To highlight the winners and honorable mentions of the 2019 Kathleen Downey Short Fiction Contest, Richard Mayne heads this series to share their work on the New Worcester Spy. Each entry includes an interview with the writer followed by their notable piece of short fiction.
The Search for a Switch
By Richard Mayne
“I saw the poster, $300 cash prize for first place, and thought: ‘Man, if I won that, I could buy Alex a Nintendo Switch so we could play Super Smash Brothers online together.’”
There are essentially millions of ways to spend three hundred bucks, but transfer student Nick Longo’s got the right idea. The English major’s submission to WSU’s Kathleen Downey Short Fiction contest for spring of 2019, “Hubris Unchained” is, “a reflection on the causality and meaning of human suffering, interwoven into a story about a pair friends trying to invent a culinary dish named Dessert Spaghetti.”
Rumor has it, it doesn’t go very well. The story is meant to be a piece of comedy, and a means to prevent Longo from “having to sell his lungs on the black market,” in order to buy his buddy Alex a Nintendo Switch. His short stories are meant to be more comedic, but enjoys writing Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Action Adventure as well.
“In my free time between classes, I dig acting in plays produced by Worcester State’s Visual and Performing Arts Department, writing and recording music, and I’m also currently writing a fantasy novel that I think would be neat to get published someday.”
Hopefully, Longo will one day be able to play Super Smash Brothers online with Alex, lungs intact. In the meantime, enjoy reading his Honorable Mention winning submission into the Kathleen Downey Short Fiction Contest, “Hubris Unchained.”
Note: If anyone wishes to get in contact with Longo, they can do so through his email: email@example.com
By Nick Longo
It is often said that nothing in this life can be achieved without some equivalent hardship; that some element of suffering is required in order for there to be gain. Throughout the history of mankind, those who have understood the meaning of sacrifice are the ones to reap the greatest rewards: athletes who give the most of their time to training are the ones who win the game, scholars who throw themselves into their books with the most fervor are the ones who win the Nobel Prize – and the list goes on.
But a subject that is not often touched upon is the idea that suffering, although inherent to our existence as humans, does not always happen for a reason. Be it some otherworldly force, something we can only define as “destiny,” or God himself, for some reason our universe has shaped itself into a deeply flawed and twisted plane in which suffering is not only inevitable, but often happens without rhyme or reason. And it is up to us, as humans, with our unfathomably limited perception of such a universe, to assign meaning to this suffering, so that we might convince ourselves that it wasn’t for naught. It is with this pretense that I would like to introduce the tale of my attempt to create Dessert Spaghetti.
There are many adjectives I would use to describe myself, but “clever” is not one of them. In the context of this story, I would say the same about my best friend, a good-hearted but naïve young man named Jeremy. It was a warm Spring afternoon in the year of 2018 when Jeremy stopped by my Worcester apartment for a visit, as he had done many times before. The events of that afternoon are largely unimportant, and as such have escaped my memory and faded into the annals of history, but at some point the Joke was uttered by Jeremy, and thus our fates were sealed.
The Joke was harmless enough in and of itself. It was a quickly delivered punchline presumably in the midst of a maelstrom of similar japes, but one that is emblazoned into my brain for the rest of my life. While the context of the Joke remains lost to me, I distinctly remember Jeremy chuckling to himself at some quip I had just tossed his way before turning to me and uttering the words “But nah, chocolate and pasta would never mix.” To this, I responded with a simple shrug and a facetious “Well, there’s only one way to find out.”
To this date, I am confident that time travel will never be a reality within my lifetime, for if it was, at this point in the conversation an adult version of myself would have materialized in my apartment and annihilated my younger, innocent incarnation in an act of mercy, to save him from what was to come. But the Joke had been spoken, and nothing could be done to change that.
Jeremy and I locked eyes. We were both men who had given up on a lot in our lives: we had both seen our fair share of opportunities squandered due to our own inaction. And there, in that split second after the Joke was told, we both wordlessly understood that this was the mountain we decided to stand on – the one we refused to back down from. We had experienced loss before, but we refused to do so again. It was a foolish task to refuse to back down from, but it was the one we had wordlessly decided upon. Thus, what should have died as a simple Joke between friends blossomed into a machination that still haunts my waking memories. Jeremy and I had formulated our plans for the evening, and our lives would never be the same again.
We decided to make Dessert Spaghetti.
It was an original recipe, of course, for none before us had been so brazen as to spit in the face of God by attempting to combine chocolate and pasta in one dish. He and I took a trip to our local supermarket, and once we had returned to my apartment and spread our ingredients out across my kitchen, our mutual descent into madness began.
The recipe for Dessert Spaghetti had been varied somewhere along the way; our original conception, while it was still tentatively in the Joke phase, had simply been chocolate sauce applied to spaghetti (hence the name). However, Jeremy and I are artists. Our travels through Price Chopper quickly bore intellectual fruit as we selected more and more refined ingredients to make our concoction a masterpiece to be remembered. In the end, we decided to make a sort of cannoli using pasta noodles that we would bake in the oven and then fill with ice cream, finally dousing the whole thing in chocolate sauce and sprinkles. To us, it was genius. At this point, I would like to remind you, dear reader, that neither Jeremy nor I are particularly clever men.
Looking back on it, it seems so dreadfully droll in a way that he and I were ever proud of our final product. But eventually, we each stood at my kitchen counter with a fresh plate of dessert spaghetti between us, ready to be sampled. And that is when we learned the nature of suffering.
Jeremy, the more dignified of the two of us, took to his with a knife and fork, as any civilized person would. To his shock, however, the beast on the plate before him parried his blade, deflecting the utensil away from its hardened carapace with a vengeance. Jeremy was dumbfounded for the briefest of moments, but was otherwise undeterred. Refusing to be defeated by his own creation, he selected a larger knife from a nearby drawer and reattempted to remove a forkful. Through great determination, he succeeded, bringing the morsel to his mouth and chomping on it with a crunch so loud it physically shook the apartment.
With rising horror, Jeremy realized that the pasta had crisped in the oven for too long. The ice cream did little to null the fact that the pasta surrounding it had broken apart in his mouth like a thousand spiky granules of sand, each with a personal vendetta against his intestines. He swallowed. I estimate that he sustained a number of internal lacerations from the decision to do so. But he and I had set a goal for ourselves. We had made Dessert Spaghetti, and by God we were going to eat it. And so, he cut himself another piece, and continued his meal.
Compared to Jeremy’s approach, mine was far more untamed and bestial than I would care to admit. Squatting on the ground beside him like some kind of deranged simian, I plucked the Dessert Spaghetti from the plate and gnawed on it as a stray dog would with a scrap of meat left by the roadside. He was the modest Jekyll to my feral Hyde, and although it is not something I am proud of, I had seen Jeremy’s initial defeat and was determined to prove myself this dish’s master.
I swallowed and looked up at Jeremy, chocolate dribbling from the corners of my mouth like a sloppy vampire, and we realized our mistake. Swallowing the Dessert Spaghetti was like swallowing broken glass. Sharp pasta shards scraped their way down my insides to finally rest in my stomach. Each movement I made disturbed them, causing them to lash out against me from within. I was like an unhappy piñata, but had no child savior to break me open and release me from my pain.
Since that evening, Jeremy and I have spoken about looking into each other’s eyes in that moment, and we agreed that it was like being trapped in a field hospital during World War I, watching as the light and spirit slowly faded from our comrades’ eyes while they wasted away beside us. In addition to time travel, I would like to add that after this incident I also no longer believe in God, for any truly benevolent higher power would have struck us down in our hubris before we ever sought to make our idea a reality.
Some time later, one of my roommates entered the kitchen. He saw nothing but ruin before him: A countertop amess with pasta shells and ice cream splatters, trays and utensils strewn about as though tossed there by a cyclone, and in the midst of it all, lying on the ground were two friends, clutching their stomachs, eyes closed, with an empty plate between them.
Suffering is intended to prod us towards some kind of change. When we are unsatisfied with some aspect of our lives, our minds attempt to nudge us in the right direction. Therein lies the root of human dissatisfaction; however, sometimes, pain can happen without explanation. Perhaps it is beyond the realm of our intellect to rationalize why we must suffer, and why disasters like Dessert Spaghetti are allowed to happen at all. It is a difficult question to answer, seeing as how no one may be definitively correct except in their own minds.
All I know, as a 20 year old young lad who still has much to learn of the world, is that suffering happens regardless of our preparedness for it, and we must all learn to adapt to it, and overcome it. Dessert Spaghetti was supposed to be my greatest triumph, but instead it forced that lesson upon my tender shoulders. Life can be cruel in that way. But although my internal organs may not have ever fully recovered, the wisdom that it brought me about life is something I hold dear to this day.
And so, dear reader, I beg of you but two things: First, take pain in stride, for while you may sustain wounds, it will fall upon you to determine what you may learn from it; and second, if you ever make Dessert Spaghetti, don’t bake the pasta beforehand, because that’s fucking stupid.