Works by Venita Blackburn have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Paris Review, The Spectacle, Los Angeles Review of Books Print Quarterly Journal, American Short Fiction, the Georgia Review, Pleiades, Madison Review, Bat City Review, Nashville Review, Smoke Long 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.
It all started when Winter Fairchild wanted to know what the c word meant. We made a few guesses. Jackie Middleton said it was an ice cream topping nobody liked. I mentioned frog genitals. Maria Luisa said a c word is a lady that has no friends, which we thought couldn’t be right. Ms. Merriweather overheard at some point, like she always does, and eventually made a big thing about it. We’re still in the big thing. Ms. Merriweather was our fifth grade teacher and always thinking about school when nobody else wanted to. She wore dirty Chuck Taylors with turquoise buttons, my favorite color. When she sat down in her leather desk chair it always sighed like it was glad to have her back.
“OK all,” began Ms. Merriweather. “I’m still waiting on curriculum approval but we’re going to start a new lesson series this month called difficult subjects.”
We already knew this was coming. All of us had a lot of anxiety about sex and questions about like what is anxiety anyway, and Winter Fairchild said we were going to talk about abortions sooner or later and to just get used to it. Jackie started to cry, but on day one Ms. Merriweather just took a piece of chalk and slowly wrote on the one remaining blackboard we roll out for nostalgia or when Ms. Merriweather screams “no more screen time” the words: AMERICAN HISTORY. All of the classes were taking on subjects Ms. Merriweather and the other teachers said weren’t in the textbooks the way they ought to be.
Winter Fairchild was disappointed about the lack of abortion talk and I could tell she was going to be trouble. Other than that the morning went on as usual although our free hour where most of us do some coloring or building forts with toys went on a little longer than usual. It felt that way to me. Snack time didn’t happen at all, which was very strange. Eventually we all fell idle and bored and began distrusting each other more and more when an “ambassador” from Mrs. Martinez’s class came in carrying a basket. I felt my stomach like a vacuum and hoped she brought peanut butter crackers. Instead the basket was full of papers, neat and colored in crayons and markers. The ambassador walked around and gave us each a piece of paper with the same message. It read
“Room A26 has a turkey. It is young and male.”
We all began to whisper. Many gasped audibly. Winter Fairchild flipped her amber ponytail in astonishment and hit me in the eye. We both looked to Ms. Merriweather for confirmation.
“It’s OK. It’s OK,” she said. “They are learning about propaganda.”
She said the word slowly. I hoped she would write it on the board, but she only underlined our lesson. It did not take long before we dropped the papers and flung our toys again, scribbled in our books. I had no concept of turkeys, not to mention boy turkeys. I always thought of turkeys like sexless holiday gods; they were beyond me and inside of me like Christmas carols and Christmas ham. I forgot the turkey in the context of class almost instantly, especially when the snacks finally came. The day went on as usual, with math worksheets and a module on extinct animals of the Paleozoic period. There would be a spelling test in the morning.
At home my dad made Salisbury steak and asked me about my day. I told him it was a little confusing. He only smiled and nodded then asked what was confusing. I knew that conversation. He always had an answer ready even if he didn’t really and sometimes that answer could turn into a lot of problem. Like when my watch stopped working and instead of taking it back to the store he started ordering parts for it, one after another, one day after the next, until the mention of a watch would make him angry and sweat. I never mentioned it and when fewer parts were delivered and the microwave stopped working he forgot about it, and I decided I would too and learned to look for the time through strangers or clocks on walls. He kept staring at me waiting for me to tell him what was so confusing. I wanted to say snack time and maybe love and how Ms. Merriweather smells nice. Instead I said algebra. We were not studying algebra.
“Algebra already? That is a little advanced for elementary grades.”
“Ms. Merriweather believes in us,” I told him.
He didn’t smile but nodded. I hoped something would break in the house that very moment and take his attention from me and Ms. Merriweather, but thankfully he didn’t mention algebra anymore.
The next day went much like the previous. Lots of coloring, many growling stomachs and then the “ambassador” returned from Mrs. Martinez’s class. This time it was a boy I can’t remember seeing, faceless and bland with a backpack unzipped and full of slips of paper. He moved with less grace than the previous ambassador and dropped the papers at each of our desks, some sliding off only to be caught quickly in the air. I read mine aloud.
“Room A26 loves their turkey and believe it is sacred.”
Winter Fairweather crunched her slip of paper in her tangerine-sized fist and threw it. A few others did the same.
Ms. Merriweather immediately said “clean that up,” and they reluctantly did.
Before that round of paper could be deposited in the trash another ambassador came by. Two on the same day seemed incredible. This one had neat sheets of printer paper in a stack and left them on Ms. Merriweather’s desk. Ms. Merriweather only glanced at the stack and left the room. Maria Luisa was the first to go to Ms. Merriweather’s desk and take a look at the papers. Jackie screamed “no don’t look,” but Maria Luisa did it anyway. Winter got up and grabbed the top sheet. After that everyone hurried over to get a sheet. Maria Luisa had already memorized the message and recited it for those too far in the back to get a paper.
“They have named the turkey. It is Mr. Turkalupogus.”
“Those idiots!” screamed Winter. “They don’t even know what they have!”
By the time Ms. Merriweather got back to the room, half the stack of papers had been taken and a haphazard stack left in the wake. I tried to make the stack as neat as possible. She looked around unfazed, and the day continued.
Our usual idleness and hunger ceased during a brief interruption. Fourth grade twins Brad and Heather Marshall came in the room silently and grabbed Ms. Merriweather by the crotch then grunted like angry geese and departed. Ms. Merriweather just nodded and grimaced as if pulling an eyebrow hair then turned back to us and said “toxic masculinity.” The twins hurried back out as if they forgot something.
“It never happened,” Brad said.
“You wanted it,” Heather concluded, speaking to all of us before they both sauntered away more slowly this time.
We felt something collectively, a kind of change we had no name for. Together we nodded. Jackie made a squeaky sound with her breath. School had become fascinating now. Soon after there came a time to deal with Mr. Turkalupogus.
“We’re meeting at the B stalls,” I overheard Winter whispering.
The B stalls were the second floor bathroom that always smells like bleach and pee. Winter arranged a meeting of the minds during lunch. I had to see what was going on. Only half the class showed up, crowding into the three-stall bathroom. Some standing gleefully on toilets and others sitting awkwardly on the sinks. Winter waived her hands to quiet everyone and we all gazed expectantly at her.
“That turkey is America,” Winter said “it is land and butter and money and we are strong except for Jackie, and we can have it.”
I didn’t understand the comparisons, but Winter Fairchild always spoke with authority like when she dismissed the buttons on Ms. Merriweather’s shoes as “political” and no one knew what she meant, but we all believed it.
That night was a Wednesday. Dinner on Wednesday was usually experimental. Dad gave up on the meal prep of the week by then and created a hodgepodge of whatevers: white rice with artichoke hearts and frozen salmon filets. It did not turn out well. He asked about school as if he were apologizing for the meal. I told him it was like nothing I had ever experienced. He laughed. I was encouraged, so I told him.
“We are learning about all the things that aren’t in the textbooks.” He didn’t laugh, so I clarified as best I could. I told him what Ms. Merriweather said, “We’re combating the revisionist sanitization of our nation’s educational institutions.”
I waited for the nod and smile, but he only let the half chewed salmon sit on his tongue mouth agape. He looked at me with his face torn between giggles, tears or screaming like when I asked if we could eat dinner by candlelight after I saw a commercial for a movie where the two actors looked like they loved each other and sat with tiny flames burning between them. He looked at me then like something suddenly went wrong and it might’ve been a little bit his fault. I knew I must’ve gotten it wrong. Ms. Merriweather spoke like a judge and a mom. I didn’t know how to speak like either and couldn’t bring that eloquence to my father when I wanted to most.
“What the hell is going on at that school?!”
He got on the phone, and I only felt ashamed and hoped no one would ask me to say anything again until I could practice speaking more like Ms. Merriweather.
At school the next day Jonah Green asked an important question to no one in particular.
“What’s up with snack time?”
We were anticipating the delays in feeding. Jonah brought a family sized bag of pretzels and started selling them under the table. I bought a handful myself.
The “ambassadors” came twice again but the first time just dropped a stack just outside of the door. No one waited, and all of us quickly hurried to the door.
“Ouch,” said Jackie, being pushed out of the way.
The message read: Mr. Turkalupogus is in training to do tricks, potentially lethal.
The next ambassador a few minutes later just threw the stack of papers in the room, letting the dozens of sheets fly like a curse.
“Mr. Turkalupogus is left unguarded likely due to corruption,” read Maria Luisa.
There were other flyers mixed in about a ferret and vanilla sandwich cookie three strikes law, but we think they were for Mrs. Okafor’s class on the prison industrial complex, so we ignored them. Mr. Turkalupogus was everything.
“We go now!” Winter screamed.
Ms. Merriweather looked up from her breathy leather chair and novel, eyes wide and unchallenging while Winter led us out of A12 down the hall to A24. The heavy door burst open under Winter’s tangerine fists. There he was, Mr. Turkalupogus, in a cute little pen. He did not have the majesty of a fully grown turkey. He was gray and svelte and big eyed. Winter lunged for the turkey, and I could see her planning and not knowing exactly what to do but knowing that whatever outcome would be glorious and the only inevitable thing. Winter seized Mr. Turkalupogus by the total body, smashing his wings to his frame shooting his neck rod-straight in terror.
“Don’t do it!” and “Yeahhhhh!” were the only audible human sounds before a snatching tear struck the room.
The change happened again. Winter pulled the wings separate and tore Mr. Turkalupogus into two pieces across her chest like a wrestler splitting his t-shirt for applause. In the wreckage, others dived for the scratching flailing creature’s remains and some put his feet between their teeth and bared down on the bones. Their own molars found surprisingly little resistance. I wanted to stop them but could only look at my hands.
Phalanges, I thought, metatarsals. Two hundred and six bones in the adult human body, more in infants for some strange reason, a quiz next Thursday, two trillion cells make up a single person all talking to each other about a scratchy throat, itchy scalp, the cycle of hunger, comedones forming in the epidermis, cancerous uprisings in the lower intestine to be thwarted, and increasingly rapid heartbeat due to unthinkable causes. I imagined my distal, middle, and proximal phalanges sucked into Winter Fairchild’s mouth in retaliation for not participating, for quiet condemnation, and I looked to Ms. Merriweather (now in the doorway); the plea in my eyes did not go unrecognized. She said my name as if expecting me to finish her own sentence, to cast some final judgment on the great mess at hand.
Because I said nothing she looked at Winter, still writhing gleefully in the feathers and bird blood. Nothing coherent would come from her until the ecstasy of violence dissipated, so Ms. Merriweather turned to Maria Louisa whom was already brushing fluff from her sweater and straightening her shorts.
“Maria Louisa, what does Mr. Turkalupogus symbolize?”
Maria thought for a moment and said, “Vegans.”
There was a silence then some ohhhhs and other shouts in protest over the quieting sobs of Mr. Matsumoto's class as they huddled together for comfort and protection.
“It’s the planet!”
Ms. Merriweather sucked her teeth, shook her head and sighed. She looked in my direction again and this time so did everybody. The room smelled like a billion dirty pennies.
“What does it symbolize?” she asked again.
“Me,” I said in a whisper.
A few laughed and then stopped.
“All of us,” Maria said coolly still plucking the infinite bird fluff from her sweater.
“Nice work,” said Ms. Merriweather, “Tomorrow we will cover nuclear holocaust.”
I mouthed the words after her. We all headed back to our classroom to finish the day, but there came a banging sound from the halls toward the entrance of the school. I could see my dad through the thick glass, sweating and angry. There were dozens of them, all the parents pounding the doors of the school, waiting for the guards to unlock them. The end of the day was near. Ms. Merriweather did not look away from the shouting mothers and fathers. I wanted to tell her no, to go the other way, to find her sensibly priced fuel efficient vehicle in the parking lot via a different route and escape into the night and never come back to this place, but she ignored my wordless expression and moved on beyond the guards, unlatching the doors, and into the parents with their teeth bared and hands stretched out for her.