MATTHEW DI PAOLI
Matthew Di Paoli has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times including 2020. He has won the Wilbur & Niso Smith Adventure Writing Prize, the Prism Review, 2 Elizabeth’s, and Momaya Review Short Story Contests. Matthew earned his MFA in Fiction at Columbia University. He has been published in Boulevard, Fjords, Post Road, and Cleaver, among others. He is the author of Killstanbul with El Balazo Press and teaches English to at risk high school students in New York City.
There is a cult of me. It's a small group. No bigger than a bushel, because I assume a bushel is a unit of measurement that can be interpreted in any way like poetry or taxes.
I'm never hungry before a competition. It is more of a lusty feeling, as if I had just seen my soul mate walk away before I could speak. I want to consume her body into memory. If I devour her, she'll always be part of me. Maybe that's a strange way to look at food, but it works for me. Maybe that's why I'm single.
I do jaw exercises whenever I get a chance. I do them in the morning after I brush and also while I masturbate. They tell you to chew gum. That’s how you get the jaw muscles strong. You start with three pieces and work your way up to six, but I learned from Yasir Salem, the 2015 Donut Derby Champion, that if you chew on surgical tubing it’s a lot cheaper than buying hundreds of packs of gum. And, to be perfectly honest, gum is kind of the opposite of eating. It seems antithetical to everything that we stand for.
We do our competitions in the warm months. We perform for crowds in the old tradition like vaudeville or public hangings. I can't say I mind being a spectacle. Everyone wants to be looked at. Everyone wants a voyeur, to be consumed for pleasure. I always thought it'd be nice to have someone who watched me at night just because they wanted to. I'd rather not ever even see them or talk to them, just know that they were there, know that my movements (even the most mundane ones) held consequence. In a way, my voyeur would mean more to me than I would to her, and she would never know it. That's power.
The competition I’m traveling to will be different. Audiences are tired of watching potbellied electricians stuff wet hotdogs and soggy buns down their throats like defunct sword swallowers. They’re tired of food without consequence. We’ve traveled to the edge of the world to give them something new.
We land in a country I cannot pronounce. It mostly has G's in it, but you're supposed to roll them. I see my competitors in the airport trying to figure out which way the road is. I know the secret: there is no road. You follow the llama path down as far as it will go, and when you hit a ravine, ford it like so many settlers before us, and beyond that is the hotel if you can call it that. It's an old butcher's shop where the counters have been turned into "slab rooms." This is an oddity that does not exist stateside. I reserved the lamb suite.
The process of simply finding the competition will weed out the lesser competitors. We're carnivorous pioneers dreaming of forty acres and eating a mule, realizing our predatory manifest destiny. Each generation creates a new frontier, a staging point off of which future philosophical societies will launch. I believe we are breaking new ground. I believe there is heroism in our bellies.
The llama path, I won't lie, is not as clear-cut as I’d hoped. There are literally llamas everywhere. If I were to not understand the intricacies of the human mind, I would think llamas had settled this land long ago and raised a small amount of people in their yards for milk and entertainment.
I follow several stray llamas, exhausted from a day's work, drunk with sun, spitting indiscriminately into the swirling sand that dangles in the air as if an hourglass has shattered above us. I spit as well, to blend in. The last thing you want to do in a foreign country is insult an age-old custom or show yourself to be ignorant.
It’s hard to tell what the people indigenous to this country really look like with all the sand. At times I believe I am in Africa or maybe Asia, but their teal and mauve headscarves blend into one another. Far off in the distance, I see an inky mass that could be the sea, but it’s night there, and here it’s day, so it must be very far; and the mountains flow red like Incan blood, and the ground heats my toes even though my rubber soles.
"Excuse me," I say to a man. His face resembles a tree—ridged, oaken, worn down by the wind and sun like the banks of a lake. His splotchy skin quivers in the heat. "Do you know the way to the llama path?"
He smiles but not enough to show any of his mouth. It’s a disconcerting sight, as if beneath his lips lay another set of lips, these more chapped and blistered than the outer layer. He points to a tree grove where three llamas argue amongst themselves, gnashing their boxy, yellow teeth. A woman stands in the middle wearing a long blue gown made of glass. "Thanks,” I say.
I walk over to the woman surrounded by the three llamas. They disperse, each retreating to their own corner of the small square. The woman and I stand and stare at one another. “You don’t happen to speak English, do you?”
“You do!” I say, elated.
“Yes? I’m speaking it to you right now.”
“Do…you,” she says.
I feel we have reached an impasse. Her grip on the English language only seems to span two words, and she has no concept of how or why those sounds might be of use. When I’m not chewing gum, I often strengthen my jaw by pronouncing words with lots of vowels in them like Oreo or aurora. I say them over and over until they become meaningless. Sometimes it feels good to destroy something.
“Do you know where the llama path is?” I ask. “Please don’t say—”
“What is it that you’re here for?”
The sun beats down, and I rake my hand over my sweaty forehead. I want to look at my watch, but I have no idea what the time difference is here. On the plane, they were doing some kind of long division. I hate carrying numbers. I’ve carried numbers all my life.
“I’m here for a contest,” I say.
It feels like the sun should be setting, but it’s only getting brighter. Is it possible it’s still morning? Behind me, the town square is simply one wooden stall filled with mangoes. That’s it, and no one is selling them. Just a bunch of mangoes rotting in the sun, leaking their juices in the dark, sugary sand below.
“Follow the llama. If you are meant to find your destination, then it will lead you.”
I turn and look for the llama she’s speaking of. “There are three llamas,” I say, but she is already walking away toward the mango cart.
I’ll have to discern which llama is my llama of destiny. One has very big eyes, one has very big buttocks, and one has very big teeth. He flashes them at me and spits. He begins to walk. I’ll follow him. Anything is better than here.
The llama is a fast walker. He does have more feet than I do, I tell myself. I try to keep up, churning my legs against the deep sand. I sling my nylon duffle bag over my shoulder. The sun beats on my skin. I’m parched. The llama and I come to a fork in the road. We look at one another. His eyes are yellow like two slices of lemon. I once came in second in a lemon-eating contest. I can still taste the acid burning cuts into my lips. I couldn’t stop salivating for days. I had lemon poisoning, the doctor told me.
One road is a straight path that heads into the sun and then dips out of sight into some kind of canyon. All I can see of the canyon is that it is endless. I know this in my belly. I wonder how many llamas lay at the bottom of that canyon, a mass llama grave, an ancient llama burial ground, sacred and forgotten. I wonder about my own bones.
The other road immediately splits into seven roads and those seven roads each split into seven more roads. I squint and try to see where each one leads, but they bend and gnaw on each other. One road is another that splits into itself and dips and shimmies away from its own body. They are gravel roads, sand roads, roads made of twigs and moth husks and berries. They remind me of the mazes I used to color in crayon that they give to you at chintzy diners with squeaky vinyl booths. The paths glimmer in the dense sunlight, blue and black and red as blood like arteries loosed from the earth.
I am in awe.
The llama shrugs. He’s seen it all before. I am just another pinkish pouch of bones to him. One day I hope to have wisdom like this llama. I hope to be an elder of the community. I imagine other llamas come to him with their ineptitudes and marital problems, and he makes them feel better even though their troubles can never be solved. They are, after all, only llamas.
The wise old llama goes back the same way we came, and I am left to choose my own path. My stomach gurbles. I reach into my bag and take out a vine of rubber tubing and shove it into my cheek. I bite down, and saliva rushes under my tongue.
I decide to follow the moth path. I know some eaters who’ve eaten insects. I’ve tried them; they taste like lemongrass. The dried moth bodies crackle as they shatter under my feet. There are thousands of them, all perfectly aligned, wing and body like a yellow brick road of moths. I wonder how they got here. Is this where every moth in the world comes to die? Has some insane entomologist pinned each one of them to the earth beneath me?
I come to another fork of seven roads, and I choose a road that feels as if it’s made of cloud. Above me, bits of dirt sprinkle on my head. I let them fall into my mouth, crackling on my teeth. It goes on like this, from cloud to dust, from dust to oil, and night, and spiders, and those little confetti candies they give you at Indian restaurants, and one the color of honey, and one of bone. Each road has a smell, and I want to taste them all—I’m not sure how long I’ve spent out here from road to road. I worry about filling up to much before the contest. The weather changes. The earth cools and it becomes night and day at once, and I feel myself grow slightly older in the way that one day you wake up and don’t recognize your own hand on the pillow. One road smells of crow’s feet, like rain and telephone wire. And sometime during one of the nights, I find a velvety light in the distance. It isn’t starlight or fire, it isn’t the light that emanates from the earth after it’s been asleep too long, it is unnatural light, something distinctly human, something that doesn’t belong, and I break off and follow that light until finally I stand in front of an old butcher’s shop with a purple neon sign that flashes NO VACANCY.