SmokeLong Quarterly

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Story by Venita Blackburn (Read author interview) June 25, 2013

art by Leslie June

We chew in our family. It’s our God-given freedom to chew what and when we want. I chewed the legs off my grandmother’s piano. It keeled over and crushed her thirteen year-old Bichon Frisé, Gingersnap. My granddaddy laughed his ass off. Me and my brothers used to chew shapes into things all the time. We turned straws into palm trees. I made a lily out of a milk carton for my brother’s girlfriend. I had to be careful around the seams and not use too much saliva or it would’ve turned to oatmeal. He busted my lip for that one. My boy is just like us, can’t keep his teeth off things. He chewed a plastic coin into a funny shape and supposedly threw it at some girl. They suspended him for two days. I had to sit in front of the superintendent with his blood red hangnails while he read off a statement from a teacher. “Because of the zero tolerance policy, suspension was warranted after the disruption caused by the object. The student chewed a coin made of plastic until it resembled a bullet and threw it” yadda yadda “while yelling bang, bang” blah blah “repeatedly until the situation escalated” or some garbage. I had to sit there for thirty-nine minutes looking at that shit storm of a desk. It was metal and the color of every dull memory I ever had, just covered in papers, papers, papers. He held his palms above the papers and patted the air as if disgusted, as if afraid to touch anything because he knew it all linked to him somehow. One wrong move would topple it all and he’d be late for some god-awful appointment or something. I told him let’s just get right down to it. He sighed like he’d heard the story too many times, from the teacher, from the principal, from that big-haired news anchor, and his own wife probably. Still he needed to hear the story right from my boy. I told my boy to be out with it, and he stayed quiet because kids don’t know what to say without a question. What happened? I asked. “I chewed a shape the teacher thought was bad. She made me go to the principal then she brought all my stuff and called you, dad, and you had to come get me.” That’s what he said. The superintendent dared to look at me like I coached him, like my boy is just so acutely aware of my breathing and knew every inhale and internal body gurgle and could tell the good from the bad. How is he supposed to know what gesture meant certain doom and which meant good job son? But he said it right anyhow, “I never threw it at no one.” My boy told me about that crooked-eared girl that teased him all the time about his dirty cuffs. I told him never wash your cuffs for a girl. If she can’t love your grease and grit, she can’t love you. Well, he washed his damn cuffs and got more teasing for the trouble. That’s when he chewed that shape into the coin and supposedly threw it. I knew he wasn’t trying to make a bullet and pretend to kill that girl. That’s crazy. I told him to tell that pudgy superintendent what he was really trying to chew into that fake money. “I was trying to make a rocket. I chew rocket ships and I like guns and tanks and I was just trying to make a rocket but it turned out to look more small like a bullet than like a rocket and the teacher just thought it was a bullet.” The teacher just thought it was a bullet. Boys that age chew all kinds of things. I must’ve chewed a cock into the side of cereal box a hundred times before I knew what it was for. Boys just celebrate themselves you know. It’s human. But the superintendent didn’t get it. He just sat there on his secretary’s wide wood chair and blinked. He looked at my boy and blinked. He looked at me and blinked. He looked at the stacks of pink and yellow papers, folded and crinkled, some thin as spit and blinked. What right did he or anybody have to judge me and mine? They call it enabling. I’m enabling my son to keep on with his bad behavior. They just don’t understand our lives. Maybe he did chew a bullet on purpose, and throw it, and push her down and kick her until she cried. We all chew to survive in this world. My granddaddy chewed up until his last days on this earth, a little foil applesauce lid. He made a tea cup for my grandmother. I heard she told him to swallow it for being such a mean bastard all his life, but that’s just how they loved each other. Everybody else can’t know what it’s like to put something in your mouth and have something different come out, what it means, the power. They just want to take it from us, keep us docile like starved dogs. They don’t know anything about how we live, love, and die.


Notes from Guest Reader Kathy Fish

I’ve always loved this story by the amazing Venita Blackburn. As she said when Tara Laskowski asked her where she starts when writing a story: ‘…voice, voice, voice. Style, energy, perspective, however you put it these are the things that compel me as a reader first before the story manifests.’ All fully present here. This story clobbers me every time I read it.

About the Author

Works by Venita Blackburn have appeared or are forthcoming in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Paris Review, Los Angeles Review of Books Print Quarterly Journal, American Short Fiction, the Georgia Review, Pleiades, Madison Review, Bat City Review, Nashville Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Café Irreal, Santa Monica Review, Faultline, Devil’s Lake Review, Nat.Brut., Bellevue Literary Review, audio download through Bound Off, and others. She was awarded a Bread Loaf Fellowship in 2014 and several Pushcart prize nominations. She received the Prairie Schooner book prize for fiction, which resulted in the publication of her collected stories, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, in 2017. In 2018 she earned a place as a finalist for the PEN/Bingham award for debut fiction, finalist for the NYPL Young Lions award and recipient of the PEN America Los Angeles literary prize in fiction. Current projects include finishing a new novel, a collection of flash fiction and creative non-fiction.  Her home town is Compton, California, and she is an Assistant Professor of creative writing at California State University, Fresno.

About the Artist

Leslie June is a digital media professional and underwater photographer. She currently builds websites and takes photos in Asheville, NC.

This story appeared in Issue Forty of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Forty

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