isaac black

isaac black writes

The latest issue of the MacGuffin, containing my story “Eternity,” is now available at their website.


i set out to make goulash. what happened next will astound you

I didn’t know exactly what goulash is, but I knew I wanted to make it. Probably my only encounter with goulash was in some city in China whose name I can’t remember where everyone on the street tried to sell us weed. We stayed at some hostel owned by a guy named Tibetan Dave or something, and we had dinner that night at the restaurant. We all had goulash, my friends opting for the yak goulash while I got the veggie. They got food poisoning, while I got a pleasant memory of a warming comfort food that I tried to find a recipe for several times in the years after. Turns out goulash isn’t a traditional Tibetan food (unless there’s another name for it); it was specific to Tibetan Dave’s hostel or something.

Anyway, last night I was googling veggie goulash recipes and wasn’t happy with what I found, so I winged it. And it turned out delicious. So without further ado–while it’s fresh in my mind–here’s the approximate recipe:

Friday Night Goulash

1 tbsp olive oil

1/2 medium red onion, chopped

1 large potato, chopped

1 large parsnip, diced

1 medium carrot, diced

1 package baby portabella mushrooms, sliced

1 can black eyed peas

3 c. water

4 medium roma tomatoes, chopped

1 parmesan rind

3 sprigs fresh rosemary

1/2 tsp thyme

1/2 tsp smoked paprika


Chop the red onion and sautee in the olive oil in a stock pot. When the onions begin to get soft, deglaze the pot with a splash of cooking wine (I used sherry, because why not). Add the vegetables, minus the tomatoes, and stir for a minute to coat with the oil. Add the water, tomatoes, cheese rind, herbs, and a generous amount of salt. Turn up the heat to medium high until the water is just beginning to boil. Turn the heat to medium low and let simmer for 30 to 45 minutes until the parsnips are soft. Salt to taste.

I had added 3 1/2 cups water because the vegetables were piled so high, but they cooked down quickly. Don’t be alarmed if your water doesn’t cover the veggies. I ended up simmering with the lid off to try to cook it down for more of a stew texture, but if you are running low on water, feel free to leave the lid on.


“I love you mercilessly, the way a predator loves prey.”

Ryan saw the text as one of his friends was getting to the punchline of a story.

“We hear this singing coming from his room, so I creep up the stairway as far as I can without being seen, and it’s Ben, singing the ‘Oompa Loompa’ song. Doing different voices and everything. I call the rest of the guys over, and we listen to him sing a whole Willy Wonka medley for like ten minutes.”

The group chuckled heartily.

“And then he went out on his date,” Chris added as denouement.

“I love you senselessly. I want to stab out my eyes like Oedipus,” came the next text.

He texted back. “You must really miss me.”

“I miss you ravenously. I miss you like saturday morning cartoons.”

“You must be drunk,” he replied. “Also, thanks for reminding me how much I miss saturday morning cartoons.”

“That’s why I love you. Not the only reason, because I love you horrifically.”

The group of friends was having a fire behind Chris’ house, though in all honesty it was still too hot for a fire, being only the first week of September. A breeze wafted down the canyon. The fire flickered.

“Get me another beer if you’re going inside,” Kurt said.

“Yes, your highness,” Chris said. Chris was a natural host. He could be superficial at times but he put people at ease. That was what he was good at. Each of Ryan’s friends was good at something different, he mused contentedly. He sat in a folding char, the old kind with a tubed aluminum frame and nylon straps, but he was comfortable. Each of his friends was good at something different, he thought again, rolling the idea over in his mind. It was obvious, had only face value, but the setting seemed to lend it profundity. He rolled it around in his mind again before letting it go.

Ryan’s girlfriend had gone home to Washington for a week before she started the second year of her graduate program in Social Work at the U. She was clever, well-read, charismatic. Probably the smartest girl in her program, Ryan had once decided after meeting a few of the others. People underestimated her intellect. She had a preference for lowbrow humor, which didn’t help; nor did her natural beauty. Geniuses are supposed to be eccentric, muttering to themselves, forgetting to comb their hair.

He was savoring her text messages, silly as they were. He unbuttoned the second button of his flannel. It was really too warm for a fire.

“When does Sloan get back?” Peter asked, waking him from his reverie.

“Two days,” he said. 27 hours is what he meant.

“Have you ever met a girl named Sloan who was not hot?” Chris observed, handing Kurt a bottle. “As a parent, you have to be pretty confident in your baby daughter to go with Sloan as her name.”

“Every Sloan is a babe, I agree,” Peter said.

“If you find me a volleyball player named Sloan, that’s all I need. I will marry her, sight unseen,” Chris promised. He had a thing for tall women.

“Why aren’t there are any girls here now?” Kurt asked.

“It’s a waste, isn’t it?” Chris said. “I mean, look at us, we look like a damn Eddie Bauer ad,” he joked sardonically.

They had settled into their seats: log benches or camp chairs. Chris’ house in Emigration Canyon was far enough from the light pollution of downtown that stars were visible in the gaps in silhouetted foliage even with a waxing gibbous about to crown over the Wasatch ridge. Chris’ house was on the edge of a national forest but a straight shot into the city; Salt Lake City had an enchanted proximity to wilderness.

Kurt poked at the embers. Sparks drifted upward and were extinguished. The air was rich and full: when a breeze blew the smoke away he found a landscape in its scent: loam carpeted with pine needles, lichens on granite, sagebrush from farther up the canyon, streams fed with snowmelt into Autumn.

“I am hysterically in love with you.”

Talk of wishing girls were there turned into talk of first girlfriends. First kisses. Fumbling, excited moments, rendered in soft focus by a fond remembering of adolescence. Histories inscribed in the act of recounting to their friends at slumber parties. Neighborhood sidewalks exuberant with teenage discoveries, brimming with memory–when returned from odysseys they slept contented in dens together as miniature men.

The fire burned down to black coals glowing neon at the edges. Sent faint rays of light out of the perforations in the rusted iron basin.

Sloan was a revelation. She was unlike any woman he had ever dated, and he had no idea how or why she had fallen for him. Sloan was a miracle. He wanted to cry, but that was probably mostly the beers. He silently thanked the universe for being so kind. He sent Sloan a text:

“I love you.”

And then came the reply.

“I love you, I love you, I love you.”

there are a lot of ways to stifle your fear of death
like compulsively finding the humor in everything—
everything, including abuse, war, anger, anxiety.
you could also use your imagination to visualize
the spectacular, excoriating finale to your galaxy,
something sublime regardless of whether the God
you’ve lost touch with presides over it.
you could contemplate the origins of your soul but
beginnings have a lot to do with endings, so don’t.
or, think of the inertia that propelled your life force
from the axes of space-time, a quantum, paisley
burst of poetic, foolish, heroic futility.
you could busy yourself with creating, and pretend
that creating is in some way a choice for you, that
it’s not a proxy for the children you’re beginning to
doubt that you’ll have. you could aggrieve yourself
with the suffering of the world and try with the full,
frail weight of your body to help the moral arc of the
universe bend faster. you could travel, you could
camp, you could take pictures of your friends jumping
from towering red cliffs into clear, chilly water and
then saddle up to get milkshakes. you could stuff
your senses with media all hours of the day, some
of it cultural, most mindless, until you can’t suffer
a single conversation without jumping at your
goddamn phone for notifications.
or you could pursue your own self-destruction at
the altar of commence, if hubris and irony are more
your speed. who am i to judge.
if you feel like facing your mortality on your own,
without talking, without vulnerability, without intimacy,
without family, seems like a hollow, paranoid project,
then i’m out of my depth. but i

Check out the Spring/Summer issue of the MacGuffin to read my short story “Pax Romana.”

lake blanche

half an hour from the top we could see through a nook in the valley over the great salt lake to antelope island. the sun was starting to set and saturating the forest and the rust-colored slate with agate light. when we made camp our skin was perfumed by brush and fir sap sublimated into the moist air.

the yellow crescent moon was setting behind sundial peak as our dome tent glowed and the clouds in the west glimmered gray pink from a sun taking its time to settle. lake blanche was glassy and pristine as we luxuriated in our sleeping bags, listening to the basin’s silent music.

in the morning from its rocky bench our tent unzipped to a view of the lake and its ruined dam. we broke camp in the stillness and began our hike back down.


Dan had the best vocabulary of anyone he knew. He worked at it. That’s why it bothered him so much that a student of his, a student, used a word he not only couldn’t define but that he had never even heard. Before he looked it up, he asked a colleague, a fellow doctoral student, to read the paper.

“Why did you want me to read this again?” his colleague asked.

“Did anything stand out to you?” Dan asked.

“Pretty mediocre paper,” he said, seeming slightly annoyed.

This was what he feared–the human tendency to ignore what one couldn’t comprehend.

He succumbed and looked it up, searching the dictionary on his phone while he rode the train home from campus. But it didn’t have an entry. He thought about the spelling, but was confident he hadn’t misspelled it. It was only four letters. Fine then, he thought. It must be too obscure for a regular dictionary.

He checked his dictionary at home and came up short. He would have to look it up in the hefty, hoary dictionary belonging to the department. But he couldn’t do it until tomorrow. He slept fitfully.

As soon as he got in, he looked it up. Nothing. Was it possible the student had made it up? that he misspelled it? His usage was so nonchalant. So confident. Further humbled, he stooped to asking his advisor. Still no luck, though the advisor’s equanimity about the mystery irritated him.

He consulted every reference he could find. Was it a place name? an acronym? a portmanteau? There were no leads, no hints, just a mocking lacuna. He would have to ask the student.

“I didn’t think about it much,” the student confessed. “It’s a word I grew up with. Now that you mention it, I haven’t heard it used much outside my family.”
“Have you heard it at all outside your family?”

“I don’t know.”

Dan stoically refrained from showing annoyance.

“Anyway. What does it mean?”

“It’s hard to describe if you don’t already know. It’s like the feeling you get when something makes you feel bad in some way, but you’re aesthetically drawn to the feeling it gives you. Not just drawn to it but obsessed with it, like you think about it for three days straight because you can’t figure out why you like thinking about it.”

He had never considered such a feeling.

“So the word applies to the feeling?”

“Yep, it’s a noun.”

“Give me an example.”

The student started in on a story he had been thinking about for days.

He was on the bus to campus when a teenage boy got on. He was wearing a backwards hat and too large t shirt but exuded innocence. He stayed in the seat directly behind the bus driver, talking into her ear. When he got off, on the west side of town, the bus driver recounted their conversation to another passenger she knew.

“You gotta get Colonial Life Insurance,” he had said.

“What do you know about Colonial Life Insurance?” the bus driver asked.

“I watch TV.” The driver and her friend both laughed.

“You watch too much TV,” the bus driver told the boy.

The student paused there. “That’s it?” Dan asked his student.


“What does it mean? Why do you think about that?”

“That’s what I can’t figure out. That’s what the word describes.”

He again slept uneasily. Being an English PhD student he was betting all his time and his future career on the virtue of explication and understanding. But here was a kind of anti-word, a container for things that refused to be contained.

In a half asleep delirium, unable to stop thinking about the story of Pharaoh, he dug up his Bible: Pharaoh dreamed of seven fat cows, then dreamed of seven lean cows. The lean cows devoured the seven fat cows, and insatiably he searched his kingdom for its meaning. Joseph gave him the interpretation in the form of a prophecy: the fat cows were seven years of plenty, after which would come seven years of drought and famine. For scratching his itch Nebuchadnezzar promoted him above everyone else in his kingdom.

Dan thought he was a dreamer, a creator. He thought he was inventive, imaginative. But he wasn’t Pharaoh; he was Joseph, grafting fictions onto the irreducible details of life. He slept miserably.

The next day he taught his class, he graded some papers, he did some research. His heart wasn’t in it. He treated himself later to a nice meal that night with a glass of wine. He walked around downtown in the artificial twilight of shop signs. He became aware of sensations flickering across the surface of his brain too rapidly to pin down to paper. He was overwhelmed by failure–it was as vast and humbling as the desert–and the stark improbability of his existence stared back at him bleakly, comically.

There was the feeling, he realized. It had been there all along, incomprehensible. That night he slept well enough to dream.


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