JULY 12 2017| ISSUE no 220
crack the spine
John F. Buckley
David S. Rubenstein
poetry by John F. Buckley
Hail to my left index finger, lying fetal as
cooked shrimp or a faraway suburb
on the wet aluminum table, west of my torso.
I placed it there lovingly, for safekeeping,
as I ran the antique Victorian deli slicer. The rest
of that hand waved coyly from the chest pocket
of my Burberry rain cloak, in which I fought
crime Mondays. As I reflected on long-distance
trucking, yet again, I uncoupled my arms
and hung them to dry on the coat rack; I hoped
they’d not shrunk in the dishwasher.
What the Lord has deemed hot and soapy
is no friend to elbow grease. Bending down,
craning my neck, and biting down ever so softly
on the moist hunk of frozen nudibranch loaf,
I nudged the meat into the whirling blade,
shaving bright circles for the wicked lads’ sandwiches.
I wish that each slice had been rosier, but
what can I do about blue? I could just as readily
alter the pollution-rich hues of a Venice Beach sunset.
When the budget excludes mandrill rump roast,
one must make do. I saw my hopes for the future
reflected in the vacant sheen of the plastic wrap,
and I knew then that ambition was as viable
as salty lungs, as blood choked with air bubbles.
Hungry young mouths squawking for pulverized
nudibranch, gullets pink as peeled finches.
High-speed blades on a steam-driven appliance.
Keeping my tender bits strewn around workspaces.
This was a fine life, a mannequin’s paradise.
Good Boys and Bad Things
If it were not for the curls of smoke drifting from the cottage, the boy would have supposed it to be another rock, much like the grey ones that littered the mountaintop. The rocks were surrounded by evergreens and the evergreens were covered in snow. A goat path snaked its way about them, jaggedly, as if carved by accident. It was a brave thing to keep smoke going, especially from high ground, because smoke was followed by fire and fire could be a sign of food.
The boy took off his hat. He wiped a thin film of sweat from his forehead and studied the cottage. He was hungry. The woodlands had not seen a harvest for three years. Three years of cold and hunger. At first it was civil. Neighbors divided up their food and met in their village halls. The young and old and sick and healthy were cared for. But there was a second famine, and a third, and the disease had picked apart the animals, and the buzzards picked apart the game, and the cold picked apart the buzzards. Neighbors robbed neighbors. There were courts for a time, and the courts turned into night raids, and the raids turned into wars, and there were rumors that, as the rations ran out, that the people were feasting upon each other, roasting their own kin over open flames, mashing them in their teeth for a chance at just one more day.
The boy, who once had a name, watched the world around him freeze up and shrivel up and eat itself up, and having no family of his own, and no life of his own--save a job for a farmer who cursed the boy’s every move--was indifferent to the idea of famine. Hunger had taken his parents long ago, when he was too young to know about starvation. There was chatter that he had a sister, somewhere, but if she were alive it was certain that she was huddled up in a pile of blankets, hoping that when death came it would come quickly. He imagined what she looked like. She was thin but pretty, with curled blonde hair and bright blue eyes, and she was a nice sister and she never would have eat’n another person.
The boy named her Isabelle, and they talked often. She told him when to hide or climb a tree or find a cave and cover his tracks and save himself from people who would just as easily eat little boys. She was funny too, and told him such grand jokes that he had to bite his lip to avoid laughing and giving himself away. She teased him for eating moss and tree bark and frozen, rotted bits of animals. He had developed something of a palate for buzzard flesh, or so he told her. She didn’t believe him.
The boy made his way to the top of the path. The cottage was small. The windows were fogged up, though he could see the glow from the fire, and it smelled like something he had not smelled in quite some time. Meat. Fresh, roasted, seasoned cuts, perhaps from the hind portions of an animal. The kind that kings would eat when there were such people as kings. He thought that, just this once, he might kill something for that meat. He knocked on the door.
Nothing. He knocked again, and this time, the door swung open. Slowly. The room had a wooden table, big enough for two, and a fire and a rug made out of bearskin. A pot hung over the flame. On the other side of a table was a chair. The chair faced away from the table and the fire and into the darkness. It rocked back and forth. A set of thin hands rested easily on each side. The hands look like bones.
Hello? The boy called.
The rocking chair stopped, and from behind it he heard the sweet, frail voice of an old woman.
Roland? I had a feeling.
Roland gulped. Nobody should have known his name. Everyone who knew his name was dead. He cocked his head to the side.
How do you know my name?
How could I not? She told me all about you, Roland.
She told me how you were a good boy, and a brave boy, and how you would never do anything naughty.
Why Isabelle, of course.
Roland froze. He took a step forward. Isabelle’s not real! I made her up!
Of course you did. That’s ok. I created you, dear.
You…what?! Roland stopped and rubbed his hands together. They felt real. He shuffled his feet and took a breath. He was real. Roland knew it.
I’m real! I’m an orphan boy and I worked for a farmer and I dreamed up a sister named Isabelle, and she helped me survive the winters.
Tell me, the woman said, still sitting, waving her skeletal hand in slow circles. Who told you that you were an orphan?
He gulped. Well, the people in the villages!
Oh, I see. Well, maybe they did. I can’t control everything, you know.
What? Roland stepped forward. How could you have spoken to Isabelle? Where is Isabelle?
The woman got up. She was fully cloaked, hood and all. She walked over to the fireplace and stirred the pot with a wooden spoon.
I’m afraid, the woman said, glancing at the pot, that Isabelle is busy at the moment, though you did a lovely job imagining her. I haven’t had anything so delightful in a long time.
Before Roland collapsed to the floor, he heard Isabelle whisper into his ear. She giggled, and before the darkness took him, he felt her hand on his shoulder. She told him that it was ok, and that, after all, sometimes even good little boys had to do bad things. It’s ok, she said. It’s ok. It’s ok. Eat, Roland. Eat.
flash fiction by N.D. Coley
The Literary Journal Editor
short fiction by Michele Lombardo
Twenty years ago, the literary journal editor’s notebooks had been filled. Stacks of them cluttered with his musings on Celeste Zambra, his Hispanic Lit professor. Crinkled pages describing the way she wore her blonde hair big and curly, pronouncing words like “machismo” and “pinga” with delicious snaps of her tongue and guttural purrs - code, he thought, to convey an above-average sex drive. Celeste Zambra, who taught them the rumba in class. Who often wore a deep blue scarf speckled with stars, making her look a bit Parisian. A cultured woman with messy red lips and round hips that reminded him of his Nebraska hometown, a woman who shimmied those hips like she’d affixed her pelvis with bobble heads, who said there was no difference between dancing and God, that every bodily expression was prayer. Celeste Zambra, who had gestured at his flat boy body in class and said, “Let me see you move. Bigger. Faster.”
He’d imagined her walking home after class, her silver bangles clinking as she adjusted her scarf, her able jaws working a piece of Big Red as she opened the front door and sought out her husband’s pinga, worked up from the finer points of their critical discussion of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, from the spring sun leaching moisture from her body, from the friction of her panties as she walked down College Avenue, past half-naked undergrads groping in the street, past first blooms prodding the soil, the languid sexuality of the season, so heavy and frantic that she swelled and sought release in the quickest, most unimaginative way - from her husband. Celeste’s blue eyes like the blue of her scarf, the blue of the sky, her holly lips tainted with danger, wild hair untamed as her body. Celeste Zambra, heaven’s sweet exhale.
Did she care nothing for him then? Surely she, fantastic creature that she was, saw beyond his gummy glasses and the double chin already cupping the lower portion of his face. This was the question. He understood the fantasy he’d hatched, the impossibility of mythology, but he couldn’t help thinking that she bore an authenticity unmatched by other mortals.
Unrequited love had flogged him, but it had been necessary. It cultivated his sensitivity, harnessed his ability to detect and extract emotion from the double-spaced lines of the typed manuscripts, formatted in Times New Roman 12 pt. font with one-inch margins, email on the top left of every page, per his specifications. His loss coalesced into a preternatural capacity to sniff out the veiled sufferings of others, to curate stories that radiated hurt from unseen places, the betrayals unnamed and unstated, but more gutting for their subtlety. With a few deft cuts, he could shepherd the right story to greatness, turn it inside out, expose its entrails, tease out its repressed pain so the sentences assailed, disarmed and delivered readers face-to-face with their own twisted sorrows. And, yet, while the loss of Celeste had seeded the editor in him, it had also withered his writerly tendencies.
So grew his competing senses of entitlement and unworthiness as the lowly literary journal he’d started with his friend Adiva flourished from indie gem into one of the most prestigious in the nation. Gatekeeper and career-maker though he became, he never forgot his humble status as an unpublished publisher. When he accepted his first invitation to speak at a college, he stood before them, stuttering and sweating, waiting for some flannel-clad undergrad to ask how it could be so that he, so unaccomplished in the task of actual writing, could purport to know anything at all about the thing. The question went unasked. His spluttering, stilted words landed as thoughtful language, a tenacity to get it right, never settling for anything less than the perfect word that encapsulated his meaning at its shiny, opalescent essence, an exacting literary mind.
When he’d returned to the office, Adiva gave him a pep talk. “Write or don’t write. No one gives a fuck.”
“I give a fuck,” he said with a snort.
“Please. You never fuck anyone.”
“What if people publish me… for the wrong reasons?”
“When I publish a story, do I think, ‘Maybe it doesn’t count because I started a magazine?’ Or: ‘What if they know I’m a Muslim lesbian and they wanna act like they care about diversity?’ Fuck no! I take it and – guess what – if the world flip-flops tomorrow and Muslim lesbians are the new awkward white guys, I’d fling my stories into the laps of Manhattan editors like Express Mail blow jobs.”
“The editors aren’t all men.”
“Right.” It was, after all, the early 2000’s.
The magazine’s successes continued, and as Editor-in-Chief, he reaped the rewards. Each accolade shocked him, until he collected so many he stopped listing them on his My Space site. Still, he remained modest, even at AWP, where aspiring writers cast fearful glances his way, their internal debate - whether to thrust themselves upon him or skulk away, for perhaps they weren’t yet ready, perhaps there were more dues to be paid ⎯ flitting across their faces, a pantomime of desperation, hope tempered with tragedy. Or they wrangled him off to dive bars, funneling drinks down his throat, eyes boring deep into his, assessing his very soul, trying to ascertain his curtained wishes and how to embody them.
Things were wanted from him that he could not give. And, yet, he tried. He said: Send me your postmodern detective story with the Oedipal ending. Send me your Oulipian poem that subverts the idea of poetry by refusing language altogether. Send it. Send it all. And they did. But they were many, and they had so much, and he was one man, with one magazine not to exceed 200 pages at each quarterly printing. For each new voice he launched, he squelched thousands.
When the magazine was about 12 years old, he slept with a fledgling writer. She wore a scarf, not speckled with stars, but swirled with red, pink and orange, a watercolor, dotted, varied and imprecise. Dark haired and slim-bodied, as they danced she lassoed him with her arms and pressed her forehead to his Adam’s apple. She ordered shots of Fireball Whiskey, and when she kissed him it stung like a cinnamon wildfire. All his life, he’d idealized Celeste as the unification of sky and earth, the bridging of human and heaven. How could any woman compete? But this fledgling writer, she crushed his painstakingly constructed female ideal with one red wine-stained smile.
The next morning, he woke to her shrugging on her coat.
“Sorry,” she said. “My plane leaves at 10:15.”
“Oh.” He was already calculating when he might see her next, the business excuses that might justify his appearance on her coast, in her city, his naked presence in her bed.
“Are you sure it’s okay if I send you my story? I don’t want to be weird or anything.”
Story? Had she mentioned a story? “That’s not weird.” He stopped short of saying, “happens all the time,” knowing enough about dialogue to recognize a dead giveaway. And there he was, a grown man, practically a virgin, in a crappy hotel room with leaf-patterned carpeting, on the verge of tears.
“Thanks.” She smiled and waved his business card like it was a coupon for Best Buy and she just so happened to be in the market for a new TV.
When he received her story - about a blind kleptomaniac - he felt sure she hadn’t mentioned it to him that night, thus decided he’d been doubly played. Not only had she used him, but her assertion that the using had been somehow communicated in advance when it hadn’t caused him to forsake solid food for three weeks straight.
Adiva mocked him. “Poor thing. Beautiful women want to have sex with you.” He tried to articulate it, in plain English and also via allegory, but she just mumbled the same insult, “Stupid, sappy shit stool.”
He rejected the story, personalizing the note, which took days to write, the sentences rife with double entendres, and included a thorough critical assessment that he hoped would touch her, literally reach through the computer screen and brush her cheek, drawing her to his coast. It did not. She eventually published the story in The Paris Review. After he saw it, he bought a cat.
He worked harder. Pledged to fulfill his destiny to be an author’s advocate, discover new talents and launch careers. He read more, but the more he read, the more the stories bled together, and he struggled to remember specifics and attributed memorable plot points to the wrong stories. He hired two more editors and a small army of interns, which helped, but they made him uncomfortable. Witnesses to his slippage, they were like spies sent to torment him with their quirky witticisms and flat abs. And even though they practically shrank in deference to him, modeled themselves in his image, better-looking and moneyed versions of awkward, bookish, hipster perfection, he avoided them.
Switching tactics, he handled only famous writers, became a “yes-man.” Read industry rag articles about what makes a good story. For the first time in his life, looking at advice wielded by literati who had also never written, or maybe at least should have never written, spoon-fed babble dished in “Five Easy Ways” and “Top Ten Tips” and “You’ll Never Believe How This Writer Got Published.” All to help him remember the beating heart, the quickened pulse, the humanity nestled between the lines of great literature. He was Target masquerading as Bergdorf Goodman, all the while cyber stalking Celeste (still married).
One day, when the magazine was nearing its 17th anniversary, he spent his morning studying Celeste’s Twitter feed. With a 140-character limit, it was often difficult to grasp the meaning of her posts without excessive examination. Her preoccupations included literature, love and food. That morning’s tweet was a link to a scientific article about whether love at first sight existed. She prefaced it with, “So interesting when scientists dissect the human heart!” Because he wasn’t sure if she liked or disliked the article, he read it three times, rationalizing each point within the context of his obsession with her. It couldn’t be said that they were strangers. Or that he didn’t know her. In fact, his acquaintance with her checked the boxes for cognitive, auditory, kinesthetic and olfactory attraction. Which, he decided, meant it was real. And also that Celeste had very much liked the article.
Pondering this, his gaze drifted onto the swarming interns beyond his office in their hives of collaboration, white canines flashing from smiles, index fingers pointing at perfect paragraphs from broken stories bleeding hope in the slush pile. Bastian, whose thing was plaid bowties, caught him looking and raced toward him, iPad extended, eager to share, but the literary journal editor couldn’t deal, so he grabbed the closest thing to him, a fucking organic granola bar, and left the office, pushing past Bastian on the way out, mumbling, “’Scuse me, son,” as their shoulders brushed. Realizing he had no plan, he took the granola bar into the bathroom and holed up in a stall, imagining Bastian telling the others that, not only was the editor an uninspired guy, he also shat where he ate and, at times, spoke like a Texan sheriff.
That night, he pulled up Celeste’s Ted Talk, which he’d bookmarked, and her voice, interpreting metaphors used to describe love in Latin American literature, washed over him, nudged him toward sleep. That and the hash oil. He remembered seeking Celeste out after class one day to ask how he could possibly write a critical essay on a character’s portrayal of love when the character never actually loved any of the scores of women he slept with. “It’s lust, not love,” he’d said.
To which she’d replied, “But doesn’t love fuel his lust? His motivations stem from a love of life and love of self and love of his brother.”
“But how can love be self-serving?”
“Isn’t it always? Cesar loves by loving himself, but that’s why the other characters are drawn to him.”
Even though the literary journal editor’s love had been entirely selfless, and he was miffed by her acceptance of selfish love, when she’d returned his graded essay, she’d written that he understood more about love than he thought. That he had a knack for deconstructing literature, and she hoped he’d take her class the following semester (which, of course, he did, because then he loved her even more).
A sudden idea startled him awake from his Ted Talk/hash oil trance. If unrequited longing for Celeste had made him an editor, reconnecting with that feeling could fuel his comeback. His career depended on finding Celeste and inviting love to punch him in the face. Again. Fresh hurt. Fresh blood. This slow and uneventful malaise - no inciting incident, no climax - was a direct reflection of his life. No risks, no skin, no feeling, no pain, a highlight reel of inertia.
Tossing his cat aside, he typed her a fevered email. Could he interview her for the magazine? For a special issue on Latin American literature? They were overdue on Latin America. Celeste, apparently not having sex at that moment, responded right away. Of course she remembered him. She’d be delighted.
He pitched the idea to Adiva over steaming bowls of Pho in Chinatown. She agreed, though eyed him suspiciously. Afterwards, he convinced her to stop at Magic Jewelry to take pictures of their auras. The line snaked from the photo booth to the door.
“Auras and emergency reunions with college professors? What’s going on? And another thing: Bastian says you’re hording granola bars in the men’s bathroom. That’s fucking unsanitary! How am I to respond when people tell me these things?”
The interns were spies! But no matter. “I just feel like I’ve lost something along the way. And she’s the only person that can help me.”
“So this is some kind of White-Boy Existential Crisis.”
“I don’t think it’s race-specific, actually.”
Adiva sniffed. “Remember that old movie from when we were kids, How Stella Got Her Groove Back?”
A blank look.
She waved her hand. “Awful movie. Still, are you sure this couldn’t be cured with a facial and some wine coolers?”
His picture came back as a big blob of purple and blue. The shop proprietor suggested he was confused about how to achieve his goals. He bought a healing crystal and some Oolong tea.
“I’m telling you,” Adiva said. “Bubble baths, a night out with friends, maybe a fling with someone half your age…that’s how people deal with these things.”
But he’d already booked his flight.
He met Celeste at a kava bar near campus. The tables were occupied by a smattering of contemplative sorts, dreamily considering the two large-screen TVs broadcasting Animal Planet. After the bartender walked him through the menu, pushing a strain he promised to be “relaxing but upbeat,” he prepared a sludgy brown liquid in a small bowl, studded it with pineapple spears and handed it over, shouting “Bula!”
He noticed a woman seated alone in the corner reading Alicia Yánez Cossío, in Spanish. It was Celeste, albeit not the one from his memory. No scarf. And her hair was red, even though it was blonde on Facebook and Twitter. She was older, a bit more padding to her figure, but when she spotted him, her eyes crinkled with delight and she moved toward him in the swiveling, dancing way he remembered. A brutal hug, like she was cinching a belt around his waist, then she commanded him to, “Sit! Please!” lifting her bowl and shouting “Bula!” The other patrons echoed the sentiment. “Isn’t this place wonderful? It’s full of life, but its quiet enough that you can read. And look! Animal Planet!”
A rerun of My Cat from Hell was starting, and a grey cat loomed on the countertop, sweeping dishes into the sink with his paw.
Gulping his drink, the literary journal editor choked on its bitterness, but he drank on for the effect ⎯ relaxing but upbeat. It took a moment to fall back under Celeste’s spell. This time, it wasn’t the way she pronounced Spanish words or her clothes or her hips. It was her chimed voice and mobile face and gleeful eyes. She spoke at length about contemporary Latin American writers - Yuri Herrera, Guadalupe Nettel, Patricio Pron, Valeria Luiselli, and so many others - and when she told him about Samanta Schweblin’s story about a 13-year-old girl who eats live birds, she squeezed his forearm until he winced, as if trying to press the knowledge into his veins with her fingertips. When she finally let go, he wanted to offer up his other arm.
Before they’d even touched on the classics, the bartender kicked them out, and they laughed, realizing the bar had emptied. They walked through the dark streets as light rain misted. The streetlamps burnished the raindrops to metallic confetti and he smiled at the way it collected in Celeste’s hair, a lacey silver helmet. They stopped only once, for Celeste to call a SheTaxi for a drunk girl dry heaving in front of a pizza place. They stayed with the girl until the car came and the editor heaved her inside, stuffing her torso into the back seat until her open mouth rested on the leather cushion, arm dangling below at an unnatural angle, only to realize that they didn’t know her address and she was passed out cold.
“Take her back,” the female driver said.
The three of them sought refuge under a sprawling yellow umbrella outside a closed bagel shop. He was sweating from dragging the drunk girl, who was long and lanky. Statuesque, he thought, and he pledged to publish more stories that contained words with –esque suffixes. Celeste disappeared to get him water. By the time she returned, he’d draped the snoring girl’s body over the small wire table.
“It gets sad after a while,” Celeste said, gesturing toward the girl. “Seeing that all the time. Like we’ve all chosen self-destruction. Like pleasure and nature and humanity are all just interruptions.”
“Can a person choose?”
“Hell yes! Every action is a choice. What you have here is mass inaction, leading to boredom, leading to depression, leading to more bad choices.”
They talked until 2am. She began to yawn. Her husband would be expecting her. Their parting was mildly romantic. Steady gazes and flushed, furtive double takes. Loud laughter and fast hugging. It was everything he’d hoped for, and yet, he worried it wouldn’t sustain him. Had he been properly flayed? He considered seeking out his hotel room to test whether his editing acumen had returned or, better yet, if he could possibly even write something with Celeste so nearby. But when he studied the drunk girl, so wholly unconscious and vulnerable, he settled in next to her, falling asleep in the same position, her hair tickling his nose.
In the morning, the drunk girl freaked out. First, she accused him of stealing her. Then, of stealing her purse. He turned his pockets inside out to prove they were empty. After she’d jabbed her fist into his throat, she collapsed back onto the table and sobbed as the first swell of yellow lit the sky beyond the town. The baker arrived and asked them to leave, but the girl had no purse, no keys and no roommates.
At the literary journal editor’s hotel, she sprawled across the bed. “I’ll only stay here until things open and I can call around.”
“Of course.” He asked to lie down, and she agreed.
“Just don’t get any ideas. I don’t always go around getting that drunk, okay?”
“I didn’t think you did,” he lied.
The literary journal editor lay next to her, a journal and a pen balanced on his chest. But his eyes felt sandy and closed.
“Phoebe. My name. It’s Phoebe.”
His eyes fluttered open and they studied one another. A smattering of freckles peeked through the blotchy makeup on her nose. She was plain, except for her height. Just a person, like him. She stretched out an arm and poked his chest with one finger, long and lean like the rest of her.
“And you? Who are you?”
“Impossible. Brads are surfers. You don’t look like a surfer.”
“You are correct. This Brad doesn’t surf, but is still a Brad.”
“Well, if Brad it is, Brad it stays. Honestly, I’m not really a Phoebe, either.”
He listened to her breath, which matched his own, imagining the world breathing to the same rhythm, all at once, a momentary accident.
He opened his notebook and wrote. First a sentence, then a paragraph, then a few pages. It was a royal piece of shit, but still, he marveled at the words. And could already, in fact, see some edits that would help.
creative non-fiction by Jessamine Price
I'm competitive about grief. It catches me by surprise, whenever I hear about a suicide. A voice in my head says, I can beat that. I think nicer things, too—how terrible, what a shame—but the selfish, caveman part of me is sure that Cindy’s suicide was worse. My oldest friend Cindy appeared happy and successful—until the day she wrote a note and poisoned herself.
How strong I am for bearing it, how well-adjusted. Look at how I just keep moving forward.
In our third-grade classroom, she hunched around in a home-knit sweater, trying to hide that she was the tallest girl in the class. I was a small kid myself, and I thought she was strange. But she liked poetry so we were friends.
By high school, she stood straighter, but I noticed another kind of awkwardness. Walking down the street or at the mall, she was unable to walk in a straight line. When we walked side-by-side, she leaned to one side slightly. She would crowd and trip me. Then after wandering into my path, she would wander away again. Soon she would be at arm’s length, her eyes on the horizon ahead as if she was walking alone.
Her pace was odd too. She would slow down or speed up with no regard to the person next to her. I felt ignored.
I thought she was trying to drive me nuts. One time I elbowed her in the side. Another time I stopped walking completely, and stood on the sidewalk sulking. She didn’t notice, she just kept moving forward.
But I learned how to walk next to her, in our twenty-seven years of friendship. I adjusted my pace so no one would think she was weird—this woman in the well-tailored suit who couldn’t quite fit in, who tipped a bit to one side and was always looking at something in the distance.
I asked her finally, when we were adults. Did she know she had trouble walking in a straight line? She looked surprised. She hadn’t noticed.
Hm, she said, I wonder why.
I suspected something neurological. Walking in a straight line takes high-level skills in perception and balance. Was she missing something? How did her strange gait connect to her strange decision to leave behind friends, family, and a good career to end her life?
We buried Cindy’s mysteries with her, on a cold day in early October. In the church hall where we gathered after the service, there was a photo that her sister took.
She is small and distant, a dark figure in a dark jacket walking on a wide gray beach under a cloudy sky.
She was in her own little world, her sister said. She fell so far behind, I turned and took a photo of her in the distance. I don’t know if she noticed.
Why does she still move forward?
Raw Flesh and Bare Bones
poetry by Jules Gates
I miss the vein-bulging, teeth-gritting, red-faced look of you
like you’re going to tear some small live animal like me limb from limb,
and the growling, breathy, hoarse, and high-pitched squealing
of your attack and conquer,
the stealth silence, in dead black air,
stormed by a crash that slams into me and flips me three times over,
and when I land with a thud, breath knocked clear out of me,
all feet solid down on ground, a wild cat fury-possessed, fangs bared, poised,
for more—and soft foot by padded foot, I stalk,
gasping for air, bloodied, battled, oozing, still prowling,
because the smell of you is the earth’s original patchouli intoxicant,
complete with green, slimy, serpent with fire eyes,
and I want to slice it up like an apple, eat every morsel in tiny nibbling bites,
with the scent slithering off my fingers, lips, and mind,
because, while I feast on you, it slides lithely and smoothly
inside my body and blood for eternity,
damned or not—(what the hell do I care?)
and I make you grow,
like the tree,
with veins, reds, thickness, wildly gigantic,
hanging with ripe, engorged fruit.
So what if you’re my soul mate and I love you madly as just that—
a creature who appeared one day out of God’s great blue?
Maybe I stole more than your rib.
And am not of you.
If not, I could worship you from afar as an Adonis, David, or Atlas,
(bearing oh so nakedly the weight of the world)
and fired and cured by my mythological maelstrom,
thrust out my Aphrodite-Valkyrie-Medusa claw
and throatily rasping, whisper like a vaporous wind…
“talk to this and nothing more.”
What’s the news, I asked. The news on the report.
You didn’t want to talk. No talking, not at first, less than a word, not happening.
Then the news is bad, I said. News. Bad. Am I right?
I liked being right, who doesn’t, I’m good at right, you knew that too. But now I wanted wrong. Wrong me, wrong news, wrong report. Anything but right. And even worse, that punishing silence, growing like a tumor, please, an invasion of yesterday’s gone.
We played pretend, all’s good—no, great—in a game of ain’t life divine. But inside a drill was boring holes in my skull, piercing our pact of hush, spinning syllables sick and shrill.
Until one day, guard down, you spoke, finally:
I can’t go there, you said. Talking just makes it real.
So I waited, what choice did I have, choices dwindling like healthy cells, minutes, hours, fortune wasting away while I watched from a ward of pretend, a chamber of alright.
But the blight of make-believe was eating me from within, chewing on my insides, tearing me to shreds: I had to save myself.
So I cracked, pummeling, pounding, hammering you with words, with terror, with pity.
Until our game finally perished
and I watched you
flash fiction by C.J. Trotter
short fiction by David S. Rubenstein
Clarence T. Homeier was a predictable man. Forty-three years old, he had never married. He had never been drunk, stoned, or otherwise taken leave of his faculties (except for the time he was anesthetized for an appendectomy). He had never jay-walked, driven through a yellow light, or cheated on his income taxes. He had never dated, mated, or masturbated. He had never been late for work, and only once been outside the state of Ohio, and that was by accident when he had taken the wrong ramp when coming home from Hubbard and had to go all the way to West Middlesex Pennsylvania before he could turn around. He had lived at home with his mother and her three cats until her death two years ago, and was now thought to live with only the cats.
So at nine-thirty that Wednesday morning when Miss Ratigliano, the lab secretary, reported to Mr. Watkins, the lab manager, that Mr. Homeier, one of the lab chemists, had not reported to work and had not scheduled the day off, Mr. Watkins thought it surpassingly odd, and immediately called his home. Mr. Homeier, if he was there, was not answering the phone. Mr. Watkins checked his listing and dialed again, for it was all so... unpredicted.
"Probably a logical, predictable explanation," Mr. Watkins muttered to himself, and promptly put the matter from his mind for the rest of the day. But when Mr. Homeier did not report to work for the remainder of that day, and failed again to come in the next, Mr. Watkins began to become concerned. Perhaps he was in some difficulty. A person living alone could come to grief from an accident or medical problem and remain undiscovered for days. He resolved to stop by Mr.Homeier’s apartment that afternoon.
It was an aging six-story brick building secured by a remote-controlled lock and call box. Mr. Watkins buzzed Mr. Homeier's apartment, but received no response. He then buzzed the apartment labeled "Superintendent".
"Uh, I'm looking for Mr. Homeier," he told the box, which had inquired as to his purpose. "I’ve telephoned and rung his bell, and can't seem to find him these last two days."
"Moved out," the box rasped.
"Moved out?" Watkins asked, mostly to himself.
"That's what I said," the box said, irritated. "Forfeited his security deposit, paid up the rest of his contract, moved out."
"Well, did he leave a forwarding address?"
"No, he didn't leave no forwarding address. Gone."
The box then emitted a harsh static blast to indicate that it, too, was gone. Watkins walked thoughtfully back to his car. Now more or less convinced that Homeier was not the victim of some medical emergency, he began to wonder about the absurd - some unsavory dealings having to do with the lab. His lab. Certainly the perfume business was highly competitive, and industrial espionage and personnel raiding were not uncommon. But Homeier? He was so, so... predictable. Besides, as far as he knew, Homeier was not privy to any really valuable information. Sure, he was a hard worker and a competent chemist, but...? But then, it was always the quiet ones who surprised you. He swung his Mercedes around and headed back to the lab.
"He was working on 'Seductress'," the Chief Chemist was telling Watkins, standing before the wide desk in his white smock, and consulting a clip-board. "'Seductress', as you know, Bob, is the code name for the project which is attempting to finally produce in a perfume the actual hormone which stimulates the human sexual responses."
"I know, I know," Watkins waved impatiently at him. "Where had he gone with it so far?"
The Chief Chemist flipped the sheets on the clipboard noisily.
"At the last staff meeting, he reported some promising, but unspecific leads."
"Unspecific? Don't you share findings around here?" Watkins snapped, his irritation taking control. "Never mind. Bring me his lab notes." He turned and looked out the window as the Chief Chemist hurried out. This one was beginning to have a bad smell to it.
A half hour later the Chief Chemist returned, a sheaf of papers under his arm and a worried look on his face.
"We can't seem to locate the most recent three months-worth of notes," he muttered, shuffling nervously through the papers. Watkins glared at him without speaking, letting him sweat for a moment. Finally he spoke, his voice flat.
"Send me his lab assistant."
"Yes Sir," the Chief Chemist said, backing gratefully from the office. "That would be Hooper." He turned, and bumped into Miss Billings, Mr. Watkins’ hand-picked secretary, and spilled Mr.Homeier's notes (minus the last three months) into an autumn of paper.
Several minutes later, Hooper was ushered into the office. He was a short, frumpy man of about thirty-five years, balding with curly hair surrounding his pate. His collar was unbuttoned, his tie loose, and his shirt tail clearly unimpressed by his waistline. And he had begun to sweat, although the lab and attendant administrative offices were kept at a constant sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit.
"Uh, you wanted to see me, Sir?" he asked, a quaver in his voice.
Watkins studied him with curiosity.
"Yes, Mr. Hooper. You see, we're concerned about the absence of Mr. Homeier. It’s very unusual for him to be absent like this, without notice and all. Don’t you think?”
“Yes Sir. Very unusual.”
“We wonder if you might have some insight as to his whereabouts."
"Uh, no Sir," Hooper replied, sweat beading on his forehead and upper lip. "I'm as concerned as you."
"And you don't know what became of his notes for the last several months?"
"No Sir. I haven't seen them since last week. I checked his old notebooks to see if they might be misfiled. I searched his desk and his entire cubicle."
"What was he working on, exactly?"
"I know that, damn it!" Watkins snapped. He immediately regretted it, for Hooper recoiled as if he’d been slapped. He paused, then said in as friendly a tone as he could muster under the circumstances, "What I mean is, had he done any significant experiments lately?"
"Well, yes, Sir, there was this one last week ..."
"Which one would that be?"
Hooper removed a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his face. Crimson had spread from his neck to his cheeks.
"He'd mixed a new scent," he said, gaining the confidence of a confessed sinner, "and he was quite concerned about it. He took me aside, and said he wanted my reaction. But I had to swear not to tell a soul." He wiped his brow again. "But I guess under the circumstances..." he smiled weakly at Watkins.
Watkins nodded encouragement.
"May I sit?"
Watkins gestured toward a chair, and the man settled heavily into it. "He took me into the evaluation room, and had me take a sniff." At this point, his face twitching, Hooper produced a tiny squeeze bottle from his lab jacket and handed it across the desk to Watkins. "Afterward, I snuck this sample. Far as I can tell, he took the rest with him."
Watkins picked it up and beheld it with curiosity. It was a standard scent sample container, with a batch code written on the label. He looked to Hooper.
"It was a most extraordinary scent, Sir," he said, just a hint of a smile for the first time on his lips. "You might try it."
Watkins studied the man for a moment, then shrugged, unscrewed the cap, held the container toward his nose, and gave it a tenuous squeeze. He sniffed cautiously. His head jerked back, then righted. He looked at Hooper, then away, puzzled. He closed his eyes, but Hooper could see them rotate up under the lids. Several barely audible moans escaped his lips, he jerked twice, then slumped down into his leather, chrome-framed, over-stuffed executive office chair. After a moment, and without opening his eyes, he said to Hooper "You'd better close the door." Then he lit a cigarette.
The board room was oaken. The walls were paneled in honey-colored oak. The long table was white oak, the chairs were dark oak, and the directors were all oaken of various colors. Eleven men and a woman, they sat around the table with oaken faces above their tailored suits. The two chandeliers reflected from the crystal water decanters and matching glasses set at each place, and from the gold and diamond jewelry at pinkies and wrists and throats. And the oaken faces were all turned in curiosity to Mr. Watkins, the interloper in the boardroom, who had just been presented by the Chairman of the Board. Mr. Watkins, who had never been to the fiftieth floor of the headquarters building in New York, let alone in the board room, was duly impressed. That his career was on the line was secondary to his uneasiness with the awesome financial power represented by those whose curious faces turned up toward his. The president of the second largest bank in the world! Chairman of the Board of the fifth largest industrial corporation in the world. And so on, a virtual who's who of the Fortune 500. Not the greatest forum for the topic he was about to broach.
"One of our scientists from the Akron Lab apparently made a very significant discovery," he began, letting his eyes go out of focus so as to avoid seeing all those oaken faces. "I say 'apparently’ because he disappeared, taking with him his notes and all traces of the mixture, except for this." At this point he removed from his inside suit coat breast pocket the same sample container that Hooper had given him a week ago in his office, and held it up. Ten pairs of eyes focused curiously on the small plastic bottle. "Aside from any that Mr. Homeier might have on his person, this is the only sample known to exist outside the human body. We have consumed about half of it in laboratory tests, which leaves just about enough for each of you to have one small sniff."
He handed the bottle to the Chairman. Grey flannel, grey styled hair, sixty-seven years old, the Chairman, Watkins assessed, was in good shape for a man of his age. He hoped his heart could take it. The chairman looked at Watkins, who nodded encouragement. He then looked around at his board. Finally, not wanting to appear weak or indecisive, he took a conservative sniff. Then surprise took his face, then embarrassment, then abandon. He closed his eyes, slumped down in his chair, and grinned.
So far, so good, Watkins thought to himself, and swallowed hard as the Chairman passed the scent to the first director on his left, who was Chief Executive Officer of the second largest automobile manufacturer in the world and on the board of the largest oil company in the world. The man, somewhat shocked at the behavior of the Chairman, took a perfunctory sniff and quickly passed the bottle to Mrs. Tarkington, a hint of scorn on his face. Suddenly he closed his eyes and shook violently.
Mrs. Tarkington, a matronly woman in her early sixties, studied the faces of the Chairman and first Director. Although it had been quite a number of years, she was sure she recognized the look. She put the vial to her nose and gave it a healthy squeeze. The Chairman and first Director looked on in anticipation. The other directors looked on in increasing curiosity and apprehension. Watkins looked on in professional interest, as the compound's effect on females had not yet been tested. As it turned out, it did work on females. Quite well, it would seem. Certainly on early-sixties, matronly, very-wealthy female Directors of the Boards of international perfume corporations. Very well indeed. When Mrs. Tarkington's shrill little shrieks had finally subsided, it took three other Directors to pry the vial from her chubby fist.
When the scent had made the full circle of the great oaken table, the faces surrounding it had taken on expressions more reminiscent of willow than oak. And the great and distinguished company lounged in unusual casualness, given the place, their attire, not to mention the uncomfortable sticky wetness in their laundry. Mrs. Tarkington blew the smoke from her second cigarette toward the tasteful “No Smoking” sign on the wall, and spoke first.
"How soon can we have it in production?"
Watkins, immensely relieved that the demonstration had gone off without violence against his person or medical emergency, responded.
"That's the problem, Ma'am. We don't know how to make the stuff."
"But that's impossible!" cried the oil company chairman. "You just told us that you have analyzed the sample."
"Yes, Sir, we have. But the problem is not identifying the constituent parts of human sex hormones. They have been well understood for decades. The trick is to fabricate them in the laboratory. That is the process which our Mr. Homeier has apparently perfected, as the samples were as pure as we have ever seen. And it is the process which he has taken with him."
"You mean to tell me," the director who was also on the board of the largest computer company in the country, who was drawing vigorously at his pipe, demanded, "that with all the resources of this company, you can't find him?"
"Oh, we have found him, sir." All faces were now attentive, the acuity returning. "He’s teaching ninth-grade chemistry in Olveston on the Island of Montserrat."
"Well, extradite the son-of-a-bitch!" Mrs. Tarkington demanded with unaccustomed color. "Surely he signed the standard research patent contracts all our scientists sign, granting us ownership of any and all discoveries."
"He's aware of our legal prerogatives," Watkins replied. "He says he'll go to jail before he'd divulge the process."
"What's his game, then?" the director who was also chairman of a major copier manufacturer wanted to know. "Knowing that we've found him, he can't hope to manufacture the stuff himself. He can't sell the formula to a competitor - we'd take it from them. How does he plan to make his money? Maybe ransom it back to us?"
"None of the above. We already offered to buy it from him. We threatened him with lawsuits, jail, even physical harm. The fact is, he's afraid the stuff will cause the collapse of society."
There was silence in the boardroom. Minds accustomed to working in currency, tried to jump the chasm to morals. They failed.
"And how the hell does he think it’s going to harm society?" they all demanded to know.
"He reasons that recreational drugs are taken to provide a person with a 'high'. As you have all just experienced, his formula provides one with the ultimate high, the big one God gave us to induce us to over-come the futility and despair of daily life and propagate the species. He therefore concludes that the stuff would be totally and completely addictive. And, taking it a step further, he fears that with sexual gratification available so easily, without the commitments required by the conventional method, families, even procreation, would become lost institutions. Human civilization would grind to an ignominious halt."
The demeanor of the director's meeting, already transformed by Mr. Homeier's amazing scent, went quite to hell at this point, with individual arguments breaking out between many. When the Chairman was finally able to restore order, the consensus was this:
Masturbation has been around since homo-sapiens climbed down from the trees, and it hasn't seemed to have had any significant effect on population or society. This stuff may make self-gratification a bit easier, but it's really no different.
If we don't patent the process, someone else will eventually do it.
Whoever makes the stuff will rake in money such that it makes cocaine trafficking seem like running a lemonade stand.
Get the s.o.b., and do whatever it takes to get the formula from him. Whatever. Don't fail.
Mr. Homeier was holding up the test tube toward the windows, using the bright tropical sun to enhance the visibility of the expected precipitation. Behind him the students were actively ignoring him, reacting to their own chemical experiments. So when Homeier's attention shifted from the glass tube in his hand to the automobile pulling into the parking lot, the class did not notice. As he watched, four burly men emerged from the car, and one brusquely grabbed a student by the arm and spoke. The child, ashen, turned and pointed directly toward the window from which Homeier was watching. Pushing the boy aside, the men hurried toward the building. Homeier dropped the tube unceremoniously and sprinted from the room, the shattering glass alerting the noisy students for the first time that something was amiss. As the four men burst into the school from the front, Homeier fled out the back, racing blindly through the city streets toward the beach. Badly out of breath and seeing no one in pursuit, he sank to the hot sand, grossly out of place in his coat and tie among the nearly-naked sun-bathers. Moments later, he saw a large man in a suit approaching, surveying the crowd. Not positive that he was one from the school but not inclined to take a chance, Homeier kicked off his shoes and fled down the beach, running out of the man’s sight just inside the rim of palm trees. A mile further down, where the bathers had dwindled to almost none, he collapsed again to the sand, this time beneath a clump of bougainvillea. Peering between the branches back along the beach toward the city, he watched for several minutes. Soon the man appeared, walking briskly. Too exhausted to move, Homeier pulled further back into the bushes. As the man passed within yards of his hiding place, Homeier felt sure that he could hear his breath, so he held it. But the man passed, and Homeier exhaled with a rasp. He lay terrified in the shadows until dusk, despair overtaking him. He had thought he could flee with his terrible secret, but now realized that with so much money at stake, there was no place on earth where he would be safe. The only way he could be absolutely certain to keep the process from them, he realized, would be to take it with him to his grave.
He looked out at the waves and imagined the serenity of their blue-green depths. He felt the squeeze bottle in his pocket. Tears came suddenly, as he thought back over his empty life. His work had been everything, and now it was his death. He wondered about his mother's cats, and her plot at the cemetery. Fish food was to be his final destination. He withdrew the bottle from his pocket, intent on pouring it into the sand, when a voice fell softly on his ear. Startled, he turned to see a young woman. She was bronze by moonlight, unashamedly bare-breasted, with concern on her face.
"Why do you cry?” she asked simply. Homeier turned away, embarrassed at her nakedness, and his own. He hid his reddened eyes in his hands, and motioned her to go away.
"Are you ill?" she asked, walking around to face him, and sitting cross-legged before him on the sand. He looked up, and quickly read the innocence and concern in her eyes. In spite of his depression, her scent astonished him, for it was warm sea breeze and jasmine and blooming bougainvillea. It was the very scent he’d sought for twenty years in a closed, window-less lab in Akron, Ohio. A scent he’d known only from samples provided by the lab. A scent that had colored his dreams for twenty years of crushing loneliness. His mind reeled. The ultimate perfume to scent the end of a pathetic life spent in search of it.
"I'm dying," he told the woman softly, tears of self-pity running down his cheeks. "Tonight. Here. Under those waves." He pointed, and the girl followed his gaze to the relentless surf.
"Then I will die with you," she said simply, taking his hand. "No one should die alone."
Homeier, feeling unfamiliar urges, carefully replaced the cap on his sample bottle, but to his surprise, the feelings grew. He tried to analyze his reaction clinically, but his distraction soon rendered it impossible. Soon he was fully immersed in this vision, in her scent, in her compassion, in her being. And when all the ingredients, those one could not bottle, were mixed in just the right way, and he found the result to be most extraordinary, he forgot his concern and his peril. And as the waves kept the cadence, and the moon the glow, the man and the woman celebrated life while Death stood by impatiently.
When they had exhausted themselves and fell apart, Homeier cried tears of joy and relief. For he had begun to doubt his concerns, as he now wondered if climax without another human being is no more satisfying than the performance of a lonely actor on an empty stage. He looked to the eternal blackness of the waves, and from there to the woman lying in his arms. But a niggling conscious asked him if he wasn’t being seduced by the devil to abandon the human race. After all, there were much bigger issues at stake here than the happiness of one pathetic individual.
If humans had evolved to have the intelligence to wipe themselves out of existence, and acted on it, that clearly it was a Darwinian mistake. Was it his fault that humanity skipped blithely into an evolutionary cul-de-sac?
But this was his mistake, not evolution’s.
All his life he had imagined that if the human race destroyed itself, it would be in flash and fire, not procreational apathy. And that would be his doing.
He should resist the siren song.
But what, when one got right down to it, would be lost if the human race ceased to exist? He couldn’t think of anything. Probably be better for the planet.
He should do the right thing.
The scent was marketed under the name "Seductress" to women, while a men's version was called "Climax". It was a huge commercial success as predicted, but was eventually banned in most public buildings and offices due to the inconvenience it caused to the passive inhaler.
John F. Buckley
After twenty years in and around California, John F. Buckley once again lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife. His publications include various poems, two chapbooks, the collection Sky Sandwiches, and with Martin Ott, Poets’ Guide to America and Yankee Broadcast Network. His website is johnfbuckley.net.
N.D. Coley currently serves as an instructor of English at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, Community College of Allegheny County, and the University of Phoenix. In his spare time, he laments the human condition, reads satire and dark, depressing literature, plays with his son, irritates is wife, and tries to keep a smile on his face. His work has recently appeared in Near to the Knuckle, Deadlights Horror Fiction Magazine, the Indiana Voice Journal, Corner Bar Magazine, Massacre Magazine, and Funny in Five Hundred.
Jules Gates is an Associate Professor of English in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Angelo State University, where she is the director of the English Education program, and has worked with colleagues since 2002 on the annual ASU Writers Conference in Honor of Elmer Kelton, conducting the conference interview with Terrance Hayes in 2009, and chairing the conference for 2 years when Mary Karr (2010) and Art Spiegelman (2011) were the featured writers. She is the faculty sponsor of Oasis, ASU’s student art and literary magazine. Dr. Gates has published poetry in Amarillo Bay, Blue Bonnet Review, Carcinogenic Poetry, Concho River Review, Voices de la Luna, Visions with Voices, and Red River Review. She has presented poetry and creative nonfiction at the South Central Modern Language Association Conference, the Texas Association of Creative Writing Teachers Conference, and the Langdon Review Weekend.
Michele Lombardo is a Pennsylvania-based writer of fiction and screenplays, as well as Co-Founder of the writing series Write Now Lancaster. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Philadelphia Stories, Permafrost Magazine, Youth Imagination Magazine, The Journal of Crime, Law and Social Change, and others. She is a graduate of UCR Palm Desert’s MFA Program. Learn more at michelelombardowrites.com or follow her at @michele_lomb.
Jessamine has an MFA in creative writing from American University, where she was the prose editor of Folio. She also has an M.Phil. in economic and social history from Oxford. Jessamine’s essays have appeared most recently in Hunger Mountain and an anthology from Creative Nonfiction. She was also a three-night champion on Jeopardy! in 2012.
David S. Rubenstein
David S. Rubenstein is an American writer, photographer, and painter. His short stories have appeared in Blood and Thunder, Yellow Medicine Review, Chrysalis Reader (five stories), The MacGuffin (two stories), Owen Wister Review, DeathRealm, The Monocacy Valley Review, Half Tones to Jubilee, The Rampant Guinea Pig, The Mythic Circle, Alpha Adventures, Still Point Arts Quarterly, and others, and have been nominated twice for the Pushcart prize. His photographs have appeared in Chrysalis Reader, Midwest Gothic,and others.
C.J. Trotter is a teacher of internationals as well as a writer living in New York City. She has published “Punch” in Following, a short story anthology, and studied with Pushcart Prize winner Alex Mindt and novelist Teddy Wayne.
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