Food is more than nourishment. You can survive on boiled spelt and fried dandelion greens, but that’s like driving the freeway in a wheelchair. Chili, Stella told me, is one of those dishes that come on like a runaway truck towing tandem trailers. It’s also like Stella herself, who in spite of her college professorship looked like a hoochie chick in a juke joint.
If the cookbooks insist that baking is science, then cooking must be art that wraps itself in relationships. It worked for Marcel Proust, recalling when petite madeleines had hot-wired his memories. That’s why I’m passing along Stella’s instructions for making a pot of chili that tells your heart to look for love in the air. Making chili was our ritual as we prepared for Cinco de Mayo to cheer the Mexican Army’s victory over the French in 1862.
“First, prepare yourself,” she cautioned, with a wink in one brown eye. “Pour a generous shot of tequila.” Her favorite was Herradura Reposado.
“Then fetch a gallon steel pot. Slice up a couple of yellow onions,” and here I remember Stella going chop-chop-chop on her old cutting board. “Put the onions in with a splash of corn oil and set them to frying softly. You want to see them turn transparent, like the skin of some Yanqui gringa.” After a quick sip of tequila, she set to dicing garlic cloves to cuddle next to the onions. “You can almost see them smiling now.”
She allowed us another taste of tequila while she rummaged around the fridge for last night’s steak (chopped into quarter-inch pieces), a leftover hamburger (chopped), or a pork chop (chopped). Okay, a pound of ground round will work nicely in the absence of leftovers. Chop chop chop, and then toss the meat into the pot. I’ve heard that Texans go for armadillo or rattler, but that’s some kind of gringo legend.
While this is sizzling, she’d call for appropriate music. I lean toward hearing those old Cuban guys from the Buena Vista Social Club, but you might pick up on Roy Orbison or a mariachi band. “Personal taste is so personal,” Stella used to tell me. “That’s why it’s called personal.”
About now, Stella would turn down the heat and sidle over to the pantry for a can of red pinto beans — habichuelas. I know, smarty-pants aficionados turn their nose up at adding beans, but I don’t criticize people with hotsy totsy taste.
Stella would then peel half a dozen plum tomatoes and mash them up for the pot. While she fetched the beans she also opened a can of tomato paste. Into the pot.
All this work required a little rest before the next act. We’d take the bottle of Herradura out to the back yard for a smoke while watching the sun sink over the Chiricahua Mountains. That’s when she’d reminisce about coming up from Nogales and finding a teaching position at Tucson’s Pima community college. And I’d remind her our wedding in June would seal the deal between our nationalities.
Shaking off any dizziness, we’d go inside and brace ourselves for the next event: spices — the chorus line of cuisine. She’d line up all the containers and tell me we’re going to need salt, black pepper, a few hits of chili powder, a substantial pinch of cayenne and a bit of cumin. A glass of red wine and a handful of sugar to beat up on the tomatoes’ acidity were the finale of her production.
Now, the pot was starting to bubble and smell good, giving me a primitive urge to go yip at the sunset. At this point, Stella would suggest we had time for a nap — remembering first to turn the fire low so our house didn’t burn down.
The stars would be out when I’d feel her gentle hand and know it was time for dinner. I’d set out two large bowls and spoons and slice up a loaf of fresh crusty bread while Stella made a pot of rice.
But first! Sample the chili — eyes closed, sniffing the spoon to sort out the meringue dance of flavors. Time now for the herbs, the last delicate grace notes in the symphony that’s been bubbling on the back burner. From the little containers on the counter, she’d add a handful each of marjoram and basil. Fresh herbs are better, but dried will get you through the night. Stir them up so these newcomers mingle and fall in love with the sauce.
This is when Stella would clink her glass with mine and spoon chili over the hot rice. From the other room, we’d hear Reuben Gonzales and the Buena Vista Social Club singing Amor de Loca Juventud.
I might have been talking about chili the night in April, two months before our wedding. I was hanging out with my friend Tom at the hospital where he’s a volunteer ambulance driver. Tom got a call about a car accident and asked if I wanted to jump into the meat wagon with him. Out on Interstate 15 we saw where a small car had gone into an arroyo. I slipped and slid down the embankment, opening the driver’s side door. That’s where I discovered what was left of Stella behind the wheel.
A bad night for everyone. Terrible for me. A disaster for Stella.
When someone goes out of your life the rest of the world disappears. How do you memorialize that person? By sifting through the things she felt were important. Music and love and dancing. And chili. Of all the things Stella left behind, our times making chili will remain a poignant memory. That’s why I call this Stella’s Chili, set a second glass of tequila at her place at table and will celebrate Cinco de Mayo alone.
Walt Giersbach’s fiction has appeared Bewildering Stories, Big Pulp, Every Day Fiction, Everyday Weirdness, Lunch Hour Stories, Mouth Full of Bullets, Mystery Authors, OG Short Fiction, Northwoods Journal, Paradigm Journal, Short Fiction World, Southern Fried Weirdness, and Written Word.Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, have been published by Wild Child.
You can find some of the best advice known to man in my establishment.
You can find some of the best liquor up in here, too.
The regulars funnel in, followed by this kid. He’s looking all glum so I give him the time of day.
“It’s nineteen hundred hours,” I say, “and you’re in like an android set on auto-pilot for the bar, so spit it out, what ails you?”
He folds onto the stool where he’ll spend the rest of the evening and unloads.
“I’ve got this condition, Doc. I need a remedy.”
I’ve already got him one poured so I push it in front of him and don’t ask for the credits. He looks like he could do with one on the house.
“That’s the finest liver oil around, baby. One glassful to be taken neat under strict barman supervision.”
It’s a sick old world out there so we like to lighten the tone when we can: liver oil’s a funny kinda name for this sweet golden liquor they’re all drinking now.
The kid tips up his glass and down it goes.
Of course it’s only us barmen who know the true origin of the drink’s name. The Premier’s address only this week mentioned addiction, an epidemic, a long-term, concerted campaign. Hogwash. It’s all front, a fake crusade. Sure, the health bills are piling up, but not half as fast as the credits in their coffers. Places like mine killing the system? We’re all that’s keeping the damn thing lubricated.
So the kid sat there, sliding on down with the rest of them, and despite the freebie he’s still looking troubled. “You know how they say we change?” he says. “Our cells regenerate until every seven years we’re a whole new animal. You heard that?”
“I hear a lot of things.”
“Well I got it bad. For me it’s not seven years, it’s more like seven hours. I’m not the same person from one day to the next. You think I’m wise cracking? I’m serious! I look in the mirror and I’ve got this haircut, or these clothes, and it’s not me. So I change it all, then the next day it’s changed all over again and that’s not me, neither. I got photo evidence, man! Here, look.”
He hands me some snaps that could be six different people. The kid’s right, he’s got it bad.
“It’s my mind, too. One day I love this music, the next I don’t even know the words. I go for a job and when they sit me down for an interview I can’t think why I’m there. This morning I wake up with a guy and a doll in my bed and I don’t know which one of them I’m supposed to be there with. I’m on perma-regenerate, man, it’s driving me nuts!”
Yep, I’ve seen cases before but none quite like this. I’ve heard them called Chameleons. I twiddle my machine-waxed moustache as I wonder if there’s a way to make this next bit stick. I doubt it. But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t offer my two credits’ worth.
“You want a short term fix?” He nods like a Parkinson’s case. “Get one more liver oil down you, then go back to your pod and take it easy. It’ll take the edge off for a day or two, keep you stable, keep you sane, if a little blue. But then you’re back to square one.”
“Really? You serious mister, it’ll really work?”
“Sure, kid. Only don’t overdo it. Your condition’s one that you’ll grow out of. You’ll smooth out in time, you’ll find your direction and you’ll quit changing. You gotta trust me on this. You see him over there?” While I pour the kid another glass he follows my eyes to a hollow little man with white hair and lines under his lines. His drinking hand shakes so much that he’s tied a sling around his neck so he can winch it up with the other hand and not spill so much. It’d be funny if it weren’t so tragic. “He’s forty-two. He overdid it. You say you don’t know who you are from one day to the next? That guy got cured alright, he doesn’t change, but now he doesn’t know who he is from one second to the next. Took the edge off so much he doesn’t know where the edge is no more. Use the oil wisely, kid. Be patient. It’ll wear off.”
The kid sips his new drink and contemplates.
He scans the room of factory drones, typists, pod technicians, plumbers, cleaners, shelf stackers, road sweeps, failed artists, the unemployed, the little guy with the sling. All heads in hands and little lines for mouths.
He scratches his palm like he’s trying to get a reading.
Then he makes the rest of his drink disappear and slams down the empty glass.
“Fill her up,” he says.
Van Zeller flings short stories out into the web in the hope one or two of them stick, saying, “If you’re reading this, I guess this one did.”
editorial by Camille Gooderham Campbell
From the Editors
Thank you for your patience with our delayed start this month. As some of you may know, Google stopped supporting the login system version used by our submissions database, locking out hundreds of authors and half our editorial team for about a week before the issue could be resolved.
These things always happen at the busiest times! On April 20th, Every Day Novels launched the serialization of Captain Bartholomew Quasar and the Space-Time Displacement Conundrum by Milo James Fowler. Check it out — the first five chapters are free to read on the site. We’ve had several Captain Quasar stories here at EDF, and the good captain has also popped up at other fine fiction joints around the internet. If you’re a fan, come on over.
We’d really hoped for something cosmic, maybe some space opera, for May the 4th… but since nothing quite like that came our way this month, we give you “Liver Oil” by Van Zeller, which at least has some of the atmosphere of a certain cantina. You could also check out a classic EDF story from back in 2008, “The Only Difference Between Men and Boys” by Nicholas Ozment…
It was hard to choose something for Memorial Day, being a Monday. Not wanting to start a week with something too depressing, we chose “The Report” by Buddy Shay, as it has some humorous notes but also features the death of a serving officer. We have a couple of other stories this month that could have served well on the day, but they’re just too grim for a Monday; here’s a nod of recognition to “Flares” by Tim Hanson and “Black Water” by Matthew Lavin.
We are very sorry to see Jim Harrington step down as managing editor of Flash Fiction Chronicles. He has given his time and energy over an amazing two years of leading and supporting FFC’s mission to help in the growth of quality flash fiction and lead discussion of the art and craft of flash fiction, fiction in general, and the issues of writing, marketing, and publishing today. As it was with founding editor Gay Degani, Jim cannot be replaced or substituted for, but we’re hoping to find a new volunteer (or team of volunteers) to step up and carry on FFC’s work (if you think this might be a good fit for you, contact us for an interview). Jim leaves us with a month of articles scheduled for May, so no lights are going out quite yet. In the meantime, please join me in thanking Jim for all the time and energy and care he gave to FFC over the past two years.
And now we move along to the stories we have for you this month…
May’s Table of Contents
|May 4||Van Zeller||Liver Oil|
|May 5||Walt Giersbach||Stella’s Chili|
|May 6||Kira Plummer||The Education of Jimmy Cooke|
|May 7||LB Thomas||Claws|
|May 8||Sara Roberts||Fixing Things|
|May 9||Jared Golub||Fire Water|
|May 10||Gustavo Bondoni||A Lot to Talk About|
|May 11||Andrea LoFiego||Breakfast|
|May 12||Hermine Robinson||Thrift Store Princess|
|May 13||D. Quentin Miller||Life Without Wishes|
|May 14||Nicholas Olson||Neat Piles|
|May 15||Matthew Lavin||Black Lake|
|May 16||Scott T. Harker||Dumb Debbie|
|May 17||Bernard Reed||At the Moment of the Giraffe|
|May 18||Aaron Emmel||Jacob Gayne, Vice President|
|May 19||Jessi Cole Jackson||Lady Cintron and the Bull|
|May 20||Steven L. Peck||Tales from Pleasant Grove|
|May 21||C.M. Gabbett||Her Number|
|May 22||Tim Hanson||Flares|
|May 23||Kristin Lea Berry||Goodbye, Mick|
|May 24||Georgene Smith Goodin||Unwrapped|
|May 25||Buddy Shay||The Report|
|May 26||M. E. Hopkins||Object Lessons|
|May 27||Sean Hill||The Baleful Tome|
|May 28||Justin Eells||Bonzo’s|
|May 29||Terry Ibele||Red|
|May 30||Clint Wastling||Monsieur Alphonse’s Garden|
|May 31||J. J. Roth||Barden Bernick, Living the Dream|
Unfortunately, this past week we had some system issues that prevented half our editorial team from accessing our database. Therefore, we’re taking a mini break for three days: May’s Table of Contents will appear and our regular stream of stories will continue as of Monday (May 4th). We just need this brief pause so we can catch up on things that couldn’t get done on schedule. We appreciate your patience.
the EDF Editorial Team
I’m Nobody — not the one in Emily Dickinson’s poem, although we share the same views. Tonight, you will find me in the grim green room.
When in this room — and I’m dragged back here all too often — I feel edgy and unwell. Perhaps the full moon, creeping above the windowsill like a peeping Tom, is to blame.
Boredom presses in like bad weather from these three go-light green walls (the fourth, doubtless an equally aggressively green, is invisible). I pull a volume from the neat rows of identical books, hoping against hope that something interesting will lie between the pages. As always, the books lie blank and silent. The only real book on this shelf is The Runaway Bunny — a good book, but one I’ve read thousands of times.
I am not alone here. Would that I were! The child lies stiffly in bed, furred paws resting atop the covers. This nameless, pajama-clad child is of indeterminate sex and species. Its head resembles a stuffed rabbit’s — not a real rabbit, mind you, but a stuffed rabbit.
“Hello,” I say tentatively. Without looking at me, the child begins its nightly litany of its possessions. If I had eyes, I would roll them, but I am the least-developed Nobody in the history of fictional characters.
Once upon a time, I lived in author’s minds. I frolicked across fresh white pages, danced on the ruled lines. That is what Nobodies are for. Miss Dickinson never realized that there are more than two of us. We are legion, for we are needed.
Most Nobodies yearn to become fixed persons, the characters who run away with stories. I am the less common sort, the kind who enjoys being Nobody. I love basking half-formed in the words, feeling the ideas flow around me. When the character begins to set like gelatin in a mold, I slip out to become Nobody again. After Nobodies become TKs, they soon become Somebodies, and once one is named there’s no hope of being a carefree Nobody again.
But something terrible happened in the green room. Nobody became a character, and so I am trapped here. From time to time I almost escape, but I always snap back to this cheerless place, where the moon moves in the same arc.
The child is a useless conversationalist. The mouse and the kittens stare at me blankly, too unrealized even to chase one another as they teleport from page to page. The toyhouse is empty, and its yellow windows — a trompe l’oeil mimicking light from within — hold neither warmth nor welcome.
I cross to the old-fashioned telephone and lift the receiver, but dead silence greets me. Voices from the telephone do not belong in this book; the only voices here sift in, disembodied and without direction, when it pleases them.
People call this book timeless, but I can’t agree. I know the world has changed. The bowl of mush doesn’t belong on the table; children forgo snacks before bed. Combs look much the same, but hairbrushes have handles now. Fireplaces are no longer common in bedrooms. Even the language has changed. Just once, I would like the dignity of a direct-address comma.
“Why do people still read this book?” I ask in despair.
Nothing in the room moves, but the voices answer. Baritones and sopranos layer over one another, accents and languages clash, but nevertheless they say clearly, “Children love this book.”
“Because it talks like they do. But you don’t need a book to bid goodnight to everything in sight. Children love it more when it’s a game with their parents, when no book is opened.”
“Parents love this book.”
“Admiring bog!” I cry. “I hear their voices in the telephone, gabbling in their rush. Their world seethes with flickering screens and bad spelling and speakers turned too loud. They’d rather have suspiciously quiet kittens and a bowl full of mush.”
“The parents want peace,” admit the voices, “They want a pleasant book to soothe their children to sleep.”
“I’ve seen the toys they give their children! Those things turn batteries into chirps and giggles and five-second earworms. They flash like police cars speeding to an accident. To ‘stimulate’ them, the parents say. Why does no one stimulate children’s minds with books?”
“They do,” snap the voices. “They have vocabulary books. Many have excellent photographs, some even correctly labeled.”
“Children need more than words. They need stories! They need characters to love! When I’ve glimpsed books beyond this one, I’ve witnessed adventures. I’ve met real characters — a Nobody knows those. Goslings and wild things, a rabbit made of velveteen. This book has no characters, no story. It’s a ritual tamed into meaninglessness, read relentlessly by tired parents desperate to bore their children to sleep.”
The old woman appears in the rocking chair, her beady eyes gleaming out of her masklike rabbit head. “Hush,” she mutters without glancing up from her knitting. “Hush.”
I sigh. I know what happens next. Resigned, I watch the child pull its furry limbs out from under the covers and begin to make its rounds.
“Thanks for nothing, noises everywhere,” I hiss. I open the door of the toyhouse and crawl in, my amorphous body flexing like a rat’s. Here I am unobserved, and once my role is finished, perhaps I can break out.
Perhaps this time I can fly away. Although it’s against my nature, I begin to dream of becoming a Somebody. Anything would be better than the life of a Nobody trapped in a finished book. The joy of Nobodyness lies in watching the book grow, but this one just froze–and too many times in a day, I am frozen in it.
The child curves its boneless limbs across its pillow, muttering its goodnights to comb and to brush, to me and to mush.
And with that, I am free — for now. I will try to escape, but someone is reading this book almost every second of the day.
It’s always bedtime somewhere.
Laura Blackwell is a writer, editor, and journalist. Her novelettes and short stories have appeared in magazines and in various print and eBook anthologies. You can find her on Twitter at @pronouncedLAHra.