. She has stories about stealing mattresses from a hotel by throwing them out the window. She has stories about the friends testifying to each other’s insanity by turns so they could all get disability. She has stories about selling rooted spider plant cuttings in jam jars on the street on the twenty-ninth of the month.
She had a male friend who stayed with her there. She wasn’t stupid, she knew that a man who sees a girl with a guy figures she already has an owner and goes looking elsewhere. So, yes, she found a guy to pretend he was the owner if someone came sniffing around. The friend was kind of her boyfriend, but she had her life, he had his. At first they just looked out for each other, then they looked after each other, then they got together, then they got married. They’re still married.
She was never his type, he was never hers. They’re war buddies, is what they are. She has her friends, he has his. He’s a contractor. She’s a housing rights investigator for the state. They still live separately by day. They still watch each other’s backs by night.
Of course they’ve each thought about splitting away, looking for romance — but never seriously. Walking out on the ordinary kind of spouse is one thing. It’s tears and alimony and all that crap. But they were partners in the cop or detective sense, not married but sealed in blood. You don’t walk out on that kind of a partner.
If she’d been the approved kind of wimpy heroine who gets in the newspapers — if she’d been a solo long-distance sailor or flyer — she might have had the luxury of marrying on soft unreliable grounds like romance. She wondered what kind of soft souls would pair up without knowing if they had each other’s backs.
Correction, March 17: A March 15 article on immigrants affiliated with the Russian Mafia purchasing real estate in New York City erroneously stated that Pavel Dostoyevsky is not related to the great Russian novelist. In fact, Mr. Dostoyevsky is the great, great grandson of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, author of such books as Crime and Punishment.
Correction, March 19: A March 17 correction on a story of immigrants affiliated with the Russian Mafia purchasing real estate in New York City erroneously quoted a “Pavel Dostoyevsky.” In fact, his name is Pavel Nabokov.
Correction, March 20: A March 17 correction of a March 15 article on Russian immigrants with ties to the Mafia inadvertently mistook the New York Society for Russian Literature, headed by its President Pavel Nabokov, for the Russian Mafia. This was erroneous. In fact, the NYSRL is not engaged in criminal activities, but spends every Wednesday discussing great books over vodka. All New Yorkers are welcome to attend. This month’s book: Dr. Zhivago, by Pasternak.
Correction, March 22: A March 20 correction of a March 17 correction of a March 15 article which appeared to be about the Russian Mafia but was in fact about the New York Society for Russian Literature made several errors. Among them: that the New York Society for Russian Literature is not engaged in criminal activities. According to police, they sell knock-off Russian novels on street corners in Greenwich Village, forgeries which frequently mislead children into thinking that winter is a pleasant time for peaceful reflection. Additionally, this months’ book is not Dr. Zhivago, by Pasternak, but The Master and Margarita, by Bulgakov, which is available for purchase at the NYSRL’s storefront in Greenwich Village. Finally, the correction erroneously stated that all New Yorkers are welcome to attend.
Correction, March 23: A March 22 correction of a March 20 correction of an erroneous march 17 correction of a March 15 article that we deeply regret, mistakenly suggested that copies of The Master and Margarita, by Bulgakov, are available at the storefront of the New York Society for Russian Literature, in Greenwich Village. In fact, only knock-off texts – entitled The Master and Bernadette – are available at the NYSRL’s store, and these are water damaged, and contain no references to Pontius Pilate, betrayer of Christ, who was such a pivotal and moving character in the original. Additionally, the NYSRL’s Executive Director, Mr. Pavel Nabokov, was referred to as its President; additionally, Mr. Nabokov was said to be uninvolved with the Russian Mafia. In fact, he is its chief literary critic. We regret the error.