November 6, 2018| ISSUE no 244
crack the spine
Ellen Morris Prewitt
Michael Bleicher & Andy Newton
Kathryn H. Ross
A Nun and a Baller Walk Into a Bar
short fiction by Ellen Morris Prewitt
The family is gone. My car is parked two blocks from the cemetery. I'm walking the gravel paths trying to make my brain remember what important thing happened, but I’m high on drugs. Legal, but still they mess with your mind.
Have I told you this story already?
“What the hell is a baller?” That’s the question I should’ve asked the cemetery lady. She kept saying it: “You gotta work the baller,” like everyone knows what a baller is. Well, yeah, I know what a baller is, but why was the lady in charge of the cemetery talking filth like that?
Turns out, ballers are black iron posts with balls on top. The posts block the entrance into the cemetery. You have to lift the post from the asphalt—yank it straight up and lay it on the grass—to drive through the gate. But I didn’t ask—‘cause I was embarrassed, the cemetery lady talking trash—so me and the fam wandered around the edges of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, lost as sheep without a goat, trying to find a way in. After a while, a stranger noticed the line of cars idling at the gate and showed us how to work the baller and, finally, we arrived at the tree-shaded grave.
It occurs to me: did I tell you who died? Or did that slip my mind? I’m talking about real life, and I’m trying to tell the truth.
As in, I really, really hated the lady. Not the cemetery lady—I decided she was nice when I figured out she wasn’t talking dirty during my time of grief. No, I hated the widow of my dad’s old boss.
I guess I should’ve felt sorry for her—old lady, dead husband, randomly showing up at a private funeral uninvited. But she was the one who married an idiot for a husband. Not that my dad talked ugly about his idiot boss. Nope, forty years working for the bozo and not one bad word crossed his lips, even though the idiot only got his job by marrying into the family business.
You see my point?
Pop could’ve had a good boss if only the widow had chosen a better husband, say, someone able to balance a ledger. Instead, she married a buffoon and ruined Pop’s life. I guarantee you, she was counting on the family business to find a patsy to carry her idiot husband, and it found him but good. My Pop, who got up with every goddamn warehouse break-in, who gave up every fucking holiday to work on the sorry sprinkler system, who handed every last thing he had to that decrepit, run-down, dying company. Now the little monster appears in her expensive funeral suit. Didn’t even come to Pop’s funeral, but she’s got her soft hands folded beside this pitiful grave.
We had to dig our own grave—did I mention that? The cemetery lady didn’t mention it, either. That we would need a shovel, I mean. She talked about ballers and $45 for a second urn in the same plot and “X marks the spot” and other highly inappropriate shit. But the couple next to us burying their cremated mother in an urn, they knew to bring a shovel. So we were borrowing their shovel—”Oh, sure, yeah, for just a minute, of course.”—and all the while I was thinking to myself, how would someone tell this story? “They’re at the cemetery, and this chick is so high on drugs to numb her grief she forgot to bring the shovel so they have to borrow one from the grave next door, as in, can you spare a cup of dirt for a neighbor?”
The clueless old widow watched the hole grow bigger and bigger, her eyes widening right along with it. Fortunately, the hole for a baby urn isn’t very big, or her eyes would’ve popped right out of her head.
“It absolutely killed him,” I had overhead my mom saying on the phone one time not long after the news got out. She was talking about my pop. “Having a baby at her age. He never imagined such a thing would happen to a daughter of his.”
Yep, that’s what killed him. Not day after day of cleaning up the idiot’s messes while the man himself waltzed out the door to play golf—“business development”—until Pop’s overworked arteries constricted, and the blood slowed to a leak, and the poor, abandoned heart, unfed, flopped over, dead.
No, it was unprotected sex.
My unprotected sex.
At an embarrassingly old age.
Never mind that Pop held Rachel in his arms and wept, insisting she was the prettiest baby he’d ever laid eyes on, bar none.
“What’s a bar nun?” I’d asked, repeating our favorite stupid joke.
He smiled, and I knew Rachel would grow up repeating the refrain. Like me when I was a little girl imagining a nun sitting on a bar stool waiting for a cold foaming beer to arrive. Our family’s very own version of “A rabbi and a priest walk into a bar . . . .”
My cousin in the fringed cowboy hat stomped on the shovel, and his foot slipped. He stumbled. Probably drunk. We should’ve all been so lucky—the drugs doctors give you for grief aren’t for shit. They make you forget everything except what you want to forget.
When my cousin—whose name I can’t remember—regained his footing, the widow moved up from the shadows of the tree to steady him. She pressed her lips together, determined. But determined to do what? Her duty? Was it her duty to come to the funeral of a former employee’s grandchild? What did she care?
I’ve forgotten where this story started. Was it when my dad died? Or when Rachel began coughing and tiny scarlet drops stained her Winnie-the-Pooh shirt? Or way back when I was a child at Pop’s feet and my building blocks fell onto the carpet and I sobbed, only to be picked up and soothed in his arms. “It’ll be okay,” he insisted, roughly patting my head. Never once mocking my grief over a toy castle, so briefly in this world. “You can build another one. Better than any, bar none.”
I think the story began right there. Or maybe it ended there. Before the flunking out of college and the terrible marriage and the drunk night at the bar where, God help us, there was no nun. If only a nun had been seated next to me, a nice, understanding old lady who brooked no nonsense. She would’ve said, “That man is a piece of shit,” and I never would have gone home with a dude in a sombrero (it was Cinco de Mayo) and entered a debate I didn’t want to be a part of: keep the baby or not?
I kept her. For my pop. Because one time, he sighed and said it was high time for him to be a grandpop. I can do that for him, I thought. Make him happy. It worked. He held Rachel and wept. Then he died. Now we’re wedging in Rachel beside him: two urns, one plot, no room between them for sorrow.
“How could she be so foolish?” Mom had asked whoever was on the other end of the line. “It’s not like she doesn’t know where babies come from at her age.”
While the cousin shoveled, Mom read from her prayer book, even though Rachel wouldn’t give two fucks about “thou arts.” I mean, I couldn’t follow what the reading meant—how the holy hell could she? Was she even listening? Giggling, maybe, at me talking at her funeral about ballers and drunk nuns and shit because when you’re in heaven, none of the crap we care about down here matters cause you’re dead. Up there, you get real smart real fast so even if you’re only eighteen months old, you laugh at your mama’s stupid, dirty mind.
Mom declared amen, and the old lady sighed next to me, “Seven months old.”
“Eighteen,” I corrected the stupid bitch—don’t come to the game if you can’t keep score.
“Oh, no.” She turned her cow eyes on me. “Not yours, sweetheart. Mine.”
Then I got it. She’d lost a child too. And she was here to one-up me. Telling me her lost baby was even younger than my lost baby. More tragic. More beloved, I’m sure, because I’m betting her baby wasn’t the daughter of a thirty-eight-year-old slut.
“They burned my child in an oven and sifted her into an urn so we could bury her underground. They tore out my heart,” I told her.
“I’m sure you were a good mother.” She reached out her hand.
“I was a baller.”
Her hand faltered. But she said, “And a good mother,” more stubborn than her skinny ass would indicate.
She watched as Mom closed the prayer book and turned her back on us.
“Your father was kind to me during my time of grief,” she said. “For no reason, other than he was a kind man. So long ago.”
“My pop died, and my baby never lived long enough to hear him tell his favorite joke.”
She smiled, spreading her old lady wrinkles. “The one about the bar nun? He told it every convention.”
“As in, I’m the most ancient, bereaved mother in the universe, bar none,” I said.
“What’s a bar nun?” she graciously replied.
God, I remember now, the important thing I forgot.
It wasn’t the coffin and the shovel and the stupid readings. Pop was with Rachel, smiling at her while she giggled in his arms, and I knew—God, I fucking knew. He and Rachel were playing together and neither of them gave two shits about us down here, crying over who was the saddest mother of all, because it was okay. Finally, finally okay.
Go, God said. So he went. It would be a long journey, he was sure. God didn’t use divine breath for small demands. Consider, for months he prayed that God would heal his son Joseph. But Joseph died, and God never said a word about it. Because of this grief it was easy for him to go. He wondered why God should test him when he was most pliable, but tests and God are mysteries best left alone.
It took him weeks to move through the plains, and he never saw a soul. Keep going, God said. And so he did, though he was thirsty and starving and tired. He passed into the mountain villages where the cottages were all shut up. He only person saw a young boy, who crawled out of mud he played within to spit in his face. Ashamed, he drank from a horse trough for nourishment. Keep going, God said. And he did, though he wondered why everyone despised him, especially as it was God who sent him. Was it he being tested or the others? After his grief and loneliness, it would be healing to have a kind word, but there was nothing. So he knew, even when God was silent, that he was doing the right thing. That he must go. In the valley of grapes people hurried to dispose of anything edible, racing away, it seemed, just to spite him. Still, he managed to find a few discarded seeds. Keep going, God said. And he did. That was all his body knew how to do anymore anyway. Reaching the vast, empty desert, he felt better. There was no one there to hate him. How much further? he asked. Keep going, God said.
He’d never been so far. He didn’t know his limbs could carry him this tremendous distance. He came upon a precipice, the end of the known world. Below was a sea that stretched into infinity. A comfort to know this was all according to God’s plan, he jumped. That was the only place left to go. The water was cool. It refreshed him, entered his pores and filled him with light. Go deeper, God said. So he went. Down into the black-blue depths. Then he understood, and found what God sent him for. He held it in his heart as the water filled his lungs.
The people remembered the refugee, his stink and need. Stay, God said. So they stayed, wary of outsiders. All the people knew where the refugee resided, and that sea was the Sea of Evil. They knew they must never go near it or cross it, that they must shut their eyes and cover their ears, and let the blood flow. To hear God was to hear their own desire and fear as it curdled in their hearts. God never misspoke.
flash fiction by Evan Steuber
poetry by Jason Schiren
I am not an angel.
prayed to God for flight.
& look at me now,
no closer to Heaven
than an earthworm
blind beneath the soil,
the weight of the world,
Mockingbird Calling From
a Willow Branch
Drunk in the desert, we wandered up a canyon and fell asleep under a boulder. In the morning we convinced ourselves we were on Mars. Stranded astronauts with hangovers. It wasn’t hard to believe with the high apathetic clouds, red wind. Not a bird, a beetle, even a stoic pincushion cactus in sight. Sweet vastness! We hiked over tills of alluvial sand, then crested a ridge. There was a road winding below and beige rectangles of industrial buildings. Being on earth, not far from the parking lot, made us cross and bickery. It feels unfair being found, but still lost.
micro fiction by Elizabeth Wing
Harold stared sullenly out the window at the rows of decaying white houses rapidly passing by. From the tracks of the LIRR, he could see over their back fences into small brown yards, most dotted with rusted charcoal barbecues or neglected, faded-green jungle gyms. In his lap, he kept a tattered paperback copy of Wuthering Heights—a novel he had begun reading ten years earlier—his finger holding his place on the page.
“Has Cathy died yet?” Pattie asked.
“You wonder how the aristocracy was able to hold onto power with how sickly and frail they all seemed to be. You step out for a stroll in a light drizzle, and the next morning, you're on your deathbed.”
Pattie looked back down at her magazine. “That Cassavetes film is coming back to MoMA this month,” she offered, showing him a little blurb.
“You didn’t laugh,” Harold said. “I thought that was pretty funny.”
“You’ve told that joke before,” Pattie shrugged.
“I’ve seen you watch that episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy bets Ricky she can tell the truth for a whole day at least thirty times, but okay.”
Pattie opened her mouth to respond, but turned her attention back to her magazine. “Do you think Helen will make those scalloped potatoes again?” she asked, not looking up from the page.
“What’s wrong with her scalloped potatoes?”
“Nothing.” Pattie looked confused. “They were really good last year. So cheesy!”
“Pattie, those potatoes are what my mom chooses to make. If you don’t want to eat them, you don’t have to. We can say you’re dieting.”
Pattie glanced at him. The train rattled as Harold looked down at the cover of his book, his lips pursed. “That little black box theater on 28th is doing an all-trans version of The Vagina Monologues,” Pattie offered, nodding toward her copy of the New Yorker.
“Oh,” Harold said absently. “That’s good.”
“That would be really inspiring to see.”
Pattie waited for Harold to continue, then turned back to her magazine.
Harold checked his watch. “We can just walk from the station. My parents might still be on their way back from church when we get in.”
“Whatever you want. You told them we’d be late because you had to work, right?”
Harold sighed, patting down the thinning hairs on the top of his head. “That’s right, Pattie. I made sure to tell them it’s my fault. Don’t worry. I’ve protected you from the judgmental gaze of a woman who was just surprised you didn’t know the melody to One Bread, One Body. You will never be subjected to such embarrassment again.”
“Jesus, Harold, I was just—”
“Do we have to go through this every Easter?”
“I was just saying—”
“Look, my parents may not be able to help us with a down payment, or loan us their cabin in the Catskills, or have been in group therapy with Rob Reiner, but they’re still my parents, okay?”
Pattie looked back down at her magazine. “Ghanaian drumming at Symphony Space.”
“Was your train on time?” A short, pear-shaped woman with undulating fleshy arms embraced Harold and Pattie in turn, squeezing Harold’s cheeks and giving Pattie a kiss that missed by several inches as they stepped into a musty-smelling living room. Faded photographs of young children, the woman, and an equally rotund, red-faced man standing in raincoats at Niagara Falls and in cabana clothes before Mount Rushmore decorated a chipped brown cabinet that housed a flickering big-screen TV.
“Hi, dad,” Harold waved to a man watching the television from a leather recliner, an older version of the same red-faced man in the photographs.
“Son,” the man waved back with his free hand, while the other lifted a can of beer to his lips. “Pattie,” he added, mid-swallow, “it’s good to see you. You look very healthy.”
“Thanks,” Pattie replied. “I’ve been taking a lot of walks.” She searched for something to discuss, but found nothing had changed in the room since her last visit. “How have you two been?”
“We’ve been watching this Rachel Maddow.” Harold’s father pointed to the TV screen. “I don’t know what’s going on with the way she looks, but she’s a sharp gal.” He looked at Harold. “Do you watch this show of hers, son?” he asked. “She talks about all of the stuff happening with Trump. Maybe you could put some of it in your books.”
“Dad, she’s getting that from my book,” Harold said.
“Oh?” Harold’s father nodded indulgently. “She spells it all out. All of these different people Trump knows, and the boy, Jared. You watch MSNBC, you’d be up to speed on this whole Russia thing in probably one, two hours.”
“The other one I like is Chris Hayes,” Harold’s mother interjected.
“Chris Hayes is compromised,” Harold said quickly. His parents looked at him. “Kremlin. It’ll all come out.”
“Chris and I went to college together, actually,” Pattie offered. Harold rolled his eyes.
“Harry! Did you know that?” Harold’s mother smiled brightly. “Can I take your jackets?”
“Chris Hayes is too…boyish for me,” Harold’s father commented, his eyes not leaving the television. “You need a hard face for the news. Someone you can trust.” He sipped his beer. “Like this Maddow girl!” He broke into a belly laugh.
“You know, Rachel Maddow is a Rhodes Scholar.” Pattie pointed to the TV screen.
“That’s the one for rowers, right?” Harold’s mother asked, entering the room holding a plate of Ritz crackers. “You know, Pattie, Harold used to row at Columbia. He had the most important job. He had to keep all of the other rowers on pace.”
“I’ve heard that, yeah,” Pattie said distantly.
“Never did get to see him race, though,” Harold’s father added.
“Most of my races were on weeknights,” Harold said evasively.
Harold’s mother clapped her hands together. “Well, dinner should be ready in a half hour or so. Can I get you two anything to drink?”
“Thanks, Helen. We brought wine.” Pattie presented a bottle of red wine from a brown paper sack she had had cradled under her arm.
“How lovely,” Helen said, inspecting the bottle. “Oh, a screw top.”
“Cork is actually an imperfect stop for a wine bottle. There’s a chemical component in it that ruins the taste of wine if it interacts with it.”
“Hence the term, this wine’s been corked,” added Harold.
Helen nodded. “Well, it’ll be easier to open, in any case.” She headed toward the kitchen, Harold and Pattie following behind. “Did you two like the bottle we gave you for Christmas?”
“We got it at the Wine Mart,” Harold’s father added, participating in the conversation from his chair in the other room. “You go in there, they only sell wine. You want any type of wine, I’d bet you they sell it at the Wine Mart.”
Helen set the bottle down by the sink and retrieved an apron hanging from the corner of the refrigerator, tying it around her waist. “And Pattie, how are your parents?”
“They’re fine,” Pattie said politely. “They have plans today to go to a members-only preview of the Zoe Leonard exhibit at the Whitney.”
“Uh huh,” Helen said as though Pattie had answered in a foreign tongue. “Do they still have that lovely apartment by the park?”
“It’s off of West End.” Pattie smiled cooly. “But yes, they’re still there.”
“We had such a nice time when we went over there for your engagement party. Those rugs! Jim couldn’t get over those rugs.”
“They were nice rugs,” Jim concurred from the living room.
“They were telling that story about how they bought them on your father’s trip to Persia. What an exciting life they’ve had.”
“Yes,” Pattie agreed.
“Are they planning any trips now?”
“I’m not really sure.” Pattie shrugged. “They just recently got back from Florida.”
“Oh! Do they go every winter? You hear about these—couples that—that go every winter.”
“Their holiday is around now, right? When does it fall?”
“It started on Friday, actually.”
“I knew it!” Helen beamed. “I always know it’s coming up because our grocery store puts the matzah and the manischewitz out front by the cash register.”
“Yeah, it’s like the leaves changing.”
“You know, I know a Jew—a Jewish woman,” Helen said brightly. “Barbara Goldman. She was on the Parent-Teachers Association when Harold was in grade school.”
“The PTA,” Harold sighed. “It doesn’t sound more sophisticated to call it the Parent-Teachers Association.”
“She had a son who played baseball with Harold, too, right?” Pattie reminded.
“Oh, he told you about her!”
“Ah, last time we were here, you mention—”
“Yes, they were on the Little League team together in fifth grade, before we found out about Harold’s weak fingers. Barbara Goldman. She’s nice!” Helen said reassuringly.
“What a relief!”
“Jake Goldman,” Helen continued blithely. “I hear he does teeth now. Every so often, I see him driving around downtown in that BMW of his.”
Harold shook his head. “He has the little BMW.”
“It’s a sports car, Harry! They’re supposed to be small,” Jim corrected. “Can one of you bring me back a beer on your way from the kitchen?”
Harold shook his head again. “I shudder to think about him doing dental work, with those oafish fingers of his.”
“Ten more minutes!” Helen announced, closing the metal oven door with a clank. “Now, Pattie, if you can’t have ham, we have some rolls.”
“Ham is fine. Just like last year.”
“Ah, but the rolls are a no-no? With the, uh—what do you call it? Jim, what do they call the bread?”
“But what do they say about it? They can’t eat normal bread for some reason.”
“They said on the news they can’t drink Gatorade,” Jim answered.
“It’s ‘unleavened bread,’” Pattie said tartly, helping herself to a white roll out of a worn wicker basket. “It’s fine.”
“Right! Unleavened,” Helen replied. “So interesting how they didn’t have time to let the bread rise. It reminds me of whenever Jim and I come into the city for a show. Always in a rush, those people.”
Helen thought. “They really do, don’t they?” she smiled.
“So, we get off the subway,” Helen said, taking a quick sip of wine, “and we see all these—you know how when you’re in an area with a lot of police, you just get nervous that it’s a bad neighborhood.”
“Naturally,” Pattie nodded.
“I said, ‘Jim, I told you we shouldn’t of gotten on the express,’ but you try getting him to listen. Once, we were trying to find a restaurant in Little Italy, and Jim tried to use the sun to navigate. The sun! We almost ended up in the river!”
Jim glumly chewed a mouthful of ham, his jaw slowly bobbing up and down beneath tired eyes like an overworked horse. “Your sister Susan is giving a talk at the history department this month,” he announced after he had swallowed. “It’s about women. Your mother and I are going to drive up to Ithaca to watch it. You’re invited, of course.”
Harold glanced quickly at Pattie. “This is going to be a busy month, what with all of the promotion for the book.”
“It’s only a four hour drive. We can pick you up in the Buick.”
“It’s nearly impossible to predict when I might get the call from CNN,” Harold shrugged. “And the last time we went up there, I got sick.”
“I think it’d be nice if you could take one afternoon off to go support your sister,” Helen commented.
“That’s right, son. She tells us this paper of hers is a pretty big deal.”
“My book got a cease and desist letter from the President of the United States.”
Helen’s face fell. “You didn’t tell us that.”
Harold looked at her tiredly. “I mentioned it on the phone. And on Rachel Maddow.”
“Is it still safe for you to publish it?”
Harold sighed. “Yes. That’s the whole point of the First Amendment.”
Helen shook her head. “Just be careful. You don’t want to get in trouble.”
“Your sister Susan is giving a talk about women in the Middle Ages,” Jim explained. “I didn’t exactly understand it, but something about sex—whether or not women had sex in the Middle Ages, or something.” He buttered a roll. “She’s very sharp, see. She’s all up on what they’re talking about. She sees that these academics, they like sex, so she goes, okay, I’m going to write a paper on sex.” He carefully bit a piece of the roll. “I hear it’s a very big paper.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Harold said, scooping a second helping of scalloped potatoes onto his plate. “What could be more world-changing than definitively documenting Western Europe’s discovery of the clitoris?”
“Harold!” Helen scolded. Jim looked down at his plate.
“You know, last year, my parents had Anthony Bourdain’s mother at their seder.”
“Pattie, please, at least try to change the subject,” Harold whispered.
“Harold’s right,” Pattie said helpfully. “He’s just been so busy doing the rounds for his book, I’ve hardly seen him myself lately. He’s in very high demand.” Harold smiled.
“Never thought you’d see the day, I bet,” Jim chuckled. “Remember the Easter he was writing that retraction at the table?”
“That man was a magician,” Harold protested through a mouthful of potatoes.
“As I was saying, your sister, Susan, sees the direction all of this is going, with the academics, and she’s writing a paper for them. She’s going to get right out ahead of this interest in women. Carlyles are that way,” he explained, turning to Pattie. “They think ahead.”
“Uh huh,” Pattie agreed politely.
“Now, Harold’s grandfather, when he came to this country, he wasn’t named Carlyle. Nope. He was named Cesnauskis. Now, he had a peanut stand. He sold peanuts and popcorn. Right at the corner of 86th Street and Central Park East. Right by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How’s that for a location? Right at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He sees this museum, and he goes, Americans are going to want to get something to eat. So he sets up his cart right there.” Jim paused, studying Pattie. “You follow me?”
Pattie nodded. “Right, yeah. Thinking ahead.”
“Thinking ahead,” Jim agreed, placing his finger to the side of his nose. “Every evening, after selling popcorn and peanuts, he dragged his cart home from his spot in front of the museum, and he passed this new fancy hotel, The Carlyle. He sees the sign. Sees rich women getting out of cabs, in fur coats. Every day. Until one of the co-ops made him move his cart down to Times Square, with all the whores. But he sees The Carlyle Hotel, see, and he goes, ah ha! Cesnauskis. Carlyle. ‘C.’ So what does he do? He changes his name. Starts using ‘Carlyle.’ Thinking ahead. If you’re going to be a rich American, you need a rich American name.” Jim sat back proudly in his chair. “And that’s how you became Pattie Carlyle.”
“I always wondered,” Pattie nodded.
“Your sister, she has that same sense as your grandfather,” Jim continued. He gestured toward Harold with his knife, launching a glob of mustard across the table. “The Carlyle sense.”
“I know exactly what you mean, the Carlyle sense,” Harold cut in. “I mean, I saw the writing on the wall with this whole Russia thing and the president before anyone else.”
Jim looked at Harold with an absent smile. “Sure, uh huh.”
“When that Roger Stone tweeted about Podesta’s emails, that’s when I knew,” Helen said matter-of-factly, taking another sip of wine.
“You sure I can’t send you home with some more ham?” Helen asked, thrusting into Pattie’s hands a grease-soaked paper plate with a heaping mound of ham tightly packed under plastic wrapping.
“Oh, you know we’d love more, but I’m just not sure we’d have room in the fridge,” Pattie explained apologetically. “You know, Manhattan kitchens.”
“Sure,” Helen said unenthusiastically. “And I guess with your holiday and all.”
“Yep, it’s fried potatoes and lamb shanks as far as the eye can see.”
“You two heading out?” Jim asked, putting on a blue windbreaker as he stepped out into the living room from the back hall. “Has anyone seen my hat?”
“Jim, you can’t wear that hat,” Helen muttered. “Nobody wears those.”
“I wear those,” Jim grumbled. He retrieved a worn, black fisherman’s cap sitting atop the coffee table, then turned back to Harold and Pattie. “See, my head tends to get a bit cold. I put this on, keeps all the warmth in. I can stay out for—hours.”
“Smart,” Pattie said politely.
“I keep offering to buy one for Harold, but he always says no.”
“My hair keeps me warm,” Harold shrugged. Helen beamed.
“So you’re catching the 6:40 train?” Helen asked. Harold nodded. “Because, you know, if you don’t catch that one, there isn’t another express until eight. Because it’s Sunday.”
“The trains don’t go as often on Sunday,” Helen explained to Pattie. “Now, if you had come on a Tuesday—”
“Thank you again for dinner, Helen,” Pattie smiled.
“Of course. Say hi to your parents for me. It’s a shame, with the different holidays, that we never see them.”
“I will, thank you.”
“We keep waiting for you and Harold to show up with one of those Persian rugs!”
“Do you kids need a ride to the train station?” Jim asked, straightening his cap before a small circular mirror.
“We’re fine, thanks,” Harold said, placing his hand on Pattie’s back and moving toward the door.
“You sure? It’s right on the way to the Lithuanian Society.”
“It’s such a nice day out, why spoil it?” Harold said, gesturing to the heavy gray skies through the window. “Help us work off the ham.”
“Oh, you don’t need to lose weight,” Helen said proudly. “Do you eat enough during the week? What do you have for lunch?”
“I eat plenty.”
“When you’re out on a story, do you get to expense your meals?” Jim asked.
“Practically the motto of the journalism industry, dad.”
“Because there’s this Applebee’s in West Babylon. Your mother and I went there the other day. They give you a steak, with a side of French fries, and a vegetable. Twelve ninety-nine. I says to her, if Harry is coming through here on his way off the boat, he could stop here, if that paper would pay for it. But I didn’t know if they’d pay for it. Your sister, the college pays for everything, I understand."
“I’m accustomed to eating a little better than college cafeteria food,” Harold sniffed.
“The last time we drove up there for a lecture, they had free wine and cheese after. What a spread. You should’ve seen all the different cheeses they had. Cheddar, Jack, one of the runny ones—I don’t care for those—”
“Dad, I can get cheese.”
“Oh,” Jim said, somewhat crestfallen. “Good. You can get cheese. Okay.”
“We’ll have to get a move on if we’re gonna catch the train,” Pattie said helpfully.
“Alright. And let us know about your sister Susan’s lecture. You’re both invited,” Jim reminded.
“Happy Easter!” Helen called as the couple quickly filed out of the narrow doorway and down the meager front walk. “Pattie, to heat the ham, just put the oven to 350, and then put it in. And keep an eye on it.”
“Thanks, I’ll write that down!” Pattie said, not looking back or slowing down. The couple waved as Jim pulled out of the driveway next to them in a brown, egg-shaped Buick, and slowly headed up the street. “I thought that went relatively well.”
Harold shook his head. “Did you see, they still haven’t changed that ratty carpet in the living room? You’d think nothing in that house had changed in thirty years. It’s still Susan, Susan, Susan. You’d think she discovered the clitoris herself.”
“And that oven! I’m surprised they haven’t died of gas inhalation, the way that pilot light always goes out. I keep telling them to replace it.”
“It seemed to work fine. And they have those long matches to relight it.”
“And if my mother ever paints those walls anything other than pastel green, I guess it’ll be time to call the geriatric care specialists. God, those people.”
“Uh huh,” Pattie said. “I’ve gotten used to the walls, to be honest.”
“You’d think there’s no higher achievement than expensing a meal at Applebee’s after listening to those two. Steak for $12.99? I didn’t get all the way to where I am today by setting my sights on the bottom rung, I mean. Of course, try telling them that. Did you know, when my parents moved me into the dorms at Columbia, they just gave me $100 for clothes? That was it, for the whole semester. You can’t even get a matching shirt and pocket square from Brooks Brothers for $100.”
“I know. I’ve seen the earmarked catalogs you leave in the bathroom.”
“They’d never heard of crew. I should’ve gone out for something more athletic, my dad said, like basketball. Can you believe that? Like I’m going to meet the next century’s movers and shakers playing a zone defense.”
“And completely ignoring your weak fingers,” Pattie shook her head.
“Did you notice my dad’s hair? Or should I say, lack thereof?” Harold laughed. “He should really just shave what’s left of it off at this point. Those little baby hairs stretched across his scalp like he’s entering a Winston Churchill lookalike contest. It’s like, have you looked in a mirror lately?” He shook his head mirthfully.
“It’s remarkable what people see when they look at themselves, isn’t it?”
“You’re telling me. And gosh, Pattie, am I glad you don’t look like my mother.”
Pattie glanced at Harold.
“Not like that. Well, that too. But her skin! You’d think she was descended from a tortoise. Jesus Christ. Take a spa day, already.”
“The ham’s leaking.” Pattie held the plate out far from her body. “Are you married to these leftovers, or can I throw them out?”
“Good God, Pattie, let’s leave it on Long Island, like everything else I ever got from those two.”
Pattie tossed the package of ham into a trash can as they entered onto the train platform, wiping her hands on the back of her pants. She squinted into the distance at an approaching train. “Here’s the express.”
“We really belong in Manhattan, don’t we?” Harold asked. “Let’s do something else next year.”
“Natalie and Anthony have been inviting us to their seder for years now.”
“Why don’t we plan to get away instead? Go somewhere warm. I was reading an article in the AAA magazine about Palm Beach.”
A train slowed to a stop at the platform with a hiss, and Pattie climbed onboard and filed into a row by the door. “My parents swear by it.”
“Uh huh.” Harold sat down next to her as the train lurched forward. “Do your parents keep a calendar for when their place down there is open, or is it more of a casual thing?”
“I’m just thinking, as long as there’s a Florida property in the family.”
Pattie was quiet.
“Pattie, we’re a family.”
Pattie sighed, turning toward the window. “I guess that’s true, isn’t it?”
“Maybe we should give them a call,” Harold mused. “Passover’s over for your guys, right? Your parents should be allowed to answer their phones again.”
The Carlyle Sense
short fiction by Michael Bleicher & Andy Newton
Just Ignore It and It Will Go Away
This summer, wasps fly into Sam’s studio apartment for the first time since he moved in five years before. They stalk and haunt him. Sam hides behind a pillow. He puts on his shoes, as though the solution lies in escape.
When Sam was a child at the house by the sea, during long, sunny lunches served in blue plates on a blue tablecloth, Sam would watch his grandfather’s hand as it slowly made for his knife, and the wasps wouldn’t know they had it coming.
When Sam was a child, he and his mother once sat in bed watching either ‘Mimic’ (Sam’s version of events, since disputed) or a different film entirely unrelated to insects (his mother’s version) when the phone rang.
Sam’s father later described the sensation as “getting hit on the temple by a piece of bread”, which, believe it or not, is what he initially believed, even though this was a respectable restaurant, not the kind of place where food flies around and into patrons’ faces. Anyway, Sam’s father had about five seconds to consider this theory before his body slid out of his chair and collapsed onto the floor.
When Sam was a child, his grandfather once asked him to unbuckle his belt and touch the old skin below his navel (a non-disputed version of events, subject to widely disputed interpretations). At the time, Sam did not know wasps existed, only flies, after accidentally finding one in his mouth, freshly drowned in his hot chocolate. After, Sam’s mind brimmed with feverish visions of a single wing wedged between two molars.
When Sam’s father was diagnosed with a lethal allergy to bee stings, Sam felt as though a very lonely, very ancient club of one had just gained a new member. The nurse told his father that next time he got stung he surely would die. At least his father would know he’d had it coming.
Sam hadn’t known he’d had it coming.
Once, when Sam was a child, in the small suspended slice of time before the medics came careening through the door, as the adrenaline was making its way slowly through his veins, Sam looked up into his father’s eyes and said: “I think I’m leaving,” and this was not a question, but a piece of information.
“As you know, the life expectancy for children affected with this pathology is 18 years,” Sam reads in a letter his father wrote an allergologist many years before.
When he was a child, Sam hated wasps almost as much as he hated the thought of the knife’s dull blade plunging into their thin waist, separating a formerly vibrating whole. He hated the buzz of wasps as they followed him, frenzied, around the garden. He hated the silence around his grandfather’s plate.
“The allergies are in his head”, Sam’s new stepmother tells his father.
Shoe in hand, senses on fire, Sam stands on the threshold of his kitchen and watches as the wasp lingers above the dessicated paint on the window frame. He watches, still, as the wasp ignores a pot of honey and a box of strawberries, lands on the old knife stand his father gifted him. Neither Sam nor the wasp make a sound.
flash fiction by Marie Baleo
In the beginning, when the rain fell in fat stripes,
I knelt in front of an altar of leaves and said your name
so many times, it sounded like an incantation. You had
met me in the belly of a whale. I was playing harp songs
on its ribcage, plucking bones in the key of C, and you smiled
so brightly, you set the whole place on fire.
The flames feathered around us while the grey outside
shivered, and the shadows cast darkness on your face
in violent angles. It was an autumn of cocaine and sinus infections,
and purple wine we drank from boxes. On my birthday
I was driving with my knees and wanting you
more with every sip of air. I told you to crawl inside.
You came slowly.
Later, snow fell like memories around us and everything was terrible
while nothing was terrible. Someone told me love is a choice,
but I kept pushing things into my mouth to stop me
from feeling like myself. I should have told you that
my heart carries a pistol, that an invisible illness spreads through me
like indigo ink droplets in a glass of water, furling and unfolding.
I should’ve told you to go west without me, to find a girl
with winged eye liner and a wry smile. You shouldn’t stay
here, where the white noise is cold and wet around us.
I should’ve told you, I should’ve told you.
There is this haunt in me that you don’t deserve.
Great American Haunt
poetry by Layla Lenhardt
Ghostworld 2: Womanhood
(Meditation at a Korean Day Spa)
The cruelest thing God could have done, He did to me lovingly. Needle and thread in hand, He stitched me together, breathed into my nostrils, brought forth my first cry, and made me a black woman.
Through the eyes He gave me, I see a genocide of brown people by brown people. A massacre turned both inward and outward, conducted most cruelly through the withholding of love, the impossibility of desire. An inferiority complex turned self-hatred turned mantra that whispers, again and again: you are not worthy of the unconditioned, unfettered love you desire.
This genocide begs black and brown men and women to erase brownness in their children, their grandchildren—adding white paint until black is grey, is white again. I have heard mothers tell young brown boys and girls they are not to bring home a dark lover, a black lover, a brown lover. I have heard the voices of my own extended family members saying, boldly, that we need to lighten the race: Find someone like you, but not dark. I ask: what is dark? Is it simply anyone and everything that cannot be called light?
I wonder, had God not been so cruel, if things would be easier. If all that He placed inside of me would shine brighter, speak louder. I wonder if love would not be offered to me like scraps.
The black and brown men and boys who have pursued me, claimed they liked me, even loved me, would not have said so like it was an offered favor, like I automatically owed them my attentions and affections in return. They would not speak to me like I am being given something I could never earn, something I don’t really deserve. I would not feel uneasy and afraid when they eyed me, would not turn my face from them, afraid to catch their eye and bracing myself for aggressive, unwanted attention that says I am already theirs because I am brown, not because I am actually wanted. I am a black girl who should know her place. Intelligent, pretty even, for such brown skin. An enigma wrapped in a contradiction, an exception just worthy enough for offhand affection. Who am I to dare turn them down? What do my feelings matter when they are giving me a pass?
I wonder, had God been kinder, if light-skinned men of every race would look me in the eye. If their desire would not be masked and their interest, their feelings for a black girl, would not incite fear, shame. If seeing me as someone beautiful, someone worth knowing, would not be exotic and outlandish, a phase that would soon fade away.
I wonder, had God chosen to spare me, if I could be an option—truly seen and truly wanted. Not a pass or an experiment, not a source of shame but a person—viable and whole.
The first time I truly and completely fell in love, I found someone like me on the inside. I found someone who knew what it is to be brown, if not the same brown as myself. I found someone who saw and cared for my soul—prescribed it no color. I found someone who did not give me worth, but saw worth long and deep within me, reminded me it was there. I found someone who never told me I was beautiful, but made the fact known in small, quiet ways that made me glow from the inside.
Love was soft and surprising, a young phoenix rising from a pile of ash, warm and small and fluttering. Vulnerable and unsure. Furtive glances and soft, careful touches. Words, transparent and shimmering, extracted from the soul and presented to one another—placed with the other where we knew they were safe. He never so much as held my hand, but once or twice held me close to him, gentle. I might have been spun from glass.
The first time I truly and completely fell in love, it was because someone saw me—the me who had been hidden, stifled and ignored, ever since I learned brown and the shame attached to it. Someone saw me, and I’ve so rarely felt seen.
Love was short-lived and sudden, a profound impact that struck me, within me, settled deep under my skin. With a whimper—a splutter—the phoenix burst back into flame. The zeal of being seen had given way to partial blindness and we unraveled, slowly at first and then all at once, coming to rest as something new but different in a way that hurt—the smallest sting.
The tears I cried for him were different than any I had cried before. Different than when, in college, a black man old enough to be my father badgered me every day before and after our shared class to talk to him, to befriend him. He showered me with compliments, his eyes wide and eager as he watched me squirm. He soon told me I was racist for not giving in, that I thought I was too good for a black man, that I was wrong for not just giving him a chance. Different than when a white man at my first university told me I was beautiful and exotic, sat close behind me and breathed down my neck, acted offended when I told him off. Different than when, in high school, the brown boy who said he loved sent me 17 text messages telling me everything he hated about me because he couldn’t have me—because I wouldn’t let myself be had. These new tears were the wailings of a wounded animal, the response to the sudden tearing, the sudden snuffing of a soft, glowing soul.
The first time I truly and completely fell in love and lost it, the phoenix reappeared, small and aching, but burning like a pilot light in the dark. Gentle and quiet, some words still extracted from the depths of the soul and shared, others held tightly in my mouth. I padded myself around him, gave myself three or four inches of safety between his heart and mine.
There were shadows in the way now; ghosts moving between us I hadn’t seen before.
Now, I think of him and how the worst thing God could have done, he did lovingly. Needle and thread in hand, He stitched him together, breathed into his nostrils, brought forth his first cry, and made him brown.
If God had spared him, would he love himself? If God hadn’t been so cruel, would he need lovers with loose hair, light eyes, and milk colored skin to hand him the worth he swears he doesn’t have? Would he need her to tell him he matters? To echo the words that weren’t enough when I said them?
What is validation and who can give it? Did he ever give it to me? Could I have ever given it to him? I look at my dark hair and eyes and skin and know the answer. I know it and for a moment I imagine the girl softly whispering worth into his ear, wrapping pale fingers around his brown hand. She makes him taller, smarter, better; I remind him of everything he lacks. But when he talked of his pain, when he talked of the beautiful, mean world and how it hurts the brown body, didn’t he speak to me?
Could he have ever spoken to her?
The first time I truly and completely fell in love, he later told me in a voice so soft and gentle it might have been spun from glass: in another world, you could be white. I looked at him, the one person who saw me, the one person I have loved, and realized with a pang that maybe, just maybe, he didn’t always see me, or himself, like I thought. Perhaps that what I had seen in him, and what he had seen in me, might have only been the momentary glimpses of a glowing brown body, a glowing soul, freed from the ever-present genocide, the weight of not-good-enough. I thought maybe, just maybe, the genocide is alive—virulent—within him, farther and deeper than I could have ever guessed.
I want to believe that small things like the darkness of one’s skin, the texture and hue of their hair, or the color of their eyes do not dictate who receives love, and who does not. I want to believe lovers are not taken for what they can give or affirm, but for who they are. I want to believe that these things on the surface don’t matter when souls match. I want to believe that people only take lovers because of love.
But I can’t. No matter how desperately I want to; I can’t.
creative non-fiction by Kathryn H. Ross
Marie Baleo is a French writer born in 1990. Her work was nominated for a Best of the Net award and has appeared in Passages North, Yemassee, Litro, Lunch Ticket, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is an editor for Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. www.mariebaleo.com
Michael Bleicher & Andy Newton
Michael Bleicher and Andy Newton’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, National Lampoon, Splitsider, and the Weekly Humorist. Michael lives in Washington D.C. He is a trademark and copyright attorney and a graduate of Harvard Law School. Andy has a Master’s degree in Italian literature from UCLA. He is an editor living in New York City.
Layla Lenhardt is founder and Editor-in-Chief of 1932 Quarterly. She has been most recently published in Brine, Eskimo Pie, Rag Queen Periodical, and Third Wednesday to name a few. She is a Pushcart Nominee and was repeatedly featured as Poet of the Week on Poetry Super Highway. Additionally, she has been deported from the U.K. and she eats peanut m&ms for breakfast every day.
A Best Small Fictions 2015 Winner, Dave Petraglia’s writing and art has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, bohemianizm, Cheap Pop, Crack the Spine, Chicago Literati, Five:2:One, Gambling the Aisle, Hayden’s Ferry, matchbook, Medium, McSweeney’s, Necessary Fiction, North American Review, Per Contra, Points in Case, Prairie Schooner, Popular Science, Razed, SmokeLong Quarterly, Up the Staircase, and others. His blog is at www.davepetraglia.com
Ellen Morris Prewitt
In 2001, Ellen Morris Prewitt gave up a 19-year career as a lawyer to become a writer. While she learned to write, she worked as a fashion model in Memphis, Tennessee. Her first published short story was in the “Elvis” issue of River City. For eight years, she facilitated a writing group of men and women experiencing homelessness; she edited their book, Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness (Triton Press, 2014). She now splits her time between Memphis and New Orleans. She’s been known to appear in public in costume.
Kathryn H. Ross
Kathryn H. Ross is an LA-based writer, reader, and storyteller. Her works cover spirituality and the soul, recurring dreams and fears, and racial trauma inflicted on brown bodies in America and in the world. To read her, visit speakthewritelanguage.com
Jason Schiren is a queer, white-privileged, neurologically atypical poor boy/girl from the wealthy conservative outskirts of Annapolis, MD. He has Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder, little-known to the medical system, thereby making it practically impossible for him to get treatment, aside from being aware of/ consciously controlling his experience. It’s basically an everlasting acid trip, without the purple bunnies and dragons, coupled with anxiety every waking second. Jason is a graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park. He aspires to become a therapist, being the kind of help he’s always needed, for others. His first essay, ‘In the Blind,’ was published in Gravel (University of Arkansas, Monticello, 2017).
Evan Steuber hails from Kentucky where they spent their first twenty-some years working in restaurants and retail, meeting the love of their life, and getting educated. Evan’s fiction has appeared in Packingtown Review, The Gravity of the Thing, and Noctua Review. They recently received their PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Evan is pretty excited about life and philosophizes about the undead in their spare time.
Elizabeth Wing is an incoming freshman at the Pratt Institute. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in venues such as Hanging Loose, Teen Ink Magazine, Euphony: Prose and Poetry of the University of Chicago, and are forthcoming in the West Marin Review. Her influences are Haruki Murakami, the Californian landscape, and cats that have human-looking eyes.
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