october 19, 2017| ISSUE no 224
crack the spine
David E. Poston
Sergio A. Ortiz
Jay Vera Summer
by Michelle Brooks
Last Year in Brighton
short fiction by AN Block
“September? Please.” Sprawled on a wooden bench, with his ankle elevated, watching The Challengers breeze through their pre-game drills, Robbie Hollander gave his girlfriend Beth’s shoulder a squeeze. “It’s still summer, okay? I don’t think about it hardly. At all.”
“Well,” she said, snapping her gum, “maybe you should. I mean, at this rate, could you even make Brooklyn?”
“Just told you, baby doll, college is a long way’s off. Good shot, Hodas!” he shouted, pumping his fist. “Way to go, babe! Way to gun it in!”
“You got the average still, bigshot? Cause I don’t think so.”
Gritting his teeth, he looked down to his crutches strewn on the pavement, and counted to three. “Trying to sound like my mother now? Congratulations.”
“Yeah, well, she’s a little worried. Tells me you haven’t been taking your shots, so that’s why you keep getting these dizzy spells lately.”
“That’s what she said? Great!”
“Oh, my God! What are you banging your fist for? I swear, I don’t get you lately at all, Mister.”
“You don’t get me? Don’t talk about school stuff during vacation.”
“School stuff!” She shot him one of her looks, shrugged his arm off her shoulder and jabbed him with her elbow. “It’s called reality.”
“All right, little girl, calm down. Let me tell you a true story. Jack and Jill went up a hill.”
“Hey! Dutch!” Donnie Rosner called over. “A little help!”
Lifting Rosner’s basketball up and lobbing it back made Robbie’s ankle throb bad enough his vision blurred. When Rosner turned back around, Robbie clutched his foot and gasped.
Beth took the opportunity to move to the opposite end of the bench and open a book she’d brought.
The Games People Play, it said on the cover. Whatever that’s supposed to mean, Robbie thought.
After warm ups, Rosner bopped back over, bare chested, sweat dripping from every pore. “Yo, Dutchie,” he said, clapping, “let’s see that water.”
Robbie handed him the sweating glass bottle he’d tossed over earlier, winking, saying, “Guard this with your life, kid!” Spitting his gum to the pavement, Rosner shook his upper body like a shivering dog, then started chugging so fast some of the ice water spilled.
“So, what are you,” he asked, “sitting here sulking? Make yourself useful, study how I box these amateurs out of their jockstraps. Cause remember: next summer I am going big time, and you’re the new me. Dutch and The Boys, okay? If you could keep from flopping all over yourself. You mope, you!”
Beth slammed her book shut and cleared her throat.
“Hey, blondie,” Rosner said. “You don’t say hello?”
“So what’s with King?” Robbie asked. “Cutting it a little close again, ain’t he?”
“Forget it. Kid pulled some stunt last week, now he’s off of The Challengers. Officially.”
“You serious? Cifrino too?”
“You got it, the two of them. Hey,” Rosner said, when he saw Robbie’s mouth’s drooping, “everything’s cool, Jim. Gonna bend over, load the whole team on my back.”
“Yeah? So the Coach told you what, Jim? Tuesday at try outs.”
“Shemp?” Rosner began chuckling, then started laughing so hard, he had to rub his eyes to compose himself. “Schmuck’s like, ‘Stay in shape, son. Keep practicing drills. Just in case.’ Trying to act slick. ‘We’ll see,’ he goes, ‘in September.’”
“Meaning what? Practice starts in three weeks, no?”
“And you’re supposed to be like an Honor’s student?” Donnie said, raising both fists, swaggering, and throwing a punch. “How’s the kid looking lately? You tell me, Jim. Good as Stevie Aronstein? Think I could run with the starter?”
“You’re okay, Jim,” Robbie said, reaching to slap Rosner’s thigh.
“Damn straight I am! Made Shemp’s eyes pop out of his head. You could bank on it, babe, the Golden Boy here is in like Flynn. Got himself one more shot. Hey, blondie,” he said, turning to Beth. “Going to that dance at The Center with me Friday, or what?”
She flashed him what Robbie thought was the dirtiest look in her repertoire, the one that included a little wink, then held up the wrist with his I.D. bracelet on it and, turning away towards The Ocean, gave it a good enough shake so the silver links jangled.
“Suit yourself,” he said. “Play nursemaid all summer to this gimp.” Then he knelt, cupped his hand and whispered in Robbie’s ear. “Check my footwork against Elman. In the pivot. And don’t sweat it, Dutchie. You’ll come roaring back, kid. Guaranteed. We need your urgency, pushing it up, threading the needle.”
“Better believe!” They butted foreheads and slapped double fives right before the whistle, Challengers versus the Madison varsity.
“So? We winning?” Beth asked, her nose in the book.
“Getting croaked,” Robbie said, covering his eyes. “I’m sick.”
“Thought the mighty Rosner and his team of Challengers were invincible.”
“We’re supposed to be. Just one more messed up example, nothing going how it should here this summer. Minus me and King, Rosner’s got to do it all now. Him and these four clowns standing around which, I don’t care how good you shoot, I mean, there’s no way.”
“Clowns?” said a skinny girl he didn’t know who’d been screaming non-stop, cheering. He thought it might be Benjay’s new girlfriend, or somebody’s cousin. “Shut up, Robbie,” she said, and walked away.
“It’s an expression,” he called after her.
To him, this one play right before half time said it all. Madison had a box and one with a chaser shadowing Rosner, so he faked this stiff who was supposed to be on him out of his shorts, sliced through the zone, got totally hacked, broke free, revved it up to another gear and just glided to the bucket, clapping after he rolled the ball in. Twentieth point, uncontested, smooth as silk, doing his rebel yell. A thing of beauty. The second half though, once they sicked their fancy all-PSAL Herald Tribune Honorable Mention guard on him, being out there with zero help, getting double teamed, that was it, and the Golden Boy showed how, after all, there’s only one Superman.
So the sun drooped a little lower in the sky, the loss was now in the books, and Beth had drifted off, after making sure to inform Robbie one more time, she couldn’tbelievehow immature he was, and after saying, “How come you started using the word ain’t, all of a sudden? Think that’ll help on your SAT’s?”
No one remained courtside besides Robbie, Rosner, and these two pesty girls from 11thStreet blasting their portable radio right by the hoop. Rosner kept launching turn-arounds from deep in the corner, a move he’d never make in a game, Mindy and Nina kept screeching, doing The Shimmy, and Robbie just laid out on the bench looking up, his arms clasped behind his head, thinking how hard-headed Beth is acting lately, ordering him around, how he’s got to do this, he’s got to do that.
The girls took turns calling, “Niceshot, Donnie!” whenever he sunk one, but he was like he always got on the courts, in a world of his own, yelling at himself, announcing some imaginary game, and he didn’t say boo to them till it so happened he tossed up an air ball, Mindy shouted, “That’s okay,” and, chasing it down, Rosner let loose a stream of curse words.
“This new music,” he said, grinning at them, pointing, “it’s a bunch of junk, okay? The hell’s a frickin’ ‘Tambourine Man?’ It means nothing. You girls dig this shit?”
To which Mindy and Nina looked at each other and shrugged. Like,What do we know?
“Go blame Cousin Brucie,” Nina called over, lowering the volume for a few minutes till this oldie from the previous summer came on and both girls started shrieking along, shaking double time(“Seems like the OTHER day”), right under the basket, just as Rosner finished dribbling, and started lining his shot up by the top of the key.
“Ladies!”he yelled. “You mind? Let’s move it. Out of my sight. Right now! Trying to concentrate.”
They stood frozen until Nina clapped her chest. “You’re kidding,” she said, “right? You want us to move?”
“Damn straight!” He stomped over to them, his face blank, jabbing a finger in Robbie’s direction. “Asking you nicely: get going. And turn that racket down. Way down, okay?”
They scooped their radio, towels, soda bottles, suntan lotion and assorted other junk up, without a word, then bustled over by the bench at midcourt where Robbie had been camping out, licking his wounds on the sideline all day.
“Thinks he’s such a hotshot,” Mindy squawked, a little under her breath. “Look at him! Miss another one, why don’t you?”
“Hate these stuck up jocks, anyway!” Nina said, snapping her gum. “All think they’re so cool.”
“What is his problem?” Mindy’s eyes welled up. “Some Golden Boy! So good he got kicked off the varsity last year again.”
“Oh, please,” Nina said, “that’s how he is, like two different individuals. One minute to the next.”
“Yeah? With that obnoxious chip on his shoulder, does he got a girlfriend even? I don’t think so.”
Nina blew some air out so her bangs flew straight up, she looked around, and lowered her voice to almost a whisper. “On again, off again. Some girl called Mimi, goes to school in The City supposedly. All artsy fartsy. Me and my cousin Shelly, we got invited to this party with these kids all from Sheepshead? Oh, my God! Saw her crush a bunch of Darvon 65s up in her Coke and everything. Got her high as a kite.”
“Ew, get out of here! That’s what my Mom’s batty Cousin Ida takes for her migraines. Something must be off with her. Mentally.”
“First of all, that’s not her real name. Mimi. Everything, top to bottom, it’s a complete, what do you call it? Façade.”
“Excuse me, girls,” Robbie said. “How would you know this?”
“Just said, I was there. At a party.”
“Yeah, and you’re sure it’s this Darvon, whatever you said it was, right? Such a know it all!”
Nina’s eyes narrowed. “How dare you? You watch your mouth, Robert.”
“Sorry,” he told her, “but any girl Rosner goes around with, come on! Must be some knockout.”
“Uch!” Nina’s face soured. “Got to throw up in a second. You should see, Mindy, she’s all like cross eyed. For starters. Long stringy hair, dyes it jet black, I swear, this thick Cleopatra eyeliner, got runs in her stocking, with a skirt so tight, you wouldn’t believe, plus she’s emaciated. Some trampy little scarecrow, that’s all.”
“Oh, right,” Robbie said, “like you would know! You crack me up. So what does Donnie supposedly got to go with a tramp for?”
They smirked at each other, nodded, then both stared at him.
“Don’t roll your eyes,” he said.
“Well, you obviously didn’t see her dance,” Nina said, lifting and lowering her shoulder a few times. “Did you?”
“Oh, that qualifies her. Cause of how she dances. Sure!”
“Um,” Nina said, “let’s just leave it, she’s like ‘very friendly.’ That okay with you?”
The girls traded elbows, then both broke out giggling.
“Very nice. You two are something else.”
“Girl sounds like such a mess,” Mindy said. “So, is she Jewish even?”
“Probably not,” Nina said.
“Get out of here!”
“Should see the way he is, a pathetic lapdog following her around. Treats him like dirt, putting him down, breaking off all the time.”
Couple of book ends, Robbie thought, with their fathers’ old white dress shirts on, rolled up and tied at the mid-riff over bikinis, white bows in their hair and, oh, by the way, guess who’s got way too much make-up on themselves? So typical of this neighborhood, gossiping about everybody till whatever song gets their approval comes on and they start in with theGo-Goroutine, dipping their heads, waving their arms and shaking all over.He yawned, dug the copy of Gatsbyout of his bag, the summer reading assignment, and turned to page one.
“God, I’m melting,” Mindy announced, so she walked away to the water.
Nina then plopped herself down so close to Robbie, from a distance it might’ve seemed they were going together. But he had nothing to say and, even with the radio tuned down to a murmur, she apparently didn’t either, so they just sat back to back, her bopping to what sounded mostly like static, humming under her breath, him turning pages, trying to read, then just pretending. Both glancing up, catching Rosner bag one long one after another.
“So how’d you hurt it?” she asked, after ten minutes of silence.
“Me? Going up for a rebound I shouldn’t have probably. Playing all out, trying to wrestle a ball off of Kenny Ace, going three on three. Gorilla threw me an elbow. Came down hard, full force on my ankle, the rest is history.”
“Who, that disgusting animal? You know he had the nerve to ask me out!”
“No, he’s okay. Little rough round the edges.”
“I swear, I almost threw up. Kid’s a psycho, they should’ve sent him to a 600 school with the rest of the lowlifes. You know,” she said, tapping Robbie’s cast, “you better quit hanging around that kind of element. Unless you want to die young, I swear. Oh, I’m,” then she covered her mouth, “I am so sorry. Sorry I didn’t mean it like that.”
“It’s funny, that’s Rosner’s line exactly: ‘Play a little smarter, Jim. Quit thinking so much, you’ll live longer.’”
“That’s what we call each other. It’s just a guy thing.”
“Yeah? So why does a decent boy like you throw your whole future away at The Park now, palling around with that gang of outcasts. Oh, you shoot hoops together? So what are you, with Rosner, like his new whipping boy? To feed him the ball all the time?”
“Outcasts!” Robbie snickered. “With all due respect, what doyouknow?”
“I know, and oh, by the way, everyone else knows it too, you’re starting to change,” she said, nodding her head. “And, no offense, Robert, but no way it’s for the better.”
“Everything’s changing, look around you. Not just me. Ever since the assassination.”
“Oh, right. Of course, it is. The whole world’s in a state of flux.”
He turned back to the book.
“So, by the way,” Nina asked, “how long is it your father gone? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“A year it’ll be,” he told her and then he looked off to the side. “August 31st.”
“Just so you know,” she said, patting his shoulder, “I say a prayer for him every week, he was such a nice man, so refined.” She kept talking up a storm, asking him if things were going okay with Beth, but Robbie’s thoughts leapt elsewhere, several years back, and he didn’t hear much of what she said.
A few minutes later Rosner came strutting over to Nina, palming and bouncing his ball.
“Diamond,” he said to her, his chest glistening. “Doing something later? Go catch a movie?”
“Um,” she said, squinting up, “really? Which one?”
“Lady’s choice. Goldfinger’s? I don’t care. Playing over by Kings Highway around 8.”
“Oh,” she said, adjusting the bow in her hair. “That Sean Connery is unreal. Yeah, totally, I’d see it again.”
“Kay, meet me by the corner then, under the, no, wait a minute, your building’s where?”
“3121? On Brighton Fifth. Toward The Boardwalk?”
“So, downstairs at 7 then. Out front, and don’t be late, okay?”
He pivoted to Robbie, bent down and held his palm out for a slap. “Right, babes? Know what happens to girls who are late?” Grinning, he slid a finger across his throat, did an about face and jogged off towards the lockers.
Five minutes later and Nina’s eyes remained wide as ping pong balls, she had this dazed expression, her jaws hanging, staring straight ahead.
“You could breathe now,” Robbie told her. “Go ahead. Thought you couldn’t stand him though. Stuck up jock.”
“So what? It’s a movie.”
Then Mindy reappeared, hopping, tilting her head sideways, trying to shake water loose that was clogging her ear and Nina popped up like a jack in the box. She headed right towards her, stumbling over her feet, one arm bent at the elbow, her limp wrist dangling down.
“Comeoverhere! Quick,” Nina screeched, gulping, trying to wave air to her face. “Oh my God, you’re gonna die.” Within seconds the two were screaming, dancing in circles, ring around the rosey.
“Who else is going?” Mindy asked, almost hysterical. “Who?”
“Just me and him, dummy. ‘Who else!’ ”
“Oh, my God!”
“He is so cute!” She looked to the sky. “That wavy blonde hair.”
“How’d this happen?” Mindy shrieked at her. “I hate you!”
“I don’t know, she must’ve dumped him,” Nina said, giggling. “Again.”
“Stop the music!” Robbie shouted and he picked up the crutches, wincing from the effort.
“God!” Mindy said. “Look at him. Are you all right, Robbie, what is it? You got some kind of fever?”
“Trying to tell me a kid with this kind of heart, the way he’s moving the ball before, just got dumped?” He struggled to his feet. “You don’t know a thing about him really, do you?”
“Robbie,” Nina said, as he hobbled off, fast as he could, “you’re the one actually, you’ve got a lot to learn.”
In three weeks the crutches were gone; a week or so after that, six days before school, found the Challengers at The Park, going at it hard, five on five.
“Welcome back, Dutch,” Rosner said, patting his head after the game. The whole team had congregated by the water fountains. “A split second late on that give-and-go we had down to a science back in July, need to work on the timing, but not bad for your first time out, Jim. The way you’re moving in and out. Getting in the flow.”
“Ankle’s decent,” Robbie said, bending down to rub it. “Both shots I took though got batted off court.”
“Yeah, by me,” Rosner said. “You’ll be ready for Tuesday. Got a lot of money riding on this one.”
Rosner turned to Kenny Ace, the one boy who towered over him. “I don’t know about you though, you big lug. Playing pattycakes here? Forget your Wheaties?”
Kenny sucked his teeth, then spit down near his size 11 and a half sneakers.
“Got to work on positioning, man,” Rosner told him. “Getting boxed out every time. Come on, man, will you? Pick the cuts up earlier. Grab some rebounds, learn how to set a pick, okay?”
“I know how you set a friggin’ pick,” he grumbled, kicking the base of the fountain. Then he glared at Robbie. “That’s not the problem.”
“Hey, check this out!” Rosner whistled, pointing to Brightwater Court. “Speedy freakin’ Maslow.” He took off like a shot, the Challengers all followed, ducking through a hole in the fence, Robbie, Ace and the rest. Within seconds the kid stood surrounded, clutching a bag full of groceries by his chest, backed up against a light pole.
“Mas-LOW,” Donnie said, “what’s your hurry? In some kind of rush?”
The kid put his palm up, his hand all shaky, squinting from face to face.
“Tell me you didn’t forget, right?”
“No,” he said. “I didn’t forget, but I ain’t got it. I tried, but,” then he broke off.
Rosner bunched the kid’s tee shirt in his fist, then pushed his chest and let go so he almost fell over.
“Hey,” Maslow said, and he pointed to the bag, “come on.”
“Come on?” Rosner nodded. He took a step forward and pushed him so hard this time that Maslow bounced against the springy metal fence to The Park, before stumbling forward. “Two bills, Speedy, you know how this works, right? You lose, you pay.”
“But, Donnie,” is all he said, “I swear. Ain’t got a quarter.”
“Pay up!” Rosner said, shaking a fist down at his side. “You’ve been ducking me, trying to put me off. A week before yesterday, that was the due day, man. Think I’m what, some kind of pushover?”
“Ain’t got it, not yet,” Maslow explained, his voice starting to crack. “I’m a little short. Promise you though, later I’ll have it. After supper tonight, I promise.”
“Yeah? So what do I tell Cifrino? Come back later? You want him after you? Know what’ll happen, right? Mikey King and his boys? They’ll hunt you down.You want that?”
“I just said, I’ll get it for you later. Swear on my mother. After supper!”
Donnie looked over to Ace. “I give up,” he said, shaking his head.
“Okay, cough it up,” Ace said, edging Donnie aside, his arms folded. “No more excuses.”
Maslow was cowering, his lips quivering.
“You owe me and Donnie two bills, scumbag. You’re overdue and you just run out of chances.” Ace went chest to chest with him, Maslow sighed, glanced skyward, then got put in a wrenching head lock, still clutching his bag.
“Hey, Ace!” Robbie said. “For two bucks? Let him alone.”
“Butt out,” Ace told him, smiling, tightening it up as the kid started wailing, moaning and bracing his legs to wriggle free. Ace held him with one apelike fore arm, while he wagged a finger Robbie’s way. “Ain’t none of your business.”
“Come on,” Robbie said, and he took a step forward, “leave the kid go.”
“Yeah, what do you want to do?” he said. “Get your ass kicked over this? Should I make an example out of you?”
“Leave me alone!” Maslow cried out and Robbie grabbed Ace’s arm, trying to pry it off.
“You suck, Hollander,” Ace said, ignoring Maslow’s cries, laughing. “Can’t even put it in, limping around like some puny cripple.”
Rosner, who’d been standing with his arms folded, then steered Robbie off in a separate direction and whispered, “Don’t mind him, Dutch, kid goes a little overboard, but this putz Maslow, he’s put me in some spot. Making me look bad.”
“That’s it, Kenny!” Robbie shouted, shrugging Rosner’s arm off, turning back around. “Enough!” He pulled two of the three crumpled bills he’d been saving up for bowling with Beth Friday night out of his shorts pocket. “Here! Take it, all right? Just leave the kid go.”
Ace looked over to Rosner, Donnie waved his hand, pocketed the bills and, just like that, Maslow was free, bent over, his eyes squeezed together, his face all flushed.
“Now, get the hell out of here,” Ace said, kicking his backside before he got a chance to even straighten up, “and consider yourself lucky that schmuck-face bailed you out here, cause next time, I promise, your ass’ll be grass. Don’t let me see you hanging around The Park no more. And as for you,” he said, pointing Robbie’s way, “come on, touch me again, and you’re dead.”
Still hunched halfway over, Maslow blinked, raised a finger, wagged it, then mouthed, “Pay you back later,” picked his half-ripped bag up, and disappeared around the corner.
“Nobody’s killing nobody,” Donnie said. “Not on my team. Shake hands, the two of you, we’re going for Cokes. On me.”
“S’awright?” he said to Robbie, after Ace and he tapped fives.
“S’awright,” Robbie answered.
“Atta boy, Jim. Let’s put this unfortunate incident behind us.”
The boys all surrounded Robbie, Benjay and the rest, arms slung over each other’s shoulders, seven abreast, all except for Ace, who walked ahead of everyone, and off they went.
“Mantle? What are you, stupid?” Alan Hodas said. “He’s past his prime.”
“Yeah? Least he had one,” Benjay told him. “Look it up: the Mick hit .365 one year. Know what Mays’ best average ever was?”
They got to Miltie’s, crowded into one of the booths that fit eight and Rosner ordered Cokes all around, except Robbie got a seltzer. Then Rosner started telling stories about him, Mikey and Sputnik, roaming the neighborhood, horsing around back in sixth grade, the trouble they got in.
“Remember my girlfriend?” Rosner said to Hodas. “You met her that night on the Boardwalk. Mimi.”
“You don’t forget a face like that. Wow.”
“Yeah, anyways, she’s back from camp now. So Tuesday we go to this place by her school, all the way in The City, seen this act, you wouldn’t believe. Colored guy’s dancing around, screaming Please-please-please-please! wearing this sky blue shiny velvet coat, whips it off in the middle of his number, then collapses on stage, the whole crowd’s going bat shit. Mostly colored. So guess who I see, part of this big entourage there? Cartwright, that center from Madison. Kicked our ass last month.”
“Wait,” Robbie asked him. “Your girlfriend? You’re not going with Nina Diamond now?”
“Am I what?” Rosner elbowed him in the ribs. “You starting rumors here? Excuse me, what makes you say that?”
“That day at The Beach, you know, after Madison beat us? You and her went to the movies? Then I heard from Beth, the two of you are like going steady.”
“Shhh,” Rosner said, putting his finger to his lips, cracking up, and a second later the rest of the guys joined in. “This kid, he likes to spread rumors. Please, Dutchie, I got my reputation at stake.”
“No,” Robbie said, “I just heard,” but they all started breaking up again, pounding the table, everyone but Kenny Ace.
“Let me tell you something,” Rosner said, smirking. “That was nothing. Just went with her because, well, you know.” He lifted his hand, made a fist and started shaking it sideways, like he was rolling dice, winking at Benjay and again they started laughing so hard, they couldn’t catch their breath, slapping fives all around.
“Okay, I don’t get it,” Robbie said. “What’s so funny?”
“Well,” Rosner said, rubbing his eyes to compose himself. “Nina’s like, put it this way: we had a real ball a couple times. Understand? But that’s the extent of it.” He threw his head back, finished his Coke and his lip started curling up on the side. Then he winked at Robbie.
“So?” Robbie asked him. “Two of you had a nice time. Fine. What’s funny about that?”
Kenny Ace hit the table so hard the Coke bottles jumped. “ ‘A nice time!’ What is with this putz? They went under The Boardwalk. Think they had tea and crumpets?”
“Uh, Dutch, listen,” Rosner said, giving Robbie this tight little hug around the shoulder. “I told you, didn’t I? Already got a girlfriend. You’ve seen that gorgeous puss on her? She’s fine, right? The thing about Mimi, you know, she doesn’t try too hard, putting on airs, like the girls around Brighton here. Little Nina’s just, what can I say? Some chick you try and get whatever you can off of. A little of this, you know, a little of that.”
Kenny Ace was rubbing his stubbly chin, giving Robbie, who was staring at Rosner, a hard look.
“Got a big rack,” Rosner continued, “that’s all.” And again everyone started slapping fives.
“Shit!” Ace said, looking up to the ceiling fan, pointing across to Robbie. “Like a nine year old he is. Believe this?”
“Dutchie,” Rosner said, running fingers back through his hair, “guys like us, that’s how it goes. You okay? What’re you so serious here? Come on, Jim! We’re having fun.”
“Yeah, I just, I’m okay.”
“Oh, this putz here,” Rosner said, patting Robbie’s cheek, “he’s got to be putting us on. Had me going for a second, you son of a bitch, you. Look at this baby face.” He grabbed Robbie’s chin. “Hey, you should try her out too. Let me tell you something, she never says no, I promise you that.”
“Excuse me.” Robbie slid out of the booth, he was feeling wobbly, light-headed. All their faces were starting to blur. “Got to get rolling, guys.”
Rosner raised his palm for a tap. “Yeah, okay, take it slow, Jim. Game next Tuesday. Be ready.”
But before Robbie reached the screen door, Ace called out, “Whyn’t you go back where you belong? To your pussy Honor’s Class. Go read a book, why don’t you?”
Robbie tried steadying himself on the door knob and he wheeled back around.
“Keep walking,” Ace said, thumping his chest twice. “Cause you ain’t got what it takes, you won’t ever be a Challenger.”
A blast of wind off The Ocean hit Robbie once he turned the doorknob, the BMT started roaring overhead towards The City, he tried to think what his father would do, and then he overheard Rosner: “Shut your face, will you, Kenny? Dutch got more going on one leg than you’ll ever have on two.”
“Did you see the guy selling huge stick bugs?” I say to Mike as I approach our table. I push a dolly stacked with Rubbermaid containers into our booth space. Mike must’ve just gotten here because he’s unloading, too.
“No dude, but is that all he’s got? It’s notInsectSwap.”
“I mean, true, but at the same time, people can sell anything that appeals to the reptile crowd. I just saw a tshirt table. And there are always insects—crickets.”
“Crickets are just food,” Mike says. “And that table is probably lame tshirts with reptiles on them.”
I look down at my own shirt. It’s black and reads “GeckōUnlimited” under an EckōUnltd. logo modified to look like a gecko. I bought it months ago, but saved it for today.
“Crickets are cool, too,” I say. Before I got into reptiles I liked insects. “You’ve probably only seen the two kinds usually used for feeding. There are ones with stripes and stuff. And different kinds sing different songs.”
Mike carefully pulls a tall vivarium out of a huge cardboard box and sets it on his side of the table.
“Are those leaf-tailed geckos?” I rush over and put my face so close to the glass that my breath fogs it up and I have to back away. The geckos are long and blend in with the dried leaves also in the tank. “You didn’t mention these in the forums.”
Before Mike can answer me, he’s fielding questions from potential customers. The event staff must’ve opened the doors early. I hurry to set up my four small tanks of day geckos, one color per tank—green, yellow, blue, and green with red spots.
We spend the morning talking to customers. The stream of people is large enough that we can mostly avoid talking to each other. Even though my geckos are brighter in color, many people are selling day geckos, so passers-by are more enthralled by Mike’s leaf-taileds.
After a few hours, Mike covers up his vivarium with its cardboard box. “I’m going to go walk around and see what’s out there,” he says. “You don’t mind, right buddy?”
“Not at all,” I say, though I don’t know why he wouldn’t just ask me to handle his business. He’s sold all of the geckos he brought in except for two, which he wants to keep to show people, and is now just taking down email addresses of interested buyers. I’ve only sold one day gecko so far. I’d rather take down email addresses for Mike than have to tell people the leaf-tailed guy will be back shortly.
After Mike walks off, I notice the cardboard box is too large for his tank. It hangs, angled, off the back of the table. Just a small nudge would probably bring the whole tank crashing to the floor. The tank probably cost Mike hundreds of dollars. I’d be really upset if any of my tanks broke, and they’re less than half the size. I stay seated on my side of the table and look at my day geckos. Their colors are so bright. Why wouldn’t that be popular? I guess even the bright colors are easy to get. People are more impressed by rare things these days, even if they’re uglier.
Mike returns with a clear, plastic container in his hand. He holds it up, smirking. It contains a brown stick bug.
“What?” I say, because I can’t think of anything better.
“Don’t be jealous,” Mike says, laughing, “But it was his last one.”
“I wasn’t going to buy a stick bug anyway,” I say. With my lack of sales, I’ll probably lose money on the Reptile Swap this year. Can’t go around buying things and making my loss even bigger.
“That’s right,” Mike says. “You like crickets. Well, you’re in luck! I can give you a whole bag!” He pulls a bag of at least fifty crickets from one of his boxes and holds it out toward me.
I reach out with both hands and rip the bag open.
“Hey!” Mike says. I stare in his eyes and do not look away. Crickets jump out of the bag onto his hands, his arms, our table, the floor. I feel one land on the top of my head, but I keep looking at Mike.
“It was just a joke, man,” he says.
“I know,” I say. “That’s also why I ripped the bag. For a joke.”
Mike opens his mouth to say something else, but a cricket jumps into it. I laugh as he drops the bag then coughs and spits cricket onto the floor. He looks at me as if he wants me to help. I shrug. Mike sticks his tongue out and scrapes at it frantically with his fingers. A few people walking by stop, trying to figure out what he’s doing.
“He almost ate a cricket!” I say. “Isn’t that hilarious?” I laugh and the people walking laugh, and I laugh some more.
“It sure looks like it tasted bad!” I say, but the people who were laughing have already walked on to the next table.
flash fiction by Jay Vera Summer
poetry by David E. Poston
There is no exit strategy
from holy war. Onward, creation
scientists. I would say it’s even
odds on the likelihood of
finding Delight in Arkansas
or Zion in New Jersey.
Few of us remember Fred
Astaire lighting a Lucky Strike
in The Gay Divorcee, back when
smoking was at worst a victim-
less crime. Social media
may be far more invasive than
original sin, but it’s same
lyrics different tune for a youth
culture all too hipster for must-see
TV or pondering how justice
can be racial or prosperity
anything but gospel. A world sans Westboro
Christians might lead to unemployment
benefits for Fox News, but that’s
acceptable damage considering
their quality service to the causes
of business ethics and neo-
It may seem kind of
mean, this ineffable expression,
but I’m just kidding. Trust me.
L. S. M. F. T.
creative non-fiction by Jeneanne DeBois
After recently working with a comedian, a friend felt the debilitating need to impress him with her comedic wit. Rather than treating him like a regular client, she took it upon herself to speak in a language he might understand—through anecdotes and jokes. Immediately following her pedestrian attempts, he responded, “‘Being funny’ is my job, not yours.” Despite the jab at her ego and his inability to regard a mediocre up-and-comer’s feelings, he was right. The world was typically meant to serve as this man’s audience, giving him validation through laughter, and thus keeping him steadily employed. But her job as a member of an audience, though this man might not have known it due to his obese ego, was enormously more powerful than his own. Outsmarting a comedian with facetiousness of your own making is remarkably more satisfying than winning him over with a simple joke. Though, if it were me, I would have gladly accepted his laughter.
Comedy is a multifaceted means of discourse, creating stories that relay truths to its audience by a more attractive medium than blatant criticism. It is oftentimes, if not always, categorized as entertainment, but this pigeonholing strips it of its magnificence. Unlike some forms of entertainment that serve as distractions to the world, comedy as art is a direct acknowledgement of its problems. Layered with wit, satire, and irony,comedy’s purpose lies in its ability to instill power into its audience. By finding the absurdity in reality, the bizarre truth is recognized. Comedy’s ties to the political sphere create an intersection that is worth exploring, as it should not be dismissed as simple “fun.” It is much like democracy in that the audience holds the power to determine its trends and accept its commentary. Meaning, can whatever is being said make them laugh?
As with anything constructed, comedy can become obsolete due to the modernization of the culture it reflects. In lectures where my professor attempted to explain jokes in Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, as riveting as those 18th century men were with their whimsy, the professor was not rewarded the way these men might have been had they told the same joke at a bar. This professor was met with blank stares, later admitting, “A joke loses all its power when it needs to be explained.” Humor is relative to the situations of the given time, but the enduring jokes have always thrived in their ability to mock governing powers, thus keeping them in check.
The goal of any comedian is to make his audience laugh, because that, in turn, results in exposure, profit, and tolerating fans like my friend. Comedy’s influence lies not in its presenter or words, but rather, in its audience. True, the words being spoken, their delivery and relevance, are important, but the audience decides what, exactly, is funny. Its willingness to laugh means it acknowledges and accepts what is being said. It makes sense that as a group of people we are more inclined to seek out laughter; we are fundamentally narcissistic beings jealous of the fame and power we have created in others—celebrities, leaders, the rich—so why not constantly remind them that we can just as easily take it away with an embarrassing montage of faux pas or fart jokes? When President Trump and his administration chastise comedians much like they do journalists, they attempt to obscure Trump’s suppressing stance on free speech, the most powerful entity dangling over his head. Besides his hair.
In recent months, Trump’s Twitter mentions regarding Saturday Night Live have taken a dramatic turn. It is hard to imagine that back in November 2015, he tweeted, “Saturday Night Live has some incredible things in store tonight. The great thing about playing myself is that it will be authentic! Enjoy.” (1) Jarring dialogue compared to a tweet about the show following his election on January 15th, 2017, “. @NBCNewsis bad but Saturday Night Live is the worst of NBC. Not funny, cast is terrible, always a complete hit job. Really bad television!” (2)When Donald Trump was the show’s host and thus in control of what jokes were being made at his expense(which were clearly restrained and not all that funny), he found the show “incredible.” Since then, his complete lack of narrative command on the show's Trump character has resulted in his constant beration of the program. President Trump agreed to Saturday Night Live when it would benefit him in popularity and poll numbers. He found it “funny” then because he supported his portrayal, namely, he could dictate what was said. During that brief hour and thirty minutes in history, President Trump had control over comedy.
Comedy’s ties to politics run as deep as the pockets of the Clinton Foundation. Past presidents and presidential candidates have appeared on a slew of late night shows, as well as SNL,in hopes of connecting with more voters. In recent years, President Obama, Senator John McCain, Governor Mitt Romney, and Senator Bernie Sanders all appeared on comedy-related programs during their respective elections.Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared on SNL in 2016 in an attempt to distance herself from the heavily constructed persona that was oftentimes critiqued for inauthenticity.In doing so,these individuals allowed the audience to view them through a much more humanizing lens—a lens that does not revolve around policy and rhetoric, but rather, silliness. It demonstrated a willingness for the candidates to acknowledge their faults, putting them in submission to the audience. The tagline of every joke comes at the expense of someone else.
NBC shows like SNL and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon were heavily criticized by Democrats and Trump adversaries for highlighting a softer side to President Trump, tossing him softballs in interviews that included hair tussling mere days after he admitted his support for the birther movement against President Obama. Despite NBC’s later attempts to distance itself from Trump after his derogatory statements stereotyping Mexicans as rapists, the network allowed him to accentuate a different manifestation of himself, one that a majority of their audience did not want to see. In a brutal scolding of NBC, Samantha Bee blasted the network on her showFull Frontal, saying, “Why do so many Americans think playing footsie with fringe hate groups isn’t a disqualifier from polite society, much less the presidency? Maybe because that’s the message they get from entertainment giants like NBC, which gladly nurtured Trump’s celebrity for all the years he was running around… [and] show[ed] millions of Americans what a fun guy he is.” (3)
In early March, President George W. Bush appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to promote his new book Portraits of Courage. In the interview, Kimmel mentions Will Ferrell’sSNLimpersonation of him during his presidency that was neither flattering nor kind, but definitely funny. Bush claimed he was “not at all bothered” by the impersonation, and he even mentioned arguing with Lorne Michaels, creator of SNL, over who came up with the word “strategery”—himself or the SNL writers? He did ultimately take credit for the word, “misunderinformed.” (4) Even Press Secretary Sean Spicer was able to find humor in Melissa McCarthy’s impersonation of himself, calling the SNL episode “funny” and only critiquing McCarthy by saying she, “needs to slow down on the gum chewing; way too many pieces in there.” (5)
Bush’s and Spicer’s acceptance of the biting ridicule as well as their own lack of hostility mean they did see something worth accepting. Bush said so himself:“I love humor. And the best humor is when you make fun of yourself.” Doing so means a former leader like Bush can strip himself of power and put it in the hands of the audience. Kimmel quipped in, “Tell that to the president.” It is a submissive act, mocking yourself in order to create a favorable character, while also displaying a form self-confidence. To be able to subject yourself in such a way permits credence in the ability to eventually overcome the mocking with superiority. And when that person who also doubles as ruler of the free world submits himself (or herself if the popular vote meant anything) to the mercy of your average television-watching American, how can he not seem likeable, no matter what his policies are? Polling numbers and opinions of voters are oftentimes heavily affected by comedy, for these skits and interviews provide a means for the audience to relate to the subject being mocked. That being said, the pitfall for only receiving news through calculated satire and jokes authorizes comedy to have a biased agenda. President Trump refuses to put himself in the trajectory of comedy, namely because he believes the power rests not in the audience or citizens, but himself. And by doing so, the comedic representations of himself have only become more scathing.
Comedy and democracy align in their construction being that there is the figurehead speaking words to the masses. You can argue who or what thinks it has control, but the power is meant to be with the people. The audience’s laughter is their acceptance of what is being said, their silence at the end of a punchline a jarring rejection. A few years back, Kate McKinnon, a breakout on SNL for her impersonations of Hillary Clinton, Kellyanne Conway, and Jeff Sessions, called me on stage for what I thought would be our comedic duet, my dryness and self-deprecation accentuating her fearless spontaneity and deadpan delivery. Finally—my big break.No need to me to try and be funny. No, that came naturally. My self-deprecation certainly helped her case as she asked me, “Where is the best place for a private poop?” and how to hide a STD from your overbearing mother. The skit thrived off of my discomfort and acceptance that if I attempted to be humorous with my answers, it would appear as though I was trying too hard. McKinnon guided her questions alongside the embarrassment permeating on stage, but any sense of control rested in the hands of the audience, whose laughter dictated how much longer this could go on. Much too long, in my opinion.
To give up control, even if it is voluntary, is an extremely humbling experience. So to have a man, whose goal was to win the ultimate prize in American politics at whatever cost, enlist in the national joke being made at his expense seems unlikely. President Trump’s hatred of not only SNL, but also Hollywood is not so much in their actual mocking of him, which has been around even before his Apprentice days, but his struggle to have them accept the “alternative facts” he has curated despite the humorous character instilled by his own doing. There is some level of truth to Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of him, despite how ridiculous and predictable it may be, and the audience sees that. The absurdity of comedy is its truth. By losing control of the narrative presented of him, Trump’s plan of action has been to discredit it through tweets like, “Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me.Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!” (6)President Trump might be forgetting that the United States is a democracy—its people making the decision—not a dictatorship where he deems what is “funny.”
The importance of comedy in highlighting the missteps of Washington has been necessary for decades. Granted, it is a distorted version of the truth, but a truth nonetheless. It is much more livening to watchSNL’s take on the Democratic and Republican debates rather than watching the real deal. Comedy allows for the power to reside in its audience, not the comedian, which is something important to remember when keeping an eye on the Trump administration. Those in a democratic government have no say in anything without the backing of its people, and Comedy does not allow political leaders to go unchecked. President Trump’s incessant need to remind his country’s people over Twitter thatSNLis “a totally one-sided, biased show - nothing funny at all”, only distances himself even further from those who did not like him in the first place, giving them all the more reason to mock him.The delivery of a joke is nothing without its comedian, but a comedian without the laughter of his audience is only a fool.
Donald Trump, Twitter post, 7 November 2016, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/663046966180474880.
Donald Trump, Twitter post, 20 November 2016,https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/800329364986626048.
Donald Trump, Twitter post, 3 December 2016,https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/805278955150471168.
Donald Trump, Twitter post, 15 January 2017,https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/820764134857969666.
Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, “George W. Bush/Adam Pally,” television, ABC, S15:E28, 2 March 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ir1hhpkwbo.
Samantha Bee,Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,“Too Close for Comfort,” television, TBS, S1:E23, 19 September 2016.
“White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer Reacts to Melissa McCarthy's 'SNL' Skit,”Extra, http://extratv.com/2017/02/05/white-house-press-secretary-sean-spicer-reacts-to-
Lauren, who had a tendency to pass out on the couch at 10:00 pm, left her cherry pits, sucked clean and coupled with their amputated stems, on the coffee table in the bottom of an empty water glass.
Marty, who had nocturnal tendencies and could never find anything worth watching on TV, took Lauren’s glass and put it in the sink. This was less an effort to rein in the debris around their apartment than to give a purpose to his pacing, which had more to do with Lauren’s misplaced body than her discarded cherry pits. As he made his circuit through the four small but distinct spaces in the apartment—living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen—he found several other things to banish to the sink as well: two plates with red splotches of pizza, a soda cup with a plastic lid and straw, a coffee cup half full of light, congealing liquid, and an empty ice cream container with a spoon.
“What the fuck is this shit?” he said out loud, knowing perfectly well what each item was and exactly how it had come to be in its place.
Marty and Lauren had lived together for a year, so Marty knew that unlike many of the other abandoned items lying around the apartment, the zigzag shape that was Lauren’s person would require a conversation to move, one which he wasn’t inclined to have. Therefore, when he grew tired of moving the non-verbal items around, he went to bed alone.
In the morning, Lauren got up and made a pot of coffee. She poured a bowl of cereal and ate it. She left the empty box of cereal and the bowl on the kitchen counter and poured the coffee into a mug. She poured some creamer into the coffee and left the container and the spoon on the counter as well. Then she took the mug with her into the bathroom.
Marty, shedding the blurriness of morning, wandered into the kitchen.
“For Christ’s sake!” he exclaimed, even though he knew that Christ had not been in his apartment eating breakfast.
He went back to the bedroom where the drawers hung open. He stood there for a moment, then he went back to the kitchen where the bowl and spoon yawned at him. Then he went back to the bedroom where the pillows sprawled on the floor. Then he went back to the kitchen where drips of coffee stared at him from the counter. Then he went back to the bedroom where Lauren’s pajama bottoms curled up on the bed. Each time he stopped moving, he became more and more irate about the morning’s remains lying out in the open. However, Marty pacing still wasn’t about the cleanliness of the apartment, or at least that wasn’t the primary reason. This time Marty paced because he had to pee, and he knew that Lauren’s bathroom habits could waste an hour like a souvenir shopper in Times Square trying to decide between the Statue of Liberty figurine and the Empire State Building paperweight. Given this, he felt he had no choice but to take matters into his own hands, so to speak.
His presence at the toilet caused Lauren to stick her wet, semi-soapy head out from behind the shower curtain.
“Can’t you give me five minutes of privacy?” she yelled through the curtain.
As he finished peeing, he noticed her cup of coffee sitting on the counter, exactly where yesterday’s cup had been when he picked it up the night before. The creamer was already thickening around the rim. There was a towel on the floor and an empty bottle of Aveeno Active Naturals Body Wash lying sideways in the sink.
“How can there be a towel on the floor?” he asked through the shower curtain. “You’re not even out of the shower yet.”
Lauren stuck her hand out from behind the curtain and shooed him away. Marty went back to the kitchen and put the dishes in the dishwasher, which was starting to smell like a dead thing. He put in the detergent and turned it on. He put the empty cereal box into the recycling and the plastic liner into the garbage, but the can was full, so he pulled the top of the bag over the trash and leaned into it, making room for a little bit more.
Marty did these things not because he had OCD, a neat streak, or any discernible aesthetic sense at all, but because he had come to feel as though world around him had simply stopped moving forward. Everything was stuck in all the wrong places. He wasn’t one to waste time on philosophical musings, but if he had tried to describe the feeling, he might have said that it was as though God was a giant juggler who had become bored with the trick of keeping the planets and the things on them in motion, and simply let the universe hit the ground in whatever haphazard order it fell. Somehow, by Marty’s thinking, it was up to people, and him in particular, to get rid of the extraneous stuff and put everything back in motion again.
“What is your problem this morning?” Lauren had turned off the shower and was yelling at him from inside the bathroom.
Marty turned on the garbage disposal to drown out her question, causing an unexpected clatter and screech which shut down the motor altogether. Lauren appeared in the kitchen doorway wearing a towel. Her hair was dripping down her shoulders and water was pooling at her feet.
“Seriously, Marty. What are you doing?”
Marty leaned over the sink and flipped the disposal switch up and down. He did this not because he thought it was going to come back on—he knew he had killed it—but because it occurred to him that putting the morning back into its proper motion might take more skill and self-control than he currently possessed.
“Serves you right,” Lauren said. Her tone implied a crossing of arms and an “I told you so” that wasn’t necessary, but of course she said it anyway. “I told you we shouldn’t have a one of those. They’re not allowed.”
“Yes, they are,” Marty said, exhaling with each word. Part of him wanted to grab Lauren by the naked shoulders and walk her and her towel out the front door so he could get ready for work in peace, but instead he corrected her: “Garbage disposals have not been illegal in New York City buildings since 1997. Plus I got permission.”
“I didn’t say they were illegal, I said they’re not allowed. No one else in this building has one. You told the super you were putting in a new sink, not a garbage grinder.”
He wanted to tell her these things: 1) “Grinder” was not the correct word for this particular device, 2) a garbage disposal was a very efficient way to get rid of food waste, and 3) the super didn’t have anything to say about it. But there was no point. Having this conversation was a waste of precious pre-work minutes, and while the towel and her drippiness did suggest a certain opportunity, it was safe to assume that her near naked presence wasn’t the come-on he would have liked it to be. Those moments were among the few things he did not tend to find scattered around the apartment.
As if reading his mind, Lauren deftly rewrapped the towel more snugly around herself without yielding even a momentary flash of skin. When she walked away, Marty wiped up the spot and went to take a shower.
Marty and Lauren worked in adjacent buildings near Columbus Circle. That was how they had met. They were both eating lunch in the park. And this morning, as Marty sat in a meeting whose agenda seemed solely to consist of scheduling more meetings, the park seemed an appropriate place to end the relationship. It wasn’t, he determined, that he didn’t find her attractive, or even that he didn’t like her. It was more that her presence had multiplied. She was everywhere, even when she wasn’t there. Whatever relationship efficiencies might have been gained by having her in close proximity were then lost by having so much more of her to navigate around.
In any case, there was a certain symmetry to ending it in the park. He was even thinking that it would be nice to sit on the same bench.
“It’s been a good ride,” he would say. “But we just aren’t going anywhere. We’re stuck. In a rut.”
When he returned to his office after the meeting, there were three very long texts from Lauren about what to eat for lunch. To save time, Marty typed “same spot,” and went back to work, presuming that whatever additional issues had come up could be dealt with when he saw her. There was no reason to get into the issue now.
At lunch, he met Lauren at the entrance to the park. It was a warm, bright day and the streets were crowded. Lauren wantedacroque-monsieurfrom the bistro kiosk, but the line was long and Marty was getting hot just standing around.
“You can make a grilled cheese anytime you want,” he said.
“But these are really good. What do you want?” Lauren asked.
“I want to get out of here.”
“If you don’t like thecroque-monsieur, they have other things, too.”
“It’s fine,” Marty replied, watching the pigeons peck at the ground. He stomped at one of them and watched it fly away. “Can’t you just get something else? There’s a hot dog cart right over there.”
“It will just take a minute. Anyway, you can share mine. I never finish the whole thing.”
When Lauren had her sandwich, they walked down the path into the park. It was quieter off the main walkways and Marty sped up, trying to stretch his legs, but Lauren protested, citing her less than comfortable shoes and the beautiful day.
“What’s your rush?” she asked.
As they approached their usual bench, the bench that Marty had imagined for the occasion, he noticed that the garbage can next to it was overflowing with something dark. Whatever it was stuck up farther than items usually did out of garbage cans, and his first thought was that it was a bundle of roof shingles or some other construction material, but that didn’t make sense.
He stopped, unable to figure it out.
Lauren sat on the bench next to the garbage can. She removed the sandwich from the paper bag in her lap and opened a plastic bottle of water. She took a sip and held it out to Marty.
Marty moved slowly toward the garbage can. What stuck out of the top was, quite distinctly, the nose of an animal. The poor creature’s black mass sprouted through the mesh holes of the can in a bristly diamond pattern. On the bench, Lauren waved away a fly and took a bite of her sandwich.
“Come on, sit down,” Lauren said, and when Marty didn’t respond, her voice turned to a growl. “What’s your problem?”
He reached forward and jerked her off the bench, causing her sandwich to slip off her lap and land on the ground with a small, fleshy slap.
“Hey!” she said, pulling away.
“Don’t you see? Don’t you pay any attention to anything at all?” Marty felt the blood swelling in his veins like a balloon overfilled with air to the point of bursting.
“Yes, I pay attention. I pay attention to you wrecking my lunch. What’s wrong with you?”
“There’s a dog in that garbage can.”
She turned around and, for a moment, both of them were silent. The dog was large and seemed to have been dumped lengthwise into the can with his face and two paws sticking out the top. He couldn’t have been dead for very long. The dog’s eye was open but flat, like a dark fingernail. His mouth hung open in a way that insinuated a very human call for help and showed a ridge of yellowed teeth nestled into gums that had gone grey. Two flies rose from the tip of the dog’s nose and returned to it again.
Lauren put her hand over her mouth and whispered “poor thing.” Then she turned and started to walk away.
“Where are you going?” Marty said, reaching out and grabbing her wrist.
“Anywhere but here. It could have some kind of disease. Let’s go over by the playground. They have food carts there.” She paused, then said, “Looks like you’re going to get your hot dog after all.”
Marty held her wrist tightly and stared at her. Lauren was all straight lines—long nose, long hair, sharp chin—but he could swear that he had seen the curve of a smile on her face when she said the words “hot dog.” He could feel the pull of her body, leaning away and drawing him with her, as if this massive dead thing left out in the open for all to see was nothing more than a pizza box or a plastic bag to be sidestepped and ignored.
“Lauren, don’t you have a heart?”
He said this before he had a chance to think about it and later these would be the words he couldn’t stop hearing in his head, but as they stood there, the sense that she was dead inside was overwhelming and infuriating. Then, to make matters worse, she laughed, and although it was just a little laugh, and really just the sort of laugh that people do when they see something awkward or uncomfortable, it spurred Marty into a sort of rage. Lauren crouched and braced herself as Marty tried to drag her back to the trash can and the dead dog. She screeched like furniture being pulled across a floor, but refused to move. He heard himself saying things like, “you just can’t just do things like this,” and “there are more important things in this world than you” and he felt his grip tighten when she tried to pull away. She was yelling his name, telling him to stop, but it all felt irrelevant, detached from the seconds ticking by on his watch or the breaths plunging in and out of his lungs.
The police officer came from behind and was nearly within arm’s reach before Marty saw him.
“Sir, let go of her,” the officer said. His voice was hard and dark, like a metal post.
Marty released his grip.
“Is everything alright here, ma’am?”
“There’s a dog in the trash can,” Marty said.
The officer stepped between Marty and Lauren and repeated his question to Lauren.
“Do you know this man?” he asked her.
Lauren didn’t respond. She just stood there rubbing her wrist and looking at Marty as if the answer to the question was not at all clear.
“Excuse me, but there is a dead dog,” Marty said again, louder this time.
The officer continued to ignore him. Marty walked a few steps toward the dog, then back again to where Lauren was explaining that she and Marty were in the park having lunch. The officer asked to see Lauren’s wrist and she showed it to him, which Marty didn’t want to see, so he walked back toward the dog again, then, on realizing that the officer still hadn’t bothered to turn his head to see the fur, the snout, and the dead eye that was staring at all of them, he turned and came back to Lauren and the officer.
Marty told himself he was pacing not because he didn’t know that people were cruel, but because he was giving the officer time to come to his senses, and see what needed to be seen, but when the officer looked like he was about to go without even addressing the true problem in this scenario, he addressed the officer more forcefully, rushing back toward the two of them and inserting himself between Lauren and the officer in order to make his point. However, in doing so he accidentally stepped on Lauren’s foot. She screamed—unnecessarily dramatically, he thought—and pushed Marty forward, which caused him to topple into the officer who now standing directly in front of him.
The force of Marty’s body hitting the officer’s chest was certainly not something he intended, but Lauren was stronger than she looked. More regretfully, he felt himself put a forearm—and elbow—out to protect himself, which, unfortunately, struck the shorter police officer in the chin.
From that point Marty was not entirely clear—and he would rather not speculate—whether he fell to the ground on his own or the officer had in some manner put him there, but he was acutely aware that a pain resembling a minor sun had taken up residence in the back of his skull. Above him, Lauren’s protests smacked the air like the wings of pigeons taking flight. A second officer appeared between Marty’s face and the sky. The two cops pulled him to his feet. For the next thirty seconds or so, it felt like there were more hands on his body than he could account for as they turned him to face the fence lining the path, ordered him to put his hands on it, and patted him down. Spit gathered in his mouth and he sucked it in and choked. He coughed uncontrollably for a minute or two. Then, as he was trying to get his lips and tongue to arrange themselves into something approximating an explanation, the first officer asked, “Sir, is that your animal?”
Lauren made a snorting sound behind him. Marty turned his head to try to see the dog, and in doing so noted that a crowd had started to gather. People were taking pictures of him with their cell phones, visual tchotchkes of the Crazy Man to pass around among family, friends, and co-workers. He imagined them telling their dinner companions about him. Pictures of the Crazy Man would clutter their phones for days, months, and possibly years even as the dog was forgotten—if they had even noticed he was there. He heard Lauren giving the police his name, her name. She stumbled over a recitation of their address. The police officer asked if he needed medical assistance.
“No. I think I’m fine.”
The officers went one way and Marty and Lauren went another, heading back up the path and out of the park. Lauren was silent as they passed the bistro kiosk and the still long lines for grilled cheese with a French surcharge. Marty knew she was angry. He knew he had behaved badly, and he struggled to rid himself of images he now carried in his head: the dead dog, the upside downcroque-monsieur,the officers, the crowds, the look on Lauren’s face as they left the park and joined the throngs of tourists on the sidewalk. He hadn’t wanted any of these things.
He felt dizzy and disoriented. At the light at the corner they stopped and she looked at him, her face smooth and clean as an empty room. He wanted to see their bedroom, a shower full of shampoo bottles, and a sink full of dishes, but it was as though she had been scrubbed down to an outline, and he struggled to fill in the gaps.
“It was dead,” he said.
She nodded and looked down Sixth Avenue, toward midtown, where they never went for lunch. “Yes,” she replied and when the light changed, she walked off on her own, leaving Marty standing on the corner, hanging on to the sound of her voice drifting up into the air.
short fiction by Cristina Kapp
The smell of stale beer mixes with the scent of toilet bowl cleaners. The room’s aura of mystery vanishes in the dull yellow glow of incandescent light. Only workers remain—sweeping the floor, wiping down the tables, emptying the trash. The nightclub is closed.
The keyboardist places her instrument into a carrying case, snaps the case shut, and sets it upright. The other band members have already packed up, and are waiting for her in the van. She is tall, and slender, wearing blue jeans, and a white cotton shirt. Her long blond hair is gathered into a ponytail, and bound in the back near the base of her neck. She dons a red woolen beret, and checks her appearance in the mirror behind the bandstand. Satisfied, she leans down and picks up her instrument.
She hears her name called, turns, and sees a man smiling, his hands clasped together in front of him.
“Michael? What are you doing here?”
“I heard you were playing here tonight and decided to drive over.”
“I didn’t see you.”
“No, I was sitting over there,” he says, pointing to a small table in the corner farthest from the bandstand.
“Oh, sweet, but…uh…I’ve got to be going. The guys are waiting.”
She walks towards the door. The man follows her.
“Debby, it’s been a while since I’ve seen you, a couple of Christmases at least.”
Even with these words of mild rebuke, the man cannot hide his tenderness, and his loneliness removes its mask.
“You brought Billy a Christmas present. Remember? Maybe you can do that again this year.”
The band’s drummer pokes his head through the club’s back door.
“Deb, you coming? We’re tired. We want to get back to the hotel.”
“I can drop you off, if you like,” Michael says.
Debby turns to the drummer. “I’m good, Paul. Catch up with you guys later.”
“If you’re hungry, there’s an all-night diner near here.”
They sit in a corner booth and talk, over eggs and coffee.
“I want to show you something,” Michael says, reaching into a hip pocket. He takes out his wallet, removes a picture, and passes it across the table.
“Looks like he plays a mean air guitar.”
“He does, and he tells all of his school friends that his mom’s a rock star.”
Debby doesn’t say anything.
“Deb, this is crazy. We’ve been married for…”
“And you know why we got married. You’re the one who doesn’t want a divorce, not me.”
“Staying married may be crazy too,” he says, “but that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s the life you're living that’s crazy—always on the road, no home, days and nights mixed up, food whatever and wherever you can get it. It’s not the way to live. You have a son…and you have a husband.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. What is there for me at home? I’m a musician, Michael, a good one. It’s what I do; it’s who I am. You don’t get that. You can’t see the narrowness, the mind-numbing dullness, of the small world you live in. This is the best band I’ve ever played in. This band is going to make it.”
“You said that about the last band, and the one before, and the one before that…”
“Michael, you’re stupid. You know that? We're not a couple. We’re not really married. A marriage certificate doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a piece of paper. You don’t understand that do you?”
He turns and looks out the window.
“Time for the guilt game?”
They sit in silence, not looking at each other.
“I’m done,” Debby says, pushing her plate away. “Let’s go.”
At the hotel, Michael pulls into the entrance’s long curving driveway, and turns off the car. He sits, looking out the car’s front window. Debby sits, looking at him.
She laughs. “Hey, I don’t suppose you’d like to…”
He turns and looks at her.
“No, I wouldn’t like to. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“We’re legal you know.”
Michael takes a deep breath.
“Deb,” he says, “that’s part of the problem. You don’t understand the difference between what’s legal, and what’s right.”
She opens the door and gets out. Before closing it, she reaches into her pocket, takes out some money, leans back into the car, and hands the money to Michael.
“Just in case I don’t make it for Christmas,” she says.
“Yeah…just in case.”
As she walks to the hotel’s entrance, Michael calls after her. She turns around and walks back. He rolls down the window on her side of the car. As she leans over, he pops the trunk.
“I think you forgot something,” he says.
She takes out her keyboard, and shuts the trunk.
Michael sits motionless as she walks away. He watches her every step—as she passes through the double glass doors, stops at the front desk, starts up the stairs in the lobby.
“Goodbye, Debby,” he murmurs, and leans forward as far he can to try and catch one more glimpse of her.
flash fiction by Gershon Ben-Avraham
You Can't Trick the Moon
poetry by Sergio A. Ortiz
You've wanted to enumerate
every particle of dust, every layer
of sadness, number every blow delivered
by frustration, every trick to fool the noon
that cut your figure in half in its shadow.
But you can't, so you bring your hand
to your head, discover that in that survey
there's an image of yourself. It surprises you
that in its contours & distance ―barely
in its shadow― you still recognize yourself.
Something stops you now. You said too much
& it got you into trouble. The shadow & old pain
that kept you awake shelter your feelings
of revenge. You can't go forward like you want.
The desert you presume to remember is extensive.
micro fiction by Madeline Anthes
When I Learned a Certain Power
I broke boys’ hearts in my parents’ driveway. It was always late, long after my parents went to sleep.
I walked outside barefoot. These boys always waited, hands in pockets, knowing it was coming.
Of course it was.
Summer nights ran a current through me. My feet were warm on sun-drunk tar, and I watched their heads droop.
As they retreated back to their cars, I almost willed them back. Pulled them in again. Rolled them in my hands to squeeze them in my fist. To feel them break.
But I let them go. Another would come soon.
Madeline Anthes is a Clevelander living on the east coast. She is the acquisitions editor for Hypertrophic Literary, and her work can be found in journals like Third Point Press, WhiskeyPaper and more. See more of her work at madelineanthes.comor follow her on Twitter @maddieanthes.
Gershon Ben-Avraham is a short story writer. He lives in Be’er Sheva, Israel. He earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University in Philadelphia. Recently published short stories includeThe Ecstasy of Alma Leitner,Spring 2016 edition of the Broad River Review;The Janitor,Issue 18 of Jewish Fiction.net;The Emperor, issue 1701 of the Wild Musette Journal; andJanek,Volume 16.2 of Big Muddy, a literary journal published by the Southeast Missouri State University Press.
AN Block teaches at Boston University and is Contributing Editor at the Improper Bostonian. One of his stories,Plan B,appeared in issue 200 of Crack The Spine. Other recent work has appeared in Buffalo Almanack (recipient of its Inkslinger Award for Creative Excellence), Umbrella Factory Magazine (a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee), The Maine Review, Per Contra, Amarillo Bay, Drunk Monkeys, New Pop Lit, Falling Star, Lowestoft Chronicle, The Citron, DenimSkin, Burningwood Literary Journal, Constellations, The Bicycle Review, Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, Flash Frontier, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Down in the Dirt, Contrary, the Blue Bonnet Review, The Nite Writers Literary Arts Journal, and The Binnacle.
Michelle Brooks has published a collection of poetry,Make Yourself Small,(Backwaters Press), and a novella,Dead Girl, Live Boy,(Storylandia Press). A native Texan, she has spent much of her adult life in Detroit, her favorite city.
Jeneanne DeBois currently works as a marketing specialist at Random House. In recent years, she worked as a writing assistant for Dr. Craig Carson, Honors College Academic Director at Adelphi University, whose bookThe Aesthetics of Democracywas recently published with Palgrave Macmillan.She also served as a critique partner for Harper Collins author Amanda Foody (Daughter of the Burning CityandAce of Shades). Jeneanne’s research interests include cultural criticism, art and war, and however you would classify America’s current state of affairs.
Christina Kapp’s short fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous publications including Limestone, Passages North, Barn Owl Review, Gargoyle, DOGZPLOT, Storyscape Journal, PANK, Anderbo.com, and apt. She teaches at The Writers Circle Workshops in Summit, NJ.
Sergio A. Ortiz
Sergio A. Ortiz is a two-time Pushcart nominee, a four-time Best of the Web nominee, and 2016 Best of the Net nominee. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming inFRIGG, Tipton Poetry Journal, Drunk Monkeys, Bitterzeot Magazine, and ONE, Jacar Press. He is currently working on his first full-length collection of poems,Elephant Graveyard.
David E. Poston
David E. Poston is the author of three poetry collections:My Father Reading Greek; Postmodern Bourgeois Poetaster Blues,which won the N.C. Writers’ Network’s Randall Jarrell/Harperprints Competition; andSlow of Study,from Main Street Rag Publishing. He has work forthcoming in Broad River Review, Kakalak 2017, and The Well-Versed Reader.
Jay Vera Summer
Jay Vera Summer is a Chicagoan living in Florida. She writes fiction and creative nonfiction, and co-founded weirderary, an online literary magazine, and First Draft, a monthly live literary event in Tampa. Her writing has been published in marieclaire.com, Proximity, LimeHawk, theEEEL, and Chicago Literati.
BECOME A MEMBER OF CRACK THE SPINE
CRACK THE SPINE LITERARY MAGAZINE