november 16, 2016 | ISSUE no 203
crack the spine
David S. Golding
by J.D. Hager
First Floyd went all in and lost his horse, which was pretty bad. Too much whiskey led to accusations of cheating, followed by the shocking revelation that Floyd didn’t even own a horse. That was pretty bad too. Voices raised, pistols drawn, a bunch of blowhards in five gallon hats playing tough. Then someone called Floyd a sad cliché, which hurt his feelings pretty good, worse than it should have. Everyone shared a haughty laugh at his expense. Typical. Floyd ended up eighty-sixed from the saloon, horseless and buzzed, a sad cliché loitering in the dusty street. No money, no place to go and no horse to ride there. Floyd hoped this was what rock bottom felt like, though he was pretty sure once the gears and pulleys of consequence got moving, he could fall further yet.
Floyd had been on the run ever since he became a wanted man, which happened after Floyd got the wrong impression about a fellow he met. Just a simple misunderstanding mind you, but this fellow got all pissy and pulled his gun. He promised to shoot Floyd for offending his manhood, so Floyd shot first, total self defense. The incident got taken way out of context, mostly because the guy Floyd shot was some sheriff’s brother, and next thing you know Floyd had a price on his head. Bounty hunters started coming for him with their anxious bullets, inevitably leading to more people getting shot. So far it hadn’t been Floyd. Whenever he felt threatened Floyd shot first and ran, and was always running away by the time he fully processed and realized what had happened. But things kept happening faster than Floyd could keep up. One minute he was just some schlub trying to scrape two nickels together and make a connection on the lonely frontier, and the next there were wanted posters and promises of monetary compensation. Floyd just kept moving, trying to stay ahead of his reputation, trying to dig himself out of his hole before it became his grave.
Floyd didn’t feel like talking to anyone right about then, so he did his best to look rough and tumble, tottering unsteadily in front of the saloon, all six foot something of him covered up with a dirty poncho, a beat up beaver felt derby, a six shooter sagging off his waist a few bullets short. A seven day beard crept up his neck and onto his face like a swarm of ants, and frontier residue covered much of his exposed surface. Floyd kept his scowl strong and tried to give the impression he meant business, whatever that business might be.
Then Floyd had a vision. He saw an angel ride by in a cart, pulled by a pair of heavenly white horses. In a world covered in scars and dust she was somehow unscarred and dust-free, clean and glittery in the low afternoon sun. Floyd could almost see a halo and little white wings like an angel’s, or was that a dove perched on her shoulder? He rubbed his eyeballs and looked back. She locked eyes with him and they shared a connection, something heavy and moving in the way she held his gaze and almost ran over some old codger in the street.
Such a moment could give a man thoughts about feelings, which in turn created conflicted feelings about those very thoughts, but this was hardly uncharted territory for Floyd. Floyd had previously encountered such conflicted thoughts many times, most recently before he grabbed Percy’s ass and maybe tried to kiss him. The kissing part was up for interpretation. But what did Percy expect, galavanting around the campfire wearing nothing but boots, a hat, and his freshly oiled holster. Talk about mixed signals. Floyd barely escaped that encounter with his dignity, and even that was debatable, slinking off embarrassed into the dark like he had. Floyd left his horse behind, and assumed he was kicked out of their little outlaw gang. He didn’t feel comfortable going back to ask. The point was Floyd’d had conflicted thoughts about his feelings that night as well, and acting on them he’d ended up in big trouble. He just wanted to feel things without having to think about it, without being so goddamned conflicted inside. Was that too much to ask?
Floyd had a sudden, inexplicable desire to meet this angel that held his gaze and filled him with such conflicted emotions. He sauntered down to intercept, each boot fall summoning forth more swirls of sediment from the parched camino, and waited for her outside the general store. When she exited the sparkle of her cleanliness possessed him. She asked his name, and giggled when he said “Floyd, ma’am,” with a tip of his hat and a puff of dust. He laughed too, for the first time in so long he couldn’t remember. Then she sneezed from the dust he puffed, and they laughed some more.
This sparkly angel’s name was Maria Reyes de la Branciforte, and she was enticed by some dusty raisin of charisma in Floyd. She invited him back to Villa de la Branciforte with her. Floyd climbed aboard her little errand cart and enjoyed the ride, floating above the clouds of dust in a springy, cushioned seat. Neither of them spoke a word until they neared Villa de la Branciforte, when Maria instructed Floyd to lay in the back of the cart and cover himself with spare pieces of burlap. “If my father finds out you are here,” Maria said. “Bad things.” Then she winked at him.
They rode right past Pedro the gatekeeper and parked at the stables, which by themselves were larger than some of the towns Floyd had outlawed his way through. They unloaded from the cart, and Maria took his hand and led Floyd to a tiny cottage at the rear of the orchards, past row after row of apples, peaches, and plums. She revealed a breathtaking view of a valley and mountains beyond, and behind the cottage was a log for sitting and enjoying the vista.
“Where am I?” Floyd asked. “Is this Heaven?”
“Hardly. This is Villa de la Branciforte. My father, Señor Branciforte, runs this estate. He owns most of that valley and some of those mountains on the other side.” After a few moments of majestic landscape contemplation, Maria continued. “Floyd,” she said. “Tell me a story.”
“Is that why you asked me here? To tell you a story?”
Thing was Floyd didn’t know any stories worth telling. All those stories had gone missing, covered up by whiskey and trail dust. The stories Floyd remembered involved sleepless nights, bad choices, harrowing dreams of the noose. “I don’t have any good stories left. Why don’t you tell me one.”
“Okay, there once was a girl that was born to a rich family. Her father wanted her to be a princesa and marry a prince, but that was not her dream. She wanted to become a lawyer and help others, but everyone told her that was not her place. She wanted nothing more than to run away and follow her dream, but could never escape her controlling father. The end.”
“A lawyer? What kind of story is that?”
“Have you ever wanted something people told you couldn’t have?” she asked.
Sure, Floyd thought. He wanted the things he couldn’t have all the time. That was the reason he bailed township and came west in the first place. He went all in, leaving everything behind and bumbling his way toward California and the promise of something better. Those quakers were total squares, but nothing had really changed on the frontier. If anything it was worse. One thing Floyd had learned during his adventures out west was that close-minded squares were never in short supply. “We can try to run away, but our past always follows,” Floyd told her.
Maria made a sad face. “Do you think it’s possible for a person to ever escape their past, or are we just at the mercy of God’s will?”
“I been wondering that myself,” Floyd said. He wanted to tell her something profound and reassuring, but didn’t know where to find those kind of words. “I figure we can control whether or not to stand up and keep moving forward,” was the best he could do.
Just then Pedro and Señor Branciforte burst upon the two of them sitting next to each other on the sitting log. “Maria Reyes, how can you disrespect Villa de la Branciforte by bringing this hombre malo here?” Señor Branciforte was vibrating with fury, spitting and wringing the air with clenched fists.
Maria said nothing. Instead she scooted closer and leaned into Floyd. He smelled something fruity in her hair that made his mouth water.
“This man is an outlaw, Maria. A mur-r-r-der-r-r-er-r-r-r-r-r-r.” Señor rolled every r and drew the word out as long as humanly possible.
“Hombre malo,” Pedro added.
“But, Papa,” she said, grabbing on to Floyd’s arm with an overly dramatic flourish. Floyd shook off her grasp and stood up, which made it a standoff. The three of them stood there standing. Pedro made a move for his sidearm, but Floyd’s draw was pure reflex, quicker than any brain. Two shots and both Pedro and Señor were on their backs. It always happened so fast. How many people was Floyd going to shoot before he admitted that he had a problem?
Maria ran to her father as he flopped on the ground like a rattler with its head lopped. “Oh, Papa,” she cried out, but the way she said it made her sound not so upset.
Meanwhile Floyd was out of there, past the cottage, through the orchard, the sudden escalation of events churning out an improvised change of plan. It was these moments that always found him and followed him into the future, a single moment that escalated into so much more than a moment. Shoot first, run away, wonder how he could take it back. Floyd found the stables and requisitioned the finest horse he had ever ridden. No time to saddle up, so he laid his poncho across the horse’s back and took off, which Floyd immediately realized was a huge mistake. He knew he wouldn’t make it far like this—no money, no whiskey, a single bullet in his gun, each gallop of the horse a repeated kick to the groin. Things had gone sideways again, like they always did.
He couldn’t keep riding like this, so Floyd found a little meadow with a creek, where Percy (as Floyd named him) could get water and rest, and nibble away his empty horse stomach. He dismounted and plopped his ass down in middle of the trail. Floyd decided he would face this thing head on; surrender his freedom and get spit on, kicked, jailed, shot, and/or hanged. Worse case scenario, all of the above. But whatever happened the running would be over. He was tired of running. Floyd leaned back on his elbows and stared at the sunset like it might be his last. It was mediocre as far sunsets went, but still pretty nice.
After a while Floyd heard horses galloping nearer, louder, or maybe a single horse judging from the rhythm. He hoped it wasn’t Maria chasing after him, because it was just so damned awkward seeing family members afterward. Then again, Maria might be better than a posse hell bent on a hanging.
In the last rays of daylight Floyd witnessed the return of his unexpected angel, Maria Reyes de la Branciforte, riding around the bend on a magnificent horse, the sun melting behind her like a cheesy epiphany on horseback. She sported a tattered old cowboy hat and buckskins, controlling the reigns with one hand while her other rested on the butt of a rifle slung from the saddle. Her long, flowing hair was pulled back and invisible, and her jaw looked square and mannish. She looked different to Floyd, no longer the picturesque woman he remembered, barely even a woman at all.
Floyd didn’t move. “I was praying it was you,” he told her.
She pulled up on the reigns and halted the horse ten yards from Floyd. “Then I guess your prayers have been answered,” she said.
“Maybe. Did you bring whiskey?”
Floyd tried not to show his disappointment. Whiskey made it easier to sleep, to forget all the things chasing him. “Are they dead?”
Maria said nothing.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be. My father was an awful man. If anything I should be sorry. Sorry that I used you.”
“Used me?” Floyd asked.
Maria reached into her saddle bag and produced a folded up scrap of paper, which she opened and showed to Floyd. “I recognized you in front of the saloon, from your wanted poster. I was going to offer you money to shoot my father, but you did it before I could ask.” Floyd was disappointed on so many levels. For one, Maria would have paid for the favor, and Floyd had such an itchy trigger he had missed that opportunity. He really did have a problem, didn’t he? For another thing, had she really recognized him from that poster? The picture made him look like a monster—fat jowls and a pin-head, eyes so close together they seemed to be touching. Did he really look like that?
“So, you wanted me to shoot them?”
Maria nodded. “Not Pedro necessarily, but my father. He was ruthless. Violent. He killed my mother, and now that he is dead I will follow my dream.”
“Your dream to be a lawyer?”
“I ran away many times, but my father always found me. He wanted to marry me off to a wealthy rancher in Mexico, and beat me when I refused. He whipped me with his belt. I have scars.” She continued looking at Floyd for a moment, and then looked back toward the setting sun. “He told me I would end up in the same grave as my mother.”
“Because you wanted to be a lawyer?”
“My body is not strong enough to fight back physically, so I must fight with my mind.” She removed her cowboy hat, revealing that her hair wasn’t just pulled back, but sheared short as a spring sheep. “The future will be decided by lawyers.”
“What happened to your hair?” he asked.
“In order to become a lawyer and fight for the rights of women, I must pretend I’m a man.” Maria let that sink in for a moment before continuing. “I’m headed to a town called San Francisco, about two days ride. There’s a lawyer school there. I could use an escort.”
Floyd understood why she wanted him to kill her father, but that was pretty much where the limits of his understanding ended. So many questions. Was it foolish to keep riding into the heart of everything that was out to get Floyd? Probably, not to mention the no saddle thing.
“I’ll pay you,” she offered.
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” Floyd wanted to get paid. He wanted to get up and ride off into the night loaded down with gold, on a horse with no saddle named Percy, alongside his crazy angel that wanted to be a lawyer. Instead he just sat there like he was already a corpse waiting for the buzzards.
“Get up,” she said. “What are you waiting for?”
Floyd watched Percy nibbling grass, and then looked at Maria staring back at him with her old man’s haircut. He gazed past her into the sun as it dripped past the horizon toward another sleepless night. Floyd had no idea what he was waiting for. He just hoped he recognized it if he ever found it.
Then he remembered his last bullet, which gave him resolve. There was just so much a man could do with one bullet. The world suddenly felt full of possibility again, so Floyd scraped himself out of the dirt and found his feet. Floyd was going all in.
The Students and Their History
What went wrong? This is what the hopeful writers debated around the food carts and diners near the campus. A few of them worked at the university, as secretaries or line cooks, and Tash was even a student in the long-diminished Department of Literature. The rest did the sort of borderless labor that generated so little income that the government didn't bother to tax it. They all wrote historical fiction, or at least had read the most impactful works in the broad and overwritten corpus.
They drank stale beer and disagreed about the future of the genre. They did agree about the derivative nature of the historical fiction written by students at the university, who according to Tash had read so much and seen so little, although the others noticed he did not make this claim in the presence of Professor Ibrahim.
They planned to write an anthology of short stories taking place in the rising Chinese empire of the 2060s. They wrote about mid-twenty-first century Los Angeles and the deluge of northward migrants and trucks. Of particular interest to Professor Ibrahim, and therefore to the ambitious writers, was the end of postmodernism. It didn't really end, Tash argued, so much as dissolved into disuse. Professor Ibrahim may have at that point suggested that postmodernism was diluted into the tides that washed away the wall between Tijuana and San Diego. And so the gates were stormed, Tash scrawled in a coffee-stained notebook.
Other times, the imaginary historians tired of dissecting fantasies of decades ago and engaged in matters of contemporary concern. Local politics gave spirit to their voices and the feeling that they were taking direct hold of the slippery, tattered reins of history. When they were particularly emboldened, they'd slouch into a murmur and talk of the city's struggles, the latest of the forced displacements, rumors of shortages and riots.
Predictably, the Department of Literature was eventually dismantled, and with it Tash's informal circle of history artists. There would be no more literature taught in the local universities. It was a relic of the past, mused Professor Ibrahim while packing up books and documents into woven plastic sacks. Tash stood in the doorway, dry-mouthed in shock. How could the team of young speculants not have seen this happening? Was the gallop of history not the energy with which they worked?
Professor Ibrahim ended up tutoring for learners of languages. Tash had no choice but to leave the student housing and move back to the outskirts of the city, where the books no longer reached and the dry forests thrived.
by David S. Golding
by Jonathan Simkins
Coming from no expected house
Into the world
The radiant child,
Sun in the cradle, stone
Home in the hill.
When the harp rings
On the statue’s breasts.
No sunrise has taught
You the light
This girl has.
If I flew a sign for my daily bread, I’d work the morning commute, down at that intersection where Airport Boulevard undercuts I-35. I would hail every driver with a smile and a wave, and my sign—for those with eyes to see—would tell a truth so profound, so wondrous and deep, that rush hour would rest for miles around, and workaday commuters would abandon their cars to kneel and marvel and place bills at my feet. Rattling boom boxes on Spirograph rims would hush their subwoofers and respectfully calm their vibrations, and as the angry folks in oil-burning beaters stuttered toward my station, downshifting, pumping their brakes, the teeth would grind smooth from those hostile gears, and resentments would fall away, cluttering the off-ramp like debris in eternity’s drain. The hatemongers driven by overheated tempers would cease their fist shaking and discordant horn pounding; their Get a job! dismissals would humble to embarrassed whispers, and, surprised by compassion, they would trek like pilgrims along the littered shoulder to read with their own eyes The Sign and to praise the bum who bore it. Plump young mothers would beg blessings for their babies, and tattooed feminists would lift up their shirts, inviting me—like a rock star—to autograph their righteously empowered breasts. Selfies and hashtags would gather and rise visibly above us, like digitized pigeons trending in unison to spread the viral word, carrying images of my corrugated revelation, my testament in Sharpie on oily-edged cardboard. The longsuffering traffic lights would birth new colors, their rainbows freed from the karmic cycle of green, yellow, and red, and the cops, when they boxed in the intersection intent on my capture, would throw down their Tasers and find their hearts arrested instead, stunned by giddy enlightenment. They would drop to their knees, vow through tears to lead us in an escort of silver shields and crossed batons to some safe warm home, and pledge to us all to protect and to serve, forever and ever, amen. When rush hour subsided, ending my morning’s labor, I would thank the joyful multitude: the cops, the commuters, the babies and bare-breasted women, the passengers too awestruck to unbuckle their seatbelts, and I would accept their changes, pocket their ones, fives, and tens. I would nod and smile in benediction, and announce to their innocent faces, “Have a blessed day. I will return to you tomorrow; you have this as my promise. And as always, thank you, thank you. Anything helps.”
A Second Coming
by Barry Maxwell
by Robert Wexelblatt
The Malibu retreat looked a little run down. A realtor would insist another coat of pastel paint wouldn’t do, demand a new roof and fresh stucco on the ocean side. The house seemed smaller than when she had seen it twenty years before and been impressed by its cantilevered porch, the huge windows and everything you could see through them. Perhaps there was some rule that the size of past is inversely proportional to our sentimental feelings about it. The first time she went home to St. Cloud to see her mother, she’d noticed how the rooms, the streets, the whole old neighborhood seemed to have contracted.
People had dressed expensively, brightly, and for one another. They were scattered over the lawn which was not only as wide as she remembered it but greener. Everyone looked as if they’d worked hard at appearing well preserved. The ones who were standing glanced over each others’ shoulders as they talked; others sat at round tables shaded by Cinzano umbrellas. There was a line at the catering tables, a longer one at the bar. She recognized a few leading ladies both older and younger than herself, and a few of the leading men, some quite ancient. She supposed the rest of the guests were writers, various orders of technicians, producers of one rank or another, journalists, critics, other directors. Of the terribly young there were few, unusual for a assemblage of film folk. But then this was a gathering devoted to age, not the business of youth.
Katherine saw him before he spotted her. Jules Bernier, at once host and guest of honor, didn’t look particularly well yet, somehow, not different and better than his recent photographs in the magazines: same aggressive jaw and illegible dark eyes, same self-assurance. His hair was grayer and there was less of it, but still enough for some to fall just so over his high forehead. Jules was by no means—at least not yet—Generic Old Man, the sort who look like all other old men. He was instead Grand Old Man and perhaps that was the point of inviting all these people, some of whom had actually called him that in print. Maybe, being old, he needed to feel grand. Three score and ten is hard to get around; it’s biblical.
Bidding farewell to Harold and the boys, driving full of misgivings from the ranch to Billings, the flight into LAX and cab ride to the Beverly Wilshire, taking the wheel of the rented red Solara, the traffic on the PCH—she’d gone through lots of space-time and an album’s worth of memories to act on an invitation she so nearly tore up. It had come like a shell bursting through a concrete wall, and about as welcome; it so roiled up her feelings that, with his laconic precision, Harold finally declared, “Better go than fret, Kat.” Her husband was wise, but was this?
Jules Bernier reclined on a chaise longue like a capital L, torso vertical, long legs horizontal, accepting the congratulations of newcomers, sending them to the food and drink, holding court with the privileged who occupied the chairs that encircled his throne for the purpose. He wore a French blue silk shirt, two buttons undone, and pressed white trousers. Casual, yet elegant, comme toujours. Katherine noted that he still favored his trademark tennis shoes he wore even with a tux, even to pick up awards.
She hesitated, then Roland Boyce, the art director on one of her films, noticed her.
“Kat!” he hollered. “Jeez, it’s great to see you. Beautiful as ever—no more.” Always the appraisal of others’ looks, always the flattering verdict. But Katherine had liked Roland. He’d been kind to her and she forgave even the show-biz air kiss.
“Hi, Roland. How’ve you been?”
Boyce took a sip of his something and tonic. “Can’t complain, though Georgie says I excel at it.”
“Come on. You remember George, don’t you?” He pointed to a lean man in a linen blazer who looked like he might have stepped out of Brooks Brothers ad. “We’re getting married. Huzzah! It’s a new world, Kat, a braver one. I’ll experience wedded bliss, just like you. It is blissful, isn’t it? Please tell me it’s blissful.”
“Outstanding. I’m all reassured. But we’ve missed you, Kat, not to mention all the films you didn’t make. See Jules yet?”
She glanced toward the throne. Jules had heard Roland’s salutation and was staring at her with those eyes like little black holes.
“I should go over.”
Roland shoved gently at her shoulder. “Yes, yes. Right away. Go. Love to catch up later. I mean really catch up. Yes?”
Jules Bernier pushed himself up from the chaise with a small, suppressed grunt. Everybody turned toward Katherine. He opened his arms in a tentative way. Katherine kept her distance.
“I’d hoped but I didn’t think you’d come.”
“Well, here I am.”
Jules looked around. “And your husband? The two children? Boys, right?”
“You’re well informed.”
Jules offered a Continental bow of the head.
That these two syllables pleased him was obvious and he made no effort to conceal it. He turned to the circle of old friends and new sycophants. “It’s Kat Nilsson as was,” he announced, “now Katherine Barnes. Wife. Mother. Cowgirl.”
Now? She thought. She’d been married for the same number of years since she’d last seen him. Eighteen.
“Of course. Ah. Kat! Lovely as ever. Wonderful to see you, for you to come,” chanted the chorus.
She thanked them, wished Jules a happy birthday, then excused herself.
Jules looked stricken. He took a step toward her. “Don’t go.”
“Not leaving. Hungry,” she explained. She was becoming as laconic as Harold.
Jules smiled, threw up his hands. “Oh, of course. Esse esse, mein Kind. Mange à ta faim, ma chère. But come back. Please.”
“Of course. Aren’t we all here just to see you.”
Katherine strode across the grass, took a plate, placed three shrimp on it, added a dollop of cocktail sauce. Two more old acquaintances came over, first one, then the other. Both said exactly the same things, that she hadn’t changed a bit and how was her marriage. She took advantage to stall, to be anything but laconic, holding them by fixing her eyes fixed on their frozen smiles. To one she chattered on about Montana and her boys, to the other about the family trip to Japan. She didn’t have to look. She could feel Jules’ furtive glances.
Finally she returned to the outdoor throne room and chose the chair furthest from the birthday boy. Then she just listened. The conversation, moving in spurts, mixed up cinematic theory and blistering critiques with scandalous anecdotes in about equal portions. “They’re back to churning out movies aimed at ten-year-olds,” groused one old-timer. “CGI cartoons.”
“Scott Fitzgerald called everything his Hollywood turned out ‘wet goods for children.’ Nothing new in that.”
“There are a lot of good ones, too. At Sundance last year—”
“Oh, you were there for the famous brawl?”
“No, I meant. . .”
She saw how keen Jules was to talk to her but he could hardly dismiss his friends and admirers. So he spoke less and less and squirmed. Katherine enjoyed his dilemma, his discomfiture, and knew she was the cause.
At last people began to depart, coming by first to congratulate the Master one more time. Congratulations as consolation. But the oldest of his friends, the expatriates, sat stubbornly, reluctant to leave. Meanwhile, the caterers began clearing up. Soon dusk would settle over the lawn. Jules chose a moment when nobody had anything to say about shooting day for night or the uses of deep focus or how often a certain leading man had shown up drunk for shooting and put an end to things.
“Well,” he said ruefully, “I’m afraid the time has come.” He got to his feet, with a far more theatrical groan this time, and pronounced the moral for the day. “So far, seventy doesn’t seem all that different from sixty-nine, except that, in all conscience, I can’t call myself middle-aged any more. That hurts.”
“Just so,” agreed an old German director, long retired, and carefully set his empty glass on the grass under his chair.
Everyone rose, shook Jules’ hand, mumbled nice things, and turned to leave, the way people do at the ends of weddings and funerals. Katherine also took Jules’ hand, but he held on to hers, held it tight. “You can stay just a little longer, can’t you? Don’t go yet,” he pleaded.
“I wasn’t going,” she said.
He grinned and nodded toward the house. “Let’s go inside. Somebody gave me one of those machines. If I can figure out how it works, apparently I can offer you a cappuccino or a latte or an espresso.”
“Just regular would be fine.”
“Regular may be the hardest of all,” he quipped, though a little nervously. He had the air of somebody probing, trying to make out her mood, her temper, why she had come.
• • •
“You know,” he said cautiously, “I didn’t care for our ending. I said so. Maybe a little intemperately, for which I apologize. But I did understand.”
“Of course I did. You opted for security; you chose privacy. You worried your career would be brief. So, a wealthy admirer presents himself. Acres and acres of Montana. Horses. Children. An end to journalists, photographers, and concocted scandals. It may not have been brave, but it was prudent. I acknowledge that.”
“And that’s how you see it?”
They were seated on separate couches. Outside the big windows, across the lawn that had turned blue, the sun was quenching itself in the Pacific.
He crossed his legs. “You know that Robert Frost poem? The one he read to an actress, can’t remember which.”
“Why don’t you enlighten me. You always enjoyed doing that.”
He put on his reading glasses, got up, went to the built-in bookshelves, found the volume. He turned the pages, glanced at the poem. “Okay, these are the relevant verses addressed to,” he paused, then read, “to the picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.
No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.”
She was silent for a minute, as if relishing the great, clever, bitter rhymes, as if she might really think they applied to her, that he was the wise old Frost and she the air-headed starlet.
“You know all about actresses, don’t you?”
“We have to call them actors now. Ess had been declared a disrespectful suffix—no more actresses, authoresses, poetesses, maybe no more duchesses either.”
“You told an interviewer that you fell in love with all your actresses. Sorry, I can’t say actors—or should I?”
He lay the book down as he answered her. “You see how language is impoverished by politics? Well yes, I did say that. And it was almost true.”
“I became infatuated. I had to. It was how I worked.”
“So we were, what? Muses?”
“Yes. Muses,” he mused. “Now, that’s disrespectful. And a pompous euphemism. Self-serving, too.”
“It’s what they called you.”
“Oh, I haven’t forgotten.”
“It was true, Kat. You did inspire me, breathed into me. And we made three good films together. Better than good and more popular than any I’ve made since. But then tastes change. I won’t dare say they’ve coarsened.”
“But your films have changed too.”
His face lit up. “You’ve seen them?”
“All of them. Each one darker, more disturbed and pessimistic than the last. European, but in the worst sense. Duller.”
He looked injured. “I experimented, pushed limits. I’ve been telling old truths in new ways.” He looked at her, aggrieved. “Duller? That was meant to hurt, wasn’t it. Well, I admit it does. But not because I’m vain about my work. It’s because I want your admiration and always have. If the new work lacks love as well as car chases, Kat, if it’s bleak, then that’s because I didn’t have you.”
She scoffed and waited for him to sit back down. He hesitated as to whether to move around the coffee table and sit next to her. Her look froze him.
“What?” he said.
She answered this open-ended question with the sentence she’d come a thousand miles to say. “You seduced me exactly the way Hollywood did you.”
He winced and when he replied his tone was almost formal. “There’s no art with the erotic, Katherine. Not for me at least. But of all my so-called affairs with so-called leading ladies—and there were far fewer than the magazines claimed—only one was a love affair.”
As the big windows darkened and the lawn disappeared, the moon rose. She raised her voice. “I was eighteen. You were fifty. I never liked any of it, never wanted it. I started modeling at twelve because my mother made me and I became an actress because you made me. But I married Harold because I wanted to. And I’ve never been sorry, not for a minute.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Are you so certain Harold didn’t make you? Riding in on his white horse and rescuing you from the fleshpots, from a wicked middle-aged man who claimed to adore you but ordered you around?”
“You just don’t stop, do you? All Harold had to do was ask.”
Jules Bernier looked every one of his seventy years as he turned his still striking head away from her and toward the windows, empty now, and black. “Did I do less?”
by Jeremy DaCruz
Every morning he puts on his work boots while sitting on the same couch where they first made love. His apartment was once shared with a lover who has since gone. Haunted by their memories together, he ties his laces, attaches his nightstick and buttons his shirt.
Every morning as he walks through hallway B to his post in the northeast corner, he’s taunted by her lingering words – and the inmates. He tries to feign strength but was weakened before he arrived. He remembers her brown hair cascading down the arm of the couch. Her olive skin appearing darker against the plush, white fabric. Cuomo is planning on shutting this place down. “That's probably for the best,” he grumbles to himself. “I'm not sure what I'll do once it’s gone. Maybe I'll start working as a gardener. I've always loved watching things grow.”
Lunch is a piece of meatloaf isolated from a heaping side of potatoes. The appearance of the meatloaf, separated from the fluffy, white, prosperous mashed potatoes, is unappetizing. He feels sick. He tries to cut the meatloaf with the side of his fork but it's hard as bedrock. While doing his rounds through the prison, he pauses at a cell, peers through the bars, and inquiries into the emotional state of the newly arrived occupant. The inmate spits in his face and he begins to cry. A bitter mix of despair and rejection block out any feelings of anger he might have had. In between sobs he asks the inmate why he doesn't understand that he is a man just like he is. The inmate laughs. He walks away defeated. The fire that once burned within him is nearly extinguished. At home, the first thing he sees is the couch. Their couch. He sees it every morning and every afternoon. He stands there, unable to move. He makes a decision. He drags the couch down the stairs, out the door that exits behind the building, and to the edge of the Arthur Kill. He stares at New Jersey. He dares it to stop him. He lifts up their couch on end. It totters there, vulnerable and naked. He gives it a push and it tumbles into the Kill. He laughs.
He gardens now, ripping weeds up by the root.
by Greg Moglia
Down the steps to my train, a stranger is a step ahead I brush her side. Sorry she says and I think, another sorry
In the market I wait while a woman reaches for a can of tuna
She turns…sees me says Sorry and I mutter It’s ok
Sorry…sorry all the women shopping away
Sorry…why? I think ‘sorry-making machines’
The ‘sorries’ point at me and I’ve no place to hide
I see my daughter at my den door
Daddy, I need a band-aid And me cursing Damn, I just lost my thought
And she with Sorry, Daddy but I’m bleeding
by Dana Kroos
One morning our son falls to the floor and shatters.
“There are pieces of you everywhere,” I say. “I can’t even tell what's what.”
“Don’t be so critical,” our son says. My husband and I hold fragments together, try to find edges that match. Eventually I get frustrated and force one thing against another.
“That will never due,” my husband says. “He won’t make any sense.”
“It’s better than leaving him like this,” I say.
“Pull yourself together,” my husband suggests.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” our son says.
“How did this happen anyway?” I ask.
Pull Yourself Together
Amber Cook’s written work has previously appeared in numerous publications, including Literary Mama, Crack the Spine, Adanna, Deep South Magazine and Dzanc Books‘ Best of the Web series.
Jeremy DaCruz is a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida and is currently living in Managua, Nicaragua. He has been published in Mountain Xpress, Indiana Voice Journal, Corvus Review, Down in the Dirt and The Drunken Odyssey. His time is divided between working at a center for people with disabilities, writing, and exploring the beautiful, complicated country that is Nicaragua.
David S. Golding
David S. Golding is a doctoral candidate at Lancaster University. He teaches peace studies and international development in Sri Lanka. His fiction has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Mithila Review, Jersey Devil Press, and elsewhere. His stories can be found at dsgolding.com.
Mister Hager inhabits Northern California with one wife and a few other animals. He spends his days working undercover as a middle school science teacher, and his nocturnal activities are still under investigation. His writing has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Hobart, Jersey Devil Press, and other places too. Fun fact: many of his stories begin on the backs of detention slips. Find out more at jdhager.com.
Dana Kroos received a MFA in fiction writing from New Mexico State University in 2008. Her short stories and poems have appeared in Glimmer Train, The Florida Review, The Superstition Review, Minnesota Monthly and others. She also holds a MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Currently she is working towards a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature at the University of Houston. More information can be found at danakroos.com.
Barry Maxwell is a 56-year-old native of Austin, Texas, and a creative writing student at UT. His publication credits include essays, poetry, fiction, and memoir in venues including the Mud Season Review, PitheadChapel.com, UT’s Hothouse Review and Liberator magazine, and the Rio Review. His work has been featured in the Northern Colorado Writers 2013 Pooled Ink Anthology, and in the 2014 Writing Texas Anthology from the Lamar University Press. Barry, formerly one of Austin’s homeless, is also the founder of Street Lit and the Street Lit Authors Club, which provide books and creative writing workshops to Austin’s homeless community. You can contact Barry via streetlit.org, or barrymaxwell.net.
Greg Moglia is a veteran of 27 years as Adjunct Professor of Philosophy of Education at N.Y.U and 37 years as a high school teacher of Physics and Psychology. His poems have been accepted in over 300 journals in the U.S., Canada England, India, Australia,Sweden, Austria and Belgium as well as five anthologies. He lives in Huntington, N.Y.
Jonathan Simkins lives in Denver’s RiNo district. He is the author with artist Justin Ankenbauer of the ekphrastic chapbook, “Translucent Winds” (Helikon Gallery & Studios, 2016). The title poem of his second chapbook, “This Is The Crucible” (LuNaMoPoLiS, 2017), was recently nominated for Best New Poets 2016. His poems have appeared in various publications, including Epigraph Magazine, Gingerbread House Literary Magazine, Literary Orphans, Requited Journal, and Wilderness House Literary Review, among others.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections, “Life in the Temperate Zone,” “The Decline of Our Neighborhood,” “The Artist Wears Rough Clothing,” and “Heiberg’s Twitch;” a book of essays, “Professors at Play;” two short novels, “Losses” and “The Derangement of Jules Torquemal,” and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals. His novel “Zublinka Among Women” won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction. A collection of essays, “The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein,” is forthcoming.
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