October 5, 2016 | ISSUE no 200
crack the spine
Mary in the Barn
by C.W. Bigelow
“Come on!” he taunted. I could tell he’d already given up hope and his rooster cry was only an attempt to protect his own reputation. “You know you want to!” They had entered into the sparring phrase, shuffling around the ring.
I was embarrassed for him and turned away. The odds were overwhelming and the gang advantage quickly disappeared. Not totally unfamiliar to that bullied vulnerability, I was ready to call it quits. But she didn’t leave. What we perceived to be a refusal was shaping into a slight sliver of hope.
While I took our come-on as a joke, holding out little hope of success, I began wondering if she was actually intrigued. Reputations seem to sink their teeth into people and refuse to let go, even at that age – so we might as well embrace them – squeeze the positive from them, because often they are, good or bad, all we have to attract attention to ourselves and once tagged, they are almost impossible to shrug.
We walked on confidently, because somehow the spirit wasn’t leaving nor was she. I thought, “Then why are you coming?” but remained quiet so I didn’t jinx the possibility. My heart began thumping wildly and hot wax spilled into my loins.
“But you are following. I told you you wanted to.” He gave us a cocksure wink, feeling it too. I cringed, hoping he hadn’t blown the chance, but she remained close, each of her steps mirroring ours.
Head down, face veiled by her black locks, she sighed just loud enough for us to hear. It carried a possible yes, but she whispered again, “No.” We were too naïve to think she just might be teasing us.
We paused apprehensively in front of the crumbling, whitewashed-stone horse barn that dated back to the late 1890s. My knees were trembling as we climbed cautiously over the pockmarked stonewall. Do or die. The moment was charged with a wide array of possibilities.
Swallowing was a struggle. Pausing to inspect the structure, she gazed up at the peeling roof and appeared curious, not at all tentative, while shifting from one foot to the other with a hand resting confidently on her slim hip. Her jeans were worn and hung low revealing a slight portion of her stomach.
From the shade of sturdy oak branches the crows seemed to mock us with their caws. Even they doubted we would make good on the opportunity. Without making eye contact, she stepped over the wall and marched past us with a smile before squeezing through the tight opening between the bolted heavy wood door and the disintegrating rock.
Exchanging surprised expectant glances, we turned in cadence and formed a line as, one by one, we squeezed through, serenaded by the crows’ cackle.
“Was wondering if you had the balls,” she challenged.
We circled her, driven by an unfamiliar primal hunger, as she twirled slowly, the chafe of her jeans echoing as she sized each of us up as though we were the prey and she was identifying our weaknesses. Her smirk seemed a silent challenge. In the dank, gray shadows, her bleached complexion was luminous against coal dark eyes.
Undaunted, Tommy quickly stepped forward, knelt at her feet and unbuckled her belt. She groaned slightly but remained still, stiff as a statue. A slight defiant smile crossed her lips like makeup applied to a blemish. It was a cheerless mask and I wondered what she was feeling now that her challenge had been met. Folding her arms across her chest, her knees buckled as he flipped the top button of her jeans and carefully slid the zipper down. It was a musical sound, one that I recall each time I unzip a pair of pants. The front of her pants flopped open, allowing a swatch of pink panties to wink at us. He paused momentarily, gazing up at her, waiting for an argument; but she ignored him and stared straight ahead at the stone wall. In a stalemate and the stern expressions on their faces, chins thrusting strongly, revealed the arenas in which their minds played. With a quick jerk he yanked her jeans over her haunches, sliding them to her ankles where they gathered in a bunch. Feet spread as wide as the material would allow, she wavered but kept her balance. It was then she took a deep breath that reverberated off the dark barn walls. Her eyes came alive, bright as wild flames shooting heated glances from Barry to Tommy to me.
This sudden mixture of bravado and anger in the moist, shady room was powerfully pungent and it extinguished the earlier erotic promise of the heat. Her bottom lip quivered and a thick, muculent tear slipped slowly down her cheek. She clasped her arms tighter and twisted her hips in a tight, defensive rotation as a crow cried from the oak tree outside. The motion sent Tommy stumbling back. I felt the puncture of his balloon. His home-situation fueled boldness met Mary’s resolve head on then retreated. It seemed her armor had more experience and more strength. Standing brazenly in front of us, refusing to give in, yet challenging us to move forward, created an image that confused and impressed us enough to reverse our original intentions. I waved Barry toward the daylight seeping through the gap in the wall. There were no words exchanged. Tommy was soon behind us. And we sprinted through the oppressive heat all the way back to Garfield Street and kept running until we collapsed to our knees on the brittle brown grass and fought to regain our breath in Tommy’s yard. “Get in the house!” Tommy’s mother screamed. She leaned out the kitchen door, still in her housecoat. Tommy sighed. “That woman is the reason my old man is with Mary’s mother.”
This was news to us and Mary’s involvement made a little more sense.
If our window of opportunity had been choreographed I chose to ignore it and said nothing. In the distance Mary walked slowly away from us, ensconced in her bright halo balancing reputations and missing fathers but might just be smirking about stripping in front of a boy who might become her stepbrother. She surely knew she had been a landscape changer for three young boys.
She had weak nails from always cracking and eating pistachios. Pitted tips that scratched skin weird and made her lovers wonder. Peeled layers that provoked motherly concern for her calcium intake. Bloody bits that would make any manicure technician shiver deep down and rethink her career choice. It wasn’t just the salty, earthy flavor of the nut. Though she did love the taste. It was the satisfaction of the shelling. It made her swell with power if only for a split second. And it was the ritual. Her ritual:
1. Buy a bag or two of pistachios at the store.
a. Gas station nut purchases require two slim single serving bags
b. Grocery store six ouncers generally lasted two days.
c. Nuts to You! (she’d always chuckle to herself) bulk bags satiated her for almost a week straight.
2. Rip out a fresh sheet of notebook paper
3. Turn on Jeopardy
4. Separate the pistachios into two piles
Pile one always spilled off the page onto her trendy pallet coffee table. It held the nuts with the slightly opened shells—peaking green peering out at the world ripe with wonder. She’d force her fingernails into the cracks and pry. Something about the sound of giving up that escaped the shell made her feel better about her own life. Therapeutic torture. Then there were the closed off shells. The wallflowers that hadn’t quite yet bloomed. She’d smash the sealed shells one by one with any nearby heavy object— a shot glass, a hardback book, a scented candle called Boardwalk America that smelled like popcorn, cotton candy, saltwater taffy, and desperation. On one occasion she shattered a bottle of nail polish over the nut’s protective layer. Cursed the day and cleaned up best she could leaving her coffee table stained with envious smears of a polish called “Shake Your Moneymaker.” Only once did she give up on them. Abandon them like a child’s pacifier in the middle of a city street. It was during final Jeopardy. Her pile a dwindled remainder, she contemplated the question on Greek Gods (she always confused her Gods). The shell cracked easy with a dusty residue. She placed the shell’s meat into her mouth, scooped it up with her tongue only to savor that distinct taste of death—rotten insect stench. A reflexive crunch and then a gag. She spit into her hand, wiped hard at her tongue with her shirtsleeve. Took a swig of her Snapple lemonade and inspected the shell. The remains of a cocoon. She gagged again. Took another swig and swished it around her mouth as if the sugar and lemon would purify her. Alex Trebek barked in the background. “Pandora. Pandora was the correct response.” No one got it. She glanced at the remaining nuts. The unopened shells beckoned her, challenged her to slam at them with the copy of Anna Karenina that she’d been using that night. But she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t bring herself to smash and chew. She wiped her hand on the paper, wadded the waiting nuts into it. She threw them into the tiny trashcan and turned off the television. The experience put her off her daily habit for a solid two weeks, but she wasn’t strong enough for turkeys, hot or cold. Her withdrawals never quelled. Like a nicotine fiend subbing cigarettes for toothpicks or thick chalky mints, she needed something, a replacement for that satisfactory crack. At first, she tried peanuts. Too pedestrian. Their shells too soft. Too weak—the spineless nut. Next, she moved on to the bigger nuts. Even armed herself with a vintage metal cracker tool she bought special for the occasion. Her nails healed and she painted them red. She liked the walnuts fine, the pecans better. The hazelnuts best. In the end, the silver cracker vanished, and she broke down. She bought herself a two-pound bag of pistachios. She thought it best to pretend like it never happened.
by Abigail Lalonde
by Marc Frazier
to sleep in the womb of a shell
in a forest of symbols
with ancient wounds
caress an infant’s little finger
the weak kitten
the hands of a sculptor
enter the forbidden passage
a new personality
the black boat
reenter the secrets of young summers
the odors of infancy
the sadness of beauty
a hidden city
the breath of a ghost
remember every window
the first words of mother
the warm belly of desire
cross the frontier into madness
the sea to a new world
the night to a fatal dawn
gather broken moons
the disappearing surf
the silent cries of miscarriages
When I was a kid, Dad said if I thought ugly thoughts while a tooth was missing, a trickster finger would grow in its place and flick food from my mouth before I could finish chewing. Seemed hard to believe. But he often dribbled down the front of his shirt, so I feared demon mouth fingers and whatever Dad's ugly thoughts were.
Later, I would see him as he was: a slob and a liar.
Now we both have dentures. One old man visiting another, telling each other nothing, tongues clicking, clothes grubby, and immaculate teeth bared.
by Jeff Rose
by AN Block
“You can’t be serious.” The boney shouldered woman in the lime green singlet and matching headband raised a snifter she’d been swirling to eye level and examined it in the twilight. “Aren’t there laws against that, or something?”
“I really really almost quit today, I swear.” Squeezing onto the one empty bar stool in the oak-paneled room, the red headed woman unwound a canary yellow chiffon scarf from around her neck and hung her bag on a hook under the bar. “My company is insane.”
“Well, there’s got to be some HR type you can speak to. People can’t get away with this kind of behavior today. I mean, it is 2016.”
“Ha! This isn’t Wall Street, honey, it’s a family shop, you don’t file complaints. Anyway, it’s not usually like this. Once a year everyone goes just a little berserko. I don’t want to talk about it. So,” she said, sniffing her friend’s glass, wrinkling her nose and eyeing a group of three young men in dark suits and loosened neckties drinking draft beers, elbowing one another and laughing, “you’ve finally come over to the dark side?” “Well, when in Babylon one doesn’t sip Pinot Noir.” Her open palm swept the air, her thumb indicating a window looking out on the jagged Financial District skyline. “So, do you carry any Bourbon?”
“So bloody loud in here.” “In your portfolio. Bourbon?”
“You sell Bourbon?”
“Unfortunately, no.” The red headed woman removed a phone from her bag and placed it face up on the shiny black marble bar top. “That would be too easy, wouldn’t it? Everything I sell is a headache.”
“Well, it was your call. ‘Marketing’s easy,’ you said. ‘Quicker path up the ladder.’”
“Thanks for reminding me, Tree. All I want at this point is to build the resume, get my promotion and bail.”
“Oh, that promotion they promised you last summer? And again in January?”
“Yeah, and every time I inquire about it, guess what, I get this super weird vibe.” A gaunt bartender carrying a liter of vodka passed in front of them, nodded, rubbed his eye, inspected his fingertip, half bowed and pressed his lips together, smiling at the red haired woman before hurrying back to the service bar.
“I think that old bald headed dude with the big ears just winked at me,” she said.
“Gross. So,” Tree asked, tapping her drink, “you want to live dangerously? Or in your line of work, must one play for the home team all the time?”
“Pimping booze? What the hell, I’ll probably get the axe soon anyway. What is this, Maker’s?”
“Please. Basil Hayden. But put that device away. You’re off duty.” When Tree twirled her finger a younger bartender appeared, as if attached to her on a string, a stocky man with short cropped curly black hair, a broad pink face and open mouthed smile. “My friend’ll have one too, Aiden, same way, love, one cube. So?” The women placed opposite elbows on the bar top, each resting their cheeks on a fist and leaning so their foreheads almost touched. They alternated speaking into one another’s ear.
“So, to start off Happy Thursday, the big creep bitches me out the second I reach my cubicle and then, he’s so fired up, he comes storming back fifteen minutes later to vent even more.” “Over?” “This minor nothing. ‘Okay, Josh,’ I told him, very calm, ‘let me explain,’ but he is so out of control he can’t even listen. That’s when he said it.”
“Wait, Josh? The one that pushed through your last raise? Thought you’re his special pet.”
“I am. I mean, I was. He’s completely spazzed out on me. The last two months. The way he’s raving lately you’d think I was back in Sister Mary Pat’s class. Except for the profanity.”
“Someone needs to make him apologize.”
“The owner’s son. Right. The heir apparent.”
“Seems like a real sickness at your company. I know this ace employment attorney.”
“Be serious. Dude is so frigging clueless though. Sometimes.”
“Sweetie, that’s what you always say. Whoever you work for: ‘clueless.’ ”
“So, listen. Three weeks ago some random British publication, Global Spirits or something, rates Avanti number four on their list of Most Admired Vodka Brands internationally, Josh gets on his high horse, insists that a message go out asap, but not just go out. ‘For once,’ he says, ‘you people need wake up and develop a Call to Action! There’s a vodka war on!’”
“Vodka war?” “Problem being nobody this side of London knows the magazine. So what am I supposed to tell customers to excite them about this distilled goat piss we carry? That they love it in England?”
“Look,” Tree said, pointing to the bottles displayed on the back bar, “do you even see Avanti up there?” “Of course not. Our sales team is such a waste. Oh, thank you,” she said to the bartender, breaking into a broad horizontal smile. “Cute,” she whispered, clinking glasses.
“Think so? He’s been kind of flirting.”
They both took sips.
“Oh, my word!” the red headed woman said, tearing up, trying to wave oxygen into her wide open mouth. “Is that cask strength?”
“Just warning you, baby doll, this ain’t Whiskey. It’s truth serum.” “Truth?” She cleared her throat, coughed and shook like a wet dog. “Or confusion? Can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear.”
“So, I get Graphics to generate a one pager with all the supposed brand attributes, it lays out what points we should make with buyers, the kicker being, every regional Sales weasel keeps emailing me, unsolicited, saying, ‘This is awesome, Jillian, it’s full of useful info, great visuals, et cetera, et cetera.’” “So? All’s well that ends well.” “Except Josh expects some targeted ‘Call to Action,’ that’s part two, right? A distribution drive with zero spend behind it. Sure, boss. And the call needs to go to whoever can press the right button at the distributor level. But our list of who should be contacted in each state is on some super out of date pre-Recession spread sheet that no one’s ever bothered to update.”
“We have no support staff. None. It’s just ‘Sell, sell, sell!’”
Tree began eyeing some of the regulars whose crisp movements she tracked behind her through the wall mirror, men she had traded looks with and to whom she had assigned nicknames: Prep School Paulo, Count Chocula, Georgie Boy, Mike the Jock. Then she let her gaze linger on a narrow-waisted newcomer closer to her age slouching against the wall in a torn flannel shirt and plum colored beret who made eye contact, raising a can of Oskar Blues Old Chub to his temple just as she frowned and turned back to Jillian. “They’re that clueless about your customer base? Or just cheap?”
“Oh, God, the old man is a multi-multi-millionaire. But, if it’s not half off, guess what, he won’t touch it.”
“Can’t people just enjoy their money? Especially when they’re seventy?”
“Wait, what’s everyone leaving for?” Jillian asked, noting a sudden stampede towards the elevators.
“Celtics,” Tree said, checking her watch, removing her elbow from the bar and sitting up straight. “Some stupid playoff game. Yeah, so all the testosterone is disappearing but at least we won’t have to shout anymore.”
“Right. Are you actually into hearing this?”
“Since when does your personal shrink ever say no?”
“Okay, so not only do I need to figure out who to fire this piece of brilliance I’ve done off to in each state, but there are sensitivities in who’s listed in what order on the emails, who needs to be addressed directly, and who it’s cool to cc. God forbid I offend some fragile male ego in Oklahoma. So I piss three days away researching, calling and literally building this database from scratch. Shit work I should not be doing after the results I’ve posted for three years, but I verify who’s in charge, their exact titles and who answers to who. Fifty customized letters, with goals and depletion data through March, specific to each state.”
“Apparently not fast enough. Josh gets wind that I’m wrapping it up still and he’s like: ‘What the eff took so long, I said I wanted this done, what’s the timeliness of this now?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, that this British trade rag nobody’s heard of made some random pronouncement about the loser Vodka you got sold on?’” “You didn’t.”
“No! All I could get out between tantrums is that the message will indeed reach the field today and that, as you know, we are not set up to execute this kind of marketing initiative quickly. Excuse me, Tree, is this putting you to sleep?”
“No, I just, I’m operating on four hours. And those last three or four laps before whipped the hell out of me, I was struggling to keep pace.”
“With some dude?”
Tree rolled her eyes. “A lanky young stockbroker. So does your hero Josh even get it?”
“He went ballistic. ‘My assistant should not have to help you with this, she has more important projects on her plate!’ He’s ranting how, ‘You’re all a bunch of incompetents,’ ‘Everything’s a fire drill,’ and then he begins wheezing, turns around and stomps back to his office.”
“For a double hit on the inhaler probably.”
“So now all I see is my promotion going up in smoke. I compose myself, I call Alan and, guess what, Josh is already on the line with him freaking out.”
“Alan? You mean, the one you told me about who’s your boss’ boss?”
“Right, as high up as you can go, the Executive Senior VP. By the way, that’s kind of progressed a bit since our last drink.” Jillian took a fiery swallow, opened her eyes wide and started digging through her bag.
“Please tell me,” Tree said, squeezing her friend’s wrist, “you are not making the same mistake you always make.”
“Please. He’s forty-six. And married. To some super woman high up in the state Republican party. I just mean we’ve been out a few times and had some in depth conversations. Work related, about my career trajectory.” She showed Tree his picture. “Kind of rugged though, isn’t he? In a pretty boy Wasp kind of way.”
“You have his picture in tennis clothes? Very sketchy. What is he, six three? I don’t approve of this message.”
“Okay, mother superior. I told you, it’s drinks. You don’t remember, I introduced you at that place on the waterfront? The one who’s very tall, trim and athletic.”
“Right, him. But isn’t it on this Alan character about the distributor database, or whatever, and that’s why you got chewed out?”
“Theresa, he’s a very prominent figure in the industry. Don’t call him ‘this Alan character.’”
“Okay, Prince Charming, so does he bail you out at least with the boss?”
“He’s like, ‘Don’t be oversensitive. You know the situation.’”
Tree squinted, her jaw sagged.
“His actual response is like, ‘Who the eff cares? You’re right: nobody’s heard of this magazine. Keep hitting your numbers and calm down, sweetie, it’s just Josh being Josh. You’ve got a great shot the next time promotions come up, trust me.’” “Right.You’re sure you’re on top of this?”
“Josh is an infant.” Jillian cleared the bangs from her forehead. “I have to admit though, his point is valid: we as a company should have the ability to execute faster.”
“And the reason you don’t?”
“His frat buddy, our VP of Sales, this overstuffed bozo who wears a Patriots cap and barges around with a clipboard bellowing totally retarded nonsense all day. I hate him! All this vital information lies completely in his pea-sized brain, his IQ is like four, plus he and Alan don’t speak.” She lowered her head and raised a hand. “Except through emissaries.”
“Sweetie,” Tree said, removing her sweat band, running fingers through her hair, “where is this going?”
“Wait. Number two.” She raised two fingers and covered her face with her other hand. “Who else is insane is Craig.”
“The idiot son? Don’t tell me he even has a say.” “This sales incentive I’m working on for him, it’s a jigsaw puzzle because the brands cut across all our divisions, but I’m the lead, because who else has the patience? So today’s the day I hold young Craig’s hand and walk him through the final contract. The winners stay at this uber-luxury fantasy camp hunting lodge he’s obsessed with in the wilds of Pennsylvania. So he starts freaking out worse than the big brother because someone puts it in his demented drama queen brain that the weather the week they’re going will be horrific. He keeps screaming how we need to reschedule, we need to reschedule, as though switching to the week before will make some huge difference.”
“Oh, God, is that neurotic?”
“Problem being, our President, Werner, the hired gun, has committed to some iron man Triathlon the week before. And an adult needs to be present to watch Craig. So here we are at zero hour, with yours truly in the midst of a shit fight. Superman’s like, ‘Let him throw a hissy fit. I don’t sacrifice a personal goal because some fortune teller’s convinced him the week of October 10th Pennsylvania weather will be better than the 17th. No way! We don’t change the date.’”
“Crazy.” “Wait though, in the midst of this second soap opera, I get an email marked ‘URGENT!’ The one I’ve been dreading.”
“Larry? The Godfather?”
“The psycho-boss, exactly. Guess our gain is Florida’s loss.”
“So, father and sons, all three at once?”
“Welcome to my world.” Jillian exhaled through her wide open mouth. “So I’m literally like, what else could happen today to bury my chances? I was so hoping Alan would get this done before Larry came back but I have no choice, I have to open it. Oh my God, it’s a total rampage, couldn’t decipher half the message, the thrust being we need to stop ‘screwing around’ and sell more Grand Charente, this rotgut Cognac he brought in a million years back when the market was still expanding. He adores the family, these disgraced French aristocrats. Oh, he’s also had all winter to analyze it: the problem apparently is that this swill needs to be priced at par with, are you ready, Remy Martin.”
“Oh, right. Why should it cost less?” “‘Image!’ is all he says, as though that settles it. ‘Brand alignment. It’s a full on terroir Cognac! Estate-bottled!’ So he’s dropping crazy money in Spin, in Maxim, places like that, trying to apply lipstick to this pig. ‘But, Larry,’ I’ve explained to him, ad infinitum, ‘we’re at a challenging price point for a name nobody can pronounce, in a shrinking category.’ Truth is, I’ve been whipping the hell out of this Grand Crapola, it’s out there but it doesn’t sell through. The market is super-saturated.”
“Okay, I’m having trouble following.”
“Nobody drinks Cognac any more but I’m plus 130% year over year because I beg, threaten and cajole constantly, to get it out there. Every case. I mean, it’s kind of obscene the amount of this no-name swill I’ve forced through the system. For that alone they should bump me to Assistant Director.”
“Maybe your new BFF’ll just give you a gold star and jerk you around some more instead.”
Jillian gazed at the bar, pointed her finger, tried to count the Cognacs on display and started over twice. “I mentioned the mess with Craig, didn’t I? The lunatic. The hunting lodge fiasco? Oh, and we just finished the, what do you call it, Defiance Gin campaign and…”
“So about what’s his face?” Tree asked. “The BFF.”
“What’s he got to do with anything?”
“Is he guiding you through this maze, at least?”
“I don’t know, as best he can.”
“Honey, they’re stringing you along. Kiss these assholes good bye, all of them. You’re too intelligent for this. My advice: you need a Plan B.”
“Doesn’t everyone? I am not giving up though. I’m not.”
“So, what about outside of work?”
“Well, I mean, you’ve obviously noticed.” Jillian puffed her cheeks, widened her eyes, palmed her stomach and tilted sideways. “And Marc, you know, Mr. self-righteous Fitness Fanatic, he’s all over my case about it. Worse than you. Every time he takes his bike out I get the look.” “Well, that’s what it is when you’re out on the town night after night swilling Cognac for a living. And you don’t exercise.” “Thank you,” Jillian said. “I wasn’t aware of that.”
“Sorry, sweetie, but I don’t sugar coat things. I’m just saying, as a friend, we’re getting to that age. You and Marc are still good though, right? Still on track?”
“I mean, he’s definitely the one.” She raised her hand, wiggled her fingers and displayed a glittery diamond. “But not everything is so cut and dried always. Because it’s not totally happening. The way it should be.”
“I don’t know.” She dabbed a bar napkin at the corner of her eye. “Sometimes it seems he’s just going through the motions. Following a script. He’s so wrapped up, building his practice still. Social justice, helping the downtrodden. And he’s super critical. ‘Jill,’ he goes, at least once a week, ‘for God’s sakes, it’s booze. When are you going to stop wasting your brain and do something meaningful?’ Meanwhile, even without the promotion, I’m making a shit ton more money than he is. But you remember how serious Marc’s always been, I mean even back when the two of you were hot and heavy, right after college. Let’s save the world!”
“Not at all like Vice President Alan, right?”
“Look, Tree,” she said, tossing her head back, finishing the drink, “we’re just hanging out. Talking.”
“Don’t you ever learn, sweetie? This is going to end badly. I can feel it.” “Okay. Okay, that’s what I told him. Exactly. That we’re in danger of crossing a line. Getting too personal. Know what he says? ‘Why focus on a negative?’ ”
“God, is that slick. What’s the matter? You’re all red.”
“That’s what he calls me: Red. It’s the Irish in me, my mother’s side. So the first time we had drinks, he’s telling me this stuff, I can’t believe what I’m hearing. About me. I said, ‘Time out. You don’t know me.’ Because I was taken aback. ‘Oh, yes I do,’ he says. It was jolting though. He’s super perceptive about people.”
“He’s playing you,” Tree said, raising her finger, trying to catch the bartender’s eye.
“Some things never change.” Jillian began scrolling her messages under the bar. “Theresa always knows best.” “Wait, are you checking your phone?”
“No.” “Well, it’s not a healthy environment. I don’t get why you don’t just leave.”
“Not till I get the promotion I’ve worked so hard for.”
“It’ll never happen. What are you so fixated on your job title for?”
“Excuse me, some of us didn’t grow up rich.”
“I didn’t either! Just because we lived in Newton.”
They sat facing forward in silence, absorbing the conversational tides rising, flowing and washing around them for over a minute until the bartender reappeared.
“Ladies,” he said. “Another round? Of the same?”
They turned to each other.
“What can you make that’s delicious?” Jillian asked. “A Red Hook. It’s a big girl drink, but you two look like you can handle it.”
“Try one, I swear, you’ll love it.”
“Okay, fire away,” Tree said. “Two Redhooks. What’s with the name?”
“Ah,” he said, leaning both elbows on the bar, “lost in the hoary mists of time, my dear. Like much of cocktail lore, no one’s sure because people are trying things out late at night, adding a spot of this, a touch of that, sitting around getting hammered under cover of darkness, so no one’s in condition to write down a thing. So the next morning they’re like, ‘How’d this happen, what’s the name even mean, how’d we come up with this?’”
“My life in a nutshell,” Jillian said, as he poured rye into a silver colored jigger and then into an ice packed mixing glass. “So, I guess I like whiskey, after all. Who knew?”
“Good. Cause I’m a little leery of the vodka crowd. Between us. Whiskey drinkers know what they’re after.” He winked, stirring both drinks with a bar spoon. “They’re not covering the truth up with some fruit juice, they’re taking their dose of poison straight now, aren’t they?”
Both women laughed.
“You like your job,” Jillian said, “don’t you?”
“Here’s what I like about it,” he said, pouring. “Someone sits down, I know what they’re here for. Booze. So I’m like, ‘All right!” He clapped. “‘Let’s get started.’ Got to love that, when you don’t have to guess.”
“To love,” Jillian said, lifting the drink he’d just placed on a napkin before her. “It’s a beautiful thing to love your job,” “A blessing. Enjoy, ladies.”
“I love him,” she said, laughing. “That adorable brogue! ‘Their dose of pie-zen.’ What is his name?’
“Isn’t your life complicated enough?”
“Probably. Remember how free and easy we were, once upon a time? Hanging with that mob of drunk BC guys from Putnam? I’m going on three years at this nut factory now. I want my old job back!”
“Um, that company got acquired, remember? And soon afterwards the new one, quote unquote, downsized you. Jillian, I don’t say this lightly, but I think you might consider some professional help.”
“To help. Getting my promotion. Then getting out.” They clinked, took a few sips and again, as if drawn by the sound, or by instinct, the bartender reappeared.
“Liking our Redhooks, ladies?”
“Best drink. Ever. By the way, I’m Jillian.”
“Good to meet you.” They shook hands and exchanged cards. “Aiden.”
“So,” she said, licking her lips, “you’re hard core into whiskey? You know Avanti vodka?”
“Me?” He looked left and right. “Don’t tell anyone, I’m a rummy. Dyed in the wool.”
“No! So what’s your brand? If you had to choose.”
“I thought I once knew, but not anymore. Over the years I kept hearing about Sueno de Habana, something we couldn’t get since the Embargo. How it’s a life-changing magic potion. So a few months back I’m in Dublin, I spot a bottle on the back bar and I’m so excited lifting the glass, I’m shaking all over. Then, the moment of truth, I’m like, that’s it? That’s all it is? You can’t get something, you crave it. More often than not though, it’s a letdown. So if forced to choose, I guess I like the real funky rums best, ones made of blackstrap molasses with a lot of rough edges. An acquired taste that is perhaps best not acquired.” He saluted and drifted away to another customer.
“Thanks,” Jillian said, looking at the business card, “for suggesting we meet here. A little noisy at first, but I really like the vibe. It’s somehow taking my mind off things. Definitely coming back to get some education on rum.”
“Oh, I’ll bet you are.”
“I am not giving up on the promotion though. Going to get what I deserve and that’s it.”
“Okay, sweetie,” Tree said. “Go for it.” “So anyhow, what up with your situation?”
“Doing all right, I guess. No special love interest. Keeping in shape, running a ton.”
“Yeah? Any progress?”
“I can’t believe it, you’re so talented. This economy is absurd.” “Blogging my brains out still, trying to build my brand. Little by little. Let’s say I haven’t attained guru status yet. I mean, I’m getting gigs, here and there, but…” “Something’ll turn up soon,” Jillian said. “And if it doesn’t, just go to your Plan B.”
The alarm on Tree’s phone began beeping.
“Plan B,” she said, holding it up. “Got to go.” “Ooh, very mysterious,” Jillian said.
Tree kissed her on the cheek, put a twenty on the bar, got up and left.
After the uber driver dropped her off at the front door, Tree rode up alone in the elevator, her back resting against the door. She had time to fire off only two terse responses to the four new messages on her phone. “Thank God for Autocorrect,” Tree said. “And thank God for Aiden. And the old Redhook.” The hotel emanated a new construction gleam and a faintly chemical odor, its hall lighting was so subdued she could barely see more than a few feet in front of her. She jogged, gliding down the long tiled corridor to Room 1820. “Happy anniversary!” the man said, opening the door, holding out a flute of Champagne. “Here’s to you, baby doll.”
“Happy what?” she asked, pushing his arm away. She got on tiptoes, as he leaned down. “What do you mean?” “You forgot? One month. To the day.” She could smell the liquor as they kissed.
“So, you saw Red? She still upset?”
“Mmm, yum!” Tree said. “You taste like Cognac. You have a bottle of that Grand Charente here somewhere?” she asked, clapping once, pressing her palms together and scanning the room. “Mister Executive Senior VP.”
by Robert Perchan
A naked preacher in a Lone Ranger mask shuffles a deck of pornographic playing cards on a kitchen table. Sunday morning in any small town of your choosing circa time out of mind. What do you want to ask God? he calls to his wife. Yes she answers from her bed in the sickroom. He cuts the stack: Six of Clubs: A pale woman with flaccid dugs in clip-on earrings and a Betty Page hair-do is fellating a pot-bellied man in a Lone Ranger mask. The naked preacher carries the breakfast tray into the sickroom and settles it gently on the lap of his recumbent wife. What did God say? she asks. The old Six of Clubs he answers. Oh Is that the one with me and General Eisenhower? she asks. No he answers. Oh Is that the one with me and Lucille Ball? she asks. No he answers. Oh Is that the one with me and J. Fred Muggs? she asks. No he answers. Oh Is that the one with me and Hank “Wagon Tongue” Zihoski? she asks. She had been this way for years now, stepping in and out of the limelight of her fugal twilight, but never before had she come up with the name of that washed-out utility infielder for the luckless Mudhens. His hopes suspicions were aroused. Perhaps the dementia was finally lifting.
In the Cards
by Ann Blackburn
Nothing Girl #1
I’m the girl with hallowed ashes
flaking from her hair.
have replaced my head —
head growing legs
so it can run away
from the girl with the oak-chest
body, splintering a-
part. My soul has opened
with every broken memory; fractured
thoughts: the lily stars you sent me
that I’m allergic to. There’s a drained detachment
in my ductless eyes — see nothing,
do nothing, am nothing. Faded out
tonguelessness; using spaces
to remove: descending floorboards.
by Bonnie Lykes
No other house has a room like mine
Because it’s not a room
It is a box born from the ego of an artist
Not fond of children
The container doesn’t throw a party for youth
It is small
9x 9 are the dimensions
I saw it on the blueprint
The wood completes the box
The walls, the dresser, and end tables are all of the Wood
The built in desk is an outgrowth of the Wood
Modern, to be sure
But the Wood is cherry-colored
So there’s half-baked, hyphenated warmth
Dolls who come alive at night are on the highest wood shelf
They smirk with glass eyes in the bright afternoon
I’m protected by 8” of cinder block
This wall shields me from a cactus desert
The desert outside is unpredictable
A beetle migration crept through the cracks once
And marched across the shag rug with backs like Zulu shields
I stacked books around the bed
To steer them off my skin and hair as I sleep
The bed is a simple rectangle
A rectangle meant for sleep
No gender show of ruffles
Even the bedcovers are built in and match the rest of the house
The fabric of the spread on the bed
Is the same green fabric
On the sofa cushion in the circular living room
The house is designed to look like a bird from an aerial view
I am swallowed, deeply and easily
Into a great bird in the middle of the desert
My room is the belly of the bird
Am I being digested—like food-- by a bird posing as a house?
I know the box is not made for who I am
I am being used
Even though I tape posters with psychedelic designs to the wall
This room has another plan
To match the rest of the house
This room doesn’t matter like the other rooms
Is someone home now?
I’m not sure
But I’ll roam the long hall’d neck to find out
Because I won’t stay inside---too long
The walls are thick I barely hear my brother pop gum
His room is also the same wood box
With the exact same built-in furniture
But pointed in a different direction
We tug of war with a small portable TV
When it’s my turn I get to watch movie of the week
Once a week
Here in the belly box
I admit, there is music
Records get tossed at the turntable in the corner
Like forks in a busy drawer
I listen with great, great pleasure
And sing along with even more
The window frames my personal screen
Of desert rocks
I smell creosote bush after a rain
But it’s hard to open the window
So I keep it shut
This room is in the middle of the bird
The middle of the desert
And the middle of my youth
To create something new
I rotate my wrinkled clothes in the very small closet
And try to thrive
Down in the valley
The closet is also framed
With the Wood
The closet contains my way out
And when I open the doors
The hinges loose a warning siren
Unfurl a small pair of strong wings
I then fly downward
Down the jagged-grey mountain road
C.W.’s short stories and poems have most recently appeared in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Potluck, Dirty Chai, The Flexible Persona, Literally Stories, Compass Magazine, FishFood Magazine, Poydras Review, Five2One and Yellow Chair Review.
Ann Blackburn is a student at Sarah Lawrence College where she studies poetry. She has studied with Cynthia Cruz, Suzanne Gardinier, and Martha Rhodes. She is currently working on her manuscript. Her work has previously appeared in Maudlin House, Red Paint Hill Poetry Journal, and Poppy Road Review. Her website can be found at annblackburnpoetry.com.
Since 2015 AN Block’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Buffalo Almanack (recipient of its Inkslinger Award for Creative Excellence), Umbrella Factory Magazine (a 2015 Pushcart Prize nominee), DenimSkin, Per Contra, Constellations, The Bicycle Review, Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, Flash Frontier, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Down in the Dirt, Contrary, the Blue Bonnet Review, The Nite Writers Literary Arts Journal, and The Binnacle, the latter of which won Honorable Mention in its Twelfth Annual International Ultra-Short Competition. He has an MA in History and is a Master of Wine who teaches at Boston University. He is also Contributing Editor at the Improper Bostonian.
Marc Frazier has been widely published in journals including The Spoon River Poetry Review, ACM, Good Men Project, f(r)iction, Slant, Permafrost, Plainsongs, Poet Lore, Rhino, and Connotation Press. He is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for poetry. His book “The Way Here” and his chapbooks “The Gods of the Grand Resort” and “After” are available on Amazon as well as his second full-length collection titled “Each Thing Touches” from Glass Lyre Press. He has done readings and led workshops in the Chicago area for many years. His website is marcfrazier.org.
Abigail Lalonde holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. She is a Literary Reflections Editorial Assistant forLiterary Mama. She lives with her husband and three cats in Philadelphia. Her spirit animal is a combination of a goth teenager and Holly Golightly (from the book, not the movie. Don’t be silly).
Bonnie Lykes grew up in a Frank Lloyd Wright house in the middle of the Arizona desert. The second she turned 18, she moved to San Francisco and quickly joined a punk band. Much later, she attended Antioch University in Seattle, Wa. and began story telling. Now, life in upstate New York. She hosts “The Writer’s Voice” every 2nd Tuesday, WIOX 91.3 FM and reads at bookstores, lit fairs, festivals, and slammy slams.
Robert Perchan’s poetry chapbooks are “Mythic Instinct Afternoon” (2005 Poetry West Prize) and “Overdressed to Kill” (Backwaters Press, 2005 Weldon Kees Award). His poetry collection “Fluid in Darkness, Frozen in Light” won the 1999 Pearl Poetry Prize and was published by Pearl Editions in 2000. His avant-la-lettre flash novel “Perchan’s Chorea: Eros and Exile” (Watermark Press, Wichita, 1991) was translated into French and published by Quidam Editeurs (Meudon) in 2002. In 2007 his short short story “The Neoplastic Surgeon” won the on-line Entelechy: Mind and Culture Bio-fiction Prize. He currently resides in Pusan, South Korea. You can see some of his stuff on robertperchan.com.
Jeff Rose is a writer and storyteller living in Brooklyn.
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