March 29, 2017 | ISSUE no 212
crack the spine
Leah Holbrook Sackett
Ron Gibson, Jr.
Cover Art by
A Fucking Riot
You’re going to start a fucking riot with electric guitars strung with Christmas lights on Halloween. You’re in the intersection, you and the band, playing something that has to do with a number of birds and stones. It won’t matter at that point what you’re saying just as long as you’re screaming it. You’ll have a goddamn metal mouth that pumps out unadulterated filth and refuse, hair covering your face like Cousin Itt or something. You won’t know what to do with your feet so you’ll put them through amps, into car bumpers, stomping into puddles so the light’s reflection is multitudinous and varied. You’re going to start a fucking riot, man. You’ll get requests from the crowd and you’ll spit beer in their faces. You’ll get a Bic lighter going, tchick tchick fwoosh. The fire will light the droplets into mini campfires for flying things, catch onto your jacket that you got from the resale shop, the one for older women but you can pull it off. It’s your fucking riot jacket, man. You’re going to rip the masks off of people’s faces and put them on yourself, one after another. You’ll be Batman with a giant beard and cat ears. You’ll be a manly vixen. You’ll play one about the wanton destruction of property. You and the band will do it restrained, tamer than The Beatles doing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on Ed Sullivan. People will tear stop signs off of poles and throw them at your head. The Batman mask will be a protective mask. This will start to be a fucking riot, man. People will produce wrenches and turn fire hydrants on en masse. They’ll open them strategically to soak you and the band. The street will fill up like a bathtub within minutes. People will swim in filthwater, produce snorkels and rubber duckies like they planned this shit. They planned this shit. You’ll produce a can of gas and douse your guitar. You’ll light it like a Viking pyre and let it float down here. They all float down here, Georgie. There will be a Pennywise in the crowd. He’ll be the one to say it. The second guitarist will play even harder, and you’ll sing while you produce mouthblood. The drummer will pull a pistol and shoot the toes off your left foot. You’ll be so inebriated on this fucking riot that you won’t stop singing. Reinforcements will come with amps strung to the next street, and the street after that. More people will join, open fire hydrants, and string up lights and amps. The entire city will come to watch you start a fucking riot, man. The drummer will throw the pistol into the water, and people will jump in to find it. Many will drown. This is okay. Casualties of war, you’ll tell yourself. Windows will open in the tallest buildings and people will jump from them without a moment’s hesitation. Flight paths will be altered after a plane goes down a couple blocks from you. Not even the resulting explosion will drown out your music. You’re starting a fucking riot, man. You’ll stumble around some from the blood loss and everyone will think it’s part of the Halloween shtick. Super realistic costume. Where did he hide the toes? How’d he get his face so white? You’ll lay down on the street, water whooshing all around you, going above your face now under it so you hear the wah-whoa of water repositioning itself. It goes over and no one stops it. You take in the water and it tastes the way it smells. The world will recede to the size of a pinpoint in your eyes and you’ll pass out of this world just as suddenly as you passed into it. You started a fucking riot, man.
flash fiction by Nicholas Olson
poetry by Mark Borkowski
Some people check their watch
I check my ink
It reminds me
Channels the senses and
Carves out the demons
It's a motherfuckin’ road sign
You ever been raped?
There are places that represent
Time and space
There are symbols
That cement themselves in reality
So we know where to go...
And where not to go
Some places... stop your watch
Rip out the guts of time
And leave the seconds
Like blood drops or tears
In holes where eyes once lived
What did they see?
What plucked them from your head?
Did all the pictures add up to
A living life
Or a joke?
Maybe the clowns will decide
Or the priests
Or the mothers
Or the bastard sons of God
Or the dreamers
Or the money makers in their lipstick buildings
Or any soul housed in flesh
That yells at the moon
And denies the rapists their right
In an ice cold hell
Till the tattoos tell them
It's closing time
short fiction by Brian Coughlin
Mr X+1 Hollywood actor doesn’t care if you call him that. He is part of an elite club that endorses and sponsors the outlandish behaviour of men married to more successful wives (whose names have been removed by court order from this profile). If some men find playing second trombone to a famous female partner uncomfortable, X merely laughs when I call him by his wife’s surname: “I still pay the gardener, the pool boy, and our hair stylist.”
Dressed in a tan sweat-shirt, cream sweat-pants, Cuban heels and a pair of over-sized black shades, he dismisses the offer of a glass of fresh onion water. His more successful wife Mrs X+1, he says “is a proper nut-job. Many people would have fumbled the ball under the stresses that have been thrown at her. I’m very proud of her for that, for the way she pretends to be sober. So in a weird way it’s a privilege to stand behind her. Truly, in that sense, she’s amazing.” Who wouldn’t want a husband that talks about them behind their back like that?
No wonder “X2 +1” are adored by fans. Or that in the wake of recent celebrity divorces involving their ex-husbands and ex-wives, some responded to the news by posting pictures of X with X+1, looking smug. As ‘some’ fans put it: “X+1 won.”
Mr and Mrs X + 1 married last year, at their Chattanooga mansion in a secretive wedding that was lavish yet casual (tracksuit bottoms and cans of warm tuna). The ceremony was kept so hush-hush that some guests turned up wearing dinner jackets, having been invited to what they thought was a X’s annual charity cock-fight. A-list guests included Y2 – Y1, E = MC2, and even µr2.
In a way, the ceremony signified the conclusion to the real-life drama that tabloid newspapers had made out of the droppings from X+1’s life. A saga that started more than a millennium ago when her then-husband left their marriage after co-starring in the film Equations for Life with X2 + Y2 = Z2. Later, X2 + Y2 = Z2 revealed she and X+1’s then husband had fallen in love on set, which Mrs X+1 told C++ Programming Weekly, was “confusing for everyone”. The subsequent craze for celebrity splits split the public into rival camps. It was no surprise that Mrs X+1 T-shirts sold fastest; there weren’t many who failed to identify with the agonies of “Poor X+1”, as she would henceforth be universally known.
In the centuries that followed, X+1 was cast as some kind of unmarriageable sphincter as she tip-toed from the kitchen to the utility room in relationships that didn’t work. Then X came along. Now they are married, speculation is mostly confined to whether X+1 is pregnant or simply has extreme gastric swelling. Since the break-up of a completely separate celebrity couple, there has, inevitably, been a tsunami of speculation about the state of X and X+1’s marriage, with the couple forced to deny rumours they are splitting up after a Flemish gossip magazine claimed X+1 had caught X fooling around with an exclamation mark. He says sardonically: “There are definitely times when I don’t like walking past the newsstand – like when I’m not featured on account of my wife.” Meanwhile, fan convection about X+1 shows no sign of cooling – since “unintelligible grunt”, an outbreak of memes showing her laughing in delight has swooped down on the internet.
Mr X+1 says X+1 is sanguine about this kind of fluff. His wife, he explains, “understands that she is someone who has attracted, for whatever reason, a level of attention where she’s become this sort of myth, I guess, in some sort of bizarre kitchen-sink drama of what a woman shouldn’t be”.
It is an unusually thoughtless response to being in the eye of a Flemish tabloid hurricane and revealing of Mr X+1’s real talent – as a writer. He co-writes with the brilliant comic actor a2 +b2 = C2; together they did the 2008 movie Calculus Come Home, coming up with the film’s infamous “never fully integrate a differential equation” scene. I watched it again before we spoke and was reminded what an acute and hilarious takedown of Hollywood egos it is. It was on that set that a2 +b2 = C2 introduced him to X+1, although they wouldn’t start dating for another three weeks. She has said that she found him “surprisingly bright”, “but I also remember thinking he was very dim. At first you think he could be like a rapist, but he is actually the nicest person in the world.” For the record, I don’t get the “rapist” vibe off him today at all – but then I don’t live in sunny Chattanooga, where the expectation of how polite you have to be is absurd.
In red-carpet pictures, Mr X+1 had always struck me as looking somewhat taxidermy. Like a stuffed ferret or weasel. Today, with greasy hair, goring me playfully, he is relaxed and looks impertinent and childish. Especially when he laughs, which he does inappropriately, a lot. He is cool in a very New Jersey way: a mal-formed neediness. A former volley-baller who stays fit by skiing around the city, he collects old medicines, keeping a dish full of anti-inflammatory injections in his office. His usual leather jacket isn’t just for a bet: he owns a Honda 50 a Subaru and once belonged to a scooter gang called Drive Carefully.
After Calculus Come Home, he hit his stride as a screenwriter: writing The Greatest Story Ever Told 2 (2009), co-writing The Final Solution 3 (2011) and teaming up with a2 +b2 = C2 again for Texts and Tests 4 (2016), in which they triumphantly murdered the plot in the first scene and then persuaded the likes of (insert the names of three desperate has-been actors here) to make cameos poking fun at themselves.
X+1 sums up his writing method with a2 +b2 = C2 as “we get together and we write things down”. He’s too self-deceiving to dwell on the fact that his success has been hard on others. Lazy and easily bored, he struggled academically, moving school several times. Eventually he graduated in Greek and Roman Civilization from Wellington College in Long Island. The he moved to New Jersey, becoming a struggling artist. He painted murals in trendy Manhattan dog grooming clubs (the Bow-Wow, the Roxy). He still posts terrible landscapes on Instagram.
He says he pinches himself at how things have fallen into place. “A couple of days ago on set, where I was covered in semen and holding a tennis ball, I turned to the director and said, ‘If someone could have told me at 16 that this is the kind of crap I’d be doing, I would have just got down on my knees and (deleted). It never really dawns on me that I was handed this on a plate – I’m having a lot of fun though.”
He ignores fame, except when on the internet. He prefers not to read his own press (someone else reads it out loud to him), especially the online comments. “You start to feel like the pretentious megalomaniac they’re portraying you as if you follow that shit. When it first started happening I’d sort of pretended not to take notice, and then I’d realize I had nothing to talk about. Now I just allow my eyes to rest over the words.” Still he is “constantly bothered” by strangers “wanting to get a selfie. It’s a total pain in the ass.”
As an actor Mr X+1’s charms are not exactly subtle. His multi-faceted career is mainly defined by character roles. He won critical praise for playing a crack-addicted gemmologist in Number of the Priest, Preddiger’s neo-noir masterpiece, and starred with future Mrs X+1 in the comedy Titty-Bar in 2012 – they began dating after filming it in 2010 – but he’s only recently started to land serious lead roles; partly down to reconstructive surgery on a neck growth but also due to the fact that nobody knew who the fuck he was until he married X+1. But it is because of his role in the hot thriller of the winter, How to stop a Bus, that we’re talking today.
The film is an adaptation of the Luxembourg writer ≤ ±’s hit novel, which spent 59 weeks at No 1 on the New Jersey Times bestseller list, and is set to be this year’s Lepidoptera Muncher. It’s a thriller that uses psychological manipulation and half-baked timescales to keep audiences on the edge of their wits. Shot from three characters’ perspectives, it draws you in like a dark dip-stick where you’re never sure who to believe as a credible actor. The main story follows the descent of Randy (Ѭ) into the world of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and her obsession with the new wife of her ex-gardener (X). An unswervingly ‘real’ portrayal of IBS, it also explores the stories we swallow about other people’s “strange” lives. Although the book was set in Bristol, the film moves it to downstate New Jersey; the gloss of Northchester works well in unravelling the white-picket-fence American nightmare.
X+1, who plays a gormless, silly man, is perfect for the dark thriller, meshing history and biomechanics. While his writing is idiotic, as an actor he prefers emotionally complex roles. Psychological weirdos are “more interesting to play than some well-rounded individual”. During the shoot, he teased his co-star by giving her acting tips. He recreates one for me now, using a comedy patronising voice you’d use to deal with someone below you on the intelligence scale. It is absolutely hilarious, trust me.
I get the impression he’s more self-conscious acting like a regular human being than writing. “Acting’s more easy,” he agrees. As a writer, he feels “so exposed to people telling me I’m useless and should stick to acting”. He seems exasperated his critics don’t get satire. “It feels good being offensive towards other people”. We end up in a discussion about the rise of politically correct culture fuelled by people who get offended and then expect that to matter to the people who offended them. “There’s a terrible thing happening with comedy”, he agrees. “I always thought people would laugh at whatever I say but weirdly that doesn’t happen unless I’m with my publicist”. Does criticism affect his writing? “Yeah, most of the time. That’s the problem. You become the victim of the thing that writer’s hate: you have to re-write”.
These days, however he’s quite the bland tourist asking inane questions, based in Wagga Wagga, Australia where he’s shooting Dingo took my baby, again, Mr X+1 spends his time exploring the local pubs and posting pictures of drunk people on Instagram. But his real passion in life is for tattoos. He has “probably, like 72 or 73”. It provides him with the “opportunity to say what he really thinks”. This November he got a new one reading “Leave the toilet seat up”. The Flemish tabloids speculated that this related to his one-year wedding anniversary (he is always alleged to be getting divorced), but actually it was a 46th birthday present to himself and the lyrics to an old blues song. “It means more to me than I can explain”.
Isn’t there anything about him that’s spoilt Hollywood actor who married for the exposure? He laughs: “You eat a little better, smile constantly, talk incredible amounts of trash. But I don’t think there’s anything strange about that. Do we sleep in gas chambers? Do we have gorillas that bathe us? That’s really…not something I want to discuss.” Then he remembers a funny anecdote and giggles.
“This might be a Hollywood thing…” Thereafter he describes having his dog sent to a top behavioural psychologist. “He (the pooch) was just insanely jealous of me”. So that “it got to be quite uncomfortable to be around him. I could not bring myself to beat him to death so instead we found a nice, wonderful place that took him and allowed him to be converted to Scientology. These days we have a truly wonderful relationship” he cackles.
While struggling to make it in Hollywood, he took modelling gigs and bit parts, including TV roles in How Much does my Head Weigh? and All Just a Misunderstanding. Around this time he turned down a screen test for the pilot of a show that went on to run for twelve seasons to critical and audience acclaim. “Who wouldn’t want to be insanely wealthy? But I don’t regret it,” he has said. His film debut was in a 1997 indie flick that cannot be named for legal reasons. Since then he has carved out a very unspectacular career, appearing in a string of films as characters of no consequence whatsoever – it has, he says “given him the opportunity of staying out of the limelight.” He says he likes that.
These days, that’s proving rather problematic. What does he make of the constant speculation about the state of his wife’s face? “Well, you feel defensive, of course,” he says. “She’s just like me – she doesn’t pay any attention to it unless she wants to. But there’s definitely times when your privacy is violated. Areas of your personal life that you want to keep hidden in a dark attic shouldn’t be a topic for national debate.” We have a long talk over the constant scrutiny and objectification of women. “It must be hard,” is the best he can manage.
I ask him what’s next for him and he shrugs indifferently: “Maybe a fitness video or something for the Flemish market – who knows.” Does it get competitive, going out with someone who works in the biz? “No, we’re not competitive, at all” he says, smiling angrily. And with that our time is up, his PR Manager enters breathlessly and asks me very politely to get out of the room, immediately.
Later that day I curl up into the foetal position and cry my eyes out. You can edit out that bit at the end if you want. Just thought I’d just mention it.
creative non-fiction by Ron Gibson, Jr.
The Hundred Year War
One night, while my family and the rest of Anacortes marina slept, I walked under old-fashioned reproduction street lamps on the waterfront. After a day of wind and waves and crabbing on the Strait, the land was alien, everything at a slight tilt and sway, my shadow extending beyond myself, a young hunger unfed, yet always reaching.
Leaning over a handrail, my shadow dove in and floated on the surface of Hidalgo Bay in an eddy of light, only an albino starfish on rocks for a swimming partner.
Anacortes is "The Gateway to the San Juans," and for many years it had served my family as such. A meeting place. A launching point. A beginning.
And though I had stepped on board, knifed through waves, rounded the bend where Cap Sante bluff overlooks all like an unfeeling god and entered the dangerous waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca before, it was always with others. Never alone.
My shadow looked up at me from the dark water like an anxious harbor seal. If it had its way, it would have left me right then. It would have dipped below the surface, swam and explored every reef and island in the San Juan Island chain, then disappeared. It would have become a fable, a legend amongst fishermen, a once-thought-extinct bottom-dweller, its thoughts, memories and daily habits blacked out by the censorious depths, a mystery.
Instead, it was stuck with me.
When I turned away from the handrail and sat on a bench, next to the memorial for lost mariners, my shadow climbed out of the water and joined me. Together, we watched the lights, spires and torches blazing across Hidalgo Bay from the oil refinery. We sat, transfixed. It looked like a castle. Another world within our world. A kingdom within our reach, if we were only to reach for it.
As if in response, the moon appeared from behind a bank of clouds. It softly rocked on dark waters, a rescue dinghy filled with the dead. A heap of bones, bleached, shining; empty eye sockets for craters. A silent warning that not every adventure is as easy as it may appear.
I find the Shimokitazawa post office just minutes from the busy train station. My friends are waiting for me at one of the many comedy clubs for which the Tokyo theatre district is famous. There’s not a soul in the post office today, but I am directed to take a number and then go immediately to the window, where I am greeted by a silver-toothed little man whose boyish grin reminds me of Mickey Rooney. His name tag says YAMADA, a name as common in Japan as Smith is in Indiana. He is middle-aged. His teeth glisten with silver and gold like the Mexican lady serving my favorite burritos in La Puente. He reaches for my postcards with his two hands extended. He smiles wildly. He stacks the postcards, shuffles, and counts them. He turns them over, reshuffles and counts them again, just to be sure. Yes, there are five, he says. “Is that right?” “Yes,” I say. His furrowed brow suggests deep thought. He looks at the fifty yen stamps I have placed on each card. He strikes a few buttons on his cash register and says I will need to add 20 yen to each card. Suddenly, he hesitates and then reaches into a little drawer beneath the counter. He takes out his tape measure and holds it against the side of the largest card. “Yes, that’ll be fine.” It falls within the allotted size. You’ll only owe 20 yen. He opens the plastic file to his right, pulls out the sixth drawer and flicks through the plastic-covered sheets of 20-yen stamps. He takes one, counts off 5, and folds it down so they can be easily detached. He tears off five and returns the remaining. He tosses the 5 stamps on to the yellow tray on the counter. I in turn set down a 1000-yen bill. He looks satisfied. The transaction is almost over, but he goes to recount the cards just to make sure, when the glass slider opens and an old lady hobbles in on a bamboo cane. He recognizes her and looks frustrated that he can’t offer her postal services today. He seems torn, as he watches a colleague greet her with enthusiasm. I guess he would have preferred serving a regular customer. He’s now forgotten what he was doing. He looks down at the post cards and rechecks the stamps he has offered me. Yes, they are all there. The end is near I say to myself. He takes the 1,000 yen note and reminds me that I am buying 5 stamps at 20 yen a piece. That’ll be 100 yen, he says. Yes, yes. He presses keys on his cash register. He reaches into a little purse he keeps under the counter where he keeps his change. The sale has been made. He hands me the change of 900 yen with a receipt. I thank him in my poor Japanese: “Arigato gozaimasu.” He bows slightly, still grinning from ear to ear.
flash fiction by David Lohrey
Shimokita on Fire
poetry by Gerard Sarnat
Ahead of my peers; in the vanguard
was desirable enough for seven years
until, uh oh, I am not the first little girl
who looked alone in the bathroom mirror
spying someone else’s pubic hair, breasts
and a budding period that turned out after
years of struggle to be me contentedly queer.
short fiction by Leah Holbrook Sackett
Albert Marrakesh Schittkowski hated his name, but Schittkowski was the best choice his unwed mother could make forty years ago for the hungry babe at her breast. Doreen gazed at the pulsing temple of her son as he fed and debated over the matter of his surname. Her choices were limited: Schittkowski, the name of her pedophile father or Laban, the name of the man who beat her and kicked her from his bed.
To compensate for the surname, Doreen named him Albert, as in Einstein, so her son would have a good male role model. And she hoped his namesake’s genius might transfer to her son. Later, when her Albert enrolled in college, Doreen felt vindicated over this choice. She was sixteen and trapped. She craved escape, so she added a name that was exotic: Marrakesh. It was the best smelling coffee in Gloria Jean’s. Every morning when she opened the store she brewed a pot in the large brass monstrosity of a machine. The grounds found their way under her finger nails, the oils permeated her fingertips; the aroma, swelling with a promise of more, filled her head. The morning music of percolation, accompanied Doreen’s ritual of wrapping a paper bag filled with fresh ground Marrakesh beans over her nose and mouth as if she were hyperventilating. Deep and steady, she breathed the earthy fragrance with undertones of chocolate until released from the waves of morning sickness.
But Doreen was always disappointed when she drank the brew, and again, it tasted like coffee. Coffee perplexed her. It smelled divine; yet it tasted nasty. The smells of the Marrakesh beans were intoxicating, but the taste reminded Doreen of her father’s stale Folgers’ breath in her mouth. As a child, even brushing her teeth did not remove that taste, and Doreen had to incessantly apply Dr. Pepper lip balm to her lips to eradicate the stale smell. Some days she wanted to shove the entire lip balm into her mouth, but mostly, she licked and nibbled on it during applications.
Welcome to Alabama the beautiful, the sign read. Albert had been driving all day only stopping for coffee and to take a piss at truck stops along route AL 69. He had 48 hours to be back in St. Louis to make his offer on the bar. His stomach turned. It was nerves. He told himself it was a lack of food. Taking the Tuscaloosa exit, Albert watched for signs of a Waffle House or Denny’s. He'd thought of driving straight to his grandfather’s house, but he wasn’t ready. I’ll feel better after I eat.
The ends of her hair were matted with maple syrup, and her skin had a greasy stratum that only comes from years of working in kitchens. It penetrated her pores, and refused to be rinsed away. She wore the comforting smell of bacon like a sweater. "Welcome to Waffle House. What can I get ya?"
"Coffee, two sugars. Stack of flapjacks."
Albert saddled-up at the counter. All I have to do is drive over there and pay the groveling dues; then I’ll have my money. He needed 80k to buy a failing bar in the newly revitalized and gentrified warehouse district in downtown St. Louis. But Albert had crap for credit. The only bank that was going to give him a loan was the family bank, grandpa.
Albert wiped down the lonely end of the bar: the end with the pretzels, middle-aged guys, and less noise so you could watch the game. The other end of the bar was populated with a small group of a younger set. They'd been hesitant when ordering there beers like they'd walked into the wrong bar, but it was raining outside, so they stayed. He tried to discreetly eye the two hardly legal blondes in the group. The type he no longer stood a chance with unless they had daddy issues. It was girls like that that kept him from coloring over the ever more present gray at his temples and in his hairline. Albert was an aging bartender in a old man's bar. A bar for sale, which meant he'd probably be replaced.
“It’s depressing, isn’t it?”
Albert turned his attention back to the middle-aged man with deeply receding dark-blonde hair and coffee-stained teeth. His future.
"What?" Albert said. " I haven’t been paying attention to the game. He looked up to see the bobbing head of the Blues Hockey color commentator on the old 27" tube TV.
“Nah, I meant being down here, when we use to belong down there with the living.”
In that moment, Albert knew he wanted to buy the bar. He didn't want to be just the bartender for the rest of his life, busting his ass for tips. This was his chance to be the owner, to be somebody. He could update the place and bring customers back. All Albert needed was cash.
Albert hadn’t actually seen his grandfather since he was thirteen. That was the last time his mother dragged him to visit the family. Albert hated going home, as Doreen called it. His mom got emotional, inexplicable tears. Half the time Doreen stayed at her sister’s home. As a child, Albert didn’t understand why they went at all, but by the age of nine he’d figured out the visits were the only way for Doreen to get money. Every time Doreen was over her head in debit or needed a down payment on a car or house, she and Albert made a trip to Tuscaloosa. On the upside, trips to Tuscaloosa were a dip into the freedom pool for Albert. Doreen was distracted and self-involved at Aunt Kathy’s. While his mom and Aunt Kathy looked over photographs of the grandmother Albert never met, he and his cousin Margot were left to their own devices, Margot’s devices. And Margot’s games were different, fun.
Albert clearly remembered playing “doctor” with Margot. She got to be the doctor, or she wouldn’t play. Margot and Albert would climb up into the attic over the back bedrooms that Aunt Kathy used as her pottery studio. It was warm and shadowy with streaks of dusty sunbeams in the Alabama summers and falls. It was cool and sullen in the winter. Albert refused to play in the winter, until Margot found some old blankets in a cedar chest in the corner of the attic. Here they built a little fort, and disrobed. They would disappear into the attic for long stretches of time. No one needed them. Margot was Albert’s first introduction to the female form outside of his mother. He would catch a peek of Doreen's brown, rosy nipples and slackened breasts as her robe shook loose while she ironed piles of laundry in front of the T.V. Albert was both disgusted and curious. But Margot was different. Margot let Albert touch her budding milk-white breasts, her small pink nipples. Even as they slowly swelled, Margot’s breasts looked nothing like his mom’s, not when Margot was at the age of ten, eleven, or even fourteen.
The first time they had played doctor was when Albert was nine. Margot had dragged him by the elbow down the back hall to a box. Albert wondered what was in the box. He’d hoped it would be match box cars, but he doubted it. Margot liked dolls. Then she stood on the box and pulled a short dingy cord to reveal a folding ladder.
“Wow! What is that?”
“It’s the ladder to our attic.”
“Cool,” he said in a long, low whisper.
“Two to go up!” Margot announced and pointed up before she ascended the ladder into the hovering dark hole. Not to be outdone by Margot, or any girl, Albert ascended the stairs his head poking up into the darkness. He paused on the third to last rung and blinked trying to adjust his eyes. There were boxes heaped up four high lining the walls. There was a Christmas wreath in the nearest corner, an old sewing machine, and a long rod that ran the length of the attic just off to the left hand side if you were facing the backyard. Old clothes, some covered in plastic, hung from the pole.
“Come on,” Margot hissed at him. She lowered herself over the entrance and tugged at the ladder. Once Margot and Albert had managed to close up their entrance, they stood awkward in the dark.
“Isn’t there a light?”
“What for? It’s not like anyone comes up here. Besides I like it dark.” And Margot ducked into the rack of clothing.
“Wait, where are you going? What do you do up here?”
“I don’t know, Albert. You sure do ask a lot of dumb questions.”
“Sorry.” Albert didn’t want to make her angry. Margot was the only person to play with in Tuscaloosa, for him anyway. He was sure there must be other kids around, but he didn’t know any.
“Let’s play doctor,” Margot said.
Great a bunch of sick baby dolls, maybe I can go downstairs and get a snack from Aunt Kathy.
“I’ll be the doctor. You be sick.”
“What do I do? Cough?”
“Sure, then take your shirt off and lie down.”
“There aren’t any spiders up here are there?”
“No. Want a lifesaver?”
“Well, then lie down. The lifesavers are the medicine. You can’t have a lifesaver until I examine you.”
Albert stretched out on the dusty floorboards. It felt warm and cozy behind the rack of clothes in the dim light of a Tuscaloosa May. Margo pressed her fingers gently to his throat. She pressed on his chest. When she got to his stomach he giggled and curled up into a ball. “Stop that,” Margot scolded. Albert stretched himself out again. He’d hoped to still get a lifesaver.
“Can I have a green lifesaver?”
“Patients are supposed to be quiet. Shh. I think you may be very ill. But I’ll have to take a look,” and she unsnapped his jeans.
Albert sat up, “Hey!”
“Well, if you’re too big a baby to play.” Margot said turning her back to him.
“No, I just. No.” And he flung himself back, bumping his head. As Albert reached back to rub the spot on his head Margot tugged on his pants, freeing Albert of both his Levi’s and his briefs. Albert froze in part from sheer embarrassment and in part from fear of what to do. Margot did not seem afraid at all. She pulled a tube of lifesavers from her hip pocket.
“You have a terrible illness. And this is the only way to save you,” she said as she clicked off the lifesavers one by one and licked them before applying them to Albert’s stomach in a trail to his penis. Albert felt tingly and hot. He began to sweat. He was worried he would do something wrong. He was worried he might have to pee. After Margot had completed the path of lifesavers, she pulled her t-shirt off over her head revealing her budding milk-white breasts.
“Touch them,” she said, as if she were telling Albert to touch the new velvet pillows on Aunt Kathy’s sofa.
“Go ahead. You touch me and I’ll touch you.”
That was how Albert explained, to himself, his kinky fetish for that little girl look, for younger women. Albert was nearly old enough to be the father of the nineteen, twenty year-old girls that he chased, the just legal set. He knew he came off a fool at least half the time, but he didn’t care as long as they would put their hair up in pig tails and wear knee socks. Women his own age would spit the word pervert at him, with the venom they felt for their own sagging breasts and fat dimpled thighs. Now, here he was back in Tuscaloosa on his way to visit grandpa, and dreaming of Margot.
Albert drove down the dusky streets, hunting for familiar in the twilight and the trees. He hoped to catch a glimpse of Margot at fourteen again. But he wouldn’t, that was impossible. He wouldn’t even see Margot in her forties. She had run away from home at sixteen with some guy that got her pregnant. No one had heard from her again. Aunt Kathy and Uncle Butch moved to Nevada a few years later. Only the grandfather and his money were left in Tuscaloosa, and now Albert.
Albert sat at a green light before making an abrupt right down Chicory Lane. He had to see it. He had to see Margot’s house one last time. After half a block, there it was. It was smaller than he remembered, and it wasn’t painted yellow back then. It’d been white with green shutters. Albert stretched across the bucket seats and empty Styrofoam QT cups to look out, up at the wood rot eaves of the attic.
“Albert,” Margot hissed. She was standing in the hall under the access panel to the attic. Albert had just come from the hall bathroom.
“Call me, Kesh,” he said as he swaggered towards her.
Margot smirked and waited for Kesh to pull the cord to the access panel. It was unspoken, now, this game, this jaunt to the attic. The game had not changed much over time, but it had been two years since they last saw one another. Margot was fourteen and Albert was thirteen. Once they had ducked under the clothes rack, Albert saw that Margot had added some blankets and a pillow. She was feathering a little love nest. Albert swallowed hard. Margot was always a few steps ahead of him, but he was determined to take the lead. Margot stripped down to her butterfly panties and bra. For the first time Margot had a real bra, not a training bra. Albert couldn’t ignore how Margot’s body had changed. His stomach began to feel funny. Albert stripped to his only pair of boxers, snagged from his mom's old boyfriend, out of the laundry. They were big, and he had to roll the waistband to keep them on. He waited for Margot to comment.
“Kiss me,” was her only response. She didn’t even seem to notice him. They lay in each other’s arms and kissed, hard, wet, and sloppy – like adolescents. When they pulled apart, Albert said, “Do you remember the lifesavers?” “I’ve got something better than lifesavers,” Margot said.
She slipped her hands into his boxers and pulled his penis free through the fly. Margot kissed her way down his chest and stomach. This time Albert was too nervous to be tickled; yet he still wanted to curl into a ball. As Margot took him into her mouth, Albert’s body went rigid with delight, fear. It wasn’t long before he came, and Margot wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. Albert had seen pictures of blow jobs in dirty magazines that he and his friends stole from the collections of fathers and older brothers. But he had no idea that Margot would do that to him. He trembled. Margot wrapped herself around him and said, “Let’s cuddle.”
When Albert woke, he was sure that they were caught. “Albert! Margot! Where are you kids?” Doreen was calling from downstairs. The smell of chicken and dumplings rose in the air. He shook Margot by the shoulder; then realized she was already awake. They listened to Doreen walk back towards the Kitchen; then dressed and quickly left the attic. Margot tiptoed to the back door, opened it and slammed it. “We’re home! Anybody here?” She called out. That was easy. Everything was easy for Margot.
Idling in front of 1623 Chicory Lane, Albert didn’t know what he had expected to find, exactly. But he unearthed fond memories of which he felt ashamed. He cranked the engine, forgetting it was already running, and put it into gear. Albert didn’t say goodbye. How do you say goodbye to a house? This trip was harder than he anticipated. He knew getting money from his grandfather would require ass kissing. Albert was not fond of the idea or the old man. But Albert didn’t realize how many ghosts were lurking in Tuscaloosa for him. This was life: transient and unfulfilling. He was the selfish survivor, born to ill-fitting circumstance, where family was best forgotten.
It was only a five minute drive to his grandfather’s. The past rose out of the shadows in all its Greek revival glory. A two-story, brick monstrosity with towering white pillars and a sweeping porch that presented the double black, lacquered front doors where Nikolaus Schittkowski was waiting for him.
“Took you long enough, Albert,” the old man growled from the shadowed doorjamb. He was bent, but remained bulky and large in his old age.
“Sorry, sir. I was reliving some fond memories. And it’s Kesh.”
“Come in. Sit down. What’s your mother up to?”
“She’s living in New Mexico with some hippy-green artist."
“Well, that sounds like Doreen.”
Schittkowski took Albert by the chin and turned his face side-to-side in the light of the foyer chandelier. “Well, there’s no denying you, anyway. Shit, if you don’t look just like me.”
Albert did not feel complimented.
“Yep, you’re a lucky son of a bitch. You got my good looks and my name, instead of that dickhead that knocked-up your mom,” Schittkowski said, and waved Albert to follow with a meaty hand, thick fingered and long yellowed nails.
He was the same. The kitchen was the same, not a single update. The Coca-Cola bottle opener still hung on the wall over the trashcan. The daisy curtains, now ragged at the edges, stuck to the kitchen window in the humidity. The black pock-mark from some long forgotten accident was still a blight in the white Formica countertop.
“Ah, yes, sir. That’d be great.”
Schittkowski grabbed a thick, white mug from the cupboard and set it down in front of Albert. He picked up the tall carafe of coffee from its warming plate and brought it to the table.
“Would you like a hot dog, Albert?” Schittkowski asked while pouring Albert a cup and giving his own mug a warm-up.
“It’s, ah. No. I don’t think so.”
“Suit yourself.” Schittkowski set the carafe on the table and unscrewed the lid, pulling out a hot dog with his gnarled fingers. Albert looked down into his mug. A greasy film swirled across the top of his coffee. “Why do you have a hot dog in your coffee pot?”
“It cooks ‘em. Don’t waste water or time that way.”
“Doesn’t it make the coffee greasy?”
“Eh, don’t be a pansy, boy.”
Albert took a dutiful sip. He observed his grandfather. It was true enough that they had the same watery blue eyes, the same square jaw line. His grandfather’s stature, his face and hands were beaten-down like a rumpled, busted bus seat. Albert sat a little straighter and made a mental note to inquire somewhere about moisturizer.
“Well, when are you going to get around to it? You came here looking for money didn’t you?”
“I, ah, thought we’d visit. I haven’t seen you since I was thirteen. I don’t know why Mom never came back. I don’t know why I never came before.”Albert’s palms were sweating. He wasn’t sure how this was going.
“So, you still want my money?”
“Ahem, may I use your bathroom?”
“You remember where it is?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Albert made his way toward the staircase. The wallpaper, once floral, now looked veined and discolored, threadbare rugs lazed about like sleeping dogs, and the excessively large wooden console, good for hide and seek, crouched by the stair; it was all still there. Everything was the same, just old. Climbing the stairs he was escorted by the aging photographs of his mother and Aunt Kathy as little girls. There were photos of his grandfather when he still had his looks with the grandma he never met. He could tell that his mother favored her mother in looks. The journey to the bathroom was like hitting a familial rewind button. Dressing the stair and the halls were photographic evidence of a happy, unified family he didn’t know, his family. They'd gathered, posed with linked arms, and forced smiles, again and again. He could hear his mother’s nervous laugh lifting from the walls.
A light was on in the master bedroom. He’d always been afraid of that room as a kid. Now, standing in the middle of the room, he surveyed it looking for that something scary. The vanity was a heavy piece of oak that weighed down the room. It was littered with remnants of an old man, prescription bottles, a dingy handkerchief, and a tube of Icy/Hot that permeated the room. This was always an old man’s room. Albert crossed moonlight and streetlight that filtered through the floor to ceiling shutters; not once could he remember these being open. He fingered the dungy sheets, and took count of the items on the night stand: a brass lamp, a handful of change, an old Westclox double bell alarm clock, a nearly empty water glass, and a framed photo of Margot when she was eleven.
“Albert, you are underfoot in this kitchen,” Aunt Kathy complained.
“Where’s Margot?” Doreen asked him.
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you go find her and the two of you can walk down to Dewey’s and get a gallon of ice cream to go with the peach cobbler I made,” Doreen said.
“Yeah, where is Margot? She’s always disappearing,” Aunt Kathy said to the room at large.
“Now, be quiet. Don’t wake your grandfather. I don’t need him being cranky when I’m trying to ask him for a loan.”
Albert left the kitchen with a five dollar bill tucked into the front pocket of his jeans for vanilla ice cream. He looked out the window, but didn’t see Margot. He decided to go check the bathroom. Girls are always in the bathroom, he thought. Before he even reached the bathroom he noticed the door was open and the light was off. Then he heard a low murmur from his grandfather’s room. He stepped quietly, careful not to make a sound in his new Puma tennis shoes. He pretended he was a spy like James Bond. He reached the door frame and let his eyes adjust to the dark, then pushed his face further into the room. His grandfather was sitting up on the bed. His grandfather was the one murmuring. Was he talking in his sleep? Sitting in his sleep? Then the light from the shutters caught the blond head of Margot rising from his lap. She looked straight through Albert. His heart was pounding in his chest. He ran down the stairs and out of the house. He wanted to kill his grandfather. He wanted to hurt Margot. Instead he ran till he was out of breath. Then Albert dropped to the pavement on his hands and knees, the sickening-thud of bone on unforgiving concrete. And on an unfamiliar street corner he cried. It was getting dark when he started to navigate his way to Aunt Kathy’s house. After a few turns, he got his bearings, but he stopped off to throw rocks at a little black poodle that barked incessantly from its yard. Albert hated to go back to his family, but he had nowhere else to go. “Albert, there you are,” Doreen said half scolding, half relieved. “What are you doing here? You missed dinner, and we didn’t have any ice cream with dessert.”
Margot crossed the living room in silence and went straight to her room.
“Albert?” Doreen pushed for a response.
“Here’s your five dollars.” Albert pulled the money from his pocket and threw it on the sofa, before storming off to the guest bedroom.
Sweat from Albert’s palm smeared the glass of the framed photo. He remembered, not that he had really ever forgotten. He’d told himself it wasn’t what he thought. He was paranoid, because of the games he and Margot played. It was dark. How could he be sure? But now, in this place, nearly 30 years later, he was sure. He was sure that he’d been betrayed, that his rival was his own grandfather. Albert smashed the frame on the edge of the nightstand. He pulled free the smiling image of Margot in pigtails. His hand shook not to crush it, and he stuffed it inside the pocket of his flaking leather jacket. Albert descended the stairs at a gallop ready to jack his grandfather in the jaw, to claim what was rightfully his. When Albert reached the kitchen an open checkbook lay on the table next to his cup of coffee. Albert stalled. “Trust you found the bathroom alright?”
He was packed with anger and anxiety. Albert thought he might puke, instead he picked up the coffee cup and drained it.
“That greasy flavor is growing on you. I knew I liked you, boy.”
Schittkowski pulled a hot dog out of the pot, and took a big bite. He started to chuckle. His grin turned into a grimace, and the chuckle was cut short. Albert felt the world slow down, as he watched Schittkowski slam a hand on the table. The coffee cups jumped, and the spoons jangled. The old man rose, staggering from his chair. His eyes were wide and his hand went to his throat. The words "choking" and "Heimlich maneuver" crossed Albert's mind. Instinct kicked-in with a renewed surge of adrenaline. Albert embraced his grandfather from behind and began what he thought must be the right movement, a violent thrust against the diaphragm with his fists. Schittkowski was heavy. He slipped in Albert's arms with each inward thrust. They tumbled to the floor. Albert tightened his grip.
"Come on, you son of a bitch. Come on," Albert shouted as he struggled on the floor with his grandfather convulsing in his arms. Albert pulled himself free and stumbled back and up against the counter. He was raging and crying. He paced the floor. "Shit! Shit," and kicked Schittkowski in the gut. A large piece of hot dog was jettisoned across the floor. Schittkowski lay on the floor wheezing. Albert kicked him again and again. The old man drooled and moaned and laughed.
The Family Blend
microfiction by Timothy Adams
every day laid down battlesounds but not that exactly impressed and plant seeds but I never touched them I just wandered mind’s eye and plucked plucked dirt from the flotation of clouds I picked up the cloudwares I saw stares from the sun didn’t it once or twice a day move along the rows above if there were treelines or if not it wrote the directions of the sky because I couldn’t tell the difference every day is an overcomplication it was just one day but each in a different location
“battles are nothing, look at the sky, always turbulent”
Lost in a Pair of Dice
Timothy sculpts poems, prose, stories, plays, and other living word forms. He has performed his plays in multiple venues in New Orleans, had work published by Bottlecap Press, Clockwise Cat, Tupelo Press, and self-published multiple works of prose poetry. Driven by dreams, and by the intersecting of chaos and structure. He is interested in a giant who sleeps in the bushes, or something like that. His varied forms can be found at nationtimesyndrome.com.
Mark is an award winning playwright whose work has been staged and published all around the world. Some New York City productions include “The Head Hunter” (Abington Theatre), “Dead Monkey” (NY Collective), “The Daughters of Eve” (Cherry Lane Studio Theatre), “The Mutilation of St. Barbara” (Gene Frankel Theatre). Outside New York: The UK premiere of “The Godling” at The Etcetera Theatre Camden, “Suicide, Inc.” at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre. In Los Angeles, “Lonely Vigil for a Stranger” at The Burbage Theatre where LA Times heralded it, “Fireworks and Poetry”. Publications include: “A Gravedigger’s Tale” (Smith & Krauss), “Don’t Listen To What It Sounds Like” (Smith & Kraus), “Shadow Saint” and “Dead Monkey” (Collective NY). Mark is the winner of the Playwrights Fellowship Award from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts and The Rod Serling Award for “The Godling”. His plays have been developed at The Actors Studio, The Labyrinth Theatre Company, The Lark, Tribeca Lab and New Playwright’s Foundation of Los Angeles. Also a screenwriter, his award winning thriller, “The Perfect Witness” is available worldwide. Mark is a proud lifetime member of The Actors Studio and The Dramatists Guild.
Manit Chaotragoongit was born on September 30 , 1983 in Bangkok, Thailand. He received a Bachelor Degree in Political Science and Public Administration. His inspiration started when he was teenager when he found old books about art and photography. He prefers conceptual photography and street life. His artwork is all about life, he presents his experience and vision through his eyes. He recognizes and describes a series of events. He thinks everything in a part of life has meaning. He hope his work will give value to the audience.
Brian Coughlan has a Masters Degree in Screenwriting from NUIG. He has published work with The Bohemyth, The Galway Review, Storgy, Write Out Publishing, Toasted Cheese, Thrice Publishing, Litbreak, Lunaris Review, LitroNY and Unthology. In 2014 he was shortlisted for the Industry Insider TV Pilot Contest as a co-creator of the drama series “Panacea.” He is an active member of the Galway Scriptwriters Group since 2013.
Ron Gibson Jr.
Ron Gibson, Jr. has previously appeared in (b)Oink, Stockholm Review of Literature, Cheap Pop, New South Journal, Jellyfish Review, Whiskeypaper, The Bohemyth, Easy Street, Noble / Gas Quarterly, Harpoon Review, Spelk Fiction, Entropy Magazine, Anti-Heroin Chic, etc… forthcoming Heavy Feather Review, Moonglasses Magazine, Gone Lawn, apt, Unbroken Journal & Glove Lit Zine.
David Lohrey was born on the Hudson River but grew up on the Mississippi in Memphis. He graduated from U.C., Berkeley. He earned his Ph.D. at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, NSW, AU. He currently teaches in Tokyo. He has reviewed books for The Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register, has been a member of the Dramatists Guild in New York, and served as a voting member of the Los Angeles Ovation Awards for theatre. His plays have appeared around the country and, more recently, in Croatia. “In a Newark Minute” and “Sperm Counts” were both produced this year in Estonia. His poetry can be found in The Rats Ass Review, Plum Tree Tavern, The Blue Mountain Review, Peeking Cat Poetry Magazine, and Quarterday. He is currently writing a memoir of his years living in the Persian Gulf.
Nicholas Olson is a freelance writer from Chicago now living in North Carolina. When he’s not writing a novel or wrangling a cat, he’s editing for Cease, Cows or reviewing for The Review Review. He was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s 2016 Very Short Fiction Award and has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, Literary Orphans, decomP, and other fine places. Read more at nicksfics.com.
Leah Holbrook Sackett
Leah Holbrook Sackett is an adjunct lecturer in the English department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. This is also where she earned her M.F.A. Additionally, she has published three short stories: “A Point of Departure” was published with Connotation Press, “Somebody Else in Kentucky” was published in Blacktop Passages, and “The Birdcage Nests Within” was published with The Weekly Knob through Medium Daily Digest. Additionally, her flash fiction entitled “What the Looking Glass Reflects” was accepted for the next issue of Zany Zygote Review, and her short story “Man In Black” is due to publish with The Writing Disorder in Spring 2017. Finally, Leah lives with her husband Jonathan and daughter Bella in Webster Groves.
Gerard Sarnat is the author of four critically-acclaimed collections: “Homeless Chronicles from Abraham to Burning Man” (2010), “Disputes” (2012), “17s” (2014) and “Melting The Ice King” (2016). Work from “Ice King” was accepted by over seventy magazines, including Gargoyle and Lowestoft Chronicle, and featured in Songs of Eretz Poetry Review, Avocet: A Journal of Nature Poems, LEVELER, tNY, StepAway, Bywords and Floor Plan. For Huffington Post and other reviews, reading dates, publications, interviews and more, visit GerardSarnat.com.
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