July 30, 2018| ISSUE no 240
crack the spine
Bobby Steve Baker
J. B. Stone
Don't Forget Page 43
short fiction by Laura-Gray Lovelace
After listening to the radio broadcast, imminent war, don’t buy houses, don’t make babies, keep your eye on the sky, on the space behind that sky, and wait for invasion, Echo got ready for work. He tucked his operation manual into the pocket of his whale suit, patted the pocket to make sure it was safe, put on his vacuum backpack, rubbed a thumb along the pages of the manual, slipped his gloves over the suit, and patted the manual twice. He cast one more glance about his room, the silvery bedroll, the stack of four well read books, the radio that had been here before Echo had been, jammed into the wall, and the five-gallon bucket. Everything in its place. He nodded to his room, as if approving of where everything had placed itself.
Most people didn’t like living in the whales. Vats sure as hell didn’t and he tried to leave as much as possible, existing in the workers cafeteria with the rest of the tour guides, and the janitors that thought they were shit. Echo didn’t mind, though. He ran a gloved hand along the soft, fleshy interior of his room, along the hallway as he walked to the front of the whale. He loved being inside the whale, feeling it breathe, respond to his care. Much better than a cafeteria whose walls didn’t pulse with life, whose floor didn’t push back against his step.
He walked quickly, from his room in the fin of the whale, to the head, where the tour would start. Echo knew from practice that he had to start cleaning the junk, the first room the tour would start in, 15 minutes before the tour began, exactly. He’d tried to clean before the tour came, clean all the sections, but the sticky slime, the pus, the bile worked its way back in place just in time for the tour to step into it. In the junk, Echo hummed, letting his voice sink into the waxy walls. She always responded to his serenade. Was it Vats who said that this part of the whale was where she’d been able to sing from? Echo didn’t remember, but he did remember how she seemed to calm when he hummed in this section, how the filth he cleared out of the hollowed-out cockpit, out of the crannies of the buttons and dials installed into her wouldn’t get dirty quiet as fast if he hummed. Hopefully the tourists wouldn’t upset her, now that he had gotten her so calm. Hopefully someone wouldn’t knock on the walls, drag their feet across the ground, and kick the walls. Hopefully they’d treat Whale like he treated her.
Echo made his way to the next section, a small room in the jaw of the whale that had been hollowed out, and started sucking up excess fluids with his vacuum before the tour came in. He could hear them moving around in the other room, murmuring, a few noises of disgust.
“Mom, do I have to wear this suit?” And the tour guide cutting over it all.
“And this is what is affectionately known as The Junk!”
Huh. So it was Janet leading the tour. Echo prefered to be able to hear them, to listen in. Echo liked the bouncing of voices in Whale. They didn’t travel far, getting absorbed into the wet walls, but it felt nice, like they were supposed to be there.
“This is the cockpit, where pre-resettlement Humans would direct the whale’s through space. Everything still works, but is shut off for safety reasons. Go ahead and play with those dials!”
How did they know? Did Janet have a sort of manual for what to say, how much to share? How did she know the knobs and dials still worked? They never tried to make Whale fly, never detached her from the metal cradle, or let her go where she willed. They didn’t even let her shit as she pleased.
“Just a reminder, the whale is perfectly happy. Each whale is treated like a king!”
Janet’s voice was strange. It made Echo think of a trombone under water. As he grabbed the scrub to start working the bloody bits out of the grooves caused by the carving tools, he wondered what she looked like. Did she have gold skin, like the trombone? Or was she just like a normal woman? He let himself imagine her, with gold skin, on his silvery bedroll amid the fleshy oink of the floor, but her skin clashed with his bedroll. Maybe her skin wasn’t gold, then. He could find out, if he left whale. Vats had said that Janet ate lunch in the same place, every day, in the worker cafeteria. But he wouldn’t leave whale.
“How do you know it’s happy?” One of the tourists asked that. They were always checking, asking if Whale felt the long metal screws drilled into her flesh, the exterior ribs hanging her in the air, just as if she flew through space. If Whale could feel them trampling in around the muscles and bones and everything that held her together. Of course she could. Echo poured whale oil on a cloth, and started rubbing it into the walls, scrubbing it into the floor. He could almost feel her responding sigh, responding thank you through the vibrations of the room, the constant thump of her blood pumping through the walls all around him.
“Are they really gonna be used in the war?”
This was a newer question. Last few years, and they started asking every few months, weeks, then days. Now every tour. All the time. Three times a tour. Maybe more. He’d stopped counting.
“Well, I can’t tell you if this whale will be used, unit 16 is a veteran. She’s helped to resettle thousands of humans right here on our home! On that note, look at the display screen!”
Finished one room, move to the next. Keep in line. Don’t be seen. Make the tourists think that each room is always this clean, even though it's really a balancing act of cleaning a room as the irritant moves from one place to the next, and the pus responds twofold. Echo was hands scrubbing and cleaning, disinfecting and caring. He became the white blood cells of the whale, the caretaker that would treat the body of the whale, keep it alive even when the whale had given up on it’s own body.
On to the sleeping quarters. If humans had slept here, he thought maybe he was just like those old humans, with his sliver sleeping bag tucked in the fin. But Echo wouldn’t like these beds, the metal cots that melded to the wall, screwed into the ribcage of the Whale. They had to be wiped down the most, as pus and layers of this flaky white stuff dried on the metal, caked in the grooves and covering the plastic blankets. At every breath of the whale, the room shifted, moved, and the plastic dolls of what sleeping pre-resettlement humans looked like, with their gangly limbs that hung down too far, and their bulbous foreheads, had to be nailed to the beds and covered in a plastic wrapping that might have been close to what the actual settlers used, because Echo sure as hell couldn’t imagine anyone sleeping here without something covering their face so they wouldn’t get choked out on pus and filth.
Echo did his job. He cleaned each room, checking the operating manual three times before cleaning, and once after, before the tour guide walked in, just to make sure that yes, he did it right. He took the care of a first-time mother with the manual, stroking the binding before opening it, tenderly turning the pages, reading the words with the same love and rapture seen in the face of a mother looking at a child that is completely dependent on them. And that’s what the manual was, really. Dependent on him. Nothing else could save it from the bile floods. After his shift, Echo dropped off his equipment, in his room, and walked all the way back up to the entrance. Vat’s was supposed to meet him.
Echo peered down the staircase, spiraling out of Whale all the way down to dirty tiles below. Vats didn't seem to be downstairs. Late as usual. So Echo sat on the first step that was a part of the body of the whale, pulled out his manual, and passed time by reciting the rules. 17 pages in, when Echo was just reciting the rules about how to handle bile floods, Vats called up to him.
“Come down here!”
Echo looked down, carefully tucking his manual into the pocket in the front of his suit. Vats stood at the bottom of the stairway, one hand on the rail, and his whale suit halfway unzipped and the arms tied about his waist.
“Can’t leave Whale.” Echo called out, shaking his head. His hand fluttered to the manual, safe in it’s spot. Like Echo, safe in the whale.
“I am not spending any more time then I have to up in that thing.”
“Don’t call her a thing!”
Vats glared up at Echo.
“Come on, Vats, you promised.
He walked up the staircase, grumbling the whole way, slipping his suit back on and activating it before he got into whale.
“Ass.” Vats said, as way of greeting. Echo didn’t mind. He always said this, every time Echo made him do something he didn’t like. Vats wouldn't talk to him as they walked through the whale, not until he got to the fin. Echo tried, but Vats just grumbled, complained over anything Echo said. Finally, in Echo’s room, after Echo had given him the one seat, the five-gallon bucket, and Vats had sat down, and stopped grumbling, Echo asked the question.
“You ever gonna take this to get laminated?” Echo shook his owner manual at Vats. An extra piece of the paper waggled on it’s edge, flinging off and sticking to the moist floor. Echo bent down and peeled it off the meat floor, rubbed his thumb over the paper, trying to clean off the gunk.
“I’ve been busy.” Vats said, snatching the piece of paper and rubbing it off on his shirt. He handed it back, tilting the five-gallon bucket forward slightly. As Echo took it, the lip of the bucket sank into the meaty floor, and muscle spasms flew through the whole room. Echo stood still.
“Watch it. She doesn’t like pressure like that.” Echo tried not to move, to let the room settle down. Why had he offered his only seat to Vats again? He didn’t even know how not to disturb Whale. Vats stared at him, as if he could tell what he was thinking. Echo licked his lips, tucked the fragment of the owner manual back into the pages.
“Just take my manual with you when you go.”
“Can’t. I’ve got four tours and a two hour lunch break to do.” Vats unpeeled a toothpick, letting the shiny casing drift to the ground and stick to the floor. He started picking at his teeth, digging between the grooves. Echo snatched up the plastic wrapping before Whale could get too upset, and shoved it in his pocket.
“I need it laminated. A new piece got dissolved yesterday. And I can’t keep it in my suit all the time. That’s on page four.” Echo flipped to page four, offered the page up for Vats to see. Echo couldn’t help but stare at the depiction of the genderless stick person wearing the shiny silver suit, and the big x in bright red print painted over where they were tucking the owner manual into the pocket. Vats didn’t even spare it a glance.
“You know you don’t have to follow everything in the manual.” There was red stuff at the tip of Vats’ toothpick. Echo didn’t know if it was leftover tomato, or blood. He didn’t respond, just flipped to page 43 of the manual, and showed Vats the once glossy spread with the words printed FOLLOW EVERY RULE IN THIS MANUAL!!! IF NOT FOLLOWED, ADVERSE EFFECTS INCLUDE DIARRHEA, VOMITING, LOSS OF CONSCIOUSNESS, AND DEATH!!! The inspiring page had a wonderful effect on Echo. He smiled, felt himself lift knowing that he was right, and Vats was wrong, and nothing was better at correcting Vats then all capital red letters.
Vats just shrugged. Echo closed the page, rubbing his thumb along the still undissolved top of the book.
“You promised you’d get it laminated for me.” Echo retreated to the wall, leaning right next to it. He thought about gritting his teeth as he said it, like those people in the half dissolved action books were always doing, gritting their teeth when pulling a pin from a grenade, gritting their teeth when saying hello to someone they found deplorable, gritting their teeth when they tripped on a landmine, but he thought it might hurt his jaw, so he didn’t. Instead, he almost-leaned on the wall. Almost-leaned, so Whale wouldn’t get upset. Almost-leaned, so the moist wall wouldn’t stick to the back of his shiny suit.
“Maybe next week.”
“That’s what you said last week.”
“Yeah, well shit came up.”
“Look, I gotta get it laminated before another bile flood happens.”
Vats glanced around, as if waiting for the bile to slip out of the walls. Echo chuckled, one of those deep chuckles he let out when he knew something that no one else knew. It made him feel like a villain, about to let loose a terrible secret, something the hero should have realized but couldn’t.
“What?” Vats asked, standing up so quickly he made the five gallon bucket shloop off the ground. Echo had worked hard to think up that word, jumping back and forth between slopping and sloshing. But sloshing didn’t make any sense, and slopping made him think of a pig, eating food at one of those troughs. He didn’t want to think of Whale as having pig-like walls and floors. Whale was graceful, sticky, moist, and things shlooped off her flesh.
“Bile doesn’t just show up. I can tell.” Echo stood up, and laid one hand on the wall he was almost-leaning against earlier, as if to say see? I can touch whale without her getting upset. That’s cause I follow the owner manual. “Bile only comes when she’s irritated.”
“Well is she irritated?”
Echo thought about tricking him into thinking that Whale was irritated, that she was mad at him for having sat on his bucket, and not laminating his manual. But that would be cruel to Whale. And as page 1 said, in big pink bubbly letter, with hearts floating about in space, “ALWAYS PUT YOUR WHALE FIRST!!” So instead, he peeled his whale suit clad hand off the wall, shlooped it off, and checked the time on his watch.
The watch wasn’t very useful. It was under the whale suit, so it wouldn’t be hurt by being inside Whale, and wouldn’t hurt her, but that meant he had to tap it again and again, hoping he could make it light up through the material, and stare at the face, moving his arm a few inches away from his face so he could see the numbers lighting through the material.
“You could just take off the suit for a second.” Vats said, standing up from his bucket and watching Echo struggle with the clock.
“Oh, yes. How could I forget.”
“Never take off your suit while inside your whale.” Echo squinted, titled his head to one side, then the other. It was either 3:45, or 8:45.
“Why do you even need it laminated? You have the whole thing memorized.”
“It’s the principle of the thing!” He held out his manual again, waiting for Vats to take it. “Just take it and get it laminated as soon as possible. I need to clean up for the next tour.”
Vats let his shoulders droop, and Echo wondered if there was a guide to know what drooping shoulders meant. “Yeah, I’ll take it. Maybe then you’ll listen to me. Here, I cleaned out your PO box, again.” Vats handed him a stack of letters, shiny flyers, and a couple old newspapers. “You gotta go outside this corpse sometime. You won’t be able to live here forever.”
“They’re not gonna commision Whale.”
“Really? Because they’ve been taking all the whales back into the fleet. Outfitting them with new weapons, that shit.”
Echo refused to look at Vats, instead staring at the letters. One from his mother. How long had it been since he’d heard from her, thought about her, remembered her name in passing?
“Well, my whale is safe. She’s a veteran.”
“None of these things are safe.”
Vats left. Echo worked. Another tour went by, this time led by Vats. Echo made sure not to listen to what Vats said, keeping his eyes on the task, feeling the whale, reading her movements. He didn’t need to leave Whale. Whale wasn’t going into space again. More likely they’d kill her. More likely they’d finally let her sleep. Shoot her corpse off into space, and let her become just another bit of space debris. Not fight in the war, not fight against her own kind, different whales, same whales. And Echo would be there, inside of Whale, tending to her body as she finally shut down, decommissioned for the last time, rotted, and fell apart, pieces of her drifting away from each other for eternity. Echo would be there, for the last second, until space ripped him away from her.
That night, he listened to the radio again, sitting on his five-gallon, eating a ham and cheese sandwich. He’d had to pick off the bits of mold that had started forming on the bread, but it still tasted fine. I repeat, war is imminent. I repeat. The humans on colony 34 are revolting. Echo wondered if his family thought about him as little as he thought about them. That would be fair, wouldn’t it. He’d read the letter. Well, skimmed it, really. Just more shit on the war. Sounded like a broadcast, like his mother had just copied down what he was listening to now. I listened to the speech of Grand Pelang’s leader, Gabriel Felion, directed to the rebels of colony 34. He spoke with force, demanding they turn themselves in, submit to the Grand Pelang, and allow themselves to be reintroduced to the life of a colonist. Mother said much the same, that they were being moved to make room for the traitors, that the traitors would take up their spot in the reeducation camps. On and on.
Echo dropped the letter into the trash.
Maybe one day he would go join Janet in the cafeteria. Bring her back to the bedroll in whale. See if her gold skin clashed with the silver of his bedroll, take her to the flicking of the tail.
To all my listeners, please ensure you are doing your part to support the upcoming war.
Maybe one day he’d see mother again. Maybe one day he’d care to.
The book came back, laminated, each page perfectly separated and perfectly preserved. Echo sat on his five-gallon, Vats standing in the corner, ignoring the way the walls pulsed around them. Echo stared at the pages, the thin plastic coating, the way whoever had laminated it had reassembled the disintegrating pages. Echo carefully turned the pages, eyes skimming over the words, just marveling at how perfectly intact, how marvelously together the book was.
“So, you gonna finally listen to me?” Vats asked. Echo shrugged, refusing to take his eyes off the book.
“I did what you asked, so please, get out of the whale once before the recommisoon it.”
“They aren’t sending her out into space.”
“Yes, they are!” Vats left his perch by the wall and crouched in front of Echo, looking up at him. “If you ever left this prison of yours and came to staff meetings, you’d know. Echo, we all got fired today.”
Echo finally looked up. The operation manual was open to page 43. “Your manual is god. Your whale is god.”
“They didn’t fire me, though.”
“You’re one of the workers.”
“But Whale is my home.”
“Not anymore.” Vats sighed. Echo felt the hair on his head drift up, and fall again. Vats had to leave. They wanted Echo to leave. He’d never bring gold-skinned Janet into Whale. He’d never find out if she clashed with his home.
“What do we do?”
“Find a new job.”
“We can’t stay here.”
Echo clutched his manual close to his chest, the pages open, seeping into his core. Where else would he go? Whale was home. They couldn't take it away. Echo stood up, closing his manual as carefully as he could, and tucking it into the pocket of his suit. He turned on the radio.
Thousands around the globe are preparing for war. The deaths have yet to be tallied, and yet graveships are being outfitted and are awaiting to launch those lost in the glorious war into space.
“They don't need Whale. They have enough ships already.”
“You know that's a lie.”
“They don’t need Whale.”
He waited until Vats left, with a promise that Echo would leave Whale tomorrow. He wouldn’t. No matter how many times Vats made him promise. They couldn’t take him out of Whale. Nothing could. Except maybe Whale. Echo still sat on his five-gallon, staring at the fleshy floor, watching one section pulse with life, an inch away from his shoe. Echo peeled off his right hand glove, laid it across his lap, and set his hand on the wall. Felt it pulse. Felt it beat with life. Warm, springy to the touch. He thought maybe Janet wasn’t gold, after all. Maybe she was skinless, and you could watch the muscles move and contract, and could see the veins carrying blood from one place to the next, trace it with your fingers, feel her. Really, really feel her. His hand tingled.
Echo pulled his bare hand off the wall, a small film covering his palm. He put two fingers together, and pulled them apart, watching the film spread between the two, until it dangled out in front of his face, a thin wire, stretched between his thumb and forefinger. He could almost see Whale there, swimming in the thin line, no hooks in her flesh, no blood drooling out of her mouth. Then he stretched too far. The wire snapped. The slime shlooped back, splitting between the fingers. The illusion gone.
Balt's Birthday Nightmare
Balt Crick sat in the sparsely furnished waiting room of a mental health clinic, reading last month’s copy of Sports Illustrated for Kids. He shifted in his lime green chair and, as he did this, it made a sound resembling a fart. The receptionist’s face wrinkled into a grimace, and the hairy mole on her chin tightened into the shape of an earth-worm. Just as Balt went to explain the source of the noise, she slid the small, plastic window shut.
Five minutes later, the receptionist cracked the window open, revealing only a sliver of space, in the event the smell of Balt’s imaginary fart still lingered, and yelled out with her nose plugged, “Mr. Creeeick, Dr. Rolllland weeeill seeee you naaaaw.”
She shut the window the second the last syllable left her tongue. Balt stood up and walked through the door separating the psychoanalyzed from those waiting to be psychoanalyzed. Balt was sweating profusely. His bald patch shone under the fluorescent lighting; his last session with Dr. Roland had been highly unproductive.
Balt turned the fat silver knob of Dr. Roland’s office door and walked in to see the doctor seated in a large leather armchair.
“Balt! How are you feeling today? Take a seat, please. Sorry you had to wait an extra few minutes. I was with Mrs. Stockton and she wouldn’t stop yammering about her pet ostri—oh wait, I’m not supposed to tell you that. Doctor-patient confidentiality—that whole bit,” he chuckled softly. “I recall that at the end of our last session, I told you to go home and think of a significant moment, one from your childhood that really stood out in shaping who you are today. Good or bad. Have you given that any thought, Balt?”
Balt stared down at the complex geometrical pattern on the carpet with unblinking eyes, “Yes I have, actually. It’s a moment I think I can attribute to a lot of the anxiety issues I have. I think it really ruined my self confidence…Tragic stuff,” Balt added pensively.
Dr. Roland leaned back in his chair, then rocked forward, “Well that’s my specialty, Balt. Go ahead and lay it on me.”
Balt sighed and scratched hard behind his ear, “Okay, here goes. When I turned 6 years old, my mom made me have a birthday party. There was a bounce-house, many colorful balloons, streamers, the works. My mother insisted on there being a clown to perform at the party, but I am petrified of their very presence. The clown behaved more like a mime, because he wouldn’t say anything, and he kept following me around with a cigarette hanging out of his toothless mouth. What happened next still haunts me to this day. My father kicked our back glass door until it shattered, little shards scattering all over the patio. He had just returned from his third shift job, and obviously had done some drinking on the way home. He started pushing my little friends to the grass—parents were screaming at him the whole time—and he began gorging out on all the food. Little bits of chicken were flying everywhere, he drank all the Kool-Aid, and he devoured more than half of a party size pizza. I started to cry and tugged at his work trousers, begging him to stop. No one else wanted to go near him. He had gotten into the cake now, and turned to look at me with glazed eyeballs, his lips blue from the frosting. He spit little chunks of cake out on my face as he said this, but I’ll never forget the words, ‘You don’t deserve a birthday party and you don’t deserve a birthday either! I never wanted a kid. I wanted to travel the world and be a professional competitive eater. Mistake!’ he roared, and went stumbling over to the bounce-house to sleep it off. Kids were screaming after he flopped down on the floor of the bounce-house—the scabbard of his hunting knife must have had a hole in it, because the bounce-house started to deflate.”
After Balt finished speaking, he pressed his palms to his face, covering up his eyes. Dr. Roland’s eyes were the size of half dollars, and his mouth looked as if the Jaws of Life had pried his lips apart. He looked at his smart watch, and said, “Oh my, I am so sorry Balt. I actually need to go. My wife just texted me—she has a terrible case of hemorrhoids, you understand—and I need to get over to the pharmacy to pick up her prescription for an ointment to deal with the discomfort. Once again, I’m so sorry.”
Balt’s eyebrows rose to his hairline, and he replied, “But couldn’t you just get something over the coun—”
Doctor Roland held a hand up, and said, “No, I’m afraid over the counter won’t do. She’ll develop anal fissures if I don’t get her this very potent, medical brand only available through prescription. You will of course not be expected to pay the full amount for today’s visit, so I will cut off twenty five percent of your session’s cost. The least I can do. Now, I really must be running.”
The doctor put on his coat and ushered Balt out of his office.
Balt stood in the street for a moment, then reached into his pocket for something. It was a slice of birthday cake—enclosed in a Ziploc baggy—his mother had baked for him earlier. He turned forty-six that day.
flash fiction by Ryan Curcio
poetry by A. R. Robins
There are birds on the television
The kitten has invented a game. She bats the TV with her downy feet
at their smug bird faces.
I’ve invented a game too—it’s bird word association for perverts.
Barn Swallow=Farmgirl Porn Name
Brown-headed Nuthatch= Chocolate Banana with Chicken Eggs
Tufted Titmouse=Too Easy
My best friend’s mother-in-law posted on Facebook “I love hummers <3” I was drinking tea and scratching my head at the emoji comments—the eggplant is clever, but why not the cucumber, the corn, the carrot, or the baguette? Perhaps the peanut —
In second grade I called a kid a pecker-head, and my teacher wrote a note to my mother.
When my mother looked at me with her red head and white breast, I realized that what I had said had nothing to do with a boy with a wood-pecker face, and I was too afraid to ask.
For the first time in decades; I felt free. Drowned in the misery of routines and life after 35. My first night in transition from family man to lonely bachelor was calming. I hitchhiked to a quiet mangrove, and binge-watched constellations like they were on Netflix. Sunk into the starry sky. From the cicada echoes to the winds brushing past the cypress, I bathed my ears in different frequencies. Taking in every sound, every sight, every taste, tapping into all five senses. This is the eve of the in-between, before lonliness hits me and everything comes apart in shambles.
micro fiction by J. B. Stone
Walking, walking, walking; much walking is the fate of a dog owner, which was the reason John had gotten his dog in the first place.
John and Bomber had just completed their second circuit around the verdant green that was the Wilbender Town Common. John, who had already worked a full day, and had partied the night before was quite ready to quit; however, his dog, Bomber, was pulling at his lead more than usual, indicating a readiness for at least one more lap around the park. Unfortunately, Bomber had so far only presented the public paths with his wet and tepid “number one” and this was his last walk of the day. Bomber was well aware his master never took him in for the night until he had accomplished his “number two.” While this was normally true, the pitiful dog had failed his diurnal duty for the past three days. John took the tugging on his lead to mean that Bomber was ready to perform, and so let him lead on.
John Humbert did not love dogs, especially ninety-nine pound German Shepherds afflicted with acute constipation. What John did love—let us say was infatuated with—were those women he fondly called “chicks.” During his college days this self-proclaimed “primo ass-man” kept a diary of the females he seduced, placing a premium on quantity over quality. Consequently, John had never learned how to develop a lasting relationship with a woman. He had often been heard to remark: “You don’t need to talk to the end of them I’m interested in.”
At this time of his life, six years out of college and employed at his sixth different job, John was finding his pool of eligible women dwindling rapidly. The truth was that he had not had a single date in the past three months.
In his pursuit John had scouted the usual places: discos and singles’ bars and night classes at the community college in subjects he had scant interest in. He joined church groups at churches he did not belong too, and signed up for volunteer work at the local hospital. He tried everything: loitering in the gourmet section of his local supermarket, ads in gamy tabloids using a box number for a reply, and sneaking into women’s toilets to write his phone number and the legend “great sex” on the walls of the stalls. He had even tried bowling.
In the medium-sized city where John now worked as a salesman of toner cartridges, there just didn’t seem to be anymore women, at least not ones meeting his standards, which he had lowered and lowered, and was still lowering. The ritual of Saturday night had become, for John Humbert, a six-pack of beer, a large bag of corn chips, and a porno flick for the DVD player.
Gary, who worked in the office across from John, introduced him to walking dogs. “Dog walking is a great way to meet new companions,” Gary explained, placing a squeaky emphasis on the word “companions.” With this bit of advice in mind, John had sought out a dog, and adopted Bomber, who had been given away to the SPCA by his previous owners.
It had not been love at first sight, but John’s love of a bargain—he tended to live well above his means—which had attracted him to the ninety-nine pound canine cowering in the corner of the kennel wearing his I’m-a-nice-dog-take-me-home look. Here was a real pure-bread German Shepherd for free, when the cost of a new one would have been at least $350. The chicks were sure to fancy him a big spender, an impression the parsimonious John Humbert sought to convey. John would later wonder why he had not considered the reason that the previous two owners had given up on such a wonderful beast. It would be an understatement to say that the dog was extremely overactive.
Bomber was formerly known as Hans, and more recently called Harvard, although he never responded to either name. John had gone with Harvard, considering the name to have panache, as his own school had been the dullish Wilbender College. Alas, the sweet dog had inspired his new name the first day he spent alone in John’s apartment. Master returned from work to find his place much like Baghdad after a car bomb, and had rechristened his mutt Bomber.
Destruction of property was not Bomber’s only bad habit. He was widely known in the neighborhoods he had inhabited as a vagabond. He had even come with the caveat that he should never be let off his lead. Nevertheless, on their very first walk, John, who was always inclined to believe he knew more than everyone else, ignored the warning and, as soon as they were on The Wilbender Town Common, allowed Bomber to run free—whereupon, Bomber bolted for parts unknown to John, but perhaps well known to the dog.
Blindly, John searched for his pet, calling and waving a dog biscuit. After some time he was able to coax his recalcitrant canine back; who probably only returned because he could not think of anywhere else to go. Moreover, Bomber’s wandering did not abate, nor did John learn to keep the dog on lead. All too often he had to redeem the stray from the dog warden, and most recently from a used-car lot on the outskirts of town where a salesman had rescued the abashed Bomber from a traffic island in the middle of the highway.
The car lot incident proved traumatic for John who dodged such environs, for reasons of his own having an aversion to car salesmen. Thereafter, Bomber was walked on a leash, which was the law in the town anyway, and the dog pulled fiercely. No amount of tugging, cajoling, or shouting, “Heel! Bomber heel!” made one bit of difference. John did not look forward to these running walks, especially since they had been grossly unsuccessful in their main mission of “meeting mucho chicks.”
Now Bomber, with John in tow, was barreling across the green of The Common toward Fifi. Bomber liked to play with the tiny, white toy poodle, even though he outweighed her by about ninety pounds. Fifi was the beloved dog of his friend Ray’s wife Joy, with the more practical things like feeding and walking being tended to by the intrepid husband.
“Hi Ray, what’s new?” quizzed the not normally loquacious John Humbert who, was in the mood for conversation while the dogs sniffed.
“Nothing much . . . the same old same old I guess,” Ray answered in an apparently desultory frame of mind, scratching his head. And then his face lit up. “Say . . . you haven’t been to that new vet that’s opened up downtown yet have you?”
“No. Why?” John inquired. He had been considering taking Bomber to a veterinarian to determine why the dog was constipated all the time.
“Vaa vaa voom! Out to here!” Ray said, showing more enthusiasm than he normally displayed. He cupped his hands about a foot in front of his chest, a macho gesture simulating women’s breasts, an act meant to show that he was still interested.
“No shit! The new vet’s a chick?” The word “chick” rolled over in John’s mind, slipping effusively from his tongue. He wiped off the excess of his saliva with the back of his hand.
“Not just a chick, a goddess . . . a perfect ten!” Ray rhapsodized. I took Fifi there last week. If only I weren’t so happily married. Vaa vaa voom!” He made a fist with his right hand and pounded it hard into his left palm.
“You’re not just shitting me are you? What’s her name?” asked John, his mind now piqued. He cast a slightly doubtful look at Ray, considering him no equal mendicant of the flesh. Thoughts of pursuit and conquest were beginning to heat up John’s vivid imagination. More spittle formed in his mouth.
“Doctor Wilde . . . with an ‘e’ . . . Rita Wilde,” Ray gave out the information in a low voice, as if he was leaking a state secret. “I don’t remember the phone number, but you can get it from information, just ask for the ‘Wilde Animal Clinic.’”
Arriving home, John immediately dialed information and asked for the number of the “Wilde Animal Clinic.” As he heard the sound of his words, the no sound of the silent “e” as in “wild animal clinic,” the thought came to his mind that maybe he was the victim of one of Ray’s schoolboy jokes—like calling a tobacco shop to ask if they have Prince Albert in a can. A brief space of silence passed during which John waited to hear: Sorry sir, but we only have listings for tame animal clinics, but the words did not come. A computerized voice blurted out some numbers, which John hastily scribbled down.
“Vaa vaa voom!” John boomed, as he hung up the telephone. He made a fist with his right hand, pounding it into his left palm. Telecomputers did not play jokes; there was a Doctor Rita Wilde.
John’s phone call to the Wilde Animal Clinic set up an appointment for tomorrow, Saturday, at 6 P.M. He had concocted a story that the Bomber was presently in extreme pain, a magnification of the truth, which merely was that his dog had not made “number two” in three days. The receptionist confided that the clinic normally saw its last animal at five-thirty, but said that Doctor Wilde would remain late to see the poor, suffering Bomber.
It was perfect beyond perfection John mused, his imagination rolling the details of the scheme over in his mind. The plan, as John saw it was this: he would be the last one there; the staff would all have gone home; after the Bomber’s appointment, he would inveigle the decorous doctor out for dinner. Having enjoyed an intimate meal together, they would go back to his place, “just to see how poor Bomber is doing.” He would offer the doctor a drink, which she would innocently accept. Then, with a wave of his hand, John would flick the switch that he had installed to turn on the stereo and dim the lights at the same time. Using his years of experience, the doctor would be maneuvered to his bed, and then, “vaa vaa voom!” John made a fist with his right hand and pounded it hard into his left palm.
Saturday’s golden sunshine beckoned. Bomber was scratching at the rug, scratching at the door. John was attempting to ignore the beast. He bellowed: “You can’t go out Bomber. We’ll be going to the vet later on today. You’re supposed to be constipated . . . so hold it in buddy.”
Saturday’s golden morning soon waned into a gray afternoon. Bomber was on the run, running in circles around John’s apartment, trailing lamps and coffee tables in his wake. His master had locked himself in the bedroom. Having finished showering, and blow drying his hair, John stood in front of his closet deciding what fashion statement he intended to make, a tough question considering his limited wardrobe. Should he go in stylish athletic or smart casual? Alas, the considerable payment on his overpriced car was due at the end of the month, which was only three days away. Reaching in, John took out his teal and purple jogging outfit, the one with the three stripes on the arms and three stripes on the legs. Very dressy, he owned up, but not appropriate for a dinner at an expensive restaurant. They would go for Chinese.
Arriving at the clinic at 5:30, John was early. He had not wanted to seem too eager, but had become weary of Bomber pulling over furniture and scratching at the door. Getting the beast into the car counted as an achievement. Bomber kept heading for the grass, or for the curb, but John had managed to hold him off. Observing the waiting room, John saw that only one more animal waited, after this it would be the Bomber’s turn. Although he had been keeping a sharp watch over the top of the magazine he was pretending to read, John had not had even a single glimpse of the much anticipated Doctor Rita Wilde. John presumed that, she must do her examinations in some other section of the building.
“The doctor will see you now, Mr. Humbert,” the receptionist announced. “Go down the hall and turn left. You can take Bomber into the room with the blue door.” She pronounced “Bomber” with a frown, causing John to wonder if she had perhaps known the critter before under the name of Hans, or Harvard.
Walking past her desk, John noticed the secretary was stuffing her things into her handbag, getting ready to leave. Everything was going according his plan. At the end of the hall, John turned left. Bomber was tugging at his lead, holding back instead of pulling.
I suppose animals can’t read numbers, but can tell colors, John reasoned, entering the last room, which had the blue door. Bomber’s leash undone the dog sought for a corner. His owner jumped up and sat down on the examining table.
On the too high table, John crossed his legs and then re-crossed them. He was attempting to achieve that just right look of casualness. Resplendent in his expensive, name-brand jogging outfit, John settled into a posture of airiness. He had taken what he considered the command position, to await the arrival of Doctor Rita Wilde. Vaa vaa voom, his mind went, projecting the coming wild evening with Doctor Wilde. John made a fist with his right hand and pounded it hard into his left palm.
Bomber was walking, walking faster, and then running around the room, sniffing every corner. Now he was panting, now waggling his tail, his velocity increasing with each circuit. Suddenly, the dog stopped, and, letting out a great yowl squatted down in the chosen corner. Recognizing the pose, John realized its purpose. “No! Bomber, not here!” John cried, leaping off the table. A bilious ochre pile began to heap behind the dog. Giving out another howl, lower in tone and having a slightly satisfied sound, Bomber completed his deposit. His long, dog face took on a self-satisfied appearance.
Relieved of his mighty agony, Bomber jumped up happily. His paws pounded his master’s chest, knocking John off balance and throwing him into the cabinet beside the examination table. The contents of the cabinet’s top; a thermometer, a flea comb, and assorted apparatus, tumbled to the floor.
“Jeez! Bomber, look what you’ve done now!”
Removing a bunch of tissues from the box that had scattered with the veterinary utensils, John bent to the task of cleaning up his dog’s poop. Unfortunately there were no windows in the room, and hence no possibility for fresh air, leaving John to sniff the disgusting scent, which was giving him nausea. Please don’t come in now Doctor Wilde, John pleaded, his thoughts becoming panicky as his carefully planned scheme appeared to be going wildly astray.
In the meanwhile, quite unaware of his master’s concerns, and proud that he had accomplished his “number two” the first in four days, although in the wrong place at the wrong time, Bomber had retired to a quiet corner, and with a loud snore was taking a nap.
John, having used up the last of the tissues, tore the empty box in half to make a kind of scoop. The ochre glop dripped on his hands, and down onto his expensive sneakers. His stomach was turning. As he scooped the poop the smell became too much for him, and his late lunch joined the dog feces in the wastebasket. Leaning over the bucket in total agony, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, John heard the door open behind him.
“Hello, I’m Doctor Wilde.” The voice sounded much too masculine to John’s flushed ears. There was a brief silence while Doctor Wilde took in the scene. “Well, well, what have we here? It looks like doggie and his owner have both had a little accident.”
John turned and looked at the man in the white lab coat. He was tall, handsome, with long dark hair combed back in the style of male models in fashion magazines. The badge he wore identified the newcomer as: Randy Wilde, DVM.
“You’re Doctor Wilde?” John said quizzically, extending his hand in a greeting, then quickly withdrawing his soiled fingers.
Moving swiftly, Dr. Wilde neatly deposited the wastebasket and its reeking contents outside in the hall. He retrieved the scattered medical tools. And then, lifted the ninety-nine pound Bomber from the floor like he was a nine pound cat, and deposited him on the examination table.
“Humm . . . it says here that your dog has a constipation problem.” The doctor spoke with a tone of mock levity as he consulted his chart. “Well, I would say that doesn’t seem to be the case now.”
“But . . . but . . . I thought Doctor Wilde was a woman,” John spurted out incredulously. Having finished cleaning himself up, John’s mind now recalled the original reason for his visit.
“Oh yes . . . it is sometimes confusing. The other veterinarian here is my wife, Doctor Rita Wilde,” Dr. Randy Wilde revealed, a latex gloved finger probing Bomber’s back door as he spoke. “My wife is in the clinic on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”
“Monday, Wednesday, and Friday?” John sounded glum.
“Well I don’t think you’ll need to be coming back here, at least not for a while anyway,” Doctor Wilde ventured, snapping the exam glove from his hand. “I haven’t found any obstruction. Whatever the problem was it is obviously gone now.”
“Obviously,” John repeated sadly. “Come on Bomber, let’s go home now.”
A Dog Named Bomber
short fiction by Stephen Poleskie
Tim Fitzsimmons and the Pursuit of Coolness
Young. And ready to ripen, as your dad said—says, still—when helping you grab tall things off of the shelf, helping you lift heavy grocery bags from the back of the car. Young. And ripe for action. For growth, he meant—means—for things like lifting actual weights, playing sports at a level somewhere above “peewee” or “junior” range, for competing in chess tournaments with more than some skin-and-bone arms and toothpick fingertips.
When he says this (the ripening thing) you look away, each time, wondering where and when this ripening occurs, and you yearn for it for what feels like years. The mornings are for mirror checks, your eyes scanning your body—first your armpits, then your muscles, a quick flash of the groin, just to be sure—naked except for your boxer briefs. They are Donald Duck.
You just wanna be ripe.
You just wanna be it.
The it this year for the 7th grade class is Jake McFarland, and he’s definitely ripe. He’s not only captain of the chess team, but he’s an athlete, a specimen, as dad once called him. Last year during junior league championships, he scored a three-point shot to win the game, and that’s when dad said it, the comment about Jake being a specimen, and that’s all you’ve wanted to be called since. You’ve tried a lot of things to garner the title. To watch dad shake his head, kind of smiling, like, yeah, son, you’re a specimen. Every sporting event, every robotics competition, every craft fair, you participated, and then afterwards you listened. Listened intently. Listened hard. For your dad to say it.
So, you train. Like crazy, you train. Not just physical, no. It’s not what defines a specimen, certainly not the physical alone. It is the culmination, the mind, body, etc. what some might call the triple threat! Ha ha. It grips you, the idea does, of being it. Of being like Jake McFarland. McFar as you’ve called him for many days now in your head. McFar knows. He’s it, wears the title proudly, as only the it would.
You begin following him at school, McFar. Not, like, creepily, but close enough to learn. To watch. You begin to dream of being it, like McFar, a specimen. McFar is, like, smooth. Really smooth. Your training routine becomes robust: school, gym, homework, episode of whatever’s on Cartoon Network. McFar, though, is still the man.
Eventually, it’s your muscles you notice first, in your morning mirror check. Are they bigger? You feel as though they are, somehow, bulging with static energy; potential. Then it is your armpits. Slowly, you notice, and not without excitement, the fuzz of brown hair that vaguely matches your dirty blonde mane. You start to pose in the mirror, in your Donald Duck boxers, flexing, stretching your arms above your head so your armpits show, admiring.
And then you feel it. The wave of ripeness that overtakes you, like a primal urge to scream, like your inexplicable fascination with your nether regions.
You begin to walk differently at school, to associate in a more direct manner with McFar. You bring your cartoon watching down to three days a week, and you begin spending your free time fantasizing about your upcoming sports games and robotics competitions. In the peak of your visions you imagine dad, watching, smiling contentedly before mouthing the word specimen with his thumbs up.
One day, you feel extra it. It’s a Saturday, which means soccer. A big deal. Your team is bad, but your league is really good your coach has said. You’ve lost every game, but not this one, you feel. You are playing the best team, but from the division below. The peewee division. Peewee. Ha ha.
But things do not go well.
By the near-end of the game, you are down by two goals. Time is basically out, the players from the other team largely interested in leaving, waiting for the ref to blow the whistle.
But you’re ripe.
And feeling it.
A slip of the ball through the legs of a defender, a kick. It’s in.
Just like that, you score. The best team from the lower division playing you, the worst team from the division above, and you scored a goal. A useless goal. A non-impacting goal. But still. A goal.
You are euphoric. The game ends, you lose, but not so much, you think! You think of McFar. You are not McFar, but you are close. Very very close. In the car, you know what is coming. After all the times you’ve seen your dad watching you from the sidelines, eyes dull, flat, waiting for something to happen. Well, something did. And you watch as your dad gets in the car, and you wait. He opens his mouth before you can, and your skin starts to vibrate, your focus wavering on every word. Here he goes, you think, here it comes. Your face gets hot, your ears burn, waiting. Anticipating.
Instead, he says man, did you see that kid, the short kid on the other team? He was a quick one, he says. Not just says. Exclaims. Laughing, and suddenly, before you can realize what’s happening, kind of giving his head a shake like wow, can’t believe it.
You can’t believe it either.
Because you recognize the head shake, the same head shake he gave Jake McFarland (fuck you McFar), right before he called him the word. And you almost wish you didn’t know what was coming, but you do, to this day, you know your dad. Good ol’ dad. Consistent. Always mowing on Saturdays at nine, always watching the Ramblers’ games on Tuesdays and Thursdays, always reading on Wednesdays, getting drunk on Fridays with Mom and Uncle Marcus and Janet, and always shaking his head, smiling slightly, eyes wide with amazement right before he says it: what a specimen. Laughing, almost incredulous it seems, and repeating: what a got-damned specimen.
flash fiction by Tyler Wildeck
One man show.
Paint overlay on paint overlay—
white on textured white.
A silent scream to not mean anything to anybody
by way of reference to something else.
It is itself. Austere, infinitely deep,
warm as Nazareth
on a cold December night.
In truth the artist wishes to turn a mirror that
well-heeled patrons of the arts
come to the nerve jangling realization
they are what art is there to look at
and they should wonder what they mean.
poetry by Bobby Steve Baker
The Breast Crawl
You are born at 12:54 AM and labor is finally over. They place you on my chest. You are gooey and loved. I cry, exclaiming to the nurse with blonde hair, “Isn’t she beautiful!”
“Yes,” she says. “You did so well!”
I did well.
Your eyes are unfocused, taking in everything. Your mouth opens and closes. I run my index finger along your impossibly soft cheek and cannot fathom life before you.
The cord stops pulsing and your other mom cuts it like a pro.
There is a blur of movement, sensation, a placenta. The on-call midwife, whom I just met a few hours ago, stretches it out for us, and we oooooo and ahhhhhhh at how big and bloody it is. That was your home for nine months, I either whisper or think.
“Do you want to keep it?” asks the midwife.
“No,” your mom and I say in unison.
The nurse with brown hair holds one of my legs and the blonde nurse holds the other. The midwife sews in long strokes and apologizes. I thrash around on the table and my muscles shudder. My feet sweat. I thought nothing would hurt after labor.
The sewing ends and you are still on my chest. A black tarry pool forms under you. “It’s called meconium,” says the nurse with blonde hair. Your mom cleans it up while I gaze at you.
The nurse with brown hair positions you below my right breast. You lie there, mouth opening and closing like a baby bird waiting for a worm. I don’t know what to do with my hands. “Should I help?”
“Just let her do her thing,” says the blonde nurse.
So I let you do your thing, which consists of twitching and being amazing.
Right before you were born, right before everything pre-you shattered into a million pieces and reconfigured itself into everything post-you, the midwife said, “Stop! Don’t push.”
I breathed in and out, let the weight of you press down on my nether regions. I couldn't see your head crowning because I was turned around on all fours, a wolf giving birth in some deep, dark forest.
“Gentle her out,” she said.
I didn’t see the cord around your neck, or the midwife’s hands holding open the umbilical loop like a portal to some strange world. I didn’t see you slide right through. They would tell me all this later.
“Gentle her out.”
On my chest, you start doing something. It’s not a crawl exactly, more like a huddle in motion. I am very still so as not to thwart your progress. You huddle, mouth opening and closing, and I admire your predilection for survival. Your lips graze my nipple. I hold my breath while you open and latch. Your eyes widen and you bring your fist to your cheek in wonder at the first taste of life in this strange world.
creative non-fiction by Irene McGarrity
Bobby Steve Baker
Bobby Steve Baker grew-up on an Indian Reservation on the Canadian side of Lake Huron. He now lives in Lexington Kentucky but still craves the Big Water. His work has appeared in, The Tule Review, Cold Mountain Review, Prick of the Spindle, Into the Void, Cloudbank, and Picaroon. His latest book is “This Crazy Urge to Live”, Linnet’s Wings Press.
Ryan Curcio is a student at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain Connecticut. He studies English with a minor in Writing. He is a contributing writer for Trill! Mag, an alternative pop-culture magazine, and his work has appeared in The Helix, Central Connecticut State University’s literary magazine, along with Blue Muse, Central Connecticut State University’s online, general interest and literary magazine. He is spending the summer interning for the New Britain Herald.
Holly Day’s published books include the nonfiction books “Music Theory for Dummies,” “Music Composition for Dummies,” “Guitar All-in-One for Dummies,” and “Piano All-in-One for Dummies,” and the poetry books “Ugly Girl” (Shoemusic Press) and “The Smell of Snow” (ELJ Publications). Her needlepoints and beadwork have recently appeared on the covers of Your Impossible Voice, Sinister Wisdom, and QWERTY Magazine.
Laura-Gray Lovelace is a senior creative writing major at Winthrop University who spends the majority of her time reading, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and singing musicals off-key.
Irene McGarrity’s fiction has appeared in PANK, Hobart, DOGZPLOT Flash Fiction, freeze frame fiction, and other publications. She is an academic librarian at Keene State College and has an MFA in creative writing from the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Irene lives in the Pioneer Valley with her wife, her daughter, and their three cats.
Stephen Poleskie’s writing has appeared in numerous journals in the USA, England, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Australia, Czech Republic, the Philippines, Luxembourg, and India, and been three times nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has work in five anthologies and also published five novels and two story collections.
A.R. Robins received her M.A. at Southeast Missouri State University. She lives in Missouri with her husband and new son. Her fiction and poetry is published or forthcoming in Moon City Review, Opossum, The Swamp, The Cape Rock, Atlas and Alice, and others.
J.B. Stone is an emerging poet/fiction writer from Brooklyn, now residing in Buffalo. Stone’s poetry is featured and/or forthcoming in The Occulum, Vending Machine Press, Steel Bellow, Ghost City Review, Peach Mag, and Riggwelter Press, along with flash fiction on 121words.com. Stone also has a forthcoming self-published Short Fiction Mystery Noir entitled, “Serve the Servants,” (Amazon Kindle 2018).
Tyler is a writer originally from Colorado. His work has been featured in Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, Chicago Literati, Gravel Magazine, and the Clackamas Literary Review. Tyler currently resides in Portland, OR.
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