Before my sister and I smuggled the baby piranha out of Chekhov’s Fish Emporium in broad daylight, he did not have a name. The only identifiers present on his cylindrical, isolated vessel in The Alien Exhibit had been a small label which read: pygocentrus nattereri, along with various other information about strange animal behavior, but none mentioned that their bad reputation was mostly caused by humanity’s ignorance. So I named him Samsa, after The Metamorphoses, because with any luck he might have his own transformation once we brought him back to fresh water.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” she asked.
“No,” I admitted, because it was true. “I’m not sure of anything, except that in 1885 Anton Chekhov wrote his short story, The Fish, and now he has an eponymous fish emporium.”
For whatever reason, this confession didn’t pass the conversation test.
“I wonder if there are any fish named after Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.” I said, as we maneuvered the stolen portable fish tank into the crummy backseat of her minivan. Samsa swam around by himself. This all seemed very new to him. The sudden uprooting of circumstances, how the only certainty in life was change.
“Do you think fish understand the literary implications of their existence?”
“Jessica,” Chelsea said, hands white on the wheel. Something else hindered her voice that I couldn’t quite decipher, like a swarm of sharks swam into her mouth, and it inconvenienced the way words came out. A pop song played on the radio about summer, with all its sublime possibilities and optimistic misunderstandings, but neither of us carried home any real meaning from it.
“I think fish are just fish.”
She drove on, the ride quiet.
When we arrived at the lake, parked near the public water access area along the pebbled shore, Chelsea helped me hide Samsa’s habitat inside her gargantuan knitted tote bag, push Grandad’s boat into the basin, and start off towards the sunset. There were less people than usual, despite the view. An elderly couple and a few teenagers I knew from school, each comely, who didn’t know me. I tried not to look at them while we motored away.
Instead, I recited the facts I memorized from work: young piranhas travel in schools to stay safe from larger predators, yet the more they grow into adulthood, the more they tend to hang out in loose groups. A few experts suggest they remain solo or with up to five others to avoid cannibalism. There were six teenagers, not all of them would make it. Piranhas can be shy, skittish, and distant, especially when first introduced to new surroundings. Piranhas never attack people unless provoked…
“Why did you get a job at the aquarium?”
“Because Dr. Cohen said I should find a controlled environment to gain stability and practise social emotional reciprocity. I think she meant for me to join the Autism Youth Group we talked about last session. But this is better.”
“What about the piranha?” She took him out of the bag and undid the roof, the algae already scraped off from earlier, his scales cold to touch, wide eyes avoidant.
“Samsa is lonely,” I explained. “Piranhas are only perceived as monsters based on pure misconception. Contrary to popular belief, they hardly ever attack humans. I think there is nothing more the piranha wants than to feel like he belongs somewhere. I think that is what we all want.”
“Are you projecting onto the piranha?” Chelsea asked.
“I am the piranha,” I said, then let him go.
Lara Boyle is a Jewish lesbian writer with Asperger’s Syndrome. She studies Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte. When not writing, she can be found reading or playing with her English Labrador Retriever, Boomer, who failed service dog training because he loves people too much. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Farside Review, where she’s a staff writer, Lesbians are Miracles Magazine, Herstry Blog, WomensAdvaNCe, and Signet Literary Magazine.
Ruth Niemiec's latest written work is forthcoming or recently published in Mamamia, Neon, Coffee People, Parliament, Ice Colony and Sad Girls Lit Club. Previous work can be found here and there, online and in print. Ruth also does needlepoint art and collage. She lives in Melbourne, Australia but considers Hong Kong her spiritual home.
There are certain elements—themes, tropes, ethical concerns—that have a tendency to recur in my fiction. I’m drawn to nostalgia and the indelible ways people’s pasts speak to their presents. I’m interested in coming of age narratives in which relationships—between friends, between romantic or sexual partners, between relatives—survive and evolve or come to unceremonious endings. Perhaps more than anything else, I write about Shermantown.
Shermantown, New York is a fictitious small town, conceived of when I started a fictional blog about a character whose life experiences in many ways paralleled my own. Not so coincidentally, the town paralleled my hometown, or at least the way I’d been raised to conceive of it. Because where I’m actually from—Utica, New York—is more of a small city than a small town, though my parents, both born and raised in Queens, raised me to think of this place as tiny and insignificant. So, Shermantown became an amalgam of my perceptions of where I was from, plus what I imagined of what friends told of the truly smaller towns they were from.
The blog didn’t go anywhere, but even after I’d moved away from Utica and visited less and less as years turned into decades, Shermantown stuck around as the default setting for so many short stories to follow. I developed a sharper image of the town and its history. Shermantown has an old glove factory that went out of business—a calamity that put half the town out of work and left the space around it smelling vaguely of leather. There’s a riverfront shopping area, but nowadays the river has mostly dried down to a trickling stream by the time it reaches it Shermantown. There’s an annual road race that draws the community together and Rose Cakes, a pastry defined by its pink frosting, that the locals take pride in. There’s a mental hospital at one edge of town, a literal clown college on the far side; a community college lots of the local high schoolers resign themselves to someplace in between.
Shermantown isn’t all dried up industry, quirks, and warm nostalgia, though. It’s a conservative and homogeneously white small town. I started grappling with some of these dimensions of Shermantown, and by extension my own upbringing, when I wrote a story called “Practical Men.” A version of the story appeared in my first graduate school thesis, another version earned me admission into my MFA program, and the final version both won a story contest and was quite arguably the “anchor” for my debut short story collection. It’s an ugly little story about closeted disc jockeys who face the choice of coming out or going deeper into hiding after a local teenager who is gay gets beat up badly enough to make the news.
It’s that same Shermantown that I revisit in my debut novel, My Grandfather’s an Immigrant, and So is Yours. My protagonist, Billy Chen, is and isn’t me in similar ways to how Shermantown is and isn’t where I’m from. The novel skips through time aggressively, from Billy’s childhood as the one of the only kids with black hair and anything but lilywhite skin in his elementary school class, through his first years of college, when he reflects on where he’s from and what his experiences there all might mean. The largest and most impactful swathe of time in the book overlaps with the 2016 presidential election and beginnings of the presidential term to follow.
I’m a good bit older than Billy. I’m glad I didn’t have to experience these same months in a place like Shermantown.
And yet, Shermantown isn’t all bad. Indeed, in the revision process, part of what I kept coming back to were questions of why I’m drawn to this place and the ways in which it might have contributed to Billy’s identity, not only for the worse, or even for the better, but in more nuanced ways, particular to a real person and the real relationship one might have to place he holds dear, and yet doesn’t want to return back to. In a late passage of the book, I try to encapsulate the unique and dynamic blend of pride and shame people carry when it pertains to the place where they’re from. A badge of honor they carry like an albatross.
In this novel, I dive deeper into the history, the psyche, the impact of a place like Shermantown. In a sense, it has felt like an exploration and process of discovery. In a sense, it has felt like coming home.
You can purchase a copy of My Grandfather’s an Immigrant, and So is Yours at Cowboy Jamboree Magazine & Press or Amazon
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. His debut novel, My Grandfather’s an Immigrant, and So is Yours (Cowboy Jamboree Press) came out in 2021, and he is the author of three previous full-length short story collections. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.
my apocalypse arrived quietly // and took all my breaths away / with you.
what is it they say about apocalypses?--
that the world would be born anew:
bleeding red suns would be pinned to the sky,
and our hands would perpetually taste like thunder.
wide-eyed horizon. wet soil.
all of our shadows could look like phoenixes,
if only we are willing to be burned.
brows drawn together in consternation,
hands hummingbird-flapping. raging queues
for the bureaucratic evaluation.
blank forms. a pack of pens.
write: the price of your life.
soft mouths open. swallow rain.
teeth-less humans striding like predators.
we can be anything that does not bite.
in the thicket of the forest, a pair of eyes.
Anushka Bidani is a 20 year old poet and essayist from India. She's the editor-in-chief at Headcanon Magazine. You can find her at anushkabidani.com.
In Which Your Poems Were a Horrorscope Reading
when was the last time you took a bath, was it when you cut through the womb, all bloodied?
did sleep kidnap you on the way home?
didn’t you like it?
did you summon a dream of night swimming—the unconscious moon bloated in waters heavy
and dark that you breathed in—if you won’t see a reflection?
did you sink serrated white teeth in the surface of your skin?
did you market death as the nightmare you’d always have when you took pills to knock yourself
out even though you don’t even have insomnia?
didn’t you like it?
Rachael Crosbie (she/they) tweets things about She-Ra and The Princesses of Power, cats, and her fiancé. She has written work forthcoming or published in ALL GUTS NO GLORY, Wrongdoing Magazine, The Augment Review, and others. Also, they have two chapbooks: Swerve (2021) and MIXTAPES (2021).
Uncovered logs from the distant past and the future beyond.