September 1: “Quality Snacks” by Andy Mozina

Hey there, Story366! Today is September 1, meaning that I’ve faithfully completed two-thirds of the Story366 project, eight out of twelve months. During the first month or so of the project, I often commented on how amazed I was that I’d made it through a week, a month, and so one, though the last time I’ve said anything about this was crossing the halfway point, my write-up of J.C. Hallman’s “The Hospital for Bad Poets” on July 1. So hey, again, I made it this far.

Marking these spots on the Story366 grid reminds me of my life as a treadmill user, and more importantly a treadmill watcher. My exercise/fitness life has been most successful when using a treadmill, which is why I bought one when I moved into our current house, and for about a third of the time we’ve lived there (four years now), I’ve been a loyal treadmill user. I usually try to do a couple of miles at a time, a combination of running and walking, usually picking up speed steadily as I go. How do I know when to hit the button that increases my speed by a tenth of a mile an hour (I start at 3.3 MPH and end up around 5.5, if I’m running [I know, sad]). Even though I have my iPad or computer on the little magazine rack and watch Netflix, I still keep one eye on the controls, on those digital numbers that (oh so slowly) move along. When I hit a quarter mile, I push the UP button (the arrow pointing up) and add a tenth of a mile an hour. At the third point, I hit it again. Same thing at a half mile, two-thirds of a mile, three-quarters of a mile, and so on, until I reach two miles. In truth, there’s probably some setting I can program in that will do this for me, but like the Greatest American Hero, I think I lost the treadmill instructions when I bought the treadmill, and really, I’ve never taken the time to figure it out. I do it manually instead, giving me something to do with my hands, something to anticipate, anything to make the time pass more quickly (it doesn’t work—I hate every second I’m on that thing).

Just wondering: Anyone else obsessed with fractions and markers like that? I used to drive back and forth between Chicago and Bowling Green once or twice a month, for fifteen years, and I’d mark the trips that way, too, using the mile markers and quick additions and subtractions. I always knew what mile was the quarter point, third point, half point, etc. Anyone else? Like I said, just wondering.

Today I read some stories from Andy Mozina‘s newest (and second) collection, Quality Snacks (speaking of the treadmill …), out from Wayne State University Press as part of the Made in Michigan Writers Series (which sounds like Moon City Press‘s Missouri Authors Series). I’ve long-admired Mozina’s writing, finding it in a wide array of impressive literary journals over the years, so it was nice to be able to include him, to read some of his latest, including the title story, “Quality Snacks.”

“Quality Snacks” is about Reggie, a product scientist bigwig for Frito Lay, set at the outset of a couple of failures, though not his. Guacamole and Four-Cheese Doritos both flopped and now the brass has to meet to consider their next course of action, how they’re going to rebound. Reggie is cocky, half-joking they should fired the Guac and 4C people, thinking all failures are the fault of marketing, not him, the guy who just makes what he’s told. As a longstanding member of the staff, Reggie—who also happens to be in love with his boss, Helen, who’s running the meeting—contributes a drastic and risky proposal to save Doritodom (I never would have thought Doritos were in trouble—they’re amazing—but I just read an article today about how orange juice sales are down a third—a third!—in the last ten years). What does Reggie propose? Skip the Tex-Mex flavors and move on to Tex Mex meals instead; the Taco flavor, which he designed, still sells well, decades after its inception, so he thinks Frito Lay should go down that path, adding Enchilada, Burrito, Chicken Quesadilla, etc., instead of mere ingredients of these items. On top of that, he wants to add enough powdered vitamins to the chips to not only make them taste like a meal, but be the meal. He actually describes a scene where a family is sitting around a dinner table, passing four bags of Dorito meal chips around, all of them creating their own delicious and nutritious Mexican combination platter. And you know what, the corporate executives, facing termination, don’t exactly shoot Reggie and his silly plan down.

Okay, so that’s the set up, the first big scene in this story, our hero laying it on the line: He’s the main baker for Frito Lay and he wants to replace Americans’ dinner time with a bag of chips. That’s the world we’re dealing with here, the world in which Mozina creates. Absurd, satirical, and downright clever, I was hooked. One of the best hooks ever. Where could he possibly go from there?

In this crazy world, Reggie and Helen and others are just people, people who want to succeed, want to be noticed for it, and most of all, want to be loved. Reggie has spent his life thinking about Doritos, but it’s also cost him a wife and a couple of kids, who moved from Frito Lay headquarters in Plano, Texas, Reggie too focused on his work. Helen, who is much higher up the chain than Reggie and lives in a house quite a bit more lavish than his, is a somewhat willing accomplice in Reggie’s ideas, both at and outside of work. After this brainstorming meeting that starts things off, Mozina shifts things toward Reggie’s romantic life, especially his pursuit of Helen, plus some backstory on his divorce, what’s happened since, etc. Despite the gap in pay levels, Reggie wears Helen down, but only somewhat.

What do I mean by that? There’s a lot of story left at this point, but I’ve revealed enough in the setup, so I won’t go any further. What I’ll note is that at the center of all of this, from the first page to the last, are Doritos, as they are the cause (and effect) of all of Reggie’s triumphs and failures. As they’re featured so prominently, I can’t help but think as a writer and an editor what the Frito Lay people thought of this story (I assume they’ve seen it by now), their products so sensationalized, their inner workings so hilariously fictionalized. Mozina could have made up a company and a line of products, but I admire that he went with the phenomenon that is Doritos, which affords him so many points in brand recognition alone (and I really want some Doritos now—maybe Mozina works for them!). Plus, he gets to sneak in little jokes, referencing the Frito Bandito debacle, taking jabs at failed marketing ideas, which reminds me of one of my favorite memes ever:

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I really enjoyed reading all the stories I read in Quality Snacks, a wonderful collection from a writer who seemingly can’t miss, Andy Mozina. His stories all feature absurd themes, but also a sadness, people left in the wake of the absurdity in which they live. “Proofreader,” for example, features the same kind of almost relationship Mozina writes in “Quality Snacks,” and other themes overlap as well. Mozina’s a consistent short fiction force, and has been for a while, which I guess makes him one of my favorite story writers.

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