Sickly Sweet Companion
I wanted my co-editors to weigh in. “Which one is the creepiest?” I texted. Answer: THE BUNNY.
Presenting our publications with companion pieces—a photo, song, video, whatever supports and expands appreciation for our authors’ work—has been part of our vision for Waterwheel Review from the start. And next to discovering remarkable work in our submissions queue, finding and making these companion pieces is my favorite part of the job.
Sometimes we land on the right piece in collaboration with the author; other times the perfect song or video or image presents itself with a simple Google search. I have paired writing with creations by a friend, a son, and, in the December 2020 issue, my sister Deb. Occasionally a piece emerges from the oddments of personal experience. In the case of Creepy Bunny, deeply personal. And deeply odd.
W.A. Schwartz’s “Wish” shook me up. It’s all of 91 words, but it feels bigger than its small size. One sweet little scene in 91 words. A sweet scene that turns strange and then, by the end, sickens me. That particular combination of sweet and sick… I knew exactly where to look for a companion piece.
After our mother died, my sisters and I faced the herculean task of her house, built by our newlywed parents in the early 1970s. I say herculean because Mom kept everything she touched, especially after our father died in 1983. Much of the stuff was relatively easy to assess, categorize, and dispatch—give to loved ones, sell at auction, donate, trash. Some, we divvied up during long, boozy negotiations. The leftovers, out of grief and exhaustion, we stored for future reckoning.
That time arrived with the pandemic. In March, I started sorting. And all the determined, head-down plodding through the leftover bits and pieces of my childhood home led to Creepy Bunny. In a nod to Catherine Schmitt’s “The Family Dollar,” also in our November issue, and to offer a proper sense of Bunny’s provenance, a list of a handful of the items I sorted:
~Advertisement for a crocheted Victorian-era tablecloth.
~Empty paper bag from Vality Department Store.
~Canceled check paid to my nursery school in 1981.
~Pamphlet: “Your Mysterious Cat.”
~Article: “New cookie recipes feature raisins for chewy goodness.”
~Lined paper marked by a single long-division problem.
~Show times for the Old Country Cloggers.
~A Dear Abby column that states, “Only divorced women are addressed as ‘Mrs.’ followed by their first names. A widow keeps her husband’s name until she remarries.”
And: Amazing Magical Jell-O Desserts.
Flipping through the Jell-O recipe book, I saw creepy. And sickly sweet. Ill-advised recipes, bizarre photos, clown-like expressions, persistent calls for corn syrup… I got a disturbed feeling from that recipe book. It slants what should be sweet treats into here’s-candy-get-into-my-van nightmares. And that’s exactly the feeling I get when I read “Wish.”
I chose the three worst recipes and snapped photos for my co-editors. Check out the honorable mentions “Funny Lemon Freeze” and “Jellied Joker.” For creepy, Bunny stands above. Marshmallow rabbit head impaled by toothpick whiskers. Torn purple gumdrops for vacant eyes and a red blob for the mouth. Mired in a glass of green pudding and set against a pattern of… Santas riding motorbikes? “Bunny,” texted Claire, “is creepy as fuck.” Cheryl added, “The toothpicks make it look like it’s been stabbed through the face.”
A good companion piece both supports the publication it appears with, and interacts in some small way with the issue’s other two publications and their companion pieces. For me, Creepy Bunny’s connection to “Family Dollar” is this: If I wanted to make Bunny Mousse, a dollar store would be the quickest, cheapest way to pick up the ingredients. And this picture of a comically awful dessert meant to be fun for kids fits the nod to tilted, murky, half-remembered disappointments and confusions of childhood in Mary Warren Foulk’s “Corralling”—another sweet little scene that ends in something sour.
My mother has been gone for five years. I’ve reduced the leftovers to seven or eight bins, which still test my attention and energy. Now at least one of those bits gets a new life. Because my mother just reached across time and space to give me this small gift, her note stuck to the front: “I found this cookbook among mine. It was a gift to you when you turned 5. I’m sure you will want it.” As it happens, I do.
Suzanne Farrell Smith