January 4, 2017 | ISSUE no 206
crack the spine
James R. Kincaid
Marsha Reed Nall
Joshua Michael Johnson
poetry by Griff Foxley
Blizzards of trivia.
"Beyond all this,” the founder says,
“We are all voodoo,
For our moments,
With nonchalance only
Grace can manufacture.”
Beneath all this, the beats abound
And sound the bounds of our fortune.
Mark a pomp-filled circumstance,
The stale, ashy scent braiding itself
Around swelling rhododendron buds,
Taking hold like roots, the dirt, our pleasure.
Beyond all this,
Alas, a missed call:
A bird’s beautiful ascending
Tickling its surrounding air with its curves.
Beyond all this…
Anthems to an assuredness
That nurtures itself
The way locomotives don’t dare stop
For a cow caught in their tracks.
May we at least chronicle
But some of the passing countryside
And the crickets,
And the cracking racket of the moving machine,
Steam stuffing the conduits,
Blacking the sky and the grass,
The boring through mountains.
I sometimes mistake the throbbing Earth’s heart
For a friend ascending the stairs,
Awaiting the welcomed knock.
Our lives and our works,
Like variations speaking to themselves
In raspy discussion around martini glasses
Held by hands amber from candlelight, or;
As gleanings compiled of their own force,
Like smoke or scents braided through verdure;
Works, picked like flowers
From a boundless greenhouse
Not made by man’s hands;
Works, an airy passage to the skies
Becoming an ever-denser column,
And then, fluted by the most artful digits.
Ilana and the Science Experiment
Mr. Kim was wearing goggles at the front of the seventh grade class. He asked if anyone had a dollar. The entire class searched pockets, unzipped backpacks, looked in the corners of the room. Ilana found her wallet buried in her polka-dot backpack and held up a dollar, said, “I do.”
The class passed it to the front, where Mr. Kim took it and pretended to pocket it. The class laughed. Then he dipped it in some chemical using pliers, held it close to a Bunsen burner. “You okay with this?” he asked, looking at Ilana in the back.
Her blood raced volcano-temperatures being singled out. “Yes, I know you’ll give it back,” she said.
“Don’t be so sure,” Mr. Kim said, holding the dollar over the flame, which immediately engulfed the bill. He waved the dollar around in the pliers, the ball of flame surrounding it. Ilana had never been so proud of her dollar — up there alone and bright. The class ooohed, ahhhed, then he dunked the bill into ice water, and with a puff of smoke it returned to a regular dollar.
Mr. Kim passed it around the class, everyone bringing it close, holding it up to the fluorescent lights above them.
When it came back to Ilana, she flipped it over and over. She felt like the dollar, going through some drastic change, but still staying her.
“Is it okay?” Mr. Kim asked her again.
“It’s the same,” she said. “Like it never happened.”
Ilana started buying $1 lipsticks at the grocery with her friends. Experimenting with red and brown and blue and pink. Her dad always raised his eyebrows when she sat down for dinner in a new shade. But he’d just ask what color she was modeling tonight. She loved the lipstick names, Maudlin Mauve, Blueberry, Mocha Latte.
Becoming a woman wasn’t as scary as she thought when she was younger and listened to her older cousins talk about their first kiss, their first breakup, their first attempts at sex.
It was nothing like three years ago, when the neighborhood kids cornered a slug on the sidewalk and Theo ran back to his house, brought back a can of salt. He shook a bit into each kid’s hand, then he was the first to throw salt on the slug. It instantly seized up and began bubbling. Ilana had tossed salt too, but now she felt horrible for hurting the slug, for changing it so much it couldn’t return.
Ilana was a little scared that she’d splutter and bubble on her way to becoming a woman. She of course was getting acne — but so far, no bad effects to salt.
Ilana had gotten her period earlier in the year. “A perfect time to become a woman,” her mom had said, pulling out two plastic bags — one with napkins, one with sticks. “Try both, see what you feel more comfortable with.”
After her mom described both, Ilana tried to put a tampon in. It seemed to stay, but when she walked down the hallway, it pinched her insides. She rushed back to the bathroom, pulled the string, and threw it in the toilet. She pressed one of the pads into her Wednesday underwear, since she’d gotten her period on Tuesday.
When she flushed the toilet, the tampon got stuck and the bowl started overflowing. “Mom!” Ilana screamed for the second time that day. That’s how she learned to wrap up used tampons and pads and throw them away.
The girls at school asked each other when they started in the locker room before gym. Some of them begged the gym teacher to let them sit out because of cramps and the fatigue that comes with constantly bleeding for a week. Ilana was too scared to ask to sit out, but she never felt like she had bad enough cramps.
Sometimes, in class, a murmur would spread around the girls. Did anyone have a pad or tampon for Georgia, for Pattie, for Olivia? Once Ilana had gotten her period, she’d started keeping a few pads buried in a hidden pocket of her backpack. She was usually the one who passed her backpack slyly to Skylar, who kicked it behind her to Jill, and so on, until the girl who’d needed them got them.
The boys in class had no idea anything was happening. To them, Ilana was the same. But she felt like she’d gone through that flame like the dollar in science class, and had somehow come out unchanged. She’d even taken a magnifying glass to the dollar, to check for rips or blurred text — but it was her same dollar. It had a sharpie stain on the top right — it had been like that when she got it at the grocery.
Becoming a woman was less dramatic than Ilana had expected. The bleeding became routine.
It was routine to bleed through all seven class periods for seven days. Until Paul told Ilana periods smelled. At first she didn’t believe him. But he said all of the girls in seventh grade suddenly smelled like coffee sitting out in the teacher’s lounge.
She didn’t want to be stale coffee. She wanted to shower in rain and fall leaves.
When Ilana asked her mom about period smell, she bought her a bottle of Summer’s Eve. “Use this when you shower,” she said. But Ilana didn’t want to use the thick lotion or anything called the worst season. Everyone was sticky, and sweaty, and rashy in summer.
In the locker room, girls started spraying their underwear and bodies with perfume. They rubbed deodorant in between their thighs and underarms. The perfumes and body sprays combined into a heavy scent that made Ilana dizzy.
During lunch one day, Ilana went to Jordan, an eighth grader. He’d been Julie until sixth grade, when he’d started to transition. “Can we talk?” Ilana asked while Jordan was stuffing fries in his face. He got up from his lunch group, said he’d be back and not to even think of touching his food.
They found a quiet spot outside on the track. Ilana asked if he still had his period. Jordan’s face flushed and Ilana felt like she’d thrown salt in his eyes. “Sorry, I just thought you might know how to deal with the smell,” she said.
They started a lap of the track, and Jordan called Paul an asshole and said to ignore him. Jordan did still have a period, but was trying different pills to stop it. He told her about Diva cups his older sister used and how she washed his period stains out of his sheets. “Girls could totally get away with murder,” Jordan said. “They’re so used to blood.”
When the lunch bell rang, Ilana felt a little better. She headed to science, still bleeding, but not worried about coffee or perfume. She sat at her desk and put Mocha Latte on her lips while Mr. Kim set up a Van de Graaff generator at the front of the class.
flash fiction by Marlena Chertock
And the Winner Is
short fiction by James R. Kincaid
“Talent is commonly developed at the expense of character.”
“Talent is perhaps nothing other than successfully sublimated rage.”
“It seems to me a sort of clever stupidity only to have one sort of talent---almost like a carrier pigeon.”
Must have been a cut-rate genie, giving him but the one wish. Things weren’t what they used to be. Still, one was what he had and what he’d deal with. Besides, he’d only wanted the one to start with. He hadn’t let on about that, of course.
“So, what’ll it be, Tom?”
“You sure? My slip here says ‘Tom.’ Never knew it to be wrong. I guess you’d know. So, what’ll it be?”
“Go back, in time, you know.”
“Wow, that’s original. Go back and do what, discover America, discover penicillin, discover genuine happiness?
“Nothing like that.”
“Be somebody, then? Napoleon, Jesus, Al Capone?”
“No, just me.”
“That’s a first.”
“I’m proud to be me, that’s what it is.”
“Not my job to question, but I’d think again. At least make yourself better looking, taller? Lose those outsized ears?”
“Don’t change a hair for me, not if you care for me.”
“I care passionately. That’s my job. OK, it’s you. Where, when, and what? Hurry along; I’ve got three others to get to today.”
“East Liverpool, Ohio; May 29, 1953; win the big high school talent show, singing a duet with Judith McCracken, and having the emcee make a complete fool of himself while we’re at it.”
“That sounds like two wishes—winning and vengeance on John, the poor bastard.”
“Oh. You know his name?”
“I know everything. But that’s still two wishes. You only get one.”
“And I’m running out of time. OK, we’ll pretend the wishes are so closely connected they count as one. Right: you win and John drops dead of envy.”
“Not dead. Just minor embarrassment.”
“You sure? I can do dead real good, had lots of practice.”
“Leave it to me to devise his humiliations.”
“Leave it to you? Jesus on a zebra! But time’s flying and I gotta. . . . Look, it really is your choice, but can’t you elevate your sights a little, find something more important, more resonant, less fucking silly?”
“Mother said never to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“Good for Mother. What’s that cliché have to do with all this?”
“If you don’t see it, I can’t explain.”
“I wonder if I got the wrong guy. I been working too hard, need a break.”
“You do look tired. Your eyes are sagging. Are those eyes?”
“Shut up. One last thing, then: what’s your talent? Oh yeah, you said: singing. What song?”
“’You’ll Never Walk Alone.’”
“Really? No Verdi, Wagner, Puccini? Oh yeah, high school talent contest. But that song’s in copyright in 1953.”
“That beyond your powers? Some genie!”
“Don’t be abusive! OK, I’ll do it and wish I’d never seen your short, ugly self, Big Ears!”
“Better than little pointy. . . . Thank you, Mr. Genie.”
“It’s what I do. So, back you go, ready to wow em there in the auditorium, you and Jenny.”
“Whatever. One last time: I could give John a heart attack, let him flop on the stage, no dignity and, pretty soon, no breath. Just a suggestion.”
Before he could get to Judith---the song, rehearsing, performing---he had to deal with John. You remember John, the emcee-to-be.
John is a senior. Judith and our hero, Tim, are sophomores or something, in case you were wondering. John is the sort of people-pleasing fool for whom the 1953 term “dipshit” was invented. Such kids – numbering about one per class – often are thespians, announcers on the P.A. system, hall monitors, wearers of bow ties to dances, releasers of bad jokes, active in the wrong way in the wrong clubs, proposers of dreadful ideas like a stiff honors system to halt the rising tide of cheating. They have depthless reservoirs of confidence and are so dull, so adamantine stupid, as never to register the responses of others. Nobody, not even lesser dipshits, likes them. No matter, these lulus imagine they are both popular and influential. The unshakable power of such baseless assumptions will carry them far in life. Not to be depressing.
Even our hero, though admittedly short on people skills, knew how to handle this sort: listen to him, give him a perch from which to crow, flatter him. In return, one gets to register undisguised sneers: Dipshit Kings are incapable of detecting them. Just don’t yell, punch, or turn away as they are talking. Sounds easy, but it’s dreadfully difficult. Try it.
Armed with confidence granted through the genie’s pointless generosity, our boy is capable of doing anything for a good cause and is about peeing himself to advance this particular cause, his own self-aggrandizement. He wants not just to sing but to captivate, to emit such sounds as will reverberate in each of his classmates’ hearts and send winging back to him enough admiration to last a lifetime. Wait! That’s not quite right: not admiration, but love. And not a lifetime, but an eternity.
Maybe he needs more than a single song to accomplish that. Maybe a song plus an encore. Oops---he can’t remember for sure but figures school-bus schedules would make encores iffy. But if it’s the emcee’s idea, if Oliver Out-Of-It is doing it for the good of the school and Virtue writ large, well then. . . .
“Hi John. You don’t know me; my name’s Tim Mills. I’m only a sophomore, but I’d consider it a great favor if you’d let me talk to you a minute, ask a couple of questions.”
“Definitely, Mills. And I do know you, by the way, as it happens, and am happy to talk to you. How can I help you, Mills?”
His resolve not to assault this ass-face is frazzling. Nobody says “Definitely”; nobody calls people by last names; nobody says stuff like “as it happens”; nobody acts as if they’re manning an information desk at a goddamned library.
“You sure you have time, John?” He nods, with the graciousness of Queen Victoria. “Thanks a lot, John, I do appreciate it. I haven’t been in a talent show before and know you’ve been in many and are running this one. I’m glad you are. We all are. Who else is qualified?”
Tim stops, worried that he’s drowning both of them in molasses. No need: John swells visibly, nods some more.
“I wondered what it’d be like, John. Of course I’ve heard talent shows before, Horace Heidt. Here’s what I’m asking – sorry to take so much of your time – those shows all are very mechanical, very predictable in their structure.”
John (notice no nickname ever came his way) is trying to look bland, but he’s puzzled. One has to remember that this guy has a crawdad-level I. Q.
“They are all alike. Each act gets the same amount of time, one after another, running like a model train, chugga-chugga-chugga. No imagination, no flair! If an act stinks, it goes once and that’s it; if an act is spectacular, it goes once and that’s it. Boring, boring, boring.”
John is smirking still, but he seems to be quivering a little around the lips, maybe thinking Tim, only a sophomore, is mocking him. So our hero strikes fast.
“But John – I know I’m bungling this, but I’m nervous. I’ve known who you are forever, but I never thought I’d work up nerve to talk to you. I know what you’ve done for this school and how original you are. I know you’d never be satisfied running a boring talent show, when it could be the best ever. So I imagined you’d be doing encores, time permitting, for the good acts, but I really wanted to know what you had planned for the lighting, whether you’d use those carbon-arc lights from the back. Reason I ask is, it’ll change how Judith and I dress. I know all this is second nature to you, and I hope you’ll forgive me asking, taking up your time.”
“It’s my pleasure, Mills. I’m glad to put my knowledge in your disposal. I have built up a lot of knowledge here and naturally I can understand – what I mean is, I’d like to know how you younger students, be you ever so resolute, can be expected to know what I know, you see, having not had the same ways of getting to that – ah – knowledge, unless there. . . .”
His confidence doesn’t seem shaken, but this demented groundhog has waddled too far from his hole, is dazzled by the brilliant sunshine of a sentence begun without an end in sight, and is now rolling down the hill, ass over tin cups.
“I see! I hadn’t ever thought of that, John, but of course. Unless you tell us, teach us, we’ll never know. We might try to trace your steps, but we’d have no chance.”
“Right. Mills, I like you, so I’ll tell you. Of course my duty is not simply to run this talent show but to plan it, not simply to plan it but to – what did you say? – create it, and create it as something new and not like any other – ah – talent show like they always have, boring-boring-boring. How did you put it? Chugga-chugga-chugga. Not bad. I like that, Mills. Yes! Chugga-chugga-chugga indeed!”
Tim tries hard to look as if he wished he had a pad and pencil handy.
“Yes, Mills, I intend to have fewer acts, of course, as you say, and choose myself on the spot which acts should go twice – or three times.” The last is true inspiration. “And”---his eyes now glint---“which acts shouldn’t go at all, time permitting, as you say. I can trust my instincts here, instincts and. . . .”
“Right. Instincts and experience. Right as rain, Mills.”
“Don’t mention it, though I guess you already did, ha ha har! As for lights, Mills, this place is primitive, primitive! Those of us in theatre certainly expect more, demand more! And we get – well, see for yourself.” As these two are now standing in the hallway of the central building and not the gym/auditorium/theater, there isn’t anything to see for oneself, which is OK, since John’s interested only in sounds, not meanings.
After even more lavish ass smooching on Tim’s part, tip-giving on John’s, slack-jawed attentiveness on Tim’s, and condescension on John’s, Tim manages to escape. It would have been appropriate to the occasion for our hero to have backed away, bowing like Osric as he scuttles. But even he has limits.
(You’ll notice here a shift in pronouns, point of view, whatever. It’s an artful shift, though you knew all along that “he” was “I.”)
Wednesday, Assembly Day, finds Judith and me dressed to the nines, throats sprayed. (This encore we mentioned earlier---you remember?—is another song from the same play, called “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”.) However, Dr. Clendenning, the orchestra director, has sprung on us a new version of the climax to the main number:
Longin’ to tell you [slow way down, soften] but afraid and shy,
I’d let my [very slow] gol—den chan—ces [slower still] pass me by
[speed up to the snail’s crawl] Soon you’d leave me,
Off you would go in the mist of day,
[slowest yet] Nev—er, nev—er to know [hold note forever]
How I loved you [long pause]
If [pause] I [pause] loved you.
Since the section is repeated, given in Carousel both to Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, we aren’t a quick act. To make matters worse on the timing front, Dr. Clendenning calls us out of class second period to load on us yet another way to prolong things:
“Got this idea, kids.”
Judith and I bob our heads,
“The Never-Walking encore is great but don’t rush into it. That’ll be at the end, after all the other acts. I’m talking about the main number here. You’re going to get applause like thunder. After a minute of it, I key the orchestra at measure eighty-four there – see?”
“I’ll cut right into the applause with the orchestra, forte. Then you both start in at ‘Longin to tell you’---alternating phrases until ‘Never, never to know,’ where you both sing, a duet, louder than hell, dramatic, ear-splitting sweet. Tim, you go high and Judith, you pick up the harmony, and then whisper the last phrase, ‘if I loved you,’ in unison, and dead soft, I mean below soft, slow too, of course.”
“You better go back to cutting up frogs. I’m not supposed to interrupt your work.”
On our return---“Judith, what do you think of this?”
“I think it’s a little show-offy, even without the encore. And this’ll make two encores. One here and one later.”
“I agree. Should we say we don’t want to do it?”
“Huh? I want to do it.”
“OK. A little show-offy is good. But this’ll extend our time, a lot. ”
“You think we shouldn’t just take over the talent show entirely, Tim? John would approve, of course, if you convinced him it was his idea.”
“You’re right about John, evil one, but do you think we really should occupy about half the whole program?”
“I do. That’ll be good.”
It is good. Sure enough, we finish the duet, embrace, bow – holding hands. The cheering comes crashing down like an explosion: on and on. Judith and I stand there, smiling like goofs, forgetting (at least I am) that we’ll be doing the last part over again. After a minute that seems like ten, here comes the orchestra behind us. Luckily, the lead-in isn’t short, which gives us time to regroup and the audience a chance to sense that something is happening:
“Longin’ to tell you-----“
Finish, further atomic blasts, retreat.
“Judith, that’s enough---even for a dream, even for the genie’s capacity. Don’t you think?”
“If you do, Tim.”
“Good. That’s it, then. We’ll watch other acts. Return then to where we were.”
“Return? Do you think so?”
Then, just at that moment, faithful to his imbecility, John grabs the mike, shouts down the shouting and gives forth the news, we had, true, planted but hoped he’d forget:
“How about an encore? A different song. What you just had wasn’t what I’d call a real encore, as it was the same song, part of it. So. . . . Yes! We haven’t done encores in the past, but I’ve never been in charge in the past, and I say encores are the thing – so we’ll do that thing and have an encore.”
You lackwit! Busses leave on schedule, other acts are waiting, we’ve taken too much time as it is. Even fantasies can’t be this selfish.
I look at Judith, who’s thinking the same thing, nudges me; so I go out, grab the mike, and say, “Thanks, John, but there are other acts we want to hear and not much time, so thanks to all you friends from Judith and from me. We’ll howl at you another time – and that’s a threat!”
John looks none too pleased, seems disposed to force an encore. But when the audience laughs, he adopts my words as his, accepts the good will, and proceeds. Drawing back into the side hall, Judith and I are slow beating a retreat, still lost in our mutual rapture. It does occur to me that John might possess further, more crapulent ideas, and that Judith and I should duck out of his sweaty-palmed reach. But it’s high emotion, romantic and dangerous, and it holds us in its spell, right here in this huge cementy hallway leading nowhere in particular.
Judith is so pretty now, bright and alive, but she seems ready to leave, loitering only out of kindness, the unintended consequence of which is that we’re sitting ducks for John, who plows straight at us after introducing in his inimitable way the next act, dance stylings by Debby Ann Naylor, who (I recalled) seizes every opportunity to don spangles and tap her way into our hearts. But she never makes it past the vestibule, the left ventricle, sad sad Debby Ann. Debby Ann is loyal to her dream, and it repays her with mockery she tries hard to ignore.
“Hello there, kids! I like the way we turned your encore into the next act. Classy, class---eeeeee!” “Liked your introduction, John.”
“Yes! Yes, you did. I mean, you and I know these things, Tim. Excellent singing, Janice.”
“Oh yeah, that’s what I meant to say. Easy mistake there, but. . . .” John ran out of steam, tried to fire up again: “Liked your act there, Juiced-Up Judith. Good lungs you got, and I’m not being foul-minded either, ha ha.”
Judith and I edge back, keeping our eyes on John, just in case he decides to come at us.
“I want you – don’t go away.”
“Well, we have to. . . .”
“Wait. Don’t think of going. I have an idea or two up my sleeve, once this oddball girl gets through with her dance. I guess you could call it a dance, ha ha.”
I look at my watch. Hallelujah! “I’ll bet those are some ideas. But John, there’s only about a minute until the bell. Looks to me like Debbie Ann is going to tap right into the night.”
“Like fun she is!” said John, who begins a rapid twirl that will launch him back into emceeing action. But he slips, does John, halfway round, his shoulders and upper body having moved too fast for his fat butt and heavy feet. The result is an undignified sprawl, accompanied by a yip that turns into low-pitched but loud baying.
“Oh my God! I’m hurt. I broke something. Help me!”
Judith and I somehow keep from laughing, but neither of us squats to help. John makes a few scrambles, trying to get upright with such haste that he once again fails to get his lower body beneath his upper and takes another sliding spill. By this point he’s sniveling, not softly.
“Are you hurt, John?” This, naturally, from Judith. I’m hoping that John has fractured at least one leg, his skull, all ten fingers, and his ass bone. I hope he has lost the use of his eyes and nostrils and sustained internal injuries, mortal.
Just as a weeping John makes it to his feet, pants torn right down the ass-crack, and starts plunging toward the auditorium, the bell rings. Debby Ann, ever the pro, transitions into two fast trip-and-grab moves, bows, and exits with dignity, as the one-thousand-odd kids empty out faster than the calendars flicking by in old movies, years moving before you can count or even see them, the auditorium steadily darkening.
Darker and then darker still.
creative non-fiction by Patrick Chambers
I'm pacing up and down the rows and rows of washers when I spot them, lying lifeless and limp on a folding table. A single pair of blue panties. An ocean blue. Some ocean surrounding a tropical island.
The twenty-four hour laundromat is empty at three o' clock in the morning, and I'm pacing to stop shivering. It's January outside. January creeping inside. I think it might be warmer here during the day, with all the dryers running, instead of only mine. I watch a pastiche of colors tumbling in the drum of the machine, and try to remember whether I cleared the lint trap.
I know I'm alone, but look around anyway as I slowly approach the table. The panties are laid flat, placed there carefully, deliberately. This table is the lost and found I guess. I wonder who lost them. Who found them.
I gaze at the panties and listen to the dryer's rhythm, its motor driving its pulleys and springs, its rollers, all of it in concert, rotating the drum. Something metal, a zipper maybe, clinks against the dryer's window every few seconds.
I reach out and pick the panties up, pinching the cloth between my thumbs and forefingers, a hip for each hand.
The dryer keeps drying. The clinking continues.
Holding them out in front of me, the panties are small. I think about some slender young co-ed, like the ones I've seen so frequently here, sorting through her socks and underwear at home, her face crinkling into a question mark. I wonder how many times this happens, whether anybody ever comes back. I think of all my unpaired socks.
I place the panties back on the table, careful to return them just as they were.
I pace some more and watch the snow outside, blowing at a sharp angle. The streets are empty, the buildings dark. I check the timer on the dryer. Five minutes. I lean my head in against the dryer's window, feel its warmth. Almost too warm. Almost burning.
I remember my first girlfriend in college. I think about the indelicate way I slipped her panties off the first time. Shaky hands I tried desperately to steady, jerking sharply where a soft, easy tug would have sufficed. Pink cotton with a little daisy on the waistband. Looking back, I wish I hadn't tossed them aside so quickly.
I take cautious steps back towards the table.
Some guys have a panty fetish. They're aroused by women's underwear, want to touch and smell and maybe taste. Maybe wear. To satisfy themselves, they might buy them used, search out sellers online, a cottage industry. Other men are more desperate. They might raid their neighbor's clothesline. They might even come to the local laundromat, wait for some unsuspecting woman to load her clothes and leave, and then swoop in for the theft. "Prolific Panty Thief Arrested in Texas" says one headline. "Panty Thief Terrorizes English Town" reads another.
So here I've come upon this unattended treasure, having expended no effort at all, and wonder what to do.
Clink. Clink. Clink.
Another girlfriend never wore panties at all, and I remember how disappointed I was the first time, and every time, to be met with something bared, bald. The lack of suspense in her skin.
I gather up the panties in my fist, grip them tight. I wonder what they smell like, even as I think about sweat and piss and cum and shit and blood. The online sellers charge more for each.
I think about what it means to know someone.
The buzzer goes off on the dryer. I start to take the plunge, but even before I really draw them close, I get a whiff of detergent. Everything washed away.
I think about what's not revealed.
I fold my warm clothes, place them in my basket, and venture out into the morning.
I leave the panties where they lie.
poetry by Zane Anthony
Windows open and here you are reading to me,
Kingsolver, then Keillor. Your poetic economy
excites like an almanac from last century, a butterfly
fluttering over shrubs, a Margaret Whiting record.
“You know what you are is a writer,” my teacher wrote
once. Last Friday night I felt it working, the written word bleeding me dry as I cuddled with near-slumber, lying
spine-flush on the floorboards.
My writerly mother talks to dozens of people a day,
but we haven’t spoken in months. I’ll be seeing you,
I said at the end of our call on Christmas.
For our one talk since, we spoke of taxes,
madeleines, and her brother’s sixtieth
in Tucson. Maybe, were I a stranger on a train,
she would talk to me ― I know what she’d say,
how she’s mothered four sons, her tall slender trophies
with precious genes.
Even I would be rapt by some man who, in that story
world, is dressed in all his trim on a train-car en route
to a borough of Philadelphia from Washington.
Still, my mind’s interior assumes the man’s
in that foggy Friedrich painting on a mountain;
with wonder, I scan the offing for purpose.
flash fiction by Rudy Koshar
Scraping, you’re up on a ladder in the northwoods working on this cabin, thoughts scattering. You’ve already put in hours on the job but there’s more, more, more, to quote a disco hit, do you remember Andrea True Connection? Things go through the mind when you’re a little bit shaky up on that ladder, sixty some years old, you, not the ladder. Your northwoods wife, Andrea, comes around the side of the house, she’s been scraping too, though she’s on the ground, because no way, she says, I’m not going up there, and she asks if you’d like some tea, we have some Mei Ji. You say, I’m feeling lightheaded.
Down on the ground, you realize you’ve been airborne too long, ten, twelve feet, inhaling, paint chips like snow on eyebrows, beard, hands, arms. Looking radioactive. Chinese tea scrapes up against northwoods air and tastes fine, like Andrea’s earlobe.
Back up the ladder, and thoughts tend toward death, scraping will do that, and there is a moment, you lean back and your knees remind you of a Psalmist’s words—“my shadow declinith”—and you’re like, is this it?
More tea? calls Andrea, and you know there will be more, more, more, and you whistle, how do you like it? how do you like it?
And you know the answer.
short fiction by Marsha Reed Nall
With several minutes to spare before she planned to catch the 6 train, Ruby upended her large bag onto the sofa. Items collected for too long tumbled out: ripped Kleenex, Met Opera and New York City Ballet stubs, grocery receipts, bank ATM slips, all of which made it difficult to find the essential items: cell phone, keys, reading glasses, new red lipstick, earplugs, Metro card, all surrounding her Rolleiflex camera.
Although she hadn’t performed in years, a cumbersome bag didn’t go well with her lithe dance figure. Determined to carry as light a load as possible, she returned the necessary items to the bag and was gathering up the rest to throw in the wastebasket when a shiny ring fell off the sofa onto the floor.
Surprised, Ruby stared as it rolled across the parquet and stopped just inches in front of a table loaded with African violets, all cloned from one given to her years ago by her mother. She hadn’t purchased a ring. Ron, her boyfriend, hadn’t given her one and wasn’t going to anytime soon. She’d overheard him tell a young blonde at a bar about a month ago that he didn’t want to get married but envied those fortunate enough to find the perfect partner. Ruby was sure he’d meant for her to hear his announcement.
The morning sun cleared the top of the building across the street, and a stream of sunshine entered Ruby’s living room, landed on the floor where the ring lay, tantalizing, teasing, and with a promise for the future.
Her horoscope, the first item she read every morning in the Daily News, told her: Real gold is when you pay attention to a person you’ll meet. Ruby liked to think she was too sophisticated to believe in the daily forecasts, but this was different: first the horoscope, then the ring.
Would Ron have dropped a ring in her bag as a surprise, a unique way of giving her an engagement ring? No, because he’d cancelled their date last Wednesday, and she hadn’t heard from him since.
She picked up the ring and held out her hand, weighing it visually and physically. Two baguette-shaped stones lay on each side of a large sparkling center stone. It was too solid for an inexpensive costume piece, but the ring might contain zircons or something else, and only a jeweler or a person who knew jewelry would be able to tell the difference.
She dropped the ring into her trousers’ right pocket, threw the strap of her purse over her shoulder, and grabbed a pink scarf from the table by the door. She carried a scarf most of the year, even in the hot months, to wrap around her neck for warmth on the train, the air-conditioned cars often cold in the summer.
On the five-block walk to the subway, Ruby stopped at a jeweler’s where she’d recently had new batteries put in her watch. She pressed the white button at the door and was buzzed in. Pulling the ring from her pocket, Ruby gave the woman behind the counter her best smile, and laid the ring on the glass case that held many other sparkling rings.
“Could you tell me if these are real diamonds?” Ruby asked. “Without having to do an appraisal?”
“Very nice,” said the dark-haired and dark-complexioned woman. “Let’s put this on a black cloth. Are you wanting to sell?”
“I just want to find out if they’re real diamonds.”
While the woman examined the ring, Ruby explained that she’d found it in her purse.
“And it isn’t yours?”
Ruby shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“They’re diamonds, well-cut. See how they sparkle. High quality. Colorless. The ring may not have been worn. The band has no scratches.”
“It’s beautiful,” Ruby said. “I’ve always wanted one, ever since I was a toddler and wanted to wear my mother’s.”
“You don’t want to sell?”
“Do you think I have it by mistake?”
The jeweler raised her dark eyebrows, probably thought she’d stolen it. That’s when Ruby noticed that everything about the woman was dark: black dress, earrings, dark-rimmed glasses, as if part of the dramatic style she presented had reached beyond intention with nothing to balance out the look. Hair dyed too black, penciled eyebrows too heavy. The woman wanted to be noticed, to be remembered.
“It’s expensive, isn’t it?” Ruby asked.
Again the woman raised her eyebrows.
Ruby thanked her and picked up the ring from the soft black cloth and returned it to her pocket. She left the store and walked the last two blocks to the 6 train to head downtown for Saturday overtime work. Ruby worked for a private bank only a few yards from Wall Street. Employee reviews were scheduled to begin in less than a month, and the atmosphere in the office had risen to a level of tense but smiling, happy-to-be-working faces. Several people had been laid off a few months earlier, and Ruby didn’t want to be the next person asked to leave.
She reconciled her nine-to-five finance job and her artistic life, a former dancer turned amateur photographer, by her title at the bank: senior design editor. The words sounded lofty, but she knew the most creative endeavor she accomplished at the office was where she placed statistical data and graphs among the financial verbiage. No page could have too many words or too many numbers. The bank believed that readers of such stuff expected this balance.
Ruby followed a large group of people down the stairs and felt the ring press against her thigh. She swiped her Metro card at the turnstile, careful to slide the card at the correct speed so she wouldn’t have to swipe it again, annoying the person in line behind her. When the train pulled into the station, instead of heading to the less crowded front or end of the train, which she usually did, she entered a crowded center car. Today was different and she would behave differently.
All the seats were taken and while waiting for the doors to close, Ruby wrapped the pink scarf around her neck, covering as much skin as possible between her chin and shoulders. The doors closed and Ruby grabbed onto the vertical bar in front of her.
Her friends, mostly artists, dancers, and writers, didn’t wear rings like the one that had rolled out of her purse. Could a disappointed man have deliberately dropped the expensive ring into her bag? Maybe a woman had turned down his marriage proposal. After being rejected, the man was distraught, and he’d selected Ruby out of all the people on the train or in a restaurant or walking down the street or even in her office, and dropped the ring in her bag.
Or a woman had discovered her fiancé was cheating on her, a trader or investment banker like Ron, some guy with money because of the size of the diamonds. The woman wanted no more of her fiancé and his sidestepping. Good for her. That’s what the cheater deserved. To have his ring discarded. But why had the person given the ring to her?
Maybe she’d merely been sitting beside the disappointed woman or man, possibly on a bench overlooking the Hudson River while eating lunch and watching sailboats controlled by captains who captured the wind effortlessly, weighing choices as they tacked their way toward the Atlantic Ocean. Ruby had sailed a couple of times with Ron on his 42-footer, but he’d mentioned he preferred sailing with the guys in his firm.
At Grand Central Ruby switched to a 4 train in order to keep heading toward her office. When the 4 stopped at the Wall Street station, she pulled the ring out of her pocket and put it on her engagement ring finger. It was a good fit, size six, the jeweler had said.
When she arrived on her floor, the eighteenth out of fifty-six, she headed to the small kitchen and, although right handed, poured coffee with her left. It was difficult to take her eyes off the ring. In a short meeting with two partners in one of the conference rooms, she held a pen in her left hand and kept it on the table, but she wrote nothing on the yellow pad in front of her.
Even on Saturday, both partners who sat across from her wore dark suits. At first neither man mentioned the ring. She hadn’t expected a comment, the firm conservative and old school, as polished as the table where they sat.
But after they’d discussed the new brochure going out to clients, where and how much financial data should be included, the shorter partner, Mr. Arnold, finally glanced at her left hand. He was bald, and a few employees made fun of him because they said he walked like a duck. The third time Mr. Arnold looked at her ring, he smiled and said, “Beautiful.”
Startled, Ruby thanked him but didn’t go further with the lie, although unless someone in her office had slipped the ring into her bag, no one there would know it wasn’t hers. She lived in a city so large she could disappear, even from herself, like falling into a silence where days could pass when she communicated with only her doorman. Good morning. Good evening. And when she retreated to her cubicle in the bank. Good morning. Good evening.
People knew little about her. Bits and pieces she’d let escape: born in Wisconsin, bad knees from leaping across stages and not ending in proper pliés. She’d taken up photography after her parents died within weeks of each other, their promise greater than till death do us part, so much in love one couldn’t survive without the other, equilibrium in the partnership gone.
Mr. Arnold smiled when she left the conference room. What if he had dropped the ring in her bag? But what if Ron had given it to her? That might be why he was out of sorts. Because she hadn’t found it and hadn’t said anything to him.
She thought she’d gone too far the night she told him she loved him. He’d hurried away, hadn’t stayed the night.
Ruby stared at the ring. She knew Ron went to strip clubs on the West Side Highway with his stockbroker buddies. He’d talked about the gorgeous young girls, effectively slamming her never-to-be-that-young-again state, as if wanting to confide his lust for the younger women, stacking them next to Ruby, who came up short not only in youth, age 36, but in one or more body parts, small breasts.
Their affair was simple. Dinners. Sleeping at his or her apartment. Sometimes he brought flowers and wine. Sometimes she bought ties for him. She loved the shiny silks. But the night she told him she loved him, she’d discovered he didn’t like desserts. She’d made pot au chocolat that evening, and he’d said he didn’t like desserts. Odd, how little she knew about him after six years. Had she forgotten he didn’t like sweets or had she not noticed?
She pulled her phone out of her bag, stood, and searched for anyone in a cubicle near her. Almost everyone who’d come in that morning had already gone home. She sat and called Ron’s cell.
“Hey, babe,” he said. “What’s going on?”
“I found it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The ring. In my purse.”
“The one you gave me. I’m sorry I didn’t find it sooner.”
Ruby heard Ron gasp or choke, a strange sound traveling from him to her. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I didn’t leave a ring in your purse.”
“You’re not messing with me.”
Ruby was silent, and Ron said he’d been thinking about calling her. She knew instantly what was coming next. He wanted to break up.
“Ron, we need to stop seeing each other,” she said. “I’m feeling a little crowded.”
He didn’t answer.
“Are you there?” she asked.
He’d hung up. She wanted to call him back and say she was joking, say she missed him, give him the words as a gift, but she didn’t pick up her phone. Ron wanted fun conversations, which she could no longer force. She’d surprised herself at saying the breakup words. The ring had given her courage.
Ruby looked down at the ring and then stood. She’d worked long enough for the partners to notice. She pulled the new red lipstick from her bag and applied it in front of the small mirror on the wall of her cubicle, first on the upper lip and then on the lower.
When she stepped into the hall, Mr. Arnold yelled from his office, “Thank you for coming in, Ruby. Have a good evening.”
Ruby smiled and waved. Mr. Arnold waved back and Ruby walked to the elevators. Poor Mr. Arnold. So many people were alone, so many not completed by a loving partner. If Mr. Arnold walked like Ron, no one would laugh at him.
Did she love Ron because he didn’t love her, although he’d cared when they’d met? She was sure of it. In the beginning she’d sensed an unspoken promise that they’d always be in love. What had happened? If she weren’t so serious and were more fun, would Ron still be interested in her?
She stepped off the elevator into the main lobby on the first floor. When she left the building, she didn’t put in her earplugs like she usually did. Today was different: the ring, her acceptance that Ron was gone. She pulled the camera out of her bag. Taking photos helped her pay attention to where she was. She’d known for a long time that she and Ron shouldn’t be a couple. She’d be all right. All she had to do was open her eyes and look and take a picture.
Wanting to walk, she headed to the Brooklyn Bridge subway entrance, two stations away from where she could have gotten on. And it happened. The event that always occurred on crowded New York streets. Someone stopped without warning, a man she’d been walking behind, both moving at a fast, steady pace. Until the man stopped and Ruby ran into him.
“Damn,” said Ruby.
“Sorry, ma’am. Are you okay?”
Texas drawl. Maybe his first time in the city. Middle-aged, balding, could lose some weight around the middle. She watched him after his eyes left her and traveled up and down the lacey terra-cotta panels of the Woolworth Building on the other side of Broadway, the building neo-Gothic, like an old church in Europe, although finance was the point here, not religion.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” said the Texan.
He aimed his camera at the top of the building and zoomed in.
He’s an engineer, an architect, or he loves beauty, she thought.
“It used to be the tallest building in the world,” she said. “Now it’s about twentieth just in New York. It’s nicknamed the Consumer Cathedral.”
“Have you been inside?”
“You can’t,” she said. “You have to know someone to do that.”
“I have a kind of pass. Would you like to go in? ”
“Oh, yes. I’ve wanted to for so long. May we take photos?”
“I don’t see why not.”
Crossing Broadway, she saw him glance at her ring finger.
“It isn’t real,” she said. “I wore it at the office this morning to see if anyone would notice.”
“One person commented. It was a stupid idea.”
She pulled off the ring and started to drop it in her bag when her eyes landed on a disheveled young woman in tight, torn jeans sitting on the sidewalk next to the entrance of the Woolworth Building. The woman stared at Ruby and jiggled a paper cup that had a small amount of change in the bottom.
“Should I?” Ruby asked the Texan.
He shrugged. “It’s your ring.”
Ruby dropped the ring into the cup. She’d seen someone do that in an old black-and-white movie.
“It better be real,” the woman said.
Ruby looked away.
The Texan nodded to the woman, still ratting her cup, and dropped in a twenty-dollar bill. He turned to Ruby.
“Does that camera of yours focus automatically?”
Ruby smiled. “It was my father’s. I have to do the work. If I pay attention, work on the focus and the picture, sometimes the result is what I’m aiming for, rather than floating along, taking a shot here and another one there.”
“I understand. I’m in the city at least once a month. This is the first time I’ve carried my camera. I’m seeing all sorts of buildings and places, even faces I’ve never noticed.”
“Like we’re only passing time unless one stops long enough to pay attention. I’m so glad I ran into you.”
He glanced up at the Woolworth Building. “After we finish here, do you know where there are any water tanks on tops of buildings?”
“They’re all over the city.”
She had lots of shots of wooden water tanks and didn’t need more. She was running out of space to store her photos. Dragging him to her favorite sites would mean calling friends to gain access to buildings for great rooftop views. She wouldn’t ask him to her building, not yet, where she’d shot the best water tanks. Maybe his next trip to the city, if he called her. “I’d like that,” she said. She wasn’t compromising just to please the Texan. Maybe she’d discover something new.
At a camp with speedboats, paintball, and mountain biking, the boys from Tennessee spend the afternoon throwing rocks at a Yoo-hoo bottle floating in the surf. It’s a game of raw skill and simple rules—carefully select a stone, wheel back the arm, and let loose your best shot—first one to sink it wins. In this game all is bare—it’s mano a mano—no one hides behind another. When the bottle finally shatters and sinks out of sight, there are whoops and hollers and high-fives. Soon the boys turn their arms toward a distant buoy bobbing against sky.
microfiction by Joshua Michael Johnson
After taking her first writing class with Bret Lott, she went on to earn an MFA in creative writing from the New School in New York. She was awarded a National Arts Club Literary Committee scholarship; was nominated for a Pushcart Prize (2012); received an honorary mention in the Palm Springs Writers Guild Short Story Contest (2013); and won second place in the Palm Springs Writers Guild Short Story Contest (2014). Her work has appeared in riverSedge, The Talon Magazine, Soundings East, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, and The East Hampton Star. She is a certified public accountant and works in the tax field.
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