September, 27 2017| ISSUE no 223
crack the spine
Leonard Henry Scott
by Mick Ó Seasnáin
poetry by Mark Belair
Wary of the water,
I stood on the dock
while my boyhood friends
leaped into the lake
and swam and laughed
they left, I
to the dock
alone, the dusk
to the churning
I felt inside
as I searched for a solution
beyond swimming lessons,
which had done me no good;
searched by staring
at the water until
I became mesmerized
by its mirror surface,
then to the ecstasy
as I felt something
deep within me,
to a great, glad
and I let this wild
as I dove
Leap of Faith
Perhaps he had forgotten to turn the power off to work on the wiring. But even house current can knock you on your ass. An electrician would never dismiss the basics of the trade.
It’s just a tingle, he said, once you get used to it. Sometimes my fingers go numb for a minute, but it’s nothing.
There must have been a first time, a jolt that kicked the tool from his hand, surged up his arm and into his brain and welded him, for a second, to a vision of his demise. He must have sat there, afterward, licking the burn on his fingertips and cursing his stupidity.
As he worked he talked: baseball, politics, God, science; talked so incessantly that I couldn’t break from his monologue long enough to leave the room. His car, his wife, the weather, his vacation in the woods. He had a story for everything, and told them all, as though incapable of stopping himself. And so I kept him company, watching his fingers dash among the wires: the red, the black, the yellow and white twisted pair, their copper tongues flicking like snakes’ as they fired electrons into his flesh. Every few seconds he jerked and let them go, and then shook his head and dove back in for more. The green wire, I noticed, he kept separate, one end screwed to a metal plate, the other limp in the air.
I expected him to tell me he was lucky to be alive, to launch into a sermon on divine intervention and how I should let Jesus into my life. Or to tell me of a secret dream he had about standing on a cliff in a thunderstorm and raising his lightning rod into the air. Instead he went on about the quotidian, emptying his fried green tomato of a brain as he built up immunity, I suppose, to the electric chair.
Had he been already rendered senseless when he next stared at live wires and decided it wasn’t worth the effort to go downstairs and open the breakers? The sober conscience recoils from memories of pain, but his did not.
In the early days of current patients danced like marionettes in hospital hallways, the heavy leads taped to their bodies in an effort to torture psychoses away. They begged the doctors to spare them, but many would lose their minds in the cause of science.
When he patched up the wall and declared the house functional again, the electrician extended his hand. I took it in mine and refused to let go. He struggled, handcuffed in my grip, complaining that he had other houses, other clients to visit. But I held on, my hand squeezing his like vise grips, and looked for something made of metal that I could grasp with the other.
flash fiction by Joe Ponepinto
A Story in Stories
short fiction by Perle Besserman
I’m phobic about three things: confined spaces, dirt, and live chickens. Imagine, then, the shock of coming face to face with a slick, brown-feathered, mean-eyed rooster poised in attack mode in the corner of a dirt-encrusted Porto-Potty. Which is exactly what happened when, on a picnic with my soon-to-be ex-husband Erwin, I had gone off to pee in order to defuse an argument only to be confronted by my phobic trifecta.
So, too, did the rooster.
We stood and stared at each other for what felt like a lifetime as images of my most terrifying childhood chicken encounter unspooled in the meager space between us.
It was summer, and I’d just turned ten and my sister twelve. (We were exactly two years and two months apart—my birthday was in July and Denise’s in September.) Since there wasn’t enough money for both of us to go to camp, it was decided that, being younger and easier to please, I would spend the summer at our grandparents’ egg farm in upstate New York.
Those days nobody talked about “free range” versus “industrialized”; chickens simply milled around in the yard like Occupy anarchists in Zuccotti Park, pecking away at anything and everything in their paths: worms, seeds, bits of straw, an occasional corn kernel that had fallen from the feed pail Grandma Esty dumped into the trough in front of the chicken house where the hens laid their eggs. I avoided chores involving the odiferous chickens and earned my keep by washing dishes and answering the phone if it happened to ring on a Sunday afternoon when my grandparents were napping. Grandma Esty, my father’s mother, had never hidden the fact that she’d wanted grandsons and resented my mother for both “stealing” her son and producing only girl children, so I wisely stayed out of her way. A fanatic raw foods advocate, she fed me grapefruit with bran for breakfast and spinach salads for lunch. Suppers consisted of yogurt and an apple. Eggs were for selling, not for scrambling, frying, boiling, poaching, or eating. The only cooked food I tasted that summer were the Corn Dogs on a stick Grandpa Ian and I surreptitiously shared at a roadside stand when we went berry picking. My happiest days at the farm were those spent away from it on berry picking expeditions. Tutored in all things “outdoors” by my adored Grandpa Ian, I meandered through the woods alongside him distinguishing edibles from in-edibles and identifying trees and wildflowers.
But it was Grandma Esty who ruled the roost, in every sense of the word. She was tiny, stick-thin, and always angry, and I could never understand how it was that my tall and handsome, gentle grandfather could love her so tenderly. Then again, I was only a child and not yet wise in the crooked, uneven ways of love.
At first I harbored neither fear nor interest in the chickens. The one exception was Bindy, a furious purple-combed “cock of the walk”, a prolific stud of a rooster who, literally, had free range of the farm, strutting anywhere he pleased, at any time, and giving way to no one, human or animal. Like my grandmother, Bindy remained indifferent toward me as long as I kept my distance. That is, until the day the ball I was playing with rolled into the henhouse and I unthinkingly crawled in to retrieve it. Getting down on all fours at the entrance and holding my breath against the putrid poultry smell, I peered into the darkness. It was quiet, and there was no movement, so, feeling for the ball with my hands, I carefully inched my way inside—and was instantly confronted by Bindy’s beady-eyed stare. Startled, I let out a hefty screech. Which was the worst thing I could possibly have done, for it set the rooster into immediate action. Defending his territory against what he must have taken for a competitor, or even worse, preparing to mount a potential mate, Bindy leapt toward my face, beak held high and aimed directly at my eyes.
Luckily at that moment I felt a strong, determined tugging at my ankles as my grandfather pulled me out of the henhouse feet first. Five seconds longer, and Bindy would have made short work of me, as my grandmother would later say when told of my misadventure—before adding that I had the makings of a “troublemaker” and no doubt took after my mother’s side of the family.
Five and a half years of psychotherapy have helped me pinpoint the source of my sexually charged, highly contentious relationship with men to that summer day in the henhouse with Bindy, the raging rooster. As for the genetic component: I suspect my grandmother might have been at least partially right, for the one family member I came to resemble most, both in looks and behavior, was my mother’s wayward brother Harry. Same thick, dark unruly hair, olive skin, black eyes, and bow-legged stride. The laws of genetics are Erwin’s bailiwick, not mine. So, if you’re looking for a hard and fast, deterministic reason for my becoming a phobic, troublemaking person forever unable to turn down a dare or stir up a fight, check with my geneticist ex-husband. Oh, and, in case you’re wondering what happened next in my encounter with the rooster in the Porto-Potty that summer afternoon. I backed out the door and peed in the bushes before returning to find Erwin simultaneously packing up our picnic hamper and our marriage.
My grandmother wasn’t entirely wrong about my genetic inheritance, just a bit off in her emphasis. For I can now say with some certainty that what she saw as “troublemaking” could more aptly be described as a shared spiritual restlessness with my uncle Harry.
The only boy in a family of four girls, born last to a mother in her forties, Harry was destined to be coddled by his sisters. His father Carlo, a Sicilian immigrant, had settled the family in Philadelphia and worked his way up from junk dealer to pizzeria owner. Harry’s sisters had all been born back in Messina, making him not only special because he was male, but because he was the first child in the Stabile clan to have been born on American soil. The family pride and joy, his maleness so celebrated that at his christening party, guests showered the baby with gold coins specially provided for the occasion.
No surprise, then, that Harry became, as my mother put it, a “ladies’ man.” Adored, fussed and fought over, and fiercely protected by his sisters from early on, he fell quite effortlessly into that role. It was almost as if there was never a question that Harry could be anything but the focus of female attention wherever he found himself. Not that he was effeminate; his swarthy Italian looks mitigated against it. And the fact that he was a rugged, athletic boy known for telling smutty jokes and generously sharing the cigarettes he’d been smoking since he was twelve.
Never one for studying, Harry barely edged out of high school with a passing grade before signing up as a merchant seaman—which was how he made his way around the world and fell in love with a Chinese woman and her city, Shanghai. Mei Ling worked as a receptionist in the office of the shipping company that owned Harry’s freighter, so she was the first person to welcome him on arrival and the last to see him off on departure. This coming and going went on for two years before Harry and Mei Ling were married by the freighter’s captain, celebrating afterward with four of his mates and her widowed mother in attendance at a reception in the diplomat’s room of a fancy hotel on the Bund. Harry continued sailing; Mei Ling remained at her job in Shanghai, their romantic once-a-year meetings eventually taking its toll on the marriage until one day Harry arrived to find Mei Ling no longer awaiting him on the dock with her customary covered dish of steamed sesame buns. When, after a month of numerous official inquiries, neither his wife nor her widowed mother were to be found anywhere in or around Shanghai, Harry began to doubt that Mei Ling had ever existed at all, that, like a seaborne fantasy common to sailors on long uninterrupted voyages, he’d dreamed her into being. Harry’s leave was up, so he reluctantly boarded his ship and sailed back to the States. Unforeseen events intervened preventing him from returning to China, the most important of which was that the shipping company owner of the freighter was found guilty of illegally dumping waste at sea and went into bankruptcy, ending Harry’s career as a merchant seaman. Fortunately, my uncle had taken no part in the illegal dumping and, after being questioned by the authorities, was free to go without being charged. Jobless, he returned to Philadelphia and went to work in his father’s pizzeria. But Harry could not stay put for long and was soon traveling again. This time around the United States, selling subscriptions to The Reader’s Digest book club. This brief but influential period in Harry’s life turned him from a marginal reader into a voracious one—an addiction he passed on to eight-year-old me, when, after quitting his traveling salesman’s job, he arrived at our door with the entire Reader’s Digest library of books in the trunk of his car and dropping them off before leaving without telling anyone where he was going. It was only after Harry had returned to Philly two years later from a self-reported successful gambling stint in Las Vegas, investing his winnings in a pair of Fairmount row houses and moving into one of them with his new wife, my Aunt Peg, that I really got to know him. Or at least I thought I did. The fact is, I never actually knew whether or not to believe what Harry told me—about Shanghai, his Chinese wife Mei Ling, his career as a merchant seaman, or any of the multiple adventures designed to prove his extraordinariness. Aunt Peg didn’t help clear things up, either. A redheaded showgirl with perfect melon-shaped breasts and long shapely legs, Peg soon relapsed into sullen invalidism, supposedly brought about by the unchecked disapproval of her husband’s sisters, and avoided all contact with the family. When Harry came to visit us, in the Italian Market neighborhood, with expensive toys for me and my sister and cousins and outrageously priced bottles of wine for our parents, he did so on his own.
Fueling my discontent with the drab bourgeois ordinariness of the life I’d been born into, Harry—exaggerations and/or outright lies notwithstanding—became the model for everything I would aspire to. Which did not sit well with my father, who on more than one occasion referred to my uncle as “a four flusher” despite my mother’s protestations. *
*(According to the online Urban Dictionary, a four flusher is: “Somebody who is obviously lying, posturing, idly boasting, who does not have the goods . . . Originally from game of poker, c.1880, one who bluffs that they have five cards in a flush when they only hold four.”)
As a kid I lived in constant anticipation of Harry’s visits and the lavish gifts he never failed to bring with him, my favorite being a red fire engine with a bell I could ring while riding around the block impressing the boys I longed to be friends with and alienating the girls with my tomboyish preference for mechanical toys over dolls and tea sets. Even more important for my mother and her sisters was the sorely lacking aura of glamour Harry brought into their lives. Not only had he managed to escape the rental apartments above and adjacent to my grandfather’s pizzeria, where the rest of us still lived, but he’d already claimed a stake in the upscale gentrification of a far nicer neighborhood than ours. I remember the time he came to visit offering my father a share in his latest real estate venture, laying out on our kitchen table the renovation plans for three new row houses he was planning to buy. My father, a once-promising lyric tenor with frustrated operatic aspirations, had only just returned from his job as a post office clerk, and was annoyed at having to delay dinner when Harry, unannounced, rang the downstairs bell. Never inconvenienced by her brother’s impromptu visits, my mother immediately began preparing for Harry to join us.
“I made your favorite—spaghetti and meatballs.”
“Sorry, Kitty, but I don’t have time. I just wanted to give you and Mike first dibs on this deal before showing it to anyone else.”
My mother sat down at the table and, without even a glance at the blueprints spread out in front of her, started prodding my father. “It’s a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor, Mike. Don’t do your usual thing . . .” she looked up arching her eyebrows at my uncle, “you know how conservative he is when it comes to money, always misses out on a good deal. Penny wise, pound foolish.”
My father reached into his shirt pocket, took out his glasses and, slowly, deliberately, put them on. “No need to rush,” he waved her off. Then addressing my uncle, “How much money are you asking me for this time? You still owe me three thousand dollars for the last loan, you’re aware of that, right?”
My mother sprang up from her chair. “You never told me . . .”
“Take it easy,” my father said quietly, peering down at the blueprints.
Fingering the gold chain around his neck, Harry gave my father a shit-eating grin. “Okay, Mike. If that’s the way you want to play, I’ll take my marbles and go home.” He reached out and started folding up the blueprints. My father pushed back his chair, and said, “Do whatever you want. I don’t have the time, or the money, for this deal of yours. Besides, I’m hungry, and you know I don’t do business on an empty stomach.”
Seeing they’d both reached the tension high point that would inevitably give way to a shouting match, and possibly even worse, my mother dared not step in. And that, for at least the next three years, was the end of any possible partnership between Harry and my father. I’d been sitting on the floor, ostensibly engaged in playing jacks while eavesdropping on their conversation, burning to find out about that three thousand dollar loan and wondering whether my uncle would ever pay it back. Even as I got older, I was still too intimidated by their on-again-off-again “business” disputes to ask and didn’t gather the courage to bring it up until years later, when my charismatic Italian uncle was long dead and my short-fused Irish father was too old and demented to remember.
It was said that Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to illustrate that reading too many romances could lead to madness. In the sixteenth-century, these action adventure stories- -with-a-moral were all the rage. Ironically, Cervantes’ cautionary tale had the opposite effect of what he intended, and Don Quixote became a romantic icon for the ages. I grew up at a time when books were still the best escape from the drab world of everyday reality, living proof of Cervantes’ assertion that too much reading can indeed make you crazy—or “eccentric” at the least. From the day my uncle appeared at our door with his treasure trove of books, I went at reading with a passion, which, despite its unhappy consequences, continues to grip me still. Unlike the chastened Don, I was never cured of my romantic obsession. Unable to distance myself from what I was reading, I’d assume the imagined voices, accents, and gestures of my favorite characters. Carrying my fictional identity with me everywhere, I became “a heroine in my own novel,” as my father took to calling me. When I’d read all of Harry’s stash twice, and some even three times, memorizing entire swaths of The Good Earth, The Razor’s Edge, and Lost Horizons, I continued feeding my not-so-secret addiction at the local public library. My arms piled high with the seven-storied tower of borrowed books permitted to card holders, I’d ignore the jeers of my rope skipping and ball playing sometime friends as I made my way home. By the time I got my scholarship to Princeton, I had devoured every book on the shelves from A-C in the Novels and Poetry sections and was determined to become a writer or die young.
Away from home, living inside the world of books made me an easy mark for predators posing as knights, so it was probably a good thing that Erwin and I married while I was still in college. Despite my book-fabricated sexually experienced persona, he was the first man I went to bed with, and for a time—thanks to my ensuing pregnancy and delivery—the last; not counting a brief dally with George, an Australian street musician I befriended on my daily outing with baby Victor in his pram. It happened at a time when Erwin always seemed to be working, often not coming home until after midnight. I was probably right in interpreting my husband’s behavior as a sign that he’d lost interest in me—not that he’d ever really shown much to begin with. Reflecting on our relationship later, I realized that he’d probably married me out of a sense of duty. Erwin might have been a man lacking in feeling, but he was ethical to the bone—incapable of casting so much as a word of blame when I announced I was pregnant, not even after I admitted that I’d lied about using a diaphragm and didn’t even own one.
George, on the other hand, was full of feeling, the ideal remedy for the Flaubertian role of neglected wife I happened to be playing at the time. Brutish yet sweetly naïve, in the way of Australian men who swing from tender to tempestuous depending on how many pints of beer they’ve imbibed, he literally wooed me with song. The first time I noticed him, he was seated against a lamppost in front of the gelateria on Palmer Square, his guitar resting in his lap, the scant assortment of coins in its open case reflecting his meager takings that day. He looked up at me and smiled his subway tile white smile just as I was passing by with baby Victor asleep in his pram. Stopping, I smiled back. George picked up his guitar and spontaneously serenaded me with Michelle, Ma Belle, and that was it! That he wore Doc Martens, black tee shirts and jeans and had long blond hair and blue eyes and looked like a younger version of my Grandpa Ian only added fuel to the initial spark of my attraction. In short, George, the Australian anti-Erwin who precipitated my first infidelity, succeeded because he was footloose, musical, and drove a motorcycle. Admittedly, superficial reasons for embarking on a month-long affair that, pleasant enough while it lasted, fizzled out in unforeseeable recrimination.
We established a routine, trysting on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in George’s tiny furnished sublet on Ewing Street during the hours coinciding with Victor’s nap. I’d park the pram in front of his two-story apartment building and, after making sure nobody was out on the street or at the windows, I’d carry Victor in his portable bassinet up the short stoop leading directly to George’s door. Though it smelled of marijuana, the flat was always neat and tidy, the bed sheets freshly laundered and the bathroom sparkling clean. Not what I’d expected of my peripatetic Australian street musician, which for that reason alone made him even more seductive during those frazzled, unkempt days when I’d abandoned my own home to a depravity of roaches as I juggled caring for Victor and lovemaking with George between futile attempts to create poetry out of the mess I’d made of my life. My quickly fraying dramatic persona of the moment must have gotten on George’s nerves, for, three and a half weeks into our affair, instead of serenading me in bed after an hour of tender lovemaking, he took to baiting me with testy discussions pitting the “academic” poems I’d made the mistake of reading to him aloud against the “spontaneity” he strove for in his music. When I defended my writing, he accused me of being “glib and pedantic” and launched into a diatribe against the university as “a den of phonies.”
“Why are you saying this, to hurt me?”
“It’s just the opposite, baby . . . it’s ‘cause I don’t want you to become mediocre, like them. I don’t want you to lose your edge, your passion.”
“Right now, I don’t have any ‘edges’; you’ve filed them all down.“ Moving closer, I ran my fingers through his hair, thinking it might calm him. But it had just the opposite effect.
Pulling away from me, George said, “I always wanted to be a musician, but my parents wanted me to study law. They kept nagging me about it, so I left Melbourne Uni and went up to Brisbane and joined a band. “ Frowning, he propped himself up against the pillows, his head thrust back, a strand of hair falling dramatically over his forehead. He pushed it aside, looked thoughtful for a moment, and then burst out laughing.
Unnerved by his sudden change of mood, I asked him what was so funny.
"You are, baby; you’re funny,” he looked at me, his clear blue eyes glinting like marbles.
“You’re confused, and you’re confusing me. You know what I think?”
“I think you’re using me to rationalize your own guilt about defying your parents and leaving the university.”
“Could be, dahlin, could be . . .” Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he got up and walked over to the window. “Sun’s going down, time for you and Victor to go home,” he said, letting me know it would soon be over between us.
Unwilling to own my rejection, I wondered if George’s sudden dismissal indicated he’d been smoking too much pot—although I’d never caught him at it, and he’d never offered me any. It was only after he’d disappeared that I learned he’d been running a lucrative business dealing marijuana. A fact that surprised nobody else in Princeton but me! Evidence of yet another quixotic fantasy on my part: except that, unlike the shrewish, foul-mouthed tavern maid Dulcinea, my beloved object had appeared in the guise of a soft-spoken, sweetly singing minstrel.
Coincidentally, it was at about this time that Uncle Harry cheated on Aunt Peg with his lawyer’s receptionist, “a plump, unattractive married woman who can’t hold a candle to his wife.” My mother whispered this information into the phone so as not to be overheard by my father, who’d “disowned” me for marrying while pregnant. Thanks to Harry’s intervention, my mother and I had been in secret telephone contact since he’d sent her a photograph of baby Victor at six months. Knowing my father so well, and wisely judging that it was still too soon to attempt to heal the breach between us, my mother concluded that only after seeing the baby in person, at Christmas, when he’d been sufficiently “softened up” by the peace and good will of the season—not to speak of two weeks of vacation from his tedious job at the Post Office—would my father be won over. Which is exactly how it happened.
Only now that Peg was at the receiving end of Harry’s mistreatment and no longer resented for being beautiful and therefore “snobbish,” could my mother admit her guilt at letting so much time elapse before opening up to her sister-in-law. I might have judged my mother more harshly if I weren’t feeling guilty myself, because, like her, and all the other women who’d fallen under his spell, I was equally in thrall to Harry. But my mother was far more strong-willed than the rest of us, and, once she decided to take charge of the situation, even Harry had to knuckle under. As the family “diplomat,” known for her skillful handling of squabbling relatives and litigious neighbors, she managed this latest crisis without involving her sisters (never an easy task when it came to their precious baby brother) steering a reconciliatory course between repentant husband and aggrieved wife—until Peg got out of bed one midwinter day and ran down the block barefoot in her nightgown announcing Harry’s betrayal to any of her alarmed neighbors who would listen. Hospitalized with what was then diagnosed as a “nervous breakdown,” Peg spent the following year in luxurious incarceration undergoing electroshock treatments. The first thing Harry did on her release was, take her on a Mediterranean cruise. After her second and third breakdowns and hospitalizations, and a diagnosis of “severe bipolar disorder,” he moved her into an exclusive private psychiatric facility in Bryn Mawr, visiting regularly even after their legal separation had been finalized.
I visited Peg in the hospital twice. Both times, she’d been too heavily sedated to talk, but sat in the visitor’s room holding my hand, refusing to let go when visiting hours were over and I’d gotten up to leave. By then, our hands were so sweaty and stuck together that a nurse had to pry them apart. When my mother called to find out how the visit went, I was too shaken to tell her about it, but the image of Peg in her armchair, staring at me with vacant cat-green eyes, her once abundant red hair cropped to the scalp, kept occupying my dreams. I was too cowardly to visit her in the hospital again, but that didn’t stop me from merging her real mental suffering with my own largely self-created drama, starring George in the role of “Byronic hero” and myself as his love struck devotee.
Haunted by the grim reality of Peg’s descent into madness, I sought my usual escape in books. It was midwinter, and the East Coast was buried in snow. With the heat turned on full blast, I sat in my little home office with Victor in his playpen alongside me, immersed in the tempestuous world of Byron, my favorite romantic poet. But George’s rejection had thrown me into such a frenzy of self-doubt that no amount of literary posturing could bring me out of it. Erwin and I were sleeping in separate rooms, an arrangement Victor grew to accept as “normal” even as he got older and found this not to be the case with his friends’ parents. If he did notice something different about us, he never asked about it. The uncanny double of his father—same massive forehead, hooded grey eyes, and hunched shoulders, his genius guarded by the same impenetrable shield of silent disapproval—Victor, too, went off to Harvard at sixteen, differing from Erwin only in his choice of astrophysics as a major and an as yet undisclosed predilection for binge drinking. Victor’s departure hit me hard. I’d grown accustomed to having him there as a buffer from despair. When he was a baby, and then a toddler, the everyday chores of washing, feeding, clothing, and playing with him had kept me from going over the edge on more than one occasion. Once he’d gone, there seemed to be no reason not to. I’d received my MFA with honors that same year and found a part-time teaching stint in the coveted New Jersey “Poetry in the Schools” program, from which I now had to take a leave of absence. Alternately depressed and manic, I knew I was in trouble when, one freezing winter day, I found myself standing on the platform contemplating an Anna Karenina-like leap in front of the approaching Trenton-bound train. Here I was, having married when I was barely twenty, with a child, and still only a stone’s throw from my family in Philly, who everyone mistakenly took as the “good daughter” for staying so close to home—while straying off into adultery and contemplating suicide.
I’ll say this for him; Erwin did manage to show some concern, and even went so far as to call Victor back home. But not before making me promise to seek out professional help. Put on long waiting lists by Princeton’s entire population of busy psychiatrists, I became a hermit, spending entire days in pajamas barricaded in my bedroom, searching for salvation in spiritual self-help books, drinking endless pots of herbal tea and pausing only for toilet breaks. During those hermetic four weeks, I lost fifteen pounds. When I emerged, neither Erwin nor Victor appeared to notice; I could just as well have died and been transformed into a ghost. Father and son had managed perfectly well without me, fixing and eating meals together, watching television, laughing at each other’s insider jokes. They went right on living as before—as if I weren’t there. Then Victor returned to Harvard, and Erwin to his lab, and I was left to ruminate on the failed relationships with the men in my life.
creative non-fiction by Leonard Henry Scott
I recently heard an announcement on the TV news that the oldest living person in the world, Emma Morano of Verbina, Italy, died at the age of 117. This story just bounced off of me without any effect at all, until the announcer said that she was born on November 29, 1899, and that she had been officially the last person born in the 1800s who was still alive.
Whoa!! I thought, at which point one of those never to be forgotten little bits of information suddenly came to mind. My father (Pop) was born in 1898. In fact, he was born almost a full year before Emma Morano. So, if he hadn’t died almost 40 years ago he would be the oldest living person in the world. Whoa (again)!!
This clearly illustrates one of life’s particularly galling and nonnegotiable rules. That is this: you cannot bring those people you loved in the past with you on your continuing journey through life. No matter how tightly you hold on to their hands they cannot come with you. It is true with our children as well. At some point they must leave us behind as they continue through life. I don’t like that rule.
Pop was a vigorous long striding person on a compact and a carefully managed 5’8” frame. He was born in Missouri and came to the Bronx as a young man, by way of Howard University and Washington, D.C. He was a musician (who once played with Duke Ellington) and he worked for 33 years as letter carrier. He told me that my mom (whom he married in 1929) objected to him playing music on Sundays. So he gave it up and developed other interests. Among other things, he was painfully literate. That is to say his interest in literature was sometimes quite painful to me, because he would often follow me around the house regaling me with every excruciating detail of the latest book he was reading: The Autobiography of Benevento Cellini ; Plutarch’s Lives ; The Travels of Marco Polo; and other such works. He would recount the stories with such excitement that he truly made those old writings live, as though all of the events just happened last week. Oh he was a talker all right.
He was also a walker, maybe not ‘World Class,’ but certainly ‘Bronx Class.’ He walked fast like he had someplace to go. Several times a week he’d buy groceries. He always moved briskly along with his shopping cart in tow up Morris Park Avenue to the A&P, puffing his pipe and trailing great billows of smoke in his wake. He relished his exercise and was generally very health conscious, except for the smoking of course. But he even had that figured out. He adhered to a strict pipe cleaning and rotation regime that (to hear him explain it) made pipe smoking about as unhealthy as eating carrots. He was a voracious consumer of health articles particularly from Reader’s Digest and maintained a fat loose leaf book full of them, replete with careful under linings. I am convinced that he believed that if he followed all the proper, well-informed guidance he would live forever. After all (he might have thought) what’s so hard about that? You just get up every morning and keep living. It’s not like doing calculus.
But he didn’t and I think he might have been the most surprised person in the world when he died suddenly in 1978 of a coronary embolism. Perhaps it could have been repaired if it had been diagnosed earlier (perhaps).
Sometimes I think in passing how nice it would be if he were still alive so that he could see whatever became of the grandchildren that he had only known as two unformed, rambunctious little boys. How nice it would be if he could see them now and the four smart, energetic little children that they ultimately helped to bring into the world. He would be so proud. Of course he would and of course it would be nice. Everyone who has ever left someone behind (and that is everyone) has those exact same thoughts. So, I am aware that that this is not an original idea.
During those idle ruminations I had come to believe that it was his killing coronary embolism that had prevented him from still being present today. This of course is nonsense.
The truth is (and we already covered this part) if he were alive today, he would be the oldest living person in the world. The truth is that even under the best of circumstances, the prospects of him continuing to live until now would be extremely remote, even more remote than my chances of winning a 500 million dollar lottery and retiring to my own private castle (with a pool) on Staten Island.
Embolism aside, odds are that sometime between 1978 and now, his then 80 year old body would have ultimately succumbed to something. It wouldn’t matter how many Reader’s Digest articles on health he assiduously adhered to or how much kale he ate or how religiously he walked up the avenue with his shopping cart. At some point he would have simply run out of days. It just happened sooner rather than later.
So, Pop has joined the “innumerable caravan,” as William Cullen Bryant called them. However, even though he died in 1978, he still has not yet completely assimilated into that mysterious group and remains separate from the majority of its membership in one important way. Most of those untold multitudes are so long dead that they have become faceless and forgotten. Whereas, Pop still walks and breathes and smiles in living memory. Now, the lawyers might say that this is simply ‘a distinction without a difference’ because after all, dead is dead. But it truly does make a difference to those he left behind. Eventually, “we” will arrive at a certain point in time when no one is left alive who ever knew him or listened to his stories. Then,
he would have completely assimilated into that caravan and in the process become just another tedious name in someone’s book of ancestors.
But that will be then and this is now. And right now, at this moment palpable memories of the comfortable smoky scent of Pop’s Bond Street pipe tobacco still linger in my senses, as pungent and real as the warm sweet aroma of my wife’s fresh baked coconut custard pie. The cheerful tinkle of his pipe against the glass humidor in the dining room of my childhood home in the Bronx still rings musically in my ears; and the clear sound of his earnest voice and his quiet self conscious laughter still echo in my brain. Now, at this moment, I carry his indelible living presence with me. And as long as I and that small group of certain others who knew him remain alive, he will also live.
Meet Walter Lambert Scott from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, one of the oldest living people in the world.
The Oldest Living Person in the World
House of Light
poetry by Domenic Scopa
Above all the houses,
if you look hard, sweetheart,
stars are bleeding through
the black mesh of the night-sky.
Like patient listeners they wait
because you have something to say,
although you may not know it, yet.
We’ve memorized the love notes
stuffed inside our pockets,
like memories of sunrise,
but there’s nothing
like the strength of darkness,
that caretaker of mystery,
and the stars, like glitter
thrown around at birthday parties⎯
Before the birthday girl
unwraps a present
her face is the canvas of fresh snowfall
the canvas of a river’s surface
but the clear, electric evening clouds,
or the canvas of a brand new mirror
covered with a bed sheet,
never to be gazed at.
The sky must think of stars
as scars, reminders,
and it desires emptiness
filled only with the possibility of sleep⎯
I am the ashes of stars.
I wait for a breeze…
It doesn’t come,
or I can’t feel it⎯
But I’ll tuck my chin and hope,
as I toss sunflower seeds to pigeons
clustered near the park bench,
and, someday I’ll drop dead,
like mating birds that plummet
in their blissful union…
Nothing ever ends, though.
During nights of bitter cold,
the moonlight disappoints you,
and the terrifying lovers
you begin to recollect
Like an absent father,
I can’t console.
The porch light dies,
and you disappear.
Somewhere, some creature
tips a garbage barrel.
Do you remember that cat
struck by the pickup?
By now a swarm of flies surrounds her.
Her struggle’s finished.
So think of her purr.
Think of the stinging sleet
you looked at once, as a child,
through a window,
and then turned back,
double-checking that your door was locked,
that place of smoldering trauma,
where you only asked for safety,
and where no one was ever home⎯
Except now, imagine
that on every surface there are lit candles,
their flames like flickering apostrophes,
so that house is,
made of light.
I’ve been trying to write and failing all afternoon. Finally, I give up and call my mistress. The two of us talk of our boredom, dishes, doctor’s appointments, petty squabbles and eventually of our bodies, still capable, in life's middle age, of eruptions that disrupt our quiet lives. There is no hope of shaking off the lethargy of the day, so I slip on my swimsuit.
The cement is warm on my feet, and the clouds are hung low like curtains on the rim of a florescent sky. I shrivel immediately in the shock of cold water. All my desires drain from me. Perhaps I’ll swim for an hour and then write---a bildungsroman perhaps, something that illuminates contemporary cultures obsession with the self and technicity.
As my mind wanders, I feel a disturbance in the water, something swimming with me. I turn to a wondrous sight---a woman, with sea green hair, a slender waist, and small, pinkish breasts. And behind her, majestic—a tail, turquoise, and cut through with bits of silver like flecks of glass on a sidewalk.
I did not describe her well enough in the story. I’d missed certain details, like the purplish hue of her irises. The publisher had asked me to write something marketable, --a mystery or a romance, perhaps? Anything but another story about a middle-aged man struggling with writer’s block and women. The story opened with a nine-year old walking down a dusty path, passing a grove of Eucalyptus trees, then hedges, and finally, through a field of flowers tended by bees. At the end of the path was a small pool of water, quiet, slow-moving, tepid, where the boy and his friends swam every summer. Then suddenly, one year, the boys started to disappear, drowned one by one by her.
The story had appeared in one of my lesser known collections. Though my collections are all best described as lesser known. And here she was, come to life, raising a finger to her lips, then parting the water with graceful movements of her arms as her tail moved rhythmically through the water, like a serpent.
Her lips were curled in a smile, and she kept opening and closing her mouth, hinting at words, just as she'd done with the boys in the story. And suddenly, I could hear her. She was talking about herself, using the details of my story as she slipped a hand over my mouth and wrapped me, slowly, in the long strands of her hair.
I was happier than I'd been in ages, cradled in her hair spun round me like a loom. And then she started swimming down, with long powerful strokes of her tail, down and down and the pool's bottom seemed to extend forever. She was whispering everything I'd written about her as we swam into the dark, words and hair swirling around me, the sun and the clouds and even the minor novels I'd written, just a memory now, spinning away.
flash fiction by Andrew Bertaina
Of Mermaids and Long Afternoons
Another plane came down on the city. Dizzy swayed forwards and backwards on her rocking horse and watched her sister Bella flinch as the room shivered with the impact. The noise rang out in Dizzy’s head.
‘Dizzy? Are you listening?’ Bella crouched down to Dizzy’s height. Her sister’s nurse uniform was smudged black. ‘We’re leaving. You need to pack up some clothes, OK? Whatever you can carry.’
Dizzy gripped the reins of her rocking horse. Bella had set it down in the furthest corner of the room when Dizzy moved in. It was jammed between the bed and the wall, but Dizzy found a way to sit there and rock with her legs curled up so she could swing freely. With every sway forwards and backwards, she counted the seconds until the next plane fell, until the next crack in the air. From her rocking horse, Dizzy could stare at the windowless room she’d been given, at the bed that was narrower than other beds, at the wardrobe that was smaller than any she had seen before. The air smelled of the city, of home, but it was tainted by the tang of musty boxes and mothballed clothes, the things her sister had had to throw away when Dizzy came to stay.
Dizzy put her feet on the floor. The world didn’t feel as good sitting still. She cradled the head of the horse that her father had carved himself. The smooth white lines were yellowed now with age and plane dust. The horsehair (‘completely real’, her father had winked at her) was resistant in Dizzy’s hands, not making stroking smooth but a hard effort, flesh squeaking against hair.
‘Come on,’ Bella said, grabbing Dizzy under the arms and peeling her away from the rocking horse. Dizzy let Bella set her on the floor. ‘Start packing.’
She remembered Bella making the same plea to their parents, to get out and move in with her and her husband Peter while they still could. Their father had merely shook his head, holding Dizzy’s hand. Dizzy wondered if she could so the same. Shake her head and stand firm. She looked back at the rocking horse, which nodded forward a little with another crack through the air. It was the only thing left of her world, the only thing she’d clung to for hours on end until her sister had taken away the debris of the door and found her. Alive, when her house had been destroyed. Alive, when her parents had died.
Bella turned her back to the wardrobe and watched her with a nurse’s stern gaze until she started putting clothes into the bag. The air was thick with burnt fuses, burnt rubber. Burnt bodies. It was as familiar as breathing and took her straight back to her father’s workshop, watching his hands craft her rocking horse. And Dizzy knew that somewhere out there, in the middle of the city, her parents were waiting for her and her rocking horse to come home.
When Bella was satisfied that the duffel bag was as full as it could be, she took Dizzy’s hand and led her into the kitchen. Dizzy’s brother-in-law, Peter, was filling bags with food, more food than Dizzy had known they even had.
Peter glanced at her. ‘She’s not going to cause trouble?’
Bella shook her head. Dizzy watched them throwing more and more tins into bags, watched them gasp and jump with every crash in the sky. Then, the last of the bags filled, Peter hefted four of them onto his shoulders, and Bella grabbed the remaining three. She took Dizzy’s hand and they followed Peter outside.
The air was misty, but Dizzy knew it wasn’t fog. She could tell by the sharp taste on her tongue, the smell of smoke that reminded her of her rocking horse. The rubble at her feet. Across the road, their usual bakery had been blown out: glass jagged, bricks crumbled. Part of the sign remained, but Dizzy couldn’t read what it said. She knew girls like her had had to learn to read, before the war, but she couldn’t imagine what that would have felt like. Bella pulled at her hand and they started moving away, away from their home, following the other fleeing people who had never expected the war to reach them, not them. Dizzy listened to the skies and counted the seconds.
When the next plane fell, Dizzy escaped her sister’s hand. She dropped her bag and disappeared into the smoke and the noise while her sister was still getting back to her feet. She ran, feet crunching through broken bricks and bloodied bodies. She thought she saw a woman turn her head, shout after her. Perhaps Dizzy knew her, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, except to keep running and to find a way to get home.
Bella’s house had survived. Dizzy pushed through the door, the hinges fractured by the blast, and went to the rocking horse. She stroked the hair, her heartbeat slowing. She listened to the skies. The noise was closer than it had ever been, like on that dark night a year ago clutching the hair of her rocking horse. Dizzy grabbed the torso of the horse and lifted. It was heavy, heavier than her bag had been, but all she had to do was take it outside. Just a bit further. The shouts were getting louder, the air hissing and popping. Dizzy carried the rocking horse, losing a stirrup as she dragged it over the threshold. She looked up at the skies and watched the war thunder on.
‘Dizzy?’ Her sister Bella, scrambling over the rubble with Peter, their bags gone, their hair wild. ‘Dizzy.’ The screech was louder than any plane, a dying cry her mother had never had the chance to make. Dizzy set the rocking horse down in the rubble and sat on the back, legs curled up, arms wrapped around the head. She counted the seconds, her face pressed into the horsehair. She didn’t hear Bella screaming. She didn’t notice Peter running towards her, telling her to get away. Dizzy clutched her rocking horse, stroking the horsehair, as another plane came down on the city to take her home.
short fiction by Julia Molloy
micro fiction by Dara Passano
I looked down at the terracotta bowl of black honeycombs and white wax petals, wondering where to put my cigarette butt.
“It is my art.” She quivered between her canvases of painted leaves, as delicate as a palette knife. “I am an artist of lotus.”
I blew smoke at her leaves to watch the cracks fill. This art hadn’t got long to live. Her husband was sweeping the dirt around us, arranging it in arcs. The cigar between his lips had gone out. I gave him my hand and he poured his ash into it with thanks.
Mark Belair’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Alabama Literary Review, Atlanta Review, The Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Poetry East and The South Carolina Review. His latest collection is “Watching Ourselves” (Unsolicited Press, 2017). Previous collections include “Breathing Room” (Aldrich Press, 2015); “Night Watch” (Finishing Line Press, 2013); “While We’re Waiting” (Aldrich Press, 2013); and “Walk With Me” (Parallel Press of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, 2012). He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize multiple times.
Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, D.C. He obtained his MFA in creative writing from American University where he also now works as an instructor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than thirty publications including: The ThreePenny Review, Tin House Flash Fridays, Hobart, Apt, Bayou, and Catamaran. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast.
Recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem, Perle Besserman was praised by Anthony Burgess, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isaac Bashevis Singer for the “clarity and feeling for mystic lore” of her writing and by Publisher’s Weekly for its “wisdom [that] points to a universal practice of the heart.” She has written three novels, “Pilgrimage,” “Kabuki Boy,” “Widow Zion,” and a linked story collection, “Yeshiva Girl.” Her short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, Agni, Transatlantic Review, Nebraska Review, Southerly, North American Review, and in many other publications, both online and in print. Besserman’s most recent books of creative non-fiction are “A New Zen for Women,” and “Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers,” coauthored with Manfred Steger. Her forthcoming book, “Grassroots Zen: Community and Practice in the 21st Century,” also co-authored with Manfred Steger, was published in May 2017. Her latest novel, “The Kabbalah Master” will be published in 2018. Perle has appeared on television, radio, and in two documentary films about her work. Her books have been recorded and released in both audio and e-book versions and translated into over ten languages.
Julia Molloy is a short story writer whose work has appeared at The Fiction Pool. She was shortlisted for the Fresher Writing Prize 2016 and longlisted for the Doris Gooderson 2016 short story competition. Her fiction is soon to appear at Fictive Dream. She graduated from Lancaster University in 2015 with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing.
Dara Passano is the author of The Guardian UK’s “Confessions of a Humanitarian” column. Dara’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications in Southeast Asia.
Joe Ponepinto’s novel,” Mr. Neutron,” will be published by 7.13 Books in spring 2018. He is the winner of the Tiferet: Literature, Art & the Creative Spirit 2016 fiction contest, and has been published in Fugue, The Lifted Brow, Lumina, 2 Bridges Review, and many other literary journals in the U.S. and abroad. Joe lives in Washington State with his wife, Dona, and Henry the coffee-drinking dog. He is the publisher and fiction editor of Tahoma Literary Review, and teaches at Seattle’s Hugo House, and Tacoma Community College.
Leonard Henry Scott
Leonard Henry Scott was born in the Bronx, New York, where he attended Evander Childs High School. He is a graduate of American University (BS) and The University of Maryland (MLS); He was on the staff of the Library of Congress for many years and he and his wife, Hattie presently live in National Harbor, Maryland. His essays, poetry and fiction have appeared in The MacGuffin, The Lyric,The Evansville Review, Foliate Oak, Still Crazy, Every Writer and various other literary magazines.
Domenic Scopa is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the 2014 recipient of the Robert K. Johnson Poetry Prize and Garvin Tate Merit Scholarship. He holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry and translations have been featured in The Adirondack Review, Reed Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Belleville Park Pages, and many others. He is currently a Lecturer at Plymouth State University and an Adjunct Professor of Literature at New Hampshire Technical Institute. His first book, “Walk-in Closet” (Yellow Chair Press), is forthcoming in 2017. He currently reads manuscripts for Hunger Mountain and Ink Brush Publications.
Mick Ó Seasnáin
Mick Ó Seasnáin is a Teaching Consultant for The National Writing Project at Kent State University and an English Language Arts for Edgewood Middle School; he holds a B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University and an M.A.T. from Miami University. His works have been featured in multiple print and digital journals and anthologies.
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