Still Chewing On It by S.P. Venkat

“What did you have for lunch?” she asks, over Zoom. I promise, I wasn’t watching the whole class. I had other things to do. But I caught that. I stop and listen. What will he say? Will he tell her the truth?

“Rice and dal,” he says plainly.

I realize I’m holding my breath. Waiting to hear what she says. To hear what the others say. Will they allow it?

I am transported back to the school canteen, where my beloved puri and potato are currently being sneered at. “What’s that yellow mush?” One of them ask me. She is not really interested in the answer.

To have my meal thus slandered, hurt. But I also see what they see. A sad curled up little circle of oily bread in my lunchbox. And a square of unrecognizable, save for the peas, yellow mash.

Under their scrutiny, I am ashamed. They don’t know how tasty it is. The chewy bread is so satisfying, even cold. I’d been looking forward to it all morning. It’s a different but equal pleasure as leftovers. A pleasure twice anticipated and twice savored.

I tear off some puri, scoop up the potato and eat it. My mouth is watering with pleasure. But my heart isn’t in it. I try to be nonchalant, and it seems to have worked. They’ve moved on to other topics. They don’t really care. But look at me, 27 years later, remembering and still hurting. I’m still chewing on it.

I think of a story a friend once told me. It had been a similar thing with a teacher asking each child to state their favorite foods. “Rice and yogurt,” one boy had said. The teacher shook their head. “That’s not a real meal, honey.” The boy had looked crestfallen, my friend told me.

I imagine him baffled. If it wasn’t a real meal, why did he eat it every day? And love it so much? My friend had been there, another fellow yogurt-rice eater. But she’d stayed silent. She’d let him swallow the humiliation alone.

“Well, what did you say?” I’d asked at the end of the story.

“About what?” she’d asked.

“As your favorite food.”

“Oh, I don’t remember. Probably pizza.”

I don’t blame her. I probably would have done the same. It’s not a big deal. Whatever, right? But why did she tell me this story, so many years later?

I’m watching a documentary on Netflix. It’s hosted by a famous chef. He is of Korean descent. He’s got a famous restaurant in New York City. There’s this one segment where they film him in his parent’s house.

He’s asked about what he ate as a child. And he talks about how embarrassing it was to bring his home food to school. This guy? Are you kidding me? That food has literally made him a millionaire. A household name. But he still remembers having his food called stinky. When he talks about the taunting, his eyes wander. He doesn’t look at the interviewer or the food. I shake my head in disbelief. He shouldn’t be holding on to this, but clearly, he does.

Back in the present, I am still looking at the screen. “Rice and dal?” the teacher asks. I brace myself.

“That’s your favorite, right?” she asks tentatively and smiles.

He nods. No big deal to him. Or her. She’s already moved on to the next child. Anyway, half of them aren’t even listening. Distance learning with 5-year-olds is a mess.

It was all so matter of fact. I am relieved. No, it’s not just relief. I am grateful. I breathe again.

Smita_Profile_Pic_09.2021S. P. Venkat is a writer and comedian obsessed with the idea of displaced and reforged identities, aka immigrant lives. She also creates interactive comedy experiments, like her viral “Parenting in a Pandemic Simulator” which was featured in the Huffington Post. She is currently working on her first novel, Fired Up, which is a finalist in the SparkPress STEP contest for BIPOC writers. Find out more at

Instructions for Telling the Truth by Maggie Wolff

Lie. Don’t tell the doctor you don’t sleep more than a few hours a night, go days without eating, a week without showering. If you tell her the truth, the words you don’t want to hear will split you open again like a backache kick from inside the body.

Wait. Wait it out as long as you can. Hold on to fibers until they shred and slip, emptying your palms.

Speak. Tell the truth. But don’t tell it all. Tell the doctor just enough that she will say what you don’t want to hear, we need to increase your dosage, but not enough truth that she ups the meds too drastically. She says this can be temporary and we will see how you feel on the increased dosage. You tell her, I still want to feel, but you know even that is a lie somedays.

Take. Take the new pill added to the old pill to achieve the right dosage. You tell yourself, this doesn’t have to be hard, because the body knows how to swallow. Don’t beat yourself up for upped meds. The brain isn’t as well trained as the throat. You know this already. You know this by now.

Wait. It will take weeks for you to possibly feel better again. Wait and let it pass over you. Wait and sleep through it as the increase zombifies, nullifies, quiets the too loud parts of you and performs a brain drain. Wait and do what the body wants: sleep or stay awake all night, eat water for dinner or chewable food, wander from room to room like a ghost without the baggage or stay in bed ankle chained to the empty inside you. Wait and see, the doctor says. Wait.


Maggie Wolff is a queer writer. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Black Fox Literary Magazine, The Lascaux Review, Saw Palm, and Qu Literary Magazine. She is working on her first poetry collection, which follows three generations of women as they navigate depression, addiction, and suicide. She is a poetry candidate in the MFA creative writing program at the University of Central Florida.

A Man on the Street Offers Me a Cooked Shrimp by Andrea Frazier

And I take it, lift the slick comma of flesh right off the flimsy paper plate he juts gently but determinedly into my path. The man’s smile is a jumbled graveyard, each jaundiced tooth a mossy tombstone half-toppled by vandals or forced into a haphazard angle by tree roots heaving and flexing underneath the earth, threatening to burst through. Fueled by a winter melancholy twining my perennial nostalgia, I walk one hundred miles every weeknight over quiet sidewalks sometimes illuminated by wavering halos of lamplight, sometimes not. Now the man wiggles some fingers at me, not the goodbye I’d like but an invitation. With the shrimp tail pinched between my right thumb and index finger, I use my other hand to yank out one of the earbuds that reliably blanket my grey matter with dull noise and chatter. Even as I try to divert it, my mind thunders to the little black canister of pepper spray nestled like an heirloom bullet in the soft fleece of my coat pocket. A fleeting glow disappears into the dark crosshatch of towering pine branches as they welcome the sinking sun; the desolation of this short, tucked away road, creaky little homes buttoned up tight, breathes around me. Still, I smile. Smile at this man whose wiry gray hair poking from under a brown fedora rustles a bit as he bounces on the balls of his feet like he can hardly contain some good, delicious secret. Where did he come from? “Better with a smidge of cocktail sauce,” he tells me, his voice the strained chirp of a red-bellied robin caught, improbably, beneath a sudden cascade of dense snow. The plate, loaded with tiny carcasses, hovers between us. Glitter polish chipping on my nails, framed by tattered cuticles, glints faintly in the dying light when I step forward, swipe my shrimp through the pool of red. “Thank you,” I say. The pepper spray in my pocket: My mom halved a thirty-minute drive down sparse late-night highway to deliver it to my apartment, frantic after, in a moment of stupidity, I admitted that another man — on another of these hundred-mile walks — a stocky cannonball of a man in a blue windbreaker — had grabbed me from behind then barreled away. It’s been eight years since I’ve had a bite of meat, since I suffered through that one slaughterhouse documentary in college. But I chomp down immediately on the shrimp’s tough flesh as I walk away from the man with the graveyard smile, gnash the muscle, the ghosts of nerves rendered unfeeling between my molars. Heading toward home now through the dark chill, I flick the hollow shrimp tail onto some unknown neighbor’s front lawn.


Andrea Frazier is a writer who lives in Pittsburgh. Her music essay “Let’s Get Fucked Up and Die!” is published in Drunk Monkeys.

Moses in the Chevy by Jim Kourlas

There’s only one car in the lot when we come out of the Kum & Go, this black Chevy SUV with tinted windows, engine idling and two pit bulls in the back seat howling as loud as the baby in front. Trey says car seats aren’t supposed to be hitched up to the front seat. Jodine says you can’t leave a baby in a car, but when she goes to open the door the pits go psycho and that’s the end of us playing heroes. It’s like 2:30 on a Tuesday, muggy as hell. The sky’s too bright to be this buzzed.

We were swiping nickels across scratch-offs in the shop when Trey went out for a cig and the doors ding-dinged open and all that barking-crying swallowed up Whitney Houston. Mellie only looked up from behind the counter, shrugged, went back to her Sudoku. So me and Jodine follow Trey outside. The driver could be in the bathroom, we suppose, but Jodine says when she peed away her Colt the john was empty. Nobody came in the shop. So who knows who pulled up in that Chevy, got out and left a baby and two pit bulls screaming for rescue or whatever.

Jodine gets her phone out, starts dialing the cops. I don’t know anything about babies, so I’m trying to figure out if these dogs are all pit or have a little mixed in. Some boxer maybe or something with a thicker coat, shepherd, you know? They’re boy dogs, big balls knocking between those ripped hind legs. I’m tapping the window, trying to shush them, but it only riles them up more. Trey says stop it.

Jodine goes back in for some Combos and another Colt and some more scratch-offs and we have a little picnic there on the hood of the Chevy. Swipe swipe swipe. Trey slices his path through little fake slot machines, but Jodine says take your time because who knows how long the cops are going to be. I say maybe the Chevy owner is coming back. Then Trey says, searching his card for a win, that maybe there is no owner of the Chevy, maybe it just appeared here. Jodine nods, says none of this is really happening, none of it, but I’m leaning against the hood, feel the heat, the pulse of the engine, and I like this idea—that maybe the baby is a special baby, like Noah or something, dropped in the river.

Moses, Jodine says, shaking her head. She still goes to church sometimes. We pass the Colt back and forth and I can feel things slipping more, our thoughts and stuff. And so I go off, telling them how maybe the pit bulls are like angels guarding Moses-baby there. And how the baby came out of nowhere, out of a god named Chevy. This gets us feeling better about the pits, better about drinking, better that we’re just standing around having a picnic and not risking our lives to save this baby. Baby’s already got its angels, Trey says, nodding.

Then this other car pulls up, a clean white SUV with a hood too high to picnic on, shaking to some fat Latin beat. Nearly runs Trey over. He skitters out of the way and we all slide our stuff over to the front of the Chevy, making sure not to mix the couple winner cards with the stack of losers. This tall swarthy dude in a sky blue suit steps out with a set of keys in hand, flips through them, finds the right one, then opens that Chevy door. Like we’re not even there. Unhitches that baby from the car seat, pulls it up to his chest like a mother, a goddam mother I swear it, kisses it on the head and bounces it up and down until the clouds part, waters part, I dunno, this baby stops crying. Then he climbs back into his SUV, turns his beat down to nothing. Jodine hurries over and slaps that hood but the SUV backs away, just slips through her hands-like, and heads down the highway.

What about your dogs! Trey shouts, and the dogs, it’s crazy, go quiet now, like their barks were Lassie-barks calling for that rich white man like us morons called the cops. Only the cops were never coming, and that swarthy man was, so the pit bulls knew more about what was what than we ever could. I’m thinking we could use some pits like that, some angels, and say maybe we can take them home with us, but Trey says our landlord will kick us out. And Jodine says better not fuck with angels, that you can’t own one, you just got to be good and wait around like you’re at the DMV until your name gets called.

We head home after that. We still have a few more scratch-offs to blow through before the game starts at three, so at least we have some stuff to look forward to. I’m thinking about the pits though, how we left them curled on top of one another in the back seat of that Chevy, work done, dozing until they’d fly off to guard the next Moses-baby or whatever. I think I hear sirens, but I don’t know if they’re cop or ambulance or dogcatcher. If they’re coming for the baby or the pits. Then I look at Trey and Jodine ahead of me on the weedy shoulder, arms outstretched like kids on a make-believe balance beam, and I know the sirens are coming for us.

What the hell, I think. I turn around and head back to the Kum & Go. I don’t want the cops to take the dogs away. Maybe I’ll get arrested or caged with the pits. Or who knows—maybe we’ll all get saved.

Jim Kourlas earned an MFA in creative writing from Roosevelt University in Chicago and has stories in Hunger Mountain and The Blue Mountain Review. He lives in Omaha with his wife and son.