The Quiz and the Pledge by JoAnna Novak
Managing editor Matt Weinkam on today's bonus fiction: Please, I beg you, read “The Quiz and the Pledge” out loud. Few stories are so rich with sound or crafted with such care for rhythm that they beg to be recited like a poem. But—goddamn—just listen to the sentences here. JoAnna Novak wields words like fire, the prose sparks on the page, but only by reading aloud can you appreciate the full blaze. So find your partner, your cat, a half-empty cereal box, whatever, and read the shit out of this story. You won’t regret it.
The Quiz and the Pledge
True and true: Willie thought of herself as Weepy Willie, blobby and blue-haired. But also: the first non-binary TKE pledge. A macaron maven. A nocturnal voice against the far-right. Breather of oh, Dad. Tugger of the uncalloused hands of god, Mom, whose goodness could only be considered when their knees were next-door neighbors on the pew.
She swiped her answer across the screen, glinting in the glare. Her roommate had given her a haircut, and now Willie’s blue was close to the scalp and feather, and the sun was burning her neck.
She was on the patio, out back. Inside, the stovetop timer was counting down from twenty-two. She would hear the minutes run out. The beep, she knew, would came jabby and short, like being pecked to death by a hummingbird.
True and true: She had completed other surveys about movies on her phone in the last three month; no one in her household worked in the marketing, entertainment, or automotive industries. She was on spring break, but even back in the dorms, she suspected the women and two-spirits with whom she shared affinities for certain web series and one made-to-movie musical and hard cider and kimichi turnovers would not immediately come to mind when the app asked what comprised her household. Would TKE—that ricky, racky, gingerbready monstrosity on the corner of campus—reorder her brain?
Willie touched her neck. It was so hot her hand was a relief. Her fingers were cooler than her palm. Even still—she got up, rotated the lawn chair, and faced the other way.
Now her face would burn.
Her mother was out and thank God. In the family room, her father was dunking his mustache in a midday Scotch. Soused walrus, she shushed him. He liked that word—soused.
So did she: soused in the house in the south.
She tipped her chin toward the sun and watched the world darken through her glasses. Yeah, they were Transitions; no, she didn’t care. Willie leaned back, until she saw the bricks her mother had hired the El Salvadorians next door to pave. She let melanoma souse her jaw. She licked her lips—mm, cancer. Macarons were mostly sugar, sugar and nuts, almonds, pulverized.
Pul—that was another sound she like. Pulchritude, pula, Pulaski, pullus.
She listened for the timer. When her family first moved to sunniness, Willie had spotted a baby hummingbird: pullus. A pulchritudinous pullus, the size of a pustule.
False and true: She enjoyed dramas and romantic comedies. She lived in a house where other languages were spoken. Her mother trotted out the French like a show pony. And every Uber driver got an hola.
You couldn’t help what rubbed off.
It was her mother’s suggestion Willie make the macarons. And now they were in the oven. They were growing sturdy pink feet. Rosewater flavored the cookies—it would flavor the filling, too. (Cream + white chocolate) x stir = ganache.
Willie waited. Her screen had stopped feeding her questions. She tapped the device, where a mandala was dialing around and around. When her mother took her to therapy, they passed a billboard for hypnotism. Had she been clouded by the sun? Something about her answer meant she hadn’t qualified to complete the survey.
She closed her eyes and watched a dollar in quarters sizzle away in the heat. Laundry, a tube of trail mix, a packet of Top Ramen. The surveys paid for whatever—it was Willie’s call, no questions—not like her mother.
It was then the figs started falling, a shower of uncracked walnuts. They were hard from the sun, withered after winter, and purple and green, the size of Willie’s burns. Her mother had tricked her, taken her to the beach shop on the pier and bought her a new bathing suit—why? Just to admonish Willie.
What my daughter has done to her thighs! And before a dinner.
As though Willie would be serving macs in the nearly-nude.
The fig that dropped onto her phone screen was wizened, so purple it had become brown. It made a sound—Willie knew it—the plop of a fist hitting a thigh from up-close. Her thighs were blobby. Bruised blue on the tops, blistered red on the insides, where she’d used a cigarette lighter from her roommate’s old Accord to administer the burns. No questions, her own single in TKE: was life such a miracle? Locusts, figs, families—and birds, baby birds, hummingbirds bashing their beaks against the hood on the stove.
JoAnna Novak is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her debut novel, I MUST HAVE YOU, will be available spring 2017.