May 29, 2018| ISSUE no 237
crack the spine
Jamie Beth Cohen
Iris N. Schwartz
Man With a Hoe
short fiction by Kathleen Latham
We argue in an art museum while lesbians in bad suits and hipsters who take themselves too seriously nod at the exhibits around us. They murmur appreciatively, and I feel duped because I don’t get it. Like I’ve been left out of a joke.
“Tim,” my girlfriend says between clenched teeth, “can you at least pretend to try?”
We’re standing in the middle of a white-washed room staring at a blob of brown papier-mâché in the shape of a giant turd. As usual, I’m not exactly sure what she’s referring to—the turd or our relationship. “I am trying,” I shoot back, which is true either way.
She turns and looks at me with a single raised eyebrow. Four weeks’ worth of conflict in the flick of a muscle.
“What?” I say. “You don’t think I’m trying?”
She sighs—one of her heavy, laden sighs—then turns and heads for the next room. I leave the turd behind and follow sullenly. We pass a light bulb on a block of wood. A mesh basket filled with jock straps. A reading lamp wearing a wig and slippers.
The day is not going like I planned.
We come to a stop beside three Asian girls wearing Hello Kitty backpacks and skull-embossed stockings. They’re studying something that looks suspiciously like cat vomit on a fake putting green. None of them speak, but they seem impressed. I am obviously missing the point.
“I thought you liked art,” my girlfriend says.
“Art involves paint.”
She does the one eyebrow thing again. “Is this about San Francisco? Because I thought we agreed to let that go.”
“This has nothing to do with that,” I say, which is probably a lie. “This is about being pretentious.”
The Asian girls side-step away like nervous cattle sensing a storm.
I point at the title of the cat vomit piece printed neatly in the center of a plain, white card: Nadir. I try to raise one eyebrow.
“You don’t think that’s pretentious?”
“It’s meant to be contextual.”
“Contextual? As in, his cat threw up on his putting green? Then call it that. Call it Cat Vomit on the Back Nine.”
“That doesn’t even— “
“Calling it Nadir is pretentious. Everything in here is pretentious.” I wave my arms a bit too belligerently. “It’s all just stuff pretending to be something it’s not.”
“That’s what art does.”
“No,” I stammer, “no, not always. What about portraits? Or a still life? What about the hundreds of years where artists didn’t try to make their work more interesting by giving it titles. They let the art speak for itself: Girl with Red Hat. Man with a Hoe—”
“Well, technically those are descriptors— “
“If Man with a Hoe was called Exploitation of the Masses would that make it better art?”
“What if it was called Disillusionment?”
My girlfriend shakes her head in that annoying way she has, like she understands something I don’t. An elderly man in a fly-fishing hat shuffles between us, oblivious to our argument. “You’re being ridiculous,” she says over his head.
The old man smiles at her stupidly. For a moment, I’m distracted by his hat. Who wears a fly-fishing hat to an art museum?
“Besides,” she continues, oblivious to the minnow-shaped lure swimming beneath her nose, “it’s conceptual. You see that, right? The idea matters more than the execution.”
I open my mouth to reply, but I’ve already lost the thread of the argument. The fly-fishing hat has derailed me.
My girlfriend pats me on the arm. “Let’s just agree to disagree,” she says. She’s been doing this a lot since San Francisco. Patting me on the arm. Agreeing to disagree. It bugs the shit out of me, because I know it’s code for, I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Still, she takes my hand and gives it what I’m sure is meant to be an affectionate squeeze.
We leave the cat vomit behind and follow the crowd through the next room past a series of canvases each adorned with a single geometric shape. Blue triangle. Orange circle. Yellow square. We stand and study them obediently.
“Don’t say it,” she whispers.
“Don’t say what?”
“That you could have painted these.”
“I could have painted these.”
A gray-haired docent in the corner smirks up at the ceiling as if she’s part of the conversation.
“A three-year-old could have painted these,” I say louder.
The docent ignores me. Everyone ignores me. They all stare at the shapes as though it never occurred to them to paint a triangle blue, a circle orange. Behind us, two middle-aged men in skinny jeans and high tops murmur something about their perceptual givens being challenged.
Lambs! I want to yell. Lemmings! But then I can’t think of any more mindless follower types, so I shuffle along with everyone else.
“I still think we should have gone to The Getty,” I say for the tenth time that day.
“Of course, you do.”
I’m about to ask what’s wrong with The Getty, but just then we pass the docent, who nods in our direction and says something that sounds like “Now she choose” or “No issues,” neither of which makes any sense, but it makes my girlfriend snort.
“What?” I ask, but she’s already pulled open a side door marked MIXED MEDIA INSTALLATION and disappeared into the next room. A brief bubble of sound swells out behind her, then the door sucks shut, and I’m left alone with the preschool shapes, the judgy docent, and the lemmings. After a brief hesitation, I yank the door open and follow.
It is dark in the new room. And way too warm. A movie plays on a rotating, double-sided screen. A shadowy figure in a hood is yelling in a deep baritone at a shirtless man. “SAY YOU LOVE ME!”
The camera zooms in on the shirtless man’s armpit. He whimpers. The screen rotates. The camera locks on the mouth of the hood. “SAY YOU LOVE ME!” the lips command again, but this time it’s a different voice. Female and flirtatious.
That’s it. That’s all that’s in the room. The rotating screen. The whimpering man. The voice from the hood, which is different every time. Old woman. Little boy. Teenage girl. The volume is on full blast.
“SAY YOU LOVE ME!” cackles a witch.
“SAY YOU LOVE ME!” drones a robot.
My girlfriend watches this for a long time. Long enough that I feel like she’s trying to tell me something.
On screen, the bare-chested man cowers and whimpers. After a while, his pathetic mews burrow their way into my head, nestling there with unwanted thoughts of San Francisco and unanswered calls and my girlfriend’s bare skin on someone else’s sheets. A bead of sweat slides down my back.
“SAY YOU LOVE ME!” rasps a really bad Liam Neeson.
I’ve had enough. I cross the room to a second exit. On my way out, I pass a security guard leaning against the wall. He gives me a sympathetic shrug as if we’re compadres—both of us beleaguered and weaponless. The reflection of the film flickers on the sheen of his face like a strobe light. I give him a nod back, and as I pass, I notice he is wearing earplugs.
It is only after the door closes behind me and I am alone in the hallway that this registers.
Earplugs. To block out the sound.
I actually hold my breath for a second, certain that I have stumbled upon something significant. Earplugs. Art museum. That horrible whimpering. I begin to pace—chasing the link, fleshing it out—because suddenly it feels very, very important that I get this right. That I figure out a way to articulate what I’m thinking. So I pace and I ponder, until I’ve got it, until I’m ready, until my girlfriend emerges and I offer it to her: a small, slim point of connection.
She has no idea what I’m talking about.
“He was wearing earplugs,” I repeat, louder than necessary because it’s the first time all day I feel like I’ve gotten something right. “The security guard. Like he has to protect himself from the art he’s protecting. I mean, we’re all paying to hear what’s in that room, and he’s getting paid to not hear it. That’s saying something, right? Like, art kills. Or, the joke’s on us. The emperor has no clothes. It’s ironic, right?” I bounce up and down on my heels, waiting to see what she says. For her face to light up. For her to find me brilliant.
She chews her lip for a few seconds before she says, “Earplugs or earbuds?”
I stop bouncing. “What?”
“Plugs or buds?”
“What difference— “
“If it was an earbud, it was probably like a headset or something, so he could talk to the other security guards.”
“He’s not guarding the damn President!”
She shrugs, then digs in her purse and pulls out a museum map. “Let’s eat.”
She flips the map over. Traces a path with her finger. “I’m starving,” she says, heading for the stairs.
“Hang on,” I say, though I know she won’t turn around. I consider staying where I am and forcing the issue, but she’s already halfway down the grand staircase. I follow, deflated.
My sneakers squeak on the marble steps, an incongruous sound that makes me think of basketball and last second changes in direction. I wonder for a minute how it came to this. How it is that I always seem to be one step behind.
Up ahead, my girlfriend hesitates beside a dresser without drawers, a pile of candy wrappers, and a creepy-ass puppet all tucked in an alcove. I pass her without slowing.
We eat in the atrium café where chatter from the other tables echoes off the courtyard walls and artsy phrases break over us like the jarring screech of birds: Cacophony of confluence! Vaudeville of violence!
I try. I really do.
I sip my overpriced iced tea and listen to her make the old Execution-Is-What-Makes-It-Art argument, and I force myself to consider all the artists struggling in their basement studios. The ones laboring over papier-mâché feces or squares of paint chips glued to a chair or bleeding road signs—taking themselves seriously, because they are serious—expecting to be understood and noticed and appreciated. Expecting to be exalted. For that chair to go on that pedestal. For that road sign to gets its own white room and bare floor, its spotlight and a line of visitors. Who decides? I wonder. Yes, to the giant turd. No, to the simulated wasp nest with hairbrushes sticking out of it. Who says, this is good, this is crap? If art is in the eye of the beholder, how do you escape subjectivity?
I say all this, of course. Which is obviously a mistake. I pick at my arugula salad topped with gorgonzola and candied pears and say it all as if I’m contributing. As if I fail to notice that I am guilty of the very thing I am criticizing. I see the irony, but I can’t stop. It is, I realize, very much like the endless reflections in the mirror-on-mirror piece we saw earlier in the day, the only exhibit I actually liked besides the security guard. Art is a perpetual argument, and I don’t know the rules.
I conclude with this statement. Another pearl of wisdom offered up for my girlfriend’s approval.
She looks away across the museum courtyard, her eyes shielded by sunglasses, and manages an unreadable nod. I can’t tell if she’s impressed by my tirade or merely bored.
I’m about to bring up the security guard again—how I still think he’s secretly part of the exhibit and why that makes more sense to me than a dresser with no drawers or a basket full of jock straps—when she says, “I wish you’d let San Francisco go.”
There’s a long silence after this.
I know she’s waiting for me to say something, but the truth is, I don’t want to talk about San Francisco. Or letting go. I don’t want to talk about what’s happening at all. So instead I say, “Why did she say, ‘Now she choose?’”
My girlfriend frowns, two tiny perpendicular lines of confusion appearing over the bridge of her nose. “Who?”
“The docent. In the room with the preschool shapes. As we walked by, it sounded like she said, ‘Now she choose.’”
She stares at me for a few seconds while she processes this, those tiny puckered lines deepening, then she throws her head back suddenly and laughs.
The laughter surprises me. It rises above our heads like coins thrown to the sky, bright and full of promise. An older couple with a stack of art books between them frowns at us from the next table.
“Your shoes,” my girlfriend laughs.
I want to laugh with her, but I am back where I started. In the room with the lesbians and hipsters. My fork is suddenly heavy in my hand. I want to put it down and touch her. Reach across the table, brush her lips with my thumb, and make her stop. But she is still laughing.
“Noisy shoes,” she says.
I stare at her blankly, which makes her laugh harder.
“Your shoes squeak,” she manages.
And just like that, I understand the conversation is over.
It doesn’t matter that I have more to say. That I was about to tell her that if something looks like a pile of trash or a giant turd, maybe that’s all it is. That I don’t really buy the argument that just because someone bothered to make it, it’s art, any more than I buy the idea that labeling something makes it true. Or good. Or worth preserving.
We should know.
But she is still laughing and the snobs at the next table are still glaring, so I smile, as if I’m in on the joke.
I imagine what we look like. A man in squeaky shoes. A woman with hidden eyes, laughing. I am suddenly exhausted.
Nadir, I think, naming the scene. Disillusionment.
We’re in Florence for nine days and my mother is showing me all the places she remembers from thirty years ago when she studied here for a semester. She points out the pensione where she lived with the other exchange students and the famous institute where they all learned Italian and spent some time analyzing The Leopard. She tries to tell me about the novel’s timeless themes of moral decay and class hypocrisy, but I’ve never read the book, so I have to take her word for it.
We stroll around in the dazzling spring sunshine. My mother babbles and raves about the Duomo and Brunelleschi; throws stones in the muddy Arno. In front of the Uffizi, she smiles sadly at various peddlers -- though the museum itself is closed due to a strike. She haggles with a vendor on the Ponte Vecchio over a bulky leather purse, as he waves his hands in the air and glares at her with a blazing scorn.
At sunset we climb a steep hill across the river and look out over the splendid terracotta city. She talks to me in a tone that is both wistful and exasperating, like a character delivering a eulogy on a soap opera. She tells me about the other students she knew back then, one who went to Hollywood after getting back to the States, but got pulled into the porn industry, and another who became an eco-terrorist and tried to blow up a Japanese whaling ship, and one of them, my father, who used to take her to movies at the English-speaking cinema and afterwards to a shop near Santa Croce for scoops of gelato. Her stories feel embellished and sanitized at the same time. Maybe she sees them as cautionary tales.
My mother asked me to come with her to Italy because I’d quit my job at the hotel and broken off my engagement, so I was reeling and a little unmoored. She must have figured these events would result in a perfect storm of capitulation. A distant relative had passed away and left her a bit of money. That’s how she could afford the trip. But I would have come anyway. I didn’t want her traveling alone, not with my father’s marriage looming next month, to a woman who’d lived next door to us for years and been my mother’s close friend, a woman who used to walk into our house without knocking and bought us all Christmas gifts -- a betrayal that might have been going on for over a decade. My mother won’t tell me how she feels about any of this and I won’t tell her what really happened at my job or why I ended things with Hank. In this way we are even -- and it somehow makes it easier than usual for us to be in each other’s company.
We stand on the hill admiring the view some more.
“It’s so lovely here,” I tell her.
“Yes,” my mother says. “So it is.”
flash fiction by Bill Gaythwaite
poetry by Josef Krebs
Advancing into the past
I last longer than I last lasted
Treading slowly on unfirm footage
Despite the light
Shining darkness on all who wait
In the early hours
The thoughts that emerge irreligious
Unwelcome but obviously belonging despite
Or to spite
As the jungle moves closer
The air thicker
The dust settling
The room moving
Noises interpreted to suit the mood
As the clambake comes to a close
On some forgotten beach
Where all is well with the world
But far far away
And a long time gone
Advancing Into the Past
My sentences scamper in, attach themselves to your hat.
You spin around. “Return my thoughts,” I want to say, as they’re dark characters now, written on your jacket back.
Away from me, will my nouns become nonentities?
Shall I tremble, reading aloud from my third collection of tales? (I’ve yet to write the second.)
Might my books bellow “best sellers” — only after I die?
You stroll away; manuscript ribbons celebrate my literary demise, trail you like toilet tissue on soles of boots.
micro fiction by Iris N. Schwartz
Words With You
“I don’t know,” he said to his cellmate Mucious whom everyone called Mucus.
“Don’t know what?” he asked back.
“When did he get here?” asked Quill.
“Who, Smock?” asked Mucus. “I don’t know. He came in on Tuesday. With the other mooks, I guess.”
“Yeah, why you keep asking me about him?”
“I don’t know. I know him.”
“So what’s he doing here?” asked Quill.
“What’s he doing here? He broke the fucking law, that’s what he’s doing here.”
“What the fuck’s with you?”
“I know him.”
“So what’s he doing here? I mean here?”
“I just don’t get your fucking drift,” said Mucus.
“You’d think they wouldn’t allow it,” said Quill.
“What are you talking about?”
“Unless they planned it,” said Quill.
“I mean, the Department of Corrections.”
“Planned what?” Mucus asked again.
She wasn’t that good-looking but she wore sexy belts that made Quill want to do her. He did do her, he kept on doing her for months and then he went inside for a year or so for auto theft. Then he ran into her about two years after his release, and he started doing her again. She was still wearing those great belts. But she had changed. She could be nasty, not hot nasty but mean nasty. The kid didn’t like him much and he was nasty too. Quill didn’t say much to either of them but he was getting tired of it and figured he’d just go away. But one night he really wanted to do her. Her pussy had gotten under his skin. He really liked it, more even than before he went to jail. So he went over when the kid wasn’t there and he did her again. The kid was twenty or so by now, so he wasn’t there a lot. The kid didn’t like him and he didn’t like the kid.
“You make too much noise when you whack off,” Mucus told him.
“What’s it to you?”
“You grunt and keep me awake.”
“Shit, I’m not even that horny.”
“You could have fooled me,” Mucus told him.
“More nervous than horny,” said Quill.
“What are you nervous about?”
“What’s he doing here?”
“You on that again?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s eating you?” asked Mucus.
“Maybe they planned it,” said Quill.
“Who planned it? Planned what?”
“Maybe they wanna shiv me.”
“Because I’ll be out maybe in seven.”
“What the fuck do they care?” asked Mucus. “Besides, who’s they?”
“They care. That’s for fucking sure.”
“Who’s gonna shiv you?”
Quill slept over that Saturday and went out on Sunday and came back after midnight Sunday. She was lying in bed in that bathrobe that he liked that always smelt like talcum. Her legs were wide open and he stood there at the foot of the bed taking in a deep breath like he was absorbing the odor of her cunt. Lackadaisical, she murmured that he was a pig. He told her that she loved it. She said the hell she did. He wanted to know why she did it with him if she didn’t. She didn’t answer. But she got a look in her eyes that really bothered him. Her whole face was ugly to him. He was resentful, having treated her good enough all along. He was scared too as if there was something about him that disgusted her from his head to his toes. He asked her again why she did it with him. She didn’t answer that time either. He got into bed beside her and she started playing with his cock even though the disgusted look was still in her eyes and all over her face. Quill never felt this bad before and when he got a hard-on, it was like it was somebody else’s dick. After he came in her hand, he reached over and smacked her. She started to rant at him and he put his hand over her mouth to shut her up and stop the torture he felt just to look at her. He pressed hard and she stopped moving because she was dead.
“Funny, nobody tries to do him,” said Quill.
“What’s funny about it?” asked Mucus.
“I don’t know,” said Quill. “But he’s a good-looking guy. Tight ass. Why aren’t they all over him?”
“You’re right about that. I think maybe he has a look in his eye that scares guys off.”
“Why do you think that is?” Quill asked him.
“Why do you think?” asked Mucus.
“I don’t know.”
“He’s very confident in the way he looks and behaves,” offered Mucus.
“Maybe that’s because they planned it. And he knows they planned it.”
“Planned what?” asked Mucus, weary.
As soon as he saw she was dead, he bolted into the street and through the small downtown and toward the suburbs with placarded names like Town & Country. The kid would finger him, he knew Quill’s name and where just outside town he lived. Her room was no doubt drenched with evidence, cum stains and sweat as well as fingerprints. He couldn’t dream up an alibi, except to say they had a fight and she was alive when he left. And then it occurred to him that there might not be any evidence of his killing her because he had just put a hand on her face, there was no fight and no marks from strangulation or anything like that. After the cops picked him up and he was arraigned, he knew they knew he did it but he saw that they were just as concerned as he hoped about the physical evidence or lack of it tying him to any actual assault. And he lucked out too because his PD was a Jewish guy who wasn’t a part of the usual Baptist crowd and who would someday jump at the first chance he got to get the hell out of North Carolina and go make money someplace else. It was probably what he was planning ever since he got out of Wake Forest. He’d love to give these rednecks a hard time as a going-away present.
“Smock had a mother, you know.”
“Good for him,” said Mucus.
“So maybe they planned it, them and Smock.”
“Maybe they want to shiv me,” said Quill.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, I get it…you mean, that was Smock’s mother you wasted?”
“So what are you saying?”
“They planned it.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, you mean they’re planning to let Smock shiv you?”
“What do you think?” asked Quill.
“What do you think?” asked Mucus in return. “You think Smock did the crime just to get here, and the Department of Corrections obliged him by putting him in here with you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Fucking people, man, if that’s what they did,” said Mucus. “Why don’t you shiv him first?”
There are fourteen dormitories in the prison, with around fifty inmates in each one, close to maximum capacity. Nine of the fourteen are mainly black, the others white with Hispanics split between the two sectors. Armed guard towers (no armed roving patrols) are arrayed on the double-fence perimeter. Every inmate has his own locker. There’s a group toilet, sinks, and common shower area. Smock doesn’t move much in his cell. He sits on his bunk and thinks. He’s polite to his cellmate, a young dealer from Greensboro. But he keeps everything, persons and places and things, as perfunctory as he can manage. Actually, he’s in something of a trance, all else expunged but one scent and one touch and one all-abiding loving recollection.
“Does he ever look at you?” asked Mucus.
“Smock, for Chrissakes! Who else would I be asking you about?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?”
“If he ever looks at me.”
“Have you ever seen him look at you?”
“I bet he looks at me,” said Quill, as if in receipt of a revelation. “I bet he has!”
“Guards ever look at you?”
“Guards look at me all the time,” said Quill.
“I mean, do they ever look at you funny?”
“Why would they do that?”
“Because you said they planned it.”
“Do they ever look at you funny?”
“I don’t know.”
She never had that much to say to her son but could still hold him close to her every day when he was a child and often enough if not as often when he got older. She had lost her virginity at a hotel at the airport in Milan. All those days at the lake she had been full of longing. Her features coarsened with the years and she had an almost slatternly look by the time she was thirty-five. She had married his father in New York a few months after he was born. Her own father was a crook of some sort, she never really understood what his deal was. She liked the way he was growing up, a sullen boy sometimes but it was hard for her to imagine anyone taking advantage of him. That reassured her. She saw his features soften when she held him in the bathrobe. The two of them moved south when her husband disappeared.
“Has he tried to get close to you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I mean it’s yes or no. Either he’s tried to get close to you or he hasn’t.”
“Maybe I didn’t see him try to get close to me,” said Quill. “But maybe he tried.”
“This whole thing’s done a number on you, pal. You’re getting a little woo-hoo.”
“If I shiv him, they’ll know it’s me.”
“They’d have to prove it,” said Mucus.
“Of course, asshole. Why do you think you’ll be out of here in seven instead of twenty?”
“What if they prove it?”
“What if the toilets overflow and everybody drowns in shit?” asked Mucus.
“I don’t know,” said Quill.
The Jew PD was as good as advertised. He told Quill they’d take a plea to a lesser charge because they knew the evidence they had wouldn’t necessarily establish that he killed her. There were no palm prints on her face, for Chrissakes. So Quill said yes he’d do the time but it stuck in his mind how pissed the cops and prosecutor were. People said they wouldn’t give a shit one way or another but they did or so it seemed. He asked the lawyer why they cared one way or another and the lawyer shrugged and asked him why he should care one way or another whether or not they cared one way or another, but he did care and it bothered him.
“Was she worth it?” asked Mucus.
“Smock’s mother,” said Mucus.
“Yeah, she had a good cunt.”
“What was so good about it?”
“The way it looked,” said Quill.
“And Smock came out of it. You came into it and Smock came out of it.”
“What do you mean?” asked Quill.
“What the hell do you think I mean?”
“I don’t know,” said Quill.
Mackeson, no relation to the stout people, was sitting in the office with Miller, no relation to the beer people, and they weren’t saying much, they had known each other a long time, and they could sometimes finish each other’s sentences on those occasions when they did say a bunch of stuff. Smock had been picked up after robbing a diner of around $300 and fleeing in his rusty blue Buick but even then it didn’t seem as if he were driving as fast as he could have. He was picked up on the Interstate and surrendered without as much as a half-batted eyelash. A month or so later Mackeson was arching his eyebrows and Miller was nodding faintly in reply. Mackeson advised Miller that the Lord sure works in mysterious ways and Miller had no reason to disagree.
“Why don’t you do something stupid and get yourself tossed in the hole?”
“Why?” asked Quill.
“Because no one’s going to kill you in the hole.”
“I hate the hole,” said Quill.
“You never been in one,” said Mucus, amused.
“What happens when I get out of the hole?”
“Do something else stupid and get thrown back in. Keep doing that until Smock is gone or dead.”
“I don’t want to be in no damn hole,” said Quill, the first time that Mucus had seen him almost tearful.
“Just a suggestion,” said Mucus, smiling quizzically and lying down on his bunk.
Smock knew exactly where he would be and when. Testing it, the sharp end cut right through the broad side of the mattress. He didn’t quite know what had happened. All his life, he had felt fear and anxiety just like any other person. But now it was as if everything inside him like that had been scooped out and an intent resolve was all there was, put there in place of the rest. He never knew until this moment how much he loved her. His cellmate was talkative this evening and Smock listened politely. He was talking about when he had started college and got into a bad car crash and then dropped out and went to Florida for a few months, and came back to make money. Smock had fucked half a dozen girls in the past but now he was pure for her. Doors had opened. Men had arched their eyebrows and nodded faintly, clearing a narrow lane ahead for his terrible virginity to pass through.
“You sorry about that guy, aren’t you?” asked Spotts, his new cellmate.
“I have no reason not to be sorry,” shrugged Mucus.
“Word has it that it was that kid Smock, but I don’t know.”
“Word has it,” said Mucus.
“But Smock is nowhere to be seen.”
“Well, they moved him out, I guess.”
“To maximum?” asked Spotts.
“I don’t know.”
“I heard he got to him real easy.”
“Maybe they planned it,” said Mucus.
“He was going to be out in seven.”
“What the fuck do they care?” asked Spotts. “And who’s they?”
“Smock had a mother,” said Mucus.
“Good for him,” said Spotts.
short fiction by Larry Smith
“Look how pretty you are.” The woman held the girl’s face in her hands, as if it were the first day of kindergarten and not the girl’s college graduation day.
It was colder than it should have been in May. The girl had purchased her graduation dress online in February during a snowstorm, when May seemed like a foreign place with tropical possibilities. It was too short and too sheer. She wrapped her commencement robe around herself and took a step backwards. The hands on her face felt too intimate.
“Mom, stop,” the boy said quietly. He knew the girl preferred a buffer of personal space.
“But look at her face,” his mother said.
The girl wished her own mother would say she was pretty. But if the woman noticed that her daughter’s face had recently elongated into something elegant, she hadn’t mentioned it.
“Shall we go to the breakfast?” The girl’s mother wasn’t talking to anyone in particular. She was touching up her lipstick in the reflection of a storefront window.
Her mother never said “shall.” The girl knew this affect meant she was nervous, worried the boy’s mother, a pediatric surgeon, would see through her seashell print dress and white cardigan. The outfit was purchased, like everything else in her life, with alimony money.
The families met move-in weekend of freshman year. Small talk was exchanged over boxed lunches in a multi-purpose room. The table tent said “New House.” The boy and girl would be among the first residents of a recently completed dorm for which the college had failed to secure a naming donation. “New House,” a placeholder on a campus map, was now the name of their new home. That was fine with the girl. She was ready for something new.
As they had unwrapped the cellophane that housed their sandwiches, they discovered they were both from California, she from the south and he from the north. They knew it was like being from two different planets but here, on the East Coast, it was enough to form a bond. She was happy they’d be in the same dorm. He thought she was pretty.
All freshman year he liked her, but she held him off. She had a boyfriend back home. Sophomore year, newly single, she liked him, but he was dating someone else. Junior year they liked each other, but they had become such good friends it was hard to know how to make the first move, so neither did. During the massive snowstorm that shut down the campus just three months earlier they slept together and had been inseparable ever since.
“What is this place?!” Her mother looked past her own reflection for the first time. The plate glass window she was using to primp was the front of IN WHITE. “Who puts a bridal salon on a college campus?!”
The girl had thought the same thing several times. It made no sense. On the first floor of the large college-owned apartment building where she lived, an upscale bridal salon was sandwiched between the pizza place and the drug store. It displayed delicate lace gowns and shimmery satin ones. Girls would drool over them on their way out for the night. The girl didn’t drool. She thought the store was a ploy, installed by boys who threw keggers where they coerced girls into sex with unspoken promises of fairytale futures.
One morning at two a.m., drunk and hungry, the girl suggested to her roommate that they throw a trash can through the window. Her roommate laughed, but the girl wasn’t joking. Her mom would like that story, which is why she hadn’t told it to her.
“It’s just a store, Mom.”
The summer after freshman year her mother supported her decision to break up with the high school golden boy. Her mother was done with men. The girl’s father had done all the things you hear about, stayed at work late, took too many business trips, dyed his hair, but it was her mother who actually left. The girl liked and disliked her mother and father equally and didn’t feel strongly about the split, though she harbored resentment towards her mother for breaking a vow. She didn’t know why she felt that way; she thought marriage was stupid, but she couldn’t help her feelings.
After she dumped the Southern Californian prom king, the girl told her mother she was interested in someone on campus.
“As long as it’s not that brown boy from orientation,” her mother said.
It stung, even though the girl was not surprised. There weren’t many Black or Brown people in the sunny suburb where she grew up, but she had seen her mom treat the gardeners like trash.
“Let’s go.” The girl led the group towards the student center where they’d first met. It was time for bagels and goodbyes.
In the multipurpose room, graduation gowns hung open and caps were strewn on side tables waiting for their moment. People did the small-talk thing, and no one paid attention to the boy and the girl looking at each other across the table.
The boy’s mother adjusted her sari and asked the girl what was next.
“Like you!” the boy’s mother said to him. “It’s nice you’ll both know someone there.”
The girl smiled thinking of the L-shaped studio she and the boy had found on the Bowery. There was a bathtub in the kitchen and a curtain around the toilet. It would be hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but they would be together in a new place.
She kept smiling when it became apparent her mother had figured it out. The girl’s smile was a dare. Her mother wouldn’t cause a scene, not in front of a room full of parents she wanted to impress.
The day they signed the lease the girl reminded the boy she didn’t believe in marriage. The boy promised her as much space as the studio would allow.
flash fiction by Jamie Beth Cohen
I found the pistol,
A .45 caliber revolver,
Wrapped in a newspaper
From the 1950s,
Stuffed deep in an
I heard it was one time
Used to clear up a
And another time used
To shoo away thugs
At the restaurant
Who were only thugs
Because of their skin.
You know rock, paper, scissors?
Well, oiled cloth beats metal
When rubbed against it
For sixty years straight,
Waiting for an
Opportunity to shine.
The Shoo Box
poetry by Jason Hackett
Donuts Autocorrected to Doubts
flash fiction by Poetry by Jason Hackett
I left a dozen doubts
On the table
In our kitchen nook.
Think about them.
Ones you want and
Leave any remaining
Doubts you have.
I will take
Them with me,
And pass them out to others,
So that they may enjoy
Them as much as we.
Anatomy of an Anorexia Memoir
Part one: writer talks about her childhood, idyllic or tormented. Perhaps this is a classic opening for memoir that does not know where to begin. But childhood does not always matter, in this context.
Part two: anorexia finds her, and the descent begins. Restricting begets madness, and the vicious wheel turns. In the books, the fall is usually slow; the narrator does not know where the story is going. She gets sick gradually. In the books, there is no slamming of a door in her brain, no definable moment when her brain says “no.”
Part three: narrator is sent for treatment. She takes pride in thwarting doctors. She goes unwillingly, always or almost always. She knows she is not sick enough for help, that she must prove—to doctors and to readers—that she is sick enough to not want to get better. The writer has forgotten, perhaps, the sensations of bottomless hunger and exhaustion; rarely will she acknowledge how desperate the narrator is to let somebody else take over.
Insert proof of illness here. Numbers. It is always numbers. Numbers meant to reassure the (healthy) reader that yes, the narrator is terribly ill, with the—unintentional, one is sure—side effect of providing a point of comparison for the (less healthy) reader.
Recover, relapse, rinse, repeat. It’s not over when it’s over. That, at least, rings true.
Part four: recovery. No details. Recovery is not sexy or dramatic (except, perhaps, in the books where the narrator has an “aha!” moment, often related to a boy—but those are usually fiction). Neither is gaining, and maintaining, weight. In the books, this is the part of the story that does not matter and can be skimmed over. In the books, it is dying that is interesting, not surviving.
End. The narrator recovers fully, abruptly, by the end of the book. Even if her voice (and her numbers; proof of recovery is sometimes further proof of illness) says “struggle,” her words say “cured.” Literature likes a happy ending.
creative non-fiction by Tamzin Mitchell
Jamie Beth Cohen
Jamie Beth Cohen is a writer, storyteller and community organizer who works in higher education. She is a co-founder of Write Now Lancaster (PA) and has published non-fiction with TeenVogue, The Washington Post, Salon, and others. She writes about difficult things, but her friends think she’s funny.
Bill Gaythwaite is on the staff of the Committee on Asia and the Middle East at Columbia University. His short stories have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Grist, Alligator Juniper, Superstition Review, The Lindenwood Review, Streetlight, Word Riot, and elsewhere. His short play, Assistance, was staged at Circle Rep in New York City and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Bill’s work can also be found in the anthologies Mudville Diaries and Hashtag: Queer.
Jason Hackett is an English Lit. Major who put his writing skills to good use as an advertising copywriter. He wrote his way up through the ranks and, twenty-plus years later, Jason is now owner and creative director of HAPI, an ad firm located in his hometown of Phoenix, AZ. Every day, he can be found banging away at his keyboard, playing with words and concepts. Jason’s poems have appeared in The Journal of American Poetry, Slippery Elm Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review and Cholla Needles.
Josef Krebs has a chapbook published by Etched Press and his poetry also appears in the Bicycle Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Calliope, The Cape Rock, The Chaffey Review, Inscape, Mouse Tales Press, Organs of Vision and Speech, Tacenda, Agenda, The Corner Club Press, Crack the Spine, The FictionWeek Literary Review, the Aurorean, Carcinogenic Poetry, The Bangalore Review, 521magazine, Former People, The Bohemian, Grey Sparrow Journal, IthacaLit, New Plains Review, Inwood Indiana Press, and The Cats Meow. A short story has been published in blazeVOX. He’s written three novels and five screenplays. His film was successfully screened at Santa Cruz and Short Film Corner of Cannes film festivals.
Kathleen Latham’s work has most recently appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, The London Reader, Picaroon Poetry, and Clockwise Cat. Her first creative nonfiction piece is forthcoming in Hedge Apple.
Tamzin Mitchell is a proofreader and editor currently based in London. She holds an MFA from the University of New Hampshire, and her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Five on the Fifth, cahoodaloodaling, and Not One of Us, among others.
Iris N. Schwartz
Iris N. Schwartz’s fiction has been published in dozens of journals and anthologies, including Anti-Heroin Chic, Foxglove Journal, Jellyfish Review, and Spelk Fiction. Her short-short story collection, My Secret Life with Chris Noth, was published by Poets Wear Prada and nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. “Shame” is her latest collection.
Larry Smith’s novella, “Patrick Fitzmike and Mike Fitzpatrick,” was published in 2016 by Outpost 19. His stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Low Rent (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), Exquisite Corpse, The Collagist, Curbside Splendor, Sequestrum, and PANK, among numerous others. Smith’s poetry has appeared in Descant (Canada) and Elimae, among others; his articles and essays in Modern Fiction Studies, Social Text, The Boston Phoenix, and others.
Jean Wolff studied fine arts at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit and at the University of Michigan. She attended Hunter College, CUNY in New York, graduating with an MFA in painting and printmaking. She’s had group and solo exhibits in numerous galleries in New York City and internationally. In addition, her work has been published in various literary and art journals. Jean currently lives and works in New York City.
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