May 14, 2018| ISSUE no 236
crack the spine
Redfern Jon Barrett
short fiction by Alan Swyer
"I know you and Mom have had some differences," Ornstein's father said over the phone on a Thursday evening in mid-October. "But I think you should come."
"Please tell me why."
"To patch things up before she goes."
"Why so sure her days are numbered?"
"The shape she's in. The reports from the doctors."
"Without you getting upset, can I ask one question?"
"When do I get upset?" Milt Ornstein replied testily.
"If you insist."
"Is Mom still angry at loads of friends and family members?"
"What difference does that make?"
"Some of whom are still alive?"
"Matt, this makes no sense."
"Dad, a simple yes or no."
"Then she's not dying so fast."
"How can you possibly say that?"
"She wouldn't give 'em the satisfaction."
With less zeal than someone facing an elective lobotomy, Ornstein boarded a flight to Florida with the hope of getting some work done, or at least some badly needed sleep. Instead he found himself thinking about how, for quite some time, his girlfriend had been convinced that he was making things up, or at least exaggerating, when he spoke of his childhood.
Chloe, who grew up in a patrician household where little was said, and voices rarely raised, had trouble believing that Ornstein's mother had, on numerous occasions, referred to the ob-gyn who delivered her son as "The sadist who ruined my life."
Nor could she fully accept descriptions of white-knuckled dinners where anticipation of Mrs. Ornstein's nightly eruption became so excruciating that Matt flung butter at his sister simply to end the suspense.
Even though Chloe had been present during phone conversations where if Matt said "hot," his mother would counter "cold," and if he uttered "day," the response would be "cold," it was difficult for her to comprehend that two family members could have such difficulty not just remaining civil, but simply coexisting.
It wasn't until she and Matt took a trip to New York, before the Ornsteins' move from New Jersey to Florida, that Chloe got to see the family dynamics first-hand. With the hope that a breakfast would be shorter and less charged than a long lunch or an even longer dinner, a rendezvous was arranged at Goodman's Deli in Berkeley Heights.
To Chloe's dismay, even before introductions were made, Flo Ornstein's greeting to her son was classic. "You're not eating enough!" Mrs. Ornstein exclaimed. "And how many times have I told you to stand up straight?"
Tensions continued to mount as a waitress arrived to take everyone's order. "You two first," said Ornstein to his parents.
"What's the matter, you can't decide?" his mother barked.
"I'm trying to be polite."
"For once in his life. Okay, give me a half grapefruit, then lox, eggs, and onions with rye bread toast. And my husband will have cheese blintzes."
"Who says I want cheese blintzes?" asked Milt Ornstein.
"That way we can share."
"But I was hoping for whitefish on an onion bagel."
Ignoring her husband's protestation, Flo Ornstein turned to Chloe. "And you?"
"A small orange juice, please, plus poached eggs on whole wheat."
"No sturgeon?" asked Mrs. Ornstein. "Kippered salmon?"
"You don't know what you're missing."
"Somehow she'll survive," Ornstein interjected.
"Mr. Know-it-all," Flo mumbled. "How about our resident genius?"
"A piece of kugel and some green tea."
"Kugel's not a breakfast food."
"So I'll break another rule."
"Sure. Why not pizza while you're at it? Or a submarine sandwich?"
Taking a breath, Ornstein addressed the waitress. "Do you have pizza? Or subs?"
"Then kugel it is."
An awkward silence descended upon the table until the food arrived, which brought a temporary ceasefire, albeit one, Chloe later told Ornstein, that left her stomach tied in knots.
As Mrs. Ornstein finished her combination of lox, eggs, and onions and cheese blintzes, she pushed an uneaten piece of toast toward her son. "Finish it," she commanded.
"Eat it so it won't go to waste."
"I don't want your toast."
"Matthew, eat the goddamn toast!"
Surprising everyone, including herself, Chloe pushed the plate with the cold toast back toward Mrs. Ornstein. "He doesn't want the toast."
At a rare loss for words, Flo Ornstein stared at Chloe, then thrust the plate toward her husband. "Milton, eat the toast."
To Chloe's dismay, Mr. Ornstein did exactly as ordered.
Seated with Ornstein on a Manhattan-bound train a short while later, Chloe shook her head. "Are a lot of families like that?" she asked. "Or are you the lucky one?"
"What's the difference between a pitbull and a Jewish mother?"
"I give up."
"Eventually a pitbull lets go."
"Ouch!" said Chloe.
"And why don't Jewish mothers drink?"
"It interferes with their suffering. What it comes down to is that all humor is based on a man in trouble. Ever hear the one about the Jewish kid who announces to his mother that he's got a part in the school play?"
"Instantly she asks, Which part do you have? The Jewish husband, he says. Go back and tell the teacher you want a speaking part!"
"Matthew, eat the goddamn toast! It's either crawl up into a ball, or find a way to turn it into Ha-ha!"
"So you're saying it's all Jewish families."
"Most, to one degree or another. And mine's to the nth degree."
"But there is one upside."
"Where do you think I learned to distrust all forms of authority?"
Stiff from his journey on an airline coach seat too small for anyone but a jockey or a small child, Ornstein got a rental car, then fought his way through Miami traffic while headed to Delray Beach. Once there, after passing what seemed like an endless series of look-alike retirement communities, he finally reached his parents' condo, where he was stunned by his father's haggard countenance.
"Your Mom's sleeping," Milt Ornstein whispered at the door.
"Forget her for a moment. Are you okay?"
When the only response was a shrug, Ornstein gently pulled his father outside, closing the door behind him. "You getting any sleep?" he asked.
"And is help coming every day?"
Seeing his father wince, Ornstein persisted. "Dad, yes or no?"
"Your mother doesn't feel comfortable with strangers."
"So everything's on you?"
"It's not so bad."
"Which is why you're so happy and healthy? You look like a cadaver."
"Now I'll tell one. This can't go on."
"Matthew, please don't start."
"When was the last time you got out of the house?"
"I went to the market yesterday."
"But for a walk? A swim? To kibbitz with a friend?"
"It's not important."
"Yeah, and neither is breathing."
"Let's go inside," said Milt nervously. "I don't want your mother to wake up and be worried."
A little over an hour later, Flo Ornstein's voice was heard. "Milton!" she yelled, her decibel level lower than in the past but still capable of shattering fine crystal.
Ornstein waited as his father went down the hall, only to return several minutes later. "You can go in now," Mr. Ornstein said.
Girding himself, Ornstein stepped into his parents' bedroom, where an oxygen tank stood beside the bed.
"What took you so long?" asked Flo Ornstein.
"Nice to see you, too."
"What's the matter, you don't like the other one?"
"The other what?"
"Isn't that a shirt I sent you for your birthday?"
"I thought you'd be happy to see me wearing it?"
"But why not the blue one?"
Ornstein shook his head. "Never change, do you?"
"Why should I? And why can't you stand up straight?"
Instead of playing tit for tat, Ornstein forced a smile. "Because I'm incorrigible."
"You're telling me?"
"So how long are you staying?"
"To be determined."
"Why not longer?"
"How can you say that when you don't know how long it'll be?"
"Because I know you." Flo Ornstein started to titter at her own joke, but it quickly turned into coughing and wheezing.
Into the room dashed Mr. Ornstein, who waved his son out, then kneeled beside the bed.
That evening, while Flo Ornstein dozed again, father and son sat in the kitchen, munching on corned beef, cole slaw, and pickles from a local deli.
"So what's worse," Ornstein started to ask after a sip of cream soda, "the emphysema or the problems caused by the medications?"
"It's a toss-up."
"If only Mom hadn't smoked."
Milt Ornstein frowned. "Your mother never smoked."
"Never smoked? When I was growing up, she smelled like an ashtray."
"Please tell me you're kidding."
"You never saw your mother with a cigarette."
"And the earth is flat. And god's really a sea monster. How about when she would drive Gary and me with the windows rolled down in the middle of winter so you wouldn't pick up the cigarette smell?"
"Your brother never said anything."
"Because Mom threatened to kill us if we squealed."
"You're making this up."
"Right, I flew 3,000 miles to make stuff up."
Milt Ornstein sighed, then took a bite of his sandwich. "Your mother is happy you're here," he said while still chewing.
"What's wrong with that?"
"Not wrong. Nonexistent."
"Your Mom's always been a happy person."
"And I'm LeBron James. About a year before Gary's car crash, he called me one night."
"To ask if I'd ever seen Mom happy."
"I couldn't think of a single, solitary moment."
"And neither could he."
"I don't believe you."
"But at 6 in the morning Gary called and woke me with a memory."
"Long after I was gone, Mom started having lunch with what she called the girls."
"Gary said that one day, after a second – or maybe a third – Fuzzy Navel, Mom came home all giddy and girlish."
"And being a good wife of her generation, she put dinner in a pressure cooker, then crawled into bed for a little nappy."
"So what's wrong with that?"
"The little nappy-poo went on too long."
"When you got home, the top of the pressure cooker was embedded in the ceiling, with pot roast, carrots, and potatoes everywhere."
Guiltily, Milt Ornstein smiled. "Guess who went out for Chinese food that night."
"Dad, I'm worried about you."
"It's not your problem."
"But it could be."
"What's that mean?"
"If something happens to you, who's next in line to tend to Mom?"
At 10:45 the following morning, when calls of "Milt!" and "Milton!" came from the master bedroom, Milt Ornstein sprang to his feet, only to be intercepted by his son. "This one's me," Ornstein said.
"Promise me –"
Seeing who was entering the master bedroom, Mrs. Ornstein grimaced. "You're not your father."
"You've got a keen eye for detail," Ornstein replied, closing the door behind him. "We need to talk."
"Why won't you let people come in to help?"
"I don't like strangers."
"Well guess what. After a couple of days, some nice woman won't be a stranger."
"I'm happier this way."
"Except this way can't last."
"What's that mean?"
"I sent Dad out to the store while you were napping."
"While he was gone, I called his cardiologist."
"Who says that if Dad doesn't cut down on stress, get daily exercise, and some more rest –"
"Who's stopping him?"
"Who do you think? If he keeps on being nurse, cook, and cleaning lady, and he'll be gone in no time."
"That's not fair."
"Life's not fair."
"If your brother were alive, he wouldn't speak to me like this."
"Well first, Gary's not alive."
"You won't like what I say."
"Nothing new about that."
"You snipped his you-know-whats the same way you did Dad's. Like it or not, I'm trying to help both you and Dad."
"Matthew, shut up!"
Ornstein studied his mother for a long moment, then turned and left the room.
Milt Ornstein watched his son emerge from the master bedroom, then grab his suitcase. "What're you doing?" he asked.
"Heading back to LA."
"Mom just told me to shut up."
"In case something happens, I want to remember her in character."
As days turned to weeks, then weeks to months, Ornstein made an effort to monitor the situation in Florida, calling at least twice a week and making sure there was no backsliding on medical and household help. While his relationship with his mother remained testy at best, even on what passed for good days, a pleasant surprise was an ever-growing camaraderie that began to develop between him and his father.
Getting out of the condo to walk, swim, and even occasionally play poker with some other retirees resulted in Milt Ornstein talking about other things than his wife's health, especially when she happened to be napping or asleep for the night.
That led to chats the likes of which the two men had never before shared – conversations not just about the weather or a ballgame on TV, but also about politics, Gary's death, and even life itself.
Buoyed by the evolving relationship, Ornstein talked about making a return to Florida sometime after the holidays, which he had reluctantly agreed to spend with Chloe and her family at a resort in the Dominican Republic.
That sojourn, however, came to an abrupt halt when, on Christmas Eve morning, while he and Chloe were eating breakfast before heading off to snorkel in the Caribbean, Ornstein received a text that felt like a punch to the gut: Mother fading, come quick.
Forced to beg, plead, and ultimately bribe his way onto a flight from Punta Cana to San Juan, then another from San Juan to Miami, Ornstein arrived in Florida only to discover that there were zero rental cars left.
Grabbing the only vehicle available – a ten-seater van – Ornstein fought his way through beastly holiday traffic until, frazzled, he arrived at Delray Medical Center.
Aware that time was of the essence, he raced into the hospital, took the elevator to the appropriate floor, then sprinted to his mother's room, where he found his father sitting alone, with his head in his hands, beside an empty bed.
As Ornstein explained to Chloe by phone that evening, he had reached his destination ten minutes too late.
"So no chance for a final reconciliation?" Chloe asked.
"Or even for one last fight," replied Ornstein. "But I've got to give her credit."
"Instead of Why do Jewish mothers make such great parole officers? Because they never let anyone finish a sentence, or Why do Jewish divorces cost so much? They're worth it, my mother finally hit the jackpot."
"Isn't putting me through hell so to arrive ten minutes late the ultimate Jewish joke?"
"I guess. So it seems you've got a choice of either crawling into a ball –""Or going Ha-ha!" said Ornstein with a painful laugh.
Lakshmi laughs like a seagull, daw lips sugared with pink cotton candy.
“Just look at poor Seo-yun, look how terrified fi is!”
“I told you, it’s not fi, it’s they.” Already Seo-yun is dizzy with vertigo, squinting at the sun-glittered ferris wheel. “Just call me they.”
“Fi’s always been terrified of heights, ever since fi was little.” Becca never misses an opportunity to gloat over how long hu’s known Seo-yun. The intent isn’t lost on Lakshmi: di stares out to sea, sullenly piling fluffy clouds into daw mouth.
“I said don’t call me fi,” Seo-yun insists. “Imagine if we based our pronouns on something else, something other than race. What if we addressed people differently just because of their sexuality, or their religion, or even their gender? How would that sound?”
Becca doesn’t respond. Lakshmi picks at daw snack. Nothing passes between the three as they hand over tokens, as they wait. Nothing but the soft smacking of spun sugar and the distant crackle of waves. It’s isn’t until they’re seated that Becca speaks; as they’re rising through the air. Seo-yun’s palms sweat with fear, clasped firm against the rail.
“So you’re really sticking with this they thing?” Becca sneers. “Like you’re not even Asian, like you’re not anything?”
The taunt is twofold: hu holds both hands in the air as Seo-yun’s knuckles whiten.
“Oh, leave fin be,” Lakshmi intervenes, before correcting dawself. “Leave them be.”
“I’m just asking a question!” Becca insists, jaw clenched with indignance, hands still held aloft. “Seo-yun’s the one saying it’s wrong for me to use hu, like it makes me some sort of racist. I’ve used it all my life. It’s what I want to be called.”
Still the wheel turns, still the car rises: now the whole promenade is visible. An endless parade of graying hotels stare forlornly out to sea. Seo-yun holds firm; tries not to glance down.
“You can use what you like. But I started using they and I prefer it.”
Becca snorts in derision. Lakshmi is listening. Seo-yun continues.
“Of all things shouldn’t we be able to choose what people call us? Isn’t that a basic mark of respect? I’m not going to start calling Lakshmi they, I’ll call daw di as long as she likes. And Becca, as far as I’m concerned you’ll always be the biggest hu-bitch I know. This is just for me. Am I really hurting anyone?”
The question hangs; the city spreads below. Seo-yun’s grasp tightens as the capsule creaks and rocks, stomach lurching with each sway.
“Whatever. So long as I don’t have to use it for myself,” Becca declares, hay hands finally lowered. “So fine, you’re they. Happy now?”
“They’re just a big old ray of sunshine,” Lakshmi teases, leaning over to wrap an arm around Seo-yun. The sudden shift swings the car—Seo-yun cries out as Lakshmi drops the cotton candy. The three watch the fluffy pink cloud as it’s carried away by the breeze, as it glides above the silver sea.
flash fiction by Redfern Jon Barrett
poetry by Cheyenne Avila
It’s past midnight, and I’m trying to convince myself to masturbate
under the guise of “self-love” or “anxiety-release”, but,
the act is more habitual and shameful than it is pleasuring, and,
I’m just tired
and wish I had someone else to do it for me. So,
I lie flat on my back and adjust my bonnet around my ears and
place the ghost of a man’s head between my thighs and
conjure the song I want him to sing into me and
I clutch the crystals on my chest because
I can feel the spirits pulsing in the room and
the song I’m making up doesn’t have lyrics but
it’s a nice melody that I can’t remember until
I need to hum another orgasm out of myself, and
now, I imagine the earth of my chest crumbling into
the hands of an exhaling nebula, and
I remember that I read somewhere that brujeria
is about entering an interaction with the living universe, and
this belief stems from the Aztecs, so,
maybe touching myself is a form of resistance or
is a testament to legacy or
maybe I am a brown woman learning to be alone.
To fall into the reserves of myself and
rely on my own strength to keep me upright,
to tilt my face towards the sun,
to smile at nothing and everything,
to frown at white men who stare at my legs for too long,
to frown at brown men who stare at my hair for too long,
to stop frowning at myself.
Or, maybe masturbation is forgiveness.
Is me wanting myself for the first time,
owning my body for the first time and
watching my body listen to me,
seeing my body crumbling into my own hands and
I am limitless,
lying on my back and feeling my body beneath me,
just a casing for my spirit,
and my spirit,
taking up the space of this entire room,
touching the particles of light and dissolving,
over and over
until I have mastered this movement,
until I have sated the hunger,
relinquished the burning, and
commanded me back to myself.
Brujeria and Bonnets: A Brown Girl’s Guide to Decolonization and Self-Actualization
The saddest satisfaction of being loved makes waves rolling over some sensitive hearts.
Stones shaped and glittering around dancing waters would brighten up the thoughts of brigit’s head.
Instead she chose a warm bed made of reflections she couldn’t afford to spend.
Spend pence…s, chances to get rid of overflows and flows drifting through her body and makes her shaken.
Shaking like the first time she ever kissed.
She lost energy on battles she didn’t win, on ways who didn’t sing.
She fold the corner of her eyes, looked so tired and had the feeling that something’s changing.
She could let go but she didn’t.
She could fight an other time but she didn’t.
She just sat, lightning up her head with the beauty of mother nature and danced around some windy leaves to forget.
To forget about the past, the present and the future.
She danced and she danced, danced and danced and ate some lookalike chocolat toffees.
micro fiction by Gilles Ansiaux
“Miss Teen USA? Hmm. Sure. What does one cite in a recommendation letter for a Miss Teen USA candidate?”
“It is a pageant however it’s also about academic aptitude. That’s why I need recommendations from my high school teachers. The pageant administrator told me that I scored higher on the academic testing than any candidate ever had,” I replied to Mr. Cohan, my Spanish teacher.
“Why don’t you meet me on the corner after dark, near the pizzeria, and we can discuss it. Let’s say around 6pm,” he said looking down at the Spanish exams on his desk.
“Ah, OK.” I had to stay after school anyway for “Sing” rehearsal, though I did think he would just agree right there and then like Mr. Nelson, my English teacher, did. Perhaps I should have asked Miss Mar instead of Mr. Cohan, I thought.
All during “Sing” rehearsal, I kept thinking I hope he agrees to write the letter so I could finish the application. The whole thing was so fraught. My father had warned, “A Jewish girl is never going to win. You’re just setting yourself up for failure.”
“But, Dad, Bess Myerson won Miss America in 1945 and she’s Jewish. I really want that scholarship money.”
“Myerson’s win is an anomaly,” Dad said. “No Jewish New York teen is going to win in a pageant held in the heart of Texas.”
During WWII, other U. S. Air Force men had harassed for being Jewish. “Where are your horns?” one soldier remarked, someone who had never seen a Jew before. Dad told me the rabid anti-Semitism forced him to challenge many a fellow airman.
“You can go to Queens College, down the block. You don’t need that scholarship money—your state merit scholarship would cover the cost of a city college,” Dad said.
About to leave my mother for good, Dad had one foot out the door of our home and wasn’t about to fork up whatever money was needed to buy the pageant dresses and other stuff. Besides, if I were to attend the local college, I would live at home with my mother, making him feel freer, I surmised. My exemplary test scores and dance talent routine had my mother convinced I had a shot at the title. Mom gathered every dime she had ever saved; she said, “Just don’t tell Daddy until we’re there. OK, my girl?”
Leaning on a small, green car, smoking a cigarette, Mr. Cohan was waiting on the corner.
“Hi, Mr. Cohan.”
He nodded a hello back and put out his cigarette. “Get in. Let’s take a ride. And then I’ll drive you home.”
I never had been inside such a small car; I only had seen a VW Beetle in LIFE magazine ads. I felt too closed in— though the scent of cigarettes, after shave and old coffee cups was kind of grossly intoxicating. My father smoked but our car never smelled and neither did Daddy. Mr. Cohan shut the passenger side door.
Driving and clutching the gearshift, he spoke, “So tell me about this pageant. Why do you want to do it? I didn’t think smart girls entered beauty pageants. And, oh yeah, if this is Miss Teen USA, does that mean you’re already Miss Teen New York?”
“I am Miss New York Teen USA, 1970; yes. I need the scholarship money. First prize is $5,000. I want to attend a private university—the one my friends are applying to—and my parents only can afford public college. I want to be a painter.”
“You are very beautiful,” he said clearing his throat. “OK. Sure, I’ll write the letter for you. And since you need money, I’ll set up an interview for you with a friend of mine who is an attorney. He probably could use a smart, attractive young woman as a receptionist during the summer. Interested?”
“Thank you very much, Mr. Cohan. I appreciate your help. Do you think you could drop me off on the boulevard, please? I have to get back home. My mother is going to worry about me.”
“Let’s just drive a bit longer. I want to hear more about you so I can write the letter.”
He drove for what seemed like an awfully long time. Finally, he stopped at a light. “I’ll just get out here,” I said, flinging the car door open as he reached for me.
“Today we’re going to conjugate verbs. Conjugating verbs involves changing a verb form…” he walked past my desk and slipped a piece of paper on the desk along with the graded exam. “Meet me. Same place, same time.”
Bile seemed to fill my throat.
“Can someone tell me the different meanings of the verb, querer?”
Mr. Cohan called on Peter.
“Yes, Pedro. Very good. You are correct—it means both ‘to want’ and ‘to love’,” said Mr. Cohan, who had assigned a Spanish name to each of us in the class.
Though he had always called on me in the past, Mr. Cohan avoided looking at me during the entire class and never called on me again, which was fine because I detested my assigned name, “Rosita.”
I was unprepared for 6pm.
There he was again, leaning on his Beetle. As I approached, he dropped his cigarette to the pavement and put it out with his scuffed loafer. “Hop in—I’ll take you for ice cream.”
“I am hoping you’ll write the letter,” I said, hesitating to get into his car. My body stiffened.
Why did you get into that car you stupid girl? Why didn’t you ask Miss Mar instead?
He touched my hand, directing me into the car, “Feel like ice cream or talking somewhere private?”
I did like Mr. Cohan. He was intense, kind of handsome, and not really old, not as old as my parents at least. Maybe that’s why I asked him; I knew he favored me. Maybe it was all my fault.
I didn’t have my driver’s license yet so I didn’t know where he was heading, taking all those back streets. Next thing I know we were parked in back of the Par Central Motor Inn. “Wait here, in the car. I’ll be right back,” he said. “They have good ice cream here.”
“But…but…” He didn’t hear me.
He returned in a few minutes with Good Humor ice cream pops and a room key. Why did I go into that room?
June rolled around. Everyone was signing yearbooks. He wrote in mine:
Te quiero mas.
Te quiero mas que mi vida.
¿Qué más quieres?
¿Qué más? ”*
Lucy, my old bandmate from high school, friends me on Facebook. In the school band, she had been second clarinet; I was third clarinet, though I barely deserved that distinction. Lucy’s hair always was meticulously teased up high on her head with a tiny bow adorning the part between her bangs and big hair. Using her clarinet mouthpiece, she had shown me how to give a blow job during one band class. I always found her experience exciting. Lucy also was my classmate in Spanish and Hygiene classes. During Hygiene classes, she’d always ask the most daring questions just to rile our ultra-conservative teacher, who we referred to as Miss Cobwebs. Using Facebook Messenger, we catch up on our respective lives. Husbands. Children. Work. Hobbies. We both have only daughters.
“What’s your number? I want to hear your voice—for old times’ sake,” Lucy says and then calls a few seconds later.
“Hey Lucy, are you in touch with any of our teachers from high school?” Are any on Facebook? Any alive? I wonder. It’s been forty years and I had never attended any H.S. reunions. “I often think fondly of Mr. Garo and his baton, even though he didn’t let me try out for the sax or drums. ‘Boys only for those instruments, Missy,’ he’d said,” I imitate his deep voice.
“Didn’t you just hate Miss Cobwebs? What a prude!” Lucy says. Her voice still sounds like honey to me, but suddenly, the blood rushes from my head as it does from time to time when I flash back. Curious how that same dizzying physical response often precedes that repeated feeling of dread. With the flood of daily stories in the news, I have to work really hard to push down the surges.
“Do you know whatever happened to our Spanish teacher?” I ask though I can’t even bring myself to utter his name.
“Funny—I went to visit my Aunt Gertie, my mother’s older sister who is in a nursing home on Long Island, and I see this man who looks familiar to me. So, I walk over to him, you know me, and look closer. I look right into his face. And it’s him—it’s Mr. Cohan!”
“Did you talk to him?” I ask, as my stomach hollows.
“Of course, I did. I said to him, ‘Hey, Mr. Cohan. Remember me? It’s me, Lucy, I mean, Lucia, from Spanish class at John Brown High?’”
“Did he remember you?”
“Well, I do look different. No more bows in my hair,” she giggles. “But I kind of think he did. He didn’t say anything, just smiled,” Lucy says.
“Where’s the nursing home?”
“It’s in Long Beach—Belle Air Retirement. Ha! Not really a retirement home—more like a ‘waiting until death’ home. They’re all kind of out of it, there, if you know what I mean,” Lucy says.
“That is a coincidence, about your Aunt and all. I really enjoyed catching up. Take care, Lucy.” I wonder if she could hear my tone change.
That last bit of conversation took my day and put it in the shitter. Now all I can think of is what I should have done differently. “You can call me, ‘Moe,’” he had said that early evening. “I will definitely introduce you to my friend, Isadore, the Wall St. attorney. Wait until he gets a load of you!”
I head to the kitchen to look for a Dramamine.
When I had gone for the interview at the Wall Street office, everyone was matter of fact. “Let’s hear how you would answer the phone?” “Can you take a message?”
Paula, their receptionist, was going away for a month-long vacation so they needed a temp. “You come highly recommended by Mr. Levy’s friend,” Paula said. She winked at me. “Everyone here is nice enough considering it’s Wall Street.” Paula laughed, and then continued in a whisper, “Except for Mr. Gray, the senior partner, and Mr. Levy.”
“Here’s $3.” Paula took money from an envelope marked “petty cash.” “When you start tomorrow morning, stop off and buy a corn muffin and light and sweet coffee for Mr. Levy. Believe me that’s the only ‘light and sweet’ thing about him,” Paula said.
I knocked on his door. “Good morning, Mr. Levy. Here’s your breakfast,” I said. It was 8am and he was working already. He didn’t look up. No response.
I answered phones. In between calls, I hadn’t been assigned any tasks so I was reading, The Feminine Mystique, my new bible.
“Where’s Paula?” I heard someone ask. I looked up from my book and it was Mr. Levy, who towered over my desk.
“Paula is on vacation,” I replied.
“Oh, right. You’re the girl Moe sent? How old are you?” he didn’t really expect a reply, I figured from his facial expression.
“I was placed into the academically gifted programs and skipped two grades, just like Carole King, so I will graduate high school at sixteen…”
He cut me off, “I hope you have working papers.”
I started to reply but Mr. Levy spoke again, “Did Moe tell you anything about me?”
“Just that you’re his friend, an attorney, and needed a receptionist for the summer. I’m earning money for college.”
“There are opportunities here to earn extra money,” he said. “I’ll be back in an hour.”
The first day wasn’t so bad though I had to take messages for five of the six partners in the law firm. The senior partner, Mr. Gray, had a private receptionist slash personal assistant. All of the partners were bald and stuffed into their pin-striped suits, except for Mr. Levy, who was slim with slicked-back, black, wavy hair. They treated me as if I were an answering machine—there but not there. The partners were polite and robotic. Some asked for small favors, such as going downstairs to the neighborhood shops to buy coffee or pick up their dry cleaning. Some would tip me. “This is for the extra trouble,” one would say. “Here’s five bucks, kid.” Errands were a chance to earn extra money and get out of the beige office space. All through the day, I hoped for tips, and silently would recite a couple of lines from an English folk rhyme I had recalled from grammar school,
“I knock at the knocker, I ring the little bell.
Please give me, then, a penny, for singing this so well.”
It seemed Mr. Levy only expected his breakfast and messages.
During the first week, I had time gotten a lot of reading done and managed to sneak in a phone call to my mother. Two weeks. Then three flew by. I read most of the freshman year reading list for the university I hoped to attend. The Bluest Eye. Islands in the Stream. Portnoy’s Complaint.
“Take six dollars from petty cash for tomorrow and buy yourself breakfast, too,” Mr. Levy said as he walked in and past my desk.
“OK. Thank you.” I sure could use the three bucks.
Four o’clock rolled around quickly. “Before you leave, stop into my office,” Mr. Levy said to me.
“I am entertaining two clients from Korea. Do you have any friends who would want to meet them?” he asked.
My eyes popped, “No. I don’t believe I do.”
“How about you accompany me, then? There’s twenty-five dollars in it for you.”
“Excuse me? Twenty-five dollars to accompany you and your clients to dinner?” I asked.
“Yes. Exactly. My wife is away and I need arm candy to impress them.”
I had never heard that expression before.
He took his wallet out of his suit pocket. “Here’s $100. Go buy a new dress, shoes, have your hair done, and meet me back here at 7pm,” Mr. Levy said, even though I hadn’t even responded affirmatively.
At 7pm, I had to sign into the building. “Meeting Mr. Levy,” I wrote in the log.
He took my elbow. “Let’s go. We’re meeting them at a Korean restaurant a couple of blocks away.” I hurried in my new heels.
The next day was as usual. “Here’s your muffin and coffee, Mr. Levy.” No response. By four o’clock, I put down The Second Sex. Looking down, I began to sort the pink paper messages, get rid of the blank ones I doodled on, and tidy the reception area. I laughed to myself, When I’m a famous artist those doodles might be worth something.
“Why do you read that feminist trash?” Mr. Levy asked standing over my desk.
“I’m a feminist,” I said.
“Really. I said. I’m a liberated woman—I can do whatever men can do. I’m going to study at a great university and be an artist like Georgia O’Keefe,” I replied. Little did I know I got feminism kind of screwed up back then.
“Meet me tonight at the same restaurant, Miss Liberated,” he said. “In 30 minutes for happy hour.”
“Ah, I don’t drink. I told you that last night.”
“That’s OK. Arm candy, remember?”
We sat at the restaurant bar waiting for his clients. “So, it has come to my attention that this is your last week at our office,” he said, as he held up his glass for a toast. “Good luck to you,” he toasted.
“Thanks. I appreciate the job, Mr. Levy,” I said.
“Now that you won’t be working for us anymore, call me ‘Isadore’,” he said and ordered another drink. I had never met someone who drank so much liquor. My father had an occasional scotch when company came over. “You’ve been great—smarter with clients than Paula, our regular girl. For that, I’m going to confer a bonus.” He pulled hundred dollar bills out of his wallet. I had never seen a one hundred-dollar bill before. “Here’s $400—one hundred for every week you worked for the firm. And I’ll need your assistance one more night. Tomorrow night. OK?”
“Gee, thanks for the bonus. Tomorrow is my last day. Uh, OK, I guess. Another clients’ dinner with Mr. Park and Mr. Kim? They are formidable…”
He cut me off, “Just meet me at the St. Regis bar at 7pm. Wear the same dress you wore last night.”
Not sure how someone who is so school smart could be so stupid otherwise. Would fate be so kind to me as to put Levy in the same nursing home as Cohan?
I get off the Long Island Railroad and hail a taxi. On the road, I think of my conversation earlier in the week with Lucy who asked, “Hey, wait…did you ever go to Texas? Did you win Miss Teen USA?”
“I didn’t go to Texas so I had to forfeit my Miss New York Teen title to the runner up. Long story, Lucy, better told over a glass of wine. Let’s just say I’m a survivor.”
I enter the nursing home. “Hello, I’m here to see Moe Cohan. I’m his niece,” I say to the Belle Air Retirement home receptionist, whose silver nameplate reads, “Dolores.”
“Oh, how lovely. He rarely gets visitors. He’ll be so happy to see you. He’s having dinner right now. After your uncle has had his chocolate cake, I can arrange for you to have a visit. He sure loves his chocolate cake—he waits for that all day,” the receptionist tells me.
“Can I just peak into the dining room, Dolores?”
“Well, I don’t see why not,” Dolores replies. “Right over there, hon.”
I walk in. No one stops me. I look around to see if I can spot him.
There he is.
I push back retching.
Before I leave, I ask the receptionist, “Dolores, will you be on duty tomorrow night?”
“My night off and boy do I need it!” she says. “This place can wear out your soul.”
As Dolores turns her back, I scurry out.
The next evening, I return to the Belle Air Retirement Home. Lucky for me it is indeed Dolores’ night off. “Hello, I’m here to see Moe Cohan’s health attendant. His niece was here yesterday—you can check with Dolores. I’m the dietitian his niece engaged,” I say to Kamila, the Belle Air Retirement home receptionist.
“Sure. I’ll call Mr. Cohan’s attendant. Your name, please?”
“Ms. Rosita,” I reply.
Mr. Cohan’s Belle Air Retirement home attendant appears. Pink uniform, plump rosy cheeks with hair pinned back, she looks like someone out of a Botero painting. “Hello. I’m Ms. Rosita, the dietician Moe Cohan’s niece engaged,” I say to her. “Do you arrange his meals and snacks?” I ask her.
“Yes, indeedy! I do. Nice to meet ya.”
“Thank you, Charlene. May I call you Charlene? Yes, nice to meet you, too. Ah, so, Mr. Cohan’s niece is concerned about his diabetes. And I’m sure you don’t want to rush his demise or have him loose a leg because he’s having too much sugar.”
“Oh, goodness me, no. I didn’t see that info on his chart,” Charlene replies with her mouth now taking on a sour shape.
“His niece says he’s a smooth talker—he probably convinced the admitting attendant to omit that information. You know how some diabetics minimize the adverse effects of sugar on their condition. But, Charlene, I’m here to tell you he may not have any desserts, especially chocolate cake.”
Charlene looks at her wristwatch. “Oh, my!” she says. Abruptly, she turns and heads towards the dining hall. I follow. I stop as she rushes to a nearby table. Looking in, I see him, Mr. Cohan with fork in hand. I watch as Charlene takes away his dessert.
“I want you.
I want you more.
I love you more than my life.
What more do you want?
Disclaimer: The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this work are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, motels, and nursing homes is intended or should be inferred.
short fiction by Robin Landa
And anyway, she had never seen that neon light, the one that should (supposedly) shine over the love of your life or the boss of your dream job’s head. Actually, Ambra doubted that she would ever see it. But, she thought as she walked rapidly along the gravelled path of Green Park, she thought she might be just feeling the typical anxiety that twenty-somethings feel when they realise they haven’t found their place in the world yet.
Some of her friends had seen that stupid neon light. One of them was getting married – she had showed a huge ring to Ambra just a few days earlier, and Ambra had wondered whether she herself would warm up to, sooner or later, the idea of being with the same person for the rest of her life. Probably not.
And then there was the one who had stated, right in the middle of a night at the pub, when Ambra was just expecting some casual gossip on the length of each other’s boyfriend’s penises, that she wanted to be a project manager of contemporary art exhibitions. That series of terms so dangerously specific had made Ambra feel inadequate, especially when she said that she just wanted to be a painter. Painter of what, exactly? And where? And why? First of all, someone who wanted to be a painter should shut the fuck up and spend an hour and a half on the tube (and ten minutes walking through Green Park) to get to the art studio, then squeeze a month’s rent worth of tempera onto a palette. She would wait for the artist that she was assisting to show up at some point, usually barking orders and high on amphetamines.
She crossed the thicket of trees, trying to ignore the thunderous honks of London and the already whitish and scrawny asphodels under the icy sun. It was an ill-looking sun, the colour of ash, absolutely unfit to give her a sign. A light. Sometimes, in movies, it happened: the protagonist would see a star, or less poetically, a phosphorescent green arrow pointing at a person or a place that could make your life maybe not perfect, but at least happier.
The only neon she knew, instead, was the one she saw on trains that slithered through the pitch-black tunnels of the tube, transporting her from a shitty house to a shitty job and vice versa.
Her dark handbag was dangling along her hip and pounding against her left knee with every step, as if to constantly repeat that she was walking in the wrong direction. The meadow was lazily scattered with white- and green-striped beach chairs. An old sign told the price: three pounds to sit on a chair for one hour.
He was sitting on one of them, not that far from her. He was a middle-age man, and a child was laying on the grass right beside him, tossing handfuls of soil and leaves on himself. Next to them, Ambra saw a half-open dark suitcase, from which the sleeve of a light blue shirt dangled over the grass.
Ambra looked into the man’s eyes. The child was crying an annoying lullaby, but the man did not listen, his elbows placed tiredly on his knees and his chest leaning forward. She stared at him and felt his gaze crawling down her breasts to her legs, following the course of her handbag’s strap.
Something told her that the man had never seen the neon light either.
Or maybe he had, but the sign had pointed in the wrong direction.
flash fiction by Rachele Salvinia
(After Borges and Heighton)
The peddler in his worn suit going door-to-door selling pears and sometimes cinnamon.
The woman in the wet snow night, cradling an old man’s heavy head, in the window
on the sea path.
Millennials in wooly toques sculpting inukshuks and planting random city flowers.
The monk in orange robes across the black bay, radiating love quiet as sunrise.
Jean Vanier who understood we are all broken and this is where we must begin.
Orpheus in the underground, climbing the dank steps, leading Eurydice
from mortal dark – his grief forever caught, like bone dust, in the tropospheric stream.
The Fayum artist heating beeswax and Nile fed pigment, stroking shadow beneath
the brow, the beseeching eyes last, reaching us through centuries.
Chaplin, Christo, Pina Bausch and other senseless practitioners of beauty.
Those who forgive the violent, use their grief to liberate from tooth and stone.
Those who cannot bear the details of torture.
Marlene with shorn hair in the late summer petrichor, leaving me a kintsuki bowl, bound by veins of resin and gold.
These too are saving the world.
These Too Are Saving the World
poetry by Ken Massicotte
Joe’s got this bat now, lives between the screen and the glass in the barn window, rolled up snug like a body in a sleeping bag. Some days he’ll tap the glass and it’ll wake up, with its pug-nose and yellow eyes, and it’ll start freaking out and flapping around—stuck—and one of the guys will laugh ‘cause that bat’s a dumb fuck for choosing to live here of all the places. We agree it should go somewhere else, like Brooklyn. Or Europe. Portland, Maine.
We all hang in the barn’s loft: me and Dennis and Joe. We play Rummy 500 and drink beer that’s too thick and tastes like metal. The barn’s got a table with cigarette burns, and couches with cigarette burns, a katana sword somebody lodged in the wall but never took out, broken skateboards duct-taped to the ceiling, piles of crumpled receipts and McDonald’s cups. There’s a World War II model bomb filled with sand and a hole in the wall you can piss out of and a loveseat that’s covered in bat shit.
We won’t sit on that loveseat; it stays here, cushions ripped and covered in pellets.
Dennis says we’re gonna get rabies from the couch, but Joe shakes his head. He’s taking a woodlands class at a community college, and he can tell the difference between a red oak and a red maple or something. He’s like, guano’s gotta lotta nutrients in it, probably good stuff too, like Vitamin C, or cancer-fighting agents.
Dennis is like, why don’t you eat it?
Six years ago, Joe moved everything up to the loft, stuff from the Goodwill or relatives, or furniture people had sex on then gave away, with too many bad memories we never found out about. One of his buddies showed him how to hoist it all up, the same method he used to lift Joe’s mattress onto the roof when we were eleven, using a long, flat board and a rope. When Joe’s mom got home that day, the mattress with the Spongebob sheets on top of her house, she didn’t call the cops, just asked calm and quiet why he still hangs out with the kid who mixed cat litter in a bowl of ice cream and fed it to him.
A lot more people used to hang in the barn, before the bat came, before the years between college and high school graduation dissolved like snow on a tongue. They moved to new towns and states, or got pregnant and married, or joined mission’s trips to Kenya and didn’t come back. So it’s just us now. The bat. The old red barn with the crumbling foundation.
Bat guano is really good to use as fertilizer, we could sell it. Gather it all up in a big plastic bag and go door-to-door like ladies selling expensive lipstick. Split the profits. But this might be made up since the guano couch is floral fabric and mostly rotting. Fading beige. Wilting petals. Looks like it came out of some dead grandma’s house, like her kids just wanted it gone and it ended up here.
Every now and then Joe talks about starting a punk band and moving to the city. He’s got a guitar and a weird haircut and a strong brow-bone so he thinks he can swing it. Anyways, he can play Wonderwall, and knows all the words to every song off Nevermind. And Dennis got a new job at a fancy art cinema, the type of place where people pay fifteen bucks to watch unattractive-in-the-right-way actors do weird things with porcelain dolls or fruit, filmed on an old camera with a shaky hand. He thinks he’ll make enough to get an apartment he doesn’t have to share with his mom. Says we can visit him when he goes.
And maybe we’ll all go; the bat’ll hibernate in the winter, bury its head in the earth or collect tons of bugs, or whatever bats do when the cold sets in and there’s nothing left but icicles hanging from the trees like mucus. The furniture, the katana sword, the skateboards, the piles and piles of cigarette butts scrubbed clean. And the barn, still and unchanging, will disappear, as swift and sudden as a jar pushed from a table, shattering when it hits the ground.
creative non-fiction by Kathryn Fitzpatrick
Born in the flemish side of Belgium, Gilles Ansiaux studied theatre. During a training in contemporary dance he read out loud a self written texte about movement in front of the audience and found himself extremely free. Since then as an addiction he write to reach this freedom again.
Cheyenne Avila is an Afromexicana competitive Slam Poet from Bellflower, California. She has had a nonfiction essay published by the University of La Verne’s Prism Review. Her writing centers around experience, identity, race, womanhood, and spirituality.
Redfern Jon Barrett
Redfern Jon Barrett is a writer and activist with a Literature Ph.D. from the University of Wales. They are author to novels “Forget Yourself” and “The Giddy Death of the Gays & The Strange Demise of Straights” (finalist for New York’s Bisexual Book Awards). Their short fiction has been shortlisted for Scotland’s HISSAC prize and exhibited at the National Museum of Denmark. Redfern’s nonfiction writing has been published in Guernica, Pinknews, and Strange Horizons. They have also worked as a reader for Guernica and PEN America, whilst their polyamorous campaign work and personal life have been referenced throughout British and international media. Read more at redjon.com.
Kathryn Fitzpatrick is a student at Central Connecticut State University and a prose reader for the Adroit Journal. Her work has been previously published in Out Magazine, as well as in several undergraduate publications, and is forthcoming in Fjords Review and the collection “Flash (non) Fiction Funny” (Woodhall Press, 2018) edited by Dinty Moore and Tom Hazuka. She is the recipient of the 2013 Connecticut Young Writer’s Trust Prize, and lives in Thomaston, CT.
Carlos Franco-Ruiz graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Miami in 2011. In 2013, he moved to Uruguay where he was recently part of a group exhibition “Colecciones Privadas” at the Museo Mazzoni. Currently living in Sauce, Uruguay.
Robin holds the title of Distinguished Professor at Kean University and she is the author of 23 published nonfiction books, a short story, and children’s book. Robin has won numerous awards for design, writing and research, including awards from the National Society of Arts and Letters and the National League of Pen Women. She received the 2015 Human Rights Educator award, 2013 Kean Teacher of the Year, and the Carnegie Foundation lists Robin among the great teachers of our time.
Ken Massicotte is from Vancouver Island but currently lives in Berlin. He has published in several journals, including: River Poets Journal; Turk’s Head Review; Glass: A Journal of Poetry; Wilderness House Literary Review; Gray Sparrow; Every Day Poems; Poetry Quarterly and (upcoming) Ginosko.
Rachele Salvini is a 24-year-old Italian student of Creative Writing. She is working on her PhD at Oklahoma State University, where she is an instructor and assistant editor of Cimarron Review. She writes both in English and Italian, and her fiction in English has been published on Takahe Magazine, The Machinery Magazine and others.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.
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