Joyland

a hub for short fiction

Flight

I’d stepped into the courtyard of Café Amelie to take the call from Hannah but I could only make out every third word she said: Sam, the police, hallucinogenic mushrooms, the Mississippi. Sam was always getting into it with the police and I couldn’t even tell if Hannah was talking to me or to Nick or to someone else at the bar. She hung up mid-sentence.

My father’s friend had taken me out to lunch because he was in New Orleans for a lawyer convention, and he’d been instructed by my mother to feed me and report back to her. I could see him through the window dabbing his mustache with the napkin every seven seconds like he was checking the rearview mirror. I came back inside and finished my plate of oysters Rockefeller, chewing slowly so that he would do all the talking.

Essay: The Real Portlandia

Richard Melo's new novel, Happy Talk, is out this June from Red Lemonade.

I was half out of my mind if not all the way. One year, I became a single dad. Then a year and a half later, my kid’s mom died. My first novel, a book I had spent the decade of my twenties writing, was finally coming out, and while I should have been ecstatic at my first publishing experience, with so much sadness at home, my face felt too heavy to smile. George Bush was president and acting like someone who never met a war he didn’t like. These were dark times.

Some people in circumstances like these might have turned to drugs and alcohol, others to Jesus Christ. All I wanted was to take care of my four-year-old daughter and surround myself with as much laughter as I could stand until life turned back to normal. Lucky for me, I found LiveJournal.

Divestment

Gerda Kohl, eighty years old, sat in the den of her house, surrounded by cardboard boxes. Her two daughters were fighting in the study next door. They kept their voices lowered, but it was an old house with thin walls, and although Gerda couldn’t understand the words, the tone was clear enough. Charlotte and Anne had never gotten on at the best of times, and it was probably inevitable that they should fight now. She only wished they’d picked a more distant room.

The Clinical Trials of Eduardo Cabalas

I got a job as a purple dinosaur that kids could get their picture taken with, on the corner of St. Catherine’s and Peel in Montreal.

“Why the hell are you doing that?” my brother Otis asked when I announced that I was now fully employed.

“Why?” I replied. “Why?”

Otis spent his days in a hydraulic swivel chair, masking himself from halitosis and TB while excavating pinholes of rot out other peoples’ teeth. He’d hold out a gloved hand and Yasmina would place a glowing orange biolaser there. “Thank you Yasmina,” he’d say in a voice low and muffled.

I made a commission off every photo a child had taken on my purple lap. Kids called me “Barney” and screamed with joy and hugged me with honest and startling love, hugged me like I could save them.

Essay: Bleakness. Laughter. Liberation?

Alicia Louise Merchant

 

The second time someone told me I was dying I was 30 years old. The first time I was 23, but I was living in Montréal then and chalked up the nurse’s proclamation of my impending demise to a breakdown in language. I didn’t really believe it. The second time, I believed it, even though the surgeon hardly seemed credible in his sandals and cargo shorts and a voice most people reserve for children and dogs. I cried, but mostly I thought about getting outside so I could crack jokes with my friend about the indignity of being told I was dying by a man with Birkenstocks and bad breath.

 

Life Camp

Life Camp is also available in Joyland Retro Vol. 1 No. 3.

We are told the sea monkeys need a special place to live. They are handed out, three per plastic sandwich bag, to our teenage mothers preparation class. Brenda, my only friend from the outside, who is six months pregnant and still not showing, does a quick scan of the room—the vision boards with Hilary and Angelina and Oprah, the cradle dioramas, our oblivious teacher with her ironed three piece suit and ponytailed grey hair —and plops the bag in her purse.

A Doom of Her Own

Please understand.

This story will tell you nothing in a straightforward fashion. Though the pages are numbered, you must not confuse sequence with consequence. The pages are paths, and you will have to choose among them.  

That is to say, whatever happens here will be your fault. But I will try to help you. Really, I will. I’ll make the choices clear. And I’ll make it possible for you to retrace your steps, over and over and over again, if that’s what you feel compelled to do. 

So now the story begins:

Klan

Elijah flung himself on his bed, jammed his hands behind his head, and stared at the double-winged models of WWI fighter planes hanging from his ceiling. He imagined their propellers spinning, strained to hear their engines’ whine. He imagined the little planes snapping free of their strings, buzzing down the stairs in formation, and into the kitchen. They’d drop little bombs until his parents shut up and slumped to the floor.

The doorbell rang.

Elijah grabbed his slingshot from its place on his nightstand and shoved it in his jeans’ pocket. He flew down the stairs and flung open the door. Bobby stepped in.

“Let’s get out of here.” Elijah reached in the closet, yanked his sweatshirt off its hanger, and tugged it on. His parents appeared in the hall beside his framed preschool silhouette. His dad’s plastic smile and his mom’s trembling one made his stomach lurch. Did they think he didn’t know they fought? How dumb did could they be?

The Pop-Up Restaurant

 

We admit it. Like almost all of you, we here at Spice Rack have never eaten at a restaurant called “The Pulitzer.” We’ve never tried what Food Source calls a “Grand Marnier and orange zest crème brulee that’s like a double fake orgasm while dry-humping a Cara Cara tree.” Or their “small plate of bacon-wrapped kale in pomegranate truffle oil” that apparently has “the flavor intensity equal to a motorcycle driven by a grizzly bear on fire, if the grizzly bear was made of bacon-wrapped kale.”

We hate to throw anyone under the food truck here, but we suspect the writers from Food Source, like most everyone else, had never eaten at The Pulitzer and were just trying to fit in with the other food bloggers and reviewers who also claimed they had. Let us here at Spice Rack, with our three James Beard Award nominations for accuracy in food writing, set the example.

Sinking

The summer storm crouched behind them while they stared at the gator in the mud. It was hard to say how big he was; only his flat, u-shaped snout appeared above the water line. The rest of his body was obscured by the tangled mass of weeds.  She hadn’t noticed him right away, leaning her body over the railing of the boardwalk that extended just beyond the lake’s edge and scanning the other bank for water birds. A wall of cypress trees barred her line of sight, their limbs draped with shawls of Spanish moss.

Essay: Tangled

Richard and I were in Maine visiting our friend Josey, who had restored a building beside a swing bridge. The building had at various times been a dance hall and a bowling alley, and you could see faded lettering and brickwork from its past. The windows framed boats, water, and sky, and you felt skipped along on a tide. Josey saw beauty where other people didn’t see anything. It was how she had found her house.

One night she invited another couple to dinner. We were all in our 50s or early 60s. It was August, and the air had a sultry feel against your skin. Veronica and George weren’t exactly a couple. They were friends or an on-again-off-again couple. Some people grow into each other like trees planted close together. Their branches and roots get tangled, even if they have not planned it. George knew about such arrangements. He worked as a landscape designer, getting down in dirt with knee pads. Josey had not met him before. Veronica was her friend.

Morphology

 

 

The flies showed up in January. I left for work and there was nothing, but when I got home there they were—maybe fifty of them, coating the long fluorescent light above our bed, like fuzzy, vibrating moss. I called my wife’s name. Even though I knew she wasn’t home. I closed the door and went out into the living room, sat on the loveseat and stared at the wall.

 

The wall looked different. I couldn’t tell how from across the room; in our attic apartment all the walls slanted so steeply that they made me feel claustrophobic. They disoriented me—were they walls or ceilings? But today there was something else about the wall across from me. Like it too was buzzing with life.

 

Many Times Their Raging Hearts

She always threatened to kill herself. They’d get in fights and Patty’d say, “Someday you’ll be real sorry you said that!” or “How can you say that when you know what I could do to myself?” and then she’d slam the bedroom door and hunker down until she got too hungry to keep on. In these cases Cody tried to imagine Patty a teenager (the age she'd been when her uncle had done the unthinkable), and himself the grown adult, and then he imagined his body levitating a foot or two, the vantage he needed to look down upon Patty to see she was too childish to understand the power of words.

Maternity Suit

 

When she started at Ridout and Finney’s, Melanie was very careful about what she wore. Light brown pumps with a medium heel, a wool suit in calm camel, and pantyhose the colour of weak tea. Under the suit she wore a cream silk shirt and a string of amber beads. Quality.

Jake Martin said to Roger Penrith, “Your new IT manager looks efficient.” Roger knew what he meant.

“Doesn’t she, though?” he said. “And she knows what she’s doing.”

Melanie's hair was thick and blond, caught up in a silk bow at the back. An olive green bow, streaked with amber. It tied the whole thing together.

“Makes a welcome change, doesn't it?” Roger added, showing Jake he knew exactly what he meant: Roz, the receptionist with her micro minis and her extraordinary ratty, one-sided hair. She had to tilt her head to keep it there, until she grew tired and perversely flung it all with huge drama to the other side. Making Roger wonder about airborne matter.

The Turnpike

It is summer of 1978, and a woman without a wedding ring drives east on the Will Roger’s Turnpike, the straightest route out of the State of Oklahoma. Drooping grasses and yellowed brush drop away on either side, leaning westward, as if to point her back to where she started. It is early afternoon and her husband will not be home for hours. The woman wears her dark hair long but full. It is a style fashionable to Oklahoma City women, and her eyes, big in her face as a starving child’s, are traced in black liner.  White cotton bellbottoms encase her thighs, and an embroidered peasant blouse of red and white covers her slightly sloping shoulders. The memory of a bruise blooms sallow over one cheek. She drives just under the speed limit, worried that the car will overheat in the desert heat.

Distance

I first noticed how the world was retreating from me on a morning in early June after it had rained for nearly eight days. Water swamped the streets and clogged the sewers, so the garbage of people’s lives began to appear face down in the gutters. Mostly we saw trash floating by us, but on occasion, a ruined photograph or a children’s plastic toy bobbed in the expansive puddles that collected at the low points of the street. The newscasters on television, believing in a world with balance, irrationally insisted the rain couldn’t continue because we had so much of it. They were wrong, of course. The rain continued. And on the morning of the eighth day of rain, I couldn’t touch Alex anymore.  

Welcome to My Harem

The summer after my nineteenth birthday, Cedar Point paid me excellent money to wear a wig of raven tresses and full-length gown of rich blue satin and to be trailed by seven little people with names like Bashful. My friend Sara had gotten me the job. Thirty-two with a youthful face, she’d been hired the previous month as Goldilocks. 

On our lunch breaks, I took off my wig and scratched my scalp while removing cold cuts out of my Chef's salad; Sara talked incessantly about her new boyfriend Leonard, who worked at the local Lube Stop and with whom she was dabbling in S&M. 

Throughout my workday, I’d rest with the little people on the benches scattered throughout the park, waving grandly to Pinocchio, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rumpelstiltskin. We were all paid the same rate. Some of us, like the Big Bad Wolf, were paid to scowl and look menacing; others, like Sara, were paid to look bedraggled and confused. 

Charlotte Quinn Dreams of Rooms

 

Charlotte Quinn is six the first time I see her, with fine yellow hair and a pink birthmark she’ll have on her cheek til she’s ten. She uses her mom’s phone to document the world from three-and-a-half feet: milkweeds in a post-industrial lot, colours in a pool of spilled diesel, a piece of foil glimmering on the sidewalk like a crushed Christmas bauble. Hers is a world of strange beauties.

 

At thirteen she dyes a purple streak in her hair, and overnight her body grows and curls in all the right places. I knew her mom at thirteen, before her family moved away, but Charlotte is nothing like her. Charlotte bites her nails down to the quick and they bleed, and she is failing math but doesn’t care. Charlotte is going to be a singer, a star. She loves cotton candy indie pop—Tea Breeze, the Gecko Lips, Creamgeek, the Duckies.

 

Staccato

 

Here the men are different. Of course they are. They could not be the same as us. I knew that this would be so. Though, when I first arrived, I had not expected them to be like this. Of how they do things, of how they carry out tasks, it is not my place to say “this is right” or “that is wrong.” I cannot be of their ways. Who can inhabit another? But I can see them. I watch who they are. And I wonder if they ever watch me.

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