Terese Svoboda

June 4, 2018 
"Alfalfa" is a short story by Terese Svoboda from the latest issue of Epiphany. Terese Svoboda is a poet, novelist, translator, and critic. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. She has won several literary awards, including a Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Award.

The year I lick so much LSD off stamps I have to use Elmer’s glue to back the twenty-center for a postcard cash request to my mother, that I am alive note at the end of term, is the year of all the “wine” parties.

“Wine” is what we put down on a form to get the empty windowless room for the party, a room big enough to do a lot of licking and not see the walls pulse too close. People who are not throwing up from some real wine party or people fresh from not flunking or people who have taken to feeding and watering rats to get out of flunking, all my friendswhen these people hear that Bugs will cook for a party, we buy a lot of these unlicked stamps, and even some wine.

That doesnt mean Bugs will turn up the flame and cook. He makes that clear. No pots at all, he says, all presentation. But as he has promised to do this meal for some time, and we have waited, party after party, begging him, we are really looking forward to it. I even find the jars he needs.

He already has a net.

Alfalfa rages beside the dorm, it is that much spring. Our building bisects the field, so many of us grad students with our new loans and our bad hay fever and our new-bought stamps with whatever drug on them to dissolve on our tongue tips, so many of us students here that they had to put up this concrete bunker of bunks and bare cells, of party rooms without windows abutting all that alfalfa. All that alfalfa outside our bare cells keeps us in bed sneezing, sometimes for days, it is that green, double green after such a party.

The field is where he uses the net.

But first Bugs sends us off to the pet stores to buy every last chirper and writher, and we also pay a visit to the bait shop because people do fish here, and there are nymphs for bait. Then someone says he has heard of a genetics lab down on College Terrace that Bugs maybe should check out. All you have to do to catch them is to shake them off the meat in the fridge. You want them before they get wings.

More and more of us sign up on the list taped up outside the party room, a list we keep there so maintenance will know we are serious and wont come in to check on what the smoke is coming from or if someone is carrying on a little loud. Pretty soon bets are laid on how much so-called “wine” will have to be ingested before anyone eats Bugs’s feast. Such a bet is null and void for most of us. We will eat anything, we say. We will eat a lot of it, especially at this kind of party.

Bugs just shrugs.

We start the party an hour early, we who are already ravenous and lit, and we start by spelling out Bugs’s name in textbooks on the table. Or maybe just his initials. It is hard to tell, so many books keep falling off, and a lot of them mine, fresh from falling off elsewhere. The “wine” we finish fast, then stand in front of the fridge to feel it take effect in comfort. It is so hot in that room with spring going on in the field outside and no windows in it that the fridge is the place to be. Two or three of us stand in front of it, flapping our T-shirt hems and bending to get our heads in a little, just in case there is something quick in there for the party, a Kool-Aid pitcher with a toothless grin, or toothpicks with flavor.

There is just the bait and the jars.

All that alfalfa outside our bare cells keeps us in bed sneezing, sometimes for days, it is that green, double green after such a party.”

Bugs makes us back off and sit on the floor with our wild hunger in check. He unstacks paper plates and empties the jars and the bait with their bits and shows us how to pull off the legs and what to swallow whole. Some things he does cook, on a hot plate, but most we eat the way they came, stuck to a little something like a cracker or a weenie. Some of us hesitate, yes, we dowe harbor second thoughts, we turn our heads away and say, Maybe tomorrow. We sing then, apart and in unison, about an old woman who is going to die because of what she swallowed, then we drink some actual wine. We are all legal, all of the males over six foot but still growing, still a new size shoe every year but mostly sandals anyway, in snow or rain. We tend to hunger, even without a party, and we eat often, spread ketchup on napkins or chew frat key chains or stick the dog with forks and taste its kibble—if anybody is watching.

After a lot of stamps, we are known to climb trees after squirrels.

Bugs makes such a smacking noise eating, and raises his eyebrows with such a show of pleasure, that even the hesitant hungry are moved to try. He refills everyone’s plates with what has been knocked off the bottles at the lab, small bits, and those have crunch, and there is quantity. He cleans these plates with the side of his hand and shakes off what clings to them while someone recites its families from the lab the way he remembers them and someone else checks the book with all those families that has not yet fallen off the table, that lies under a couple of those empty plates. The protein of the future, we say to the wriggling whatever, lifting whatever off the plate, and then Bugs makes up a few more plates and those we eat too, even with all the writhing and snatching and clutching at beards.

Some of us have beards then.

Bugs shakes his fingers through his, with long fingers that must’ve grown longer from searching around in the fridge or holding up this and that by the winghis fingers are very long. He shakes those long fingers through the front of his beard that is already gray from all his grad schooling and asks, More?

More, we whoop as he offers them around. More is just about right, someone weeps. More, just a few, fall out from his beard.

The party is going, is gone.

The bloom is on the alfalfa that day though who would know it from the party room with its no windows that keep us so safe from maintenance. More? Bugs asks one last time.

Due to our chorus, he gets out his net, whips it around the room in an S that ends over someone who claws at the webbing, and then leaves to avail himself of the bloom.

We keep on “pouring” refreshments, such as they are, and talking up species and flavors and the crunch of it all until he gets back, sweaty, with the fat net knotted tight. A bit of bouquet on it, he says with a chuckle, and fits all its furled green buzzy insides into a bowl just the size for a salad.

Chilled, he says. You’ll like it better.

We play music while it cools, we play who can see the spiders that some of us can already, climbing the inside walls looking for a window, big spiders, the size of the fridge, with hair on them and green eyes and poison flowing from their four mouths, then we play Who is hungry still?

We get to punching the fridge.

Bugs says Enough. Enough with the chill. He puts the bowl on the floor and shimmies the net’s insides into it. Shshshsh, he says. From under the green alfalfa stirs the rest of our meal. It stirs and chirrups and clicks like safes opening in old movies we have just seen for the first time in black and white or like a brush across a drum someone is bringing out now, is brushing, is now pounding, it stirs because the night is warm and the fridge is cold and what are these insects doing there on the table and not out in the field, alighting and alerting each other?

We eat them all, scrabbling through the bright green for the brushing and the stirring and just as often eating the alfalfa stink that gets stuck to a bug or gets in the way of someone else getting to what we want. A kind of explosive eating breaks out around the last elusive bits and just as these bits are getting eaten, Bugs plucks, with two of his long, long fingers, at red ones trying to fly off. Then he sings about flying away, the house on fire, and how he will help the ladybug.

Her, he says.

In the end he catches six of them right out of the air. Later, of course, it is ten. He chews every one of them straight down while we cheer, then he closes his eyes and gives off some gas from deep inside himself, something his body has made in a hurry. They could have pesticided that batch, he tells us.

You can already hear the flushing. Many partygoers don’t make it, they just sit in corners on the floor, staring at their hands where whatever it is comes up with the green, and Bugs too, with alfalfa, the secret ingredient he regrets swallowing, now moving through all his personal passages.

The next day there is a rush at the cafeteria for potatoes mashed to a paste, for eggplant peeled of batter, for clear Jell-O with peaches. We eye all that is concealed in the sandwiches, we strain soup for what floats. We want to swear off all meat, not just chicken, what everything you don’t know tastes like now and forever, but our future is already growling in our stomachs, and none can deny for the rest of their lives: I ate it.


From the latest issue of Epiphany.Used with permission of Epiphany. Copyright © 2018 by Terese Svoboda.

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