APRIL 11, 2018| ISSUE no 235
crack the spine
Tom Richard Santos
M. A. Banash
Ernest Gordon Taulbee
short fiction by Tom Richard Santos
He came from the cold and the dark into the low-lit room. A milk-haired maître-d gently removed his snow-dusted peacoat and hung it upon a brass knob below a bronzed sconce. The old servant then removed the placard reading “Peter Wong, CEO Wong Pharmaceuticals” from the head of the table, closed the translucent sliding doors, and disappeared from sight.
The private dining room could have fit a dozen comfortably, but only two place settings were visible. Along the credenza lay various stems of crystalware, six bottles of wine and a silver, sweating bucket of ice. A chilled tureen of Alaskan caviar and brioche lay at the center of the table. Peter stood still, inhaling the room. It was redolent – of grape, of roe, of exclusivity. He strode over to the credenza, opened his briefcase, withdrew and held up a thickly dusted bottle in the room’s dim track-light. It was a 1973 Chappellet Cabernet Franc from Napa Valley, perfectly chilled at exactly 53 degrees, and turned twice a year in a private cellar beneath his home by him alone. No one else.
Grabbing a decanter, he placed it and the bottle near his seat. He then doubled back, grabbed the bucket of Champagne Rosé and two slender flutes, carried them to the table and poured himself a generous glass. He sat and leaned back in his seat, grabbed a piece of caviar-slathered toast, popped the amuse-bouche, sipped the wine, sighed and glanced at his watch.
8:59 p.m. It wouldn’t be long now.
As he savored the mousseux again, a light and soundless wind fluttered at his back and he filled the second glass as his clothes and hair tussled about him.
“I see you started without me,” said the voice at his back.
Peter smiled and turned to her. She was a woman of an austere beauty, the air seeming to glow electric about her. Her skin was a deep, velvet mahogany that she accentuated with white linen capris and a sleeveless blouse. Her hair might once have grown wild, but it was now cropped close to her scalp in tight woolen ringlets. Her eyes were a deep, piercing amber that felt as if they saw everything. She wore no shoes.
Peter finishing chewing and rose to meet his guest. “Well, you know me. It’s lovely to see you again, Helena.”
“Likewise, Peter. May I?”
He pulled out her chair with a slight flourish and she sat with no wasted motion. He refilled his glass and they tilted their flutes. They toasted and drank, but she ate nothing.
“So,” Peter began, as the servers entered to clear and reset the table, “our final little get-together. How do you feel about it?”
“How do you?”
“Like it’s as pointless this year as the last nineteen. You know I’m not going to change my mind,” Peter said.
“If that’s true,” asked Helena, “why continue agreeing to see me every year?”
“Well, how else would I be graced with such wonderful company?” Peter asked, aglint in his eye as he grinned
They laughed and toasted each other again. As they did, a plate of heirloom tomato panzanella arrived at the table with an Assyrtiko from Santorini. Peter took a light dram, felt his palate warm and spooned the salad onto his plate.
“Would you like to wait to discuss business until after you’ve eaten?” Helena asked, as she crossed her legs and folded her hands in her lap.
“Now’s good. Time is a factor,” Peter said, as he speared a tomato.
“How long before he comes to collect you?”
“Just shy of three hours.”
“Enough time, then. Did you hear about the earthquake in the Maipo Valley?”
“I did. Deadliest Chilean natural disaster in a century. Hundreds dead, thousands displaced, and a whole native population brought to its knees. Tragic, of course. Yet the most interesting thing was how quickly your father had your people there the very next day.”
“We were there to help,” she said, her voice even.
“I’m sure. And it didn’t hurt that by rebuilding homes and giving medical treatment and so on, you recruited untold numbers of people to your company’s doctrine. Hearts and minds. As ever, I’ve got to hand it to your father – it was a masterstroke. Say what you will about my Partner, but he’d never have thought of that.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You seem awfully peppy, considering Wong Pharmaceuticals is about to collapse.”
Peter shrugged and ate the final tomato.
“Yes, well… what’s the harm now?” he asked, as he dabbed his mouth.
The plates were cleared and a single ravioli di tartufi bianchi was placed steaming with browned butter and a Morey-Coffinet Batard-Montrachet.
“At any rate, we have a proposal for you,” Helena said.
“I’m all ears,” Peter said as he reached for the ravioli.
“We need assistance in the region. We want to build shelters, schools, hospitals – all the necessaries. But we can’t do it with the capital that we’ve got.”
“Isn’t that supposed to be the point of all those fundraising fan-clubs at your disposal?” he asked, a smirk in the corner of his mouth.
“It’s not enough,” she replied. “Not nearly. But the money you’ve accrued from your deal with your Partner would cover it, easily. We want you to provide it.”
“All of it.”
Peter nodded as he chewed and sipped. “And…?”
“The usual terms,” she said. “You must dissolve your agreement with your Partner. You must renounce and give away every boon and material good you’ve ever received as payment for said agreement. You must rededicate yourself to our cause. And only ours.”
The ravioli was taken away and replaced with an Arzak-style egg sprinkled with katsuobushi flakes on a bed of pesto, with an Umbrian Pinot Nero poured next to the remaining white Burgundy.
“You can make amends, Peter. We can rebrand you as a world-renowned philanthropist. We can return meaning to your life beyond all… this,” Helena said.
Peter smiled patiently, as if she were a child asking to play telephone. He picked up his spoon and moved to devour the egg.
“And,” Helena concluded, “the payment you promised your Partner for all your money and power? We can stop him from collecting it tonight.”
The spoon stopped in midair.
Peter looked at Helena, struck silent, as she returned the same patient smile to him. He set down his spoon and leaned forward. “That’s impossible. I read the contract. There aren’t any loopholes. Even if I… No. It’s not true. There’s no way out of this for me.”
“Not by yourself. You’ve always underestimated how much influence my father has over your Partner, despite their estrangement. If it means avoiding catastrophic conflict, he will accede. He has countless assets. He won’t miss yours.”
Peter leaned back and watched the golden and garnet light from the two glasses danced upon the varnished chestnut. “You’re lying,” he said.
“I’m not,” she replied.
“Then why now? You’ve never offered this before.”
“Because you’re out of time, and you’ve forced my hand. Forgive the pun, but consider this as a sort of fire sale.”
He laughed, surprising himself. “That’s a terrible joke.”
Helena gave a small chuckle in return, and drank deeply as Peter set the spoon down and put his chin in his hands, and became still. The room glowed as an attendant flambéed a dessert next to a table on the other side of the clouded-glass partition. Peter stayed motionless for a long time, beads of sweat forming in places they hadn’t for years. A vein in his temple pulsed in time with the faint whisper of his breath, and the muffled ticking of his watch. Yet there he remained, frozen in thought, ignoring the pouring of a thirty-year-old Priorat, the placing of a hand-rolled bucatini amatriciana, and the pierce of Helena’s eyes.
Then, without a word, he ate the egg in three bites. He then drank the wines and leaned back.
“What made you dissolve your relationship with my Partner?” he asked.
Her back stiffened a moment, but relaxed as she grabbed her glass.
“How long have you known?” she asked.
“A while. I’m not judging – I think we both know that’d be ludicrous. But I can’t deny that I’m curious. Doesn’t seem like you.”
“It doesn’t now, no.”
“Hmm. Why, then? Why break away from him?” he asked.
She studied him from across the table, as if measuring his sincerity.
“Please,” he said. “I need a reason.”
She stayed still a moment longer. Then she took a small dram of the wine and spoke. “Because I was tired. Tired of our petty little uprising. Tired of the ugly things I was doing, and just… just tired. And I couldn’t pledge my loyalty, which he wanted totally, to someone who was willing to do what he did to get what he wanted. Most of us who joined with him initially felt the same. So, one by one, we all left his side and begged our father to take us back. He didn’t question us. Not even the slightest single rebuke. He welcomed us back with open arms. Not long after, our little doomed-to-fail rebellion ended. Like any fool could see it would.”
“Did you feel guilty?” he asked.
“More than you can imagine. Once your Partner had been defeated and driven out, we knew it wouldn’t be long before he’d come for you people. So, we decided to help. Our father agreed, and… well, here I am.”
He nodded along, regarding a light scuff on the wall to Helena’s right.
“Just out of curiosity, am I the first of your assignments to suss it out?” he asked.
She set down her glass.
“Yes. But you’re wrong about one thing. We aren’t assigned to you people. We volunteer.”
Peter nodded once more and began to twirl the hollow pasta, as if taming snakes with the tines.
“Hmm. When I met him, twenty years ago, I was still working in the mailroom. Just another Chinese kid pressured into an expensive and useless Business degree. I think there were another three Wongs in that room alone. I was… well, you know the feeling, I suppose. Alone. Bored. Angry. One day, at a coffee shop on my break – I wish I could remember which one – this funny little man comes up to me. He looked… does he look the same to everyone?”
“It depends,” she replied.
“Interesting. I always wondered. To me, there was no goatee. No smell of sulfur. Certainly no red. He was just a short, neat little man with glasses and a duckbill cap. You’d never know he was who he was. He bought me a coffee and sat down with me and we just talked. About his company, his history, about me. He’d been watching me a while.”
“He watches a lot of people,” she said.
“I don’t doubt it. In any case, he slid a contract in front of me, gave me a pen, and I signed. Simple and painless. I haven’t seen him since. And within the week, I’m out of the mailroom and… Well, here I am,” Peter said as he ate the bucatini.
He leaned back.
“You could stop him from taking it?” he asked quietly.
“No strings attached?”
“You’re sure drinking a lot tonight,” he remarked.
She glanced at her empty glass and chuckled. “Well… no sense in wasting excellent taste,” she said, pushing the glass away.
He paused, regarding her a moment. He glanced at his watch again. 10:03 pm. He then sat back and picked up the dusty bottle.
“Do you remember when you gave this to me?” he asked.
“I do. I appreciate you saving it.”
“Since our very first get-together,” he said as he cut away the foil. “I always thought it was a lovely gift. Every year, when we have our little meeting, I debate if it’s ready to pour. But let me ask you something, and I’ll trust you not to be offended.”
“Why this bottle?” he asked as he wedged with gentle fingers the crumbling cork out of the neck. “I don’t think you picked it arbitrarily. But it’s not the best vintage of all time. They make a lot better styles at the winery. And even when you bought it, it was well past its prime. In general, it's just an unusual pick.”
“Are you asking me why I make strange choices on things that others would have long since given up on?” she asked.
“That's where I was going with it, yes,” he said, while he prized out the cork and began to decant the wine into the vessel.
“All right, then,” she said. “In many ways, you were exactly the kind of person your Partner would recruit. You were angry, like you said. Hungry. And you were just ruthless enough to do what others wouldn't. In many ways, you’re a typical story. On the other hand… it doesn't quite fit. You've met some of the others like you, I'm sure. They all come from different places, different backgrounds, but the story is often the same. They’re from rough homes. Sometimes there’s an imbalance in the head. Some were just born so far down the food chain that I can’t blame them for their choices. But that's not you. Your parents loved you enough to emigrate so you would have a better life. You’re intelligent. You’re of sound mind. You didn’t have everything, but… you were a good man. You were someone with greater advantages and opportunity than others could scarcely dream of.”
She took another sip. “But you didn't. You made your deal. You pledged your loyalty. And I could never figure out why.”
Something flashed across Peter’s eyes. Perhaps understanding.
“And that reminded you of someone?” he asked.
It was more accusation than question.
“Yes,” she said.
He set the decanter down. “Do you still feel guilty for what you did when you worked for my Partner?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“So much so that you’d do anything to make up for it?”
“Even by lying to me and saying that your father made an agreement with my Partner?”
“There is an agreement.”
“I know there is. But you made it. Not Him.”
“There’s no chance that your father would go for the terms you described. No way, no how. He can’t set precedent. And there’s only one other you could bargain with for my protection. Someone we both know.”
“Peter – “
“Helena, did you offer my Partner to take my place tonight?”
She said nothing. The air in the room became still. Stifling.
“Why?” he asked.
She sat still a moment. Then she reached out for his right hand.
“Because I believe you’re worth it,” Helena said. “Because I personally know where your deal leads. Regret, remorse and guilt everlasting.”
“Helena, I understand it’s your job to be noble, but -”
“This isn’t about nobility. If you really and truly understood what's at stake, you’d know that. You think you know what awaits after he collects you? You don’t have the slightest idea. You couldn’t possibly.”
“But you do, so that makes it all right?”
“Nothing is all right about this, Peter. Nothing. But it’s the only way I can save you. It’s the only way to save yourself.”
He tried to retract his hand, but she held firm. “And how am I supposed to face your father when my time comes? To tell him I’m the reason that he lost one of his daughters, for the second time, to his biggest competition?”
“I already made my arrangements: your immunity is guaranteed. You’ll still have to hold to the terms, but you’ll have a full pardon.”
He drummed his free fingers upon the table. “What if I don’t hold to them?”
She took his other hand and clasped both together in hers. They were warm and calloused and full of intention. She looked at him and held him entire in her gaze.
“You will,” she said.
His hands grew hot inside hers, but he didn’t let go.
“Do you understand me?” she said. “There’s no more time. There’s no other offer, and there will never be another. I have not spent the last twenty years trying to save you to lose you now. I can’t. I won’t.”
His head tilted down, but she touched his chin and looked back up.
“This is your last chance. Please. Take it.”
Peter held her gaze for another moment. Then, without warning, he slowly seemed to collapse into himself. She moved to comfort him. She placed her chin on top of his hair, and embraced him, as if a mare protecting her colt from the rain.
They stayed there for a moment, perhaps no more than a few seconds.
Then he rose with a hard, set look in eyes.
“No,” he said.
“I said no. I’m refusing your offer.”
“Don’t. Don’t be a damned fool. You have to accept.”
Her hands drained of their warmth, and Peter let out a dry, colorless laugh.
“’Damned fool?’ That’s an even worse joke than before.”
Then he let go.
The servers came back into the room, silently cleared the table as usual, and afterwards, it appeared as if nothing had ever existed on it before. A large ribeye, glistening with butter dripping down the caramelized sides was placed in front of Peter. He waited a moment. Then, with a trembling knife, he slowly began to carve the prime beef.
“Do you have any idea, any idea, what you’re throwing away?” Helena said.
Peter stopped cutting, set the utensils down and turned to her with his full attention.
“You asked me why would I make a deal with my Partner in the first place. That’s simple - because what I was given wasn’t good enough. I talked to you about the mailroom. Let’s extrapolate that.”
“What does this h-“, she began, but he held his hand up.
“Let me finish. Imagining that I somehow distinguished myself from the three other Wongs there, what would I have gotten? A promotion, perhaps. A small salary, just enough to starve a family on, with maybe an insurance plan and a company car, if I were lucky. And for what? I would have to give twenty years of my life to those people. Maybe more, maybe the rest of my life, having to devote myself night and day to a company that would make billions off my labor and toil long after I lived and died. And that would’ve been my future, Helena. We both know it. But what can you do? It’s better than the alternative. You can sympathize, I’m sure,” he said as he picked up the decanter again.
“What does this have to do with anything?” said Helena.
“Everything. You do realize that your father knew about your little insurgency all along? That He knew all about the discontent, all the… whatever that was brewing inside of you? Do you think it was coincidence that my Partner, His best and brightest son, was inspired to rebel? Think about it. He let you have your little ‘doomed to fail’ mutiny, as you said. Because, for just some patience and a little collateral damage, your father quashed all thoughts of insurrection. Forever. He knew that you would all be so guilty and thirsty for repentance over what you did that you’d never, ever dare to revolt again.”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” Helena asked, as the cords of her neck grew tight, threatening to snap. “Do you think you’re saying anything I don’t already know?”
“Then why are you telling me this?”
“Because I thought I was outside your father’s control too, Helena. I thought that my deal would free me of this… role I had been written into. That I had outsmarted my way out of being a worker bee, that I had finagled my own fortune for what I thought was peanuts. I thought I was smarter than Him.”
Peter turned the decanter in his hands.
“But I’m not,” he said.
He inhaled the bouquet again.
“What did your father say when you proposed your trade?” he asked.
“What did your father say?”
“That it was a bad idea. That He didn’t approve.”
“Yet you went to my Partner to try your luck anyway?”
“I had faith. And I wanted to save you.”
“Yet you contradicted orders. You rebelled. Again. Why did your father allow that?”
“You’re here, aren’t you? You can’t do anything without His knowledge. He could’ve stopped you before you took a single step. Why?”
“No. Why did your father allow you to be here, right now, tonight, on the last night of my contract with a desperate, ridiculous counteroffer that you knew I would never accept?”
She said nothing, her frame rigid as a pillar. Peter smiled ruefully.
“Because He wanted you to be here, Helena.”
He took another bite as her glow dulled.
“He needed you to overcome this guilt that’s been crippling you ever since you returned to His side. He needs his daughter back, and who better to deliver her than the already-doomed charge she handpicked because she saw so much of herself in him? None of this is coincidence, Helena. It’s the same reason Chileans die so others can be converted. The same reason arrogant men are permitted to make Faustian bargains in the first place. The reason daughters are allowed to go against their fathers’ wishes. Because to save people, Helena, others always have to be damned,” he said.
Peter leaned back and breathed in the wine’s perfume a final time. He then dropped the decanter against the floor, spraying the room with shattered glass and impressionistic purple. The rotten grape juice splashed up and around the table, soaking everything in sight save, somehow, for Peter and Helena. His eyes never left hers, and he saw finally understand as hope dulled, dimmed and finally faded from her eyes.
“I’m sorry to have done that. It really was a lovely gift,” he said, tucking into his steak once more.
He looked at her again. She was shaking with fury and sorrow, barely in control of herself.
“Are you so blind, so stupid that you don’t know what will happen if you don’t renege?”
Peter sighed as he replied, “As a matter of fact, I do. I asked my Partner about it before I signed, Helena. Flat out. He was a little surprised: I guess most people would rather not know. He wouldn’t even tell me at first, maybe he was afraid I’d back out if I did. But I kept at it and he told me. Everything.”
He checked his watch.
“In one hour, five minutes and… fifty-three seconds, I’ll take the elevator to my office after I finish up here. There will be the evening edition of the papers on my desk and Wong Pharmaceuticals will be in every headline. Probably on TV, too. They’ll talk about all the clinical trials we’ve ever fudged. Every stock we ever manipulated. Each side effect we’ve ever suppressed. It all comes tumbling down. I’ll knock the newspapers off the desk because… drama, I suppose. Then I’ll grab a small gun from my safe.”
He paused for a moment. “I don’t understand why it has to be suicide. But it does. In any case, I’ll stand in the middle of the newspapers, tear up a little, and then I’ll blow my brains all over my office directly before my Partner comes to collect his payment.”
The servers, shocked at the spilled wine in the room, hastily left to retrieve a mop and bucket. Peter leaned back and began eating the last few bites. He trained his eyes on her again.
“And you, Helena? You’ll be right there. Watching me. Because you’ll have realized what these twenty years were for,” he said, leaning in once more. “You’ll realize your father put me here to save you.”
She rose from the table with as much dignity as she had left.
“Where are you going?”
“I think I’ve had my fill. Goodbye, Peter. I wish you well,” she said.
She turned to leave as the same soundless wind returned. When he looked up from his plate, she was gone and he was alone.
The servers cleaned up the mess and Peter thanked them, palming them an additional $200 for their trouble. With murmered thanks, the servers came a final time, pouring him a glass of brandy as a plate of Bananas Foster, still aflame, arrived at the table, filling the room with sweet smoke. He contemplated the brandy for a moment before he heard his watch beep. 11:00 pm.
For a moment, Peter paused over his digestif as the flames licked the edges of the bowl. He nosed the wine and tried to remind himself of the allures and charms of life - the crisp edges of the caramel over his ice cream, the plum of the wine, the many dinners over the years in places like this and more. Yet they no longer held the sheen they had before, beatified with the weight of time and philosophy. They didn’t look like beauty. They looked like things.
He sighed and drank the final few ounces, ate a cursory spoonful, dabbed his mouth and reached for his credit card. He separated it from the cash in his money clip, stood and his hand moved to leave it on the table. But his hand stayed still. After a moment, he returned the card to his pocket, separated the cash from the clip, and tossed a thick wad of twenty-dollar bills upon the table that streaked stray drops of oil and butter and wine on the lacquered wood.
He grabbed his coat, slung it over the crook of his arm and walked into the main dining room as the service staff was tidying up after the rush, preparing to close for the evening. He strolled by the floor-to-ceiling windows, and the city nightscape rose as if a sunrise, laying before him like a banquet of white-dusted mason and light. He moved closer to the window, his nose an inch from the glass, and the fog of his breath flowered and contracted in front of him, opaquing his reflection. He stayed there for a while, and his gaze glided over to a building, taller than the rest, until a light bloomed on the top floor among the darkness. His breathing caught, and he knew who was there. Then he released and saw nothing, save for the fog obscuring his sight. In his fixation, he barely felt the wind behind him.
“So, it really was another pointless pitch after all?”
Helena appeared at his side and leaned against the glass. Peter sighed and withdrew the credit card from his pocket.
“Not quite,” he said, as he handed it to her.
She took it from him with the tenderness of a mother holding her babe. “See what you can do with that in the Maipo Valley,” Peter said. “From one pawn to the rest. I’d use it fast. No telling how long it’ll stay around afterwards.”
She looked ashen and sick, her glow all but gone entirely. Then he touched her face with his hand, tracing the hollow of her cheek with his thumb.
“It’s the best thing I can do for you,” he said, in a gentle voice.
She grabbed his hand against her face, and let it linger a moment. Then she sighed and straightened.
“All right. Let’s get this over with,” she said.
He nodded and turned from the window, first buttoning his jacket and then sliding his arms into the peacoat. She waited to the side, with her arms crossed and her face was steady, but pained. Then he offered her his arm. After a moment, she took it, and the two descended the crimson-carpeted stairs to the foyer below, out of the restaurant and into the dark and snowy streets of the city, walking in the light powder to the entrance of the tall building where he was awaited and she was expected.
Rolling hills, with the closest structure to the road being the American Legion Hall, its old gravel parking lot spread close between the building and the road. A two lane laminated path that dips and spins economically off center, rising and falling as little as it legally must between bouts of a poor farm land with its domestic dwellings set as far respectfully back as the abodes of trolls.
Chicken coops are kept out of sight, but they are here, too. In deserts, in high-chested forests, in the trilling mountains and so close to the ocean you can feel the sand and salt in the eggs. Everywhere there are chickens. I know the coops rise in their majestic single stories, alive with the chatter of chickens, the omnibus crackle and slam of egg production, the meticulous reclamation of waste. It is an industry: it takes in, it gives out.
Did you know that all domestic chickens come from the same originally exploited bantam breed? One location on the earth, and all the chickens of our planet, from that small genus of fowl, have grown to cover almost every continent, to ennoble almost every table, to be for many the sole point of ownership over another species.
I’ve eaten chickens in almost every state. It is what I do.
I have the means to devote myself to this. My wealth was finished years ago and I have my personal keep well in hand. I have no vices, no accomplices, nothing that pokes the red eye of wonder out of the pounding cacophony of my dreams. Every morning all I must do is fire up the Ford, shake the disharmony of the hotel bed from my back and my eager-to-learn limbs, and I am off to the rustic roads, off to find the little unknown places deaf in their fog of line-dreary mornings, unsuccessful so far in their rush to become gentrified suburbs.
Soon enough I’m out thirty yards behind someone’s antique collection of a home, holding a prize fistful of poultry. Grant me the nobility of it: I eat it all except the beak and feet and bone and large feathers. Oh yes, I can eat the small feathers now.
Just one chicken at each poaching is enough. I am no glutton. It will take hours, like sand in a salt mine, of driving: one headlight on early evenings, wipers on top speed if there is the ganglia of drizzle. Then, two hundred miles down the road, my forthright hunger will again start flashing diagrams to the static of my brain. Images of chickens past will gargle in the empty spaces positioned strategically listless in my memory. I will start looking for the hum and vibrantly colored scent of an artfully profitable hunting ground.
So, when you put your chickens to bed tonight, know that I am driving. I keep both hands on the wheel and hum a song you have heard only when you’ve plugged your finger accidentally into a live electrical socket. Maybe I will not be driving in your state, not even in your country: but likely, some night, I will be within a stone gargoyle’s throw of nearby. And on some good for laundry, windy afternoon - with a hint of drizzle in the air and an elfin burnt-out cold beginning to wheeze - you will see outside in the innocent yard more loose familiar feathers rolling about than you are accustomed to; and then you must run, a shotgun blast of expectations, out to your false security of a coop to start counting and calling, calling and counting. The many, many chickens. And, just now, one less.
flash fiction by Ken Poyner
poetry by Konstantin Rega
I paint over mirrors
so my doubles won’t
see me, won’t try to
correct (replace) me.
I am a man
who pretended to be
a boy who pretended
to be a man, now watching
windows for a reflection
to crack, to leak. Bleed…
Perhaps if I stand
on my hands like a tree
I will change the world—
but it just falls
out of my pockets
into gutters and leaves.
I have nothing more
to say to this place…
doors doors that
should(n’t?) keep squeaking.
I have no father
and breasts distress me:
I am a penis fetus;
is that Freud laughing?
No, only the sound
of a boy never breastfed,
peeking about the next corner
of the wind-woken street
that hosts him as he
simultaneously hosts it.
The rejection letter decided it: he wouldn’t submit again. His wife was very supportive of the manuscript: Mourning People.
The editor said it just lacked authenticity and the “mourning” in the title was trite.
He straightened his suit and checked his daughters’ dresses. He wasn’t sure if eulogies were supposed to have titles, but he thought of recycling the one he retired.
The drive felt long. Too many people enabled him; he should’ve been accountable for his actions. His children cried as he read his words over his departed wife.
He started by saying mourning people shouldn’t be a pun.
micro fiction by Ernest Gordon Taulbee
I couldn’t tell you now how I looked then except to say that some thought me beautiful, enchanting and exotic one called me, the one who plucked me from the road especially. The guy who didn’t know any better. Aged before my time, he eventually thought it a distinguished thing, but I knew what it was about. For eighteen years my face has been the residue of nightmare with lines like a river, carving out my youth like rocks over centuries. I’m heading back there, you know. I am on the way heavy with the dread that flashes those scenes behind my eyes at night. Her spirit reminds me I have lived a lifetime since then. But it feels like only a minute ago.
By the time he picked me up on that stretch of gravel road, it was too late. Wenona was gone and a part of me had also died on that lonely hill on the McGraw place just outside of town. I entered the RV filthy from running through the soft dirt of the bean field, climbing through the deep muddy ditch, dirty after clawing up the bank to the road. I always wondered why he stopped but I never asked. He just did and that’s all I know. He let me sit shotgun with a little Bichon in a dog bed on the floor between us. I remember that dog. Small, white, kind eyes, the same kind of look as the guy, Russell Sullivan he said his name was. Nice to meet you like it was a pleasant encounter on any morning of the week. Ana, I said my name was and he nodded like he knew it all along. Can we get out of here, I asked. Hurry, I mean. Just go? Sure, he said. No problemo.
I remember my mother’s face when I left that day to start college a whole other state away. There was a giddiness about her, this fizzy happiness that told me she was glad to be rid of me. The troublemaker, the anchor, the dead weight who read books all summer, loathed to do work of any kind around the house, mouthy at the least provocation. She was one of those striking Winnebago women you see occasionally around here. And on this day her features were lit up, a broad smile, a snap in her eyes, a look that said so long, take your time on the way back. Hell, get lost, I don’t care. So, that’s when I decided that I wouldn’t come back to this place, this plot of dusty land, surrounded by fields burrowed into by tractors and devoured by livestock. But, I was shocked to see in her face no residue of regret that things turned out the way they did between us. That neither one of us would miss the other. I was done.
It’s hard to say when I met Wenona because it seemed like she had always been there. Waiting. She has the softness of someone who knows sorrow, but who also says we all deserve a chance at happiness, what ever that was. In some way the world is too profane for her goodness. Optimism is her rebellion. Her fleshy Lakota beauty, her kindness staggers me even now; I still can’t believe she is in the distant past. I feel her at dawn on most days. A protector. Just when the sun peeks over a city or town on our route, I feel the surge of her spirit bloom in my body, into the hollows of my limbs. She waits for me there in the early mornings, and for a moment I am whole again. There are many things I have that I owe to Wenona, but the debt was never repaid. So, I try to honor her in my memory, with my son who was blessed by her as godchild. She is a god’s child now herself.
My father was a distant man, a white man who worked as a mechanic in the town, who kept his feelings to himself. He and my mother split up before I was born, and I went the way of my mother to the reservation to live in a ramshackle trailer house, more tin can than domicile. But, I did see him. There were times when I would hitch hike into town to his shop and spend the day with him as he worked on trucks and cars. Sometimes he fixed flat tires and changed oil when money was tight. It didn’t bother him that I would watch him work and tell him about school, about the burgeoning desire I had to write. My father was a natural storyteller himself on occasion. While flat on his back under a vehicle, he would relay funny stories about his family, like the time his brother was bit on the ass by a raccoon in the old outhouse. Had to get rabies shots. We laughed a lot about that one. When it was time to leave, he would scoot from underneath what ever he was working on and give me a modest hug. I clasped him hard instead, inhaled the sour scent of oil and muck on his clothes, and rubbed my face on his dirty shoulders so that I was smudged in places, on cheeks on my forehead. It enraged my mother when she knew by looking at me I had seen him. No good nothing layabout, she would say. But I didn’t care. I wouldn’t wash my face for days just to keep him close and until my mother threatened violence if I didn’t.
Kuruk was out there that night orchestrating the whole thing, a kid we knew in graduate school. His name was Noah Albrecht, but he changed it when he got deep into his studies in the Native American program at the university. It was not unusual. Many of us were inspired by our studies, by our professors who were generous with their time, and their knowledge. But, Noah was different. His studies in Pawnee fertility rituals overtook him at one point, and we were all afraid for him, for the moorlessness of his mind, of the fervor of his protest and outrage. The professors only quietly rebuked him. He needed resistance. It gave him a cause.
When Russell picked me up on that road he asked me if I had ever seen Park City Utah. I wasn’t into snow or movie stars I told him with what I can guarantee was a bit of that lip my mother so hated in me. It didn’t bother Russell, though. In fact, he laughed a lot about it. Me neither, he said, but the mountain air is as intoxicating as weed used to be for me when I was a sprout. Sprout. I looked hard at this guy then. He sat in what he called “the captain’s chair,” which I thought was only used for seafaring vessels and not this posh, expensive drive-around house. But it suited him. He was, in fact, wearing a skipper’s cap, the one that looks like it came from Gilligan’s Island. And, he had long graying out curly red hair past his shoulders that looked just like Robert Plant’s. In fact, Russell looked a lot like him generally. Old rocker hippy type. My stomach was still doing flips as the gravel road popped and snapped against the mud flaps on the tires. He was doing as I asked as quickly as this penthouse could move. Part of me thought I wouldn’t make it, that Kuruk would follow and find me, take me back, and make me the next.
I met the love of my life that first semester at college. It was just a suggestion initially, a parry to see if I would take to him. And, by Christmas I had. He was a grad student in photography, and he loved the funkiness of my face, that mishmash of white and Winnebago that gave me the Native skin but light eyes. He took my picture constantly, in the kitchen of his tiny studio apartment, singing along to the radio in his MR-2, eating Indian food, which he thought was so funny. He was like that, though, silly and goofy like girls can be. But, he had me, all of me after awhile. It wasn’t long before I was living out of his place, skipping class, lazing about all day fucking and drinking, helping him with his photography, reading all the books he recommended to me. But, he really wanted me to take him back to where I grew up, and it was the only line I drew between us. I couldn’t let him see it. Or meet her. It was profane to take him there. It might rub away some of the glittering he saw in me if he knew. It took until the end of the spring semester, but he wore me down, and we packed up the MR-2 to make the journey back.
Wenona was always the one people wanted to know about. Many were attracted to her because she had this thing, this spark in her dark, knowing eyes that drew all of us into her world with such kindness we didn’t even know existed. We were in her orbit, and she cared deeply about all of us. None were accidental encounters to her. We all had a purpose and were all connected in one big, rag tag, mismatched, celestial family. She didn’t believe in organized religion, but there was much about her that was sacred, much that we all vowed to protect in her. Kuruk was particularly obsessed, and he carried this obsession like a weapon.
I never wanted to go home. It never occurred to me that it would be a place suited to me. But, when my son was born, I knew I had to have a place where I would go to get help. That’s why I decided to ask my father to help me with my son, his grandchild. By then he had married, and I had a stepmother by law, but a friend by circumstance. Marie was a woman from the town, a bartender at the Legion Club where old Vietnam vets like my father loitered on their nights off. She had no kids of her own, and she took to Lucas immediately. The schedule was perfect. She would be home during the day while I was at the local university taking graduate classes in poetry, then at night I would take care of Lucas with my drowsy father to lend a hand. It worked perfectly until my mother came to assert her right to her grandson. My father would have none of it; some unexpected steel solidified in his spine. I never knew him to stand up to anyone because he was perpetually on the sideline, or in the background, but when his grandson’s wellbeing was in question, he became ferocious. My mother was as surprised as I was. She always knew him to be a son-of-a-bitch she said, and that she would bring the law down on him, whatever she thought that was. Marie, though, was savvy, cunning in the way good, honest women had to be in a certain time in our country’s history. My mother didn’t have a chance.
I kept looking in the passenger side rearview mirror, which read that what I saw was closer than it might appear. And, indeed, the darkness of the hill, the hollow glow of the morning traipsed along casually behind us until the bump indicated we had reached the highway. When I felt that last flip in my stomach, I knew that I had made it, for now. My thought was now how I was going to get this Russell guy to drive into town to get my son. I didn’t have a plan. But, I knew my son was not safe from Kuruk’s vengeance. And, we had to do it fast. That’s when Russell said he planned to meet up with an old college friend in town for breakfast, but he needed to freshen up. Like I said before, this RV was a posh affair. It had a full on kitchen and bathroom, with a master bedroom suite in the back. I, too, wanted to scrub the day and this horrible thing off. Russell somehow intuited all of this, so when he pulled into the large truck stop outside of town, he handed a folded and creased pair of jeans and a pink, monogrammed dress shirt to me. You’re skinny like me, he said. These should do. I thought for a moment about what I might be expected to do in return, and just when a modest retort rose in me, Russell disappeared into the bathroom.
He begged me, but I wouldn’t let him meet my mother on the reservation. I had made arrangements to meet her at the Manor, a safe, neutral space. We got there early, and while we waited I saw an old classmate of mine take a bleach bucket and a mop into the kitchen. He looked at me when he passed through the dining room like he didn’t know me until he did, then this quiet smile crossed his face. This was the kid who took the brunt of most everything in my class. All the teasing and the cruel innuendos. He tolerated all of it with this quietness that was a relief to me in that moment, a silent witness he was for all of us. Then he disappeared, ghost-like, into the belly of the restaurant. My mother came in shortly after that. And, she was dressed to the nines as they say, her version anyway. Hair all neat and combed back, a short suede skirt and kid boots with fringe. Her denim shirt was knotted at her waist, showing a thin mocha line of the flat stomach she was so proud of. All her charm offensive was squared at my boyfriend and he rose to meet her, kissed her hand and everything. Spitting image, he said. Only one of us was impressed.
The arrows whistled through the air and punched into Wenona’s body with an obscene thud matched only by the thunder in my ears. Arrow after arrow sliced into her naked body as she hung suspended on a scaffold built between two trees. Arrows zinged through the dawn. Her scream became an echo running away, absorbed by the celestial world. I had to witness it, a hum, a skip, a breeze spirited away by violence, by the coming of the Morning Star. Finally, she hung limp between those trees, glossy with blood blooming in whorls around her as the morning rose. I saw Wenona’s face frozen in death. A look like surprise, creased with misunderstanding, fear, regret. Kuruk walked to her with an empty quiver on his back and the bow slung over his shoulder. He pulled a long knife from his backpack. There was a voice riding the spring breeze, but I couldn’t understand it, couldn’t hear it for the blood crashing in my ears. There was trouble in the wind. I bolted to the bean field.
My son was born the year before I started graduate school, just after my boyfriend and I split up. When I say he was the love of my life, it was completely true. But there’s this thing about me, you see. I have this fatal flaw. I tried to explain it to him when I made up a stupid excuse to leave him. I could not tolerate his kindness, his devotion, and I had to destroy it. But, then I figured out I was pregnant with Lucas. I couldn’t bear to witness his willingness, his happiness, so I left before I could tell him. I learned from Wenona that the universe has a plan for all of us, and that my baby had been waiting in the heavens for that plan to reveal itself in our earthly existence. We made him her godson, his protector, his guide. And, now as Russell pulled the RV into town, I had a new feeling about her. One that I didn’t fathom but that I felt everywhere, deep in my bones. I didn’t understand it, or how it was supposed to be, or how I was supposed to act now that she was dead. All I could see was her limp, bloody body drooping between those two trees. What was left to know?
When I stepped out of the shower with Russell’s clothes on, he asked if he could braid my hair. Shit, here it is, I thought. Here’s where he propositions me, drops it casually in conversation that he wants sex of some kind. Knowing I still had to get to my son, I ticked off all the things that could be quickly done. And when I concluded what I would agree to, all he really wanted was to mess with my hair. And, he was deft with his hands, careful not to pull too hard. I could feel him twine and smooth it as he went along. Soon I had a passable French braid complete with a ribbon he just miraculously produced. My daughter has hair like yours, he said. It’s how I learned. I flipped the braid around to look at the ribbon. It was purple, a girly lavender with a unicorn pattern on it that was tied in a bow the size of my palm. And, he was proud of it, misty eyes and all. Thanks, I said. It’s pretty. I’m glad you think so, he said. I bet you’re hungry.
If you think I must have transgressed karma long ago and that it brought me to the place I am in my life, I’d have to say you’re full of shit. I learned the hard way that the world is disgustingly random most days. True, I believed it once that I had a destiny, a path, something to grasp onto or to follow. Since then, since that lonely hill in the countryside, I haven’t believed in a single, solitary thing close to karma. For me, life is a series of daily negotiations, now less complicated since Lucas is in college, and that Russell is dead, but much more lonesome. The things I hold to be true are etched on my body. I dedicated my body as a living memorial to all those things that left me on that spring morning. I have a tattoo of Wenona’s face on my left forearm, my dominant-side limb, the heart line, so I see her face move with the fluctuation of my muscles every day when I write. I have a thunderbird on my neck, and a circle with 4 medicine arrows on both of my shoulders among many other signs that cover the seen and unseen regions of my body. It is a hodgepodge, mismatched like we all were, of Native symbols I found online and that are meant to lure Wenona’s goodness back to me through the subterfuge of this hateful world. I never really connected with my mother’s side of the family, and I didn’t really identify as Winnebago, or Native, or whatever. But, Wenona was pure. Sometimes, I catch people staring at me, and occasionally I bark back something lippy. Just the other day, I was at a coffee shop writing when this tottering little kid crashed into my table. She was lucky to not have toppled the whole thing, but she reached out and touched my left arm, poked all of the tattoos she could reach. Pitty, she said in that lisping, little kid way. Pretty, I’d like to think she meant. Solace lives there, but it eludes me.
The last time I saw my mother was when Russell was dying. Some how she figured out where he was in hospice and showed up out of the blue. I sat in the chair next to the bed, reading Joy Harjo’s “3 AM” obsessively. Russell’s daughter was out in the hall talking with the doctor when I looked up and suddenly saw my mother at the foot of the bed. Time hadn’t treated her well. Her eyes were sunk deep into her skull and that flat stomach bulged from the once slim waist. Her hair was stripped with wiry grey hair and frizzy around her face. It was winter, and she wore the old buckskin coat she had forever. Her boots were the cheap, rubber kind from a discount department store back home. I don’t know how she found us or why, and I wasn’t exactly delighted about her sudden intrusion into my burgeoning grief. I was losing Russell by the hour, and I thought she had come to collect a victory, to bring me down the final rung. What’s wrong with him, she asked and gestured to Russell’s still form. It wasn’t an ungenerous movement. Small-cell carcinoma, I said. Lung cancer. Then she turned to me. Where’s the boy, she asked. He’s not a boy anymore, I said. Hasn’t been for a long time.
Lucas was tall for his age, and he completely dwarfed me by the time he was 12. Russell tried to convince me to let him play sports, but I wouldn’t allow it. He had a long, athletic build with a certain grace in his movement. I could easily imagine him running across a field or down the court in any of the towns and cities on our circuit. I didn’t allow it partially because we weren’t in any one school district long enough to gel with a team, or to give Lucas a curiosity in sports to venture to ask of his own accord. But I did resolve to keep him active. Every morning in the RV parks along our route, we ran three times around the perimeter of the parks. In the early years, he would be far behind on his gangly, knobby calf legs, but lately those long strides left me far behind. I knew other things were on the horizon. Questions about his father, about the tattoos on my body, and about the reason why I still wake up shrieking in the middle of the night. But, he was quiet, considerate. His instinct was to be patient and let the answers come whenever they naturally would. That was Wenona in his spirit doing that. Her way was to allow the universe to do its work and trust in its goodness. I see that in Lucas, and I still can’t believe it.
Russell was a crazy cat when I first met him. He was gregarious but a loner, enthusiastic but paranoid among other contradictions. On that early morning so long ago, he drove us into town to the diner where we were to meet his old college friend and his wife for breakfast. I had probably been to that diner over a hundred times in my life, but this time it was like looking at it with new eyes. In fact, I had seemingly acquired new sight since I saw Wenona die strung up out there. I’d like to think it was a bullshit detector; that I could tell when someone was trying to get one over on me. Russell spotted his friend right away when we walked in. He was older, like him, but his wife was a lot younger. The two guys fell into a long running conversation that had been renewed on online, and I was left with the wife at the other end of the table. We made small talk, but she kept looking at me in this funny way. Not judgmental, but curious somehow. She was a college professor in a different department at the university in town. I tried really hard to follow her lead in the conversation, but I couldn’t focus. I knew by the way her eyes creased that she knew something was up but was too polite to pry. Russell was on fire with his friend. It was easy to see they relished one another’s company after all this time. Needless to say, it reminded me of how Wenona and I could be after not having seen each other for a while. And, I was stuck with this wife when all I wanted to do was run out and get my son so we could blow out of this town. When breakfast was over and his friend had to go to work, he hugged me and said, be careful. Then the wife hugged me and said, be safe. I thought for a moment they knew what had happened out there but then I realized they were talking about Russell.
It’ll be exactly 18 years tomorrow since the Morning Star ceremony that Kuruk used to sacrifice Wenona. Many other Morning Star celestial configurations have appeared since then and for every one I was torn askew. I’m on my way back there, to the hill on the McGraw place, to see it one last time before I’m gone for good. I have a plan.
I’m pretty sure I mentioned that Bichon dog with the kind eyes on that first morning when I was picked up on the gravel road. Russell was obsessed with that dog. He even used it as his Facebook picture on occasion. But, the animal itself was seemingly unaware of the hubbub it caused when Russell learned that it had been suffering from a stomach tumor. This dog was so calm, so quiet and unassuming I could literally see in its eyes that it wished us to not make such a fuss, but that it would make Russell feel better about things. After I decided to stay with Russell, the dog became Lucas’s constant companion in the RV. Lou Reed was its name, and it had to be said just like that, the whole name every time you talked to it. A stubborn streak I suppose you’d call it. But, while Lucas was little, Lou Reed was a godsend. He could occupy himself with my son for those long journeys from Wisconsin to Utah. I could hear Lucas laugh at him, and Lou Reed never grew tired of him. I couldn’t have hoped for a more congenial arrangement in those moments. It sometimes felt as if things were going to be okay.
I grew used to being on the road with Russell. After awhile, there was a certain freedom in being moorless that was really appealing most days. I loved to step out of the RV after a long trip and inhale the air of the new place and tickle Lucas into oblivion to wake him up. Eventually, I became able to take in large enough draughts of open air that I could feel my insides expand, and I would be filled to the brim with freedom, peace. I fancied myself happy then. And that’s when I thought of how many dark worlds I had passed through in order to arrive at this place in my life. There were periods marked with monsters, beings that threatened to devour me and my kind. Other times I was suspended in air, stuck in space, banged against an impenetrable ceiling until I burst through into this new place. I didn’t know it then, but I had passed into the glittering world, the best iteration my life would become.
I never found out what happened to Wenona’s body after she was killed. There were some rumors that she was left in that bean field below the hill on the McGraw place, and found by a farmer who was walking the beans. I scoured the local and regional newspapers, but nothing was mentioned about the death of any young woman, much less a young Lakota woman. By then, Russell and I were well on the road to Wisconsin, going to Milwaukee to settle his father’s estate. I remember being completely destroyed by the fact Wenona’s death went unnoticed. I obsessed about it for a long time, and then I decided that when the time was right, I’d go back. It came just a few short weeks after Russell died. When I stepped foot back on that hill, I could feel that trouble in the wind again, the one that haunted me my whole life. I had learned “She had Some Horses” to recite on that hilltop. The wind picked up when I got there, and the trees between which she had been suspended swayed violently. I could suddenly feel the terror of that morning crash in me. I could smell sweat and dirt from the bean field again. My voice was nearly ripped away by the swirling winds. The terror of her death renewed itself in me with vigor. I suddenly doubted what I was doing. Could she even hear me? For so long I felt a prisoner of this place, and Wenona, too was trapped. But after I finished the poem, the wind died down, slowed to a gentle breeze that lapped my hair away from my face. I always thought it was by chance that Kuruk never found me. Go, a small voice said; it was carried on the winds of spring. You’re free.
The Glittering World
short fiction by Shannon McMahon
I was just falling asleep when my phone lit up like a sad, lonely, hungry pinball machine. I let it go to voicemail. Later when I read the transcription of the message it said, “Hi this is Adrian…” and I wondered if Adrian was a man or a woman.
Between that and then I slept. I dreamt that I slept with a woman. Each time we slept together in the dream we each got a new tattoo. I woke up naked beneath my clothes.
It was winter and I had started to wonder. Why did I sleep so much? Sleeping exhausted me.
I called Adrian back. By that I mean I pushed the underlined highlighted ten-digit number in the transcript of his or her message which I hadn’t listened to yet. I knew from the number it was a call from a local rehab center. Not knowing was killing me: suicide by procrastination.
“Hello?” a voice answered.
“Hello, Adrian(?)” I replied with a muffled yet hopeful confidence simultaneously signifying and belying the inflected parenthetical question mark.
“No, I’m sorry, Adrian has left for the day. Can I take a message?”
“No, that’s ok,” I said and went back to sleep reminding myself to program Adrian’s number into my phone when I woke up. Whenever that might be. I turned off my phone to avoid the temptation and sleep undisturbed.
At first drinking is difficult. Then easy. Then difficult. And your mind craves easy but can’t abide easy and keeps generating new myths and narratives to make things difficult. If things were easy, too easy, then the real you might show up. And there would be all that to deal with. So, you take the easy way but easy is is never as easy as easy does. Is it? It’s an entropic circuit that never quite closes. You get further and further away from yourself but never closer to the goal which is always beyond your reach if not your sight. So, you quit before running out of energy, if you can, because in the end, it just gets to be too much work. It’s a lie. And once you tell one lie then you must tell ten others.
Still, it’s easier to spot a lie than to tell the truth. That’s why drunks are good bullshitters. In their own minds. The catch being: you have to discern the lies from the truth, the non-truth from a version of the truth. And being sober, to me, is just trying to form, develop and nurture a fractal of truth, a little glimmer on the horizon, a heaven, a haven.
But we’re always interested in payment, in penance for services rendered. Such nights are payment. They’re the gold-backed paper passing through hands, degrading a little more with each tactile interaction, each fold, each bend in the corner and notch along the top edge.
I met Chasko up at the Pepper Pot. I’d gone in there for the hot roast beef sandwiches and cokes and next thing I knew was beating my old high school gym teacher in Liar’s Poker. Then we were out in his Toyota Tacoma burning one. I’d made a habit of going into old bars to “test my faith”. That’s why I was waiting on the call from Adrian. That’s why I hadn’t called him back.
Chasko kept calling me Mike, my older brother’s name. After the second time correcting I gave up. When he put his gnarled hand on my thigh I said Hasta la vista, baby and drew back my right hand as if to hit him. My father had told me about guys like Chasko. He called them queers but kind of matter-of-factly. Said they hang around up the road and sometimes, most times, you can’t tell them from normal guys until they put a move on you, pass you a note on a bar napkin offering you to suck your dick. It takes all kinds my dad would say but he just didn’t go for that. Plain and simple. And I drew back my right hand as if to hit the old man. But didn’t. Felt too sorry for him. He flinched like Oswald getting shot by Ruby. Only thing sadder than an old queen looking for love is an old man looking for sex. I took the roach with me. What was he going to do? Call the cops?
Went back in the Pepper Pot. Had to find another seat. Let them talk. I know what happened. Ordered another few roast beefs and a ginger ale. Let them talk. I know what happens.
flash fiction by M. A. Banash
They loved one another to the grave
but, with hymn-books for mouths, never once said it,
a modesty of equals and never a concern.
So silent, their landscape now but for some roses
and a watering can, and pruning shears
to prevent those blossoms from growing wild.
Their names were an old song
though they never once sang it –
“Ave Maria” was good enough for both.
Besides, in that famous tune, Frankie
finds Johnny with another woman and she shoots her man dead.
Like the roses, their passions were pruned for survival.
They’re buried here, beneath my feet,
six feet of God’s good earth
weighing on their silent throats.
Frank and Johnny
poetry by John Grey
The Wax Faces of 562 Southbound
Would today be worse than the grocery cart incident?
A loud metallic “smack”—like two pieces of rebar banging together—echoed through our car as we sped through the hundred-mile-per-hour straightaway. The emergency brakes squealed our train to a halt. Someone said we hit the metal grocery cart resting alongside the tracks. It looked perfectly intact, however, not mangled as I expected.
“We will be delayed until further notice due to the incident with the trespasser,” a conductor said over the intercom. ‘Incident with the trespasser’ was usually conductor code for ‘train suicide.’ Those words were also code for us regulars to make our way to the cafe car. It could be three hours for the coroner to fight through traffic, do his job, clean up, and send us back down the rails.
As I walked to the cafe car, I overheard the conductors talking about what happened. The metallic smacking sound was our collision with an older woman who had strolled to the middle of the tracks and sat down facing our train.
Would today be worse than the lawn chair incident?
We rounded a slow curve, felt a few bumps, and came to a stop. “ . . . the incident with the trespasser,” broadcasted as I removed my earbuds.
I headed to the cafe car for a jalapeño cheeseburger. While walking the aisle, I saw out the window an empty lawn chair positioned by bushes near the tracks. A water bottle and open book waited for their keeper to return.
The passenger in front of me looked down as she traversed the flexible gangway connection between cars. She screamed as she crossed, and I, instinctively, looked down through a gap in the accordion folds of the connection as I crossed. The woman who had sat in the lawn chair moments before was now cut in half, looking up with hollow eyes on a wax face.
Would today be worse than last Friday?
Today is September 15, 2008, the workday morning after twenty-five lives were taken, over one-hundred other passengers were maimed, and a twisted mass of steel, fire, and smoke ground to a stop in the Chatsworth district of Los Angeles. The engineer of the passenger train, busily texting, failed to yield to the red right-of-way signal. The train—which happened to be on our route down the line—collided head-on with a freight train.
The Chatsworth screams and visions of the severed body and shiny shopping cart faded from my mind as the air brakes on our approaching train hissed. All of us regulars stared at each other on the platform in an uncomfortable silence. We were just trying to get to jobs to make our livings, not contemplate our last days living.
The train doors slid open. We glanced at each other with pale wax faces as we took small steps forward.
Would today be just another ride on the train, or would we be the next Chatsworth?
“562 southbound. All aboard.”
creative non-fiction by Michael Carter
M. A. Banash
Matt was born and raised in PA and has lived in the Carolinas for the past twenty years. He writes poetry and short fiction. His work has appeared in Penumbra, Poetry Quarterly, and SurVision.
Michael Carter is an attorney who spent five years commuting over 140 miles a day on the trains in Southern California. He no longer braves the rails, which has allowed him more time to write, fly fish, and see his family. He’s online at michaelcarter.ink and @mcmichaelcarter.
John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. Recently published in Examined Life Journal, Studio One and Columbia Review with work upcoming in Leading Edge, Poetry East and Midwest Quarterly.
Shannon McMahon has an M.A. in Creative Writing and a PhD in American Literature. She has lived in France, Italy, and Morocco but has also spent many years living in her home state of Nebraska where she currently resides. She is greatly inspired by her ex-patriot experience as well as by the small town and the people with whom she grew up. Shannon is currently at work on her first novel.
Fabrice Poussin teaches French and English at Shorter University. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in Kestrel, Symposium, The Chimes, and dozens of other magazines. His photography has been published in The Front Porch Review, the San Pedro River Review, Crack the Spine and more than 300 other publications.
Ken’s collections of short fiction, “Constant Animals” and “Avenging Cartography”, and his latest collections of speculative poetry, “Victims of a Failed Civics” and “The Book of Robot”, can be obtained from Barking Moose Press. He serves as bewildering eye-candy at his wife’s power lifting affairs, where she continues to set world raw powerlifting records. His poetry lately has been sunning in Analog, Asimov’s, Poet Lore; and his fiction has yowled in Spank the Carp, Red Truck, Café Irreal. www.kpoyner.com.
Born in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Konstantin studies British & American Literature and Creative Writing at The University of Kent in Canterbury, England. He has been published by The Claremont Review, Four Ties Lit Review, AOM, and has won the ZO Magazine Silver Prize for Poetry, and is currently a Review Assistant for Newfound.
Tom Richard Santos
Tom Richard Santos is a graduate of the Creative Writing program at the University of Houston. Formerly of Gulf Coast and Glass Mountain Literary Journals, he is currently on staff for both the Cine Las Americas and the Austin Film Festival. He currently resides with his wife Jennifer in Austin, where he is also a professional sommelier, pouring rotten grape juice whenever he isn’t writing stuff down. Occasionally, he also drinks and reads.
Ernest Gordon Taulbee
Ernest Gordon Taulbee’s fiction has appeared in Litbreak, Door is a Jar, Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, Fried Chicken and Coffee, and others. He has had poetry published as well. He holds an MA in English from Eastern Kentucky University and lives in Louisville, KY with his family. He is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ernestgordontaulbee.
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