Monday, September 19, 2022

23andMe, fiction by Terena Elizabeth Bell

This all started when Sally asked Jackson if he wanted her old deodorant and he said, No I most certainly do not, why would you ask that, but of course Sally would ask: She had only used it three times.

I bought the men’s because it was 20 cents cheaper, she told him, and you know they’re made from the same things except—and this is the important part—fragrance. If you look at the ingredients on the back, they both have it, Sally twisting the tube around in her hand, but it’s not the same fragrance, is it, women’s deodorants are usually lavender or ocean breeze. So Sally had thought no big deal, she really truly did, but then she used it. And just because she didn’t want to smell like a man is no reason to throw a perfectly good stick of deodorant away.

Cheapskate, Jackson wanted to say, but instead he told her, I think you have that gene.

What gene?

You know, the hoarder gene. The one that makes it impossible to throw anything away.

Now, Sally is not a hoarder. She likes to save money and if that comes from your family — if the fact that 20 cents matters is inherited—then it’s from being brought up poor, sheer basic need, and there’s nothing she could do about that. Hoarder gene, Sally snorted, the my ass implied, and Jackson said, Oh no, you’ve totally got it, picking up a piece of Saran Wrap from her kitchen counter and putting it in the trash.

Hey, Sally said, I was going to reuse that, but Jackson would not let it go. That afternoon, then the next day, then the day after that, he kept going through Sally’s place, saying, You don’t need this, what are you saving that for, judgment after judgment from a man who’d never once been short on cash.

I don’t know how many times I have to tell you, Sally said—Jackson still at it a whole week later—I do not have that gene, and he told her, Fine. You’re not a hoarder, prove it, Sally asking, What proof do you need?

            Now, this whole story is basically my very long way of telling you why she did it, why Sally went on 23andMe. She wanted to prove Jackson wrong, that was all, she wasn’t looking for you, I swear. She didn’t know you were there to find.

            It’s the neurotrophin receptor gene, Jackson said, You’ve either got it or you don’t. You spit in a tube, then the company takes six or seven weeks to send results. I’ll pay for it.

That was all Sally wanted—to prove Jackson wrong. Again, this wasn’t some conspiracy to find you. Not that I’m not glad you were found—but she didn’t know you existed. Like I said, she just wanted to prove him wrong. Plus Sally never turns down anything free.

            I know this can’t be easy, to know the only reason you found out who your family was is due to a half-used stick of alpine scent deodorant. Sally always has been on the frugal side, but like she told Jackson, it’s because she had to be. She doesn’t have it, by the way—the hoarder gene—and neither do you, of course—but, as you probably noticed by now, no one in our family ever had more than two nickels to rub together. Well, nobody that is but you.


You can imagine Sally’s surprise when she got the results, Jackson calling, Are they back yet, over and over for weeks, Sally saying, No, and Jackson laughing, I’ll bet they are and you don’t want to admit it. You’ve totally got the gene. So when Sally finally did get her results, that little email notification popping up on her phone, the first thing she did was look for that part of the test—the hoarder gene—but it took a while for her to find. I’ve never been on 23andMe’s page or whatever, but apparently their website doesn’t say, “Click here to see if you’re a hoarder.” It’s buried—or so Sally told me—with all this other information, and took a while to find.

Jackson was with her when the email came, the two of them out to lunch, and finally Sally just got so frustrated going through the thing, she tossed her phone across the table, saying, You’re the one who wants to know so bad, you look it up.

            So Jackson got to clicking—and, my, did he keep her in suspense—but eventually he found it and Sally could tell from his expression she was right. Let me see, she said, reaching for her phone, but Jackson wouldn’t give it to her, trying to save face as long as he could, and he just started flipping, going through all these other things they test for, like did she have neanderthal genes or when she got old would she get the gout, and that’s when he said, Shit.

            As I understand it, whether you want them to or not, this company, these 23andMe people, well, when you send them your spit in the mail, they compare it to everybody else’s, which is how they could tell you’re my daughter—yes, I know you know how it works, but if you’d just let me through my story—this company took Sally’s DNA and compared it to yours and that’s how she found you.

            Now personally, I wasn’t sure what was going on when Sally called. She was freaking out, poor dear, her and Jackson sitting outside the Mexican joint, and at first I didn’t understand —she was just so hysterical, you see, and kept saying your name, did I know anybody of that name, and of course I didn’t. Why would I? I knew what I’d named you. She was saying the name that they gave you—the people who adopted you—and never once had I heard it.

So I asked Sally, Why would I, but she wouldn’t answer. She didn’t even tell me she’d got the results. She just kept screaming, Momma you have to, Momma are you sure, out there on the restaurant patio, How do you not know who this is, and Jackson said, Sally this isn’t the place, and that’s when he took her phone.

            Mrs. Sisk, I am so sorry, we’re at Caballeros, do you mind if we get everything boxed up then ring you back, calling again once he’d got Sally home, leaving me there that entire time thinking who is that, never once dreaming it was you. I knew what I’d named you.

Now before we get started, Jackson said, the good news: Sally does not have the hoarder gene, and what I would have give to’ve seen the look on Sally’s face.

            I’m still going through the particulars, his voice getting serious and his tone getting low, but what we do know is this, then he explained how DNA matching works, saying words like centimorgans and haplogroups that I’d never heard before, Sally crying in the background.

            I’m telling you this because you need to understand. I need you to know what she went through when she found you.

            Now, in addition to being frugal and enjoying being right, Sally is also, well, I hate to say this, but she’s always felt alone. She didn’t make friends easy growing up, and heaven forbid I wish she had gotten along better with kids her age, but she didn’t.

            So the first thing she wanted to do was call you—or message or whatever it is people do on that app. She was worried if she didn’t reach out ASAP, it would hurt your feelings. That the app would notify you, tell you she was there just like it did her with you, and then you’d see that she’d logged on and didn’t message you. She didn’t want you to think that you weren’t wanted. She was worried you were alone.

            I told her not to. I said, Let it go, wait and see what Jackson finds out—he was doing all this research on the margin of error for DNA home testing, had 23andMe ever been sued for confusing people’s spit in the lab. He thought there’d been some mistake.

But Sally wouldn’t listen. She had so many questions: Why didn’t I tell her? Why didn’t we keep you? Were you loved once we gave you away? She thought you’d gone on 23andMe to find us, you see. She got in her head you were longing to be found.

            Sally just spent so much of her childhood wanting others to accept her. She had it real hard growing up, and Jackson, he’s wonderful, but one man can’t erase a whole childhood. In a big city, I think she would have done better—why, look at you, you turned out fine. She only wanted to know how much you were like her. She wanted to be your friend.

Of course, now we know you and Sally don’t have that much in common—despite your looks—but I would contend, again, it’s because of how you were raised. I’m not saying you should forgive her because she was brought up poor. I’m saying forgive her because she’s Sally.

Your daddy and I, we tried. We really did. We tried for both you girls. But you can’t make much out of nothing; you can only make something. And we could only afford one child.

Now, you’ve obviously had lots of money and I’m glad. I know you didn’t want her there, but Sally said that house you live in is real nice. If I hadn’t let you go, you would have never had that life.

Your father and I, we knew letting other people raise you was a risk. But you never went hungry, did you? With adoption at least, you stood a chance. The idea, it gave us hope. And from the looks of it—those clothes and the way you talk—well, something tells me you’ve never had to buy men’s deodorant because you always had the 20 cents.

            Giving you away wasn’t easy. But Sally, knowing you were out there, how easy do you think that was for her? If you had been raised with us, I would have known you and loved you and done everything I could—just like I’m doing right now for her. We really are doing the best we can here, Sally and me both. I want you to know that.

All she wanted was to know you, that’s all she wanted at first: to send you a message on that app. I’m the one who told her no. And the longer it went on, the more time that passed after she got those results, well, the harder it got for her to do nothing, telling Jackson, I know she’s my mother but I disagree; Jackson saying, Sally you need to let her run point on this, making the case that since I was the one who had given you up, I should be the one to reach out.

And just how is she supposed to do that, Sally asked, She’s not even on 23and Me, Jackson saying, Sally there are ways. She could Google her for starters or, better yet, call the Baptists. They had the records, they could have given me your number if you’d wanted them unsealed.

Google, Sally said, Okay.

            Now if your father were still living, none of this would have happened. He could always calm Sally down. He would have said, Sally slow down now, your sister’s waited twenty-four years to find us, she can wait a little longer, give your mother time to get this right.

You would have liked him, your father. He loved you so very much.

            But he isn’t here. All Sally has is me—me and poor Jackson who really was doing his best. It started with Sally not able to sleep, Jackson staying over nights. She would lay in her bed and stare at the ceiling, pretend conversations with you in her mind. Then when she finally could fall asleep, she woke up screaming and crying.

            Shh, Jackson said, it’s okay, resting his hand on her shoulder. Breathe.

He even offered to pay for Sally to go to somebody, like a sleep doctor or a shrink. He didn’t think that she meant it when she said she might come here: Jackson, I just have to see.

Come on, he told Sally, let’s go to the movies, trying to get her mind off. Shopping, the park, but none of it helped. She got mad at him too, saying, You and your stupid hoarder gene.

I’m sorry, he said, I truly am. I don’t know how to fix this.

He’s a good one, Jackson, and I hope she hasn’t run him off forever. You know he feels like this was all his fault. He every bit as much told me so down at the police station, saying, Mrs. Sisk I was going to ask her to marry me, and that’s why he had Sally do 23andMe.

Not that he cared if she was a hoarder. He loves her as she is. But Jackson wanted Sally to do the test because he knew she wanted children. And in addition to the hoarder gene, 23andMe looks at will you get this or that disease. There’s Alzheimer and cataract and all sorts of things and, more importantly, what you could pass to your kids—that is if you and your husband both have it. That’s what Jackson wanted. He took the test and just didn’t tell her and that’s why he wanted her to do it. Because what if they carried the same horrible disease and passed it to their child? Not that he wouldn’t have married her if she did have something, but because she might not have wanted to marry him.

            I never cared about the hoarder thing, he told me, I just picked on her about it because it was funny.

            And yet here we are.

            I guess what I’m trying to say is that people take those DNA tests for all sorts of reasons. Maybe you wanted to find us. Or maybe you just wanted to know what genes you carried. I don’t know. I had no proof you wanted to find us. Who was I to disrupt your life? I made my decision and stood by it. A roof over your head, food in your belly, and never to know want. They screen people who adopt, the Baptists; I didn’t give you up through the state. In my mind, you were happy—happy and better off. So I told Sally no. I’m the one who told her not to message you every time she asked. Which basically means this is my fault.

The way she found out, mailing her spit in some tube? How would you expect her to react? There’s no way to prepare for that. Those 23andMe people, they don’t give you a heads up. They just list strangers in there as relatives like you already know who they are and there’s no advice on that site, no nothing. No “we could upend your life, make you question the truth, we could land you in jail.” Nothing.

            Again, I am very glad to see you. To look upon you, grown up, it’s a wonder. That company, they didn’t prepare you either and I’m sorry. I am so sorry you had to go through all this confusion and that Sally scared you. They didn’t tell you what you were getting into either; you didn’t even know you had a twin, much less what she would do. I’m sure you saw her name on that site the same way she saw yours. You had to be wondering how to handle this just the same as we were.

            It drove her mad.

            I should have known. She is my child. When Sally gets the bit, she doesn’t give it up. She goes and she goes and she goes until she gets what she wants or plunks over. And with all this mess, Sally has downright plunked. You know it. You’re the one who pressed those charges.

            This has to end. Jackson said a trial could go on for months. You don’t need that. You and me and Sally—our family needs this over. It’s you I’m thinking of. I am your mother—whether you feel that way or not—and, as I said, the first thing I did was think of you. I didn’t want to upend your life. If you’d wanted to know me, you could have found me. They could have unsealed those records for you the minute you turned 18. You didn’t want to know me. Why would you? I’m the woman who gave you away.

            But this case against Sally has got to stop.

            She won’t do it again, I give you my word. And I know my word isn’t much to you—I would have liked for you to know me, to know I mean what I say and I say what I mean, but that isn’t possible. What is possible is for you to drop these charges. I’m begging you as a mother. Sally didn’t want to hurt you. She only broke in to see your life—what it was like, make sure you were okay. She’s not a danger any more than she’s a hoarder. She only wanted to know you. She just wanted to see. And you are the one who went on 23andMe.

Terena Elizabeth Bell is a fiction writer. Her debut short story collection, Tell Me What You See (Whiskey Tit), is forthcoming Holiday 2022 and her debut novel, Recursion (ELJ Editions), March 2023. Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including The Atlantic, Playboy, MysteryTribune, and Santa Monica Review. A Sinking Fork, Kentucky native, she lives in New York City. Fund future writing at

Monday, September 12, 2022

Mezcalero, fiction by Anthony Neil Smith

Sip this.

Savor it, hold it in your mouth. Let your tongue embrace it fully.

What do you taste?

Smoke, you say, sir? People always say smoke. They think it makes them, if not an expert, then at least smarter than the tourist who still thinks there’s a worm in every bottle.

None of you think that, do you?

This is my first attempt as the maestro of this palenque, a position held, until recently, by my adoptive father, Leonel. You were wondering, I see it in your eyes, how a white blonde boy, the only son of an American mother, ends up becoming a maestro mezcalero.

Sip again.

Close your eyes and really think about it.

Lean your head back and swallow slowly, almost as if you are letting the mezcal flow down your throat in a stream.

So, we’ve got smoke.

But how would you describe the agave itself? The Espadin?

Grassy? Fresh mown? Yes, now we’re getting somewhere. Mezcal holds onto the wildness tequila tries so hard to tame. With mezcal, you are enjoying the land itself, my friends. It’s as if you are barefoot on the soil. Your fingers and toes covered in soil we mezcaleros consider almost sacred.

I say almost.

If it was really sacred, you would not be here now at this tasting, yes? You would not have been able to pay for the privilege.

Ha ha!

No, no, I think not. If there’s one thing I’ve found Mexicans hold sacred, it’s calling things sacred and meaning it.

Instead, I will say this: being drunk on mezcal is a nearly identical experience to religious ecstasy. The closest most people ever come.

I’m sorry, what did you say?

Heroin, she says. Ladies and gentlemen, did you hear her say heroin?

Did you think that was a cute joke?

Some powder manufactured in a lab by scientists who know how to easily pacify and manipulate their users? You think it’s funny to compare that to the tradition, care, sweat, and blood that goes into making blessed mezcal? Something as good as my dad made? Something as good as my older brothers – they were supposed to be my brothers, anyway, although they made it their goal in life to be my merciless tormentors as we grew up. Then they both fucked off to the States and partied until Dad ran out of patience and cut off their funds, forcing them both back home to take the business seriously.

But me, I was there all along. I was learning the secrets, too. I was mastering the craft right before Leonel’s eyes. To me, it was much more than a job. An obligation.

It was my life’s ambition.

But when the time came to name his successor…

The espadin absorbs whatever it is that makes the soil so special. Maybe it really is sweat, the way our jimadors muscle the pinas from the ground, slicing away the leaves with a nasty blade on a long wooden handle. A coa de jima.

You’ve all had a chance to see the pinas, haven’t you?

Yes sir, like pineapples. We have a poet in the house, everyone.

Percy Wordsworth Obvious.

Roberto Blandano.

Don’t pout. It’s just a bit of fun. A bit of fun is all.

If we can’t laugh about ourselves…as my brothers used to say.

Those pineapples, as you call them, are gathered together and thrown into a pit of burning oak and hot rocks, where they are slow roasted, although “roasted” is misleading. Yes, we set fire to the wood and heat the rocks, but it is the steam from the pinas doing the real work. We cover the pinas with banana leaves and dirt. It smolders for days and days. This is where the smoky taste comes from.

You might notice a touch of bitterness to the smoke.

That would be from the charred remains of my brother Fernando.

Yes, it’s funny. I agree. Very funny.

Fernando was the reason I never slept through the night. I’d wake to his face hovering inches from mine, his hand over my mouth. I would count my bruises taking a bath the next morning. Shivering. I began to lose my grip. When would he strike? What was real and what was nightmare?

He was silent. Never insulted me, like our oldest brother Benedicto did. In fact, I barely remember him saying two words to me our whole lives.

But I never felt safe when he was here. He would strike at anytime, anywhere. School, home, the toilet, the market, in the middle of the night, halfway through dinner.

The one time I approached my adoptive father, asking, begging, him to do something about it, he wouldn’t look me in the eye. Just continued sipping and spitting his latest concoction, tinkering. “A man must find his own way. I hope you will find yours. But if you want to make a way in this family, over your brothers, I cannot cheer for you. I do not bear you ill will, either. You will have a harder time than my blood sons, but that will make your victories only sweeter.”

How I loathed him. Loved him, in a way, but truly loathed him, too.

Even as I fumbled with my first serious girlfriend in the backseat of Dad’s Lincoln Town Car, parked up on a ridge overlooking the agave field, only an inch away from my first time, there came Fernando, flinging open the door and yanking me out onto the ground in front of all his friends, my jeans around my ankles, and literally whipped my ass with the wooden handle of a coa de jima.

Everyone laughed. Except Fernando, I mean. Everyone laughed except Fernando.

My girlfriend laughed.

There she was in the backseat, covering herself with the dress I’d taken off only a few minutes before, laughing to the point of tears.

As I rolled around on the ground, mi culo throbbing and splintered, she invited Fernando into the back of the car.

I limped home.

He dated her for a couple of years after that. Meaning she was always around the house, always around the palenque, always anywhere I tried to regain a shred of dignity. She was never awful to me about it, never mentioned it again.

She called me her conejo bebé – her baby bunny.

When Fernando left for the States, I admit, foolishly, that I approached her again. I brought her flowers. I asked if we could try again.

She laughed, though not as loudly or as cruelly as she once had. “My baby bunny, it would be like sleeping with my own brother. I can’t see you that way, never again.”

Yes, I am drifting from the purpose of the tasting. The mezcal, its secrets, its mystery. Please, stay, and I will get us back on track. I promise.

One last thing about Fernando. When he returned, our father gave him my job. I had been his right-hand man all this time, but Leonel demoted me, placed Benedicto at the top, with Fernando right behind.

Fernando didn’t even like mezcal. He preferred vodka full of sweet mixers.

He did pick up with his old girlfriend again, even though she’d gotten engaged to another. She thought it was a torrid affair, like a romance novel. Fernando thought it was an easy lay.

She got pregnant.

He threw a thousand dollars at her and told her to take care of it.

Her fiancé found out and called off the wedding.

She used the thousand dollars to move to Cancun, where she had the child alone and found work at a resort.

I’m sorry. I had promised.

Bitterness is not always unpleasant, if you think about it. There are many bitter notes in our favorite foods. The blackened crust on a flank steak on the grill. The char on a roasted habanero. These flavors work in concert – the smoke, the bitterness, Fernando’s bones.

Which brings us to the next step in the process.

Once the pinas have cooked in the ground due to all the steam, it is time to crush them.

I’m sure you know, those of you who haven’t fled, that we use traditional methods here. Others are switching to autoclaves and shredding machines to speed the job along. But my father always believed in the ancient ways. He wanted his mezcal to taste as natural as possible. I’ve seen him be offered tastes of others product, as his opinion was highly valued in the industry. And I’ve seen him spit onto the ground at their feet, saying, “It’s just pina piss.”

When it’s time to crush the pinas, we use the tried-and-true method, as you saw earlier, of the tahona. The stone, yes, the stone. A giant stone, pulled around our crushing pit by donkeys. A stone seasoned by nearly one hundred years of crushing pinas this way, as Leonel took over from his uncle, who had no children, who had taken over from his own father, who had stolen the palenque from his neighbor in the bad old frontier days.

Some may tell you there’s no difference between mezcal made with an autoclave and a shredder and the nectar we produce here using the old ways. Some may tell you the updated methods help reduce the bitterness and funk of wild agave, which is more palatable to the growing American market.

I find it all very strange. Very strange. Why drink mezcal that’s been distilled until it becomes, God rest Leonel’s soul, pina piss? Nothing more than smoky water?

For instance, sir, you mentioned that you also tasted something like iron, or a coppery flint. What’s that? Pennies, yes, old copper pennies.

That’s not something you’d find if you distilled it the way your fellow citizens prefer. All impurity washed away.

Instead, what you’re tasting is the blood of my eldest brother, Benedicto, who I treated on his birthday at the local watering hole, before dumping him into the crushing pit with the pinas and letting the tahona finish him off.

Did he deserve it?


Whereas Fernando had been an unholy terror, it was Bene who was evil incarnate. Whereas Fernando did his damage out of sight of Leonel, Bene’s poison was in his words. He could destroy me in front of our father, send me running from the table wracked with guilt and shame, without Leonel so much as spilling his spoonful of soup.

It was Bene who filled in the holes of my history.

Leonel had told me, when I was nine, that a young American girl unable to support her new baby had tearfully left me at a church in Oaxaca, and my adoptive father’s sister, a nun there, asked if he would take me in. And so he did.

But Bene said, “Your mother was a Spring Breaker, your father any one of countless frat boys, and if she’d known she was pregnant sooner, you’d have been forced out by a clothes hanger. Instead, she was too drunk to realize and her parents sent back here to give birth at an orphanage, so their friends would never know. She couldn’t get away from you fast enough.”

Bene said, “The only reason my father took you in was the monthly check promised from your mother’s parents to help support you if he would keep their secret. As you can tell, he didn’t spend much of it on you.”

Bene said, “If I were to let Fernando kill you in your sleep, my father would be angry, only because the check would stop coming.”

It was Bene who first got me drunk on mezcal when I was seven. Very nearly killed me. It also happened to be our father’s favorite reserve, which in my stupor I had smashed a case of to the ground.

Leonel did not respond…well.

It was Bene who taught me about sex. He showed me in the old encyclopedias. He showed me in old magazines with dried together pages, bondage, blood, whips, and other kinks a boy should not have a crash course in.

Bene told me I would be cast out of the family as soon as I graduated, if his father even let me get that far in school.

He and Fernando moved away well before I graduated. Leonel did not cast me out. I proudly stood beside him learning his craft, all his secrets, making them my own. It had begun as a passion. An art form. But now, it could make a man rich.

Bene said, upon the brothers’ return home, “You won’t get a dime out of this place. And if you try to start your own palenque, I will send Fernando to burn it. Any success you have in life, we will be there to take it from you.”

The next day Leonel announced his retirement and named his sons – his blood sons – to take over the business.

A month later, our dad was dead.

Regardless, I was there to celebrate Bene’s first birthday without our father. I kept buying him shot after shot of tequila. Not our beloved mezcal, no. But blue agave tequila, aged in scotch barrels, a deep amber color, the aging process blessing it with notes of caramel, vanilla, and tobacco.


Then I brought him back here – had to nearly carry him, and he’s so much bigger than me. I was determined, though. He might not have noticed how little I drank during the evening, as I had faked it.

Shades of Edgar Allan Poe, yes?

On the road home, Bene told me he was sorry for the way he had treated me. That he and Fernando were afraid of me, of my potential. They didn’t want their dad favoring me over them.

I don’t know if you can forgive us, forgive me, but I can hope.”

It was far too late, and it was only the tequila talking anyway.

Once we were inside, alone, I helped him to the crushing pit, let him drop dead weight. His skull cracked like an egg on impact. While he convulsed his last breaths, I hooked up our strongest donkey, threw in some pinas I’d been saving for this occasion, and –

I see we’re really separating the wheat from the chaff here now. The strong from the weak. Please, those of you leaving, don’t forget to stop by the gift shop for sample sets to take home.

But to you remaining, my faithful few, my adventurous conspirators, you want to know what’s next. You can’t help yourselves. You’ve come too far to back out now.

Once the pinas are crushed to a pulp, they are moved to tinas – wooden vats – to ferment. Yes! It is no longer just a plant. The magic has begun. I still use my adoptive father’s special blend of yeast, cultivated from years of trial and error.

Then we wait. We can stir, we can pray, we can bargain with the devil, but we cannot rush the magic.

From there, we move into the distillation phase, using copper stills. Again, only the most traditional methods here, my friends.

What’s that you say? That you think it tastes a little of barbecued pork?

Indeed, ma’am you’re right. You’re absolutely right. You are drinking a very special type of mezcal called a – can you tell me?

Almost! Give her a hand. It is a pechuga.

Yes, a mezcal de pechuga is made for momentous occasions. Weddings, funerals, coming of age. Traditionally, you would make these by hanging a mix of fruit and nuts inside the still, above the mezcal, to enhance the flavor. That includes hanging a raw chicken breast as well. Sometimes turkey.

But you say it’s more like pork, and there’s a good reason for that.

You see, each family has a special perchuga recipe, and which fruits and nuts and herbs they choose make a difference. Sometimes, instead of chicken or turkey, a mezcalero might try venison or rabbit. Or, yes, a pig.

Or, in this case, long pig.

Which you might not know is what cannibals call people, because we taste so similar to pork.

That roast pork flavor infused in this batch is due to my father’s head hanging in the still.

Along with pears, plums, pecans, and cashews. My special mix.

No, he died of natural causes in his sleep. I know, because I was there. I made sure of it.

This is his finest creation, in a way. They always said “he put all of himself into his work,” but it took me for that to become even remotely true. I literally put Leonel and Sons into Leonel and Sons Mezcal.

But I am renaming the brand going forward: Les Entrañas de li Familia

I hope to introduce it to the States soon, though. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but there has been a lot of interest from an American actor to invest. It’s far too early to say who, but I’ll give you a hint: “Hi-ho Silver, away!”

That concludes our tour.

I believe this is the best mezcal you will ever drink.

Don’t worry. I won’t tell if you won’t.

Anthony Neil Smith is a novelist (Yellow Medicine, Slow Bear, The Butcher's prayer, many more), short story writer (Cowboy Jamboree, HAD, Blue Murder, Punk Noir, Bristol Noir, many others), and professor (Southwest Minnesota State University). He likes Mexican food, cheap red wine, and Italian crime flicks from the seventies. His dog is named Edmund, who is the devil. 

Monday, September 5, 2022

If You Make It Past The Dogs..., fiction by April Kelly

Unequivocal, those ominous words on the metal sign, but, for the benefit of the illiterate—who make up I’d guess a quarter of the population around here—Calvin Hobart had also painted a forced-perspective image of a double-barrel shotgun, its two soulless eyes focused squarely on anyone dumb enough to approach his gate. I admired Calvin’s work. Not so much the stenciled warning about his notorious dogs, but the meticulously rendered Fox Savage twelve-gauge. Who would have guessed an ignorant redneck like him knew anything about perspective in art?

While stealthily circling the property on foot, I noted the rest of the warning signs on the six-foot, chain-link fence were store-bought generics. Only the one on the front gate made clear in customized terms how unwelcome you were, be you lost hiker, Jehovah’s Witness or one of the many folks Calvin had screwed over. I counted myself among that last group.

Now, playing poker drunk is a sure sign of poor judgment, but playing poker drunk with Calvin Hobart at the table is a suicide mission. In my defense, I never would’ve been sitting there at 2 AM with the likes of Dimebag Tillman, Ratcher Bean and that mulleted perv the locals call Skunk, had it not been for Brody’s bachelor party getting out of hand.

Normally the staid and sober type, I would reliably put in my hours at the sawmill so I could pay off that parcel of land fifteen miles north of here where sweet MaryAnn and me wanted to build our house, but I’d known Brody since kindergarten and couldn’t say no to planning his last night as a single guy. That’s what the best man does, right?

The beers came way too fast for a lightweight like me and, long story short, I ended up in a Texas Hold’em game early that Saturday morning, losing all but my shirt to Calvin Hobart. I’ll admit I was Coor’s-hammered, but not so much as to miss seeing him pull a six of clubs out of nowhere to upgrade his two crappy pairs to a kings-over-sixes full house. Problem was, the six he conjured was the exact same hole card I’d tossed before the flop. He cheated, and I intended to get back my money.

Complicating any retrieval effort were two enormous guard dogs. Calvin had never been required to fire his shotgun at an intruder, because nobody yet had made it past Booger and Dammit. While I skulked around the perimeter to scope for weaknesses, the threatening pair sent up such an unholy racket that Calvin finally flipped on the porch light of his dilapidated trailer and stepped out onto the dimpled metal stairs with the Fox Savage in his hands.

I faded into the shadows, while his tick-riddled mongrels charged the fence, snarling, snapping, and swinging heads the size of cement blocks in my direction. Walking the half mile to where I’d hidden my pickup, I wondered how I could ambush Calvin and recover what I’d been cheated out of. First step of any plan would have to be dealing with those dogs.

They’d barely been weaned when their mother made her escape a couple years earlier. Taking advantage of the brief time the gate gaped open for the propane delivery truck to come through, Sheba lunged hard enough to snap her chain, then took off like her tail was on fire. The propane driver pissed his pants when he saw one hundred ten pounds of mange, fangs and muscle bounding his way, but Sheba tore past him and kept on going, dragging a four-foot length of chain behind her. Or, at least, that’s how Calvin told the story at the Eat ‘n’ Go, where he had lunch every weekday.

Life for the two pups she’d abandoned went downhill after that, and their natural reaction was to break mean.

I’d seen Calvin at the co-op, hoisting forty-pound bags of dog food onto his flatbed, the cheapest, no-name stuff they sell. Sawdust on the floor of the mill where I worked probably had more nutrition and better flavor. And Calvin was widely known to beat a dog, which is why Sheba bolted at her first opportunity.

At one time or another, every man in town had muttered over a whiskey about shooting those dogs and breaking into Calvin’s trailer to get back what that S.O.B. had stolen from them or cheated them out of. Well, maybe not Pastor Wilson, although, God knows he had reason to. When he opened the poor box year before last to make his usual Christmas distribution to our less fortunate families, he found the bottom smashed out and all the donated cash gone.

His mind, like the minds of everyone else around here, went directly to Calvin Hobart being the culprit, but Pastor Wilson didn’t dare make an overt accusation or file a complaint with the sheriff, for fear Calvin would bring Booger and Dammit to town and turn them loose in the church.

While others mused about killing the dogs and getting back their part of the money rumored to be stashed in Calvin’s trailer, I took a more analytical approach. After all, Booger and Dammit were not the problem; they were merely the hurdle one had to clear to get to the problem, namely Calvin Hobart. What those dogs needed, I figured, was a friend.

First thing I did was buy a dusty, old boom box from Miss Alice’s Pawn & Guns, then carry it with me when I visited Calvin’s property the second time. Thing probably hadn’t seen action since Falco released “Rock Me Amadeus,” but with four new C batteries, the playback and record functions worked just fine. Leaving my blue F-250 in the same hiding place as before, I hiked the last half mile in the dark, hitting the record button about a hundred feet from Calvin’s gate.

Sure enough, Booger and Dammit rushed the fence as soon as they sensed my approach, crashing their chests against the sturdy, steel mesh and barking like the hounds of Hades Pastor Wilson often claims in his sermons are waiting for sinners in the hereafter.

The trailer’s porch light came on and only seconds later, Calvin Hobart emerged in baggy long johns, cradling that shotgun with more affection than he’d ever shown to man or beast. I already had what I’d come for, so I backed away, slipping into the night as Calvin marched toward the spot where Booger and Dammit loudly dogsplained the issue of a trespasser.

After work on Friday, I drove the fifteen miles up to Icannoa to test the boom box’s remote control and playback volume on my property right outside of town. Using the opportunity to buy twenty pounds of hamburger meat and a large bottle of Old Spice aftershave, I ensured no local cashier or busybody would recall my making such a peculiar purchase.

MaryAnn had a retirement party to go to that Saturday night, and rightly expected her fiancé to accompany her. When I begged off on account of Mr. Chasen gave me D’s all through that miserable year of eighth-grade math, she sympathized with my lack of desire to shake his chalk-dusty hand and wish him well.

While sweet MaryAnn attended the party with her friend, Josie—history teacher and girls’ soccer coach—I made eighty balls of raw hamburger and laid them out on the otherwise bare shelves of my bachelor’s freezer.

My campaign to win over Calvin Hobart’s dogs began a few minutes before midnight on Monday. After taking out four meatballs to thaw, I slapped on a near-lethal dose of Old Spice, wanting to make sure Booger and Dammit could smell me coming.

While I didn’t have the best pitching arm in high school, it was good enough to take us to the regional play-offs my senior year, so I spent a couple minutes warming up my right shoulder before I hopped in my truck and drove to the parking spot a half mile from Hobart’s place.

As I approached on foot with one of MaryAnn’s Tupperware bowls in my hand, Booger and Dammit set up their snarling alarm and hurled themselves against the fence. Figuring I had a good sixty seconds before Calvin got out of bed, grabbed his shotgun and flung open the door, I darted forward, stopping ten feet short of that threatening sign on the gate.

One after another, I lobbed four beef grenades over the fence, shutting up both dogs for the nanoseconds it took them to gobble down their quarter-pounders. By the time the porch light popped on, they were barking again, but I was already a shadow in the darkness fifty yards away.

By the fourth night, the dogs associated the smell of Old Spice with an aerial delivery of something much tastier than the discount kibble Calvin dumped into an old paint can for them every day, so their warning to me came in the form of half-hearted growls too low for him to hear from inside.

After eight nights of making it rain steak tartare, I risked losing a couple fingers by holding a meatball and sticking it through the fence. As fast as it was snatched and gulped down, I handed another one through. The growling had reduced by then to a quiet burring sound.

On my twelfth trip, one of them—hard to tell which in the dark—let me scratch behind his ear after he’d devoured the amuse bouche.

By the fifteenth night, those two were cavorting with anticipation as soon as they got a whiff of my aftershave, and they greeted me with wagging tails and snuffling noises.

I climbed over the fence on my sixteenth visit, handing out meatballs, then sitting on the ground for ten minutes, scratching behind ears and patting giant, blocky heads.

Night eighteen, Booger, Dammit and I strolled all around the property without waking Calvin. When I climbed the fence to leave, both dogs stood up with their front paws on the chain-link, whimpering like they were sad to see me go, so I spent an extra few minutes doling out pets and baby-talk good boys.

I parked my truck much closer to the property on the twentieth night, as I figured Calvin would call the sheriff to report a theft as soon as I walked away with the three hundred dollars he took off me after Brody’s bachelor party. In case Sheriff Parnell came around to ask me questions, I wanted to be home in bed sleeping, ready to deny everything. Of course, there was always the chance Calvin would be too embarrassed to report such a clear betrayal by his dogs. Might give other aggrieved parties ideas about recouping their own losses, although I couldn’t picture Pastor Wilson scaling the fence to take back the poorbox cash at gunpoint.

With the boom box on my right shoulder and the last four meatballs in a plastic bag in my left hand, I approached the gate. Having already picked up the scent that signaled their Grub Hub delivery, Booger and Dammit waited for me, scampering around like puppies and whining for their treats.

I positioned the boom box on the ground, facing the trailer, then tossed the snacks over the gate, where the dogs inhaled them. Prior to scaling the fence, I patted the pockets of my work jeans, making sure I had the remote control in one and my father’s old .38 in another. The pistol wasn’t loaded, as I had no intention of harming any living thing. I only wanted to reclaim what was rightfully mine and make a clean getaway.

The two dogs danced circles around me as I approached the dark trailer, settling on their haunches while I took out the gun and remote, then positioned myself to get the drop on Calvin when he rushed through the door.

With the press of a button, the night filled with recorded barking, snarling, and howling coming from the direction of the gate. Pricking their ears, Booger and Dammit trotted off to investigate their own voices, although they seemed more puzzled than alarmed.

Returning the remote to my pocket and pressing back against the side of the trailer, I waited for the light to click on, tightly gripping the unloaded pistol. The door flew open and Calvin Hobart stepped out in his dirty long johns, a death grip on the twelve-gauge, while he scanned for unwelcome visitors.

About that time the recording ended and the dogs came bounding back. They stopped short of the trailer, panting excitedly and wagging their tails, as Calvin descended the steps. He didn’t realize they were looking behind him, rather than at him, so he lowered his weapon to read them the riot act.

I don’t feed you worthless curs so you can wake me up for every raccoon or possum that waltzes by,” he snarled, loosening his hold on the shotgun so he could land a kick under Dammit’s jaw.

Luckily, that Neanderthal was barefoot, so the blow didn’t do too much damage, but when the force of it sent the dog sprawling with a yelp, I took advantage of the distraction to step from the shadows and roughly shove the barrel of Daddy’s .38 into Calvin’s lower back.

Drop your weapon or say good-bye to your kidneys,” I ordered, trying my best to sound like a badass.

Mean, but not stupid, Calvin put his left hand high in the air while he slowly squatted and placed the shotgun on the ground. His right hand mirrored his left’s surrender, and he stood up again, still facing away from me. Dammit reappeared, although he kept well out of kicking range.

With a weary sigh, Calvin said, “Well, then, I guess you’re fixin’ to rob me.”

I’m just here to take back what you cheated me out of.”

He had sounded so resigned to his fate that I wasn’t prepared for his right elbow to knife backwards and smash into my solar plexus. In a heartbeat, I was on my butt, empty pistol sailing out of my hand. Copperhead fast, Calvin snatched up his own firearm and aimed it at me.

Instead of seeing my life flash before my eyes, I envisioned the sign on the front gate, except the hand-drawn shotgun in my mind didn’t have two bloodshot eyeballs glaring at me over the side-by-side barrels. Dimly aware of a menacing growl nearby, I prepared to meet my maker as Calvin bid me a fond farewell.

Adios, shithead.”

The blast sent a gout of gravel high into the air not ten inches from my ear, so I rolled under the trailer, knowing the bastard wouldn’t miss twice. When the second shot went wild and ripped through the side of the trailer, I ventured a peek and saw Calvin hit the dirt, frantically punching out at Dammit, whose massive front paws pinned his tormentor to the ground. After a lightning jab caught the dog on its sensitive nose, eliciting a squeal of pain, Booger joined the fray, powerful jaws clamping down around a stringy thigh. Dammit recovered from the snout punch and leapt for Calvin’s throat.

Living up to their vicious reputation, one dog tore open the man’s femoral artery, and the other ripped through his carotid. Calvin went out in twin geysers of his own blood and screaming profanities. Even after the threat had been eliminated, the dogs played a violent round of tug-of-war for another minute, and a detached finger plopped onto the ground right in front of my face.

Deeply rattled, I scrambled out from under the trailer and picked up my father’s .38. Things had gone way beyond what I had intended, and I couldn’t afford to leave any evidence that could incriminate me.

I looked over at the dogs, heart drumming in my chest. Their muzzles dripped gore, and an ear-shaped gobbet clung to Booger’s collar, but they hung out their tongues and watched me like they were waiting for a reward, as two swishing tails painted the gravel red. There was nothing to be done for Calvin, so I made a practical decision to complete my mission before climbing the fence and fleeing the nightmarish scene of canine carnage.

I entered the trailer in search of my three hundred dollars, mindful when I climbed the steps to avoid leaving footprints in the places where liquid Calvin pooled. Once inside, I easily found my money, along with what looked like all the cash that sumbitch had stolen from other folks over a lifetime of cheating, thieving and double-dealing. It was everywhere: stacked on the counters, under the mattress, in the freezer, spilling out of dresser drawers, and crammed into cereal boxes in the pantry. About the time I realized it was way more than Calvin could have squeezed from his long list of victims, I discovered why.

The stained toilet bowl had no water in it, so I checked the tank. Also dry, but filled to the rim with wrapped bricks of what I guessed was heroin. Whoever Calvin had been doing business with, they were far above my weight class and I needed to clear out of there ASAP.

Intending to take only what was due me, I had not brought any kind of satchel or duffel bag, but it seemed a pure shame to abandon all that cash. I pulled two pillowcases out of the reeking hamper by the rusted washing machine, stripped another filthy pair off Calvin’s bed, then commenced to stuff them full. Rubber-banded hundreds, rolled fifties, and a shit-ton of Lucky Charms-flecked twenties strained the seams of my makeshift money bags when I tied them closed with twine I found on the kitchen counter. Staggering under their weight, I made my way to the fence and tossed each bulging sack up and over, anxious to follow them and get the hell out of there.

The dogs had bounded alongside as I covered the distance from trailer to gate, but they lay down to watch me send the bundles airborne. That’s when it hit me: the first thing Sheriff Parnell would do when the mutilated body was found is shoot Booger and Dammit. They’d had motive, means, and opportunity, and would be given the death penalty without benefit of a trial.

Running back to the trailer, dogs cavorting around me, I sidestepped the poorly assembled Calvin puzzle and located a set of keys on a hook just inside the door. As soon as I got the padlock open and swung out that gate, the killers escaped into the night, searching for a better life like their mother Sheba had done when they were still pups.

An open gate would alert the sheriff—or, God forbid, Calvin’s “business” associates—that another person had been on the property, what with dogs not yet having mastered keys and padlocks. For my own safety, I needed Booger and Dammit to take full blame, so I restaged the scene, closing and locking the gate and replacing the keys on their hook.

All I had to do then was establish a plausible way for the dogs to have escaped on their own. A tool-box by the stove provided me with a claw hammer, which I used to pry up the bottom of a two-foot section of the chain-link, high enough for a massive dog to crawl under. Using the claw side of the hammer head, I chunked out a shallow trench from the dirt under the bent fencing, so anyone could conjure a picture of Booger and Dammit digging the hole and forcing out the steel mesh with the strength of their bodies.

Shortly after the news broke that Calvin Hobart had been torn to pieces by his psycho mutts before they took off for parts unknown, mysterious happenings around town fueled rumors of his ghost making reparations. It all started when Pastor Wilson found the new poor box full of hundred dollar bills. Then, Velma Simms, the gray-haired day waitress at the Eat ‘n’ Go, trudged out to her battered old Civic after a long shift and found a stack of fifties on her front seat, more than enough to make up for all the tips that cheapskate had stiffed her for in twenty years of eating lunch there five days a week. As the months passed, everyone Calvin Hobart had cheated or stolen from got their due, so folks speculated St. Peter had taken one look at the old reprobate and told him to get lost and not come back till he’d atoned for his many sins.

A rumor I did not hear, which I’d been expecting, was about the drugs, so I’m guessing one of Sheriff Parnell’s deputies made a fortuitous discovery and is working a little something-something on the side until his supply runs out.

And me? Well, I took a job at the Tractor Supply up Icannoa way, close to the site where sweet MaryAnn’s and my house has been under construction for five months. It’s a cozy little two-bedroom, with only the final interior work left to be done. I’ve already moved in, and once the school year ends, MaryAnn will join me. We have a June wedding planned, then a whole summer together before she starts teaching art to the local seventh-graders.

Last weekend, Brody came up here to discuss his duties as my best man and take a tour of the house and property. He expressed surprise that I could afford the six-foot high, redwood fencing that encloses my full two acres, so I fibbed about those years of work at the sawmill down yonder earning me a deep discount on the lumber. The labor I did myself.

As we headed toward the front door, he noticed the two large doghouses I’d also built, just as Stanley and Feebs woke from their afternoon naps and emerged from comfy bedding to yawn and stretch in the warm sunlight.

Yep, the night of Calvin’s demise, I’d arrived back at my F-250 to find the perps in the bed of the truck, wagging their tails and letting me know I was the new alpha. I did not have the heart to chase them away to be hunted down and shot for doing what the rest of us were too chicken to do.

As the well-groomed, sociable pair ambled over to check out my guest, Brody turned to me in confusion.

Hey, ain’t those Calvin Hobart’s dogs?”

Shhh,” I replied, raising a finger to my lips. “Witness protection.”

April Kelly is a former TV comedy writer (Mork & Mindy, Webster, Boy Meets World, ad nauseum) who now writes short fiction. Her work has appeared in Down & Out Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Mystery Weekly (now Mystery Magazine), Tough Crime, Mysterical-E, Floyd County Moonshine, DASH Literary Journal and many other publications. Her story Oh, Here! won enough money to buy a car (toy, plastic, model: Dollar General) in the Mark Twain royal Nonesuch Humor Contest.