February 14, 2018| ISSUE no 232
crack the spine
Martina Reisz Newberry
poetry by Larry Duncan
“Is it wrong,” she asked,
“to wipe my whiskey
hands on your jeans?”
“Not on a denim like today,”
I answered, neither one
knowing what we meant,
she having already chewed
the straw in a half empty
glass down to the lip,
and I having just sat
down for lunch.
But the laughter came
easy all the same,
pure enough to raise a few heads
on the other side of the bar
before silence settled back in.
Her husband returned
from a piss and they left.
Still, the afternoon light
turned a bit brighter,
and the same jukebox
songs seemed new.
I ordered another round,
Bushmills and a chaser,
deciding to drink
the rest of the afternoon
enough for us both.
Thirty-Eight Years Old
Chris Murphy dies at thirty-eight, the first of us to pass. His wake coincides with our twenty-year reunion, a reunion Jenny Newman planned at the bar she’s worked at since she was old enough to wait tables. And while some of us returned from pockets we’d never heard of before graduating, most of us never left this small town.
Paul Stancer is bleeding drunk when he arrives, his eyes full of something inexplicable, his body swaying like the ghosts in our closets. He’s not the indifferent stoner I used to hang out with in the parking lot after school anymore. Like me, he’s just trying to hold his shit together. He and Chris were brother-close, after all. Fuck-with-him-and-you-fuck-with-me close.
I’m at the jukebox flipping through songs when Paul comes up beside me, when he says, “you know what you’ve got to play, right?”, and I nod, halfway to the song already. It’s not the one Chris and I messed around to in his bedroom. Or the one his hockey team chanted to as they warmed up. It’s the song we played when we tore along the freeway with Paul and his thing-of-the-moment, all of us with our freshly laminated driver’s licenses, and our gangly arms, and our zero fucks.
The opening chords electrify the bar, and it’s like everyone who’s celebrating Chris used to ride in that car with us, the way they start singing along as if this used to be their anthem too. But it wasn’t. That was our car, our song, our nights. The nights when Chris called me baby. When he rested his hand on my thigh. When he told he’d be mine forever.
We had a baby, once upon a time. A boy named Sam, with a crooked nose and the smallest toes we’d ever seen. Chris and I used to dream about driving down the freeway, aiming for the coast, never looking back. Good fucking riddance, we would say. Good. Fucking. Riddance.
Jenny Newman isn’t sure about tonight, isn’t sure what she’s organizing. It’s part look-how-far-we’ve-come, part how-fucked-up-and-sad-is-this, and it doesn’t wash well together. Those of us who knew Chris are in our heads, listening to the music, shooting back drinks, and those of us who didn't are comparing waistlines, hairlines, and face-lines. I want to say a few words, but everything that comes to mind sounds wrong:
Sam looks so much like him I can hardly stand it some days.
I sharpened his skates before we knew each other and he paid me in licorice strings.
We lost touch after his mother made me leave town.
Paul and I lean against the wall, listen to the beat of the song, feel the bass plunge through our broken hearts. Paul was there when Chris got scouted, when he was offered his scholarship, when he became a hometown hockey hero. Paul was sitting across the table when Chris turned it all down.
“You ready to get out of here?” he asks when the song ends and the loud rush of people returns.
We take my rental car with its heated seats, giant moonroof, and navigation screen. Paul doesn’t say anything about what I’ve become, what a far cry this car is from the rust bucket we used to barrel around in.
“Why’d he do it?” I ask once we’re on the road, when I really want to ask,did he do it because of me?
“Does it matter?” Paul asks.
“Don’t you want to know? You were best friends.”
“Twenty years ago.”
“You lived four blocks apart.”
“He finally got out of here, did you know that? Played for a farm team in California for two years before blowing out his knee.”
The news stuns me, the thought of Chris leaving without me. That we could have gone together.
“He moved back when his dad got sick,” Paul says, pulling a beer from his pocket. “Brought his wife and their twin girls.”
“What went wrong?” I ask.
“Who knows,” Paul says, taking a sip from his beer. “But, fuck him. He left us and that was his choice.”
I drive past the supermarket, past the dry cleaner on the corner where we used to buy weed. This town is thick with memories of Chris and it hurts to be here.
“Are you going to the funeral?” Paul asks.
I shake my head. “His mother doesn’t want me there.”
It’s the pain of what-if that brought me back tonight. What if I’d stayed, what if Chris came and found me — what if we’d aimed for the coast and kept driving.
Paul taps at the navigation screen, cues up a song.
“One more time?” he asks.
“We can play it all night.”
Paul holds out his hand as we speed along, and I hang on tight. We sing so loudly we can’t hear anything else, can’t feel anything else, except the words and the rhythm and I swear it’s like Chris is sitting in the backseat singing along with us.
flash fiction by Jennifer Todhunter
short fiction by Adam Lock
Next to the way he eats, it's the way Mathew reads that annoys her most. It’s unreasonable to think so, but involuntary. He opens his book just enough, peering inside, not wanting to break its spine.
‘Where are they?’ he asks.
‘They’re fine.’ She stares at the still swimming pool through the brown of her sunglasses.
‘She’s 17,’ he says.
After taking a deep breath, through a long exhalation she says, ‘She’s sensible.’
He makes a sound, a quick exhalation expelled through his mouth and nose simultaneously.
Holding the rim of her sunglasses, she lowers them to look at him. ‘Yes. Sensible.’ She looks at the way he holds his book. At home, his bookshelves are alphabetised, each book immaculate and in its place. Sometimes she swaps one book for another, upsetting the order. And sometimes she opens a book until she feels its spine about to break, before stopping. She folds over the corner of a page as a makeshift bookmark. He hates that. She smiles at the thought that maybe one day, maybe long after she’s dead, he’ll find one of her bookmarks.
‘Think I’ll go and check on them,’ he says.
‘Not sure it was a good idea — bringing him.’
She sighs. ‘Would you rather have left them at home? Together?’
He stares at the pool before returning to his book.
She reaches for her own book, one she’d taken from a box of used books she’d found in the hotel lobby the day they arrived. She’s never kept books after reading them; at home, she gives those she’s read to the charity shop in the village. Examining her book, she considers how not judging a book by its cover is nonsense; this one is clearly a romance. She looks at the spine, traces a finger along its many creases — maybe it’s possible to judge a book by its spine.
She reads the first page without absorbing any of its meaning. Before reaching the end of the first page a second time, a heaviness makes her close both the book and her eyes.
She recalls the conversation she had with Jamie, convincing her to come with them.
Jamie’s arms were crossed, ‘I want to stay here,’ she said, ‘with Aaron.’
‘Bring him,’ Dawn told her. ‘Bring Aaron.’
Jamie uncrossed her arms. ‘Does Dad know?’
‘Leave him to me.’
She watched Jamie bite the inside of her mouth, narrow her eyes.
‘You can talk to me you know Jamie.’ Dawn moved to the sink, placed a dirty plate in the bowl. ‘About anything. I was your age once.’
‘What? Just saying. You can tell me.’ She watched Jamie take a bottle of water from the fridge. ‘Have you and Aaron…’ She couldn’t say the word.
‘We’re 17 Mom. No.’
‘It’s ok if you have. Want you to talk to me. I was 16 when I met your father.’
Jamie paused, her eyes opening, ‘16?’
‘Your dad was 23. I was 16. Didn’t really understand what was happening if you want the truth. Your Grandma… she’d never have talked to me about anything like that.’
Jamie pursed her lips and scrunched up her forehead.
Dawn shrugged. ‘The way it was.’
Jamie took a long drink of water and offered Dawn the bottle.
Dawn shook her head.
Jamie screwed the cap onto the bottle. ‘We’ve not had sex.’
Sex— that was the word Dawn couldn’t use.
‘We’ve done things,’ Jamie went on, ‘but we’ve not… you know…’
Dawn wanted to turn back time; what was she thinking, wanting to know? ‘Done things?’
‘Things. But not…?’
Jamie shook her head, ran her fingers through her hair.
Dawn took the bottle from her and finished it. ‘So you’ll come to Spain? If I talk to your dad?’
Opening her eyes, she watches Mathew close his book and make noises to do with standing. ‘Drink?’ he asks.
She watches him manoeuvre himself beneath the parasols, his large round stomach nudging one of the poles, disrupting the shade. Looking down at her own body, she holds in her stomach, tenses her thighs, uses her arms to push her breasts together.
As she watches Mathew make his way across the wooden bridge that traverses the narrowest part of the pool, she sees Jamie and Aaron walk out of the hotel, hand in hand. For the third day running, Jamie has on a two-piece. Dawn scans her own swimming costume; she can’t remember ever wearing a two-piece. Jamie walks with an assuredness, moves with a knowingness; and yet, there remains something angular, functional in her gait that harks back to her younger tomboy days. But this only accentuates her confidence, punctuates her flippancy regarding the three men who turn their heads as she walks past.
‘Morning sleepy heads,’ Dawn says.
‘Couldn’t get him out of bed,’ Jamie says, arranging two sun beds and a parasol.
‘You have cream on Aaron?’ Dawn asks.
‘Jamie’s done it,’ he says, not taking his eyes from the pool.
‘It soaked in?’ Dawn asks. ‘Don’t go in until it’s soaked in.’
‘It’s fine mom. Stop fussing.’ Jamie reaches up to Aaron’s shoulders and rubs them to confirm it’s been done.
Aaron jumps in the pool.
Dawn’s attention is drawn to Mathew waiting in line at the bar on the other side of the pool. He’s a different man to the one she met all those years ago. She knew, when she stayed with him the first time, what she was doing, what she was sacrificing. She remembers little about it — only images: ripped tights, glasses of whisky on the coffee table, the programme MASH on TV.
The next day, her mother told her to move out. With a suitcase in one hand, a pillow beneath her arm, and a hair dryer held like a gun, she walked up the stairs into Mathew’s flat. Ten months to the day later, Jamie was born.
She sees Aaron rise up and out of the pool in one quick movement. He stands with hands on hips, eyes closed, aimed at the sky. She sees him ready to unfurl beneath the sun, to expand, or to thicken in some way. His shoulders are fully formed, as broad as they will ever be. His upper arms too, undulate with a male, incipient leanness. His chest, flecked with dark hairs, is broad, expansive, pulsing with a fast beating heart and deep inhalations. The tight skin around his stomach reveals the muscles beneath, both on his front and flank. His wet trunks have risen up one leg, revealing the girth of his thighs, the darkness of pubic hair, the impression of his penis.
She looks to her left, at Jamie, whose eyes are closed beneath her sunglasses. She hopes Aaron will be the first man she has sex with. The idea makes her cross her legs at the ankles. But this thought settles into a logic that works so long as she doesn’t examine it too closely. Before she can stop them, more unfettered thoughts come to her: maybe Aaron is a blow-job away from becoming a man. She covers her mouth. Or maybe he’s only a hand-job away. Glancing at Jamie’s feet, at her painted nails, she thinks maybe he might be a foot-job away, whatever that is exactly. She imagines how Jamie would experience, if she hadn’t already, such things for the first time. There was a vague memory of the first and only time Mathew went down on her; she wanted to tell him she liked it but couldn’t. There’s no way Jamie would stay quiet about such a thing. Not Jamie, in her red two-piece.
Looking at both of them, it occurs to her how no one can look their own youth in the eyes; youth is always turning a corner, is always just out of view.
She reaches for Mathew’s book, flicks through its pages, examines its spine, feels its weight. Her jaw clenches. Glancing across the pool at Mathew, she opens the book, wider and wider, its stiffness unrelenting, until finally, the book’s spine yields and breaks. Closing it, she runs her finger along the spine, examining the crease she’s made.
She watches Jamie make room for Aaron on her sun bed; he lies next to her, kisses her.
Again, Dawn looks at the crease along the book’s spine, and then back to Jamie and Aaron. The way they lie next to one another tells her they’ll each be read from cover to cover, their words read out loud, their spines broken and creased with reading.
A man in shorts and t-shirt, younger than she is, walks past her sun bed and smiles at her. She smiles back, feels the pages inside her chest fluttering to open.
After nearly driving into a stump while negotiating a tight turn, I check my directions and steer my car further along twisty French Creek Road. Eventually a sign on a tree points to Dolores Lane, a steep gravel incline edged with thick undergrowth. I follow the arrow with a sharp right and see a modest prefab house with a smaller building behind it. As I walk to the front door, I wonder what exactly I’ve volunteered for.
I had read an article in the October 12, 1995 edition of the Sacramento Bee asking for people to serve as “friendly visitors” (emphatically not caretakers) to isolated seniors living uphill from my comfortable home in El Dorado Hills. The El Dorado County senior services department provided guidelines for their program (don’t cut their fingernails or toenails, don’t cook or clean for them, don’t talk about your own troubles, make sure they are your focus while you are there) so I feel comforted that I know the rules.
My three young children are finally all in school for at least part of the day. My husband is increasingly critical that I no longer pull in a paycheck, although the cost of daycare for three children would eat up anything I could earn. We don’t need the money. I’m not even sure any more what makes him unhappy. At least by volunteering I can feel useful during school hours. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, though, I feel insecure. What will I say? Why do I think I can do this?
When the door opens, a tiny brown woman answers, wearing a bright smile and a pair of long, dramatic earrings. Her eyes are hidden by dark glasses, but I have already been told that she is blind.
“You must be my volunteer,” Dolores says with excitement. “Please come in. I have a kettle on for tea.” Her fluttering hands wave me in the door.
I walk into a small room overstuffed with furniture and spider webs, but otherwise tidy. A stove in one corner warms as it gives off the scent of wood smoke. Glancing around, I notice framed photos on every surface. I take a seat on the couch and introduce myself, not sure what to say next, but Dolores fills in the spaces. She tells me so much in our first ten minutes together that I start to feel as though I have known her for years. She is about the age of my own mother (born in 1917) and I soon feel quite at ease with her despite our different backgrounds.
I avoid the obvious question, but she is not at all reluctant to talk about her blindness.
“My family left the Philippines in 1918 on a boat bound for Hawaii, because my father had heard there was work in the sugar cane fields,” she tells me. “On the way, the Spanish flu spread among the passengers. It was terrible. Many people, both adults and children, died and were buried at sea.”
One-year-old Dolores became ill, but her own parents were suffering and unable to take care of her. The fever blinded her permanently. As she tells me her story, the kettle begins to whistle on the stove. She finds her way confidently to the kitchen, and in a moment the fragrance of chai fills the air. I go to help her carry the mugs, but she brushes past me and carefully sets them down on the coffee table.
“Well,” she says, “you must be wondering what I’m doing, living out here in the woods all by myself.” She takes a sip of tea. “My husband always wanted to live in the country. So when he retired from the shipyards in Vallejo, we bought this lot and he put up the house himself. That was twenty-five years ago. When he passed eight years ago, my daughters wanted me to come live with them, but I like to be in charge of my own home.”
“Tell me about your daughters,” I say. I’m trying to follow the suggestions given to me in my two-hour Friendly Visitors orientation meeting – ask them about themselves, and so on – but already I am drawn to know more about this woman’s life.
“Oh, I have a beautiful family,” she says with a tender look on her face. “I have six daughters. My eldest lives in Sacramento, and she comes out once a week to take me grocery shopping. The rest live too far away, but we all get together sometimes.”
“What brought you to Northern California?” I ask.
“When my first two girls got to be school age, we decided to move to the mainland. Hawaii wasn’t a state yet, and I knew the schools were better here. So I did some research and decided that Vallejo was the best place to raise the children. Education is very important to me, you see.”
I learn that Dolores was the first blind student to graduate from the University of Hawaii. Even with a degree in English, however, she couldn’t get a teaching job. She found part-time work in the public library, but she wanted more.
“So,” she says, “I applied and was accepted at Columbia University in New York City, with a full scholarship.”
This almost sounds hard to believe. I try to picture a small, blind, probably very poor Asian woman surviving alone in New York City in the 1930’s. I tuck my legs under me and listen as the hot, spicy tea soothes me and an occasional spark crackles in the stove. I am loving this story, true or not.
“How did you get around? How did you read the lessons and do the classwork?” I ask. I silently wonder how she could possibly manage to traverse such a vast urban landscape after growing up in rural Hawaii, where she was surrounded by family members and a community of people who knew her. She tells me, as though it were no big deal, that she learned the subway system pretty fast. She had a “reader” to assist her with lessons, paid for by her scholarship.
After she finished her Master’s degree in English, she returned to Hawaii where she met and married her husband. She was in the hospital in Honolulu, having just given birth to her second child, when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
“I was in a big maternity ward with lots of other new mothers,” she tells me. “We heard the planes flying overhead, but we didn’t know what was happening. The nurses wouldn’t tell us. We could sense they were upset, but they just ran around closing all the window shades so no one could see outside. I guess they didn’t want to frighten us.”
When I ask whether she was scared at the time, she laughs and tells me that God always takes care of her, so why should she worry? As we finish our tea, I rise to go and promise to come back the next week.
On the drive home, I realize that for the last hour I have not thought once about my troubled marriage. When I arrived at Dolores’s house, I felt weighed down by my situation and concerned that I would not be able to provide uplifting company for her. Now, bumping my way down the gravel road, windows put down to let in the birdsong, a feeling of peace pervades me. I am eager to hear more about this woman’s surprising life. I want to sit again over a cup of tea with this brave, cheerful person.
The next Tuesday begins with the usual cloud hanging over me once I’ve let the children off at school and dropped my “cheery Mom” performance. I could just go home and sink back into depression, but I promised Dolores that I would come for a visit today. As I head uphill, I remind myself that I only have to stay for an hour. Today she greets me with her coat on, ready to set out on errands. She wants me to take her to the Shingle Springs post office to pick up her mail. As we head out, I compliment her on her ornate costume earrings.
“Thank you,” she says, fingering them lightly. “I love jewelry, and this is one of my favorite pairs. I dropped one of them somewhere yesterday, and I felt so bad! But I just prayed, and a little while later, I stepped on it. God always helps me out.” She smiles.
Wow. I’m thinking it must be nice to have such rock-solid faith. Good thing she can’t see me roll my eyes.
We get to the post office, and she hands me the key to Box 927. When I pull out the mail, she asks me to go through it: an envelope with a handwritten address, an electric bill, and two pieces of junk mail. She asks me to open the envelope from someone named Margaret and read the contents to her. It’s a sweet card, full of family news and expressions of love. She tells me that Margaret is her daughter in Arizona. Next she wants me to open the electric bill. When I tell her the amount due, she reaches into her purse, pulls out a checkbook and asks me to pay it for her.
“You want me to write a check from your account? How will I sign it?” Confused, I realize that I am about to commit bank forgery. And how about if I were to write a check to myself as well? This woman’s trust is amazing.
“Oh, just sign it with my name. No one ever looks at that stuff.” She holds out a pen and a stamp. “After you pay it, you can mail it with this postage.”
When we return, Dolores takes me on a tour of her small house. She points out pictures lining a hallway and talks about her many grandchildren. A framed newspaper photo from the Vallejo Times-Herald headlined “Teacher of the Year” shows Dolores standing with a group of high school students, and I ask about it.
She tells me that when the youngest of her six daughters started kindergarten, she decided it was time to try again for a teaching job. As she knew the faculty and administration of the high school very well by that time, she managed to secure an open position as an English teacher. At last she was doing what she’d wanted to do all her life, and she proved to be very good at it.
“I taught there for twelve years, until my husband had to retire because of a heart condition,” she says. “After I retired, I found out that I had been on probation the entire time I was teaching. If I had made even one small mistake, I would have been dismissed.”
Shocked, I ask why. “You were Teacher of the Year, for God’s sake.”
She chuckles. “Because I am blind. It had been unheard of up until then to have a blind teacher instructing sighted students.”
After I’ve been for a few visits, she wants to show me the artist studio out back where her husband loved to paint. This time she needs to take my arm, as there are big trees everywhere. Inside the small structure, several canvases line the walls, and she leads me from one to the next. She likes to run her fingers over the surface of the paintings and feel the brushstrokes. Heading back to the house with her hand on my arm, she sighs.
“I was very independent in Vallejo,” she says. “We had sidewalks everywhere and traffic lights. I could walk my daughters to school, do my own shopping, visit with neighbors. But my husband wanted so much to live in the country, as he had done growing up. Now that he’s gone, I don’t dare go outside alone any more for fear of walking into a tree or falling down a ditch. That’s why I signed up for a visitor.”
I look at this woman and think of how she sacrificed her independence for the man she loved. I hope he was very, very good to her.
Over the next four years, my marriage continues its death spiral. Some days are good, others are terrible; the unpredictability, combined with my eroded self-confidence, keeps me paralyzed. I’ve found, though, that no matter how rotten I feel on Tuesday morning, my mood will have lifted by the time I head home from my visit with Dolores. I never miss a Tuesday.
I learn that she loves to travel, that she and her husband went to China and Europe but now she travels with a niece. She enjoys showing me the photo albums that she herself cannot see, a separate book for each adventure. One picture that captures my attention features a smiling Dolores sitting astride a camel. Intrigued, I ask her what she liked best about Egypt. I’m thinking it probably wasn’t the pyramids. I wonder if she will tell me about smells or sounds or tastes. It is all of those things, but most of all it’s the people. Dolores is happiest when she is meeting new people with new customs.
I cast an eye around her modest home and wonder how she can afford to take a trip abroad every two years. She does it by not spending money on anything else. Although she knits and crochets prodigiously for her ever-increasing grandchildren, she buys all of her yarn at the thrift shop for very little cash. She starts her Christmas shopping in July at the Dollar Store, and by October she has a closet filled with wrapped and labeled gifts. She has no car, she doesn’t want gadgets, and she owns the small house which she heats with wood pellets.
One day we play Scrabble with a special set that differs only in that it has braille dots in addition to letters on the tiles. Also the board has small raised edges around the squares to keep the tiles from sliding around. She beats me handily. Have I mentioned that I’m pretty good at Scrabble? And that she’s blind? And that English is not her first language? Somehow, the entire board is displayed for her internally. She can “see” it.
During another visit, she explains to me how her life began to seem very limited out here in the countryside. So at the age of 72, after talking it over with her husband, she enlisted in the Peace Corps for a one-year stint. She took a crash course in Spanish and was placed in the Ecuadorian Andes, teaching newly blind people how to light their gas stoves.
“Are you serious?” I look at her with my mouth hanging open. “Weren’t you afraid you would blow the both of you up?”
She has a good laugh at that. “I told you, God takes care of me. I wasn’t a bit worried about it. My husband and I did have a big phone bill that year, though.”
Now I start to understand that her husband sacrificed for her as well. Some marriages work that way. Others, not so much. I am not hopeful for my own marriage, yet I find that three children are a powerful incentive not to leave. For a while, anyway.
Dolores always calls me her volunteer, even though I think of her as my dear friend, right up until she moves in with her daughter and our visits come to an end. I have never broken the rule against talking about my own troubles. She knows that I’m married with three children, and that is all she knows. Gradually, though, while sharing time every week with someone who has never given in or given up, I start to believe in myself again. When she thanks me for spending my days with her, I wonder who is helping whom. I think I’m finally ready to leave.
creative non-fiction by Jennifer Rowe
You may wonder why I live in winter
when I so love spring and summer. I, too,
wonder that, my friend. Though my paint pot of
gesso is well-used, it never quite hides
the bruises winter inflicts on the days,
and sketches of souls.Winter damages.
and I wish we could be undamaged, not
forever of course, but for a good long
while in which
all our plants would bloom,
all our smiles would be returned,
all our clothes would fit,
no dust would settle in our rooms,
no cakes would fall or burn in our ovens.
The truth is that I grow tired of my con-
tusions becoming oblations to a
godhead I fear but don’t know how to love.
My spirit wicks three times its size in dread
and regrets during that frigid, gray time,
then converts to clarified butter when
the breezes warm and the clouds embrace white.
I pray for it to be spring then summer
all year. I have no idea what this
might mean to the rest of the planet if
my prayer was granted. What do you think, friend?
Is it an appropriate prayer? If you
love me, you’ll say “yes.” I’m just asking of
you what I ask of God. Say what you think.
It’s appropriate...not too much to ask.
poetry by Martina Reisz Newberry
35,000 to 1
I almost met Johnny Cash once. Mel Tillis had arranged for John to listen to a train song that I had written. I drove over to Hendersonville, parked in front of a little cow palace called The House of Cash, and gulped down a shot of courage before going inside.
Johnny was running late but his sister/secretary was there. “Don’t be nervous, Darling,” thispretty lady said. “We’re just Arkies like you.” “I’m not nervous,” I said, lying.
“Tell me something about yourself,” she yawned. “Well,” I said, “I was raised in a potting shed trailer in the piney woods of west central Arkansas—a sanctuary for moonshiners, marijuana growers, and merry pranksters…”
“John’s gonna like you, Darling,” his sister/secretary yawned again. Then, as I chattered on, telling her more than she could’ve possibly wanted to know about my life, a really weird thing happened.
“After returning from Vietnam,” I said, “I was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas…” “You didn’t know a boy named Donnie Burlison, did you?” the pretty lady interrupted.
I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. “My oldest son, Donnie,” she continued, “was stationed at Fort Hood in 1968 about when you were…”
“There are 35 thousand GIs stationed at Hood,” I said. “Despite those odds, and I can’t believeI’m saying this, Donnie was in my platoon. We even had a little scuffle out behind the mess hall one afternoon. Before we became friends. Later, someone told me that I had been fighting Johnny Cash’s nephew. I just didn’t believe it. And Donnie never mentioned his famous uncle.”
“For a while,” the pretty lady said, not yawning now, “being related to Johnny Cash was not something to brag about.”
“You know,” I said, “I do remember thinking I had seen Donnie’s face before. On someone else, if that makes any sense.”
“There’s a striking resemblance between John and Donnie,” the pretty lady said.
I sat there another hour. She could not have been nicer and I could not have been more amazed that Johnny Cash’s sister was the mother of a boy I had not only known in the service but had tangled with in a little flare-up that we had both laughed about later.
I shared with her that I had been thinking about Johnny when I bought my first guitar for 16 dollars in a Fort Hood PX, that I was hoping to shift from army life to a life in music as John had.
Johnny Cash never showed that day. I left a cassette with his sister. She promised to play it for John personally.
“Give my regards to Donnie,” I said, heading out. “Wait a minute,” the pretty lady said, coming out from behind her desk to give me a little hug.
On my way home I stopped at the Baptist church in Hendersonville that Johnny attended. Just outside its front door, on a little welcome mat, I left another cassette with my song on it. Just in case the pretty lady forgot.
To J.C. I addressed the cassette I left at Johnny’s church. The irony would not be lost on the pastor there who, a couple of days later, told a TV reporter: “We didn’t know whether Johnny Cash or Jesus Christ was the addressee.”
“Well,” the reporter noted correctly, “around here they are pretty much interchangeable.”
flash fiction by Larry Rogers
His last request was that we shouldn’t bury him on the sabbath. We knew the law said to finish before sunset, but he wanted the family mourning in temple. We obliged, even as it meant his body sat overnight.
The frost came while we slept, and by morning the ground was too hard to dig. For hours, we took our spades and shovels to the unforgiving earth, until our muscles strained and we gave up. It took three days’ toil before we could lay our father to rest.
Our next trip to temple was to ask forgiveness for our failure.
micro fiction by Jeff Fleischer
Larry Duncan currently lives in Redondo Beach, CA. His poetry has appeared in Juked, the Mas Tequila Review, Danse Macabre, the Free State Review and John Grochalski’s Shipwrecked in Trumpland Blog. He is the author of two chapbooks, “Crossroads of Stars” and “White Lightning and Drunk on Ophelia.” To learn more about Larry and his writing, visit his website.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than two dozen publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, the Saturday Evening Post and So It Goes by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. He is also the author of non-fiction books including “Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections” (Zest Books, 2016), “Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries” (Zest Books, 2015), and “The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias” (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.
Adam wakes far too early in a morning to write before he teaches English at a secondary school in the Black Country, UK. His stories have appeared or in STORGY, Fictive Dream, Vending Machine Press, Fiction Pool, Literally Stories, Firefly Magazine, Occulum, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Harpoon Review, Ghost Parachute & The Green Light. You can find links to these stories on adamlock.net. He’s also active on Twitter: @dazedcharacter.
Martina Reisz Newberry
Martina Reisz Newberry’s most recent books are “Never Completely Awake” (from Deerbrook Editions), and “Take the Long Way Home” (Unsolicited Press). She is also the author of “Where It Goes” (Deerbrook Editions). “Learning by Rote” (Deerbrook Editions) and “Running Like a Woman With Her Hair on Fire: Collected Poems” (Red Hen Press). Newberry has been included in It Happened Under Cover, Ascent Aspirations’ first two hard-copy anthologies, also in the anthologies “In The Company Of Women,” “Blessed Are These Hands and Veils,” and “Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women.” She has been widely published in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. She has been awarded residencies at Yaddo Colony for the Arts, Djerassi Colony for the Arts, and Anderson Center for Disciplinary Arts.
Larry Rogers is a singer/songwriter. Growing up, he lived for a while in Berkeley and Compton, California, but was mostly raised in a potting shed trailer in the piney woods of west central Arkansas–a sanctuary for moonshiners, marijuana growers, and merry (and not-so-merry) pranksters. His poems and stories have appeared in Misfit, Hanging Loose, Nerve Cowboy, Pearl, Rattle, Wormwood Review, and The Denver Post.
Jenifer Rowe devotes her time to writing stories, riding horses, and teaching English as a Second Language. She is a board member of the California Writers Club – Sacramento Branch, which has supported and encouraged writers for 109 years. She lives in El Dorado Hills, California with her partner and their two dogs.
Jennifer Todhunter’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, (b)OINK, and elsewhere. She is the managing editor of Pidgeonholes. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod.
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