Category Archives: Books

Taste (A Satirical Short Story)

Best. Fucking. Meal. Ever.

Sure, it wasn’t over yet, and I knew I might be jumping the gun, but I went ahead and composed a quick review on Squeal anyway, using eye movements to dictate the text to my iGlasses while I ate: “Sichuan Hut’s spicy chicken so succulent, would give both my kidneys to eat this shit again.” With a saccade down and to the right, it was posted.

Across the table from me, Mel and Leslie’s eyes changed focus, and I knew they were reading the review on their own iGlasses. It was because of them, really, that I’d felt confident enough to write it in the first place. Not five minutes ago, Leslie had said that the food was pretty rank, which is the highest compliment she gives anything. And Leslie fucking defines good taste.

I watched as they turned to look at each other. Leslie’s headshake was almost imperceptible, but I knew what it meant: I’d gone and made a fool of myself again. Mentally, I cursed myself; and I cursed Mel and Leslie, too. If they’d detected something wrong with the food, why the fuck hadn’t they said anything?

It was Leslie who spoke first. “You must not have eaten one of these,” she said, dropping a pepper fragment onto my plate with her chopsticks. Under her gaze, which was somehow both damning and sympathetic at the same time, I slipped the oil-soaked red flake into my mouth and turned it over on my tongue.

“Right?” Leslie said.

I had no fucking idea what she was talking about; but that’s not something you ever give away to Leslie, not if you want to keep hanging with her. So I put on a mask of dawning recognition and said, “Oh, shit, you’re right. How did I not notice that?” Then I waited for Mel to bail me out, which he always did.

“Fucking brazen, isn’t it?” Mel said. “Putting peppers from Guangxi—or maybe Guizhou at best—in a Sichuan dish!” He was holding up another pepper fragment with his own chopsticks—an impressive feat, considering how heavily modified his hands were. Tattoos and piercings were neither original nor extreme enough for Mel. No, his way of saying “fuck you” to the world had been to cut the index, ring, and pinky fingers off both of his hands. The result was that it always looked like he was flipping you off.

“Jesus Christ,” I said.

“Next thing you know,” Mel added, “they’ll bring us fucking fortune cookies.”

Leslie snorted.

The two of them went on at length about what a God-awful affront to the ideals of authenticity Sichuan Hut had turned out to be, and I ate in silence. While half-listening to their criticism, I realized that there had been something off about the dish; I just hadn’t been sharp enough to put my finger on it. But now that Mel had pointed it out, I had to admit that any fart-brain with half a dozen taste receptors ought to be able to tell the difference between Sichuan and Guangxi peppers.

How could I have been so stupid?

And yet . . . the food tasted good, damn it. Fuck pepper geography, anyway. And even though fortune cookies had been invented in America, hadn’t they still been created by genuine Chinese immigrants? Weren’t they therefore Chinese in essence, despite not being rooted in the Mainland? Why the fuck should I be ashamed to like them?

Recognizing my own thoughts as blasphemous, I mustered the necessary effort to crush them; and when I turned my attention outward again, I saw that Mel and Leslie had graciously, if grudgingly, paid the bill. Now they were looking at each other, sharing one of their ideas, and I could see that something interesting had just been decided.

“We’re taking you to The Sand Bar, Scrub,” Mel said.

Twenty minutes later, I was sitting at a dimly lit bar, trying to ignore the soundtrack of a screaming infant—the latest thing in music—when a sampler paddle was set down in front of me. There were eight shot glasses on it, each containing a teaspoon of sand, still radiating warmth after having been heated in an oven.

“Try the Hawaiian Green first,” Mel said, pointing at the olive-colored grains in one of my glasses. “And use the Sahara as a palate cleanser; that shit’s like distilled water.” Both he and Leslie smiled encouragingly at me, watching closely to see how I would do. I flashed them a nervous grin and reached for one of the glasses.

And so we fucking ate sand.

I gagged on some Coral Pink from Utah; Mel savored an ounce of Alaskan Garnet; and I looked on as Leslie paid three thousand dollars for a gram of Antarctic Radiolarian and then sent it back to the kitchen with the complaint that it had been served at the wrong temperature. The bartender gave her a shot of Gypsum White in compensation for the error.

When we’d all finished our sand, it was time to decide which movie to go see. By this point, I should have known better, of course, but I still wanted to prove myself. So I made a suggestion: Shattered Dream, by Walter Calhoun. Actually, I was cheating; I’d already seen it, and I’d thought it an unassailable work of art. Mel and Leslie consented, and as we left for the theatre, I imagined that I was about to be vindicated.

Sadly, I was completely unable to enjoy the film this time. I spent the whole two hours watching my companions out of the corner of my eye, hoping to catch some hint of their thoughts. It wasn’t until we were exiting the theatre that they shared their assessment, and once again, it was Leslie who spoke first.

“Well, that was fucking derivative.”

“You’re telling me,” Mel said.

Mel went on to unpack Leslie’s initial comment, and as he talked, I realized that the film was indeed patently uninspired. Anyone who knew anything at all about film could see that it was just an amalgam of Mitasareta Seikatsu by Susumu Hani (who was greater by far than Kurosawa), and Mickey Warden’s masterpiece, Lukewarm Fallout. Suddenly, I felt betrayed by my inner critic. How had I missed what was so obvious?

“We sure as fuck can’t end the evening on that note,” Leslie said.

“No shit,” agreed Mel.

And so even though it was getting really late, we went to an independent theatre to see Umbé Umbé’s new release, a post-avant-garde piece called Cold Hand, Warm Penis. It was a silent, black-and-white film about a man who hangs from a rope by his ankles, swinging like a pendulum for three hours.

I went into it expecting Umbé Umbé’s brilliance to be apparent right from the start. But for the first hour, I felt nothing but discomfort—to the extent that I seriously thought about walking out. Eventually, though, after about two hours, I began thinking that the film actually was quite ingenious, in both its simplicity and its rawness. Then, halfway through the third hour, I had an outright epiphany.

I saw that I was the man hanging from the rope, trapped in an endless cycle of aimless swinging, back and forth, back and forth, bound by a force that was forever pulling me down. I also saw that there was something inside of me on which that force was acting, something that gave the force its power by submitting to it. If I could find that something and change it, I would be free.

It happened in the parking lot.

“At least now the evening wasn’t a total waste,” said Leslie.

“Yeah,” Mel agreed. Then, turning to me, he added, “Just let us choose the film next time, Scrub.”

Don’t be pulled, I thought. And then I was floating, no longer swinging, no longer hanging by my ankles, no longer bound. My blasphemous thoughts welled up again. I liked Sichuan Hut—infinitely more than The Sand Bar. And if I had to watch one of those two movies again, I would choose Shattered Dream over Umbé Umbé’s execrable creation any day.

“Fuck you,” I said.

Mel and Leslie stopped, as one.

“What did you say?” Leslie whispered.

“I said fuck you, Leslie. Fuck your narcissistic projection of yourself as an infallible critical genius. And fuck you, Mel, for going along with it. Fuck your mangled hands, too; that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of anyone doing to himself. And why? To be original? To make a statement? If you ask me, you’re saying the wrong thing, and you paid a stupid price to say it. You’re both full of shit, putting up this hypercritical façade to cover your own insecurity, and in doing so you suck the enjoyment out of every experience, belittling the people around you along the way. I’m through with you.”

When the last word had left my mouth, my own furious panting was the only sound disturbing the night air. Mel and Leslie were looking at me, studying me as a pair of entomologists might examine a never-before-seen species of beetle they had just spotted scuttling across the forest floor. Mel interlaced his thumbs and middle fingers, cracking them loudly, palms outward, and Leslie barked a laugh.

“Nice, Scrub,” she said.

“Yeah,” Mel added. “That’s the first original thought you’ve expressed all evening.”

Then the entomologists were looking at each other, consulting one another, marveling at their find, partaking in some kind of joint analysis. “It was the film that did it,” Leslie said at last.

“I know,” Mel said. “And he doesn’t even see it.”

“You’re pathetic, Scrub,” said Leslie. And then she turned to leave.

Before following after her, Mel looked me in the eye one last time, straightening his iGlasses by pressing on the bridge with the middle finger of one hand. Maybe he was saying fuck you, and maybe he wasn’t, but for once I didn’t give a shit. Glad that I would never again be depending on him to bail me out, I laughed at the sight of him trotting off behind Leslie like an obedient dog.

“You think that stupid film is what got into me?” I said to their backs. They didn’t answer, but I didn’t need them to. “Yeah, I had a flash of insight while watching it. I realized that I don’t need you anymore. So, yes, thank you for that.”

On my way home, I posted some thoughts of my own:

Sichuan Hut is fantastic.

The Sand Bar is a total waste of time.

Loved Calhoun’s Shattered Dream.

Cold Hand, Warm Penis is utter shit.

The responses began pouring in immediately.

You’re joking, right?

You’re a tool, Scrub.

You’re even worse than the turds who make such derivative films and cook such unauthentic food.

You know, it’s people like you—people who lack discernment—who get swept up in the zeitgeist and join the herd in carrying civilization toward the abyss. You’re worse than all the fascist, genocidal dictators in the world, because you’re the kind of idiot who enables them.

There was no point reading any further. Leaning back in my seat, I removed my iGlasses, folded them up, and slipped them into my pocket. Then I started thinking about tomorrow. And suddenly it occurred to me that I could do anything I wanted.

* * * * *

For more stories like this, please check out my book, Loss of Consciousness: Satirical Variations on a Theme.

The Meat Grinder

[This is a satirical short story criticizing American education. If you teach or have a child at a “competitive” prep school or college, you’ll get it. From Loss of Consciousness.]

The walls of Hensington Elmworth Learning Labs were lined with framed photographs of ground meat. Jana chose one at random and leaned in to read the caption underneath it:

Caroline Fuller
Class of 2003
Net Worth after Ten Years: $150 Million

“You have a keen eye,” Mr. Ashfield said.

“I do?”

The director of admissions shuffled to Jana’s side, reached out with his right hand, and brushed the edge of the photograph’s frame with one finger.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Miss Fuller was one of our best.” His finger moved from the frame toward the center of the photograph, where he lightly traced one of the curling, yarn-like strands of reddish-pink meat.

“She was one of the most finely ground specimens we ever produced. Most people’s muscle fibers disintegrate when ground this finely. They become worthless. But hers retained the perfect texture. Look.”

Jana leaned even closer, grimacing slightly at the pain in her back, and squinted to look at the muscle fibers. She couldn’t see what he was talking about, but she nodded anyway, and Ashfield continued.

“Talk about return on investment! Only half a million dollars in tuition spread over thirteen years, and just a decade after graduation, she was worth a hundred and fifty million! If I remember correctly, she’s up to four hundred now.”

Jana couldn’t stop her eyes from widening, and Ashfield noticed. “I told you,” he said. “We create value here. And that’s what we’ll do for little Shareen.” He pointed toward Jana’s swollen belly. “You’d be hard-pressed to think of a good reason not to send your child to Hensington Elmworth Learning Labs. What we do here goes far beyond college. But you already know that, don’t you? That’s why you’re here.”

“Yes.” Unconsciously, Jana lifted a hand to her abdomen, which felt tighter than ever, and the baby chose that moment to shift its position. It was hard to imagine that the tiny child squirming inside her would one day be a grown woman whose photograph might be featured on this very wall.

“If you’re ready, I have a contract for you in my office,” Ashfield said. “This way.”

Jana followed, and a minute later she was sitting across from Ashfield at a small table, staring at a stack of papers he had given her to sign. Her fingers flexed and unflexed around the pen. She felt uneasy about it—physically sick, even—but this was what you had to do to secure a future for your child. This was the world into which Shareen would be born.

Hesitantly, Jana placed the tip of her pen above the signature line, and just as she was about to write her name, a crimson spot blossomed in the middle of the paper. Tiny flecks of red liquid landed on her hand. Another large drop splattered on the contract, and then another. Both Jana and Mr. Ashfield looked up. A dark red, glistening patch was slowly spreading from the center of the ceiling. More drops fell.

Mr. Ashfield cursed, pushed his chair back, and stood. Even as he did so, the series of discrete drops became a continuous stream, and Jana could smell it. If there had been any doubt to begin with, there was none now: It was blood.

“I’m terribly sorry,” Mr. Ashfield said. “There’s a class taking a test in the room upstairs. I thought we had fixed the leak. Please give me just a minute.”

He rushed toward the door, where, for the briefest sliver of a second, he hesitated. Jana was sure that his eyes flicked back toward something behind his desk—something he was worried she might discover in his absence. And then he disappeared, the sound of his footsteps growing fainter as he ran.

Jana followed the direction of Ashfield’s glance. There, sitting on the floor beside a paper shredder, was a box labeled “erasures.” She lifted one of the cardboard flaps and looked inside. There were three neat stacks of what must have amounted to thousands of photographs of ground meat, just like the ones in the hallway where Caroline Fuller’s picture was hanging. And there was space where a fourth stack had apparently been.

She looked at the paper shredder, then at the trash can beside it. It contained thin strips of photographic paper, most of it covered with what was now, to Jana, an unmistakable shade of pink—the pink of fresh ground meat. She went back to the box, looked inside once more, and removed one of the photos. Stapled behind it was a piece of paper, identifying the subject in the picture as Dennis Schwent, Class of 2009, now occupied as a teacher, with a net worth of $37,000.

Jana dropped the photo of Dennis and picked up the next one in the stack. The meat pictured in it was a less pleasant shade of pink, and it wasn’t very finely ground. It belonged to Allison Gockley, Class of 2010, now occupied as an artist. In the space for net worth, instead of a dollar amount, were written the words “In Debt.”

The next dozen or so photos were similar: graduates from 2009 or 2010, working low-wage jobs, with very little accumulated wealth. Not something Hensington Elmworth could display with pride. Jana was just wondering how many such photos Mr. Ashfield shredded each year, when her thoughts were interrupted by his voice.

“What are you doing?”

Her heart skipped a beat, and the photograph she was holding slipped from her hand onto the floor beside the shredder. She rose to her feet quickly and turned to see Mr. Ashfield’s figure filling the doorway. He did not look pleased.

“I saw the photos,” Jana stammered. “And I thought—” Her lie died on her lips. What would he be willing to believe she had been thinking? That she’d been expecting to see more cases of stunning success?

“Those are confidential records,” Mr. Ashfield said.

“I’m sorry. After all those pictures in the hallway, I . . . just wanted to see more.”

Ashfield’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.

“Is the leak fixed?” Jana asked.

“We moved the exam to a different room,” Ashfield replied. “The leak will be taken care of tomorrow.”

Absorbed in the photographs, Jana had hardly noticed that the rain of blood had largely abated. Only a few scattered drops fell from the ceiling now. She stepped back over to the table where her contract lay, still unsigned. Ashfield’s eyes followed her until she was seated, then darted to the papers in front of her.

“I apologize for the mess,” he said. “I . . . do hope this hasn’t changed your mind. Shall I get you a clean contract?”

“There’s no need,” Jana said.

“I see. I’ll walk you out then.”

“No,” Jana said, picking up the pen. “I’ll just sign this one.” And before Mr. Ashfield could say anything else, she signed her name, running the tip of the pen through three large drops of blood, nearly tearing the wet paper with the last stroke. She dropped the pen when she was finished.

“You’ve made the right decision,” Mr. Ashfield said.

“No doubt you said the same to the parents of the children whose photos you’ve been shredding,” Jana said.

Mr. Ashfield grimaced. “Yes, well . . . In every case, it’s a gamble for everyone involved. The parents, the child, the school—we all do as much as we can and hope for the best. Hensington Elmworth is still the surest bet. That much remains true.”

“I know. That’s why I signed.”

Minutes later, Jana emerged from the front entrance and began walking toward the subway station. The school building was on her right. The dark brown bricks were stained by a century of exposure to the elements. Something jutting out of the wall a foot above the ground caught her eye: the end of an old rusty pipe, three inches in diameter. A steady stream of crimson liquid trickled out of it onto the sidewalk, down over the curb, and into a storm drain.

Jana looked up at the second-floor windows directly above the pipe, above Mr. Ashfield’s office. Somewhere up there, the students were still taking their test.

She rubbed a fist against her back, trying to ease the pain, and something shifted inside her abdomen. She felt a dull internal snap, a slight release of tension, and then a stream of liquid running down her leg. She looked at her foot. A clear fluid trickled down the side of her shoe and joined with the stream of red liquid coming from the pipe. She realized the pain had moved from her back to her belly, which now felt even tighter than before. And she knew what was happening.

Shareen was coming.

[For more satirical stories with philosophical and political themes, please check out my new book, Loss of Consciousness.]

The Atheist Pastor Podcast

I just had a great interview experience on the Atheist Pastor Podcast. I talked about my experience as an evangelical missionary in China, my eventual loss of faith, my book Confessions of a Rogue Missionary, and the destructiveness of tribalism in American politics. Check it out:

Follow Chris Atlee (Atheist Pastor) on Twitter at @atheist_pastor.