October 26, 2016 | ISSUE no 202
crack the spine
Ryan J. Burden
Susan Taylor Chehak
Richard J. Heby
Marco sat at the same café every day for two years, ordered the same black coffee, and poured over the same one page menu for five minutes only to settle upon the same buttered scone. The traffic flowed through a nearby round-a-bout that never seemed to dissipate. He would watch the cars for hours over the top of his book that would forever go unfinished. When the server brought out his coffee he noticed that the mugs were different. What used to be an off-white ceramic with blue speckles was now clear crystal. It was well-made, but discomforting to Marco. The sun shined into it and released its spectrum back into his eyes, causing him to lose sight of the cars driving by. When the server came back to check on him he inquired as to the reason for the new mugs. “We are trying some new things to attract more cliental, and the owner thought nicer glassware could help,” they side stepped him and went to a nearby table of two women holding hands in between their own shining glasses. Marco liked the old mugs better. The speckled blue reminded him of the salt-filled waves that filled the view from his window in his childhood home off of the Carolina coast. He pinched off a piece of the scone and went back to the line in the book he had read a hundred times before his eyes went back to the passing cars. He only watched them for a few minutes before he had to move the glass mug that kept reflecting the light off of the cars and into his eyes. He moved it to the other side of the table where the light would reflect off onto somewhere else, but now it was all that he could see when he would go back to his watch. The colors that radiated from it kept drawing his eyes. The way the red and yellow pulsed together in his peripherals before disappearing under his direct gaze. He hated it and loved it, wishing it gone yet moving it slightly closer to catch the different colors. As the sun passed over him, the light shined away onto the business building across the street. Marco could see the thin slice of a rainbow crawl across the white bricks, and the cars would go by unnoticed for the first time in two years. It intrigued him, how slowly tilting the glass one way or another would send different colors into view. From green to blue, or orange to yellow, he spent the next hour tipping the glass this way and that, watching the illuminated dance of color across the street. Eventually he heard the couple behind him scoot their chairs back against the concrete, and he glanced up and saw them hold hands as they left the café. Still tilting his glass back and forth, he wondered if he would ever have someone to sit at the café with him and hold his hand over the table. He dismissed the thought as they headed toward the crosswalk, and returned his eyes to the colors. Out of nowhere a blur of dark blue broke through the chains that encircled the café’s patio. The new glasses shattered with a ringing crunch that sliced the early evening light into slivers. Marco saw the colors disappear in the looming shadow that engulfed him, and for a split second felt an overwhelming force impact upon him. As people ran out into the cloud of dust, a man clambered out of the car that had buried itself into the front wall of the café and had started to exclaim at the carnage around him. “I don’t know what happened! A light was shining into my eyes and I didn’t see the women that were crossing the street and I just… I had to… Oh god.” Marco was laying nearby. Shards of glass stuck out from him in various places, and where the blood didn’t flow over they still refracted the light into many different colors.
by Matthew Norris
by Ryan J. Burden
Sometimes – more often of late – Porter likes to imagine what it is like to be crucified. He can spend hours this way, just imagining the most obscure details. Will he feel embarrassed or justified, as the soldiers lead him through the city streets, through the red dust and the pungent smell of pack animals? He likes to think that he will know only the satisfaction of his sacrifice. That he will relish the cold slip of nails through his flesh; the tender crackle as his wrist-bones break.
Porter calls this meditation “communion through the grace of understanding.” It is his favorite meditation. He does it in his doctor’s office, waiting for the pretty young receptionist to come release him from his torment. Also, standing in line at the grocery store, with a basket full of zucchini. When he is home, he likes to do it on his dining room floor, between the table and his old Aunt Hilda’s oak sideboard, where he can watch the trembling of the shroud-like table cloth, as the wood beneath him warms in the imagined desert heat. This meditation is his highest recommendation. He gives it at least twice a day. Or, to be correct, he did so until about a week ago, when he was still the voice of “Open Arms,” the syndicated Catholic Radio program. For six years, Porter’s voice was heard from three to four P.M. in every state except Hawaii, which, for some unknown reason, had never wanted Catholic Radio. As a host he was very understanding, never vague or flippant, and overall he believed that he gave very good advice.
It is almost three o’clock, and Porter wishes he were in his studio, instead of Newark airport, waiting on his flight to Rome. He tries to close his eyes and meditate – an effort to understand what has happened to him – but instead of dusty streets and jeering crowds comes the memory of a woman from San Antonio, named Marie.
“You’re in open arms,” he says.
Marie is obviously distraught. It seems that she has a confession to make. Porter explains gently to her that he is not a priest. This is something that he must explain often. Ignoring his warning, Marie breathes deeply and tells Porter that her husband has been sleeping with another woman.
Porter says, “I’m sorry, Marie. That is unfortunate, but shouldn’t he be the one confessing?”
“Well, you see, I didn’t pay him much attention.”
Porter drops his voice deliberately. “Marie,” he says, “That may be true. And if it is then you may be to blame for that – but only that. Only for that one small thing. Marie, your husband has free will.”
“Yes,” Marie agrees, although her voice was very weak.
“Marie, I don’t believe that you have anything to confess. You may simply be confusing guilt with the desire to forgive.”
“I do,” Marie says, “want to forgive.”
Now Porter patiently explains communion through the grace of understanding. As Marie begins to understand what he is advising, she peppers his explanations with uncertain little chirps and gasped objections. In the end, he is forced to leave her with the promise that she will understand it if she tries it, preferably alone.
“Thank you, Father,” she replies, in a voice that travels wearily across the wire.
“You’re welcome,” Porter says. It isn’t until she hangs up that he wonders why he didn’t bother to correct her.
Meyers, his production manager, smiles weakly at him from behind the studio glass. It makes it more unnerving that his chin is at a level with the sill, Meyers being only three and a half feet tall.
Against his will, Porter must remove his comfortable headset and step out into the hall.
“You’re going to Rome,” Meyers says, and rubs his chin, awaiting Porter’s response. Meyers owned the station before it was bought by the church. He is not a religious man.
Porter says, “Why?”
Meyers produces a printed airline ticket and hands it to Porter. “I’ve been before,” he says. “Just New York in a thousand years, if you ask me. But I thought you’d enjoy it. Maybe you’ll find something there. Maybe a woman, at least.”
“I don’t understand,” says Porter.
“It’s a kind of a severance,” says Meyers. He looks straight up into Porter’s face. “We knew they were making cuts, so it can’t – ”
“You said I had nothing to worry about.” The ticket is difficult to read, full of indistinguishable bar codes and advertisements. “I’m the most popular show you have.”
Meyers slowly nods. “That’s true. I wouldn’t get rid of you myself. But this comes from the church. I wasn’t given much notice.” He rocks a little from side to side and says, “Look, you’ve got another month of pay, but they don’t want you back on the air.”
“I don’t know, man. Something to do with all the torture stuff.”
“You know, all that crucifixion business. I guess they had some complaints.” He glances away from them, into the studio where the female intern with the cropped black hair is putting things in order. “I just figured it was Catholic stuff.”
Porter stares hard at the ticket. The departure is in one week. “I don’t know,” says Meyers, his attention elsewhere. “I guess we’ll just add another hour of Mother Angelica.” He suddenly turns back to Porter. “Hey, why didn’t you tell that woman you aren’t a priest?”
Meyers slowly nods. “The first time, yes. Not the second.”
Porter doesn’t think it matters much.
“No,” says Meyers wearily, “Not anymore.”
Porter stretches out his neck and rolls his eyes up at the flight status screen. He began his attempts at meditation just after the speakers announced his flight would be delayed two hours. Now the speakers crackle back to life and announce further delays. Porter opens his eyes. The gate area has begun to empty. Everyone is heading toward the newsstands or the bars.
Maybe the station owners are right. Perhaps he had been too caught up in the act. Pride, he thinks, before a fall.
Of course that isn’t true.
He closes his eyes again and tries to look into his soul. There are times at which he believes that this is possible. At times, it is as simple as turning his eyes backwards. There is darkness for a while, then physical awareness melts away and, at last, there is just one thing left. Something hard and seemingly eternal. But it is difficult to find this kernel now, amidst the droning conversations and the scuff of bags and feet. Besides which thinking of Marie has made him curious about forgiveness. Which reminds him of the one thing he has never yet forgiven.
It was his twenty-seventh birthday when she told him. He asked her how it happened and she said, “You never listen” and handed him the printed directions from the package, her ragged fingernail pointing out the line relating to less than one-hundred percent effectiveness.
Porter had not been a Catholic, then.
He remembers when she asked him to pick her up at the clinic, and told him what she’d done. He said, “But we decided not to,” and she said once again, “You never listen.”
For a moment he stops looking for his soul and searches hard, as he has many times since, for forgiveness. This, despite his own certainty that he will never find it.
Across the nearly empty gate area is a priest, sitting with his back against the window that looks out over the runway. He is older, sixty or more, and very thin. His collar holds his shirt away from his narrow neck in a “V” like the prow of a ship. But he is not frail.
He sits with a book held lightly in his lap and when he stretches he does so with the unintentional ease of a much younger man. His hair is white and finely parted. He wears a circular black patch over one eye. Strange-looking, for a priest. Although when Porter finally opens his eyes, it seems to him as though the pebble of forgiveness he had been searching for has somehow escaped his body altogether and flown off into the wider world, where it has found a decent shape for itself in this lonely corner of Terminal C.
The priest has half a sandwich in wax paper on the bench beside him. Judging by the faint odor, it is tuna fish. He doesn’t look up when Porter joins him. Outside, on the tarmac, men are loading bags into the belly of a plane. Porter watches them for a time, while the priest eats his sandwich. Porter’s own bag holds just a change of clothes, a jacket, and a few essential toiletries. When he believes enough time has passed, he turns back to find the priest staring at him. A sliver of pink tongue pops out between his lips and slides back in. He looks down at his sandwich with apprehension, as though he thinks that Porter might be there to steal his food.
“Going to Rome?” Porter asks.
The priest picks up his sandwich. “When I came to the terminal, I saw you sitting over there, by the fire extinguisher.” “Do you think they’ll let our flight through today?”
The priest swallows hard and says, “It doesn’t bother me. There’s plenty to do here.”
Porter waits a moment before starting on about losing his job at the station. He tells his story as the terminal continues to clear out; as men and women come through with sweepers to clean up after them. Throughout, the priest is quiet. When Porter finishes, he feels worse. He supposes he had thought that he had something special to confess. Now, replaying his words in his head, his story seems entirely average.
“I don’t like dwarves,” the priest says slowly. “They make me feel gargantuan.”
Porter is watching a man across the terminal drag his daughter out of the snack shop. “Excuse me?”
“Gigantic,” the priest says, “Like there’s something wrong with me.”
The speakers crackle. Their flight has been delayed indefinitely. The priest squints his good eye upward.
Porter says, “It’s just this damned vacation. If you can call it that. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with it.”
“Not that,” says the priest. He reaches to adjust the band that holds his patch in place. “It’s something else, I know. The twist you’re in – it’s something else. But guess what? I don’t care. You don’t have to tell me. You are absolved.”
He makes a cross in the air with what little is left of his sandwich.
“Absolved? You can’t absolve me without knowing what I’ve done.” Porter is certain about this.
“Well then, what have you done?”
Porter thinks about a caller he had once – a boy who said that he was ready to have sex. Porter told him that he was not ready to have sex until he was ready to have children. He heard snickering on the line and then they boy said, “I’m too young, you idiot. I can’t have kids.”
At the time, he had been angry at Meyers, who must have been behind it. Not once in six years had they put through a call like that.
The priest’s feet patter on the floor impatiently. “Are you a priest? I can absolve whatever I want to absolve. You are forgiven, my son, amen,” he says, and makes another half-hearted cross in the air between them. “Don’t question it.”
“Absolution is not the same as forgiveness,” Porter says.
They turn away from each other. After a moment the priest says, “The difference doesn’t matter at all.”
He stands and takes his sandwich wrapper, blinks one cold blue eye at Porter, and walks off.
Porter waits for half a minute. Then he follows.
The priest walks quickly through the crowds and Porter has some trouble keeping up. Past the newsstand the crowd thickens. A few feet past the bar he loses sight of his quarry and succumbs to momentary panic. Standing still in the middle of the terminal, he is pushed against and softly cursed by a steady stream of people. A man in pointed dress shoes steps on Porter’s toes and keeps on walking.
Porter sees a flash of black cloth, above the heads of all those in the terminal. Following, he finds another bar, obviously higher-end than the sports bar near the gate. The men in here are all in suits; the women, too. There is a polished bar, chestnut brown, and low wooden tables to match. All of this is bathed in pale blue light.
The priest is conspicuously seated at the bar, smiling down at the waitress who has come to take his order. The man has teeth like a dog – long yellowed canines flanking a row of tiny ridged incisors. Porter finds an empty table in the corner, hidden from the priest’s view. He can’t remember the last time he was in an airport bar, and is surprised to find that he is nervous about ordering. He hides his face behind the open drinks menu and tries to make sense of the cocktail list.
Over at the bar the waitress reaches for a bottle from the shelves behind her. The priest says something to her and she moves her hand one bottle over and smiles. He holds the bottle’s neck as she pours, until the glass is nearly full.
Porter stares dismally at the menu prices until they blur. Twenty years ago, in a bar much dirtier than this one, his lover sat across from him and nursed a glass of scotch. She said, “I don’t really care how guilty you feel.” He had been begging her to wait just one more day. She said, “I warned you, James. I said there was a chance that this would happen and, well, that this is what would happen next.” At the time, he hadn’t noticed how she struggled – the paleness of her skin, or the way she sparely sipped her drink.
“Why wait, James? What will you do in a day? Will you put in a favor with the goddamn guiltless abortion fairy?”
In the town he lived in at the time, there was only one church open at that time of night. And in that church there had been just one priest. A man named Jones. He obviously was not expecting to see anybody at that hour. Porter met him in a quiet back room. It was painted sky blue, and smelled like mothballs, animal crackers and whiskey.
“You’re a Catholic, I assume.”
“No,” said Porter. Just confused.
“Have you ever been to church? Confession?”
“Church, but it has been a long time.”
“Years. Enough to forget.”
“So, then. Why now?”
That was the first time Porter looked into his soul. He’d been staring bewildered at Father Jones’ long, mottled face and then suddenly his eyes were closed and he was looking instead at his soul. It was darkness speckled with light, very much like every other time he closed his eyes and the light refracted in the thin membranes and webbed blood vessels of his eyelids. Except that, this time, it was undeniably his soul.
“Because I believe, now,” he said. And then, to make it perfectly clear, “Because I have submitted to His will.”
“You have submitted to His will?”
“Yes.” Porter kept his eyes inward. He felt unable to look away. He told Father Jones about his lover.
“I think you’ve misunderstood God’s power. You know, of course, that we live in a world where the right thing isn’t always possible? We do our best, James.”
Even then, Porter didn’t agree. It wasn’t logical, when there was only right and wrong and something had to be whichever one it was.
“What do I do?” he asked.
Father Jones tipped his chair back until it tapped hollowly against the wall. “Pray for her.”
The waitress brought the priest a plate of soggy onion rings. He talks to her again and she looks sad, but pleased, the way a person looks when they are being comforted.
Another waitress comes to Porter’s table. She has a straight face, eyes like a banker’s. Porter asks for cranberry juice.
“No, just the juice.”
When he turns back the priest is looking directly at him. He lifts his fork, a slice of onion ring dangling from two tines, and makes the sign of the cross. His cheeks are drooping, his face is very pale and grave. He shakes his head at Porter as he slips the fork into his mouth.
One time Porter took a call from a man from Florida. His name was Tom and he was sixty-three. Porter remembers that number; that arbitrary compilation of years. That is strange, he thinks, as the waitress brings his juice with a little mock flourish and he nods his acceptance. The glass is sweating and the drops are red as though the juice is seeping out of it through unseen pores. As a teen, Tom had been involved with a black girl named Celine. His parents put a stop to it but now, it seemed, almost twenty years later, Tom and Celine had an opportunity to reconnect. The only things keeping Tom from doing so were his wife and kids.
Porter touches his glass, wraps his hand around it, tenses up, and lets it go. His palm is already sweaty and he doesn’t like the mingling of that thick warmth and the coolness of the glass. What did he tell that man? He can’t remember. He is thinking now about the night his lover came home from the clinic. She was paler, tired, and he had never seen her look more beautiful. She said that she was fine and asked him to run her a bath. The water from the faucet took a long time to get hot. When it was ready, he helped her into the tub, staying long enough to watch her body relax beneath the foamy surface. Then he left that house, and that town, and never went back.
There were fireflies in the yard that night. He has not been able to think easily about them since.
Tom, from Florida, is the only caller who has ever really told Porter off. He said that though he didn’t love his wife, he believed that she was an exceptionally loving person. He believed that she would understand his feelings for Celine. And that was the only time in his career that Porter ever really faltered. He said, “You didn’t tell me that before,” and Tom said, “I ran out of time before commercials.”
Porter drinks his juice. It is cold with a sweet metallic aftertaste. And he forgives her – his lover. He forgives her the abortion and for robbing him of his own right to choose. But as he sets the glass down, picks it up drinks again, he finds he can’t forgive her for leaving. She never called the next day, or for weeks after, and when he finally called her he found the number had been changed, as though she had been too preoccupied with the idea of leaving him to even tell him why.
“What are you doing?”
Porter opens his eyes. The priest is standing over him. His gray head towers above the other tables. His gaze is calmly condescending. Arms folded, he stands dumb, unmoving, waiting for an answer.
“Meditating, or something?”
Porter says, “I’ve been imagining the crucifixion.”
The priest stares at him with bloodshot eyes, swaying a little as he tries to process this assertion. He says, “You’re that radio host.”
“I told you that I was,” says Porter.
“No, you’re that one,” says the priest. He seemed puzzled for a second, then leaned over Porter’s table. “It isn’t right, telling people to do that,” he said. “They don’t know any better, you know. They’ll work themselves into such a pathetic kind of hole.”
“What? You don’t think – ”
“Why would you want to think about that? It’s sick.”
The priest sighed heavily and sat down in the chair across the table. He stares away from Porter as he says, “Look, I’m not a fucking priest.”
The man has let a guard down. His one good eye sags and there are sudden wrinkles cropping up above the patch. Porter says, “That kind of meditation has helped me through a lot.”
The priest touches his collar. He says, “Look, I’m doing something over there, if they ever get us there, and I have to wear this…”
His hand moved from his collar to his eye-patch, where it lingered. “I’m meeting a woman. All right? She thinks I’m a priest. It’s kind of a – I don’t know. She’s into it.”
“You seem old, to be meeting a woman,” Porter said.
The priest’s long hand hides his long face. “It never leaves you. I guess no one ever tells you that.”
Outside, planes are passing each other in take-offs and landings. People are taking vacations.
“Are you even Catholic,” Porter asks and the priest says, “Who knows? I haven’t been fucked in a very long time.”
Porter says, “Neither have I.”
“Well then Rome is the place for you.” He looks suspiciously around the terminal. “If I miss this woman because of goddamn United.” He sighs, screws two fingers into his eyes and says, “Well, I guess I won’t do anything about it. I’m too old. Though,” he turns back to Porter. “It felt good, you know. Absolving you like that. Or whatever they call it. It is absolving, isn’t it?”
Porter nods. “Well, I guess you’ll find enough real priests in Rome to do it right. If we ever get there.” He leaned his head back against the wall and shut his eye.”
Porter finishes his juice. It is hard to have the tables turned – this man, who he had thought would help him, turning out to be the one who needs his help. He says, “You won’t get there any faster by drinking.”
The priest smiles. “Yes I will.”
When the waitress comes the priest shows his appreciation by blowing her a kiss. Porter sits by quietly as the priest continues to drink. He is a sloppy drunk. Porter knows that he should leave. He wants to leave, but doesn’t know where he would go.
“Why do you think a woman would be so intent on fucking a priest?” the priest asks. “I mean, to the exclusion of anyone else?”
“I’m not a psychologist,” says Porter.
“I thought you were a psychologist. You’re that radio guy.”
“I’m not – ” says Porter.
“Oh yeah, the religious one. Sorry, sorry… Still, what were you saying earlier, about the midget?”
“Meyers is a dwarf.”
The priest shakes his head. “It’s strange, how fucked up people like that can make you feel fucked up. God,” he says, and waves the waitress over.
He tips his head toward Porter’s glass. “Are you going to drink cranberry juice all night?”
“No,” says Porter. “I think I’ll go and get a hotel.”
“Good idea. I’d do the same, if I had the cash.”
Porter is sorry, and the priest’s good eye is clouded as it stares questioningly up at him. Porter knows that this is now the time when he should offer the man his card, and let him know that he is always ready to listen. But he won’t do it. There doesn’t seem much point in listening anymore.
Still he sits in the gate area long enough to watch the priest stumble drunkenly from the bar, his collar undone, eyes red, his hair a perfect mess.
When Porter imagines that he can see his soul, he imagines a hard, glittering blue pebble somewhere in the darkness, nestled in the soft tissue of it all. He wonders if his priests – real priests – ever search for it like this, and what they see there. It occurs to him that forgiveness isn’t nearly as difficult a process as he has made it out to be. He thinks that maybe, it doesn’t have to be bled for. Maybe, it is as easy as deciding to forgive.
by Shawna Ervin
Living inside a battered paper cup
I dance for the sake of boredom’s applause
And tenderly murder sacraments
Sleeping in shame’s backwash
Over and over again the fat lady
Sings rhetorical answers
Dripped into lollipops
To appease the starving
by Aundria Adams
Secretly scrubbing the rim of the toilet with my mother's toothbrush began to lose its luster. Primarily, because I did it for my satisfaction, as she never suspected her dental instrument made regular trips to unchartered regions of the bathroom. My efforts never erased her painful words, only frayed the bristles so I rinsed them off and devised a new plan. One that would make her experience the anguish I felt in hearing day-after-day that I should have been aborted. To leave a scar in her memory equally painful as the scars she left on my twelve year old skin.
I waited for the catalyst. At about four in the afternoon my carefully orchestrated performance unfolded. She stood at the foot of the staircase that led to my bedroom with a pinched expression.
"Did you clean the litter box like I asked?" The irritation in her thick New York accent stiffened my insides.
"No," I shouted back.
"Well, get your ass down in the basement and clean that box before I open the front door and let her out for good. You wanted a God damn cat but you don't want to take care of it. I'm sick of this shit."
Her ranting trailed into the living room where she redirected her taunts towards my drunk stepfather, passed out on the couch.
I sat atop of the dingy carpeted staircase and drew up the long sleeve of my flower printed thermal shirt. The fake blood I purchased at a novelty shop was about to be worth every couch penny I scrounged together to buy it. I examined the shiny tube, bit into the plastic, and broke the seal on the vile. A small amount of dark red liquid gathered at the tip releasing a faint toxic odor that reminded me of modeling glue. Nervousness swirled in the pit of my gut. Okay, it's now or never. I palmed the plastic, silver knife I found on the sidewalk weeks earlier—the toy that sparked my premeditated masterpiece. All that remained was a fake blade with no handle. My mother wouldn't notice its imperfections from the bottom of the stairs. I hid the would-be handle within my fist, then squeezed the tube running the oozing red liquid along the blade's edge and down my forearm. I incorporated a wrist-to-forearm technique into my plan, a result of my social worker informing me that slitting one's wrists from left to right rarely ends in fatality. Allowing my eyeballs to dry out, I remained unblinking for a minute or so, cultivating fake tears for dramatic effect. A talent I discovered by accident that would later land me the part as Virgin Mary in our church play.
With blood running and tears flowing I summoned all of the negativity my mother generated over the years and let out a blood curdling, "Mom!"
"What?" She asked, with little concern from our kitchen downstairs.
"Help Mom help!" I cried.
"What do you want?" Her voice erupting with agitation as her heavy footsteps quickened and rounded the staircase. I didn't have to answer.
She stood at the bottom of the stairs in her tattered black t-shirt and stained white cotton shorts looking up at me. Upon laying her eyes on her daughter with blade in hand, her usual bothered disposition transformed into pure terror. Ribbons of dark red liquid streamed down my forearm and splashed onto the linoleum landing. For the first time I heard concern for me in my mother's voice. Her tone gentle and unfamiliar.
"What did you do?"
I let her stand there and wallow in the image of her only daughter sitting at the top of the staircase, dying in a pool of her own blood. She didn't run towards me. Just stared with her mouth agape, as if the devil had stolen her breath. In those few seconds, I almost felt sorry for my mother.
I decided to release her. My faux sadness morphed into elation as I lifted the blade off of my wrist.
"Just kidding. It's fake blood. See?" I said grinning then flicked some blood off of my wrist in her direction and let out a guttural laugh.
My sharp-tongued mother was speechless. She stared at me a moment longer before muttering, "You're not fuckin' funny," then disappeared around the corner into the kitchen to spark up a Virginia Slim Light and call a friend. I made little effort to eavesdrop. I just sat at the top of the stairs replaying the image of her pained stare alongside the echoing of her many wishes of me dead. At that moment I realized those wishes were lies. Somewhere deep down in the hollows of her soul—my mother did love me.
by Rene Brueul
He didn’t touch the revolving door. He joined its round movement and finished back outside. It was enough to see her, sitting at the hotel’s bar. She wore a red dress as promised. Also white heels and a tiara on top of the wavy hair flowing down her back. His hands trembled. They had exchanged messages, then gifts, then pictures since February. This was their first encounter but she had already changed his life. Folks said he now smiled for no reason. He became a member of the gym and took a photo-editing course. He started helping people: the immigrant kid, his secretary, and Ashley, of course. She deserved it all. His entire being.
He had never seen her face. Their pictures had always been from the neck down and out of focus, as befits a lady. But he knew she was smiling at him. She had great teeth. Her eyes had sparkle. She had a way of looking into him, of seeing his soul. Her touch was so feminine. He felt like a man. He felt infinite and alive. His hands turned into a fist. He would punch her so hard. There was no Ashley. Martha was Ashley, he was certain of it. The thought had occurred to him that very morning, while he shaved, but nothing felt truer than this. That piece of trash. That’s why she had been so light, so easygoing for the past months. She had a fling going, behind his back. With some random dude she didn’t even know. The blade cut into his skin as he realized, that’s why Ashley touched him so deeply. They knew each other, he had sensed for months. Her words on the screen were so intimate, perfume for his soul. He even wrote her a poem about their almost certain romance in a past life. But now this explained it. How could he have been so fooled? It had been Martha all along. Martha was Ashley. She was opening her heart, blossoming anew, to him – to some guy. He would punch her until his hands would break. He fell on his knees. Another thought occurred to him. That’s why he had been smitten. It was Martha. It was her. Martha. His Martha. She had been reaching out for love, on the lookout for a man she could now spot only as a mirage. She loved him still. He loved her. He could see her, finally, after the blur of the years. The woman he could not recognize sleeping next to him he could glimpse now in jokes and play and smoke. The same zest, the ingenious volcano, the matchless girl he had surrendered to long ago. It was Martha. His Martha, adorable even in mischief. His love, his touch, his soul. No, he wouldn’t punch her. He would walk in there and hug her. They would cry together. He would hold her in his arms until they had purged their souls. They would cry away their distance, their drifting, their mystery. He would cover her red dress. He would touch her face. They would look into each other after so long. And they would laugh. Laugh like children. Laugh like when the joke is on you, when the king is the fool, when Pandora climbs back in the box. He would walk in and let the truth set them free.
He stood up. There she was, the red figure at the bar. He walked past the revolving door and called out, “Ashley.”
by Susan Taylor Chehak
The pane is a frail and feeble separation between here and there. When I press my palm against it, I can feel the chill seeping in from the other side, while the room at my back is warm and dry. I know I’m safe in here with you. Out there the neighborhood is cold and wet, and that world wants nothing to do with me. The birds are all atwitter about something that’s disturbed their peace, but here, in this room with you now, I could be alone for all the company you have to offer me. A moment of stillness settles down on us and freezes me like I’m the window glass. I speak up because I know you don’t like when I mumble: “The birds are all atwitter.” A car passes, splashing water. Yes, the rains are still upon us, though the radio says that’s bound to change soon. I tell you this too. I tell you about the blue convertible that passes and then slows at the corner before it turns. Red taillights reflected in the puddles make it seem fancy, like a party in the street. A man comes out of his house, stands in the shelter of his front porch, opens a black umbrella. The clouds above the trees are darkening. I put my hand against my face and feel the chill, as if my hand belonged to someone else, not me. “Do you ever think…?” I begin, then stop. “Do you ever wonder…?” And stop again. A door across the street opens, and an ugly, black-and-white dog runs out. The windows of that house are curtained. The rain spills out of those gutters. The paint peels on those walls. The dog runs in circles, stops, makes a mess in the grass. His name is Bruno. I know this because that woman is on the porch again, and she’s calling to him now. Well, not exactly calling to. More like shouting at. The two syllables, “Brooo! No! Brooo! No!” She can’t see that he’s rounded the corner into the side yard and is digging up the flowers there. She can’t see him turn to go back to his own mess and chow it down. This woman has a child who walks with a limp and wears thick glasses and waves its hands over its head and calls, “Brooo! No!” just like her. The mother is a small thing. Compact. A cube of a person with a snatch of hair on her head that’s about the same color as the child’s red coat. Bruno’s muzzle is muddy now. The flowers are strewn on the grass. He comes trotting back around the corner and up the steps, and the child stoops so he licks its face all over from cheek to cheek and chin to brow and back again. The child is laughing and squealing and waving its hands. I’d squeal too, that dog’s shit-tongue in my mouth.
“It’s sort of pretty,” I say, meaning the grass and the rain and the street and the houses and cars and birds. It’s so much nicer here with you than when I’m downstairs in the kitchen by myself, eating my dinner at the table, say, or washing up the dishes in the sink. The view from there is of the shadowed woods that roll away toward the lake over there. No man with an umbrella, no house across the street, no child waving its hands, no dog digging up flowers, just the thick trees holding their breath, bristling with expectation, like an audience that’s watching me go through the motions from their seats at the back of our house.
Waking in our bed, I take the time to listen to the stillness. Maybe I’m searching for the sound of your breathing beneath the rest of what goes on beyond our room at the end of the hall, where the window faces that ruin of a house across the street and the people who come and go, including the woman and the child and the dog. My hand is in my hair that’s tangled from sleep and the toss and turn of the dreams that are the memories that haunt me: the thunder of your fall, your look of great surprise, your mouth opening and closing, teeth clacking, the one hand flailing, the other hammering the air.
I sit up, listening for you.
My feet hit the floor. I creep along hallway. I move toward you like a ghost.
There’s some kind of a racket outside, across the street. The banging of a door and that woman in the yard, her hand at her throat, calling, “Brooo! No! Brooo! No!” The sun is just coming out from behind the clouds; its light spreads like butter across the sparkling lawn. The gate is open and Bruno is gone. Our yellow yard light pops on as a shadow crosses paths with its sensor, but the woman is looking the other way, so she can’t see what I see, which is Bruno heading for the woods. I go to you. I say, “You know that ugly old dog? It ran away. Just now.”
I’m back at the window. The woman has given up on calling to him. She’s stepping up the walk, climbing the steps, going back into the house. I leave you where you are to go downstairs to our own kitchen door, where I stand and call to Bruno, softly. I whistle and he turns. He eyes me warily. I have some meat left over from the dinner I didn’t eat last night. I wave it at him. He perks up at this. He approaches, cautiously, then follows me inside.
I’ve shut Bruno in the storage closet off the kitchen. I put down newspapers for him to do his business on. I told him, “Don’t eat shit!” before I closed the door. He scratched and whined so I had to go back and let him out. He was happy then. He sat with me in the big chair. I fell asleep like that, and while I was napping, he was chewing up my shoes.
I have your binoculars. You had them for as long as I can remember. From when you were in the service, you said. From when you were in the war and you carried them everywhere you went. I wasn’t to touch them, that was the rule. Maybe they’re antiques and of some value now, I don’t know. I never actually saw you use them, or if I did, I don’t remember. They’re in a brown, leather case, and they’ve had a place on the bookshelf in your office all this time. I’ve dusted them as I’ve dusted those shelves, all the books and all the small things, time and time again. They’re heavy. They seem meaningful that way. I stand at the window and report: “She’s put up a flyer,” as I focus the lenses, and yes, there it is on the light pole at the corner: “Missing!” And Bruno’s black-and-white face. And the phone number. And a reward.
Someone was ringing the bell, then hammering knuckles against the door, and sure enough, there she was on our front step, with a copy of the flyer in her hand. Waiting, patiently. Smiling, prettily. When I opened the door, she tried for a glimpse inside, but I blocked the view with my bulk. And then she had the nerve to tell me that she’s seen me in the upstairs window, and she knows how I keep an eye on the street, so what she wanted to know was, had I seen her dog? And did I know what might have happened to it?
“Of course not.” And, “I don’t always stand at the window.” And, “I’m not always watching the street.” “Well,” she said, “if you do see him, please call me?” She handed me the flyer. “He looks like that,” she said.
You can see she’s out there again right now, even though it’s late. I’ve kept the light off so maybe she doesn’t know I’m here. She calls to him sometimes, now and then, but of course he doesn’t come. He’s busy eating meat and chewing bones inside the storage closet off our kitchen downstairs.
Of course I had to take the flyers down. It’s not legal. It’s not right. It’s a nuisance. It’s littering, is what it is. I put on my coat, and I wrapped the pink scarf you gave me for my birthday around my throat. “I’ll be right back,” I called to you and didn’t suppose you would respond. It was colder outside than I’d expected, and damp besides. Leaves blew, flying off the trees and piling on the grass. A car passed, its tires singing on the wet pavement. My shoes splashed through puddles, and the water seeped into the holes that Bruno had made with his teeth. I pulled the scarf up over my hair, but still the curls loosened and fell. My mouth was tight, my teeth clenched, jaw hard with purpose and determination. I took long steps. I pulled my coat around me tight and smelled the wet wool. I made my way to the corner and the light pole, where Bruno eyed me woefully from the center of the flyer. Its four corners were taped to the pole’s flank, which only compounded the nuisance of its being there in the first place. I tore at it, clawing my way through Bruno’s face, which came away in strips that felt slimy to the touch. I heard the shouting only as I turned, though maybe it had been going on for a while.
It was that woman, skidding up to me. No coat. Her shoulders bare, wet with drizzle, her bare feet blue with cold.
The paper of the flyer was a soggy mess in my hand. I held it out to show her. “This is public property,” I said. “Flyers are not allowed.” Then I turned away, quickly. Ashamed and righteous both at once. Leaving the woman with her jaw dropped in surprise. She never expected such a thing from the likes of me. I had to smile. You would have been proud of the way I stood up and made it right.
Outside now it’s begun to rain in earnest. In this darkened room that table lamp softly glows. I take you from the shelf and carry you down the hall and climb into our bed. I pull the covers over us and hold you close. I cradle you in my arms. You take warmth from me and then give it back again.
Bruno escaped from the storage closet. He ate his way through the door, I guess. Or just banged it open. Or maybe it wasn’t closed properly in the first place. You would have raised an eyebrow and suspected an ulterior motive on my part. Unconscious neglect. Like I wanted him to get out. Like I made it so he could, would, come pounding up the stairs the way he did. And me so sound asleep, I didn’t even hear him until it was too late. Two whiskeys, that was all. Okay, the glass was tall. And there wasn’t much ice. Or maybe it was three. And all those tears—the usual. Our bed is plenty big enough for the two of us, you and me, but then there was Bruno too, bounding up and panting, grinning, wagging. He pushed you aside, knocked you right out of my arms, rolled you off across mattress, past the bunched quilt, the piled pillows, on over the edge, all the way to the floor, and in just such a perfect spot that you missed the carpet and hit the wood square on. And smashed. Nothing left but bits of broken clay and ash and bone. Oh, but I screamed at that dog. He followed me downstairs willingly, sat sheepish when I closed the closet door and told him to stay and propped the chair against the knob this time, just to be sure. He whimpered when I got out the broom and the pan, and he barked when I went back upstairs to sweep you up, as best I could. A pile of dust and bone, ash and ceramic bits that I set aside. Sliced my thumb and sucked the blood. I had a good mason jar from the summer pickles, and I poured you into that. It catches the light nicely, casting rainbows across the kitchen floor.
Bruno made such a racket. I put him out the back door and swung the broom in his direction so he bared his teeth and backed away and squealed but held his ground all the same. “Git!” I said. “Go home!” But he stayed put, like he was planted there. And when I turned my back, there he was, pawing at the door again and whining to be let in.
You’ll tell me I’m selfish. That I’m irresponsible. That I should have done more, but Bruno wasn’t my dog, was he? And that woman wanted him back, didn’t she? So I put a rope on him and led him on out the back and around to the front, acting like I’d just found him out there in the trees. That was to be my story, if she asked. A good deed, like. He seemed happy enough. Sometimes a creature likes a rope, to grab onto or to hold her back. Bruno thought it was a lark. He licked me all over my legs and nuzzled my hand to force it there between his ears and give him a rub. He pushed his nose into my behind. All for the best, was what I thought. Everything in its right place and deep breaths and calm and a smile and lipstick and my good coat and my good shoes on my feet, no holes in those. Buttoned up so no one had to know I had only my old nightgown underneath. My purse over my shoulder like I was just going out shopping or some such ordinary errand, just enough to make it seem nice and normal-like. Finger on the doorbell, after stepping over the toys and the junk in that filthy yard. Screen door hanging on a hinge. Curtains drawn so you might think there was no one home, except you could hear the talking, the music, and the yelling from inside. The doorbell wasn’t working, of course, and so I had to pull on the screen door and rap on the wood, and by then old Bruno had figured out what was what. At least he understood the gist of it, and he was pulling back, bracing his legs against the wooden slats of the porch, digging in, lips curled in a snarl, when the door opened. It wasn’t the woman with the red hair. It was a man with long, white hair and a white beard, yellow around his mouth, and a face like the bark of a tree, blue eyes and a nose made of putty and gloves on his hands, a sleeveless shirt, huge orange shorts. And: “What’s that?” he asked as a child whizzed past behind him.
I explained. “Well, this is Bruno. He’s your dog I think?”
The man shrugged his broad shoulders, raising them right up to his ears, and shook his massive head. His teeth were dark, gray, black, brown. “Not mine,” he said. “No way.”
I told him, “That woman then. I’m just bringing it back to her.”
And he said, “No thanks,” and started to close the door so I said, “But I can’t keep him. You have to take him,” and he said, “No, I don’t,” and started to close the door again, but I put my hand on the door and pushed back so the man was eyeing my hand like he wanted to bite it maybe, but the girl with the glasses and the limp came up behind him and cried out, “Bruno!” Which had the dog plowing past me to the man and past the man to the girl, who threw her arms around him while his tail flew around and the spots on his back jumped and danced. And so, “See?” I said. And that was that. I left the rope behind because I didn’t need it anymore. Bruno stayed put. And that man slammed the door like he’d bring the sky right down on us all at last.
So now here we are, and it’s just the two of us, you and me again. I hold your mason jar close. I rock and rock and promise you the lake and the mansions on the lake, because weren’t you always telling me that one day we’d have one of them for ourselves? You had your business dealings and we’d be rich and there would be crystal and fur and jewels and bright rooms with tall windows overlooking the lake. “Close your eyes,” you said. “Can you see it now?” I could. Oh, yes, I can. Cradle me. Cradle me. Cradle me. I cradle you.
And pretty soon I’m dreaming of your hands, your arms around me, your face so close, your breath in my hair, until crash and bang like someone dropped all the pots and pans in the kitchen while, outside the window, lights are flashing and a siren peels the clouds from off the moon and an ambulance hunkers cruel at the curb. The men are going in and out of there. Neighbors’ faces press against their own panes now to see the spectacle. And there’s a banging at my own back door.
I set you down gently on the high shelf beside the binoculars again, where you’ll be safe. I creep down the stairs in the dark to the kitchen. And sure enough, there’s Bruno, jumping at the door and barking up a storm. Making almost as much racket as all that business going on in the house across the street. The woods are dark and full of foreboding, like maybe they know something I don’t know. So I open up and bring him in where he’ll be safe. He follows me back upstairs and turns three times on the rug beside our bed before he settles in, chin on paws. While down the hall the red and blue and yellow lights of the authorities across the street twinkle in the clear glass of the mason jar of you and your ashes up there on the high shelf, safe and sound.
By morning they’re all gone. That house is boarded up tight. Yellow tape flies around and across the front door. Everyone has moved on, even the little kids, which means that, for now anyway, Bruno is mine. He’s wagging that tail again. I put him out in the yard and he does his business, then comes right back inside again. The rain is gone. The sun is shining nicely. The green grass grows. The flowers bloom. Not a cloud in the sky. Birds are all atwitter. Eggs for breakfast. Bacon too. And Bruno eats it all.
The lake isn’t far. Just down the street a ways. Three blocks, maybe four, and you can see it twinkling in the sunlight beyond the smaller houses all along the way. A park perches on the bluff above, and the mansions—gated and fenced—settle into the cliffs like the pearls and diamonds in the creases of a wealthy woman’s throat. Steep steps lead down between the jutting rocks to the beach below. Bruno cavorts in the grass. He chases a squirrel through the park and nuzzles up to the children on the swings. I cradle you. I carry you to the edge of the bluff and peer down at the scene on the beach, so far below. We stood here once, you and I, holding hands. And, “Yes,” I said. “I will.” The waves are slow and gentle, systematic. A family is stretched out on yellow towels beneath a green umbrella speared into the sand. Their bright-blond hair shines. They seem nice enough, I guess. Their laughter floats up this way. Bruno perks his ears. I raise you up high, close my eyes against the sun, sneeze, and let you go. The fall is forever and then a rock juts out to grab you and the glass flies like birds and your bones and bits cloud out and float off, twinkling on the wind.
Bruno goes after you. He tumbles down the rocky stairs, barking his head off. The family looks up at us, their mouths open, their eyes squinting. I wave and they wave back. Bruno charges in among them. I watch them welcome him with open arms before I turn to creep my way back home alone.
I Cradle You
by Heller Levinson
but slowly but gladly she rounded the corner unaware of the exigencies pulling upon her uplift courteous of her evening wear yet brazen. if only she could catch on & enter the evening as foreign matter. a fine silk breathing in ripples. an aspirant tumbling through moss.
Act I: Scene I
One day Jo woke up, had a foot massage, and decided to go stare into the sun until Jo went blind. Jo’s been wandering the streets ever since, still in the same clothes, a t-shirt and jeans. What’dyou think Jo saw in the sun?
Truth, Justice, zen, God, Allah – however you wanna say it – it’s the same. But what color shirt was she wearing?
Two Fools Talking: A Tiny Play
by Richard J. Heby
Aundria Adams is a BS graduate from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and former marketing executive. She is currently working on a memoir regarding her eight year experience with a psychoanalyst convicted of fraud. Aundria works closely with a writing coach, critique group and attends literary craft classes. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Grief Diaries and The Bookends Review.
René Breuel is the author of “The Paradox of Happiness” and the founding editor of wonderingfair.com.
Ryan J. Burden
Ryan J. Burden is a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and the current Managing/Fiction editor of Four Way Review, an online journal from publisher Four Way Books. He is a teaching assistant and doctoral candidate at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (fall 2016). His work has appeared in American Book Review, Necessary Fiction, Foundling Review, Gulf Stream and JMWW, among others.
Susan Taylor Chehak
Susan Taylor Chehak has published several books, most recently “The Minor Apocalypse of Meena Krejci” and “It’s Not About the Dog: Stories.” Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Adirondack Review, Blue Lake Review, The Chariton Review, Coe Review, Folio, Folly, Grey Sparrow, Guernica Magazine, Juked, L.A. Under the Influence, Limestone, Minnesota Review, Moon City Review, Pennsylvania English, Permafrost, and Word Riot. Susan is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught fiction writing in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, the University of Southern California, and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa.
Shawna Ervin is a 2017 Pushcart nominee and has taught writing workshops for both adults and children. She is a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, where she graduated from the Book Project, a two-year intensive mentoring program helping writers generate, craft, and market a book. She is working on a memoir about adopting her two children from South Korea. Recent publications include poetry in Forge, and prose in The Delmarva Review, Willow Review, Moon City Review, and Superstition Review.
Richard J. Heby
Richard J. Heby is a published poet, writer, and editor, as well as the founding editor of Beechwood Review – minimalist writing and art.
Heller Levinson lives in New York where he studies animal behavior. He has published half a dozen books and his work has appeared in over a hundred journals. His publication, “Smelling Mary” (Howling Dog Press, 2008), was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the Griffin Prize. Black Widow Press published his from stone this running in 2012. “Hinge Trio” was published by La Alameda Press in 2012. “Wrack Lariat” is newly released from Black Widow Press. He is the originator of Hinge Theory.
The artist was born on August 18, 1953 in Berkeley, California. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Art from California Lutheran University in 1976.
Matthew Norris is a recent graduate of Ball State University’s Creative Writing Program where he served as a poetry editor for The Broken Plate. A writer of mostly poetry and flash prose, Matthew is currently seeking his second publication in between shifts at his local bookstore.
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