june 28, 2017| ISSUE no 219
crack the spine
Michael A. Ferro
Lois Ruskai Melina
Sara K. Bennett
poetry by David Miller
The universe bears the bruises of collisions—a blue sound, verging on purple, a split nebula, blood in the crown of a supernova. These bruises can only mean one thing: a series of universes strung together like a tenor-clef.
I like the sound of a multiverse. I can picture me somewhere else, on a slurred semiquaver of earths. The Bass Me is also typing a poem beside a green naugahyde soccer field beside an airport. That Miller writes fire—oh, yeah!—he sings the best truths in the clearest notes—but then his daughter kicks the soccer ball too far, too high and it bounces off the clouds. My Trebled Thought is interrupted—
That reminds me of the story I meant to write when I sat down—before I saw a purple efflorescence of sky—The Dodgers playing in a hurricane. Top of the second inning, a routine pop-up, a wind that undoes itself and lifts the ball up and out over the park. The outfielder who throws himself into the wall in an attempt to climb over the wind—and then a dyad of ball and forehead—
before physics, the world was a contented singularity
every human bruise carries echoes of the first
in another park I am writing this poem
in this park God exhales into every word
There are gases in the universe older than the suns, they stretch like an aria across the space of time, they have their own stories, they heal bruises. This is proof of God—gathering breath—between passes on a cello.
The Bruised Universe
The neighbors are no real problem. That is saying something, even given all the bizarre, opinionated, psychologically damaged people who could move in next to you. They have been, quite, well, neighborly. A couple of times they picked up my paper and placed it on the porch when they went to the curb to fetch their own.
I actually feel myself lucky. The only concern that comes to mind is that these relatively new neighbors are two dimensional. No depth, whatsoever. Standing head on, you can see them just fine. But, as they turn, you simply see the swing of angle, and then – full side-on – they disappear. If they continue to turn, you see a line of the back, and the full back only when they are perfectly parallel to you.
So far, it is just the two of them. Husband and wife, I presume, though you can’t really know these days. I have a suspicion they want children, but the subject has not come up. Our talk along the shared fence has been politics, science, religion – all things we don’t really have any interest in, or body of knowledge about to defend or polish.
They are not to be found outside on windy days. Being flat, a good wind will knock either of them rudely down. I guess they could come out and stand sideways to the wind direction: edgewise having no surface. But a little off-track gust, and they can get spun around – and then it is a fight, as the wind tries to push them perpendicular to its direction, to spin them, and they struggle to return to parallel.
That is the whole point: parallel, they are invisible to everything; perpendicular, they are most vulnerable.
They can battle a small amount of pernicious wind, adjust to the occasional sheer, or a case of junior crosswind. Sometimes they can almost seem harshly brave in doing it.
I can imagine how many times one of them has been knocked into. They disappear completely at some angles, are a line hard to discern at other angles. I imagine they constantly are adjusting so that companions can luxuriantly see the whole display of them.
It must be a struggle to be two dimensional. But they seem like a couple in love, and love can overpower anything, even dimensional non-conformity. They have each other, and that can stand them up against a fully plush world.
I am sure children will come. I am not sure how they will accomplish it. The mechanics in two dimensions cannot be the same as it is in three. Dramatically. I can imagine all sorts of procreative geometries: perhaps there is calculus for it. Even if it is not itself a calculus, I suspect a calculus could describe it. That lack of a third dimension must complicate the whole process. It might, however, enliven it. It might simplify it.
And, on spring nights, when everyone leaves their windows open to reduce the bite of the electric company, I think on the light wind, many nights, erupting from their home I hear dimly a scraping, an abrasion: something like fresh sandpaper on old, unyielding metal. Perhaps a lament hurried and sadly joyous, unmindful and full of numbers. And it informs me enough to make me curious to know more.
flash fiction by Ken Poyner
It Will Show You
short fiction by Kathryn McMahon
On the first day of fourth grade a new tree appeared among the dogwoods outside my classroom window. Cole called it the glimmer tree and said whoever climbed it could choose to be a boy or girl. I climbed it, but I didn’t want to give up being a girl. I just wanted to know what the boys were always talking about.
The glimmer tree smelled of summer, then of winter, depending on how I turned my head. The leaves weren’t green, but danced with pictures: people, places, things—some I knew and some I didn’t. Fish swam in a dark ocean pretending they were stars. Long-necked feathered things nibbled at treetops. In the leaf above my head, a mailbox’s yellow paint cracked in the sun as poppies tickled its sides.
Cole sat near the top of the tree. “See? This will be me.” I swung myself up next to him. Laughing and talking inside the leaf was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Cole looked at her like he didn’t ever plan to look away.
Beside his leaf fluttered one showing my best friend Julie’s living room. I plucked its stem and put it in my pocket to give to her. “Are you coming, Cole?”
I climbed down and discovered Julie reading under one of the dogwoods. “Hey, look what I found.” I held out the leaf with her living room.
She brushed her thumb across its surface and disappeared. Her leaf fluttered to the ground.
Had I killed her? I bent to the ground and picked up the leaf. Inside, Julie was sprawled across a pale blue carpet. My heart nearly stopped, but she sat up and began to cry. Her parents, who ran their company from home, walked in. The shapes of their mouths read: What are you doing here? Why are you home? I couldn’t tell Julie’s exact answer, but I could almost hear them screaming.
Cole jumped down from the last branch. “Did you find Julie?”
“Weird. She forgot her book.”
I put Julie in my pocket and took her and the book home. Inside the leaf, her parents clawed at tiny windows of flat black nothing. But it wasn’t night yet, or even dusk, and the streetlamps hadn’t come on outside my house.
Julie did not come back to school the next day or the one after and then other kids said she probably wouldn’t, not ever. Dr. Sarah came to talk to us. She, Ms. Phillips, Principal York, and the police asked me and the other kids where Julie had gone. Had we seen someone take her? Had we seen a strange van? A strange man? A strange woman?
I told them no. And did not show them the leaf. I rolled up Julie and her living room and popped them up through the bottom of my turtle piggy bank that I left to hibernate on a shelf beside her book.
The bus route had one less stop. No one knew where even Julie’s house had gone. I climbed the glimmer tree every day, but couldn’t find any other leaves with any other Julies. For a while I carried her around in my pocket whispering sorries to her, but she neither heard nor saw me. I searched for a leaf of my own, but couldn’t find one.
Late in October, Ms. Phillips brought us outside to carve the class pumpkin. She sat under the glimmer tree and leaned back onto its moss. When she vanished, Cole ran to tell the principal.
I got the questions again. Everyone in our class did.
The school told our parents Ms. Phillips had left because of a family emergency. When she didn’t come back, they said she’d gone to live with her sister. No one but us could say otherwise.
Our new teacher, Mr. Richter, wore a thin, orange dead snake of a tie. He gave us white labels to write our names on and stick to our t-shirts.
Cole sat beside me making neat letters.
“That’s not your name,” I whispered.
“It belongs to the lady in the leaf.” Cole pressed on the label and I worried.
Mr. Richter scanned the attendance sheet and frowned. “There’s no Nicholas here.”
Cole sat up taller. “Nic is short for Nicole.”
Red crushed Mr. Richter’s face. His tie lashed about like a tongue tasting the air for fear.
Cole did not look up for hours. I couldn’t think of what to say. My head, my body—I felt punctured all the way to my insides. I could not imagine how my friend felt.
At recess, Mr. Richter’s anger struck up and down the playground. Like the rattlers and copperheads in the forest beyond school, I didn’t believe he could ever be charmed.
Cole sat under a dogwood and wouldn’t talk or meet my eye or even look at me when I pretended to trip and fall.
I peeled off my sticker and began to climb the glimmer tree, careful of the moss. “Mr. Richter! Mr. Richter,” I called as loudly as I could. “Come see our special tree! It will show you the universe!”
“Hey you. You. That’s too high, now. Get back down here. Hey! YOU!” Shouting and huffing, he ran to the tree. His face boiled as he squinted up and tried to remember my name.
I climbed higher.
“Get back down here! NOW!” He slammed his fist on the trunk and was gone, shouts fading with a squeak.
I swung my feet and dropped down. Beneath the dogwood, Cole hadn’t moved, but peered up, waiting for me to say something. I didn’t know what to say, so I sat and leaned there, too.
When the bell rang, I followed Cole back inside where the principal met us with more questions.
I liked Ms. Martinez. I made sure she stayed away from the glimmer tree.
Red autumn soon fell from the dogwoods and the glimmer tree dropped oily rainbows. Nuts followed a few weeks later. These were perfect balls, so smooth, hollow, and ideal for marbles and magic money. Jeremy Duvall ate one on a dare and evaporated. I’d stayed home with a fever that day, so I didn’t get any questions. When I returned, I took a nut to put next to Julie’s book and started carrying her leaf around again, even though she was no fun to watch just sitting on her sofa, bored.
Before the snows came, the last leaf fell from the glimmer tree and then the wind carried them all away into a bright ball that eclipsed the sun. They made funny spots on it, like the ones I saw on the back of my eyelids when I pressed my fingers into them. Julie’s leaf squirmed inside my pocket like it wanted to go, too, but I held tight.
Nic-Cole came over to my house. I went to his. Hers. Nikki’s. I did not show her Julie’s leaf and I only said ‘Nikki’ when no one was around. I forgot once and Ms. Martinez heard kids laughing and made them stay inside at recess. She asked Nikki, “Have you talked to your parents about your, um, new name?”
“They said I’m not allowed to change it.”
“Nikki can be your name between us then.”
Spring bloomed cream and fussy pink over the dogwoods while the glimmer tree stayed bare. I was worried it had died until one morning when it shot out icy shards of crystal that popped and crackled outside our window during a spelling quiz. At recess, I was the only one who dared climbed the tree. I sat on a branch turning my head this way and that to smell time sweet on the breeze. I knew better than to touch the flowers, though when I got close enough to sneeze from the pollen, for just a moment, an old-woman with my face hovered before me glittering in tiny mucus droplets.
Soon the tree rolled out fresh, greasy leaves and the flowers fell in bursts of light. Ms. Martinez gathered us at the window to watch our local meteor shower. No one wanted to play outside that day, not even me.
The next morning, galaxies puddled the schoolyard. Groundskeepers shoveled mounds of dirt into their winking abysses and they didn’t seem to get any fuller. Nikki climbed the tree and again found the leaf with the woman she would become. I hunted for the flat shape of my future, but still couldn’t find it.
At home, Julie’s leaf was dying. It was brown and spidery with mold. I brought it back to school and combed the tree for a leaf-place I thought she might like.
She was fond of the ocean, but I couldn’t find the leaf with the starry sea creatures. This turned out to be a good thing. I found a sandy beach and when I pressed the two shimmering faces together, Julie, her family, and her sofa tumbled out onto the shore. Luckily, I hadn’t torn this leaf off, so I just left it alone and told Cole to tell everyone I’d beat them up if they went near the tree, not that anyone else did by then. I didn’t want Julie’s beach to go away. Where would she go if it did?
I kept looking for my future. I found what I thought was a mirror of now, but behind leaf-me were shadows to touch, to trip over, shadows of things that would never fit here because we were their dreams.
Julie came back to school with a suntan and visited Dr. Sarah every morning before math. I was afraid she wouldn’t talk to me, but I don’t think she knew I’d kept her leaf. No one ever found her old house. She came to mine sometimes and at sleepovers my heart pinched when she rolled off the bed with nightmares. Eventually, I stopped asking her over, stopped calling her back.
At an assembly in June, Principal York told us our school was growing. We had such marvelous test scores, every kid wanted to come.
Nikki raised her hand. “Do they know that people disappear?”
“No one has disappeared. Those were just misjudgments of time. Misunderstandings. Anyway, we need more classrooms.” The dogwoods and glimmer tree would have to go. After school, I begged my parents to take the tree. They said absolutely not, it didn’t go with the Japanese maples.
Nikki and I climbed the glimmer tree one last time. We looked everywhere for my future and finally found it on a leaf so new it was still sheer. Inside, future me was older and more mysterious than I had expected.
The next day, axes collided with the tree in strange, loud phonics. Ms. Martinez played recordings of white noise and gave us coloring sheets and word searches. Even though it wasn’t on the list of what to search for, Nikki circled she on all her pages and mine.
There was a shout and a pickaxe flew through the air, not towards the tree, but back at the man who’d swung it. An ambulance came and we went home early. The next morning, Dr. Sarah was there to talk to us and Ms. Martinez put down the blinds for a few days.
Under fluorescent bulbs, we ached for natural light and strained to hear what was happening outside where the glimmer tree still glimmered and workers argued about how best to stop it. The following day, a bulldozer ate a great moat of air around the glimmer tree until the shovel struck a root and the machine flickered into nothing.
I was certain the tree would be there forever, but the next day there was no such thing—and no hole in the ground, either. The tree had blinked itself out.
I kept the glimmer tree nut. Nikki grew up and attended a college on the other coast. I wrote her every week while I stayed in town and studied horticulture. I stayed where I knew the soil.
I bought my own house and planted the nut in my backyard where no one would take it away. It grew and I waited. It grew and I bonsaied my tree into a great circle of oiled green, careful not to bend it too much, careful not to touch the lichen on the north face of unknown.
The leaves on its woven limbs tell stories. Julie lives in Big Sky Country now. Ms. Martinez is retired and traveling. I found Nikki’s leaf, still shining with the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. When she came back to town, she’d become the woman dreaming inside the leaf. She moved in with me, though she never goes near the glimmer tree. I started a seasonal shipping business, World Tree Freight. We will show you the universe. Clients have their raw materials or their products. I have their destinations fluttering in my garden. Nikki says I am magic with the customers, but she’s never looked closely at the potpourri sweet with crumpled rainbows.
creative non-fiction by Lois Ruskai Melina
Past: I was born in 1952.
Present: I am 64 years old.
Future: The years after this will be different from anything I’ve known. They will not center on paid work, raising children, building a resume. How will I introduce myself?
Active: In the active voice, the subject is doing or becoming something: I wonder how to find meaning in this new stage of my life; how to use my body, my talents, my voice. I notice how seldom people I meet ask me what I “do.” I think they assume whatever I “do” is not interesting.
Passive: In the passive voice, action is done to the subject, but the doer of the action is not identified: I am asked more often if I need help carrying my groceries to the car.
Colloquial use of the passive voice, using forms of “get” rather than forms of “be,” allows us to feel the verb as an action rather than as a state: I got blindsided by age because I was so involved in my life.
The use of “become” shades the meaning further, showing it as the result of a development: I became marginalized, unseen.
When the progressive form of “be,” “get,” and “become” are joined with a past participle, it indicates that the action goes on continuously: I am getting ignored.
Indicative: The indicative mood states a fact, a close relation to reality. The subject experiences the action as an actual reality in daily life, one that must be reckoned with: I grieve the loss of muscle tone, that my grandchildren live so far away, that I didn’t prepare for retirement more thoughtfully, that I went after a more predictable career rather than doing what I really wanted--developing myself as a writer. The truth is, I didn’t know if I was good enough to be the kind of writer I wanted to be. I ran away from my longing, back to the comfort of a position and a salary, back to what I knew I could do well.
Subjunctive: Expresses a wish or desire that is outside reality or has little hope of being realized: Sometimes I think that if I could do it over again, I would spend those years writing. But then I remember: I would not be the person I am, the writer I am. If I’d done it differently, I would not have the pain I have or the lessons I’ve learned. But I would have had other pains, other lessons. I wonder if I would have been a better writer, or if I’m a better writer for the path I took.
Imperative: A command, admonition, warning: Don’t tell me how lucky I am that I have all this time now to write. Listen to what I’m telling you.
Number and Person
First Person Singular: I struggle some days to write, and sometimes to believe in myself as a writer and sometimes to believe that what I write has meaning for anyone but me.
First Person Plural: We went to a reading recently by a writer we admire.
Third Person Singular. A few days later, he revealed that he has a brain tumor. The prognosis is not good. He is my age. He’s well known, successful, but he has more to say. He just wrote a story about what it’s like when the unthinkable happens.
Second Person Singular and Plural: You never know.
Third Person Plural: They make new discoveries all the time.
The character of the action is called the “aspect.”
Terminate: The act is a finished whole, an actual truth; it is completed: One day I decided to learn to row. I didn’t consider what I would do with this new skill; I impulsively signed up for the course, paid in full, showed up ready to row. No one asked me what I did outside of the boat. When we hoisted the shell onto our shoulders to carry it from the boathouse to the water, no one asked me if I needed help. When I finished the class, I joined the rowing club.
Progressive: Shows the act as habitual or ongoing and communicates more feeling: I am rowing regularly now, getting up at 4 a.m. to be on the water by 5:00, even when it’s dark or raining. I am feeling accepted, even though I am older than most of my teammates. I am even thinking about racing. My day consists of rowing, then writing (and sometimes napping).
The participle is an adjective with the force of a verb: The river is healing. The passion I feel for something new is rejuvenating me. The participle is often passive: Unconscious material is being brought to the surface when my body is moving in sync with the boat. Creative energy is being released.
Originally, the infinitive was a noun, and it is now used as the subject or object of the verb: To feel powerful—physically and mentally—is to feel more fully alive. To create is a way to find meaning at any age.
Originally, there was no future tense in the English language. There was only the present and the past. The future was expressed in terms of the present or the past: People who say that in retirement you [will] just do more of what you did before rather than taking up the hobby you never got around to or fulfilling an unmet longing--are not necessarily right. Maybe you [will] discover what you were meant to do all along.
What we call future tense always contains part of the present or part of the past: I write stories so that my children and grandchildren and even strangers know me, even after I am gone, so that they know that I lived and what I longed for. I write so that I will not disappear.
Author’s Note: The descriptions of verb forms are taken from English Grammar by George O. Curme, copyright 1947 by Barnes & Noble.
The Verb Forms of Aging
Eat a Peach
poetry by David Lohrey
The prostate goes.
The plumbing breaks.
The penis drips.
It isn’t pretty.
Sagging boobs are the least of it.
Being young sucks but for other reasons.
The balding head started balding years ago.
I was prepared for it.
But not for this.
No one told me the knees would go.
It’s a lot to give up.
First, tobacco, but who would argue?
Then rice, pasta, coffee, chocolate.
Should I care or can I ignore it?
Death is so close I can taste it.
People look you over and see you’re half dead;
Most are too polite to say so.
They might feel a little sympathy.
You want to touch and be touched in turn,
But let’s face it: you’re old and stinky.
You used to count on that chance to get closer.
Love is over: you’ll never pat an ass again.
What’s missed is not the fornication but the flirting.
I for one see no reason to get together,
No point at all in communication.
Why meet people even more miserable than I?
In fact, if they’re not helping with the tax returns,
What’s the value of all this interaction?
Talk about what? What’s in it for me?
There are no more ballgames, just what everyone calls “TV.”
There are too many problems you’d rather not share.
Bodily secretions, special strains of sweat,
Rare sovereign odors once confined to one’s nether regions.
Little spills don’t add up to much, yeah, sure. But the
Throat clearing, sneezing, and nose dripping are constant.
Everything falls out and what doesn’t
Doesn’t work well.
When your body goes, you’re through.
People say today, “I’m done,” but they’re not done for.
If they were, they wouldn’t say so.
The final feet, the final door:
One works one’s way towards the finish.
Can one find a sign of hope, or a bit of encouragement?
The only sign I have is one tiny hair on my nose.
Perhaps tomorrow I’ll find two.
Don’t alarm her. Announce your presence with deliberate footsteps that thud against the tile floor. Give her ample time to spin in her stool and fix her face—whether its twisted with worry or regret or simply vacant—into pleasant surprise. If she likes children, this will come natural to her. If she doesn’t, it might take her a few tries to get the look just right.
Be the first to speak. She might not know how to introduce herself—“your dad’s co-worker,” “just a friend,” “Emily,” (if she’s particularly bold or has illusions) “your dad’s new girlfriend.” It’s possible she didn’t know of your existence before this moment. It’s not unlike your father to withhold information that would stand in the way of getting what he wants. And so shatter the morning’s strained silence by saying something disarmingly endearing. “Can I have a bowl too?” has worked wonders in the past, because, at nine, you are still cute—a couple years away from the ravages of puberty. It’s childishly blunt, carries a sense of a need, has a communal aspect. And, depending on her age, it will prod some once dormant maternal instinct.
Strike that delicate balance between natural ease and careful attention. You want her to feel as comfortable as possible, sitting there, her bare legs rippling with goosebumps in the AM chill and her face still caked with last night’s makeup—not like the outsider that she truly is, here in your ordered world of strawberry Pop-Tarts and Saturday morning cartoons. But you don’t want her to feel so unnoticed that she thinks this is all routine for you (even if it is), that you will be shuffling past a different bartender, blind date, intern, OkCupid match, friend-of-a-friend a week from now. A proven way to put this abstract philosophy into practice is to loudly belch in front of her then quickly cover your mouth and excuse yourself, as if to say I feel immediately comfortable in your presence but recognize that you are still a stranger and a lady at that.
Do not mention:
A. That although you were only six at the time, you can still hear the sound your mother’s head made when it connected with the bottom step of the staircase—heavy and wet, like when you were unloading groceries and dropped a watermelon in the driveway—or the blood that pooled around your Road Runner slippers when you went to investigate.
B. The way your father quickly retreated into porn. The flicker of writhing flesh, the strained grunts and moans that emanated from his phone, computer, the living room TV and still echo in your head at night when you try to fall asleep.
C. The women that have sat in the same position she does now. The raven-haired one that lifted her (your father’s) shirt to show you a nipple, dark, brown, and wrinkled like a prune. The younger one that burnt bacon in your mother’s favorite cast-iron pan and set off the fire alarm and your father’s temper. The rail-thin one who sucked on a cigarette and barked at you to leave her the fuck alone if you knew what was good for you.
D. That you will never see her again.
When your father bounds down the pressure-washed stairs, wraps a bare arm around her waist, adjusts himself beneath his boxers with his free hand, kisses her temple, clears his throat with a guttural sound, and shoos you away—go quietly. Do not whine that you’re starving. Do not look to her with pleading eyes for support. Do not kick his bony shins. You will pay for it later. You can slink to the living room and turn the TV just low enough that you can make out their muffled conversation from the other room. He says he would like to spend the day with her, but he has to do some serious yard work, has to help his buddy move some furniture, has to take his annoying kid to soccer practice. But maybe they can do something next weekend. She might snap back, and you can raise the volume to drown out the ensuing argument. Or this might be welcome news to her, and she will let out a quiet sigh of relief.
ome time later—whether she is storming out or has tip-toed back upstairs for sober sex and is now re-fastening last night’s clothes as she strides out the door—she might turn back to you on the couch, before heading into the new day. It is okay to smile and wave. After all, she is free to go, and you, well, you have no choice but to stay here a little while longer.
flash fiction by Douglas Koziol
How to Treat Your Father’s Latest One-night Stand Who is Eating Cereal at the Kitchen Counter While Wearing Nothing but One of His Hockey Jerseys
short fiction by Michael A. Ferro
Mrs. Peterson could not be bothered with such a thing as dying, she being far too industrious moment to moment, each and every day. Her husband, Mr. Peterson, on the other hand, was too idle to live any longer, so he died promptly at 12:37 p.m. on a Tuesday at the age of fifty-eight, just after he had finished a particularly bland lunch at work. It wasn’t the lunch that directly killed him; heart disease was the silent culprit, brought about by a lifetime of more-soggy-than-crunchy cheese curds and his ultimate capitulation to a taciturn life in the outskirts of suburban Minneapolis. Mrs. Peterson herself was also in failing health but would never know it.
Her hair began to fall out regularly, clogging the drain after each shower. Lately, her head constantly ached as if someone were inflating her brain like a balloon within the tight confines of her skull. She was busy arranging the final details for the Albertson wedding the following Saturday and now she had to add the preparations for her late husband’s funeral to her to-do list.
She knew that it sounded cold to think of this matter in such clinical terms, but in being honest with herself, she and Mr. Peterson had grown apart for some time, though such a motion of separation simply must imply that there ever was a notion of close proximity—an implication which she pondered night after night on her stiff mattress in recent times. During the last seven years, she and Mr. Peterson no longer shared a bedroom in their home and they rarely ate together (Mrs. Peterson would scarcely eat anything that Mr. Peterson opted to eat from the fast food joint just down their street). Her primary focus was her wedding planning company and business was flourishing. It was wise to get into a business that would never falter, she reminded herself. No matter what modern melancholy the world embraced, people would always marry one another, especially so in this part of the country; marriage was an essential element of quant suburban Midwest culture. Mrs. Peterson never could quite get the hang of her own marriage, though, even after twenty-four years.
She had just turned thirty when she married the late Mr. Peterson. Her business was taking off and the sideways glances and halfhearted jokes that she endured about being a spinster while planning other people’s marriages had become far too exasperating. She married Mr. Peterson at the City Clerk’s office just three months after they had first met at a speed dating lunch event. And while they were not unhappy together, it was never more than it was meant to be: a solution to the minor but nagging problem of being unwed at thirty in a small, rural Minnesota town.
Mr. Peterson, a bank teller since the age of nineteen, was quite happy when they married after spending most of his young adult years alone. He rapidly became accustomed to the fact of what the marriage was and rarely complained, also content to have quelled his own vocal critics and suspicious family members. When they had finally stopped sleeping together and sharing a bedroom, little changed, and each was happy to have a private space.
The matter of the mattresses—each now having their own—was a much-desired advantage to this new arrangement. This was especially true for Mrs. Peterson, who had long been aggravated by Mr. Petersons’ jimmy legs. Mrs. Peterson remembered back to that first night two years back as she lay upon her new queen-size bed that she had special ordered from a faraway overseas mattress company; it was comprised of a space-age foam material and upon her first night sleeping alone she dreamed of walking on Saturn’s massive rings, which was certainly unusual for her. After hearing of her husband’s passing though, she lay on her bed now and thought the mattress felt stiff, as if hardened by the environment.
Lately, Mrs. Peterson didn’t dream. The headaches kept her up well into the night and she often slipped into a dreamless sleep just before the birds began chirping in the large maple tree outside of her window, not too long before the sun would rise. She had bought new soundproofed windows a few months back to eliminate the vexing bird noises. Her clients sometimes spoke fondly to the peaceful concept of waking, newly wed, to the sound of the bright summer tanagers in the trees, and she would smile and nod and agree appropriately. Sometimes upon waking in the silence, Mrs. Peterson would walk over to the dresser, above which hung the twelve plot-linked engravings by William Hogarth titled Industry and Idleness, and she would become lost in their depiction of another world. The last time she had done this, though, Mrs. Peterson carefully studied each of the twelve engravings that she had come to know so well and took down the six from her bedroom wall that depicted the scenes of idleness. Entering her husband’s room for the first time since his death, she walked over and placed them softly upon his bed.
At first, Mrs. Peterson was convinced that her headaches were just a byproduct of her career. There were florists to consider, also caterers, bands and DJs, and all of it happened one after another after another. Repetition must be the key to any headache worth its salt, she thought. Before bed each night she would pop two aspirins into her mouth and listen to her “Sounds of the City” ambiance noise recordings through a small speaker on her nightstand to help keep her mind distracted from the pain.
It was Thursday when she was able to finally call the funeral home to make the arrangements for Mr. Peterson. She noted how professional and sympathetic the man she spoke with was and felt in awe of his knack for making her feel just as she should. He clearly excelled at his profession.
“Let me just say how sorry I am for your loss, Mrs. Peterson,” the funeral director said. “I’m sure that after nearly a quarter century of marriage, with the sudden passing, you’ll be wanting us t’take considerable care of the arrangements for your departed husband.”
“Thank you and yes, that would be nice,” she responded.
“Are ya expecting a good amount of people to attend the visitation?”
“No, I don’t expect so. My husband was an only child and most of his relatives have moved from the area long ago. His parents died many years back.”
“Oh, well I’m sorry t’hear that. I expect that yr’own family and perhaps some friends will be there joining you during this difficult time then?”
“No, again, I’m afraid I don’t expect so,” Mrs. Peterson said. “Mr. Peterson and I didn’t run in a large social circle and my own parents are gone, as well. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure who would be joining me at all.”
There was a pause in the conversation and the call went silent for a moment.
“Perhaps just somethin’ small then,” the funeral director said. “A private viewing for you before the funeral itself?”
“No, I don’t think so. I remember what he looked like fine,” she said before immediately catching herself, adding, “I prefer to remember him as he was in life. I would like to attend the burial by his plot with a priest if that can be arranged.”
“Not a problem, Mrs. Peterson, not a problem at all,” the funeral director said without missing a beat. “Whatever you desire.”
She hesitated to say anything else, but a nagging compulsion took the better of her. Mrs. Peterson helped to wed people in holy matrimony and set them off into their own active lives, but she oft-ignored the opposing side of this spectrum—that place where everything ends, married or not. Her own husband’s death now reminded Mrs. Peterson that one business usually lead into another in some form or another, mutatis mutandis.
“May I ask,” she said suddenly, “Just how is business these days?”
She could hear no audible breathing now as she had been able to throughout their conversation.
“I’m sorry, but, uh… what?”
“You’ll have to excuse me, I apologize if this is unorthodox, but I’m quite curious actually. Do you find your business does better in the warmer months or is it in the winter?”
“Does better?” the man replied.
“People dying, or passing, rather,” Mrs. Peterson said. “Do people pass more or less in the winter or in the summer? I’m a wedding coordinator, you see, and my business always does rather well during the warmer months, obviously. If it’s all the same, I’m just curious as to whether more people die in the cold or warm months.”
“Well,” he began, clearly intending to choose his words with care, “let me put it like this, ma’am: the sad fact is people pass away all the time. There’s no stoppin’ it, ya know? Most I can hope to do is help a grieving family when one of those people happens to be someone that they love.”
“Yes, of course.”
The man inhaled deeply, signaling to her that he was likely about to end the call.
“So there is no certain time when your business is booming then?” she asked. She coiled the telephone line around her finger and thought about the chill of the freezing months ahead and the long stretches of inactivity she witnessed just within her neighborhood alone.
“In the winter, Mrs. Peterson,” he finally said. “Lotsa folks pass away in the winter with d’weather and cold and all that.”
“I thought so,” she said, satisfied. “Thank you for your help.”
The burial would be that Saturday. Luckily she didn’t have a client wedding to attend that weekend, she thought, but there was still so much to be done for the Albertsons, and the Matthews wedding was the weekend afterward and she still needed to contact the venue and re-arrange the centerpiece designs for that event as well. She brought her thumb and index finger to her forehead and pinched the bridge of her nose out of an old stress motor reflex—the pain wasn’t there; it was further back in her mind.
That night, after lying in bed while adjusting to the sensation of the house being truly empty, Mrs. Peterson grew annoyed by the newfound stiffness of her expensive mattress. She yearned to once again walk upon those icy rings circling Saturn so far away, so she rose and reached for the telephone. Within the nightstand was the pamphlet that came with her luxurious mattress from when she had first ordered it two years back. She turned it over and found the number for the 24/7 customer service hotline. After she dialed the number and selected to speak to a representative, she leaned back onto the bed’s large wooden headboard and closed her eyes.
“Thank you for your call today,” a female voice said in an English accent. “How may I help you today?”
“Yes, I purchased your deluxe queen-size mattress less than two years ago—the one with the space age foam technology.”
“How marvelous! May I ask—”
“I am unhappy with this mattress,” Mrs. Peterson interrupted. “It is no longer soft and has become quite rigid.”
“Oh dear, I’m so very sorry to hear that,” the representative replied. “Might you please tell me your—”
“To be quite honest with you, I am very disappointed with the level of quality. I ordered this mattress from your company based upon the promise that it would last for many, many years and here it is, less than two years later, and the awful thing has gone stiff. If I am told that something will last, that there is value behind those words, then I should be made to feel comfortable in that assurance. Now it’s all different and instead I feel as if I am lying alone upon a metal slab.”
Mrs. Peterson finally drew in a breath.
“I do appreciate you letting us know of your concerns with the product and want you to know that we shall do whatever we can to rectify the situation. Might you please start by giving me your name and…”
As she listened to the representative, Mrs. Peterson’s head began to throb intensely. After a moment, she leaned over and hung the phone up upon the receiver. She turned on the volume to her “Sounds of the City” recording and lay there, eyes closed, but far from sleep.
Friday was spent in a flurry of phone calls, site visits, and more arrangements made that included a complete last-minute change in the Albertsons’ color scheme. That night, she continued to plan at the kitchen table with her Weight Watchers dinner laid out in front of her. She was astonished at how silent the house was now that Mr. Peterson was gone. The enormous television sat quiet and dark; its large screen no more than another blank section of the living room’s large canvas. Not feeling particularly hungry, she placed the food back into the refrigerator and went to the shared bathroom to take her aspirins. Mr. Peterson’s hairbrush sat on the counter, still matted with short gray hairs. There was not a time that she could remember seeing her husband use it.
The weather was foggy and overcast during the funeral on Saturday. She stood near the priest after he had said his prayers and waved his hands over the wooden box and watched as Mr. Peterson’s unadorned casket was lowered into the ground. Her head pulsated with throbbing pain. On overcast days she felt like her headaches were worse and she told herself that maybe she should schedule an appointment with her doctor after the Matthews wedding in a couple of weeks, if just for a checkup. Perhaps she would do that, she thought. The funeral director met her at the graveyard near Mr. Peterson’s marker and again offered his condolences though he appeared to hesitate before offering his hand in greeting while his eyes nictitated like a camera’s shutter. She thanked him and said that she must be going. She knew that she was scheduled to meet with the Albertson clients later that afternoon at their venue to discuss the final arrangements for their seating chart, a surprise set of guests having thrown a wrench into the plans for their previous one.
After a successful meeting with her clients, Mrs. Peterson headed back to her empty home and sat at the kitchen table. She had not mentioned the death of her husband to the Albertsons, not wanting to spoil any part of her clients’ preparations or their fervent mood, or to appear in any way unprofessional. It was relatively early in the evening and she had nothing else on her to-do list for that night and not being hungry, she decided to head to bed early. Her head ached more sharply than usual and she eagerly took her two aspirins before changing into her nightgown. She turned on the “Sounds of the City” ambiance noise recording and rested her head on the pillow and closed her eyes. She tossed on the mattress as a welcome darkness settled over her.
With surprisingly little effort, she felt herself quickly becoming drowsy, and more than a bit confused. She tried to reach over for a magazine on her nightstand to read a little, just to grasp something to clear her mind a bit, but her arm refused to respond. Then she had trouble remembering what she had wanted to reach for in the first place and considered calling someone to complain about the firm mattress. Soon enough, her concerns drifted away as she could felt an unfamiliar, yet pleasant numbness overtaking her whole body.
At 10:34 p.m. on Saturday night, Mrs. Peterson was no longer too industrious to die.
Industry and Idleness
creative non-fiction by Sara K. Bennett
May 13, 2015
Around the 8:00 hour
The ringing house phone jolts me awake. My first thought is Dad! At that moment Dad’s heart could have been stilled and replaced by the pump, the heart and lung machine used in the operating room for cardiac patients. The call is only a notification about some test at Lake Wallenpaupack, the small hydro power plant Dad manages. Emily answers the phone so I don’t know what it is exactly about.
Around the 9:00 hour
I try not to think about what he is enduring: a six to eight inch long incision in his chest. An artery is harvested from his tanned left arm. That arm no longer has a pulse at the wrist because the blood vessel taken creates the wrist pulse. The incision would make a scar to go along with the watch tan Dad gets in the summer from his nice gold work watch and cheep sport watch with the rubbery plastic band. A vein is removed from his left leg, the leg that has had problems with cellulites and bad circulation ever since Dad fell off that ladder and smashed his heel. An incision by his knee and ankle guide the camera in to remove it. The vein was taken by camera because it is piping not muscle. If the artery had spasmed it would have been useless.
Around the 10:00 hour
I have been playing spider solitaire, listening to music, trying to daydream for a while now. I am too scatter brained. I don’t try to write. I am too unfocused. My LG Chocolate is shoved into the right cargo pocket of my shorts. It remains still and silent. Emily, fielding calls to the house phone and her cell phone, becomes the family secretary. Every time the house phone rings my heart stops. Did something go wrong?
Around the 12:00 hour
I have started sewing. I am sitting on the cold tile floor – not the white and gray marble I grew up with, but the new brown toned tile that replaced the old cracked marble – pinning the pattern to brown cotton fabric for a peasant dress. The phone rings yet again. It is from Camp Susque about the summer and had nothing to do with Dad. Dad’s surgeon grafts the harvested artery and vein around the blockages. The very things that made Dad’s chest feel tight when he tilled the strips in the garden field to plant tomatoes, beans, and onions. What made Dad burp and unable to exercise for months because his heart was working overtime and taking blood from the digestive system. The new piping and muscles create a detour for the blood. An observing intern is enthralled by Dr. Phillip’s tiny stitches that are made to last.
Sara K. Bennett
Sara K. Bennett is attending Cedarville University for a degree in English and Creative Writing. She loves spending time outside, working on writing projects, reading a good novel, and embroidering.
Michael A. Ferro
Born and bred in the Detroit area, Michael A. Ferro’s work has been featured in numerous online and print publications. He was awarded the Jim Cash Creative Writing Award for Fiction. Michael’s debut novel, TITLE 13, is forthcoming from Harvard Square Editions in 2018. Additional writing and information can be found at www.michaelaferro.com and @MichaelFerro. After traveling, working, and writing throughout the Midwest, Michael currently resides in rural Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Douglas Koziol is an MFA candidate in fiction at Emerson College. His work has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Driftwood Press, and theEEEL, among others.
David Lohrey was born on the Hudson River but grew up on the Mississippi in Memphis. He graduated from U.C., Berkeley. He earned his Ph.D. at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, NSW, AU. He currently teaches in Tokyo. He has reviewed books for The Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register, has been a member of the Dramatists Guild in New York, and served as a voting member of the Los Angeles Ovation Awards for theatre. His plays have appeared around the country and, more recently, in Croatia. In a Newark Minute and Sperm Counts were both produced this year in Estonia. His poetry can be found in The Rats Ass Review, Plum Tree Tavern, The Blue Mountain Review, Peeking Cat Poetry Magazine, and Quarterday. He is currently writing a memoir of his years living in the Persian Gulf.
Kathryn McMahon is a queer American writer living in Vietnam with her wife and dog. Her stories have appeared in Necessary Fiction, decomP magazinE, Cheap Pop, Menacing Hedge, Devilfish Review, and others.
Lois Ruskai Melina
Lois Ruskai Melina’s work is forthcoming or has appeared in Blood Orange Review, Carolina Quarterly, Colorado Review, Lunch Ticket, and 2016 Best of the Net Anthology, among others. She is retired from teaching in higher education and when not writing can sometimes be found rowing on the Willamette River near her home in Portland, Oregon.
David Miller is an English/Latin teacher at King/Drew Medical Magnet High School in South L.A. He has been studying for my M.A. in English/Creative Writing at Loyola Marymount University. Currently, he is loving teaching and writing. My work can be found at The Lowestoft Chronicle, sleetmagazine.com, Palaver, the South Florida Poetry Journal, riseupreview and forthcoming in Rattle.
Ken’s latest collection of short, wiry fiction, “Constant Animals”, and his latest collections of poetry – “Victims of a Failed Civics” and “The Book of Robot” – can be obtained from Barking Moose Press, or amazon, or Sundial Books. He often serves as strange, bewildering eye-candy at his wife’s power lifting affairs. His poetry of late has been sunning in Analog, Asimov’s, Poet Lore, The Kentucky Review; and his fiction has yowled in Spank the Carp, Red Truck, Café Irreal, Bellows American Review.
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