by Yohanca Delgado
Issue #270 • October 15th, 2020•Buy Now!
For New York at 6:48 in the evening, this building is strangely quiet. The one working light in the hallway flickers every ten seconds across the goosebump layers of glossy beige paint on the walls. I ring the bell again and let my finger drop as a weak chime echoes feebly, then dies somewhere beyond the door. A distant thud tells me to wait a few moments longer, and I look down at my scuffed sneakers against the black and white tiled floor. I’m hot in my ridiculous corn-yellow blazer and my shoulder slouches from the weight of my Kutco-issued messenger bag. Is it just me, or does this hallway smell like trash?
I place my forehead against the wall and let my mind wander to where it always goes, to my mother. I’m sitting on a dresser in her bedroom in Flushing, legs hanging over the edge. She’s wearing a black dress with a swishy skirt and heels. She’s leaning over me, painting my lips with the careful, whiskery strokes of a lip brush. Her perfume envelops me, that lace of roses, honey, and tobacco that smells different on my skin, no matter how many times I spray it.
Here, in this dark hallway, I sniff my wrist and let it drop. I’ll never smell her again.
Yohanca Delgado was born and raised in New York City and holds an MFA from American University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in STORY, A Public Space, and The Believer. She is writing a collection of short stories and a novel. You can find her online at @yodelnyc.
Lena Valencia on The Rat
When outdoor dining opened in New York City in late June, there was a news item making the rounds: Rats, deprived of their usual diet of pizza and bagels during the city’s lockdown, were harassing al fresco diners. Though the idea of a rat scuttling into my $19 grain bowl is horrifying, there was something about the resilience of these creatures that I found amusing, even, dare I say it, inspiring. It was also a reminder that NYC was back, or, rather, had never left: there is no New York City without its vermin, after all.
In “The Rat,” Yohanca Delgado uses the unofficial mascot of NYC to represent a different sort of resilience. Samanta, a down-on-her-luck door-to-door knife saleswoman, is struggling with the loss of her late mother when she meets an eccentric stranger who not only offers to buy enough knives to vault Samanta out of her financial troubles but claims that she can rid her of her grief. If this sounds too good to be true, it is, and this is what Samanta discovers soon after she consents to the stranger’s proposal and finds herself being followed by a rat.
It’s appropriate that this story is coming out around Halloween, a time when many of us revisit our favorite horror films and books. Delgado is an expert at creating unsettling spaces and making the reader squirm with discomfort. And, like the very best horror stories, “The Rat” isn’t just about a monster—in this case a seemingly immortal rat; it’s about embracing those tough, painful feelings that are so tempting to ignore or push away. Much like the persistent rat of this story’s title, they won’t just vanish. They’re a part of you. As Delgado states so aptly in her interview, “nothing evaporates into thin air, nothing disappears forever.” We’re thrilled to share “The Rat” with you.
Q&A by Lena Valencia
In high school, I spent a miserable summer trying, unsuccessfully, to sell knives. The knives themselves were excellent, but I was a horrible salesperson. Of course, the whole thing was redolent of a pyramid scheme (why else would you hire high schoolers to peddle knives?) and my parents had to lend me the money to buy a demonstration set, which wasn’t cheap. My failed knife sales career is a long-running joke, but my family uses those demo knives to this day.
I wanted to write a story that explored that door-to-door sales dynamic, the awkward tension of sitting in some stranger’s house, unpacking your wares and trying to say what they want to hear. I’d written several drafts and scenes exploring this idea but hadn’t found my spark yet. I also wanted to write about wish fulfillment. I’d just finished my MFA, and one of my mentors, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, looked at one of my stories and asked, “But what if she gets what she wants? What then?” I wanted to write a new story that wrestled with that question.
Of course, that was only the beginning of my journey with “The Rat.” Ann and Jeff VanderMeer led the workshop of it the following week, and, with my classmates and Shelley Streeby, gave me such brilliant, actionable feedback. I revised it and showed it to my writing group in DC that fall, and they also had marvelous insights. And then I entered into the revision process with you and Patrick here at One Story. It is such a gift to be read so closely and edited so generously, thank you. That process really snapped the story into focus for me. All said, I think the story took a full six months to conceive and complete, even though I had been carrying the ideas around for years.
My in-laws have a cuckoo clock, and whenever I visit, I stare at it. Maybe it’s because it’s the first one I’ve seen in someone’s home, but I find it very charming. There’s something pleasantly strange about a fake little bird popping out of its fake little house to announce the time.
As far as literary influences go, I love a good sales story. Two of my favorites are Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Book of Sand” and Steven Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish.” As I mentioned earlier, there’s something about that salesy dynamic that I find really juicy and interesting. But I wondered, what if both the salesperson and the customer were “selling” something? I also love Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish.” That veneration the speaker feels towards the fish sparked one of the central questions of this story: what if you could really see the depths of your own grief — and treasure it for what it is, a record of all you have loved and survived in this life?
For me, putting a story into a magical or speculative space is like taking away gravity. A playful freedom comes from that; anything is possible! But as the writer, I think you have to then put down stakes to keep the whole world from floating away. You have to find new logic to anchor the story in the mind. In this story, there are magical elements, but they are limited in scope. Nothing evaporates into thin air, nothing disappears forever.
I’ve been letting myself gravitate to New York in my writing. I don’t live there anymore, and though I visit my family fairly often, I haven’t lived there in a long time. I think that distance makes me feel as if I can see it better. More importantly, I want to see it better, because that’s where all my formative memories live.
I think about that all the time, regardless of what genre I’m writing in or what I’m writing about. Tearing something down is always going to be the cheap, easy way out. Finding the sadness means looking at what you wish you didn’t have to see and writing into what makes you uncomfortable. I think it’s also an inherently generous place to write from. It allows space for humor and nuance in a way that anger does not.