online magazine for short, good writing

Category: Nonfiction

Spam and Bones

by a contributor

Lucy Huber

My father kept a box of Milkbones on top of the fridge. We did not own a dog. He told me he’d been sneaking dog biscuits since he was a kid, when he actually had a dog, hiding under the kitchen table to munch on the red and green and yellow femur-shaped treats. The Milkbones were probably full of guts and brains and bits of bone, my mother complained—they were never meant for humans to eat. But he wheeled his grocery cart down the pet aisle, picking up the big red box with a golden retriever on the cover and popped it in without the slightest hint of shame. My father was never embarrassed by anything. He ate those dog biscuits like they were double-stuffed Oreos.

It was no surprise to me that my father freely ate food originally intended for well-behaved pets. To me, every food he liked seemed poisonous: Spam, Scrapple, cans of pickled herring (a food I only discovered was made of fish and not fillets of beautiful long-legged birds when I was in my early teens). Perhaps this compulsion to eat artificial came from his heritage; he told me over and over that his father was a food chemist who worked for Hostess. My grandfather was a member of the team who developed the hot pink Zinger. In a laboratory.

When I was seven, my father went to the hospital with chest pains. My mother took me to see him after they cut him open, but I didn’t like the way he looked with a needle in his hand and a bright red slit up his chest, so she took me to the gift shop and bought me a brown and white stuffed tomcat instead. All those poison foods he’d eaten had clogged up a vein in his heart and they had to scrape it out. For months when I felt a twinge of heartburn, I grabbed my chest and wondered if I my veins were clogged, if they would have to scrape out my heart, too.

When my father came home, he filled his dresser with pills. Every morning he took a handful with his new breakfast: egg whites and oat bran. He cooked the oat bran in a silver pot and every morning I came downstairs to find the blob pulsing on the stove. Now we had unfamiliar mason jars in the cabinets: flax seed and oat bran and other mystery grains I didn’t recognize. There were no more cans of Spam. No more Milkbones. My mom bought a treadmill and assembled it in the basement. My father, who I had never seen wear any clothes less casual than khakis and a flannel shirt, bought his first pair of running shoes and scrounged up an old t-shirt from the back of his drawer that featured a hardware store logo and was covered in spots of paint. He walked on the treadmill every night after dinner; it emitted a low hum that could be heard through the whole house. Every night, the vibrating floorboards were a pulsing comfort. My father was going to be okay.

The year after my father’s heart surgery, I became a vegetarian. The healthy meat-free meals my mother made for my father were now made in double portions, one for him and one for me. But when my father made lunch, he mistakenly made me chicken noodle soup. He would pick me up from school and ask if I wanted to go to get a hamburger from McDonalds as a treat. “That stuff is gross,” I’d tell him, annoyed that he couldn’t remember my restrictions. I wondered if it was because he couldn’t imagine choosing a life like this, a life of greens and tofu—a Spam-free life. But he never complained. He ate every bite of that oat bran.

Now my mother and father live in a bed and breakfast in Vermont and actually have a dog. My father gave up the treadmill for long snowshoe walks in the park and working long hours doing things like rebuilding the barn floor. The dog only eats all-organic wheat-free dog treats. They do not feed him Milkbones. My father is healthy and happy and occasionally he sneaks a piece of bacon from the plates of their guests when he knows my mother isn’t looking, which always makes me cringe a little and remember the needle in his hand.

A few years ago, I studied abroad in Wales and bought a pack of something called Digestive Biscuits. I opened the package and ate one and then another and another. They were delicious. The thick and grainy texture felt familiar. The truth is: I had tried the Milkbones. And they weren’t half bad.

Lucy Huber is a third year MFA candidate and teaching assistant at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is studying Creative Nonfiction.

See Lucy’s list of 5 Things You Should Read tomorrow in our ongoing contributors’ series.

Eczema, Exoskeleton

by a contributor

Sally J. Johnson

It’s the slow scratch and peel, then pick. It is redder than shame, my skin.

I have memories of oatmeal bathtubs, of things not so natural smeared on me. Since I was a baby, my mom tells me. But I couldn’t absorb any of it. A child’s disorder, the doctors first said, something to grow out of.

I cannot tell you how many too-small sweaters I have now but still this same, scratch-riddled skin. This white flag of surrender I sewed in the night. It says, I couldn’t stop the scratching, not in my sleep, no, and not in any state of mind.

Then came creams and shots of steroids. Relief in the smallest of ways, I remember a doctor telling me I’d come out smelling like a rose 24 hours after the first shot. She did not mention I would need another every 3 months. She did not tell me this behavior would be able to kill my kidneys.

I let go, began again. My skin a perpetual spring, but blooming instead was this body that couldn’t hold onto its coat.

A man who once told me he loved me said my eczema arms were beautiful. When it came time to know he was a liar above everything else, I felt my white scars burn into me further. Felt the way a fabrication lines in your skin like stitches, and started tearing them out.

Quick cold showers, creams and calamine; I could always feel my skin tightening around me. My body a boa constrictor. No to dryer sheets, conditioner, fabrics and face products. I learn my limits. Do not go to a water park or the ocean. Do not eat bread. Do not believe boys who tell you your flaw is beautiful.

As a child I remember self-awareness. Seeing that kid in class and his dark inner-elbows. Seeing everyone’s elbows. Then putting on makeup over my patches, piecing together a new color for me, one that didn’t show the signs. But it flakes away and friends ask what happened. Children ask what happened, what terrible fire was there that swallowed me up whole and spit me out split all open like that.

This summer I submerged myself into the Atlantic Ocean ready for that salt-in-wound sting and I found it, but I kept swimming through burn. I wanted the waves to wash away old skin, so I could start over. But I come out of chrysalis daily, and am still just a crawling thing, with skin too sensitive to stay put.

I will always wait for my single skin-shedding day, the one where I’m no longer a child. When I hole up inside myself and stop the scratching, when a layer forms around me; love or something like it.

When, like a cicada in spring, I split down the middle, bust through my body and leave this skin behind.

Sally J. Johnson is the Managing Editor of Ecotone and the Poetry Editor of Atlantis. She is an MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her poetry can be read in Fogged Clarity and The Boiler Journal.

See Sally’s list of 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.

Clean Slates

by a contributor

Vaiju Joshi

Summer is an orb of golden dust, suspended in a land of clocks that work backwards. It is the kingdom of mango trees, whirring fans, and evenings that hang around for the longest time before merging into hot, sticky nights. You play hopscotch on the blazing tiles, darting nimbly this way and that. You ride your bicycle around the deserted playground tracing endless loops in the arid dust.

Your neighbour has guests visiting from her village. Those kids, they watch you and they watch you all day and then they walk up to your garden and ask to join your game. You are not really doing anything by yourself and they are already fumbling with the gate. So you open the gate and let them in, cementing your friendship over pitchers of orange cordial.

Lying spread-eagled on the freshly mopped floor, you listen to tales of their home by the seaside. They tell you the names of their teachers, friends, their grocer even, the stray cat they have adopted.

“You are a friend too, now,” they say. You nod because promises like that need no prologues really.

At lunch time, they run back home shoeless across the boiling asphalt, silver-footing the pebbles on the road. Your parents have fallen asleep after lunch, but you are awake awaiting the friends’ return and sure enough, the gate creaks lightly and there is a tentative knock at the window.

You race down the steps and join them under the old banyan tree in the garden; it is a hot afternoon and air is sulky and thick. It will rain one day and your friends will go back to their town but that day is not here yet.

“We found a baby jackfruit on the road. It is ours now,” the friends say.

You observe this bounty with much interest: this prickly, smelly, semi-bruised fruit that they insist on sharing.

“Let us eat it,” they say.

You don’t want to. It looks raw and a lone ant hops out of the fruit and crawls away.

“Get us some salt and chilli powder. Oil too,” they demand.

You unwillingly go back inside and get some oil from your mother’s gleaming copper canister. Then salt and chilli powder. Sugar too, because there is some next to the canister.

Your friends want a knife but you are not allowed one.

“You are such a baby,” they say. You stare back defiantly and then look away.

They get a sharp stone and slit open the jackfruit. White sticky sap flows out and your fingers glue together.

“Webbed fingers,” you say. They giggle. There is almost-peace then, you can almost forgive them for calling you a baby.

The jackfruit is dunked in oil and then rolled in salt and chilli.

“It is ready,” they say, these friends of yours from the seaside. These kids that have a pet cat their mother knows nothing about.

“Eat it now,” they urge. On their face is hope. And pride.

You don’t want to, but you eat a little because they are watching you. It tastes horrible. So you spit it out.

“What did you do that for?” they demand, aghast.

You refuse to answer. Your mouth is funny and feathered.

They hang around sullen.

“You are no fun,” they mutter.

“And you are bumpkins,” you say.

They hold each other’s hands and go back home, leaving you alone with a raw jackfruit and half-stuck fingers for company.

You play by yourself and pretend to have the most fun ever—why, they were not even friends till this morning. They spot you and turn their backs. You half-heartedly wait the next morning; perhaps they won’t be a-coming.

But then the door opens and there they are, again.

“What should we do today?” they ask. Clean slates all around.

“We could go down to the riverbed and collect pebbles,” you say. It takes two parties to dump memories overboard; it is always easy to forget things together.

You race down the street with them, your sandals going flap-a-flap, your hair dancing to a side, your arms in their sun-tanned ones, your voices a happy blur. Behind you the silvery road unwinds itself and green jackfruits grow plump on dusty trees.

Vaiju Joshi’s fiction has appeared/is forthcoming in PANK, Scissors & Spackle, Bartleby Snopes, Untoward, Waterhouse Review, First Stop Fiction and Adelaide Review amongst others. An engineer by profession, she is currently editing her first novel. She lives in Adelaide, Australia.

See Vaiju’s list of 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.

Forced Humanity

by a contributor

Hope Bordeaux

Jim from the webinar tells me to believe in shared responsibility. It’s a webinar about tutoring. The idea is that it will help me teach college students how to write. “I don’t know if the term is Communism or whatever,” he says, but “the ancient Chinese and the ancient Egyptians kept aside significant portions of each harvest for times of want.” Jim has a strong New Jersey accent and a beard like Walt Whitman. It is important that I be a non-authoritative tutor, he says. Observe others and learn from them. Be open to your peers’ ideas. Collaborate.

Not that I disagree with Jim, even though he is a self-described “neo-Luddite.” It’s just that I want someone to talk to me about the students I can’t reach. Not all of them, but some. The one whose shoulders slump as she says, “I just want this paper to be over.”  The students who say, “I hate writing.” The student who was supposed to be meeting with me every other week all semester, who emails me smiley emoticons—but never shows up. A few days later, someone calls her name and she passes me in a university office, eyes straight ahead, face purposefully blank. I have made that face before. It means don’t acknowledge that person you don’t want to see you.

I am trying to figure it out. It’s complicated.

But Jim is someplace else. He keeps talking about neuroplasticity of the brain and “remaking” the minds of students with ADHD. I don’t like the way he talks about his students. Or his assertion that “you can’t force people to be human—I mean, humane.” But wait—then why teach?

Even though he signs off with, “you take good care now,” I’m not sure Jim really means it..

Hope Bordeaux is a freelance writer, tutor, and librarian. She blogs about yoga, creativity, and other stuff at

See Hope’s list of 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.