October 12, 2016 | ISSUE no 201
crack the spine
Michael H. Rand
by Doug Steele
my blackest of labs
In her fashion Coffee would knock me down
nibble and dribble on my ear lobes
and sniff and sniff
under my tiny chinny chin chin (again and again)
her long bambi paws holding me down one leg on each side
of my bib overhaul straps while surveying
Coffee'd kiss kiss kiss kissing
and even k i s s me ALL OVER plus lick
the days dirty remnants from my
Coffee wore a run lap 'round the
fenceline and even
dug underit one day...
I followed her out to great adventures
us tag tagging in and out off the dusty
till Ms. Linter corralled us
locked us in the back seat of her great big green car
Coffee and me we wuz no longer freee
yet nibbled and greatly dribbled on my ear of lobes
for much more time that afternoon
Coffee N Me
Winter Entertainment in a Small New England Town
The children ran around the fire, occasionally checking on the hissing and popping apples that they had thrown into the steaming pot held over it. The adventurous ventured into the darkness, hiding in the trees and the underbrush, playing hide and go seek for those brave enough to chase after them.
Mothers warned them not to spend too much time away from the fire, the children might get lost or freeze up their fingers and toes if they strayed too long from the sole source of heat that kept everyone warm that bitterly cold February night.
Mostly the women ladled water into mugs and prepared boiling tea for their husbands or dumped the boiling water into the hole that the men had dug into the ground, loosening the soil if the men took advantage and quickly dug into the mud with their shoves and picks before the water began to freeze over.
The men huddled over their horizontal hole, having excavated four feet into the earth, chucking out rocks and stones that impeded them. They shrouded their faces with caps and scarves and when one exhaled his friends tried to catch some of the warm air their comrade emitted. Every half hour they broke for five minutes to dance around the fire, while the children took over the digging chores with spoons and trowels.
Stowe Parsons had died today, an inconvenient time to die with snow and ice on the ground. His friends and family mourned their loss, but primarily were seized by anxiety, knowing that they needed to bury Stowe in that freezing ground at night after they returned from their work on the farms or in the mills. It would have been better had Stowe held out until the Spring or at least until a late weekday, so that his beloved ones might bury him on a weekend.
Sometimes resenting a recently deceased loved was easier than mourning for that person.
A gentle man in life, Stowe in death frightened everyone with his pustule-riddled body, the product of two agonizing weeks of succumbing to smallpox. A few men cut off his clothing with shears, from a distance, then burned all of his clothes, together with his bedding and blankets, lifting them with strong sticks into a pyre. Many adults wanted to burn Stowe’s corpse also, but instead a few merciful men and women hooked his body and lifted it into a crude wooden box. To do otherwise, it was argued, might offend God, and offending God during a smallpox epidemic did not seem wisdom-laden. Largely, resolve to do the right thing trumped resentment that evening as a wagon brought new water, freshly chopped ice from the river, to place into the pot. Midnight had passed and no one noticed the stars any longer.
At 1:00 a.m. the men had finally dug six feet into the ground and prepared to call upon Reverend Sherman to ride out to say a few words before they buried the body. The men hoisted and pulled each other out of the grave as the children jumped into it with their spoons, seeking one last opportunity to play in the hole.
Tom Ewell, a twelve year old who excelled at spelling, grabbed a trowel and dug into the mud for a treasure, but he only drove into a hard white object. He tried a few more thrusts, then dug around the object, only to discover that he had unearthed a human skull. Tom ejected himself from the hole, screaming, running over to his mother to inform her that he had just struck human bone.
Austerely, Tom’s father grabbed a lantern and with three other men walked back into the hole, and ascertained that Tom Ewell had indeed struck a human skull. They could not bury Stowe Parsons in that location.
The Reverend arrived at the site only to be sent home. The men grabbed their shovels and began to fill the hole with the dirt that for several hours they had dug out of it. They finished around dawn, at which time they prepared for work, or for a few of the luckier children, walk to school. After work they agreed to assemble again in the darkness to a new location to dig a hole in which to accommodate Stowe Parsons and his eternal rest.
by Donald Hubbard
by Paul Costa
One night, a long time ago, I lay half asleep in bed when a voice called me by name.
It screamed for me. It cut suddenly through the silence. It pronounced my name like an expanding, explosive roar. I whipped the sheets off my body and scurried for the door, not knowing exactly why. At the bottom of the stairs I found myself standing on the threshold of a darkened living room with only one dim lamp turned on atop a small end table. Next to it sat a wing chair with its rear upholstery half hanging off, with long, rusted staples protruding from its limp fabric.
I remembered that I had left the lamp on. That’s why he thought of me I thought.
A man sat in the chair. He wore dress shoes, beige Dockers, a black polo shirt, a silver watch, a gold chain necklace, and small glasses. A bald spot lay on the upper-back half of his head. He sat like a king on a conquered throne. He had an enormously thick leather-bound book open in his lap. He ran his finger down the page over a certain entry and looked at it over the top of his glasses.
He said “okay, so that step is done, I’ve called their name…now…”
He nodded and looked serious while he examined the stitched together patches of human skin which made up the lampshade on the lamp next to him. A muted, red-orange light glowed through its surface.
He looked down at the book and ran his finger down to the next passage. He looked up, gave me a hard look, put his hand on his heart and said “it just seems, in my opinion, that this is really only a pale imitation of an actual human glow,” but I’d heard him describe every lamp in the house with the exact same words from the exact same chapter of the exact same book.
He glanced again at the pages before him. He ran his finger down the page to another entry. He said “I didn’t appreciate the way you described Barnabas in passing four weeks, three days, and seven hours back. You referred to him as a ‘monster.’ That comment was very, very, rude of you. That’s not how it’s written. Why do you do this to me? I can’t sleep when we deviate from the book.”
I stared back at him.
He said “you should apologize to Barnabas…BARNABAS!”
In the shadowy far wall of the living room I saw a square, stone-lined fireplace connected to the chimney.
Barnabas crawled through the fireplace, rolled out, flopped onto the floor and stood up. A tangled mass of bloody black strings either encased or made up his head. He stayed still and breathed like a sentient, homicidal octopus. He wore a black trench-coat. His leather gloved hands caressed a raggedy Ann doll. A little girl’s severed hand still clutched the doll, still squeezing tears from its button eyes.
“Where did the hand on the doll come from?” I said.
“What the hell is wrong with you? Don’t be so melodramatic,” said the man in the chair.
“Then I won’t apologize for calling him a monster,” I said. "You weren't there when he took the doll."
The man in the wing chair removed his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose and shouted “fuck!” at the wall. “That’s not the way!” he said. He squeezed both sides of his head with his hands. “I’m so, so tired…I can’t sleep when we don’t follow the book.” He shook his head and looked up. The man in the chair peered at me over his small glasses. “It says Barnabas never had dolls, you see. Isn’t that sad? Doesn’t that break your heart? It says here that it breaks hearts. Look at me, I’m extremely sad, you see.” He leaned forward.
“Do you ever look in the mirror and wonder if you’re a complete and certifiable sociopath? Well, I can tell you that you are if you don’t see Barnabas as an utterly tragic figure. He’s had a very complicated journey. They worshipped him, you know. Do you know how hard it is to be…” he took a quick look at the book…“worshipped? Do you know how frustrating it is to have to answer the most deranged prayers, even in the middle of the night?”
I said nothing.
Barnabas began moving towards me. He drooled through the black strings either covering or comprising his head.
“It says here he’ll stop if you apologize,” the man in the wing chair said. “But of course, you are free to do as you like; I’m just a humble scholar trying to do a charitable thing.”
I got on my knees and began apologizing to Barnabas, who stopped.
The man in the chair said “yes, yes, this is it, this is how it happens.”
He turned the page.
I finished my apology.
Barnabas took another step forward.
My heart began palpitating. I sweated great drops of perspiration from my temples. My teeth chattered involuntarily, grinding themselves down, and my body temperature both rose and dropped suddenly.
“W-what…what’s happening?” I said.
“You sinned,” said the man in the chair. “When you apologized you confessed to hurting Barnabas’s feelings…and to preventing me from sleeping…so naturally you must be punished…”
“B-but wasn’t that a-a-apology only a s-step in the book?” I said.
The man in the chair looked at the book open in his lap. “Hmm, I don’t remember that passage.”
My breathing quickened. My chest heaved up and down. I raised a quivering, extended index finger and pointed at a bookshelf in the corner, filled with a variety of volumes.
“A-and, w-w-what do-do they say?”
“Stop doing that thing, it’s annoying.”
“W-what?” I said.
“That th-th-th-thing you’re doing…and this isn’t a book club; I’m not going to spend all night reading every book on the shelf.”
Barnabas kept walking towards me.
In the morning they found me bleary eyed and curled up in a fetal position on the couch.
I saw the man from the wing chair many times during many days, but each time I saw him he insisted we had never met before, and that he was a completely unique individual with no other person like him on the planet.
From then on I carefully scrubbed all evidence of my existence from each room I had occupied during the day before I retired to bed, so that the man in the wing chair would not be reminded of me after sunset burned away his daytime claims.
He never called for me again, but I heard him every night, somewhere, calling other names.
Since then I’ve become a strict libertarian so that I can, with impunity, feel nothing when I remain asleep while I hear others being called down to the dark living room. It’s the only way I can endure.
The man in the wing chair has declared himself a devout man of faith so that he can, with impunity, believe in the humanity of monsters, in the existence of one true book, and in the holiness of suffering. It’s the only way he can endure.
Barnabas has completely committed himself to bestial savagery so that no one will ever expect otherwise of him, and he revels in his authenticity, taking extreme pride in having never failed to meet expectations.
It’s the only way he has ever endured.
by Michael H. Rand
I Am Not an
I do not want to join your start-up.
You will not find me next to you on your boat, sipping a mai tai as the sun recedes beyond the ocean in the west. You won’t be able to take that selfie with me in the board room at the top of the skyscraper. I won’t be there. I’m not one for acquiring new capital. I’m wasted on crowd-funding.
I have bills to pay and I intend to pay them. I’ll get a job. I need to eat, so I’ll go to the grocery store. The rest of the time I’ll be writing and playing PlayStation and making love. I might be so adventurous as to purchase a new potted plant, if the weather is fair.
I have no interest in attending your leadership conference.
I have no need for people to follow me; they’re around enough as it is. I don’t care what my body language is broadcasting. Spare me your coaching. I don’t have the patience to listen to a man in a pin-striped suit in front of a projection screen who barks into a microphone and smears his talc make up with the cuff of his sleeve.
I’m busy with naps. There is tea to be brewed. I don’t want to fake it and I don’t want to make it. You can make it without me. I’d rather stare at my feet for an hour and think about gravitational waves. I want to listen to the sound of the ceiling fan and hear if it slows as the night gets colder. I want to pet my dog and wipe the crusty build-up out of her eyes.
I am not a go-getter. I am not even a getter. I am a given.
I am a gull feather on the crest of an icy wave in the North Atlantic.
I am the crinkling of leaves under boots in the yard of a poorly maintained elementary school.
I am a dripping faucet in the early morning.
I am a bruise on an elbow.
I am not an entrepreneur.
I am a man, in a room, with a ballpoint pen and a blank sheet of notebook paper.
by Francesca Brenner
“I begin to think about the lives of men
and how we carry the heavy load of muscle”
I settle down into the worn
seat of my couch to think about weight
my weight, and how it lands in and on me
thick as cream
There is no rest on this planet
there is no rest in my brain
there is no rest from the foot planted
like dead weight on Nosferatu’s organ pipe peddle
More than once I’ve imagined
breaking the pull of gravity
to nap in the hammock of space
Oh, the pleasure of a coma
A walk in the unconscious shadow of myself
But my body is a temple
or so I’m told by the printing on this paper cup
as I drink my double espresso java Joe
working to reign in the escaping jellyfish
ballet dancing into the rafters
Swirling the liquid black-gold
I think of my friend the volcanologist
who makes his living crawling over the crater rim
into the mouth of our great mother
He measures her seismic humor
sulfur dioxide bad breath
her tremorous hot flashes
to predict her lava temper
If we could ever know the depth of the fault line
Perhaps we could stitch it back together
But shy of that, perhaps the best we can achieve
s written on a cup of Joe
“Whatever you are, be a good one.”
by Bonnie Stanard
They say it happens every 17 years. The cicadas. Must be millions of them, grinding out what sounds like a motor running on watery gas. Wouldn’t you know, it’s the males making the noise. All that buzzing gets inside my head, loud, even inside the car. The windshield is taking a beating, their bodies thudding into the glass. It was predicted by the television preacher. He said a curse of insects signifies the end of time...that they warn of God’s disfavor with man. But God’s getting picky if He blames me for bumping into the kid. How was I to know the little gimp got too close. He shouldn’t have been behind my car. And I couldn’t stop and pick him up. If Mom found out, she’d have another hissy fit about my driving. Mr. Gandy said plagues like this are brought on us from the Middle East. Comes with the immigrants. Anybody wearing a tent’s got some explaining to do. They’re dragging in camel dirt between their toes and insects in their hair. If God’s got a grudge against us, it’s for letting them people spread their manure. If the woman with the grocery cart took down my license plate number, the cops can figure out it was me. Crap! Maybe I should drive back to Walmart and make sure the kid’s all right. But if they blame me, I might lose my license.
What’s that jerk honking his horn about? It’s hard to think with all this noise. Oh, Jesus, how’d it get so late? Amy and Marcie won’t wait for me. They’ll hitch a ride with somebody else. “Just cool it, Jackass! I’ll turn when I want to!” Thank goodness Amy and Marcie aren’t in the car. They’d razz me totally nonstop.
These cicadas are ugly bugs. Now that I think of it, our cat was jumpy yesterday. Animals can sense a coming calamity. That’s probably why the fish in the fountain was swimming sideways. And Mr. Gandy’s pet pig squealed in the middle of the night. They say snakes crawl out of the ground before earthquakes. And pigeons fly like they’re drunk. If I’d paid attention to the cat, I’d have known something awful was coming. I’m going home. Amy and Marcie can’t blame me for not showing up. It’s these swarming bugs. My hair itches like they’re in there sucking on the roots. If I can get into the house without a wad in my mouth I’ll be lucky. Google has recipes for cicadas—“shrimp of the dirt.” Blackened cicadas. Cicada quiche. Cicada tacos. Soup. Cocolate covered. Deep fried looks easy. That’s what I’ll make. Amy will go ballistic. “Catch them as they emerge from the dirt, still milky-white color.” Says here you have to get them early in the morning. And they freeze well. If you can eat them, you can sell them. Especially if you say they control your weight or make you seductious or something like that. Wonder if I need to buy freezer bags.
by Laura Huey Chamberlain
I didn’t mean to do it, Linda—I swear to God, I didn’t. I was just running along the trail like I do every night, minding my own business, listening to my music, trying to keep my pace at five miles an hour. Five miles an hour is faster than you might think—especially on hills—and even with my GPS, I have to concentrate to keep up, especially at my age. Music helps, music with a good beat. Katy Perry, fun., Phillip Phillips—I download them all. I know I look ridiculous, a middle-aged woman wired like a teenager—and I know this because your lovely god-daughter tells me this every time she sees me in running shorts. But I have a system, and it works for me. Five miles an hour, four miles a day, five days a week. Twenty miles a week, eighty miles a month, nine-hundred-and-sixty miles a year. That’s from Mount Vernon to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, if you keep track of these kinds of things. And I do, tracing my miles on a map each night with a yellow highlighter. I’m already in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Today I’d volunteered to drop off lasagna for Kate’s softball dinner. She was still at the dinner, and Dan was doing whatever it is he does on Thursday nights. So at 7 o’clock, it wasn’t too late for me to pull on my shorts and head out the door. I stopped by the pink dogwood, reset the GPS, waited for reception. It was a warm, sun-washed evening, the kind of evening that makes me appreciate everything good about my life. I don’t even pretend to resent it any more, not even to you. That hasn’t always been the case. Help! I’m asphyxiating in the land of the minivan! I remember complaining to you after Dan and I moved here. “You asked for it,” you said. You had been amused when Dan and I decided to have a baby. But what we’d done when I’d quit my job and we moved from our brownstone to the split-foyer in Mount Vernon? “You have got to be fucking kidding,” you’d said. We were at that little French bistro in Georgetown, the one that served the miniature crab quiches. “So now you’re going to stay home in your slippers and wipe snot from your kid’s nose?” If I should have been offended, I wasn’t. That was just you. And anyway, here I am now, seventeen years later, enough time in the same place to establish a solid root system. I’m as dug in here as this pink dogwood. And you? In the time it’s taken for me to put 203,319 miles on my Dodge Caravan, you’ve churned through a Mazda, two BMWs, a Lexus, one condo, one house, and two husbands. But I’m not judging. To each her own, right?
What I was talking about, though, was me, tonight, standing beside that pink dogwood. When the GPS finally reset, I pushed Play and loud, percussive music filled my head as I set off down the sidewalk. I let everything but the blaring music and the momentum of my body lift away. No more attitude from Kate. No more cold shoulders from Dan. Everything that weighed me down lifted from my shoulders, light as honeysuckle. By the time I got to the parkway, Billy Idol was belting out Monie Monie, Monie Monie. I cleared the southbound lane of traffic, waited in the crossover for a bus, and made a break for Riverside Park. I passed through the sewer stench of the port-a-potty and then I was finally on the bike path. Here, I could stretch out my legs, lengthen my stride, relax. When I reached the bottom of the hill, where the trail crosses Little Hunting Creek, I was averaging 5.1 mph. I was feeling good, but it wasn’t the time to relax. There were hills coming up—one especially steep hill just before the Mount Vernon parking lot. Ahead, the trail bent into a strip of forest between the parkway and the river. As I rounded the corner the parking lot disappeared—the parkway slipping out of view—and I was finally by myself, alone with my music. I was warmed up now, my breathing relaxed, and I settled in to one of my favorite reveries. Tonight, I was lost in a deep forest, far, far away from anyone I knew. Ahead of me, a bower of honeysuckle rose up, its spiky cream-and-yellow blossoms spurting pockets of perfume across the trail. On the left, a deep gulley burrowed into the hill. Fallen trees crisscrossed on either side, their moss-covered branches transforming the trail into a scene from a German fairy tale. Pointy-eared trolls with hairy knuckles could be watching me right now, peering out from their lairs to marvel at the strong, warrior princess. The trail started to rise, and I leaned forward. Shortening my stride, I built my momentum, swung my arms and shoulders. Now I was running on a mountain trail, my arms pulling me up one step at a time. I was light as air, insubstantial as a layer of fog. Maybe it was the play of light or a shadow shifting on the asphalt, but my reverie broke and I knew that someone was behind me. On my left, a young man, maybe twenty or twenty-five, overtook me, quickened his pace, then veered back to the right. He was cradling a football in his right arm, holding it as gently as he would an infant. Nice hamstrings, nice shoulders. A football player? Probably. A runner? For sure. This guy did a lot of running. A gorgeous stride—so even and measured, his heels striking the asphalt in a smooth, flowing line. Mechanically beautiful, I thought, a kinetic poet.
And then there I went. Before I knew it I was imagining Mr. Hamstrings—dressed as he was now, in running shorts and a faded blue t-shirt—helmetless on a football field, turning to catch an arcing spiral at the 25-yard line. He zigzagged through a wave of red jerseys and white helmets, crossed the goal line and kept on running. He ran past the cartwheeling cheerleaders with their pom-poms and pleated skirts, he ran past the roaring fans. He sprinted out the stadium and across the parking lot, down the street and onto the bike path. He ran to find me, only me, his warrior princess. I know, I know. At this age, I’m not supposed to enjoy my body. Exercise by now should be a chore, something I endure because I’m trying to keep my weight down, because I need to keep my triglycerides in check. As Kate points out, there’s something unseemly about a woman my age who likes to sweat. But Kate is young, and I forgive her. I tell her that I have earned the right to enjoy my sweat. This is my moment, the time I live for, the time when I feel most alive. And what do my little daydreams hurt, really? They’re stories to urge me down the trail while my legs beat out a cadence and my lungs scream for oxygen. Stories to give vent to whatever I can’t say, to whatever I can’t think during the long grind of the day. No worse than television. And if I enjoy the droplets of sweat that run down either side of my face, that collect under my bra and stream down my stomach, that flow along the insides of my thighs—if I enjoy my sweat, then so be it. On that thought I crested the hill. I locked my sights on the sign that read Mile 0, and I forced myself to keep moving toward the benches at the top, the water fountain, the mounds of budding azaleas. There, Mr. Hamstrings leaned over the fountain, cradling the football. His biceps glistened, his brown hair spilled across his face, and I was suddenly shy. Any other day I would have circled the water fountain, placed my finger lightly on the fountain drain to make a perfect pivot, turned toward home. But today I made a wide U-turn before I reached Mr. Hamstrings. I started down the hill, and my daydreams stopped working. Time was real, and I couldn’t distracted myself anymore from the haste in which my life was unspooling. But please. Bear with me.
Last week Kate turned eighteen. Eighteen! How could that be, Linda? How could that warm, yawning baby so drowsy with milk now be a legal adult? And how could anyone expect me to just throw open my arms and let her out into the world? To you, Linda, I will admit it: I’ve not got the hang of motherhood yet. I’ve been winging it. I need more time to finish. So you helped me decorate the back deck for Kate’s birthday party. Everything orange and maroon, even the Happy Birthday!! banner. Virginia Tech colors. Two hours later, Kate and half a dozen of her friends were chatting happily around the deck table, waiting for Dan to finish grilling the sausages, drinking lemonade from orange cups. Kate pulled her thick blonde hair into a high ponytail, securing it with an elastic band.
“And yesterday, at work,” Kate said, “he comes in for another pitchfork. And he says to me, ‘Ask me what happened to the other pitchfork. Ask me what I used it for.’” You and I were on the other side of the deck, where I’d been trying to listen to Kate’s story without being obvious. You’d fixed us both a gin and tonic, and now you were rearranging forks and spoons as I overlapped orange and maroon napkins in a neat line.
Behind Kate’s chair, Charlie absently tugged at the maroon ribbon on one of the balloons along the railing. Kate and Charlie have known each other since preschool. For thirteen years they’ve gone to school together, and now they work together—on weekends—at the hardware store down the street. Despite her protests—Mom, we’re just friends!—I suspect they also sleep together. Charlie pulled out his phone. He checked a message, texted back a response. He is well over six feet now. When did that happen? “They don’t even consider it rude, do they?” you said to me. “Texting one friend while talking to another?”
It was true. Kate and her friends all kept their cell phones within easy reach. They casually interrupted one conversation to chime in on other, electronic conversations, with other circles of friends, their heads bent. But if they were all okay with it, was it really a crime? They were like raindrops on a lake, these overlapping circles of friends, these concentric, expanding rings of conversation and messages.
Or had I just got used to it?
Dan had finished grilling the sausages. I took the platter and placed it on the table, between the baked beans and the potato chips. You handed him a gin and tonic. “Really?” you said, turning back to me. “Can’t you tell them to turn off the phones? For just two frigging hours?”
“Back off, Linda,” I snapped. “Come back and talk to me when you have kids, okay?”
I stood up straight.
“That was uncalled for. I’m sorry.”
You looked at me. “Somebody needs another drink,” you said.
I blew you a kiss, then I lifted my ear toward the teenagers.
“…and I know this guy lives with his sister,” Kate said, “and I know he’s harmless, but he’s really starting to creep me out.”
Charlie shook his head; he knew what was coming. His elbows were propped on his knees, his chin resting on his hands. When did his shoulders get so wide? How did I miss how handsome he’d become?
“So Charlie hears this,” Kate continued, “he’s in the front, getting ready to load mulch into the truck—Charlie hears this, and he makes his voice go really deep. And he tells Frank to stop bothering the girls. He tells Frank he’s going to have to leave.”
“Now Frank knows not to mess with Charlie,” Kate said, “so he turns around to leave. But you know what he says to me, before he goes? You know what he says?” Kate paused. She leaned forward, laying her hand on Charlie’s shoulder.
“He says, very slowly, ‘You are going to have nightmares about me.’”
The girls broke into howls of laughter; the boys shook their heads.
I turned back to you, about to say something about the cell phones. But the drink had gone to my head. I’d lost the thought. Instead, what I was thinking about was a moment almost thirty years ago, another party—a Christmas party—another circle of friends laughing around a table. Do you remember that? It was the year when you and I were both fifteen and we worked at the Tastee Freez. After school and on weekends, we dispensed soft-serve ice-cream and hot-fudge sundaes with wet nuts. We jotted down orders for cheese-steak subs with fried onions, for tuna-salad platters with coleslaw, for buckets of fried chicken—passing the slips of paper over the counter to Mr. Clemons behind the grill. Mr. Clemons had thick glasses that magnified his eyes. They looked sad, his eyes. Do you remember that?
The night of the party, Mr. Clemons closed the restaurant early, and six of us—you and your boyfriend of the month, C.J. Stein and I, and a day waitresses and her boyfriend—we were all pressed together three to a side in a booth, listening to Christmas carols on the jukebox. I hadn’t wanted to go to the party. But you fixed me up with C.J. Stein, the baritone sax player in the marching band. So there I was, staring out the plate-glass window, trying to look through my reflection into the parking lot. After a few seconds, I forced myself to look back to the table. C.J. was pressed tight against me, his body as comfortable as a stuffed bear, his shoulders broad, his hair as touchable as Spanish moss. He had a wide face and smooth, pale skin that flushed easily. He smelled like soap. Across the table, the day waitress had turned to flirt with Mr. Clemons. She held a cigarette near her shoulder, and as she talked, she fluttered her hand near your face. You looked at me through the cigarette smoke and rolled your eyes. I picked up my cup and drank the last of my Coke. Slowly, so as not to attract attention, I poured a layer of ice in the ash tray. A moment later we all watched as the waitress tapped her cigarette into the ashtray, still talking with Mr. Clemons. You put your hand over your mouth. C.J. shook his head. The woman tried to take a drag from her cigarette, then looked down at the ash tray. Grabbing at her cigarettes and lighter, she stormed away, her boyfriend following behind.
“Stupid asshole kids,” he muttered. We were all quiet. Then, C.J. let go with that baritone laughter of his, and we all leaned over the table, a circle of friends, laughing. And then another moment, two years later. A Wednesday evening, a church basement, the corridor decorated on either side with bulletin boards, bible verses strung together from construction-paper letters. The LORD is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him, Lamentations 3:25. I was on my way to evening bible class when Deacon Smith barged through the double doors at the end of the corridor. Deacon Smith was a large man with a face as round and white as a lemon-meringue pie. He kept a police monitor next to the coffee percolator on his kitchen counter. “C.J. Stein and Chris Tupperman just killed on Route 5!” he cried in a voice as high and loud as a car engine. “Tupperman at the wheel. Pedal to the metal!”
I was only seventeen, but even then I was keen enough to hear the sanctimony in Deacon Smith’s revved up voice. This man was pleased, I could tell, to be able to point a finger at an example of teenage transgression. I didn’t give him the satisfaction of looking him in the eyes. Instead, I walked straight down the hall, through the doors, and up the stairs until I was out on the sidewalk. Above, russet leaves quaked angrily against a purple-black sky. Without thinking, I turned to walk home. Where are your ashes, you heartless man? I screamed in my head. Where is your dust? Your rent sackcloth?
Three days later, you and I were in my car, a Volkswagen Beetle the color of a copper penny. It didn’t have seatbelts, but it did have an “Oh Jesus!” handle just above the glove compartment, and you were grabbing the handle with both fists, screaming that the stoplight was red.
“I know it’s red, but we’re in a funeral procession! You’re supposed to go through red lights!”
“But he almost hit us!”
“But he didn’t hit us!”
For the last three days, I’d caught my mother crying in the most random spots. Hunched over the kitchen sink. Behind the wheel in the driveway. It annoyed me to no end. Mother didn’t even know C.J.
It’s strange, Linda, isn’t it? How a life is made of these moments? How one by one, while we aren’t paying attention, they knit themselves together like pictures in an album—like words on a page—into the sentences and paragraphs that became the story of our lives? Then one day I wake up to find myself looking across the deck at a young woman with a thick blond ponytail, and I’m the one hunched over a table, crying. It’s nothing short of breathtaking, really. But there she is, and here I am, and I realize that inexplicably, for this one brief moment, I am mourning the easy, unpossessing way my daughter has touched a boy’s shoulder. I am regretting the necessary accretions of love and loss that are starting even now to ground her life. And I am lamenting, more than anything, that brief, enchanted time when nightmares could be dispatched with a broad set of shoulders, when loss could be eclipsed by the smell of soap and the comforting sound of a resonant voice.
So tonight I’m running downhill—fast. I’m thinking about Kate’s birthday party, and I’m suddenly, inexplicably, furious. I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know what to do with it, but it is right there in front of me, all this bubbling, simmering anger. So I slip into one of my other running reveries, the one I don’t go to very often.
In this reverie, I’m running alone along the bike path, just like now. I’m crossing the bridge over troll gulley—just like now—and a middle-aged man grabs me from behind. As quickly as that, it happens. I don’t have time to think, I don’t have time to react. I try to scream, but the man’s hand is rough over my mouth, blocking my scream. He’s trying to pull me off the bridge and into the gulley, and I understand in a visceral way that I can’t leave the bridge.
As always, I hook one arm over the rail, and then the other, and I hold on as tight as I can, the corners of the 2x6s digging into my arms. At this point, the man loses his grip on me, maybe because I’m slick with sweat, maybe because in my stories I’m always strong. He slips under the rail and he moves toward the gulley, but I don’t let go. I never let go. When his hand shifts and a finger slips into my mouth, I imagine I chomp down hard. He yells—he always yells at this point—and then he lets me go. As soon as I’m free, I run from the bridge. It’s always the same: I know that if this man comes after me, I can’t outrun him. I’ll have to fight him, fight and run. Up ahead, just off the path, there’s a solid stick, maybe three feet long and two or three inches thick. At this point I bend down, and I pick up the stick, keeping one end near the ground. Usually in my reverie, this is when I think about Dan, wonder what he really does on Thursdays nights. But tonight, when I turn around and I see the man’s face, the strangest thing happens. To this point, I’ve been acting out of white panic. Now all I see is a balding, middle-aged man with one of those sad, gray ponytails. He’s wearing a faded yellow golf shirt and a pair of day hikers. He was probably decent-looking at one point, and strong. I square off to face him, keeping one end of the stick on the ground. Before he has a chance to turn, I flick the stick up, catching him under the chin, knocking back his head. While he’s struggling for balance, I cock the stick over my shoulder like a softball bat. All those years I spent cheering for Katie in the bleachers, something must have sunk in, because I step in to that swing and I connect with this man in a way that thrills me to my knees. My hands sting as though they’ve been shocked, and the top of the stick catapults into the woods. By now the man is probably on the ground, so I drop what’s left of my stick and I grab a fistful of his ponytail. Did I mention how fine his hair is, Linda, how thin? I turn my wrist once, winding his hair around my hand. Then I drive my knee into his back and slam his head into the blacktop. Over and over, I drive his head down. His scalp feels loosely tied to his head, and his skull has its own hard momentum, like a bowling ball wrapped inside a burlap sack. The third or fourth time, I feel something give, like I’d slammed his head on a carton of eggs. Back on the trail—the real trail that I’m running on, with its hard asphalt and its pockets of honeysuckle—Mr. Hamstrings is coming up from behind me. But I don’t see this. I’m so deep inside my story, so deep inside the music, that when the poor boy steps out to pass me—when I finally see him out of the corner of my eye—he startles the bejesus out of me. For a split-second I’m jolted out of my flow, and that’s all it takes. My foot lands on an acorn, and my ankle turns outward in a blaze of white pain. I collapse to the side of the trail, and I find myself rolling in leaf litter, clutching my knee to my chest, screaming. I don’t even try to keep it inside, the pain is so intense. I squeeze my eyes shut, and I yell.
When the pain doesn’t let up, I realize that I can’t keep rolling on the ground, I can’t keep yelling. I’ve got to do something—anything—to get myself out of this place. So I stop rolling, and I yank off my ear buds. Leaning back on my forearms, my eyes squeezed shut, I try to gauge the pain. Waves of it surge from my ankle to my calf, through my hip and straight to my stomach. It’s not going away, not any time soon. When I can’t stand it anymore I open my eyes. Mr. Hamstrings is standing in front of me, his eyes wide. “Ma’am? Are you okay, ma’am?” I grab my cell phone and I throw it at him, hitting him square in the chest. He doesn’t even try to duck. He just looks at the spot where it hit him and back at me. By this time I’m throwing a pinecone at him, and then another pinecone, and then finally just fistfuls of leaves and dirt. With tears streaming down my face, I’m throwing everything I can at the boy. He just stands there, clutching his football in one hand, confused.
A hard pain breaks free. It roils up, gaining its own acrid momentum. I can’t control it, Linda, I can’t keep it down. All I can do is turn away from this young man before I throw up in the grass. After the spasms have passed, I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. I concentrate on taking deep, even breaths. A small, tinny beat pulses from my ear buds. Guns and Roses, dangling obscenely in my lap. “What the fuck am I supposed to do now?” I say to no one in particular.
Tonight on the
One morning, X. realizes that were a massive object such as a boulder or a dolmen to be falling towards him, his first instinct might, absurdly, be to try and catch it rather than diving out of the way. He worries about this for the rest of the day.
by Kit Maude
Francesca Brenner has studied with Jim Krusoe and Jack Grapes and attended writing workshops with Mark Doty, Ellen Bass, Dorianne Laux, and Joe Millar. For over twenty-five years, she has been an active member of a monthly journal group created by poet Holly Prado. Her work has been published in FRE&D, and is forthcoming in Cutthroat and OxMag. She can be heard during many of the readings given by the LA Poets and Writer’s Collective, of which she is a member.
Laura Huey Chamberlain
Laura Huey Chamberlain is a proposal manager in the Washington, D.C., area. Before that, she edited academic journals and books and taught literature and writing at various colleges and universities, including Penn State New Kensington and Duquesne University. She currently studies the craft of short fiction at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, and she’s been a finalist for theGlimmer Train Award for New Writers.
Paul Edward Costa
Paul Edward Costa has published in places such as "Timber Journal", "Entropy", "Thrice Fiction", "Emerge Literary Journal", "The J.J. Outre Review", "Songs of Eretz Poetry Review", "Alien Mouth", and others. He has work forthcoming in "Mannequin Haus", and "Literary Orphans Journal". He is the founder of the ongoing "Paul's Poetry Night" spoken word series in the Greater Toronto Area.
Donald Hubbard has written six books, one of which was profiled on Regis and Kelly and another that was a Boston Globe bestseller and Amazon (category) top ten. Another book has gone into a second edition and he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame as an author in 2015. A chapter of one of his books was published in the on-line edition of Notre Dame Magazine and a recent story was published in Funny in Five Hundred with another story scheduled to be published there in May. One of his poems and one of his short stories will be appearing in upcoming issues of Quail Bell Magazine. He studied English at Georgetown University and the University of Kent.
Kit Maude is a translator based in Buenos Aires.
Michael H. Rand
Born in California, raised in Virginia, Michael H. Rand is a writer and a graduate student enrolled in the MA English writing program at Salem State University, where he was an editor for Soundings East, Salem State’s literary magazine. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Lynchburg College, where he received the Charles H. Barrett Creative Writing Award. From 2007 until 2015, he worked as a bookseller at several Barnes & Noble locations. Although he is a great appreciator of poetry, Mike prefers to write in prose. he holds a special affinity for nonfiction. He lives in Beverly, Massachusetts, with his fiancée, Sarah.
Bonnie Stanard draws on her rural upbringing and an interest in history to write novels, short stories, and poems with credits in publications such as Persimmon Tree, Harpur Palate, The South Carolina Review, Slipstream and The Museum of Americana. She has published five historical fiction novels with another due out summer of 2016. She lives in South Carolina. Her website is bonniestanard.com
Doug Steele is a lifetime Wisconsin resident. His prose and free verse have been featured in numerous print and on-line publications including Maudlin House Magazine, Gambling the Isle, Straylight Literary Magazine, and Sediments Literary Arts Journal. Douglas was named “Poet of the Week” by Poetry SuperHighway.com for the week of February 15th 2016. He is a media personality, broadcaster, member of the Pauquette Wordcrafters, and a member of the Academy of American Poets. Doug’s recent Chapbook “Rivers, Streams, and Dreams” was released in December 2015. His work can be purchased atdouglassteelepoetry.com
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Jean Wolff studied fine arts at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit and at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, receiving a BFA in studio arts. She then attended Hunter College, CUNY in New York, graduating with an MFA in painting and printmaking. She’s since had group and solo exhibits in various galleries in New York City and internationally and is part of the artistic community of Westbeth in Manhattan.
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