Sugar Maple was jam-packed for the “Unknown” StorySlam. Since it’s rough being the first teller of the night, Ex Fabula staff member Alea McHatten shouldered that burden, with a short story to get things going.

When she was a second grader, her love affair with the Scholastic Book Fair led her to pilfer loose change from unsuspecting family members. She needed to shop for cute erasers and books! Her mother caught her and she had to apologize. Be honest! She learned this early.

Tony Anderson looked up to his older brother. So he trusted they’d be okay when they took a ten-day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters wilderness area. One unknown factor: would their food rations last? Tony lost a lot of weight on their diet of raisins and crackers but he had an amazing time.

His brother used a wood-burning kit to engrave one of their paddles, listing all the places they visited and camped, and gave it to Tony. This brother (along with his father) was later killed by a drunk driver. But he remains with Tony, through this gift and the memories it captures.

The next teller, Mark Steidl’s mother went through a lot bringing him into the world. She’d already seen her share of poverty and hard work when she gave birth to Mark. He was so sickly they called a minister to baptize him in the incubator. Then, they shipped him to Children’s Hospital (then in Madison). Infant Mark languished for days. His mother couldn’t afford to be there, and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Suddenly he began to thrive. Mark has his own idea about what pulled him through. Maybe he was a changeling – a goblin child. Or maybe, his mother’s love was the “unknown” factor.

Michelle Battles is a control freak when it comes to planning parties and celebrations. She wouldn’t allow her husband to take over planning for her 40th birthday blowout. Well, unbeknownst to her, her husband and friends have skills too. She described the day-of. At first it looked like everyone and everything was conspiring to muck up her meticulous plans and tight schedule for the day. But as more and more celebrants turned up in different places, she eventually realized she was at her party. A surprise party, out of her control, courtesy of others!

Karen Glowacki loses keys! One day at Sam’s Club, she saved $100 on her cart by aborting her transaction and visiting the service desk to open an account with them. But when she left the store, no keys! She retraced her steps in the store – no keys. She called the store every day till the manager knew her by name. One day, the manager called her! Come get your keys…Karen’s persistence had led this manager to pull up surveillance video from the register and service desk. Where she caught the moment that Karen signed the application and elbowed her keys into a hole in the counter for the computer cables! This above-and-beyond service had actually earned this manager notice and a handsome reward from Oprah! So she graciously declined the reward a grateful Karen offered her.

Michael Baker has had encounters with the unknown, or, as he expresses it, the numinous in his lifetime. He described two (non-drug related) instances when he was suffused with a certainty that there’s a benevolent creator. The first time it happened, he was only 10 years-old. Then, when he was 16, he sat in a diner over school break. Drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes…when a huge blizzard started. He was spellbound. He watched from the diner, then walked out into it, overwhelmed by the snow and silence – until a pickup full of frat boys passed, called him a name and threw a beer can at him. That rude interruption failed to shake his encounter with the numinous. That was too strong to be erased by stupid.

PJ Early grew up in Bayview. One day, the previous owner of her house showed up at her lemonade stand. Young PJ brought him inside to meet her parents. He shared stories of his doctor father, who built the house and ran his practice from there. Later, he sent them pictures. His mom looked a little odd to PJ and her family. When they found a stash of dispensary bottles behind a wall during a remodeling project, they began a search for clues. Was someone an addict, hiding the bottles? Googling away, they recently discovered that the doctor died there. The mom did not. Though mom looked weird, maybe he was the bottle hider…we may never know.

Twenty years ago, Neil Qusba spent 15 weeks in India, trying to “find himself”. His uncle in Delhi thought Neil needed to be finding a wife, and took him to a fortune teller. His uncle talked up this fortune teller. He was taking Neil to the best, a man with prestigious clients! The most important person in Neil’s life was his grandmother. So, given a chance to consult with the best, he asked how long will my grandma live? The fortune teller told Neil she’d be dead by the end of the year! Neil was devastated.

Once home, Neil was determined to make the most of the time left to him and his grandma. He visited her so often she asked him what was going on…I love you! She got a bad cold in December and Neil saw the end coming! When she lingered in the bathroom for a long time during one of his visits, he parked by the bathroom door, listening for signs of distress…till she screamed that she was just trying to move her bowels! Anyhow, she lived to 103. Neil’s lesson: some things are best left unknown.

Justin Barney is a huge Bucks fan, and historian of Bucks fandom. He learned that in 1984, Milwaukee was about to lose the team and a group of local musicians was determined to do something about it. They wrote and recorded a song “Keep the Bucks in Milwaukee”, hoping to raise money with it. Well, Herb Kohl did have the money, and bought the team.

However Justin was intent on tracking down the crew who put so much effort into the cause. He described all the places his research took him. He played the record on 88.9 Radio Milwaukee, where he works. Someone e-mailed him with clues. He met a guy who was Breezeway Records, the company that released it. He wrote to the last known address of another key player. Many details remain unknown, but Justin’s relished the search.

What question do you ask when facing the unknown? What if…what if…what if? Peter May was with a film crew in Chiapas, Mexico. Their hired van was loaded and they had two hours to get to the airport. Chiapas was in a state of war at that time – the Zapatista revolution was underway. They found themselves at a standstill, thanks to the presence of a mob with armed people blocking the road. After running through a list of what ifs, they unloaded the van and walked through the crowd to a stopped van on the far side of the crowd. They got in, the van turned around and away from the crowd. The plan worked! Peter says the feeling of relief – the adrenaline and sheer joy at having escaped – was something he’s never felt that intensely again.

Ex Fabula staff member Michaela Lacy ended the evening with yet another story centered around the Scholastic Book Fair! Michaela wasn’t one of the popular kids. She got bullied a lot. When the book fair came to school, Michaela had money and meant to spend it on a planner she coveted.

Well, the most popular, meanest girl Quiara (who happened to be the assistant principal’s daughter) got into the library first and headed towards the planner. Michaela pushed her… and got sent to the office. Michaela wasn’t having it. She lifted the planner from the teacher’s lounge (where her nemesis had left it) and wrote “fuck Quiara” in it for good measure. Well, of course she got caught and there was punishment waiting at home. Yet, miraculously, her friend Jazz, who was “popular-adjacent” called just as Michaela’s mother prepared to whup her. Who knew so many stories flow from Scholastic Book Fairs?

And then, the audience voted. Loving grandson Neil Qusba was crowned audience favorite!

Thanks to Sugar Maple, the storytellers, the volunteers, and everyone who joined us at the Slam. Thanks also to event sponsors Lulu Café and Bar and the Milwaukee Record and all the amazing season sponsors including Transfer Pizzeria,  90.7 WPR, SRH Marketing, WUWM 89.7, and 88Nine Radio Milwaukee.

Wanna see photos from the Slam? They’re in this album on our Facebook page.