January 11, 2017 | ISSUE no 207
crack the spine
Kevin Del Principe
A Grown Man
short fiction by Liz Posner
Devaun Bufford dressed for school that morning with extra care. Out-of-uniform day was always his day to look fresh, but this was the day of prom. People expected him to put on, North Memphis style. In the mirror he observed his choice: denim vest, embossed with the popped collar, his black shorts hanging low as Principal Hawkins would let him get away with, and the Prada backpack. It was real, that bag. It was the nicest thing he owned, a Christmas present from his grandmama. Top it off with some shades. His friends would think he was already gettin’ crunk, getting the night started early.
The Prada bag was lighter than usual. He checked the inside and rolled his eyes.
“Mama!” He called out to the open bedroom door. “You hide my stash?”
“Yes I did.” She yelled back from the kitchen. “When are you gonna grow up, act like a man and quit messin’ around with that crew of yours?”
He laughed. She knew her words fell on closed ears. The Fame Mob Crew were his friends, plus he didn’t want to remind her his hustling kept the heat on that winter. Memphis Light, Gas, Electric had raised their monthly premium again. What the fuck was that about, anyway?
Ten minutes later, he’d recovered it from under the mattress she shared with his sister Mattie in the bigger bedroom with the window. There weren’t a lot of places to hide things in their apartment. It was small, just two little bedrooms in the Hickory Hill Complex. Devaun got his own room because his mama and sister liked to joke that he smelled bad. Well, smelling bad was what men did, he told them.
“I’ll see you later,” he called, passing by the kitchen on his way out.
“What you going to school for, ain’t nobody go the day of the senior prom anyhow.”
“Cause, ma, I’m failing math and French class, I told you.” He skipped too much this year, he knew it. Now he was going to have to repeat the year if he didn’t get some makeup work done. On dumb days like this, there wouldn’t be so many of his brothers around to get him in trouble.
“Mhm. Don’t forget to stop at the clinic. You know they close at three on Friday, so you best get there early.”
His little sister was watching TV on the armchair by the front door, her eyes glazed over.
“No school today?” She shook her head. “Your stomach again?”
“I ain’t going.”
“Suit yourself.” Devaun stuffed a notebook into his bag, taking his time with the zipper. “Man, they still haven’t come to fix that leak?” The air conditioning unit in the living room had been dripping for three weeks, making the ceiling all brown and moldy, the white plaster surface distorted.
Mattie shrugged, her eyes on the television. “Guess not.”
“Told them I wasn’t gonna pay no thirty five dollars a month if the damn thing keep floodin’ up the place.”
She shrugged again.
“Aight, I’m off.”
“Bring me back some chips, D.”
He patted her on the hair as he walked by. He felt her flinch.
Mattie had just started going with a powerful cat-daddy in the neighborhood. His granddaughter was in her grade and she did the introductions. Now Ray Bo brought a check around every weekend when he came to pick her up. Sometimes she was gone for days and she wouldn’t tell him where they went. He was so afraid those times, it made him sick, but he didn’t want to upset his mother by bringing it up. So he hustled hard as he could. Mattie didn’t want his money and his mother disapproved, cursed him out for being stupid while she took it in small pieces behind her daughter’s back. Her Mexican boyfriend treated her good, unlike all the others, but he always had some excuse not to help out with the rent.
At home, the power was perfectly balanced. They took care of each other. Some time, after graduation when he worked a few years, he’d save up to buy them a place. Something small with a little porch where his sister and mama could sit with their friends. As far away from Memphis as he could get them.
He walked to school listening to a classic Choco Khon track. Money money money, makes the clock tick, makes this kid rich quick. A rival crew in the hood named themselves after the song. The Fame Mob was planning on turning up the mayhem on them that night. It was recruiting season, and they had to mark their turf before those hood little Rich Kwik boys honed in on the freshmen. Or the girls.
Reggie fell into stride with him a few blocks from school. His little brother Calvin was behind him. They were his second cousins, but Reggie was an asshole.
“Hey man, I heard your sister going with that cat daddy Ray Bo,” said Reggie. “You think you can hook me up, cuz?”
“Naw man, quit tryin’ to shake me down all the time.”
“You talking bout that man who own that big liquor store on Manassas Street?” Calvin said. He must have been nine or ten years old, with a high pitched little voice. Devaun liked to teach him made-up swear words sometimes, just to hear him say them in that voice of his. “I heard he got like eight girls he takin’ care of already. That true, Reg?”
“Maddie kinda young to be going with Ray Bo,” Reggie piped up, trailing behind Devaun. “Ain’t she fifteen?”
“Naw, she fourteen,” said Calvin. “I remember cuz she got the same birthday as me, just five years older.”
“Mind your business and quit talkin’ to me like you a grown man, Cal,” Devaun said, putting his headphones back in. “You don’t know nothin.”
“Aight, you gone be like that,” Reggie said. “Shit, if it was you who was asking, I wouldn’t think twice about givin’.” The two of them walked off, Reggie shaking his head.
Devaun didn’t spare Reggie any thought. That part of the family was always grubbing for money.
He got a message from his date Tish, checking to see if his vest and corsage matched her dress. He typed out yes woman for the tenth time. He tried to kiss her the other week after he’d asked her to prom. But she pushed him away, said she deserved a grown man, said every time they kissed she heard his crazy hyena laugh in her head. Wild man, that was what everyone thought he was, his teachers, his crew, his family. Sometimes it was cool, sometimes it made people afraid of him.
He went to French class, where Ms. Coughlin was talking about asking for directions.
“How would you ask someone how to get to the river when you’re downtown by the FedEx Forum?”
“I wouldn’t, I already know how to get to the river,” Toya said.
“I know that. But if you were in a foreign city, in France or Tunisia, how would you say it?”
“Ms. C., there’s only five of us in here,” said Toya. She was applying lipstick at her desk. “Can’t we have a free day?”
Devaun called out, “Hey Ms. C, how you ask a nigga how to get you your money in another language?”
His classmates snickered. Ms. Coughlin looked annoyed. He noticed she only got mad when he acted a fool in the beginning of class. If he waited until the end when she passed out worksheets then he could mess with her or his friends as much as he wanted.
“Devaun, maybe when you meet a French speaker you’ll want to talk about something other than money.”
“Now, see the situation is, my mama’s got this boyfriend, he Mexican, and me and my sister wonderin’ when he gonna pitch in a little, you feel me Ms. C? Hey, you got a boyfriend? You wanna be my prom date?”
The class laughed.
“It’s not really appropriate to ask me, Devaun. Could you sit down? I don’t know any Spanish.”
She was always on him, one of those teachers who wouldn’t let him sleep in class or mouth his way to detention. Trying to be a role model or something. Once, after she reprimanded him, he told her, “I know you tryin’ to put me on the right path, Ms. C. I know all that.”
“I can point you to the path, Devaun. You’re the one who’s got to walk it.”
He got it, but she must have thought he was dumb because she repeated it every few days for the next weeks. “Walk that path, Devaun. I see you walking.”
He got serious then, and even took down some notes. There was a diploma somewhere with his name on it, and hell if he wasn’t going to walk across that stage with it next week. The window to the outside hallway was distracting him though. Ms. Matthews’ class shuffled to the gym, banging on lockers as they passed. They must’ve had a sub in there. His cousin Reggie was with them, and he hovered outside the door, trying to lock eyes with him.
Inside the classroom, Devaun rolled his eyes. “Oh, Jesus.”
Reggie knocked loudly and poked his head inside. “Hey Devaun, tell your teacher I gotta talk to you about something out here.”
“Go to your assigned class for this period, please,” Ms. Coughlin said, trying to close the door on him.
Devaun rose from his seat. “Quit messin’ with me man, we workin’ in here.” From the door he gestured behind him at the five other students in the room, who all laughed at this. Ms. Coughlin looked angry.
“Devaun, sit down. This is the last time I ask you.” “Hey, cuz, gimme twenty for the prom, man.” Reggie begged. “I ain’t got my girl a flower or nothing.”
“Tell her there’s a field back there on Brook Street that’s got plenty, she can pick ‘em herself.”
“Bro, I ain’t messing around.”
“You big eared fool, you sound just like your little brother when you whine about money. All high pitched and desperate like.”
“Devaun, you and your cousin get out of here, it’s enough --”
“But the only reason I came to school today was to get your makeup work! Can’t a man try to graduate in one piece?” Reggie scrambled away to join his class. “Yeah, you little man, you run outta here like a ten year old when a teacher catch you!” Devaun hissed behind him.
“You’re just going to have to get it on Monday when you clear your suspension.” Ms. Coughlin said, snapping the door shut behind her.
"Aw, this junt ridiculous, I tell you.”
She lowered her voice. “Devaun, get out of here, please? We have to get ready for this final exam. I’m not going to write you up, just find somewhere quiet to go.”
“Yeah, yeah. Only cause I love you, Madam.”
“Your accent is great, but it’s Mademoiselle. I’m not married.”
“So you don’t have no boyfriend.”
He ditched out early and walked to the corner store where he bought soda and Fritos. He ate on the way to the clinic where he picked up mother’s medication. He passed block after graffitied block of boarded up windows, open fields littered with trash, houses that had burnt down and left nothing but piles of charred rubble behind. In the waiting room at the clinic, Scarface played on the television. Devaun took a seat and ended up watching the whole rest of the movie, his favorite. They should have set the movie in North Memphis. Tony Montana could teach a thing or two to these hood rats, always scheming for themselves.
When he got home, he found Ray Bo outside on the curb, leaning against his Chevrolet Monte Carlo with the gold rims. He was wearing a dark purple suit, three-piece with a blue tie.
“What’s up, D. I’m waitin’ on your sister. She always this slow?”
Devaun nodded curtly. He figured the less he said, the better.
“Mattie says it’s your senior prom tonight. You got a corsage for your date, little man?”
“Don’t call me little man.” Devaun bared his teeth. Why’d everyone always have to be on him about his height?
Ray Bo reached into the window of the driver’s seat. “This is for your mama, to help her out this month since I know she ain’t feeling so well.” He handed Devaun a white envelope. He could see the green lines of a bank check through the cheap paper.
“And I picked you up a little something from the store. For you and your friends tonight.”
He handed Devaun a paper bag. Bottles of nips clinked inside. Devaun felt his lip curl. He threw the bag hard on the street, heard the glass smash, watched amber liquid run down the curbside into the gutter.
“I don’t want your nasty hooch.”
“Who do you think you are talking to me like that, boy? You ain’t got no respect, that’s your problem.” Ray Bo squared himself up like he was about to take a punch at him, then seemed to reconsider. He relaxed against the Monte Carlo. “You know, you should come by the store some time. I could use another hand around the stockroom. Teach you a thing or two about business. You about to graduate, it’s time you stop hustling and think about making a future for yourself.”
“Man, I already know more about business than every traphouse fool in North Memphis combined.”
“Oh yeah, is that so?” Ray Bo eyed him up and down. He smirked, filling Devaun with a rage he hadn’t felt since last spring when the Rich Kwik gang shot up his grandmama’s house. He wished to God Ray Bo would make a move so he could hit him in that wrinkled old face of his. “Why don’t you tell your sister I’m waiting outside for her?”
He bit his tongue, held back a shout that he didn’t take orders from no one. But someone had to be the bigger man. It almost killed him to do it, but Devaun turned his back to the car and walked into the apartment. Mattie was kneeling by the door, tying her shoes. He almost tripped over her.
“Sorry.” He threw the envelope down on the coffee table, hard as he could.
“What’s the matter with you? Don’t wake Mama.”
"Ain’t nothing. You text me where you’re going.”
“Yeah.” She winced as she stood.
“Get out of my business, D.”
“Hey, hold up.” Devaun rummaged through his backpack. He pulled out a bag of spicy cheese puffs and pushed them into his sister’s hands.
She closed the door behind her. Through the small window he watched Ray Bo open the passenger’s door for her. Through the tinted window he saw his sister’s profile, pouring hot chips into her mouth. He probably thought she didn’t eat nothing at home. They drove off.
His friends borrowed a few cars for the crew and their girls that night at the prom. They passed around a bottle of rum, which Devaun drank even though he didn’t like the taste. Not thick and warm like the wine his sister brought home from Ray Bo’s last week. That was some fancy shit, Italian, but they’d gulped it down like some stray dogs in the street when it rained. Devaun sat in the backseat, his arm around Tish, who was wearing a shiny gold dress that sparkled when they drove under streetlamps. She didn’t push him off. The rum made her a lot friendlier.
The main event was at a swanky venue on the river with marble columns and a big carpeted staircase that reminded him of Tony Montana’s mansion. He could see from below that a few couples had already snuck out onto the balcony to curl up in the corners. Devaun sipped from a flask as he watched them.
At prom, the Fame Mob Crew was already marking their turf next to the dancefloor. Devaun was all for it. The Rich Kwik kids eyed them with hatred from the other side of the room. Fame Mob always rolled with the prettier girls. It was stupid to put all these hood kids in a room together, he thought. But there were chaperones everywhere.
They forgot about their rivals soon enough. Everywhere he looked, Devaun was blinded by the girls glittering in dresses that clung to their bodies. They all looked like jewels against the sparkling glass of the chandeliers above. All flashing smiles for the cameras like movie stars.
He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror behind the DJ booth. He looked pretty good himself. He’d never worn a tuxedo before, but he could get used to it. The black silk tie and the gold cumberbund to match Tish’s dress made him look like a young Choco Khon back in the nineties when he ran the Atlanta streets. Powerful and classy.
“Damn, seniors putting on tonight!” he said, but his friends were already moving toward the buffet or rushing into the background of someone’s photo.
He hit the floor with his friends. Devaun knew all the dances - the nae-nae, the hood hop, the zerk. He shook his long dreads in the air and popped his butt out like a girl. Everyone laughed around him. Tish let him spin her around for an R&B number.
“Look at this fool dancin’ all gay,” a voice said behind him.
It was his cousin, standing behind him just off the dancefloor. Reggie looked madder and drunker than he had all day.
“Man, we just havin’ a good time. Why don’t you go back to your crew over there and find yourself someone to dance with.”
"Aw man, enough with you, cuz. You ain’t nothin’.”
Devaun waved him away and Reggie backed off. Maybe his cousin wasn’t in a fighting mood that night either. While he danced with Tish someone tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey DB, you packing tonight? Help me out, man.” It was Antoine Ware from English class, looking red eyed and sleepy.
Devaun glanced over at the chaperones. Principal Hawkins was busting loose on the dancefloor. In his orange lapel and black tux, Hawkins looked like a blurry basketball. Coach Clark and Ms. Matthews were dancing there beside him. They looked like they were having a better time than some of the kids. “Yeah man, I got you. I’ma be on that balcony soon as some of these teachers clear out.”
“Aight, man.” They slapped each other on the back.
Devaun chilled for a while. He tried to get Mrs. Hill to dance with him, which made his whole crew laugh. Then they took pictures. A lot of girls wanted him in their photos, goofing around, making duck faces, but they never wanted to hook up. What was the deal with that anyway?
At twelve, he went to meet Antoine and his girl on the balcony. She had her shoes off, her legs dangling over the edge. They were laughing, looking down at the party below.
“D man, you see Hawkins down there?” Antoine clapped his hand when he saw Devaun arrive.
“That fool so silly, man, what was he thinking coming here in that getup?” Antoine’s girl cried, wiping at tears in the corners of her eyes.
“Coach Clark dancing like he drunker than these students,” said Antoine.
“Don’t he keep a bottle of moonshine in his office in the locker room?” She asked, swigging dark liquid from a plastic bottle herself. She handed it to Antoine.
“Swear to God I saw him drinking it last week during practice when we was supposed to be running around the track,” Antoine answered.
Devaun slipped a baggie into Antoine’s jacket pocket hanging over the balcony railing.
“Appreciate you, man.” Antoine clasped his hand, passing him a twenty. “You want some of this?” Antoine handed him the bottle.
He took a long swig. As he drank, Devaun read the label. It was centimeters from his nose, big as can be. $7.99, it read, from Bo’s Liquor.
“Where you get this nasty shit, man?”
He confirmed what Devaun already knew. Damn, that man Ray Bo was everywhere. He’d crept into all the corners of Devaun’s life without warning. Even his senior prom. He thrust the bottle back at Antoine, who wasn’t looking, and it smashed on the ground by his feet.
Antoine’s girl looked freaked. Her eyes had that same look he saw often on his teachers when he lost his temper in class. “You crazy? Some of us are trying to graduate on time. What if a teacher heard?”
“Come, baby, let’s go get something to eat,” Antoine put his arm protectively around his girl’s shoulder and pulled her towards the staircase. Fresh laughter echoed up the stairs as the door shut behind them.
Devaun was alone on the balcony then, with just the stars and lights from the Arkansas Bridge illuminating the darkness. It was good sometimes, having everyone think you were crazy. It was the only way you got any peace and quiet in North Memphis. He stayed up there for a while, watching the party below to his right and the black Mississippi River on the left. He spotted Tish’s gold dress sparkling from the dance floor. Someone’s arms were wrapped around her lower back, a head bobbing stupidly on her shoulder. He’d recognize that skinny frame and those big ears anywhere. It was Reggie.
Enough was enough. Enough with everyone thinking they could take everything he got until he was sucked dry. His legs seem to carry him back downstairs to the dancefloor.
Devaun found Tish’s hand and pulled her away from his cousin. “Reg, man, you gotta step off and go back to your own corner. Go grope some girls over there.”
Reggie scowled. “She can dance with anybody she likes, cuz.”
“This here’s my date. See that corsage? That came outta my wallet.”
“Man, you didn’t pay for her time. She ain’t your escort.”
“Yeah D, chill,” Tish said, coaxing him back. “It’s just one dance.”
“I ain’t asking nicely again, Reggie. Step off. Man, you and your family been all over me, why don’t you chill already?”
“Why don’t you chill, cuz? Says a nigga who won’t help out his own kin. That’s cold.”
Devaun was getting angry. It wasn’t fair. Why’d it have to be like this all the time? “Man, what do you think I’m doing, grindin’ everyday? You don’t know me. ”
“I know you just a little hood rat who can’t keep his own women off the street.”
Devaun punched him. His cousin staggered back, then tackled him. He was heavier than he looked. They wrestled on the ground, legs jumped aside out of their way. Reggie scratched him across the face. Devaun only wanted to hit him hard, hard as he could.
Some teachers broke them up, he couldn’t see who. There was blood in his eyes. Devaun struggled against Coach Clark, took another swing at his cousin. It landed on Principal Hawkins’ shoulder instead.
Hawkins grabbed him around the throat by his gold chains. “You best settle down, boy. You know I played Division I back in the day. I’ll put your ass in a leglock if you make me.”
Devaun was trapped, his arms locked around Hawkins’ elbows behind him. He kicked his legs wildly out at Reggie. It was all worth it just to hurt him a little bit. He didn’t care.
Reggie struggled against Coach Clark on the ground a few feet away, just out of his reach.
“Get these kids out of here,” Clark said to Hawkins, nodding toward the exit. “I’ll clean this one up first. Guess they’re not interested in getting no diplomas from us.”
“Man, you lucky these teachers here.” Devaun shouted as Principal Hawkins dragged him away by the arm. His cousin was still on the ground, bleeding from the mouth. The other kids had stopped dancing to watch. “Why don’t you stand up, boy? Why don’t you face me like a man?”
“I am a man!” Reggie spat back, his voice muffled under Coach Clark’s frame. But Reggie’s screams faded as the principal dragged Devaun off and the DJ changed tracks.
The Tin Cup Club
His arms churning, his head wagging, Fassler charged up the steep hill into a stiff breeze that blew his hair into his eyes. For an instant, he couldn't see a thing but he wasn't concerned because he had run the hill so many times. Already this was his third time today tackling what many runners called “Red Claw Hill” because it was such a grueling climb, and he hopped to make it up twice more before it got dark. Still, he was so familiar with the route he was confident he could run it in the dark but doubted if many people passing by would notice him despite the two reflectors pinned to his backpack.
Cruising through a slight turn on the narrow path, he spotted a station wagon and, raising back his head, flashed what his grandmother described as his “cupcake-eating” smile. At once, the sputtering car drifted across the center line toward him, and, still smiling, he slowed down and moved closer to the curb. Then, just as he reached the curb, someone stuck an arm out the back window and threw a handful of pennies at him, and as he reeled back, the car peeled away, the laughter of the people inside trailing behind it.
“Bastards!” he shouted angrily. “Goddamn bastards!”
One of the pennies caught him just below his left eye and he knew he was lucky it didn't hit him an inch higher otherwise he would not be able to see a thing out of it. Some luck, he fumed, as he picked up the pennies and put them in the coin purse he kept in one of the pockets in his backpack.
“Some damn luck.”
After making sure the tin cup was securely fastened to his backpack, he resumed the run, shortening his stride a fraction as the grade steepened. He was not quite halfway up the hill and figured it would take him about twenty minutes to reach the top. Then he would turn around and come down, drink some water, maybe eat an orange, and head up it again.
Up and down, up and down, for the past three Saturdays, he ran the hill to raise money for Elijah. The seventeen-year-old senior was the lone survivor of a traffic accident that occurred not quite two months ago. A member of his high school's swim team, he and six teammates were returning from a competition when the shuttle van they were riding in plunged off the side of an icy road into a deep ravine. He was half asleep when the van slammed into a guardrail and immediately was thrown through a window. His pelvis and left leg were shattered, and he lost a portion of his left ear and the index finger of his left hand.
Eleven years earlier, Fassler graduated from Overlook, the same high school Elijah attended, and when he saw a report of the accident on the six o'clock news, he felt compelled to do something to help the young swimmer. He assumed a substantial portion of the medical costs would be taken care of by the school district but was sure there would be additional costs during his recovery that would not be covered. So, to defray some of those bills, he decided to run Red Claw Hill with a tin cup attached to his backpack along with a small cardboard sign that succinctly stated his purpose: “For Elijah.”
Every now and then, he encountered jerks like the knuckleheads who threw pennies at him but, for the most part, the people he came across on his runs were supportive and often handed him money or dropped it in the tin cup. So far, he had collected nearly seven hundred dollars which was not a lot he supposed but quite a bit more than he expected. He had yet to meet Elijah but did receive a pleasant note from his older sister thanking him for what he was doing. And one Saturday a television station interviewed him while he was running and showed the interview on the six and eleven o'clock newscasts. His girlfriend, however, was not keen at all about his Saturday runs.
“You're going to injure yourself going up and down that damn hill,” Bridget told him one evening. “Then you're the one who's going to need money to pay off your medical bills.”
By the end of the month, he had collected close to twelve hundred dollars and sent the money to Elijah who called to express his appreciation and to invite him to dinner on Sunday. Everyone in the youngster's family was so grateful and complimentary that they made him feel better than he had ever felt, made him feel as if he really mattered for a change.
“You're a godsend,” Elijah's mother told him just before he left the house and kissed him so hard on the lips that he thought she was going to swallow them.
Fassler didn't run Red Claw again for a couple of weeks then he saw a report on the news about a bicyclist who was struck by a hit and run driver near the base of the hill. The cyclist suffered a concussion and multiple fractures. So he made another sign, reattached the cup to his backpack, got out his running shoes, and headed back up the hill. Bridget was not sympathetic at all, thought what he was doing was ridiculous, and accused him of being a publicity seeker. He disagreed, though, and insisted he only wanted to help someone in need. He suspected people might not be as generous this time, some might even regard him as something of a crank like Bridget. But he felt whatever amount of money he could raise for the cyclist was worth it and, besides, it made him feel special again.
flash fiction by T.R. Healy
poetry by Natasha Burge
with a whispering and a pause
for the bruise that covers your knee like a strange map
we wait and breathe the dust motes
spring wind sacrament
the space between the blackberry bush and the fence is really too small
for the both of us now
but still we gather
like migrating birds, all tender appendages and slapdash thoughts,
pulled by the distant cousin of instinct
unable to imagine another place where our fumbling fingers can tremble and dance
above the soft slip of dirt and the beetles that sneak and tickle
the canopy of glossy dark leaves and sticky bright berries
lit like stained glass windows in the sun
we tangle ourselves together
a creature born anew
anointed by the turning of the season
It was five o’ clock in downtown Rome. Mother and I were exhausted from sightseeing and ready to go home, so we headed for the metro, even though we’d been warned about pickpockets at rush hour.
The big fad in Italy that year was puffy vests. Every male under the age of fifty (and a few seniors who should’ve known better) was wearing one. With so many of these ridiculous outer-garments around, I hardly noticed the guy standing next to me on the subway platform in an extra fluffy orange number. It wasn’t until the train arrived, and he pushed me through the doors into a wall of irate commuters, that I became aware of his presence.
Mother took a strap, and I grabbed onto a bar as we lurched into motion. Really, it wasn’t necessary. Everyone was crammed in so tightly that it would’ve been impossible to fall over anyway. It was a suffocating, thoroughly unpleasant scene. What’s more, the orange-vested metrosexual had positioned himself directly to my left. He was so close I could smell his hair gel and read the numbers on his oversized wristwatch.
Two stops before Termini Station, I felt an exploratory rooting in the vicinity of my front left pocket. I forced my hand between our pressed bodies and covered the pocket, which contained my wallet. There was some cash inside, but all my really good stuff was in a neck pouch, safely concealed beneath my jacket and shirt.
When we dismounted at Termini to change trains, I told Mother how I’d thwarted the scumbag with my quick left hand.
“What happened to your jacket?” she said. “It’s all twisted up.”
I reached under my shirt and checked the pouch. It was uncompromised.
“What about your camera?” said Mother.
She was referring to a little Fuji that I normally kept in my pocket. That day, for some idiotic reason, I’d decided to put it in a carrying case and wear it around my neck. I’m not sure what the purpose of this case was meant to be, but it clearly wasn’t security. The only thing between the camera and prying hands was a thin Velcro flap—a flap that was now wide open.
“It’s gone,” I said.
“It was that son-of-a-bitch in the orange vest, wasn’t it?” said Mother.
Mother has always been very protective of her children and their possessions. Once, when I was twelve, someone stole my bike from the K-Mart plaza. She called the police and they told her it was most likely in the nearest low-income housing project.
“How long till you find it?” she said.
“Find it?” said the cop. “We’re not even going to look for it.”
Apparently, the police had no time for stolen bikes, not even if they had mag wheels and stunt pegs and were built from the frame up by an emotionally attached suburban youth.
“So what are we supposed to do?” said Mother.
“If you really want your bike back, just go down to the projects and get it yourself.”
For some unfathomable reason, this advice seemed perfectly sensible to Mother. We leaped into the car like a diminutive vigilante duo and drove straight to “The Terrace,” one of east Erie, PA’s scariest projects.
“Tell me if you see your bike,” said Mother, as we cruised the dark streets.
A block past the playground, I spotted a tall kid with a Fresh Prince haircut sitting on a bicycle. The chrome frame shone in our headlights.
“There it is!” I said. “That’s my bike!”
Before Mother could come to a full stop, I was out the door. I grabbed the handlebars and told the kid to get off. He laughed. Mother came over. “Give it back,” she said. “Now.”
The kid just sat there, grinning. Ten of his friends had formed a circle around us; they bounced basketballs and shouted profanities. My adrenaline-fueled bravado was long gone, but Mother stared the kid down. The last time I’d seen that particular expression on her face was after I’d slapped a hockey puck through the basement window.
“That’s my son’s bike,” she said. “You stole it.”
The kid convulsed with laughter, while his gang made themselves comfortable on the hood of our car. I wondered if they’d murder us outright, or just beat us and take the hubcaps. I was trying to remember an appropriate Lutheran prayer, when an apartment door swung open.
A large man and even larger woman came out onto the steps, clearly unhappy about being disturbed.
“What’s going on out there?” bellowed the man. “You steal that boy’s bike?”
The kid wasn’t grinning anymore. “No way,” he said.
The woman advanced, splitting the onlookers like an ore freighter.
“Where’d you get it?” she said. “And you better not lie to me.”
The kid squirmed. “I found it,” he said.
She leaned over him, a glorious tower of trembling bulk. “Found it where, boy?”
“In the, uh, creek.”
“You telling me you found this bicycle in the creek? The creek?”
“Bull-shit,” said the man. “Give that boy his bike back.”
The kid sat there, sulking. A ripple of titters issued from his gang.
“Shut up,” said the man. “You punks go home.”
I’d never released my grip on the handlebars, and I gave them a tug now, hoping to spur some off-ward movement in the kid.
“Get down off that bike,” said the woman, fuming. “Before I crack you one.”
He said, “Aw, man,” and handed it over.
“Now get in the house,” she said.
“Get in the house.”
She pinched his ear and marched him back to the apartment while his friends howled and heckled.
“C’mon,” said Mother, who’d already popped the trunk. “Let’s get out of here.”
I threw the bike in and we took off.
“Holy crap,” I said, staring at Mother in amazement. “We should be dead right now.”
“I told you I’d get your bike back.”
Now, in Rome, as the Termini crowds flowed past us, Mother was just as determined to recover my camera.
“Which way did the bastard go?” she said.
We looked across the teeming platform to the stairs and escalators. Masses of people surged onto a train, and it whooshed away. Even Mother could see the search was futile. I felt like a chump—not because the camera was valuable (a three megapixel Fuji had a street value of roughly ten cents)—but because I’d been outwitted by a jerk in a puffy vest.
That night I dreamed about the thief. His mother—an old Italian lady in a black dress—had him by the ear, and was dragging him off the train.
creative non-fiction by Dan Morey
short fiction by Kevin Del Principe
I had a wealthy friend once. His name was Andy.
Andy invited me--of all our college chums--to his cottage on Lake Michigan over Spring Break. I had never been to Michigan before. In truth, I had not been to very many places. Coming up blue-collar in Buffalo, my family didn't have much money for vacations. We went to the Finger Lakes once for three days during a teenage growth spurt. I ate everything in sight. My father vowed that I was eating the family into financial ruin. We never went on another vacation. Part of me still blames my insatiable appetite for our inability to have more family trips. I suppose it is that same appetite that drove me to strive for excellence in high school and make my way to a private New England college on scholarship. At college I made friends with peers whose station was above my family’s. Andy Gabler was my closest friend. While my father worked at a paper factory, his father was a federal magistrate. One thing our fathers had in common, however, was that they both were interested in justice. My father was a union steward and he believed in following the rules. My name is Cesidio Galano. My friends call me C. Andy and I met in a freshman orientation group because of the alphabetical nearness of our names. Friendship is funny that way. The whole thing feels like great luck but it is usually random bureaucracy.
I worked all semester washing dishes at the student union to pay for my second time on a plane. The first time my father put me on a flight to Boston my senior year of high school to compete for that college scholarship. I thought I was really grown up on the plane to Boston; on the flight to Detroit I just felt out of place. A stewardess asked me if I wanted a drink and, not understanding her for some reason, I instinctually apologized. She was baffled and Andy laughed. He nonchalantly ordered chardonnays for both of us. The stewardess considered questioning our ages but something in Andy's eyes placated her. I wondered if I'd ever be able to have that unquantifiable quality too, where my comfort was infectious.
I was already trying to mimic Andy before our flight together. At school, being like Andy kept me protected. After seeing his work on the plane with the stewardess, I vowed to double my efforts. I figured I'd start with Andy's posture and go from there. If he slumped, I did too. If he puffed out his chest, I was right with him. Even then, Andy knew my game but he didn't know why I played it. He thought it was admiration. Sometimes survival looks that way. When you are trying to rise in America, you have to be able to fit in. Any immigrant knows that--even if, like me, you're third generation.
Detroit reminded me a little of Buffalo, but it felt bigger somehow. The skyscrapers seemed shinier, towering over us as Andy drove our rented convertible. I had never been in a convertible before. I didn't say anything to Andy, but his smirk suggested he knew. If I was Andy's project, I didn't mind. I figured everybody needs help sometimes, and friends help each other. Andy turned up the radio and beat his hand on the steering wheel along with the drum. He ran his hand through his moppy blond hair. I did the same thing, but my jet-black hair felt oily and I remembered a Polish hairdresser back home scowling over my greasy hair. I wished she could see me now--in a convertible speeding to a cottage on Lake Michigan.
To me, the cottage was a castle and we had it all to ourselves for the week. The cottage was three stories high; much larger than my childhood home. Andy told me that it had been built up over five generations. Five generations ago one of my ancestors was likely watching over his family's tribe of goats in Sicily. He was probably a wiry but deceivingly strong guy like me, not looking for trouble but ready to protect his family's honor if called upon.
Andy grabbed my wrist and paraded me through the cottage. His touch startled me and I was immediately uncomfortable. I shrugged him off and questioned my response as a product of lower class instincts. Why was I so put off by a man touching me? My father rarely hugged me. At my grandmother's funeral when I was about nine, he drew me into his large chest and wiped my tears on his crisp shirt. He didn't have to tell me not to cry.
Andy led me to the patio and I caught my first glimpse of the lake. The sun was hitting it and the waves moving diagonally toward us looked like sparking glass sheets. Andy's windblown hair moved accordingly, and his entire presence blended majestically into the environment. All at once I felt as though I did not belong among so much beauty. Andy ran down to the beach and I followed him. He shed everything but his boxers, jaunted into the water, and dove right it. I didn't move.
"Come on in!" he shouted upon surfacing.
"I don't know. I'm not a water person."
"Get in here, C!"
There was no way to get out of going in the water. My only swimming experience was a few times at the neighborhood pool as a pre-teen. My friends back home were all better swimmers than me. I do remember an attractive lifeguard giving me extra attention. Her name was Rebecca and she looked like a movie star. She was the object of all our desires, and she was concerned with me. I didn't only appreciate her beauty. I liked that she had a sense of decency about her. She was very kind. Though I enjoyed her holding me afloat in the water--and I can't help but be honest that I played into needing her help a little--I can't say it strengthened my aquatic interest. I still viewed the water generally as a potential threat. When my family went to the Finger Lakes, none of us went in the water. At the time, that did not seem odd. I stepped slowly into the water until I was up to my knees.
The water was now up to my thighs. In a deft movement Andy stroked toward me, sprung from the water, and tackled me. I felt icy cold water and fear and anger at Andy and then... I surfaced, alive. I felt more alive than before and thankful to Andy for forcing me to feel that way. That can be the beauty of friendship as we push each other to change. I tried to tackle Andy back, but water was his territory. He dunked me again. I didn't mind too much, but I confess--I've never liked to be bettered at anything.
Later, we walked along the beach. Andy showed me the remnants of massive old logs from a seawall, once intended to keep the beach from slipping into the lake. He explained to me that it didn't work, of course. I suppose, like a lot of things, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Ignorance only looks silly from the perspective of knowledge. You had to be careful of the rusty nails jutting out from the timbers. I learned that lesson the hard way. "Dammit!" I yelped. Andy laughed at my misfortune. He didn't even try to hold back. I could have more easily forgiven him if that was the case. "You bastard," I said.
"What? It's funny."
"My pain is laughable. Ha Ha."
"You're being very serious today."
I inspected the wound. "I'm bleeding."
"Here... let me see it."
I lifted up my foot for him to see. I felt like a big awkward goof, jumping around on one good plank to show the damaged one. I bet people feel this way when they try to share personal suffering with their God. Andy grabbed my foot to look and then tossed me to the ground. I fell to the sand. I could see Andy towering over me, blocking the setting sun. The world felt darker. I felt smaller too.
Andy must have seen the anger flash in my eyes because his countenance changed too. He offered me his hand. I took it because there was no alternative but to smooth things over. He helped me to my feet. "I was just playing around."
"I know. Don't worry about it."
I limped back to the cottage with Andy by my side. He put his hand on my shoulder. It felt heavy, like he was pressing me down into the sand. "You have to lighten up," he said. I slightly shifted my shoulder. He didn't remove his hand.
Andy took me to a local joint. It was called The Yacht Club but it really was a local bar. It's the sort of place where locals working in the service industry commingled with the elites they served. Somehow the dynamic seemed to work well enough. Apparently everyone liked good beers on tap and the club's specialty, fried asparagus. As soon as I sat at the bar, I noticed her. She was seated at a circular table to my right in a plastic chair. There was something about her dark hair that was familiar. She reminded me of someone back home, whether that was Buffalo or Italy. There was a hanging light over her table that made her skin seem a little pale. She was with another woman, bigger boned and blond with huge hair and more make-up. They were having a good time, keeping to themselves. I admired that.
The bartender reminded me of one of my aunts back home. There was a strain in her eyes from hard work that I understood. I ordered beers at the bar for Andy and me. Minus the wealthier minority at the bar, this was my kind of place.
As Andy and I clinked beers, a muscular guy in khaki pants and a polo sidled up to us. He smacked Andy on the back hard with his non-drinking hand. "What's up, man? It's been a long time!" Andy turned into him, "Tom, how the hell are you?"
"Living it up, man. Partying hard on break."
"Are you by yourself?" asked Andy. Tom teetered a bit and slurred his speech. "Yeah. Have a few friends coming up here tomorrow."
"Tom, this is C. A good buddy of mine from school."
"Nice to meet you, C. A friend of Andy's is a friend of mine." Tom offered his hand and I shook it. His hand was soft and his grip was weak. "Is C really your name?"
"What the hell kind of name is that?"
"Italian. It was my grandfather's name."
"No shit. I don't know many I-Talians," Tom sniggered.
Through gritted teeth I retorted, "We're mostly like other people."
Tom looked over at the girls at the table. "There are some real skanks in here tonight." Tom raised his drink toward the girls and the blond one smiled politely back. "Isn't this place great?"
Andy laughed a little nervously and looked to me, "It's something alright." I looked questioningly at Andy and he shrugged.
"Let's have some fun." "Shots," Tom ordered the bartender. I tried to apologize to her through my eyes. "Whisky," Tom barked. The bartender lined up three shots and poured them. Tom slapped a wad of cash down on the bar for all to see. He tried to pick up the shots for distribution but knocked into them, spilling some. Andy took over. They held their glasses in the air and I begrudgingly followed. Andy offered cheers, "To Spring Break and good friends." Tom followed, "And to... The Yacht Club," as he ogled the girls at the table. "Time to get wild. I want to dance."
Tom stumbled over to the girls. "Let’s dance!" he shouted at the brunette. "No thanks," she said. "Come on, baby." The blond girl stood up. She was wearing a sundress with a flower print. "I'll dance with you," she suggested in an attempt to save her friend. "That'll be great. You'll do just fine." Tom offered the blond his hand.
I watched with concern as Tom marched his dancing partner to the old jukebox, put on some music--indecipherable because the speakers were so bad--and then pressed himself tightly against her. His hands wandered to her hips. She moved them up. The brunette scanned the room in search of help. Andy sat there. I stood up. Tom's hands wandered again, this time up the front of the girl's dress. I made my move. She pushed him back. He pulled her in even closer. I grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. I stuck my leg behind him and tripped him. I sat on top of him and pinned his wrists to the floor. He had this dopey smile on his face, totally unaware of what was coming next. I punched him in his mouth, again and again. I heard a scream nearby but it didn't stop me. A couple of older, blue-collar guys pulled me off. I heard one say, "He had it coming." Andy was standing back. He had this look of utter amazement on his face. I looked to the brunette. She looked terrified. For a moment, I thought she was still afraid of Tom. I looked down at my hand. It was a bloody mess, as was my shirt and Tom's face. She was terrified of me.
We were mostly quiet on our ride back to Detroit. The green trees along the highway turned to a more familiar suburban landscape. At that point Andy finally said, "Tom was always a prick."
I muttered, "It wasn't right how he treated her." Andy nodded his head and we both pretended that what I did was only about that particular injustice. It would be too easy to say I did what I did for the heavier blond girl, and that made it okay. I could even say I did it to feel big in front of the brunette, but that’s not really right. The truth was that Tom took a beating for many things. For me, Tom became everything wrong with the world. I might have killed him had they not pulled me off. Tom was, indeed, a prick--but there are lots of them out there. He probably deserved a good swat; not what I did to him. I couldn't help but think of the brunette and wished that I had been able to talk to her and ask her name. That's what makes the world better. Learning each other's names in the darkness of a bar or anywhere erases the arbitrary distance between people. I should have learned her name and told her I loved her and I loved her friend too and I loved everyone--even the bartender and especially Andy.
"Thanks for bringing me to the cottage," I said. "I know that place meant a lot to you, and I appreciate it."
"Happy to. We'll do it again sometime."
We both knew that was never going to happen. We had hoped to bridge the divide between us but failed. Either of us could have spoken the truth in that long quiet moment and that might have offered redemption. Instead, we let the lie stand there separating us.
The Yacht Club
flash fiction by Mathew Serback
I drowned in the Sunday newspaper. See how quickly the days got away from when You weren’t here? Every morning, I tried to find You somewhere between the folds of the blanket and the sheet – somewhere between the pillow and the dream.
Last Sunday, my last Sunday alive, You came to tell me that my parents and Your parents and all parents had taught their children the wrong kind of love. You had those rose petal for eyelids – and when You spoke, the first frost of the year fell over your eyes. When I told You there was a chance You were wrong, those petals got going into the wind and never looked back.
You were still bleeding when you got home, so you came to find me in the backyard – with the paper. You asked the doctors to take the life out of you. The blood smelled like day old syrup, and I couldn’t tell if it was yours – or the baby’s.
Neither of us knew what to do.
I cried into Your arms, and you cried into mine. We were both tired from carrying the weight of someone we used to love. You held me – the way mothers did – and tried to straighten my spine, lift my spirit.
“We made a mistake,” I said.
And you cried, “That someone else paid for.”
The Right Way to Die
poetry by Diane Popenhagen
Lady Jonquil with saffron head bowed
your amber ruff regal, jaundiced tepal renowned
with your trumpet, conspicuous
sounding the self-serenade of narcissus
while willows whisper jealous derisions.
You bend at water’s edge.
River circles intoxicated, rippling
round your reflection.
Your conceit, a potent panacea for
Dementia’s in ability to remember
her own resemblance.
With fumbling fingers frail
she plucks you from your water mirror
and tucks you close behind her ear
next to her mind, now a mumbling
mirage, a memory maligned.
The river stills to return her image.
A face familiar whence it came.
She now sings your song of self,
a mutual melody of recognition.
microfiction by Shellie Zacharia
One day I'll learn the chirps of birds and call out their names. Correctly. I'll get a French pedicure. I'll sit on the back deck and stare up at the top of the sweetgum. Compose a tree poem. Branch and dance will rhyme. I'll stop by the library to get nonfiction books: space, minerals, the history of apples, baseball-card collecting. There is much to know. I'll attend readings and symphonies and finally go to the native plant sale. Tuck buckets of purple coneflowers and dotted horsemint in the back seat of the car and drive home. Make shadow boxes. Or shadow puppets. The puppets will speak fluent Spanish.
Elena grew up in the DC area and currently studies at Bard College. She’s been published in fifty literary magazines over the past few years. She is the winner of four poetry contests, including Word Works Young Poets‘. Her poetry has been exhibited at the Greater Reston Art Center and at Arterie Fine Art Gallery. Check out her poetry books, “we’ll beachcomb for their broken bones” (Red Ochre Press, 2014), “a little luminescence” (Allbook-Books, 2011) and “the reason for rain” (Coffeetown Press, 2015). Her visual art has won her several awards. Go to o-mourning-dove.tumblr.com to see her latest artwork.
Natasha Burge is a writer who lives on the shores of the Arabian Gulf. Her writing has appeared in Vagabond City, Jersey Devil Press, Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry, and The Establishment, among others. A psychogeographer by day, a poet by night, she is currently pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing, working on her first novel, and drinking all the karak chai she can get her hands on. She can be found online at natashaburge.com
T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and his stories have appeared in such publications as Gravel, the Hawaii Review, the Steel Toe Review, and Welter.
Dan Morey is a freelance writer in Erie, PA. He’s worked as a book critic, nightlife columnist, travel correspondent and outdoor journalist. His creative work has appeared in many publications, including The Chagrin River Review, Drunk Monkeys and Dead Guns Press. Find him at danmorey.weebly.com.
Diane Popenhagen has authored humor columns in magazines and newspapers, as well as acted as editor for a publishing company. Ms Popenhagen is finishing her MFA at Lindenwood University and enjoys hiking in the Rockies with her family. Her work has appeared in Dirty Chai, Soundings Review, Foliate Oak Literary Journal, among others.
Liz has worked as an editor for Idealist, a managing editor for Odyssey, and a news writer for Bustle. Her writing has also been published at The Times of Israel, the Jewish Voice, TeacherPop, Down in the Dirt, Dead Snakes, and 50 Word Stories. Her story “Habibi” received Honorable Mention in Memphis Magazine’s 2015 Fiction Contest. Read more of her work at lizposner.com
Kevin Del Principe
Kevin grew up in Buffalo, New York but now lives in Los Angeles. He recently graduated with his MFA in Writing for Screen and Television from the University of Southern California and currently teaches screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television. His poems have been in publications ranging from the academic journal Foliate Oak Literary Magazine to the Australian journal Bluepepper. The Cincinnati Playwrights Initiative produced staged readings of his plays “Beat the Bear,” “Lift Veil Find Veil,” and “Brothers Keepers” as part of their New Voices Series at the Fifth Third Bank Theater at the Aronoff in Cincinnati, Ohio. His latest film, ”Those Little Monsters,” will premiere this year at the Other Venice Film Festival in Venice, California.
Mathew Serback’s debut book will be available in October of 2017 through ELJ Publications. He has short fiction everywhere in 2016. He’s the managing editor of scissors&spackle, as well as an assistant editor with Bartleby Snopes.
Shellie Zacharia is the author of the flash chapbook “Not Everything Lovely and Strange is a Dream” (Monkey Puzzle Press, 2014). Her short prose pieces have appeared in many journals, including The Pinch, Sou’wester, Saw Palm, Fiction Southeast, and Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. She lives in Gainesville, Florida.
CRACK THE SPINE LITERARY MAGAZINE