december 21, 2016 | ISSUE no 205
crack the spine
James Croal Jackson
Denise H. Long
Andrew C. Brown
by Michael Sandler
It has nothing to do with salt—
their flesh, your lips—
or carnal temperature beneath the surface.
Passion chills, thrill passing
to accommodation till it tempts
a seining question, should I be at sea?
Science should provide solutions:
a change of scene, insulation, reduced exposure,
a protein to break ice in blood’s water.
We elude and deflect
unanswered, unfathomed currents, adapting
instinctively to frozen habitude
as pretexts layer into reefs.
Has the chandler no spoon
to lure a shiver of fins,
schools of fingers ignorant
of why they have to grasp and stroke? Easy to say
peptides will thaw this ice.
Why Fish Don't Freeze
My father collects dead animals. It’s much the same as a person collecting coins. He searches for them, gathers them, catalogs them, and preserves them — never once realizing that no one but another collector is impressed.
The stuffing of animals began as a vague interest, then developed into a hobby, and at some point, our house became filled with animals of all shapes and sizes staring into the stale air of each room. The guinea pig atop our television, it’s long not-quite-yellow- but-not-quite white fur lifting in the occasional breeze of an open window. The grey alley cat posed near the foot of the stairs, always seeming to have just blinked it’s narrowed yellow eyes. The front half of a deer that leans against my mother’s old sewing machine, casting shadows in the paths of dust. The deer appears so lifelike — save the fact that the back half of its body is gone. Not everything you find is going to be intact my father says.
Now that he no longer works, he seems to spend his days moving the animals into new places. When I get home from school, it’s like the furniture’s been moved and I have to reorient myself to the new lay of the land. He’ll have tucked a small dog into the bed in the guest room and draw the shades down tight. He’ll pose a sleek red fox in the bathtub, its head angled as if it’s drinking from the tap. Tiny birds of different colors will line the windowsill in the kitchen, poised toward the glass as if ready for flight.
In the night, I have heard my father weeping in this house filled with eyes that cannot see. I have seen him stroking the starchy fur of one of his collection in the dark, as he gasps for air and rocks like a pendulum back and forth. And I think back to the way he silently closed the lid on my mother’s casket, his face blank and empty as if he completely forgot how to speak or to feel.
by Denise H. Long
Any Good Father
by Dan Malakin
We're in a bar somewhere near the Satyr district, the kind of place that’s all dark corners and low moans. Real sleazy. But after one, two, ten shots, you don't care. We've all felt that way, right? Whatever the reality.
“Where we going next?” asks the horse-slash-lizard woman I'm drinking with. She leans forward and rests a claw on my thigh. “I know a great 8-bit bar. Once you go pixel, you never go back.”
If she thinks she's getting a lucid reaction out me, she is sorely mistaken. She’s getting the same as everyone else when I’m in this state – love, deleted lives, screams that go on for so long you feel like the world is spinning backwards. Unravelling.
Later on, someone grabs me by the collar, says, Stranger, it's time for you to leave. I’ve no idea why, though my throbbing fist and the pain in my cheek like someone swung a wrecking ball into my face could have something to do with it. Standing outside in the neon and the rain – it always rains in the Satyr district – I check my credits, hoping I’ve got enough to dull the pain.
The short answer is no. Not if I want to autosober before getting home.
It’s what any good father would do.
I catch the slow port, getting back an hour before Julia wakes. Her cycle is supposed to be randomised, but she follows her routine. Babies love routine, right? I guess it’s worked out for the best – it means I can always be there when she’s awake. I don’t want to waste a single moment with her.
Despite being tired, sober, and generally filled with self-loathing, I log onto Jukebox Smash and start playing. You’ve got to line up vinyl record into threes, fours, and praise be, the occasional five. I never get a five. I rarely get a four. I’m just not very good at it. But I’ve got to keep playing. Why? Well, let’s just say I’m in somewhat of a hole, financially. Money was borrowed, debts accumulated – and if you think that debt collectors in the digital world are any softer on you than in the physical world, then you are wrong. They can do things here that are inconceivable to fleshers.
To pay the money back, they’ve got me playing this dumb game for as many hours of the day as I can manage. I’m playing it for other people, collecting their daily bonuses, levelling them up. Among some crowds, apparently, it’s quite the status thing to have a high rank.
In Jukebox Smash.
Ladies and gentlemen, the future.
Julia’s voice, coming from the bedroom. I hurry through. She’s standing up in her cot, banging the top of the wooden rail. “Dada! Dada!”
I lift her out and bring her close. She grins, grabs at my lips, tries to yank them off my face. I pull away, then dive back in to blow a raspberry on her neck, making her squeal with joy and slap the top of my head.
Once she’s calmed down, I change her nappy – cursing myself, as always, for insisting on this feature. I’ve probably played a hundred hours of Jukebox Smash to cover what it cost me in bowel configuration. It had to be realistic! Down the accurate production of gut bacteria. Just so I could dispose of endless shitty nappies. She’s cute though, when I change her, writhing around and clapping her hands and going baa baa baa as I inevitably fail to stick down the nappy flaps.
This time, it doesn’t take too long. But then Julia does something strange.
When I try and dress her in her favourite babygro – the one with spectacled dogs – she throws up a fuss. I try all different ones, but she won’t wear them. It’s only when I put her back in what she was wearing before, the one patterned with smiling kettles and dancing cups of tea, that she calms down.
The other Julia never did that.
The next day, I get the visit I’ve been dreading.
I’m awful at Jukebox Smash. It isn’t the first game I’ve been awful at -- previously, I’ve sucked at Coffee Captain and Office Manager 2. I’ve been wondering how long it would take the criminals forcing me to pay off my debts this way to get sick of my poor performances. Without doubt, the people paying them for game slaves would be little disappointed to get me.
I open the door. Three of them are waiting on the other side. Black hair, black suits. Featureless faces, save for the eyes. Oh man, those eyes. They all have the same churning scarlet corneas, from which emerge and disappear tiny arms and screaming faces, like shipwrecked sailors drowning in the seas of hell.
What else can I do but invite them in and beg for mercy?
“You've got ‘til the end of the day,” says one of them as a desperate hand reaches from his eye. It scrabbles around on his lower lid before being sucked back in.
This is after they’ve informed me all my assets will be seized – including my own avatar – and sold as part of a bulk lot to game designers, film makers, or artists making whole worlds out of reclaimed parts.
What happens to me? I become one the screaming faces lurching from their eyeballs. An eternity of agony to serve as a warning to other late payers.
Shit – Julia.
I can’t let them take her.
I start asking them questions, praying for a human, someone I can reason with. You can always work out if avatars are AI – they've got nothing to say for themselves.
“What do you think of this flannel shirt?” I ask one. “You like flannel shirts?”
“I don't want to talk about flannel shirts,” he replies, rather stiffly. There's one of them.
The guy on the right isn’t answering. He notices me noticing. “Fucking dumb ass robots,” he says, grinning.
I plead with him, say I’ll work harder at my game, spend my own credits on enhancers. I’ll get better. I’ll play better. The whole time, he’s shaking his head, like, I would if I could, but sadly…
From the bedroom, Julia goes, “Dada dadadada.”
I don’t like the way the guy’s eyes widen. He starts for the bedroom – I go to grab his arm, but the look he gives me suggests I shouldn’t. So I follow behind, feeling like I’m going to cry and throw up at the same time.
He’s by the crib now. “Hello little miss, how are you today?”
“Please,” I say, “give me a few more days.”
What’ll I do if he takes her? I wish I had enough credits to disable pain – I know I'm not strong enough to withstand what they’ll do to me if I try and stop them.
Julia’s slapping the top of the rail and giving the guy a grin with all six of her teeth.
“That's an impressive baby,” he says. “Will she develop?”
“No,” I shoot back, thinking it’s the right answer, but realising too late it’s not. Who wouldn't want a beautiful, sweet-natured baby forever?
The man straightens up. When he smiles I feel like a mouse looking into a cobra's swaying head. “She must have cost you a fortune,” he says. ”If you'd be willing to part with her...”
My mouth won’t work. I shake my head.
“Don't give me an answer now,” he says. ”You've got until tomorrow morning.” Faces frozen in torment jut momentarily from each red cornea, before sinking again. ”Think about it.”
So, I think about it. Or should I say, I pace the room, pulling at my hair, and remembering the pain-twisted creatures leering from their eyes. Could we run? Run where? There’s nowhere to go, not when I’m out of credits. Sure, I could sell some of the crap I’ve accumulated, but to get anything more than a fraction of the value I’d need to use auction sites, and I don’t have enough time.
No, the choice is simple.
I either hand over Julia to clear my debt, or I don’t.
She isn't the real Julia. She isn't my daughter, who I held to my chest moments after she was born and promised to love forever. She isn’t the beautiful little girl, barely a year old, barely able to walk, who toddled too close the canal while her parents were having a holiday cider in the nearby pub.
Three minutes, it can't have been more than that, before we noticed she was gone. We were already frantically searching for her when we heard the scream. Madeline and I looked at each other. We both knew what had been found.
As soon as I saw her tiny body lying by the canal, her mouth and eyes half open, like she was dazed after a long nap, I knew that was it for me. My life was over. Maddy screamed and wailed. She grabbed me by the lapels and pleaded with me to do something, to make her okay again, like I was holding out on some magical healing powers that would bring our daughter back to life.
This Julia isn't her. She's is a refinement of photos, videos and memories, an expensive replica. I’ve buried myself in thousands of credits of debt to make it look like her, and act like her.
But it isn’t her.
That’s what I tell myself.
If they take her, I can take my time selling my things, scrape together enough to get back to the flesh world.
To what? To creeping alcoholism? To no wife – although I don’t begrudge Madeline moving on. She was always more practical than me that way.
To no Julia.
Even though it's the middle of the night, I get her out of her cot and bring her into bed with me. I know I shouldn't, routine, and all that, but what does that matter, really? You've got to be close while you still can.
We do all the things we love, reading, clapping hands, babbling baby language, lots and lots of kisses, all over her chubby legs and feet. I swing her around until she's giggling so hard she can't catch her breath. Then I just hold her next to me.
Sometime in the morning, she does something amazing. She grabs my cheek and brings it to her mouth, like she's kissing me.
She’s never done that before.
Soon, way too soon, I hear them at the door. I can barely see the control panel through my tears, and wait until the last second to tap the authorisation code to delete her.
At least this time I had a chance to say goodbye. It’s the only way he has ever endured.
by Morgan Shaver
“Now the lights that shined, the lights that blinded have since given up their glow, and somehow I don’t know what happened to our music. It simply vanished… so, where do I go from here?”
—Robert B. Brown
The first day I met my aunt Sue she gave me two gifts. The first was the sound of my father’s voice on a CD tediously pieced together from stacks of old cassette tapes gathering dust in her closet. She compiled two hours of various broadcasts he had made when he worked as a radio disc jockey during the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Hearing his commanding baritone voice announce that coming up next was Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, or Black Sabbath, filled my heart with joy.
All of his dirty Howard Stern-inspired jokes, and unique catchphrases like “tickle your tweeters” or “this is Beckster in the big chair seated on the other side of the glass,” gave me a connection to my father I never had when he was alive. A small piece of him still lives and breathes within that plastic disc, the radio persona he named “Beck”.
The second gift was a manila envelope I stashed away for five years, unable to find the strength to open it and face the contents residing within. Aunt Sue told me it contained more detailed information about him—like the eulogy she wrote for his funeral—some of his creative writing, and dozens of family photographs. The thought of seeing all of these things at once stabbed his absence back into harsh reality.
I was never able to meet or converse with my father. At the age of fifteen my mother and I received a letter in the mail which she read aloud in a tone of cold indifference. The letter stated my father, Robert Burton Brown, passed away on March 6th, 2008 from a heart attack at the age of sixty.
Growing up I was always secretly aware of how deeply my mother resented my father. How she refused to forgive him for running away and leaving her a single mother. The few times I gathered enough courage to ask about him she would only reply with negativity. For example, when she scolded me, it would always be followed by the phrase “you are just like your father.”
I never understood what that meant.
Retreating to my room after hearing the news I tried to decompress and analyze the situation, uncertain how I should feel. Sitting at the edge of my bed I reflected back over the past fifteen years. When the tears finally came they were for the loss of what I never had, and now would never be able to have. They weren’t for him.
I cried over the time when I asked Santa to bring my daddy home for Christmas at the age of six. It was the only thing I wanted. And I cried for every other child at school who found themselves sitting on the outside looking in every Mother’s or Father’s Day as the rest the class worked on crafts to take home. In a way we were all the same, and I mourned their losses just as deeply as I mourned my own.
My childhood dream coming home one day and finding him standing there became cremated ashes drifting on the ocean. There was a time when that dream burned so brightly, I convinced myself I was capable of venturing out into the world the moment I turned eighteen, and when I did I would find him. I tricked myself into believing that I could somehow force my way into his life. All of that was ripped away from me at the age of fifteen, and I struggled to come to terms with the fact that some dreams could be torn apart by a single letter.
Three years passed and life pressed indomitably forward. I mastered the art of shoving the knowledge of his death into the back of my mind where it withered. Sometimes it would re-emerge to gnaw at me, but those times became more and more infrequent. Entering adulthood there were many things I allowed my mind to focus on instead.
Nevertheless, a new dream began to blossom. A dream to seek out the truth about who my father really was. It refused to leave the forefront of my mind, the more I fought against it the more obdurate it became. I knew the information still existed out there somewhere and I was determined to seek out every missing piece of the puzzle until the fractured picture of him in my head was complete.
I moved away from home the day of my eighteenth birthday. Coincidentally I wound up moving to the same town where my father’s sister lived. Despite many attempts to ignore her proximity my curiosity was far too strong. I guiltily scoured the local phone book for her name. I justified this by telling myself that she’s my father’s sister, after all, if anyone possessed those elusive puzzle pieces it was her.
So I pursued the only lead I had and arrived unannounced on her doorstep one hot summer day in June. Seeing as how I could never stand face-to-face with my father I compromised by worming my way into the family he left behind. I cringe whenever I think back to that day, and how shocked my poor aunt must have been opening her front door to a girl proclaiming to be her niece.
The strange part is… all of it felt completely rational.
She was the only who had answers to the questions I grew up asking for years, questions I’d memorized and repeated like mantras in my head. I thought she could divulge every minute detail about the man my father was. About the brother she grew up with and knew her entire life. Looking up at her face, so similar to my own, I sensed my father’s presence there beside me.
I believed if she accepted me into her family it would be as though he was accepting me as well. I tried to mask the fear that she’d see me as nothing more than a stranger, turn me away, and slam the door shut behind me. I had to fight the urge to run as I stood my ground and avoided eye contact.
My body language must have betrayed my fear, because the first thing she did after opening the door was embrace me. Then she invited me inside and subsequently answered every question as I rattled them off rapid-fire. In the resulting silence that followed she gazed at me warmly and remarked upon the uncanny resemblance I bore to my father. Hearing her affirm this connection acted like a medicinal balm and transformed me from stranger into family.
I learned that my father had strong genes, because when she introduced me to my younger half-brother I was rendered speechless at how similar the three of us were as we stood together in my aunt’s living room. My impulsive decision that summer allowed the layers to peel back, and melted away the feeling of absence that marred my childhood.
Not only did I inherit several of his physical traits, but his artistic nature as well. My aunt described him as a restless soul who refused to stay rooted to one place. Being a radio DJ gave him the freedom to uproot and move wherever and whenever he wanted. I understood this due to my own love of never staying stationary for too long.
Before I moved away from California I used to go for long drives each and every weekend. The destination never mattered. The important thing was to feel free, see new things, and explore without restraint. During those drives I would listen to the same genre of music my father loved so much. Often replaying the last album my aunt said my fathered loved, Highway Companion by Tom Petty. Listening to the song “Saving Grace” while rocketing down the highway created an illusion that he was there riding shotgun.
During the three years I lived in that garlic-scented town my aunt treated me with a form of kindness I had never experienced before. She never missed an opportunity to call me over for dinner if she was free. She never forgot to send a card every birthday and Christmas. This family dynamic was something I lacked growing up alone, raised by a single broken entity.
My father’s side of the family were the complete opposite of what I expected them to be. Especially my aunt. Right when you walk in the front door you see a giant Claymore mounted on the left wall. Obtained during the times she tossed cabers at the highland games. Aunt Sue was a wine-loving, Monty Python-watching, beautiful variable who welcomed me into her life without hesitation. A woman who squeezed me in tight hugs and squished all the emptiness out of my heart. She bridged the gap to my father effortlessly, and mended every wound with her selflessness.
At the age of twenty-three I decided to crack open that manila envelope. Reaching inside I pulled out the contents and mourned his death once more as I read his funeral pamphlet, stared at his face in every photograph. Most of all, as I swam through the beautiful imagery he crafted in his writing. Within that envelope I was finally given the last piece of the puzzle.
Did I really deserve to have it? Like a black sheep I always self-consciously felt inferior of all the genetic similarities he passed on to me. The same rounded nose, lanky long legs, and awkward height. Even the same indifferent, quirky personality.
My aunt wrote in her eulogy, “With all that hurt inside, he began wearing this mask of cool indifference in order to protect himself from the world.”
How we could both feel the same way at different times? How could we have so many similarities despite having never met?
I asked the photos longing for them to hear me, to watch him reanimate and explain what kept him distant for fifteen years. I told those photos how I wish we could have met—even just once. Then he could have seen how alike we were.
He had no way of knowing back then, and I only know now after reading each and every poem stuffed inside that envelope. Poetry describing life in the same way I view it. Words that speak as I speak, words where I see not only him but myself as well.
I don’t know if a person is capable of ever truly healing from the loss of a parent. Marrying my husband flooded my brain with painful imagery. I yearned for him to be there to take me by the arm and walk me down the aisle. Or for a father-daughter dance. Instead, I walked with him in my heart, reserved a seat, and set his photo down upon it.
Though we will never be able to talk, we communicate indirectly every time I read his writing. His photographs propped up beside me, and his comical monologues droning from speakers in the background. None of these things will ever diminish my wish to be able to grab a coffee and “shoot the shit” with him as he would have said. And if that wish were ever granted I’d use the opportunity to tell him that I forgive him.
I’d admit how I will always love him as my father, despite the chasm that lingered between us during his life. How I hope we can meet in afterlife one day, and chat for eternity. I promise to bring my guitar, I’ll play all of his favorite classic rock licks. In return, he’ll be able to listen to all the stories I’ve written during my lifetime. Perhaps he’ll respond by reciting his poetry as it was meant to be read in that iconic radio voice of his. Everything is better when it’s performed live. I think that’s something we’d both agree upon.
Finally, I’d tell him that thanks to his sister and the contents of a manila envelope I was given a chance to truly know him. Not only that, but in reading his writing I realized that I was not the only one with missing pieces. And for the rest of my life I will keep these memories stashed away like buried treasure knowing that he lives on through me. Lives on eternally in that battered manila envelope.
by James Croal Jackson
The warehouse art gallery could never be mistaken for the beach,
even as curators charade sand across the dancefloor,
make us remember desire. Violins strike the throbbing air
with an electronic pulse, a horsehoof beat activating
the summer IPAs we drank beforehand to create
our summer selves. It ends. You end. At home later on
we watch documentaries where owls hunt forests for prey.
I pray we will soar but never hungry above branches.
Mostly I pray for our hearts to not be plucked raw, how stranded
and helpless we can feel in a new town while the world whirls
a thousand miles per hour– we stumble through sliding landscapes–
sand on concrete wails for sun, for sunset wind to whip
through industrial, unfinished interiors. We dance, or run,
until light draws herself from the ocean’s muted stone.
by Kawika Guillermo
A bright star-like form bounded wildly through the cosmos, aimed towards no particular place but magnetized towards it, it: that ship somewhere in the middle of the earth in that sea almost completely enclosed by land, in that dissected center where the bright star-like form went skidding across the water & landed like a bomb but for Leonard it was a soft landing, soft upon the swan-feathered pillows, beneath the heavy blue & white sailor-striped comforters so heavy much heavier than the cold sterile rooms of the Frankford hospital and that decaying body he had left behind.
What a landing!
If there ever was a bed to lie in for hours, while blood crept slowly back into one's brain, then yes, Leonard was in it & yes there was a vanity mirror across from him & yes a recliner & yes a desk & yes a remote control for the corner TV & yes outside the window a pristine polished blue ocean & yes the charming gawk of seagulls. On the foot of the bed lay a laminated pamphlet that read in an opaque cursive WELCOME TO THE GRAND MEDITERRANEAN PLEASURE CRUISE. The next page carried a readable script bordered by images of young cruise directors, their arms akimbo.
AMENITIES: 30-FOOT ROCK CLIMBING WALL, SURF SIMULATOR, FULL SERVICE SPA, FITNESS CENTER, SHOPPING, ICE SKATING, CASINO, POOL GAMES, TOURNAMENTS, WINE TASTINGS, AND BUFFETS BUFFETS BUFFETS!!!
Splendid, Leonard thought, perhaps this is it. How it all ends. Who knew that after closing his eyes in Jersey he would awaken here on this pleasure cruise. & there must be others. & if there are, why, she might be among them, she: Lucy, that daughter who had passed but not as he had passed for she was possessed by that young naïve spirit ready to plunge into it all: Flight! Foreign lands! The consumption of exotic foods and diseases! But you know, death could not be the end, not for a good soul like hers & if there were others on this grand ship then surely she, she too—!
Leonard shot from his stateroom into a lightly perfumed hallway where passengers sauntered by briskly & in good health & so Leonard began to emulate their stride feeling his soft breath linger heavy so heavy in the air with his feet moving towards that relaxation room disguised as a fitness center where every exercise machine was ridden with wide-open newspapers & true crime novels some left open to the cleansed unscented air & some read by the gym's participants who merely rotated the stationary bikes.
The buffet was crowded with large lumped bodies who talked in food-filled grumbles giving no attention to their speech so that Leonard could hear nothing but melded cacophonic chatter & he was so thankful for that God almighty was he ever thankful for that for among the gourmandizing of Portofino chops & the slurping of ice-cream soda such conversation could have been German could have been Spanish or Chinese but could not have been Esperanto or R'lyehian or Klingon for none of those native speakers was on the Grand Cruise Ship.
Then who filled it? Of course the glamorous ship carried no prejudice for among Leonard were priests, monks, nurses, and politicians, most very old & moving slowly, trapped forever within their departed shadows. If this was indeed the afterlife, few here had departed in their prime. They had lived lives of longevity, lives of permanence & durability & a prolonged, effortlessly prolonged—.
Leonard zipped up the stairway to the ship's deck and he was in it! In that sun that he knew would never set, "my God look at that that sun so polished so fragile so indefinable!" & yes you could stare right into it without eye damage & yes there was also the ocean sea rocking the boat about in easy waves & yes you could feel comfort so sinful utterly sinful except that he had earned it & yes Lucy must have earned it too must have been waiting for him upon The Grand Mediterranean Pleasure Cruise for on this deck too were blonde women who could have been Lucy with their bodies tanning upon white mesh recliners designed to relieve muscle tension & stress, tanning in the majestic sun with their sunglasses & their fingers skipping about on their cellphones—"Lucy! Lucy!" Leonard shouted, scanning every young beauty who could have been her could have been Lucy & he remembered the shape of her body when she was an infant spilling cups & once when she was older she broke her leg falling off a rock wall and then she realized she wasn't going to last forever and then she started dyeing her hair and going away.
Upon that immaculate deck of infinite sunbathers Leonard felt his heart slowing, the blue veins leading to his fingers sweating, as he fell upon an empty chair. Just then he wished for a pair of sunglasses to block the sun, sunglasses would be perfect, he thought. And just as he thought it: pop! a young brown boy in a comically large suit & tie handed it to him. “For you, sir.”
Perhaps the boy had been there all along, waiting to open up gates, push elevator buttons & serve tapas. Had the boy ever seen Lucy bathing in the sun? Was she ever the type to sit through a cruise?
No she was not that type.
This is a ship of docile deceased, Leonard thought, as he heaved a heavy breath, settling into the stretched plastic chair. As soon as he wished it, the young boy handed him a margarita in a pristine cup, its rim lined with sea salt.
The Grand Mediterranean Pleasure Cruise
by Z. Z. Boone
Viggio is about to go back down to the apartment and call the police when his phone vibrates and he sees he’s gotten a text.
I’m with a friend, it says. I’ll see you at the airport in the morning.
It’s close to midnight, the evening warm and fragrant and illuminated by lights, and Viggio hasn’t seen her since they ate tapas together on the Plaza Constitución around four hours ago. He was tired, a bit down, and wanted to go back to the rental apartment, pack his clothes for their flight home, watch a little TV. Allison, seeming surprisingly refreshed and energetic, told him she was going to explore. Walk around the city some. It’s the week of Málaga’s annual fair—La Feria de Agosto—but she promised she’d be in no later than ten.
“Just stay away from the beach,” he’d warned. “The beach gets dangerous at night.”
He worries about her, a young woman on Malagueta Beach, and it has not escaped his notice that her daily trips there have become increasingly stylized. From flip-flops and her frizzy red hair stuffed under a Red Sox cap, to a touch of lipstick, a dab of perfume.
What friend? he immediately texts back. Are you all right?
I’m fine. I just want to have some fun my last night here.
NO! he texts. NOT ACCEPTABLE! HOME! NOW!
He waits, but nothing. He calls her number—roaming charges be damned—and he gets her voice mail. He quickly dismisses an image that flashes across his mind: his daughter, tied and gagged, on the floor of some filthy hostel, while a kidnapper pecks away at her iPhone.
Twenty-five minutes ago, not knowing whom else to call, he’d phoned the rental agent, a Swede named Melker, who assured Viggio that his daughter had probably gotten involved in some of the local festivities.
“Málaga is a party town,” Melker had told him. “But it’s also one of the safest cities in Spain. Be assured. Tourism is a vein nobody wants to sever.”
Viggio had hung up and tried to calm himself the same way he did before lecturing a class. By pacing and mentally reviewing what he knew. Ally, with four years of high school Spanish under her belt, had a more than adequate knowledge of what she referred to as “restaurante español.” In the five days they’ve been here, she’s managed to disregard her initial shyness, learn where the best café con leche is served, discover the shortest route to the beach (where she happily wandered while he stayed inside and read,) and adopt the correct gestures—eyes averted, firm shake of the head—used to dismiss persistent street peddlers.
Finally, when he could stand it no longer, he took the elevator up to the roof terrace where he leaned over the building’s sixth floor railing and scanned the city around him like a sailor’s wife scans the sea.
For the most part, he trusts her. Unlike many of her friends, she doesn’t drink and isn’t overly concerned with sex. She’s dated—even gone to the senior prom despite his cautions—but has never really had a serious boyfriend. Four years at Ridgefield High School, high honors, varsity letters in both track and volleyball.
And when his wife, Elena, died in April—the victim of an uninsured, unlicensed teenage driver—Ally was the one who made all the arrangements, who notified the friends and relatives, who cried alone and out of sight, who comforted Viggio and took control, who eventually arranged the details of this trip according to her mother’s wishes.
Viggio still hasn’t adjusted to being a widow. Previously, his life had been devoted to teaching, preparing lessons, attending conferences and committee meetings, advising students. Elena had worked part-time in the town assessor’s office, and handled everything at home from food to finances. Viggio simply had his check directly deposited, and went on his way. In the morning he’d find his clothes laid out for him, in the evening a glass of wine would be poured as he watched CNN and wondered when he’d be eating.
Allison helped out as much as she could. School and sports took up most of her time, but she was no stranger to a vacuum cleaner or a stack of dirty dishes. Now, with her mother gone, she was—she felt—expected to take over like an understudy: paying the bills, taking the car in for scheduled maintenance, arranging dental appointments. Viggio would help out when she asked—he might make the coffee in the morning or iron his own shirts—but inexperience caused him to perform these tasks poorly, and most times Ally found it easier to do them herself.
It made her feel like a parent teaching her child to ride a two-wheeler, afraid to let go of the back of the seat.
Her father has told her the story again and again. There’d been four of them. Ron and Rosie, already a couple, along with Viggio and Elena. Four Mainers who’d all graduated together—Colby College, Class of ‘94—spending their last summer backpacking through Europe before life—or in his case, graduate school—set in. Viggio was Ron’s buddy, Elena and Rosie were best friends. But Viggio and Elena knew one another only through sightings on campus, polite nods upon passing, a few shared classes.
They reached Andalusia in late-July, and Elena told the others she had found something special in Málaga. A place she had never been before but made some kind of spiritual connection to. A recognizable climate she had never experienced. Odors she had never smelled but was familiar with. She would find an inexpensive pensione, and remain here until it was time to return, if in fact that time ever came.
“I feel like an old soul,” she said, “who has finally come home.”
Ron and Rosie were eyeing North Africa, anxious to move on to Tangier, the lure of exotic spices, handmade rugs, inexpensive hashish.
“We can’t just leave her here,” Viggio had told them.
“Then stay with her,” Ron said. “Who knows? You might cash in.”
Viggio and Elena, who had spoken little to one another to this point, pooled their cash and found a room together—twin beds, sink, shared bath down the hall—and whether it was the romance of southern Spain, the reliance that two people forge in a foreign country, or just a case of hormonal fever, by the third night the two beds were pushed together and Viggio learned that he could make this woman light up and laugh and listen to his stories.
Ten minutes after his call goes unanswered, Viggio is on the street. The feria itself, obedient to city statutes, has left el Centro and moved on to the fairground
at El Cortijo de Torres. It’s a different atmosphere altogether, the brass band music and flamenco of the “day fair,” the colorful horse carriages and traditional dresses, the performances for children, all become the carnival of the night. Day gives way to darkness, goodness steps aside to let evil pass. Here people are packed together as tightly as bristles on a broom. Rap music and public drunkenness, souvenir stands and female flesh. Sunburned families with tired feet and short tempers walk outside McDonalds and Burger King and Häagen-Dazs. This is not the Málaga he remembers from the mid-90s with its narrow winding streets, its clear nighttime sky, its gringo-free cantinas. In two decades, Christmas has become Halloween, Eden has turned into Disney World.
Viggio shoulders through the crowds, looks wherever he can, sees amusement park rides that he’s certain would never meet safety standards back in the States: Rapidos, Ala Delta, El Inverter. He continues down past the harbor, then over to Malagueta Beach where he sees people—most no older than Ally—huddled around bonfires, singing and playing guitars and pawing at one another, drinking bottles of San Miguel and Estrella Galicia and Cruzcampo. He has a feeling that she is watching him from somewhere, smiling like a child playing hide-and-go-seek, following his every frenzied move from some unseen perch.
By now he is furious. Two police officers apathetically stroll past him on Calle de Tomás de Heredia, and for a moment he thinks of approaching them. Mi hija, he could say. Ella no es aqui. But he can anticipate their reaction: shrugged shoulders, “No sé, señor,” smirking asides at his rudimentary Spanish.
Viggio hopes she’s back at the apartment, but of course she isn’t. He’s texted her a half-dozen times, called and left several messages. “This isn’t funny, Allison!” was his last one. “To do this to me is not fair!”
He knows her intent. Revenge. This is so Allison. She’d been accepted at Duke last December, a college she’d hoped to attend since 10th grade, a university with one of the finest marine biology programs in the country. The reality of the situation first hit Viggio on that cold, Connecticut morning when Ally, acceptance letter in hand, announced, “Guess what?! I’m gonna be a Blue Devil!” “Are you sure you want to do that?” he’d asked.
Allison seemed to have things worked out. If it was a question of money, she’d get a student loan. If he was worried about the distance between Ridgefield and Durham, North Carolina, there were plenty of cheap flights. She even promised to call home every night and talk as long as he wanted.
“I just think you should take advantage of your situation,” he’d told her. “One of the benefits of me being a professor. You can go to Central Connecticut and not pay a dime. Graduate from college and start life debt free.”
She started to protest, to point out the fact that Central had no programs she was interested in, that she didn’t work as hard as she did in order to go to a college twenty minutes away, one that accepted anyone with a pencil.
But then Viggio added, “I imagine staying around and helping out is what your mother would want you to do.”
They didn’t talk about it again until February, the day that would have been Viggio’s 20th wedding anniversary. They’d gone out to dinner at Red Lobster at Ally’s suggestion, and during desert she announced that she was neither going to Duke, nor to Central. She would take the summer off, look for a job after they returned from Spain, work a year before coming to any decision.
It wasn’t exactly the verdict Viggio wanted—he could sense her resentment, her bitterness—but he figured she’d get over it and was happy to know she wasn’t going anywhere for awhile.
It’s three-thirty in the morning. At 8:45 a car is scheduled to pick them up and drive to the airport. He tries to watch television, but the only English language show he can find is an all-night marathon of something called Aliens: Open Case, where people with British accents blame everything from global climate change to genital herpes on beings from outer space.
In his bedroom, Viggio flings all but a fresh change of clothes into his huge, wheeled suitcase, then walks into Ally’s room to do the same for her. He’s surprised when he finds her leather valise—she believes in packing light and rinsing things out—zipped up and already neatly packed.
Just before the sun begins to rise, he finishes what’s left of some refrigerated white wine, showers, crams the clothes he’s just taken off into the suitcase, then lies naked on the white bottom sheet of his bed while the ceiling fan above spins sluggishly. He goes back to the text messages she’d sent him earlier and focuses on the one that says I’ll see you at the airport in the morning, which by now is only a few hours away.
Earlier that afternoon they did what they’d come here to do. Elena, wife and mother, had accompanied them not as a fellow traveler, but as a memory. It was her wish to be cremated and have some of her ashes scattered here, a place where she’d spent three weeks sizing up her future husband, this city on the Mediterranean that she would see only once in her short lifetime.
Husband and daughter tried what they could to make it happen. In July, after Viggio’s last class of summer session, he contacted the U.S. Embassy in Málaga and was told by some not particularly well informed staffer that the procedure was a nightmare. “You’ll need cremation and death certificates,” she said, “plus a grant of probate. Spain has strict environmental laws and a fishing industry that threatens to go on strike every time some pescador pulls up an urn. Plus there’s the hoops TSA is going to make you jump through.”
Online, Ally found a Spanish company called Dignified Good-Byes that, for $6,500 would take care of everything including a biodegradable container, a memorial reef ceremony, and a photographer. It was at that point that Viggio decided that his wife, herself a practical and somewhat frugal New Englander, would be just as happy having her wedding ring act as a stand-in for her remains. Three weeks later they flew non-stop into Málaga, and at El Candado—after four days of enquiry—Viggio finally managed to secure a 20-foot Sea Ray 190, at 250€ for half-a-day. Viggio is no stranger to boats; few growing up in Maine’s Kennebec River Valley are. They left the dock at the Club Nautico, Ally wearing her mother’s wedding ring as if it belonged to her, and they maneuvered south-east to where the Puerto de Málaga shimmered like an imperfectly silvered mirror. Viggio dropped anchor, and told his daughter this was probably as good a place as any. Ally slipped off the wedding band, inspected it.
“Actually, I’d like to keep this if it’s okay.”
“We came all this way,” Viggio reminded her.
Allison slipped the ring back on her finger, reached into her canvas tote bag, took out a white, 15-ounce plastic shaker.
“This might be even better,” she said.
“No,” Ally smiled as she twisted the top. “Mama’s ashes.”
Traffic is heavy, and Viggio gets to the airport with little more than an hour before boarding time. At the ticket counter he inquires if his daughter has checked in yet. The ticket agent, an attractive middle-aged Spaniard, scans her computer, then tells him she hasn’t. The woman, who identifies herself as Natalie, is as friendly as a cruise ship’s social director and Viggio can’t help but wonder if she knows something he doesn’t. We have a report, he almost expects her to say, of some unauthorized dumping of human remains.
Viggio checks his own suitcase, but decides to take Ally’s valise as his carry-on. He worries about the bag being searched, some inspector holding up a pair of his daughter’s underpants and eyeing him suspiciously, but he passes through security as easily as can be expected, and then heads down to Gate B17 to wait. The area is already crowded, and he studies each face in the hope that the ticket agent got it wrong and one of them will be Ally’s. He thinks he sees her once—a wild head of red hair approaching from the woman’s room—but upon closer inspection he’s not even close. The possibility of his daughter having been abducted reenters his mind, and he decides that is she fails to show up, he will leave the airport, take a cab to the American Embassy, and report her missing.
On a level above, Viggio notices a glassed-in deck, crowded with people hoping to keep visual contact with passengers right up until the final moment of departure. He focuses on a woman with a young girl, their faces almost pressed against the glass, and finally picks out their target seated a row ahead and eight seats to the left, a teenage boy with headphones who gives them a thumbs-up before looking away embarrassed.
The vicinity around the gate is packed by the time pre-boarding is announced. People push forward—some dressed in commemorative t-shirts and caps from the feria, many carrying orange bags from the duty-free shop—anxious to have their zones announced, nervously wanting to be on board.
Viggio rises, and that’s when he sees her. She’s standing behind the glass on the level above and is waving her hand in an apparent effort to get his attention. He can almost feel his heart enlarge, and he gestures for her to come down, to hurry, let’s go, it’s almost time.
But Allison shakes her head and continues to watch.
He sees a man standing next to her, but it’s unclear whether or not they’re together. He’s tall and thin and young, black-haired and handsome. He gazes off to the side, away from Ally who lifts her hand, smiles brightly, and waves. Viggio can make out Elena’s wedding ring, its small stone slightly twisted to one side, on her finger.
“Allison!” he calls as if hearing her name will somehow snap her back, but no one pays attention, no one seems able to hear him.
And then he’s off.
He leaves the gate area, exits past security, searches frantically for a way up to the observation deck, and finally finds the escalator. He pushes through people both coming and going, a one-man search party in pursuit of his last vestige of family.
“Allison!” he calls again, but when he finally gets to the spot where he’d last seen her, she’s gone.
Below he can see people filing onto his flight. He hopes that perhaps she’ll be one of them, that somehow their paths have crossed, that he can still catch up. Final boarding is called, and Viggio hears his name announced, a request to please check in with the boarding agent at Gate B17.
Finally, he stands alone. He watches as the attendant closes the door leading to the waiting plane, as she makes a few notes, then turns off the illuminated flight board. In a few minutes he will return to the ticketing agent, explain that he missed his flight, and go through the whole procedure once more. He will discover that he can rebook by flying to Dublin and making a connection from there.
He’ll buy a bottle of vodka in the duty-free shop, and when he walks past Gate B17 on his way to Gate B22, he’ll spot Ally’s valise, on the floor between seats, where he last placed it. He’ll think about just leaving it there, but of course he won’t.
The car avoids drug detritus on an over-fifty-fives
complex. Canisters and tired balloons litter this
glitter of a retirement block. A ghetto enclave for
elderly lives in Dakin Close where sheltered needs
of vulnerable splinter enjoyment for family and
friends of the alcoholic tenant, whose incessant
selfish sounds screech the noisy night the young
relatives insisting on inheritance penchant to rule
and command actions of fearsome fright designed
to bully and banish safety by dictate of decisions
denied to the elderly innocent
The Glitter of the Retirement Block
by Andrew C. Brown
Z.Z. Boone is the author of “Off Somewhere,” a 2015 finalist for the INDIFAB Award for Short Stories. His fiction has appeared in New Ohio Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The MacGuffin, and other terrific places.
Andrew C. Brown
Andrew C. Brown performs spoken word under the title of The Grandad from Knowle West (an area within the top 100 of areas of deprivation within the UK). He is a recovering addict, an ex-prisoner, won Koerstler Award as a serving prisoner and has won a community regeneration award. He has been published in the USA and the UK.
Kawika Guillermo’s stories can be found in Feminist Studies, The Hawai’i Pacific Review, Tayo, Smokelong Quarterly, and many others. He is an Assistant Professor of Humanities and Creative Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University, where he works on prose fiction, Asian diasporic literature, and cultural studies. His non-fiction writing has appeared in journals such as American Quarterly, MELUS (Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States), and Games and Culture, and he writes monthly blogs for Drunken Boat and decomP Magazine, where he serves as the Prose Editor.
James Croal Jackson
James Croal Jackson’s poetry has appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Lines+Stars, Whale Road Review, and other publications. He is the winner of the 2016 William Redding Memorial Poetry Prize sponsored by The Poetry Forum. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio. Visit him at jimjakk.com.
Denise H. Long
Denise H. Long’s fiction has appeared in Blue Monday Review, Gravel, Kentucky Review, Burrow Press Review, and elsewhere. In addition to working as a copy editor and fact checker, she also serves as production editor for Carve magazine. Denise lives in Nebraska, with her husband and two young sons. You can visit her online at www.denisehlong.com.
Writer by day. Editor at The Forge literary magazine (also by day). Sleeper by night. Sometimes. Collection of short stories called “Smiling Exercises” is out now. Debut novel, “The Vaccine Slaves,” out late 2016. Say no to the tyranny of pronouns.
Michael Sandler’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, most recently in Zone 3, Willow Review, Caveat Lector, Off the Coast, Fourteen Hills, Forge, The Tower Journal, Valparaiso Poetry Review and Fogged Clarity. He lives near Seattle.
Morgan Shaver is a writer, photographer, and musician. She currently works as Greenlit Content‘s Senior Editor and the Editor-in-Chief of IndieObscura.com. Her photography has been featured in Limestone and Diverse Voices Quarterly, while her short fiction has been published in Penmen Review and Bete Noire.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Jean Wolff studied fine arts at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit and at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, receiving a BFA in studio arts. She then attended Hunter College, CUNY in New York, graduating with an MFA in painting and printmaking. She’s since had group and solo exhibits in various galleries in New York City and internationally, her art appears in numerous magazines, and she is part of the artistic community of Westbeth in Manhattan.
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