September 20, 2017| ISSUE no 222
crack the spine
Wendy J. Fox
"Lavender Jacknife Bridge"
by Michael Chaney
poetry by Mariah Perkins
I catch gender in my teeth
jaw-breaking, bloodied mouth
until everything tastes like pennies.
Slouched shoulders of not wearing a bra,
blood stained bed sheets,
hairs pulling on tights—
forgetting to pay the female tax.
I have a bad taste in my mouth
there is so much blood in here—
I start spitting
leaving cherry stains on freshly published books.
I start choking
on the iron of teeth cracking.
I start revisiting
the softball thrown at my ten year old mouth.
It tasted new
like first kiss lip biting—
okay, at first,
not knowing what to do with my hands
discovering that I had no need for them
except to apply make-up over the bruised jaw.
I felt my bones re-growing
forming hips to signify womb almost ready,
growing pains shooting from toe to shoulder
making my walk look more like a dance,
I became a parade—
or participation trophy forced into a display case.
I wanted to grow down
revisiting my own blood,
it looks the same as the iron found leaking in my mouth—
but it began to seem less like a game.
I was walking the other day with my old friend Henry James. We ambled through Washington Square Park. Henry’s changed over time. In many ways, but one that’s been interesting for me to watch is his attitude toward, well, change itself. Often he now embraces it. Wants to know, as he puts it, about the “freshest tunes.” The new boy bands. Often I tease him about this. I try to be restrained, knowing his sensitivities, knowing that, were he alive, our relationship would be quite different; indeed he might not have time for me. But now, as he so wryly puts it, he has all the time in the world. I am also aware of the aggression that lurks, beast-like, in my teasing, an aggression that comes from the fact that he’s, well, a vastly better writer than I am. However much I may tell myself that, in my little jabs, I’m just “having fun,” I can’t conceal-- from myself--this rage. I’m sure Henry hears it, too. Above us, pigeons circle. Revolving in my consciousness, thoughts of all the advantages he’s had. But I know this isn’t a sufficient explanation of the gulf between our accomplishments.
I’ve had plenty of advantages, or privileges, and being alive is, these days, certainly one. I cannot reproduce here the comments with which he reminds me that this is merely a temporary situation. We circled the park, yesterday, and talked about real estate. Surely many would be surprised how entirely his approach has changed on this front. He could not be more direct. He wants to know about brokers’ fees. People tell me “people don’t change,” and I will try to argue with them, but I must, to a certain extent, hold fire, for it would not do to tell them what I know so surely to be true: people do change, but sometimes not until they’re dead. They’d think I’m crazy. Sometimes Henry calls me crazy--but with affection. He does, in any case, need me. As I need him. But back to yesterday’s walk. I was discussing real estate, and my current dilemma, and the decision which I had made to “go for” a certain apartment over another, and I said to him (yes, I do try to impress the master) “I’ve realized that leaving all options open can foreclose all options.” With someone else this might have been considered astute, but not with Henry. He didn’t need to remark, for I soon realized, with a shame that twisted my soul, that I had been more than thoughtless, in this instance, about my privilege, not considering how his options had been so finally foreclosed. And how, also, he had made the same point, though so much better, and at greater length, so long ago.
flash fiction by Robert Marshall
The Old Country
short fiction by Wendy J. Fox
In my life then, in high school with my best friend, Cale, I’d say that there was a kind of this layer of not-caring-ness, like in the videos of birds hatching in biology. It’s the spot where the chick has started to bust through the shell, but is still encased in the membrane, the grossest part, wet feathers wriggling under a layer of collagen. It’s like Cale’s face when we used to play bank robbers and we’d stuff our heads into my mom’s old pantyhose.
From underneath the nylon, I could sort of see everything and kind of not make out anything, and while the chicks eventually emerge from the egg, it felt like Cale and I were still there, half in and half out, just one tear away from emerging as our full selves, wet and briny and wide-eyed, like if we just reached a little harder, like if there was something more to reach toward.
Cale and I were in his dad’s basement. He had just told me that his dad had said my mom was “smoking hot,” and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to pass this information on to my mom or what, so I passed him the bong to try to shut him up.
“I think she’s pretty hot too, dude,” Cale said, flicking his lighter. He took a long inhale as the water bubbled in the chamber and then he pulled the stem that held the bowl to exhaust the rest of the smoke. “I mean, I guess I hadn’t really thought about it until Dad said something and then I was like, yeah, totally, Mrs. D. is a MILF.”
“Nobody calls my mom Mrs. D.,” I said. “I just did.” He passed the bong back.
“She isn’t a missus, you know. She’s not married. Her name is Linda. You know that,” I said.
Cale and I talked a lot, but we didn’t talk about the part of what held us together was that both of our parents were divorced. Once in a while, we did things all together, my mom and me with his dad and him, and I think Cale and I both had the same secret hope our parents would fall in love and we would be real brothers. I remember once when the four of us went to a movie, we were sitting in between my mom and his dad, and Cale said something about how we needed to sit on the end, so we moved around until our folks were next to each other. I nodded and he nodded back, but that was as close as we ever got to acknowledging it.
“How old is your mom, anyway,” Cale said. “I mean, other than old enough.”
“Stop it,” I said. We talked like this about women sometimes, but I didn’t like it. “I promise you, you are not losing your virginity to my mother.”
“Probably true,” Cale said. “Hey, give me my lighter.”
The two of us didn’t really have other friends. We weren’t unpopular, we just were gliding through high school, trying to stay invisible. Cale was very good at math, I was very good at English, and we traded our homework around so we were basically B+ average. I’m sure our teachers knew—we weren’t exactly savvy—but like all the other adults around us, there was that gloss of indifference.
The thing about my mom was that she gave me this traditional name, Laird, and then she must have thought I’d live up to it. I was all the way in high school before I learned that a laird was someone who owned a large estate. Not Laird, a laird. It’s like naming your kid Esquire, though it also translates to Lord. I knew other people had this name, but I still always thought it was dumb, though my mom said that she didn’t appreciate me being so negative toward her vision for me.
Her vision was the way she pronounced it.
It made sense, I guess. We were just on the cusp of girls named Nevaeh—heaven spelled backward, though I wondered, wouldn’t the backward of “heaven” be “hell”?—and boys with newly edgy old-timey Bible names like Jedidiah and Zebulon, so Cale and I didn’t feel too misplaced. Cale was the Misspelled Vegetable; I was the Lord of Nothing.
My mom and I had the same last name, which was not the same last name as my father.
Also, I don’t think we were Scottish—or if we were, we weren’t doing anything with it. I mean, we didn’t talk about our clans or trace our ancestry or take a trip and call it visiting the “old country.” It was rare that we’d go anywhere, but if we did, we’d drive to Arizona or southern California. We went to places that were predictably warm, predictably dry. Usually it was just me and her visiting friends of hers, though once in a while there’d be a boyfriend around.
We didn’t really talk about my dad. He’d been gone a long time.
There was one guy, a redhead who, when I was in my earliest teens, started coming around and then he seemed to resurface a lot. For a while I tried to pretend he was my father, even though he was quite a bit younger than my mom, but I had a young mom. She was only twenty when she had me.
I never knew exactly what her vision was or what it was supposed to mean, and I didn’t ask. She didn’t say much about it, except when I complained.
I even thought the redhead and my mom would stay together, but then he hadn’t been at our house for a couple of months, and when I mentioned it to Mom, she said she was done with him.
“Why?” I asked. I had liked him, in a way. I had liked him because he seemed like he made her happy mostly, and selfishly, because he was nice to me. I guess I hadn’t thought about how he might get in the way of my mom marrying Cale’s dad. Sometimes the redhead would slip me a twenty, and the summer that I was fifteen and a half and had my learner’s permit, he let me practice driving in his Honda. Which seemed very normal, I thought, a Honda. My mother drove a Grand Am, which might have been a nice car in the nineties sometime, seemed sporty, but now it was trying too hard to hang onto being cool. Kind of like my mom and the redhead.
“He got married, you know,” she said. “To his ex. She has some fancy job downtown. We’ll see if that lasts,” she snorted.
I wasn’t sure if my mom meant the job or the marriage, but in any case, it was a long time before I saw the redhead again.
When Cale and I were juniors in school, we spent most of our time looking for dope. We smoked pot, mostly, because it was the easiest and the cheapest to get, but we preferred acid, mushrooms, or at least that’s what we told each other.
“Dude,” Cale said after school one Friday, “there’s a party at Mark Johnson’s house, and I heard there will be ’shrooms.”
“I don’t have any money,” I said.
“No worries,” Cale said. “I got you.”
Cale’s allowance was much larger than mine. Meaning, Cale had an allowance.
There were plenty of single parents in our school, but Cale had the only single dad. To hear him tell it, his mother had run off with some dickbag, a real piece of shit, and even if she wanted to come home, they were not going to let her.
Another thing we didn’t talk about was that my dad was that dickbag, that real piece of shit. Cale’s actual mom didn’t leave with my actual biological dad, just a guy like him. My mom and I, we would have said the same thing about him coming home—that we changed the locks and all that. And we really did.
My mother, kneeling at the door, hardware spread out around her.
Just being smart, my mom had said then.
It was evening, early, but I think I was in pajamas.
We live in a rental house, and you never know how many keys are floating around.
I don’t remember so much about him, but I also don’t remember nothing. It wasn’t dramatic when he left. One day he was there, and the next day he wasn’t. I had this cereal bowl with a bear in the bottom of it that I really liked, and sometimes he’d use it for an ashtray. One of the bear’s eyes was burned out, but I still ate from it.
I was definitely in pajamas, because I remember the way the footies squished against the vinyl floor.
If your father wants to come inside, he’ll need to act right. He’s not just barging in. He has to knock.
My mother, her hair pulled back as she worked the old latch and the deadbolt out of its groove, putting the new one in place. She was following the instructions on the package, and I could see her trying very hard to be patient, trying very hard to stay calm.
Later I realized that a lot of people would have called someone, like a locksmith, to come out and do this, or if they were doing it themselves, they would have tools instead of a butter knife as a flathead and a can opener as a wrench.
I was her helper. The face on my bear cereal bowl would keep his other eye.
I was warm in my pajamas.
I held the screws in my outstretched hand.
There were no mushrooms at Mark Johnson’s party. I’m not saying we didn’t have fun. Actually, I was a little glad. The only time Cale and I had done mushrooms before, we could only get about half of a very small stem with what was left of his allowance, and so we traded the piece of shrivel back and forth between us, licking it until it was just kind of soggy, like the cardboard that had held an over-used Tootsie Pop.
We swallowed what was left of the stem when it fell apart in my hands.
I’m not sure if we got high, but I know we were tired—we’d stayed up too late, being too careful with the stem.
“Hey, I think I see something,” Cale said, just as I was dozing off.
“Is it blue?” I said.
“It’s totally blue,” he said. “A bright, perfect blue.”
“I think that’s your dad’s bug lamp,” I said.
“Right on,” Cale said, and his breathing collapsed into snores.
One thing I remember is that after my mom changed the locks, she was at the peephole all the time, peeking through. She’d hear something and ask me if I heard it, but I couldn’t hear anything. Had that been part of her vision? I wasn’t sure.
I was also getting very tired of my pajamas. I wanted to go to school. I wanted to eat my cereal from the bear bowl and brush my teeth and put on my jeans and hop on the bus.
Like Mom used to say, “Get out there and hop on the bus, Lairdy.”
When I asked about going to school, she said I needed to wait.
“He could be watching,” she said.
I didn’t think he was watching, and Mom definitely wasn’t watching, so I put my cereal in the bear bowl. There was no milk, so I ate it dry. I knew where the washcloths were, so I washed my face and brushed my teeth. I got dressed, and I put my pajamas in the clothes hamper. I took my books from my backpack and spread them on the kitchen table, thinking of my teacher and my desk.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“School,” I said. I still had dry cereal stuck in my teeth, and I was working it out with my tongue.
“I’m so proud of you, Laird,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said. One piece of Cheerio came loose.
I wanted to tell her I didn’t know where to start in my workbook, but she was already back at the peephole.
The thing about my mom was that she was okay, eventually. One day I woke up and she had my lunch pail and clean pants and she was rushing me out the door, and it was Hop on the bus, Lairdy! again.
I was nervous about showing up, but it turns out missing three weeks of the second grade is not the worst thing. Mom went back to work. The peephole stayed undarkened. We didn’t talk about it.
Years later, when the redhead left, I asked if we were going to change the locks, and she said, Laird? Wait, what? Um, no.
In fact, I wasn’t sure what my mother’s vision was at all, for herself, or for me. We stayed in the same house; she worked the same job. I hung out with Cale; she hung out with ladies from her office—she was an administrative assistant, and even now I correct someone who says “secretary.” Show a little respect, I’ll say. Unless you are talking about the Secretary of State or something, it’s administrative assistant, seriously.
I think my mom would have really liked to have a daughter. The one time I took a girl to a dance, she asked if Brianna could come over beforehand.
“Maybe I could do her makeup?”
“I don’t think so, Mom. That’s weird.”
But I guess I was wrong because when I told Bri about it later, when I was trying to help her understand that I didn’t get weird all on my own, Bri said she thought it was sweet. She said, Hey, have your mom call me anytime. I would totally get a pedi with her, but I didn’t tell my mom anything about that.
It’s not like Bri ever called me after that one dance, so it was definitely not like I was going to set her up with my mom.
“Guys, I need you to keep the windows open down there if you are going to be smoking in the basement,” Cale’s dad said. “I really don’t care, but be a little more conscientious, you know?”
Once, Cale’s dad had told me to call him by his first name, Kevin, but I didn’t want to call him Kevin.
“Yeah, but we’re not really smoking, Dad,” Cale said.
“No? Then why does the basement smell like a skunk? Enlighten me.”
“It’s more like, I mean, not to put too fine a point, but technically we’re more like taking massive bong rips,” Cale said.
“That involves smoke,” his dad said, “that you inhale into your lungs and then exhale, which is smoking. Technically.”
“Whatever, man, you’re the engineer,” said Cale.
It was true. Cale’s dad was an engineer. He was kind of a dork, but I understood how that could be cool once you weren’t in high school anymore. Like Cale’s dad wouldn’t even need to call a locksmith because he had his own tools. Cale’s dad probably knew how to make a key from a wax mold or whatever professional lock people did.
“What do you think, Laird? Smoking or not smoking?”
This was supposed to be the place where I could shine and use a word like nomenclature or colloquialism. Instead, I made a dumb kind of pun and I said, “All I know is I heard you think my mom is smoking hot.”
Cale wouldn’t meet my eyes, but his dad lifted an eyebrow.
“Back to the basement, guys. Keep the window open.”
For the rest of the afternoon, we watched TV in the quiet.
When we were seniors, Cale got a scholarship, because he was the one who was good at math. Our final year was horrible in that same pantyhose on the head way. We’d try to hang out and have fun, but I knew he was moving and I was going to stay home and go to the community college, and every moment was punctured by the idea of him leaving.
Cale’s dad said it didn’t matter where anyone went, it only mattered what you did.
“You can still come over any time, buddy,” he said to me.
On the day Cale left for the dorms, I helped him load his stuff into the car and I kept wondering if I should tell him that I loved him, because I did really love him, but when he went to get in the passenger side, his dad already belted in, I didn’t have words.
“Peace, dude,” Cale said.
“Peace,” I said.
We didn’t hug or even shake hands or chest bump, not that we had ever chest bumped.
As the car pulled away from the house, I kept wondering what that sound was, what was that horrible snorting sound, until my mom pulled me in close to her and I realized it was me, crying and sniveling and really kind of freaking out.
“Oh, Lairdy Laird,” she said. “I’m so sorry. This was not in the vision.”
While Cale was at school, sometimes he and I would email, in a sentimental way.
Dear Lord of Nothing, he would write.
Hello, Misspelled Vegetable! I’d respond.
Once in a while, when he was back home for the holidays, we’d smoke pot in his dad’s basement and we’d open the window, we’d be conscientious.
Cale talked about his classes—advanced geometry and trig. His lab partner in organic chem was a real shit, I learned.
“What are the girls like in junior college?” he asked.
“What did you say?” I hated that, junior college.
“At your school, what are the girls like.”
“They’re girls. I mean, not really girls. There are a lot of returning students, which is cool, in the mix.” I hoped I sounded like I knew what I was talking about.
“So, they’re easy?” Cale pulled the stem out of the bong, in the same way he always had.
“Nothing, dude. It’s just… Sorority chicks. You are missing out.”
I actually really loved my community college. The instructors were kind. My peers had lives and homes, and some had kids of their own, and we were all working pretty hard. Cale had told me about massive lecture halls with hundreds of students, and I wasn’t sure how that was better than a small classroom.
I did eventually transfer to a university, downtown, at the extension campus. By that time, Cale was already starting to think about PhD programs, and I was still living with my mom.
It will mostly come down to where I get funding, he said over email.
I wasn’t sure what to say. I knew it wasn’t cool to be a twenty-something guy and not have my own place, and I was taking creative writing classes, so I definitely was getting a more sophisticated understanding of cliché.
Of course I wasn’t planning on staying in my childhood room forever, but I liked being up early in our house. I’d go for a run in the filmy dawn and then make coffee for both of us. My mom had always used cheap grounds in an electric percolator, but I ground beans and heated water for French press, and when it was just ready to pour, I tapped at her room. She’d come out, in her robe, and we’d have the coffee, and I’d poach eggs and make toast. A guy at school I hung out with sometimes had taught me about coffee, and the same guy had showed me how to make eggs.
I had tried to write about the mornings with my mom in my creative writing workshop, and I had tried again to write about it in an email to Cale, and both said it was some kind of Oedipal thing. I couldn’t get on the page how it wasn’t—it was more of a shift, a tear in the nylon, getting to know my mom as an adult.
I mean, she was my mother and I was her son, and we had a lot of hard times after my dad left when she was scared and I was too young to do anything or even know how to do anything, and now that I was old enough, I just wanted to make my mother a nice cup of fucking coffee and be kind to her because I was still working on how to say, Hey, thank you for holding it together; that must have been really hard, I can’t even imagine, and the only way sometimes is to do some other kindness like the coffee and a perfect egg on perfect toast, and it doesn’t take away what it would feel like to have an eyeball glued to the peephole for three terrified weeks, but it is something. It was all I had to give, and I wanted to give it to her, every single day.
When Cale emailed, less and less, and he asked how my mom was, I wanted to say, Dude, what are you doing for your dad? People get lonely, you know. But I didn’t.
In early summer, just before I graduated, I invited Cale’s dad over for dinner. Maybe it was a last ditch of trying to hold the connection with Cale, our old fantasy of our folks falling in love.
We had a good time. I made a roast and Kevin brought wine and we drank our way through a couple of bottles, but it was clear there was nothing between my mom and him, never had been, besides me and Cale.
The dinner was a kind of ending, and I wished my friend was there to see it.
Cale got his funding for a doctoral program, and I got a job in an office. I still wanted to write, but I knew it wouldn’t pay. I started as a temp and then was hired full time. I had my own apartment then, and there were things I liked about it, but there were also times it seemed ridiculous, when I’d be sitting around by myself and my mom was sitting around by herself and we were probably both wondering what the point of separation was while we stared at the wall.
At my office holiday party, that first year, I was talking to my coworkers Heather, Sabine, and Michael, and I saw a flash of red hair.
“Who is that?”
“James,” Sabine said. “Heidi’s husband.”
Heidi was our boss, but my mom and I had always called her husband, before he was my boss’s husband, when he drove a Honda and slipped me twenties, Jimmy, sometimes Jaime.
We were standing by the makeshift bar, a low table that had been set up near the copy machine.
“They’re still together?” I asked.
“Barely,” said Heather, taking a long pull of her drink. “At least to hear Heidi tell it. I don’t know. I try not to ask too much.”
I wasn’t sure then what to do, but I did start to understand my mother’s vision. You have even a slightly unusual name and people won’t forget it—he might have forgotten my face, and my face had changed in any case, but how many vaguely familiar guys named Laird could he really know.
“Hey, Heather, introduce me?”
We went outside so Jimmy could smoke. He said he was supposed to be quitting, but he was always looking for excuses. Like seeing someone from the past, he said as he lit up, that was a good enough excuse. There was a light snow, but it wasn’t too cold. There was a pretty glow of holiday lights as we ducked under an awning.
“Who was that kid you were always so obsessed with,” Jimmy said. “I always thought he was a punk, but Linda asked me not to say anything.”
“Cale,” I said. “He’s doing a PhD in theoretical mathematics.”
“And your mother?”
“She’s well,” I said. “But bored, I think.”
“We’re all bored,” Jimmy said, smoke puffing out of his last syllable. “I missed her, you know, and I missed you.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. We looked around, as red and green flashed on the white snow.
“I guess I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” I said.
He nodded. When I blinked against the snow, it could have just as easily been Cale there, kicking at the ice near the curb.
“So, I think this is good,” I said.
Jimmy stamped out his cigarette.
The wind had shifted to feel like a bite, and I turned my collar up.
I knew I would tell my mother I’d seen him, and I was already thinking what I’d say.
He didn’t look good, you know, like not bad or unhealthy, just…not happy.
I knew it, she’d say. I knew it.
And we would be having this conversation in the morning because I would have gotten up early enough to make it to my mom’s place in time to make the coffee. I would have sent a text to Cale that he would probably never return, and on Monday I would go to work and see my boss, who was screwing my mom’s old boyfriend.
When the snow started swirling harder, Jimmy had gone back to the office party, and when I blinked I saw the bear with the missing eye, cereal falling into the bowl.
Lord of Nothing.
One perfect egg, on perfect toast.
creative non-fiction by Samantha Guss
Mike tells me that he is going to convince my parents that he's never seen a potato before when he meets them on Thanksgiving. I tell him, “That's the dumbest fucking thing I've ever heard.”
“That would be like if I went to your house and pretended I'd never seen pasta before. Or if I picked up a tomato and bit into it like an apple.”
I tell my parents about the potato plan and they say that we should take Mike out for Italian food on Saturday night so he knows that we appreciate his culture.
I tell Mike about the “we appreciate your culture” plan and he says that he doesn’t mind being appreciated.
“But really Mike it's like if I went to your house for dinner and your mom thought it would be funny to make me a plate with quarter of a potato and some of a latke and then a partially eaten bag of pretzel chips and whatever Welsh people eat.”
According to Wikipedia Welsh people eat something called Welsh rarebit or Welsh rabbit, which is actually vegetarian because it is a piece of toast with cheese sauce on it.
Mike says that he could ask his mom to make Welsh rarebit for me even though I say he doesn’t have to.
I am at Mike’s mother’s 50th birthday party. It is being held at Mike’s uncle’s Italian restaurant, with an open bar and buffet. I pick all of the shrimp out of a pasta dish.
At the bar Mike's other uncle asks me, “So you're like an American American?”
I want to tell him that I don't know what he means.
But I do.
My mother was raised Catholic and that encourages a certain kind of ostentation.
Catholic men find me very alluring, and I believe that this is because I am ostentatious. Alternatively I remind them of the Virgin Mary.
I drink beer at Mike’s mother’s party, but I consider getting a glass of red wine and some bread and parading around Mike’s maternal grandmother so that she will know that I know what the sacrament of the Eucharist is. She has just told everyone at the party, Mike’s entire extended family, that I am a senior in high school.
I avoid Mike’s maternal grandmother and wine altogether, worried that she will think that I am implying something about this being her last supper. Instead I remain in the corner eating shrimp with a third uncle in the interminable stream of Mike’s uncles. This uncle is telling me that I have a positive energy. He could tell right when I walked in the room that I am not a fascist.
I realize that I have forgotten the Pope’s name.
I continue to eat shrimp.
My friend Kimberly’s grandmother almost didn’t marry her grandfather because he wanted to keep a kosher household and she didn’t want to stop eating shellfish.
When I was little I secretly thought of my dad’s dad, who definitely never kept kosher, as the cheeseburger man because for 19 years we only ate cheeseburgers, grapes, and ice cream when we visited his house in Washington.
He died of cancer the same year I stopped eating meat.
I did not get to attend the funeral.
I had my first legal drink after my mom’s dad’s funeral with Carol I-Ate-Two-Cheese-Sticks-Before-This Miller at a family pub and pizzeria in Marietta, Ohio.
It was a bottle of hard root beer.
Toward the end of his life Richard habitually carried a denuded plastic water bottle full of vodka around the assisted living facility we moved him to after he got trapped in his armchair for 36 hours and his legs swelled up.
First he had tried ordering an electric razor on Amazon to shave the armchair with. “There is a traction problem with the armchair,” was the logic behind the decision.
His kids didn’t buy it. “You’re fucking old, dad.”
My mom bought him his liquor.
We leave the party with Nadia and Albert, two of Mike’s friends from college, before I can tell Mike’s mother’s mother that I know what the Eucharist is. Nadia and Birdy are also a couple, only they have been dating for a year and know what they are doing, whereas Mike and I met on Tinder and are “winging it”.
One of the uncles, the medievalist, the one who accused me of being an “American American”, tells me that I am very tall.
I finish my beer and lead the exodus of young people from the restaurant.
We didn’t get drunk after Rosemarie’s funeral.
During the Mass my mom volunteered me to help carry “the gifts” up to the priest because my brother can’t be bothered to do things and the rest of my cousins are Jewish. What were these gifts? Would I get to throw something in the coffin, like a flower or a coin?
The gifts turned out to be the Eucharist, but I didn’t know that at the time so Justin, my kinda-Catholic cousin, and I very nearly missed them.
With some aggressive pacing we got the gifts to the priest in time and then went back to our pew and back to mouthing words to unfamiliar hymns with the rest of the family. Around the time my mom started crying I noticed that the first page of the church playbill, or program, had a typo on it.
I passed the program to my mother.
“They know we’re hypocrites.”
I carried The Faithfu Ones folded up in the front pocket of my purse for three months.
I showed it to everyone.
“Get it? The FaithFU ones? Like, the faithful ones were over on one side of the church, and then my family was over on the other side and we were the FaithFU ones because we didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
I showed the program to Mike on our first date.
Then he asked me what type of music I like.
I said, “The sound of other people breathing,” and I leaned in really close.
Because my mother was raised Catholic she has always encouraged me to rebel.
"You're so beautiful, Samantha. All of my friends say that."
“Sure they do.”
“You’re so beautiful, Samantha.”
“You’re so beautiful, Samantha.”
“I am not the corporeal vessel of your second vicarious youth.”
“You’re so beautiful, Samantha.”
“You’re so beautiful, Samantha.”
“This website will pay me four thousand dollars to get their domain name tattooed on my face.”
“You’re so beautiful, Samantha.”
"Yes, but it does not distract from my personality."
“When I married your father I had a twenty-four inch waist. I ate cabbage soup-slop for two weeks to fit into your grandmother’s dress.”
My mother is the narcissus pseudonarcissus, and I am her pool of water.
I see myself reflected in the tinted window of Birdy’s car. I do not look like a senior in high school.
The national flower of Wales is the daffodil, but my mother prefers tulips.
Daffodils contain the poison lycorine. They should never be eaten.
After Mike’s mom’s fiftieth birthday party we eat potatoes and expensive mushrooms called hen of the woods at Birdy’s parents’ house with Birdy’s parents, while Birdy stays upstairs with Nadia, who has been vomiting for the better part of the last three hours.
Mike mentions to Birdy’s mother that I am in a play at my school, and she asks me if I enjoy Shakespeare.
I tell her that I do.
“Shakespeare is the sign of a cultivated mind.”
I almost choke on a hen.
“Bees visit both tulips and daffodils, while wasps visit only daffodils,” (Peter Revesz, Introduction to Databases: From Biological to Spatio-Temporal).
My dad’s mom grows daffodils in her yard in Tacoma so my mother grows daffodils in our yard in New Jersey.
My dad’s mom is a WASP.
She is what Mike’s medievalist uncle would call an “American American”.
This summer she threw a Mexican Fiesta party for her second husband, my Grandpa Hans’s 90th birthday. She could not be dissuaded.
She asked the man who mows her lawn if he thought that she was being racist. (She was.)
Marianne loves to argue with people.
When the Jehovah’s witnesses come, she invites them in for tea.
On the Bed With Nonperishables
Mike came to Vassar for the weekend on the heels of what can now be called Phase 1 or a semester’s long falling out with my best friend and housemate.
We hid in my room for two days and ate nothing but vanilla halva on crackers, and pop tarts, and over-easy eggs.
We bought the halva at Haddad’s on Main Street on the recommendation of the owner’s nine year old son and I still have half a container of it under my bed along with all of the leftover alcohol from Marianne/(dad’s mom)’s 75th birthday party.
The halva looks and feels like Moon Sand. It tastes like Moon Sand mixed with sugar mixed with some of the vanilla perfume I wore in high school, but good.
According to Wikipedia, the word “halva” comes to English by way of Yiddish by way of Turkish by way of Arabic. It means “sweet”.
Sometimes I take the halva out just to smell it. I watch the spider on my wall watching me smelling the halva and I feel ridiculous.
Sometimes when Mike wants to be ridiculous he calls me mon petit chou, which means my little cabbage in French, even though neither of us is French, and even though between the two of us we are about as proficient in French as a substandard German fourth grader.
The time my house got a cabbage in its farm share, we let it rot on the kitchen counter for a month. The halva, apparently, will last a year or longer if kept at room temperature.
Drinking Wine Under the Table at Thanksgiving, Hiding From My Mother
My mother started hosting Thanksgiving at our house in New Jersey two years ago after my Aunt Annie decided that she was getting “too old” to have guests and disinvited us from her party.
This year I have invited Mike.
He has never met my parents - “Jon” and “Stephanie” - before.
I invited Mike to Thanksgiving with my family over text after we had been dating for two months. I did not realize at the time that I was positing a projected longevity for our relationship.
I tell my mother that I will make the salad, and she consents, her one request being that I use the beets in our fridge.
“They were an impulse buy.”
I do a poll and discover that everyone one, including myself, including my mother, dislikes beets.
I chop the beets up and pour olive oil and salt on them. When I take them out of the oven 90 minutes later, they are tiny purple croutons.
When Mike and I met in Grand Central Station the evening of the Wednesday before the festivities we grabbed dinner in the food court before transferring to Penn and taking NJ Transit down to Hawthorne.
Sometimes when Mike and I meet up in public like this we pretend we do not know each other.
“Who are you?”
My mother announces that this year we are going to set the table with the “fine china”.
My parents got this fine china twenty-six years ago as a wedding present.
Having sat in the cupboard for a quarter century, the fine china has been revirginized, and has acquired a thin patina of grime. This, in addition to my mother’s insistence that we refer to it as “the fine china”, lends the fine china a mythic status.
Mike, my father, and I wash it with reverence; our deacon, my mother, presides over the affair.
After we place the fine china on the table, my mother decides that we need a centerpiece. She recruits Ellen, my brother’s girlfriend, and they go outside to forage for some attractive twigs and fallen leaves to accent the china with.
I try to weigh the WASPyness of this fine china crap against my mother’s tendency toward a more Catholic ostentation, but my mother is not so easily reduced.
The crowds in the Lower Level Dining Concourse at Grand Central the day before Thanksgiving could best be described as “cat food dense”.
Mike and I found a table between an elderly couple from Minneapolis and a homeless woman.
When my mother and Ellen reemerge with the foliage I have secreted myself beneath the table where I will not have to watch them arrange it.
I am mortified by the aura of pretension that I can feel emanating from this cliché and unhygienic nucleus.
My mother, Ellen, and Mike are all mortified by me.
I wouldn’t have noticed the couple from Minneapolis or the homeless woman had the latter not, almost immediately after I sat down diagonally across from her, leaned in and begun spitting “you Jew you Jew” in a manner so ferocious and incessant as to turn her blue in the face.
When we sit down for dinner, the beet croutons are room temperature and flaccid.
We all compliment my mother on her stuffing and denigrate my Aunt Annie’s. My dad delivers an impromptu lecture on Oliver Sacks, Gillian argues with my mother over whether she will eat one roasted green bean or five, Ellen tells us about her new lab job in Boston, Dylan eats in silence. Mike and I down consecutive glasses of Petite Petit, the only wine my parents buy.
The Petite Petit is 85% Petite Serah and 15% Petit Verdot and 14% alcohol and I have metabolized 150% of a bottle over the course of the evening thus far.
“You Jew you Jew you Jew you Jew you Jew you Jew you Jew you JEW you Jew you Jew you JEW YOU JEW you Jew you,” and so on.
Every ten minutes or so my Aunt Annie’s stuffing comes back up and we all make sure to say derisive and petty things about how dry and terrible it is.
Derision is the gravitational force that operates on the individual subatomic constituents of my nuclear family and keeps it in tact.
Together aboard levitating saucers of fine china, we orbit the foliage.
I close my eyes for a moment and grip the edge of the table.
I have the spins.
The woman didn’t stop, but it occurred to me that if I got up and left then someone else, potentially someone four times as Jewish as I am, potentially a child, would take our table immediately.
The couple from Minneapolis made small talk with us and together we all tried to ignore the singing of the woman at the other neighboring table.
“Hop to hop to
Gonna cook you
Gonna cook you
Hop to hop to”
I had spent 12 dollars on my chicken tikka masala and could not bring myself to eat it.
My mother is so charmed by the story of how Mike and I met in Bryant Park in July.
She eyes the haircut that I gave myself while Mike and I steadily imbibe ironic volumes of Petite Petit.
I catch Mike’s eye across the table. I smile at him, he smiles at me, and we drink wine drink wine drink wine to blackout the day.
We actually met on Tinder, and Stephanie can never know.
Eating Shrimp at Mike's
Mom's 50th Birthday Party
Coming of Age in Idaho
poetry by Jennifer Met
Brooding through the hardly moonlit woods thinking
on such silly things as Hemingway and sexuality I see a pile of sticks—
sticks sticking from the verdigris moss—sticks poking from the dank rich earth—
from the shadowed
and old leaf littered mud bank—
so oddly shock white I pause as if in sun and start
on such silly things as sticks
and the difference between sticks
grand firs, lodgepole pine, tamarack turning highlighter yellow and then blank, aspen
but find bones—
all the flesh weathered gone
save the velvet shin
and jelly hoof—
bones—I almost want to cry—but I want to be rugged and manly more—I ignore
myself to try and puzzle them together again—what animal is this? Was this?
The bones are small—a fawn’s… the wind blows dust into my eyes
and the bones dirty for a second— I blink—in a million years
its fossil will form inside out—mud hardening around bone—turning rock
around bone—pressure—pressure—but then trickles of water seeping inside
to replace bone with minerals and everything outside ceases to be
as solid as we thought—
as the coyotes don’t nibble them to blanks first—
and so I do this service—tend to the baby—a woman’s lot
I suppose—but I pick up the sticks—five six—seven eight—lay them straight
in an imagined order—then bury the bones—and as I do I invent the
baby deer’s life
imagine the baby deer’s life backwards—the delicate vertebrae
of a dancer held in sublime stillness—the quiet days and nights—its
graceful acceptance of rocky rain falling—its long life
to come and its eventual birth as something hard—
an immovable feast
“Free to go, my ass,” she muttered in disgust. “And with the apology of the court, no less! What a fucking joke.”
The woman nudged a fern back into place with her toe after inspecting the photo she’d taken of the spot. It had to be perfect. No one would ever know the ground had been disturbed. Not that anyone would find it. Only the four of them had known its location, and of those, two were dead. Jenna was murdered here, and Tom killed himself, unable to bear the grief of her death.
“I know you did it, Carrie, you bitch,” she said hatefully. She glared at the now-pristine spot where, just a few hours before, she had unburdened her load. “You killed Jenna and dumped her somewhere. There haven’t been bears in this area for 20 years.”
She shuddered at the memory of Carrie staggering out of the woods, covered in blood. She’d claimed a bear had mauled Jenna, that she herself had tried to stop the bleeding and had run for help when the bear returned.
“Not fucking likely. Not a scratch on YOU. Well, now Jenna’s had her justice.”
She spit on the place where she had buried Carrie and turned to go, not hearing the silence of the woods around her. A great roar rent the air and she was suddenly face to face with a behemoth. It bunched its muscles, preparing to leap at her.
Mere days later, a couple randomly scattered bones and a few tendrils of long blonde hair caught in the bear-torn bark of the tree were the only indications that she had ever been there at all.
flash fiction by Kristen McQuinn
micro fiction by Amanda Barusch
I was a girl not a nymph just a girl; a chapped-hands-pinning-sheets-in-the-breeze kind of girl with a secret love of soaring. Some girls, beloved of painters, gaze coy to the right, blue vein pulse at the temple and a single pearl. No, I was of the bouncing ones, cracked at the heel, pulling fish bones from my teeth, guzzling wine in the afternoon—intact, but not untouched. I soared, but I did not glide, and
I never should have soared within sight of that bow-legged demigod with his bulging groin, and bulbous nose. He was not as artists draw him—smooth, clean, and symmetrical. No, he was randy as a porcupine with lead chains and that sibilant claim of affection. He found me charming in disorder, said he could see through my dress.
Of course, I ran. Anyone would have, but no one was fast as I. I am a god! He screamed in my wake. He moaned, pled, and finally gave chase. My hair tangled and streaming, and no one fast as I, but he drew close and his fingers grazed my scattering hem. I called out to mother for rescue
and my rescue began in the loamy space beneath my fingernails. Insidious tendrils lodged there, plunged into my skin, and sent fresh leaves out to reach for the glimmering sun. I sense their fanning still, in the ghosts of my fingertips. Rough tubers burst from my heels. Like blood hounds, they sought the most fragrant earth. Dragging my splintered body (twigs in my hair), they dove down to anchor my bleeding soles to the ground. Bark encased my breasts. The chords in my neck swelled and stiffened ‘til my head bent back, eyes wide to sun and rain. My teeth clattered while the blood cooled in my veins. He stood clinging to my trunk.
No one else noticed. It was so quick, or it was so slow. No one human could see.
He’s gone long ago. The spring sap flows and my leaves tremble. Tiny feet stream down the path below. My roots throb to their beat. The wind carries hints of skin and scented hair, as their warm sighs drift to the canopy.
One comes close to pluck at an arrow someone whittled in my winter bark. Small, sturdy, with a rosemary essence, she leans on my trunk and kicks the ground. Echoes wave through the field. Then she pushes off and slips down the path, leaving a warm patch on my trunk.
I groan, sway, and toss a leaf to light her way.
Amanda completed her MFA at the University of Utah, and has published fiction and poetry here and there. She is currently working on a chapbook that seeks to reclaim mythologies, ancient and otherwise.
Michael Chaney has been published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Los Angeles Review, Minnesota Review, and Prairie Schooner. He lives in Vermont.
Wendy J. Fox
Wendy J. Fox’s collection “The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories” won Press 53’s inaugural award for short fiction and was released in 2014, and her debut novel “The Pull of It” was published in September of 2016. She has been published widely in literary magazines and journals. More at www.wendyjfox.com
Samantha Guss is a (very) recent graduate of Vassar College, where she majored in American Studies.
Robert Marshall is a writer and artist based in New York. His novel, “A Separate Reality,” was released in 2006 by Carroll & Graf and was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Debut Fiction. He was the 2016 recipient of the Hazel Rowley Prize from BIO, the Biographer’s International Organization, for his biography in progress of Carlos Castaneda. His work has also appeared in Salon, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Ping Pong, The Alembic, apt, Event, DUCTS, Stickman Review, Blithe House Quarterly, The Coe Review, Foliate Oak, and numerous other publications, including the anthologies Queer 13 and Afterwords. In 2007, his investigative feature “The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda” was chosen for “Best of Salon.” He has exhibited widely in both Europe and the United States at venues such as Baxter Street, Richard Anderson Fine Arts, the Peter Kilchmann Gallery in Zurich, the Köln Art Fair, White Columns, and the Brooklyn Museum. He is a recipient of fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is the director of the Pretext Reading Series at Studio 10 Gallery in Brooklyn, and was also the founder of Writers Resist Trump.
Kristen McQuinn is a medievalist by degree and single mother by choice. She is a contributing writer at Book Riot as well as a card-carrying member of the Historical Novel Society, The International Arthurian Society, and The Tolkien Society. She has been published in the Strange New Worlds 2016 Star Trek anthology and at The Fem Lit, as well as in academic books. By day, she can be found working in Central Administration at the University of Phoenix, where she also teaches classes on mythology, Shakespeare, folklore, or Brit lit. Sometimes she updates even her own blog. Follow her @KristenMcQuinn or www.hergraceslibrary.com.
Jennifer Met lives in North Idaho with her husband and children. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Nimrod, Gulf Stream, Zone 3, Kestrel, Harpur Palate, Tinderbox, Rogue Agent, Apeiron Review, Moon City Review, Juked, Sleet Magazine, Weirderary, Bombay Gin, the Lake, Foliate Oak, Haibun Today, and elsewhere. Her first chapbook “Gallery Withheld” is forthcoming from Glass Poetry Press(July 2017). Nominated for a Pushcart Prize, a finalist for Nimrod’s Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and winner of the Jovanovich Award, she serves as Poetry Editor for the Indianola Review.
Mariah Perkins is a poet from Grand Rapids, MI. She is currently an MFA candidate at Wichita State University. She was a winner of the Mentally Distilled Poetry Slam and you can find interviews with her in SkipFiction (Grand Rapids Culture Blog) and WYCE’s Electric Poetry.
BECOME A MEMBER OF CRACK THE SPINE
CRACK THE SPINE LITERARY MAGAZINE