March 14, 2018| ISSUE no 234
crack the spine
Michael T. Smith
Robert John Miller
"When Novels Get High on Fire" by Brett Stout
Peter J. Stavros
Boone's Farm from
a Sprite Bottle
short fiction by Tad Bartlett
He slides through the mud, ankle deep, knowing holes can open in this muck where he might sink thigh deep, hip deep, worse. He saw a dog drown here once, a mangy, rib-showing mutt, didn’t even whimper as the mud swallowed it up. A few minutes after it was gone, a cat padded light across the surface, its paws like snowshoes.
He could’ve sworn it smiled.
But now, what, thirty years later, that epic bog is just this muddy strip between his old grade-school playground and the pasture lying behind it. A tall chain-link fence encloses three sides of the playground, but this back side has only a falling down cattle fence, rusted barbwire and old oak fenceposts weathered into stone. He knows where to avoid the old dog hole. He remembers the stump where they found the old Playboys stashed. He imagines he sees a corner of yellowed magazine stock sticking out of that stump even now, but knows it’s a trick of moonlight or lost love, the remnant of long lost young confusion about the naked body.
He rests his hand on a rusted strand of barbwire. His watch reads 11:38 p.m. His old town is dead, but he is alive. He hoists himself up to balance on the shaky wire. For a second he’s heavy, leaden and clumsy, and feels he’ll slip in different directions from the wire and topple onto the barbs, or that the rust holding the fence together will give way and he’ll drown in the mud like that dog, but then he regains his remnant confidence that he’ll never fall, and he straightens up, balancing for just a moment, to prove he can, then hops down to the solid packed playground dirt on the other side.
He walks past the swings and heads to the old playground fort, stout timbers silver in the moonlight. He remembers the weekend in fifth grade when all the parents turned donated railroad ties and used tires into a phantasm of forts and bridges. He remembers later, in high school, sophomore year, sneaking beers and cigarettes up in the fort with friends. By senior year it was vodka and wine and anything cheap or dusty from the back of parents’ liquor cabinets.
Even now, under the open night sky, he smells the cigarettes. He hasn’t smoked in ten years. He climbs the splintering rungs of the ladder and pulls himself onto the floor of the fort. For a moment, he’s face-down to the creosote railroad tie floor, a pain in his back, a cramp in his thigh, his shoulders knotted. The smell of cigarettes is stronger.
“Thought you’d show up here,” he hears her say. He looks up, sees her sitting in the opposite corner, graying blonde hair wreathed in the smoke she’s just exhaled. He eases himself up into a sitting position, laughs to a joke in his head about how old they both have grown. Twenty-five years since they both left this place.
“Couldn’t stand all that back-slapping how-are-ya crap,” he says. The wooden walls of the fort feel more closed in, but the sky above had never been more fathomless. “This is the reunion I wanted.”
“Reunion with me?”
“Of course not,” he lies, hoping she knows it’s a lie, “this.” He gestures around them with the one arm not killing him from the climb into the fort. “The old playground, this town.” A dog barks back in the field, a long way off. “That dog.” They both laugh, at their own inside jokes.
He hadn’t thought she’d be here, really, but as he drove through the town’s deserted streets after leaving the school gym, he’d hoped it, pictured it, pictured her, just like this. He’s thinking for only a moment about how they’d made it in this fort one night early in the summer before they left for college, but then he’s thinking for many more moments about late-night talking and beers and bottles of bad liquor, generic smokes, holding hands. They’d never been girlfriend-boyfriend, steady dates, lovers, any of that. That one time had just been that one time. Then they left, because that’s what you do in a town like that. Like this.
A few hours earlier …
She sits in her rented car in the lot behind the school gymnasium. The smells like airport jet exhaust and air freshener and french fries and small farts. She’s been in it for almost three hours. Forty-five minutes from the airport in Birmingham, forty-five minutes in the burger drive-in restaurant, slimy jalapenos on the burger, greasy tater tots, and a limeade, not even a diet limeade. She’d wanted it all to taste like then, like it did. High school kids pulled in and out of the drive-in as she sat there, the old lady in the invisible car. They were young and the music pouring out of their car windows sucked. She’d turned up the punk on the rental car’s speakers, but it crackled and distorted and Joey Ramone sounded not as menacing as she’d hoped, so she’d turned it back down and rolled up her windows.
Forty-five more minutes of driving around town, past her parents’ old house; past her friends’ houses, the neighborhoods where they walked down the middle of the street at night barefoot in shorts and tank tops with their hair loosely in braids, drinking Boone’s Farm from Sprite bottles, yelling cuss words then diving into azalea bushes to wait until all the dogs stopped barking; past his house, slowly, twice, where the lights were on inside and on the front porch where they used to sit and talk about her boyfriends and his girlfriends and what they would do when they left this place. Then twenty minutes to cross over the river into the next county for the liquor store, twenty minutes back, and the rest of the time sitting toward the back of the lot, waiting and not wanting to go in.
The parking lot is half-full, maybe thirty vehicles, mostly pickup trucks. They have local plates and local red mud splattered on them. Two cars skrit across loose gravel into spots next to each other. Almost identical couples emerge, the men well-weighted around the middle, the women purposeful in their posture. Polo shirts and khaki pants with brown braided belts on the men, linen dresses on the women. Loafers. Heels. Delight and laughter and slaps on the back and kisses on the cheek and cigarette butts thrown to the ground as, with big, certain steps, the four reunited friends walk toward the gym.
She likely knows them, but recognizes none of them. She leans over and digs around in the paper sack sitting on the floor of the passenger side, slides her hands down past the bottle of tequila, the cardboard pack holding the wine coolers. Wine coolers. She was surprised when she saw them in the store. She feels the smooth cellophane wrapper of the cigarette pack, the plastic lighter. She grabs them and steps out of the rental and leans against the door.
She barely recalls what to do with the smokes, all the rituals, and tears off the cellophane before she remembers to pack them first. As she bangs the pack against the back of her arm, he drives into the lot. She knows it’s him, though it’s a new car, not one she would have ever seen him in before. It has a Georgia tag, Fulton County. He’s alone.
She crouches. She feels foolish. She should walk confidently across the lot and greet him, hug him, tell him “It’s so good to see you,” and he should say, “I’ve missed you; you’re the reason I drove all the way over from Atlanta,” and she should say, “And you’re why I flew down from Chicago,” and they wouldn’t be saying this as old or new lovers, but as long lost friends. That’s all.
But she doesn’t do these things. He gets out of his car, looks around. He’s not unrecognizable like the others. He’s an older version of himself, but definitely still himself. Sportcoat and khakis, sure, but maybe it’s a T-shirt he’s wearing under the coat. Without seeing them she knows there are Chucks on his feet. If he knows where to look, he’ll see her, but there’s nothing else to do but stay crouched. If he sees her now, maybe she can pretend she’s only dropped something.
But he doesn’t see her. He turns and walks toward the gym. She stands. Four more cars drive into the lot, one right after another.
When they get out, they’re big men and their wives have big hair, and these are old football players with buzz cuts and cigars and flasks in their pockets and lewd winks for one another.
She gets back in the car. She lights the first cigarette she’s pried from the pack, inhales, lets a thin stream of smoke out the open window. She cranks the ignition and drives out of the lot. She heads for the old grade school playground. On her drive around earlier, she’d noticed the field was still behind it, and she bet that the falling down fence was still there, where they would always sneak in on nights like this.
A few more hours earlier …
When he opens the door to his parents’ house, the small entryway seems filled with his mom. “Mama!” he yells out, hoping to make up in volume what he doesn’t feel in sincerity or enthusiasm.
His mom puts her hands on his shoulders and leans in to kiss his cheek. “How was your drive?” she asks, but she’s already looking behind him, and he knows the next question. “Where’s Linda?”
“She couldn’t make it, Mama.”
She stands back, keeping her hands on his shoulders, appraising him with one eye narrowed. “Is she OK? Not sick, I hope. Unless, you know …”
Of course she would go to that. “No, Mama. She ain’t sick. She’s fine. I hear she’s fine.”
She takes her hands off his shoulders, backs up two steps, enough to put her into the living room. He looks past her, sees there might be a couple new chairs, but otherwise feels like he’s eighteen and suffocating again.
“What did you do?” she asks.
“I didn’t do nothing, Mom. It’s just not working out, is all.”
She turns and walks toward the peeling-linoleum kitchen. “Well you just make it work out, son. That’s what you do. It’s what your dad and I did.” She’s throwing the words behind her. He ducks, but follows her.
“Too late for that. She’s been gone a month. Moved out.”
“Well then you get her and bring her back,” she says. A blood vessel in her temple is tight against her skin, and it pulsates visibly. A wisp of gray hair has escaped the hairpins of her tight swept-back ‘do. She looks years older than the last time he was home. Finally, she turns to him, her face quieted. “Two divorces.” It’s all she says.
A few more hours earlier …
“Hey, hon’,” her husband says, walking down the carpeted hallway to where she’s standing by the front door, petting the dog. A collie, large intelligent eyes, immaculately groomed. He could be a show dog, like his parents.
“I’ll be gone and back before you know it,” she says. “You sure you’ll be OK with Jeremy this weekend with all the work you have to do?”
“He’s sixteen. He won’t even notice anything’s different this weekend.”
Will you, though? she thinks at him, then says, “I hoped I’d see him before I left.”
And then the taxi is honking at the end of the walk. She grabs up her carry-on, pecks her husband on his cheek. The taxi honks again.
Twenty-five years earlier …
His heart is breaking. Two months ago, they’d laid here in the playground fort and held each other, breathing hard, their naked legs intertwined, tucking sweet wine midnight breaths into each other’s necks and hair and ears and cheeks. Tomorrow, he’ll leave for college in North Carolina, and she’ll leave for college in Texas. But now they’re sitting, cool, next to each other. Their legs stretch out before them, side by side, touching. Their shoulders momentarily touch when they lean over or breathe deeply or pass the bottle. Each touch strikes him and cracks him.
She has headphones on, listening to the tape he’s made her. Not a love mix, but a road-trip mix, a going-off-to-university mix, a best-friends-we’ll-see-each-other-at-Thanksgiving mix, a write-me-and-I’ll-write-you mix, a send-pictures mix, a let’s-call-sometimes-late-at-night-and-tell-each-other-what-has-us-scared mix, a let’s-be-happy-for-each-other mix, a hopeful mix, a broken-hearted mix.
Ever since that night two months ago, she hasn’t brought it up. Sometimes she looks at him and he knows she’s not saying something she’s thinking about. But still, there she is, almost every day and night, just like before.
In the daytimes, they hang out under the pavilion at the park by the river, hiding from hot summer sun, listening to someone’s boombox, a whole rotating gang, but always the constants are him and her. They all talk or listen quietly or laugh, knowing it’s all changing soon.
And at night, they’re usually in the car in front of someone’s house, or on a dirt road outside the town limits, in the middle of nowhere where the stars press down from the sky. Still always the rotating group, the constant him and her, the loosening tethers.
Sometimes, in the midst of all this, these bodies and friends and words, she looks at him and he looks back until one of them tilts their chin, imperceptible to anyone else.
But tonight, the last night, it’s just the two of them in the fort at the grade school playground, where they’d first met in third grade, her first day at a new school.
Her head nods to the music. “I’m glad you put that one on there,” she says. “I was just thinking of it when that last one ended, and then there it was.” She’s smiling, though she’s not looking up at him.
He lifts tonight’s vodka bottle and takes a swig. It’s like shards of glass in his throat, but like saying nothing about that night he plays it off, follows her lead. When he lowers the bottle, she puts a hand on his arm, grips it, turns his arm so she can see his watch.
“Fuck,” she says, “it’s late.” She takes the headphones off. She looks at him. These are the final minutes before they climb down from the fort and walk back, each to their own car. He should say something. He should tell her he loves her.
“I love you,” he says, but then cuts back against it, says, “You’re the best friend I’ve got.”
Her face starts a smile, then falls blank. “I know,” she says, then turns and looks the other way. She draws her legs up close, hugs them. A warm night breeze plays a wisp of hair out of her braid. It tickles his nose. He leans in closer.
She turns back toward him. He’s too close. They bump noses, and she laughs, easy. He falls back against the wall of the fort. She puts her hand out on top of his.
“I’ll miss this,” she says.
Two more months earlier …
She can’t stop smiling. Her whole body is floating and buzzing faintly. She twines her fingers in his hair, his head in her lap.
He moans, a vibration from the back of his throat, out through his hair and into her fingertips. “God,” he says.
“I know,” she says.
“That was just …”
“It was,” she says.
“Nothing,” he reaches for words, “nothing like my first time. I swear,” he says. He reaches out and puts his hand on the wine bottle she’d snuck out of her parents’ cabinet earlier that night. He holds it up so that it’s between him and the moon. “Empty,” he says.
“Mm-hm.” Then, “That was just your second time?”
“I’ve told you about that. What a disaster. I had no clue.” He puts the wine bottle down heavily.
“You’re drunk,” she says.
“Probably. But so’re you. If I am.” He sits up, leans against her. “You tell me all your stuff, too, don’t you?”
She closes her eyes to stop the world from spinning. “Of course.”
He puts his arm around her shoulders. They don’t say anything. She savors it, but wonders how drunk he is, really. They’ve often ended weekend nights together, a little tipsy, or a lot, sharing a couple triumphs, though usually more failures and confusions. But they’ve never ended up doing this. She’d wondered, though, and wanted.
“What took us so long to do this?” he asks, and her heart skips.
“Maybe we weren’t meant to screw up our friendship?” she asks in return.
“Just friends?” he asks.
“No, no,” she says. “Just, we had to get that part right first. Now be quiet. This is where we can mess it up.”
And so they sit, his arm around her, her body curled up against his, and the night opens up around them. Cicadas saw in the field behind the playground. A distant dog barks. Far up on the bypass an eighteen-wheeler grinds its gears, blasts its horn. A baby in a house down the street from the school cries in its crib, its wails carried through an open screen window.
She wonders if he’s asleep, but then she hears him wet his lips, then he says, “I hope I remember this in the morning. I hope I remember it always.”
The pickles were stuck.
Grandpa had ordered the jar opener from the TV, three payments, $19.95. Plus shipping. Plus handling.
They didn't know he'd be gone before the first payment came due.
His 1997 Chevy pick-up, half rusted, sat in the driveway, fully loaded. Mostly canned goods. Some jars. The jars were his problem.
$19.95. Three payments. Plus shipping. Plus handling.
But the pickles were stuck.
His old paper hands could turn a can opener, but nothing in a jar. That was Grandma's job. That, and the pickling. Now he just store bought. That's why the seals were too tight, he thought. That's how we got here in the first place. Too many years, too tightly sealed, dotted all across the country.
flash fiction by Robert John Miller
poetry by Michael T. Smith
A Poet's Woe from Long Ago
O Silvia! Why dost that cheek so blush?
Lo-Lo in your thighs, a spasm dances,
Kissing tracks up your skin, a wave of flesh
To shoot arrows in my eyes; our gazes
Trip each other, taking her in a sense.
I wonder if the typos of Finnegans
Wake’s first edition make another
A Poet's Woe from Long Ago & Archive
Steeping Cellos in
My mother told me I would get tired of it, just like when I decided I didn’t like the piano anymore. I leaned over the kitchen countertop, my belly pressing into the edge, and my hands folded in a prayer in front of me. I said I really needed to play the violin, not the piano. I would practice the violin I said, because it wasn’t boring like the piano. My mother leaned over a steamy pot, stirring marshmallows and puffed riced with both of her hands gripping the wooden spoon. She looked over at her daughter, prostrate on the kitchen counter, and sighed.
A professor once told me that he used peppermint oil for deodorant. His Aunt gave him a bottle, while mumbling something about antiperspirants and cancer. He told me he didn’t know how concentrated the oil was, and he shook the bottle until a pool of peppermint was cradled in the palm of his hand. He slapped the peppermint onto the desired area, and the potent oils began to burn his skin. The recommended amount of oil to be used as a deodorant is one drop.
I was reading eighth notes to my mother. My feet were thrown up onto the dashboard of the 94’ S-Series Saturn, my toes pressing against the glass of the windshield. It made my toes cold.
My mother sat down on the worn living room carpet by my feet. She pulled out a small glass bottle and unscrewed the lid. She said it was cedarwood, and she poured some into her hand and began to rub it onto the bottoms of my size 4 feet. My mother was going on about how the oil would interact with my brain, seeping into the pineal gland. It would help release the body’s natural sleeping hormone, melatonin, allowing me sleep more soundly. My father said it was probably psychosomatic. My mother rolled her eyes. My feet tingled, and a thick, clean wooden scent hung in the air.
I wiggled in the wooden chair, its spindled back digging into my kidneys. The music sheets in front of me still looked foreign, and I was growing impatient. I rested my chin onto the plastic rest, and lifted the bow to the strings. Notes fell off the strings, but never came alive. There was too much of a break in between every note as I scooted forward to squint at the notes and count FACE before I could begin the next measure. My mother called that dinner was ready, and I stumbled down the stairs, my socks slipping on their edges. As I stirred my mashed potatoes and turnips together, I saw a small sprig of green caught under a piece of carrot. I plucked it out, and my mother noted that she had left the rosemary in for color, but that we shouldn’t eat it, because it would taste bitter.
My mother told me a story I had never heard the other day. She said I was about three, and I had been ill for months. She said they took me from doctor to doctor, and each one shook his or her head and drummed their fingers on their clipboards. Finally, my mother laid me down onto my bed, and pulled out a small cotton bag. She pulled out a glass bottle labeled “oregano”, and wiggled the pink socks off of my feet. The oregano smelled like Italian sausage pasta grease. She said she had read in a book somewhere that it could help unknown illnesses. She began to rub it on my feet, and at first nothing happened. Then she told me that my little fists began to grip the blankets, and I began to tremble. I gagged, and rolled onto my side, white foam spilling out of my mouth. I continued to throw up the foam for several minutes, and my mother held me to her chest as I threw up over her shoulder. I spit out the last bit, and fell back onto the sheets. I pulled down my sleeve and wiped it across my mouth.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Better.” I nodded and asked if we could have chocolate chip pancakes for dinner.
It smelled like sweat and rotting roses in our room. I sat at my desk with my back to my roommate’s back at her desk. We were a mirror. Stretching my arms into the air, I wiggled my fingers and mentioned that we should buy an aromatherapy diffuser. Orange blossom mixed with cloves and peppermint soon began to seep into our lungs and blankets. I threw out the flowers above my desk. A few days later I sat in my room, chair facing out, and cello placed firmly between my legs. The edges of the cello dug into the insides of my knees, and the neck rested on my left shoulder.
Lemongrass spilled out of the diffuser on my dresser, and my thoughts ran everywhere but on the music sheets in front of me. I thought about my paper on John Donne’s metaphysical poetry. I thought about the boy I had just started dating. I wondered whether it was snowing outside. It was. I wondered if I was pre- or a- millennial. I still didn’t know. I lifted the bow to the strings and squinted at the notes as I pulled the horsehairs across the ribbed wire. It dripped molasses tones, and it began to feel too warm in the room. I could feel my face pulsing. I can’t sweat, so my body overheats in a very short amount of time. I laid the bow down and lifted my hand to my cheek. It was hot under the cool pads of my fingers. Resting the cello onto the floor, I walked over to the window. I opened the window and let the cool breeze fill and tumble through the room. My skin cooled and I smelled ice and bark in the air. I stood in front of the window with my arms on the sill, and my nose pressed to the screen.
I figured I would probably give up on this as well. Turning off the diffuser, I put the cello into my closet, and began to unclasp the screen from the window. My fingers trembled as they pulled on the metal tabs at the edges the window. I know I could have closed the window, sat back down, and kept practicing, but running away from hard things had become so comforting. So I pushed the loosened screen onto the snow and swung through the window. I ran across the powdered grass, and jogged in my socks until my toes felt soggy and brittle. I collapsed under a tree and let the snow begin to soak through my sweatpants. My sweater had slipped over my shoulder, and I pulled it back up into place. It slid back off my shoulder. I ground my teeth together and pulled my knees to my chest. I stared at a sprig of pine browning in the snow for a few minutes. I realized with a pang that I could still smell lemongrass on my skin and clothes. I could still smell the lemongrass. I stood up quickly. I jogged back to the dorm, ignoring the numb buzz beginning to creep through my toes. I crawled back through the window and threw open the closet door. I pulled out the cello and pressed it into dimples on the insides of my knees. I closed my eyes and saw rosemary oil spilling down the sides the cello, slipping into the sound hole, pooling around the bottom, seeping into the wood. I opened my eyes and picked up the bow. I looked down at the music. I still couldn’t read the measure. I drew the bow across the wires. It still sounded tired and bored. I decided I would have to steep the cello in the oil. I closed my eyes again.
creative non-fiction by Adrienne Krater
The sadhu with blood soaking through his dohti lunges toward Alan, legs collapsing, falling until he and locks eyes to his. He gives a light tap with his forefinger to Alan’s forehead, then falls and Hindu dies. Alan’s vision blurs as his brain explodes into searing pain and fear and longing. In the chaos, he sees the six integers. Where is the seventh?
Alan lost this key to complete the equation an hour before—or was it ten hours? When was the instant? The red phone back at REF Inc., the phone that only rang for a national emergency: screamed. Alan answered: his wife, Kathy, terror in her voice: shouts of others, banging, a struggle. They took her? Alan wonders. They took her and young Stan. He shouted back. But silence. Was that yesterday? An hour ago?
Rushing down the fire exit to the eerily abandoned lobby of REF Inc., the government think tank where he works, Alan dashed into the street, to be pursued by…were they Soviet agents, or were they ours…that September 13, 1977, morning, the morning was about to discover the symbol that would complete the Equation. Fleeing two miles south along Ocean Way in Venice, California, evading pursuers and more. All he wanted—and wants now is to get home.
Crack…crack…crack…crack…crack…crack-crack…! Twenty feet in front of you the eleven Hare Krishna dance a death dance and fall upon each other, spewing fountains of blood. This violence empties the walkway. Screams fade as the disappearing crowds depart, as the two men in black trench coats, automatic weapons in hand smoking, close in.
Alan looks at the yod in his left hand, given to him by the rabbi who hid him before sending him to the destination engraved on the arm above the gold hand: Dr. Elijah Abel, Practice Limited to Visionary Psychiatry, 23 Windward Ave., Venice, California.
One of the men points and raises his weapon. Alan flees down Ocean Way, sprints to corner of Windward Avenue, and turns, looking in the other direction. A naked skateboarder, his body covered in red hair, unkempt red beard swerves toward him.
I’m going to get you, motherfucker!
But on the left stands 23 Windward, in the antique colonnaded building from the 1920s—Venetian style; sign over the door: Elijah Abel Head Shop. The instant the skateboarder swoops, and as the men aim their weapons, he dives through the open shop door and closes it behind him.
Inside the shop, Alan Cohen drifts in the silence. Somewhere in his mind, the old Simon & Garfunkel song spins, “Hello darkness, my old friend…”
The only sound is his breathing. Nobody follows him through the door. He looks out of the shop window onto Windward Avenue. No sign of red-haired skateboarder. No men in trench coats. He gazes at a pantomime of strollers, a woman pushing a baby carriage, children kicking a soccer ball, and then moving to the side as a new 1978 Chevy backs out of its parking space and pulls away. Old men, Orthodox Jews, stroll by in black suits, wearing their kippahs and the tzitzit from their tallitot visible under their jackets, followed behind by rounded old women with shawls, wearing High Holiday gray dresses. The chatter and movement is mime, as is the lame beggar’s appeal approaching them. Teens, in bathing suits, laugh and gesture. Silent laughter paints their lips… a bicycler, his face lost in a bronze beard…blond girl strumming a guitar, and others gathering, throwing coins into a blanket nearby. Shhh…
This head shop has everything but marijuana: Kathy once brought the forbidden weed home. Alan had no idea where she acquired this contraband, but its effects, as he suspected, did not enhance lovemaking, at least not for Alan.
Dim light from above barely let him see the case-by-case collection of the paraphernalia, pipes, hookahs, rolling papers, Buddha statues, walls lined with late-1960s psychedelic posters, the great bands, “end the war,” and more.
Alan looks at the engraved yod lying in his sweaty palm. He looks around the store again. Where is the attendant? Where is this Elijah?
Why? Why? Once a colleague told you that the CIA selects unsuspecting experts with security clearances and drugs them to see if they hold up. Is that it? Have they drugged you?
Or was it the Soviets? That explains it. They took Kathy and Stan. No! All is well. This is a big joke! Kathy and Stan are well. This is a drug-induced dream. When he awakens, he will be back in the office at REF Inc., or he will be in your Brentwood home, with a splitting headache. Kathy will still be sleeping.
Yes this must just be an illusion. Soon, the drug will wear off. Perhaps it has started.
Startled by noise from the street, his jaw drops as he sees mayhem outside, a street swimming in blood, death everywhere. The two men, their weapons at the ready, kick over bodies. The naked skateboarder, with an erection that looks like another weapon, points toward the story and yells. Flamenco reaches a crescendo, guitar playing and dancers tapping and screaming.
A click behind him: Alan moves to the back of the store to an elevator that he did not see before. The door opens; he runs inside the sleek silver interior. The door closes behind.
He stops shaking. The aroma of lavender incense soothes him. He stands in the red velvet interior of the elevator, bathed in gentle lighting from an unknown source. He looks at the two buttons side by side on the back: “Up” and “Known.” The Up button, well worn and greasy, beckons. His stomach lurches down, and his ears crack as the elevator accelerates upward for minutes then gently stops.
He steps into a barren waiting room. No pictures hang on the monotonous bare walls of this six-foot square space. Two metal folding chairs sit by a table with a small lamp without a shade, holding a dimly lit bulb, the only light. A single closed door sits opposite the elevator. Alan picks up the old copy of Life, the only magazine, and reads: “October 11, 1943,” two days before date of birth. But how…?
The door opens. The dim light of the waiting-room lamp puts the two figures into silhouette.
So now you know what you have to do. I’ll see you for your next appointment.A woman leaving wears a fragrance so familiar, Kathy’s favorite. Alan tries to see her face. She rushes to the waiting elevator.
Welcome, Alan. You can come in now. The man beckons, his arms gesturing.
He moves through the door into the bright office. The man with short red hair motions to him to sit in one of two reclining leather chairs, about five feet apart and facing each other. Perhaps he is in his mid-thirties. He wears a black tweed suit and horn-rimmed glasses. Alan has seen him before, but where? Dr. Elijah Abel smiles, an impish smile of the skateboarder, of the surfer, of the elderly rabbi who gave him the yod.
This is your session! Music, one of Alan’s favorites, a Bach étude, “The Well-Tempered Clavier”, washes over him. The work played exquisitely, to the tempo of a mathematic he studied, yet so unpredictable that when he has turned to the one doubt he has had about certainty of science and math, he has been obsessed with this and other music, carried by it as he is now into the center of the office of Dr. Elijah Abel.
His host sits in the other leather recliner and smiles.
Tranquility: As Alan sinks into the chair, his anxiety and fear vanish. He rises up out of his body and floats up to an empty spot on the top bookshelf, where he sits looking down upon himself and Dr. Elijah Abel, face-to-face in the chairs below.
He studies the posh oak-wood office, a library, with wall-to-ceiling handmade bookshelves on three walls, a curtain covering the fourth. Helter-skelter, books, journals, documents of every size and thickness fill the shelves. Titles jump off the spines of books, classic literature in many languages, going back to Homer; psychiatric journals; religious texts; texts in strange, almost unearthly languages; books of physics and mathematics. On one wall, the books are all the same size, neatly stacked, red covers and spines that are blank: hundreds of volumes.
How can he make sense of this chaos, the antipathy to the calm that he feels? How to make order, but then is order possible if chaos is in charge? Is order but a fantasy that equips us to survive, or to give our survival a purpose?
The clutter descends to Elijah’s desk in the far corner of the room. Papers and books flow off the top, covering one or more objects, and spill onto the floor, following a pattern, a stream, seemingly changing as he turns. But on his side of the desk sit two photograph albums.
Stand up and walk around, if you like. Alan goes to the desk. He lifts one of the photograph albums and opens it. On the first page, he stares at a picture of himself, with his parents, Edith and Bernard, and his brother Bill; next to that is a picture of his family together at his high school graduation, and then one of his Berkeley graduation, and finally one with Kathy standing under the hoopah at their wedding. Where did Elijah get these pictures?
Engrossed, he flips the page to see his father’s funeral, followed by a picture of his mother’s funeral. Like entering through a movie, he and brother Bill exchange blows, wrestle to the ground, shout profanities. He feels the thuds of his sibling’s fists smashing his face, some blood trickling, the pain, and numbness… Then Chopin’s “Nocturne No. 20”: The piano plays from all around him. The notes dance through his mind, one note a mathematical symbol, an equation with the balance hidden—this album?
He turns the pages to other impossible photos and films—this must be a dream—this must be a setup…how can he have pictures of…there is Stan being born, Kathy pushing one last time…there is a red-haired Oliver, Kathy’s boss from Cambridge, England—how similar he looks like to Dr. Elijah Abel, the same smile and red hair…the photos: a photo of himself drunk, sitting in a bar next to a woman he has tried to forget—Sheila Martin—Alan with a black eye, cut on the cheek, torn clothes. The anger and remorse: He cannot forget his mother’s funeral and the fight there with Bill. He drinks. Sheila stands and he follows, exiting the picture.
And the last photos: Alan picking up the red phone, Alan dashing onto Ocean Way, pursued by the two men in black trench coats. Alan bent over the Torah at the Shul by the Sea, where the rabbi gave him the yod. An angel hovers above him—then the angel points away.
Alan’s mouth open, a fear returns until…
Yes, that is your past. Now come.
Elijah takes Alan’s elbow and leads him to the curtained wall. The curtain parts and reveals a balcony. They step outside.
Through the colonnade, where Windward Avenue should be three stories down, they hovers over a scene out of one of Kathy’s old photographs, taken years before they married, when she was in Varanasi, India. In the cacophony of bells and yells, a wedding procession moves through the narrow, winding streets, beggars and orphans on every corner and every kind of chaos that make this city. The groom wears a ceremonial hat and sits high on a stallion. The bride in a multicolored sari, her hair and face perfectly sculptured, walks alongside, followed by family, friends, musicians playing. In these evening streets, pinwheels flare and spin, and fireworks paint the sky,crack. A ripple carries him off the balcony and inside the picture flying and then descending at the Ghats, the steps on River Ganges, theBlood of Shiva, Kathy once said. The disharmony of chants and screams from the sixteen temples perched on the Ghats all merge into a deafening atonal madness. Alan walks down the stairs toward the sacred water, inhales the air, putrid with vomit, garbage odors, and burning flesh. On the last step before the water, he removes his shoes and the dhoti. He steps into the river, sewage, lungs, legs floating about. He takes another step, now waist-deep. Praising and preparing for death: This is Varanasi, India, the city of death and of life until death. Other bathers splash and dive under the water. On the steps above, holy men with arms above their heads, but sitting in lotus positions, look ready to bless all who enter.
A bald man adds firewood to a pile beneath two wrapped corpses, a woman and a child. Splashing along the step Alan swims close enough to see Stan and Kathy’s faces, about to be immolated by the holy men with torches. A cry!
Say nothing. This is Prophecy.
Elijah’s silhouette moves in front of him, cutting off his view. When he passes to his other side, Alan gazes out onto a desolate dry lakebed, at gray sands in dim light retreating into the haze in front of the barren, rugged mountains. The “Ride of the Valkyries” howls like angry wind. Desolate desert. Then swirls of sand-devils dart this way and that way, and wherever they dart, they paint blackness.
The silhouette of Elijah says softly, this is Destiny.
Elijah touches Alan’s shoulder. Alan closes his eyes. He opens them back in the chair.
A cup of tea finds its way into his hands. He sips the soothing beverage, a mixture of raspberry and mint with a touch of an impossibly delicious alien essence. He calms himself by focusing on mathematical concepts. Alan knows that all truths, all answers lie in mathematics. Kathy and Stan and everyone else: Where are they really? Who am I really? He thinks. Will this be my denouement?
Alan puts the emptied teacup down and searches Elijah’s green eyes. He wants to ask how…what?
The psychiatrist answers his unspoken questions about mathematical and scientific certainty, of how the empirical study of a phenomenon allows you to predict what will happen in its future. These are the universal laws of science, sometimes described by and sometimes first identified by the mathematical language that Alan has tried to understand. The big bang, quantum mechanics, relativity, chaos, the dark matter and dark energy that will remain when all is spent, when all stars have flickered out. Not even an atom, or any matter that keeps energy, will survive, at least in this universe.
How does Elijah know? Perhaps he is the prophet. He breathes out and then breathes in. A bond, a link has been created—but it is a contradiction too, a contradiction of chaos… But that is not the only thing: Chaos suggests uncertainty or at least unpredictability within certainty. But how can certainty exist in a human universe of randomness? Nobody knows what goes on inside another human being. Human affairs are beyond the laws of physical science. Mathematics can show trends. That is all.
The universe, Elijah smiles and continues, the universe has come before and gone before infinite times, and it will come again and go again. I know of your life here and of where you are going. He goes to the bookshelf opposite Alan, one with blank spines on every shelf. He runs his thumb along one row and down to the next, stops, and takes down a book. He sits next to him and opens the volume.This is your life. Here, take a glimpse.He thumbs to a page over halfway in.
Alan looks at an old newspaper photograph of a car crash that took place in the 1920s, the shell of a vehicle he cannot identify consumed in flames. He feels the heat and sees the flames take the writhing bodies about to die, the screams, smell of roasting flesh. Alan is about to vomit when Elijah turns to the next page. Stan, his son, floats by sobbing. Where is he and where is Kathy?
But Elijah turns to the next page: The woman, so familiar, out of a haze, a drunken haze…Sheila Martin—your wife—stands next to your son, another Stan, the son of you and your wife… NO. Alan is married to Kathy. Elijah utters, Stan. Stan Martin and Sheila Martin. Strauss’s “Vienna Waltz” fills the room: one, two, three; one, two, three; love, covered by fear—gut-wrenching fear.
On the next page, he sees his office at REF Inc. There, in the space as large as a lecture hall, stand rows of whiteboards covered with mathematics, numbers, arcs, Greek letters, Hebrew letters, Sanskrit, and alien script, all scrawled in different colors. The keyboard sits on his desk. It is linked to RITA, the world’s most massive computer—acres of circuit boards, tubes, reels of tape—underground, under the REF Inc. complex and half of Santa Monica. Music: now a sitar, notes dancing madly in his mind. Alan watches Alan about to input the symbols, to close the equation, to provide the algorithm. Six figures. He closes his eyes, finds the seventh, puts his fingers on the keyboard, and…symbols within symbols, an equal sign and six more…he is about to input the seventh, and…
Elijah closes the book and places the volume back on the bookshelf.
When you were a youth, you rejected the Mathematics of Personal Apocalypse. You had been warned, but you had to see the face of God. Do you remember the algorithm that you inputted into RITA? Ah, but you remember the first six symbols of the equation. The seventh figure could have been…but no, you do not remember the seventh. You forgot the last symbol, as the aleph was forgotten for many years. You still do not know if the Ultimate Theory of Mathematical Limitation exists, not without the seventh symbol.
Elijah Abel breathes out and breathes in.
The truth is that the whole universe has no substance, no certainty. Even time does not exist.
And our time is up. I have other patients waiting. We have made progress. You will find things different, and you will not find anyone chasing you. You must find your answer. Go. Your car is parked where you left it, in front of this building.
What about Kathy and Stan? Alan, for all his brilliance, his two PhDs, still does not understand. He asks.
Kathy is no longer your quest. Elijah escorts Alan toward the door, through a waiting room filled with people laughing, crying, arguing, a couple making love on a sectional sofa. Across the room, a man points a gun with a silencer at the head of a woman. Alan gets into the elevator.
I will see you for your next appointment. The door closes.
Alan rushes out of the shop and into the quiet street. His car: He had parked in the REF Inc. employee lot this morning. Or when was that? How did it get here? His car parked by the expired meter, windshield covered with parking tickets, and his vehicle caked with dust, mud, and soot. Alan wipes the dirt off the windows with his sleeve. He opens the door to his car, puts the key in the ignition. He must get home. The battery sputters and turns the engine over, finally catching. The radio comes on. It is the news: “September 13, 1986. In today’s news, Senator Strom Thurmond was admitted to the hospital for tests…”
1986? But it is 1977. What has happened?
Finding Elijah or the Quest for the Seventh Symbol
short fiction by Arthur Lindenberg
When You Decide to Take Your 2,000-Year-Old God to the Nightclub
Know that the music will seep into the cracks in his big, stone-coated body and vibrate there. The longer he sits in the generous beat, the more unpredictably he will quake, deep in his ancientness, for he will not like to see up close, in sweat and bare skin, the extent to which his dominion has waned.
The scene will trigger in him the energy and conviction with which he crushed goddesses under his thick clay feet so long ago. He will get flashbacks of entire cities smote to ashes by the power of his word; he will remember when he was swollen and damp and powerful. He will not like the contrast of these slithering bodies who give him no thought in the pounding beat.
These bodies, your brothers and sisters, they know there's another god inside who could emerge if you allow the shell of this old deity to shatter. They know how to anchor in what is supple and they would teach you in a heartbeat how to comply with the music inside you, how to pat an old god's crumbling hands like a grandmother, pat him to dust, dance him to the wind. You need only ask.
The last moment to choose will come fast: Trembling, your god will pound his dusty fist on the table and demand to know why you have brought him here. Are the two of you going to destroy this abomination or what? If you let him go on, he will lean in close and hiss that he can see right through your skin that you are one of these and remind you that you deserve to die for being a part of this wickedness.
Now, do it: grab his hand and drag him onto the dance floor, before you believe there is but one path to redemption.
flash fiction by Eleanor Gallagher
Statues do not cry, just as vestals do not fuck. I am locked in here with one not the other.
I will take not crying over not fucking any day.
They call it a prison of my own making. To purify my thoughts and recalibrate my mind.
Their recalibrations, my rectifications—too many do over’s, a Newspeak of re’s.
What happened to the present, what happened to the is?
Oh, that’s right during the heyday of my generation is was politically digested in a first course of semantics and dessert course of litigation until it became security clearanced.
So no one has access to “is,” only weather beaten statues that refuse to cry.
A pigeon just shit on the nose of one of them, that’s at least got to bring a respectable tear-from-disgust, no? How about tear from discomfort, tear from humiliation?
Ah, now there’s the chink—and no that is not a racial slur, and excuse me for eliding over vulnerability with such as word.
But it’s getting increasingly harder to tiptoe as words are no longer given asylum, nor are people—I am living proof.
They’ve castrated me and sent me here—no that can’t be right. Un-vaginated? De-uterated? Left without access to impulse or penchant for visceral joy.
Why won’t those goddamn statues cry?
They are the rational mind. I like to think of myself as the wise mind. Everything that came before—the emotional mind; 3-minded me.
I mother, daughter, lover, I the perfectly balanced libra, I of the statues, & I the wishful virgin.
I the Whitmanized, though I do it better than Whitman—‘tis blaspheme woman, the phantom spirit howls. Just kidding.
If ever I get out of here—but “they” will never let me now will they. But if I do ever leave this
convent of doom
convent of reformed morality
convent of misfit toys
I will stand again, two-footed, arms spread Wheaties box wide and finally drink the statues’ falling tears, for I will make them weep.
Until then I shall live here as I am circumscribed, or rather circumcised to—defecating in the corner.
Enraged, sad, crazy-happy as I scribble in shit on the walls my poem. Then screenshot it—now poem-as-blog.
So that the world knows that I am more super id than super ego.
The six-o’clock news framed proscenium arch within which my glass life unfolds gives them clearance to say:
She’s a kind lady, no she’s a crooked lady. She’s an in-between lady, and everyone knows you don’t mess around with Ms. In-Between.
I, of 3 Minds, Have Not Yet Forgot Myself to Stone
~ and other such tales from the crypt
poetry by Anne Valentino
We carry our lunches in plastic grocery bags, Tupperware containers, insulated totes. We move in silence, impassive, vacant stares, arms full, shoulders slumped, merging from parking lots, bus stops, subway stations, onto sidewalks and plazas. We type in security codes, swipe key cards, flash badges, disappear inside awaiting buildings, up stairs or elevators, down corridors buzzing from tubular fluorescent bulbs. We enter offices, cubicles, conference rooms, flip on lights, log onto computers. We sit. We check calendars, scroll through emails, retrieve messages. We settle for another day, another chunk of our lives, wondering how it would feel to be free.
micro fiction by Peter J. Stavros
Tad Bartlett’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in print and online at The Oxford American, The Bitter Southerner, The Baltimore Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Chautauqua Literary Journal, and The Stockholm Review of Literature, among others. He earned an MFA in fiction at the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans; and is a graduate of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and Tulane University Law School. He is a founding member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.
Eleanor Gallagher writes and quilts in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has appeared in Jersey Devil Press and Jellyfish Review. She serves as Assistant Fiction Editor at Atticus Review.
Adrienne Krater is a published writer and undergraduate student in the International Studies program at Cedarville University. She works as a university and wedding photographer, and plans on pursuing an MFA after graduation. She is from Altoona, Pennsylvania.
Arthur Lindenberg is the founding editor of The MacGuffin, an international literary journal. His stories have been published in The Medulla Review, Forge, Licking River Review, and other journals. Lindenberg taught creative writing for nearly fifty years and has attended numerous AWP conferences. An avid amateur photographer, he has visited fifty-eight countries—and still counting.
Robert John Miller
Robert John Miller’s work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Camroc Press, Full of Crow, Metazen, Monkeybicycle, PoeticDiversity, Rattle, and others, available at robertjohnmiller.com. He lives in Chicago and is working on a novel.
Michael T. Smith
Michael T. Smith is an Assistant Professor of the Polytechnic Institute at Purdue University, where he received his PhD in English. He teaches cross-disciplinary courses that blend humanities with other areas. He has published over 30 poems in the last year in over 10 different journals (including Bitterzoet, Visitant, Tau Poetry Journal, Eunoia Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Bitchin Kitsch, and Taj Mahal Poetry Journal among others). He also has critical work recently published in Symbolism and Cinematic. He loves to travel.
Peter J. Stavros
Peter J. Stavros is a writer in Louisville, Kentucky. His work has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, The Boston Globe Magazine, The East Bay Review, Hypertext Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Juked, and Literary Orphans, among others. Peter has also had plays produced, including as part of the Festival of Ten at The College at Brockport – SUNY, for which he was named Audience Choice Winner. More can be found on his website.
Brett Stout is a 38-year-old artist and writer. He is a high school dropout and former construction worker turned college graduate and Paramedic. He creates controversial art while breathing toxic paint fumes from a small cramped apartment referred to as “the nerd lab” in Myrtle Beach , SC. His artwork has appeared in a wide range of various media from small webzines like the Paradise Review to the University of Oklahoma Medical School Journal.
Anne Valentino lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York with her two children and three dogs. Holding a PhD in English, she has taught at Temple University and The Eastman School of Music among others. She’s published articles on Alexander Pope as well as on 17th and 18th century poetry and is currently a full-time freelance writer.
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