Acts by Chila Woychik


Chila Woychik

“Garden plants are like hordes of invading aliens, ranging this way and that until they completely take over every square inch of your yard, town, planet, solar system, and finally, the entire universe. Never plant artichokes. They’re little green aliens in disguise.” Jim wipes at a speck of dust on the dashboard and continues. “My grandmother had a garden every year of her married life and see where it got her.”

“No,” I say. “Frankly, I don’t.”

I read my share of gardening books and entertain Jim with new finds each week. Not that he asks to be entertained, but I do it anyway. It keeps the conversation convivial. I have no interest in Jim beyond that, and I don’t mind if he knows it. I won’t hurt him by pretending otherwise; I like him too much to lead him on.

“Botulism. Canned tomatoes,” he says.

I crinkle my eyebrows together, then say, “I’ve heard of that. Sometimes the jars don’t seal well, and stuff gets in, germs and whatnot. It must have been hard on you.”

“I was just a kid, so I don’t remember much about it, really. And don’t be sorry. She was 85 or 86, I think. Won the award for the best canned tomatoes at the county fair for like 50 years in a row. It’s crazy.”

“Then she dies from eating her own tomatoes. Wow. That’s sad.”

“Oh, they weren’t her tomatoes,” Jim explains. “A skinflint of an old farmer down the road wanted to get into her tomato patch, if you know what I mean, so he gave her a rusty jar from his basement, as a gift. His late wife had canned them a few years before, but then she died, and the jars just sat there getting old, like him. As the story goes, poor Grandma couldn’t see well enough to notice the condition of the jar. She threw the tomatoes in a pot of chili, ate a bowl, then died a miserable death before anyone knew what was happening. At least, that’s what Ralph told everyone. He was to inherit, you know.”

“Who’s Ralph?”

“Her nephew. He was living with her at the time. Said he thought she was having another attack of croup like she’d had on and off all winter. He wondered why she wasn’t coughing like before but didn’t think anything beyond that. She turned a full rainbow of colors before he realized he should call the doctor.”

“My god, that’s horrible.”

Jim varies between talking and staring out the window. How many times has he told this story, and what happened to the farmer? But we’re at the bookstore, so I save the questions for another time.

I get out, and Jim says he’ll be back in two hours. The tires need rotating, so he’s heading to the farm store. He loathes bookstores and always finds a chore to do while I’m here. Later, he’ll pick me up, and we’ll drive through Taco Bell for a mid-afternoon meal. He’ll get the #6 combo, and I’ll order a chicken gordita or a fresco taco. He’ll pay, then we’ll drive around another hour or two, talking and interjecting moments of silence where needed. Then he’ll drive me home. It’s the way it is.

A strange relationship, no mistaking. And I’m not sure why he wants to go riding with me every single Sunday, but he does. It’s Georgia, for gosh sake. It’s allowed. And no, he’s not interested in me; he’s onto Jessica. But I like Jim’s company. He has good stories to tell and doesn’t have anyone else to confide in. He wants to go to university and become an accountant. Who on God’s green earth wants to become an accountant?


I settle on the wooden coffee shop/bookstore bench and spread my laptop and notebook on the table in front of me. The smell of coffee tangs the air. Swarms of clacking customers linger, sip, yak, repeat. Find a preacher who isn’t napping on this sweltering Sunday afternoon and prop him up in front. A triple shot espresso should do him well—iced, please.

The lady at the laptop to my left could win a prize; she’s fast—at least her hands are. I don’t question morals.

The long-haired man on my right talks on a cell phone. Sounds very important but looks decidedly less so.

My dermatologist (I have rosacea) is perched at a table in front of me, not ten feet away. I have the advantage over him: he’s only one dermatologist, and he must have hundreds of patients. I hide behind a pair of reflective Guccis and stare.

A thunderous crack shatters the air. The floor splits at a diagonal from my corner to the one near the drink counter. The skin doc tumbles in; he’d just finished chastening—harshly, I might add—what I presume to be his son. (More than once, I detested his bedside manner in my visits to him.) The son is spared and continues tapping on the table. A wooden shelf laden with packaged coffee tumbles in after the doc, then an empty table and two chairs clank together on their descent. Surprisingly, no one screams, lifts a head, or bats an eye. The yakking progresses in both pitch and volume.

The annoying splintering has mellowed to a soft rumble, barely heard beneath the somewhat barbaric banter around me. The ice crusher whirs. The doctor screams from the pit; it must be him—he’s squalling in dermal and subcutaneous.

I watch on. A small green shoot rises from the 3-foot-wide crevice, noses up, and turns my way.

“What the hell are you thinking?” asks a man to my right, beyond the unimpressive cell phone man with the long black hair. His conversation is a mix of heavily inflected English and Middle Eastern what? Hindi? Arabic? I’m not sure. The cost of knowledge of many languages is high, a lifetime, a godhood.

The sprout has thickened and leafed ridiculously fast; it’s tall now—8 or 10 feet or more. It inches higher.

Next to me, the long-haired guy’s parents have joined him. Why did I assume he didn’t have parents? His hair reaches to his waist, jet black at that. I want to ask if it’s dyed, but that would be considered rude, so I don’t.

A young blond man approaches, glancing ’round. He peers under tables and on benches. Reaching down, he picks up a pen and thrusts it into his coat pocket. When he withdraws his hand, a card falls out. Three other people are closer, but they ignore it, so I get up from where I’m sitting and pick it up, only to find the man has left. It can’t be that important, so I take it back to the table and set it next to my coffee cup.

The father is old and eats slowly. The mother is sharp and forward, though not unkind; I can tell she loves her long-haired son. I put myself in her place and imagine sitting there with a son someday, eating food we don’t need and drinking the coffee we’ve drunk so long. It’s a touching thought, but I don’t cry.

I glance at the card. Ian Westfall, it says. Research Assistant, Iowa Research Facility. It’s information I’ll never need, so I file it away in some deep brain drawer. (Little did I know that my best friend’s daughter, which she hadn’t had yet, would one day marry Ian’s nephew.)

My attention wanders back to the growing vine. I stand and sing a verse of “If I Die Young” as the beanstalk scrapes the ceiling. I wait for Jack to walk through the door and grab a basket for supper. FEE-FIE-FOE-FUM lingers at the edge of my consciousness.

Two distracted young men have moved into the booth to my left—a pew, really—where the fast lady previously sat. Both brought Apples, presumably for the preacher. The doctor could have used them: an apple a day keeps the abyss away?

The red-haired girl, a few seats down, looks lost amid the noisy, conflicting sermon.

The long-haired man is getting a list of to-do projects from his parents. “Teach Sunday School” may be included; the mother could suggest it.

The thick green vine probes an air duct on the ceiling and inserts a tip. The metal crumples like papier mâché. A shaft of light streams in, for the sky has been broached. The angels sing, and it’s a new day in the neighborhood, Mr. Rogers.

I climb aboard, but first, I grab a handful of books and a latte. The momentum carries me upward, away from the lingering scent and jabbering din, toward a quieter place on the roof or maybe in the clouds where I can think clearly and tie up the ends of a revelation.


The running board on Jim’s truck is still muddy from a mix of rural and rain. I jump in.

“How was it?” A toothpick dangles from his lips.


“Gardening books?”

“Not this time. Pilgrim’s Progress. My granny used to rag on me about it. Figured it was about time.”

“The whole thing in two hours?”

“Naw, just the first few chapters. Couldn’t get past Legality, if you know what I mean. But I can honestly tell her I’ve started it if she mentions it again, which she probably won’t since she lives in India now and hates texting, and she’s never been much for writing letters. We hear from her on Christmas and birthdays. Besides, she hasn’t said anything about that book since I was fifteen or so. I really don’t expect her to check on it now.”

Jim gives his head one quick rattle. “India? What’s she doing in India?”

“Construction work.”

“Your grandma?”

“Yep. She’s really good at it. Besides, she couldn’t get a job here in her field.”

“Which was?”


“So she got a construction job in India?”

“I know, right?”

I think about the vine again, and next week. Will it be a newly discovered planet in a yet-undiscovered solar system? A presidential assassination I thwart and a criminal I bring to justice? Or maybe I’ll die and take a jaunt around the hereafter.

Jim gazes out beyond the road now. I figure he must be thinking about Jessica.

About the Author

Chila Woychik is originally from the beautiful land of Bavaria but has lived in the Midwest most of her life. She has been published in Cimarron, Passages North, and others and has an essay collection, Singing the Land: A Rural Chronology (Shanti Arts, 2020). She won first-place nonfiction awards from Storm Cellar and Emrys. Her impressive Iowan barn is currently home to a single old barn cat named Sweet Pea.