june 21, 2017| ISSUE no 218
crack the spine
Barry Fentiman Hall
Mick Ó Seasnáin
A. J. Atwater
The mares arrive slowly at first, starting with a mother and her wobble-legged filly, both the color of old pennies at the bottom of a purse. Then the scrawny buckskin quarter horse, the limping bay Warmblood, the shaggy white Shetland pony so starved her hide drapes over angular hips like angora on a coat hanger. Next come the matched pairs—two gray Connemara ponies, two hulking Clydesdales, two bird-boned Thoroughbreds so black they’re nearly blue, like a pair of oil slicks sliding down the road. Soon they come in groups of four and five, then in herds, in droves, in hordes. Mares, every last one of them.
Bewildered, the girl welcomes them, feeds them, bandages their wounds, loves and fears them. She knows there are too many and not enough space, but they are hers and she must save them. She senses that her goal is to make them immortal. But they resist immortality, eating things that tear their stomachs, refusing medicine, jostling against each other, kicking, biting, stomping. They ignore her pleas for peace and calm.
As the months roll by, manure begins to cover the grass. The mares’ hooves sink in. Shit up to their ankles. The girl weeps over her vast new empire of dung, scoops it up by the shovelful, but the empty spaces refill like magic. Like that spell from old mountain lore—Fill pot, fill.
One long blink and the girl is an old woman, impossibly old, weary and sun-wrinkled from centuries of toiling after her mares. Her hair is white and wild and tangled, dragging the ground behind her. She braids it and ties it in knots and climbs trees carrying feed bags, nimble despite her achy joints. She balances on branches and scatters grain to the ancient beasts below. They leap and chomp and fight, then peck at the ground like great wingless chickens. The woman tiptoes across their sardine-packed backs to her silent house each night to sleep her fitful sleep.
One late summer evening, age-speckled legs dangling as she sits astride an oak branch, she looks out over the seething mass of bodies, like a fire ant flotilla riding out the flood, mass of bodies so solid she can’t see the ground, can’t see the manure heaped beneath them, piled so high and firm now that from her branch she can almost touch fuzzy pointed ears with her toes. The sun angles lower and orange rays slice between tree trunks, painting warmth across the many haunches and scraggly manes and for a moment the woman recognizes a kind of beauty there, serenity even. She inhales a deep, ragged breath.
The herd heaves and ripples from the center, where one mare has fallen. The woman leaps from her branch, gallops across dusty backs and rumps, hair unraveling, flying flag-like behind her, until she reaches the empty spot. Dead mare, the color of old pennies, laid out on her side. Black eyes open, unseeing.
Another mare falls, and another, radiating out like dominoes. Legs buckling, bodies thudding to earth, necks draping and bending in unnatural angles, on and on and on until not one is left standing. The woman turns round and round to be sure, but they’ve all fallen. Splayed like trees mowed down by a meteor hit. And she the glowing coal smoldering at the center—keening, stomping, snorting from widened nostrils.
The sun sets and darkness envelops the old woman. She wanders among her mares now, closing each eye, whispering every name. She does not let herself think of what will happen next. Of the many mounds of dirt, of where the tree roots will reach, of what the underground insects will gnaw. She only steps between the bodies of her mares, long hair whisping across the motionless faces she leaves in her wake.
flash fiction by Annie Frazier
poetry by Barry Fentiman Hall
And gets loose
On scuffed golden
Fields of wilt and weeds
It bares its back
And shows its best
Side to the sky
Pleading the beams
To fall a little longer
Mizzed by rain
For long months
We get high on heat
And we love each other
With an honesty
That cannot be bottled
And kept for when
The clouds return
We are knocking back
A song we know
Is the breath of trees
We take it way back
And laugh at anything
To embrace, we part
Slow till only fingers tip
And let go
Walking like myths
On familiar streets
That smell of honeysuckle
Or some such
Longing out the high
We glow still for a while
Until the heat leaves us
And life goes on as
England remembers itself
With half a smile
Until the next time
The Physical Therapist
short fiction by Kathryn Holzman
“Rat poison is the only arsenic left on the market,” Roseann told Bob as he returned the wayward puppy to the cardboard box where the rest of the litter nursed greedily on the exhausted mother dog, Sasha. “She’d been lacing his tea for six months. He hadn’t a clue.”
Roseann and Bob had been living together since June in a small town outside DesMoines. Their two-room apartment was sparsely furnished but was filled with the litter of puppies that had arrived a week ago. The curtain-less windows announced that Bob was between things. Having been denied tenure at the University (after years of being strung along by the Chairman of the School of Education), he currently had no commitments until the start of his new job as an elementary school teacher in September. Roseann, a dedicated physical therapist, was telling him about her latest patient.
“By the time they discovered that his wife was poisoning him, he was nearly dead. He’d lost nearly seventy five pounds and couldn’t lift his head from the pillow.”
“Did they arrest the wife?”
“The case is still pending.” Roseann had spent the afternoon with her arms around the emaciated man, supporting him as he learned to walk again, painfully pacing the length of his hospital room.
Roseanne lived for her work. She had arrived in Bob’s life with little baggage. At work she wore scrubs; at home she wore jeans. She played organ in the church on Sunday and, even then, wore a plain pair of brown slacks (often covered with dog hair) and a no-nonsense white blouse. Bob, tall and classically handsome with sandy hair and blue eyes was the type of man older women swooned over. They met over his mother’s broken hip which had healed nicely. Walking the hobbled woman down the aisles of the rehab hospital, the three of them had bonded.
“Didn’t he suspect that she was poisoning him?”
“He really loved her.”
Sasha had gotten pregnant by one of the local dogs in the dog park. Bob had been excited at the prospect of puppies. He had looked forward to the litter, the liveliness of puppies filling his empty apartment. When Roseann accepted his invitation to move in, she brought her own dog, Pluto, a black poodle who had never been groomed. The two dogs didn’t know what to make of the situation. For that matter, neither did Roseann. In her element at the rehab hospital, she was hopeless at romance. By the end of summer, they would have to get rid of the puppies.
Roseann was not used to sharing her living space. Since graduating from college, she had lived in a sparse room above the local Lutheran church. It was a practical arrangement, close to her job. Pragmatic, like most of her life decisions since moving away from her widowed father. After her mother’s death, her father, the professor, met his parental obligations reluctantly. She knew he had been relieved when she had moved out and he was able to settle into a solitary, intellectual’s life.
On their first date, Bob and Roseann had gone to the County Mall and trolled stores for freebies--cooking demonstrations, perfume samples, teasers. Bob was delighted when Roseann slipped a manicure set into her purse. Her eyes twinkled uncharacteristically when he pocketed an embroidered handkerchief. After, in the parking lot under the stars, they compared the objects they had shoplifted and leaned against the car amazed that they had found one another.
“Your mom will love that,” she said of the handkerchief.
He really loved her.
She never mentioned Bob to her patients who, in their illnesses, confided to her their every vulnerability. Bob, on the other hand, asked her to tell him every intimacy that was revealed to her.
“She hid the rat poison in the pantry, out of reach of their children. If the visiting nurse had not discovered it while looking for sugar for her tea, he would have died.”
The puppies could barely stand. One by one Bob and Roseann took them out of the cardboard box and watched them stagger drunkenly across the dusty braided rug of the living room. Pluto, black to Sasha’s white, watched with dog-eyed bemusement. Neither Bob nor Roseann was up to the task of house training. It wouldn’t be long before the situation began to stink.
“He’s the nicest man, an insurance salesman, although he hasn’t been able to work for months. He’s just beginning to get his strength back.”
“Where are his children now?” Bob asked, scooping up the runt and scratching his belly.
“With his parents. He’s filed for divorce and custody.”
“Poor guy. I’d kill her.”
Bob was waiting for the proper moment to ask Roseann to marry him.
Roseann practiced on the church organ on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Bob liked to come along and sit in the empty church with the dogs at his feet. Stretching out his long legs on the concrete floor he looked up at the light filtering through the stained glass windows. The romantic breath of organ pipes filled the emptiness of the church just as the puppies filled his empty apartment and the unexpected arrival of Roseann completed him.
Now seated on the floor next to her he was sure the time was right.
“She had lovers, you know, the whole time she was poisoning him. He could hear them making love in his own bed, but he couldn’t move. Can you imagine?” Roseann could still feel the surrender of the patient’s body into hers as she stabilized him, patiently waiting for him to place one foot in front of the next. She was strong, a muscular woman who could support his weight. Her job required it. It was her vocation.
After an exhausting day at work, she was famished.
“Let’s go to Auntie Belle’s Pies for dinner.” She loved that people never saw them as a couple who would walk out on their bill. It made it easy as long as they didn’t go to the same restaurant twice.
Over dinner they discussed the signs of poisoning, the discoloration of skin, the white lines under the fingernails, frequent bouts of diarrhea. When the pie arrived, Bill set the engagement ring on the table.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Roseann said, sliding the ring on her finger. They ordered a blueberry pie to go. While Bob pretended to go the bathroom, Roseann left by the front door. When the cashier was distracted by a phone call, Bob followed her to the car.
They ate the whole pie that night. When Roseann tried to slide the ring from her finger the next morning in the shower, it wouldn’t come off. She hoped that Bob wouldn’t notice the bruising left by the attempt to remove it.
Her patient kept a family portrait on his bedstead. Doug and his wife stood on a seaside pier with two blond children, a gangly teenage boy and a younger girl with large, trusting green eyes. Doug had one healthy, tanned arm draped over his wife’s shoulder and the other resting on his daughter’s head. They were a handsome family. Doug in particular looked exceedingly happy.
Doug noticed Roseann’s ring. “Hey, congratulations.”
“Thanks.” She couldn’t help feeling as if she had betrayed him. She quickly changed the subject. “How long were you guys married?”
“Twenty years. My wife, she’s hot stuff.” In the picture, his wife was overdressed for the beach, wearing a tasteful form-fitting linen sheath dress and carefully coordinated scarf of blues and greens. Her dangling earrings matched the softest green of the scarf. She was slender. Her sandals stylishly strappy and her heels high. “It was always hard to keep up with her. She never missed a chance to tell me I was a disappointment.” Doug looked straight ahead as he made his tentative, torturous baby steps. “The kids miss her.”
The case was coming before the grand jury in September. He never discussed it with his kids. He didn’t want to disillusion them. Once they lost their innocence, he said, it could never be recaptured.
In the meantime, Bob was strolling through the Maple-lined streets of their modest neighborhood hanging “Free Puppies” flyers on bulletin boards and telephone poles. Sasha and Pluto accompanied him, pulling him along eagerly, dead set on dragging him to the dog park. Their destination achieved, they frolicked with the other dogs on the dry, brown grass while he sat on the park bench with two fellow dog owners, grey-haired middle aged women who knew him well from their afternoons together. They asked after the puppies.
"My fiancée,” he started proudly “and I are putting the puppies up for sale.”
“Congratulations,” the dog owners replied.
The elementary school where he would be teaching was on the other side of town, the more affluent side where the parents were accomplished doctors and lawyers, businessmen. In his interview, he charmed the principal and passed the parental committee review with flying colors. There were too few male elementary school teachers, they told him. He could be a role model. “My wife,” he would say in the fall. He too would be trusted.
After his proposal, their late night eating continued. Apple pies, chocolate cakes, pints of vanilla ice cream. Their trips to the grocery store became competitions. After they had unloaded the grocery bags, Roseann would reveal what she had slipped into her purse; Bob would empty his pockets. One night as Roseann practiced hymns on the organ Bob slipped into the empty Fellowship Hall and discovered a large box of bacon. Their apartment smelled of smoked meat for a week and the puppies fattened up nicely.
The eating binges had little effect on Bob who was six feet two, but Roseann was steadily putting on weight. The engagement ring now cut into her finger, digging deeply. They set a date for September, the weekend before school began.
Doug had asked her to be a character witness.
In preparation for her testimony, he told her everything about his life, the details about his career as an insurance salesman, his tactics, and his record of success. He had met his wife at a college frat party. Beaming, he described their elaborate wedding followed by a romantic honeymoon in Barbados. He was proud of his wife’s ambition, her success as a real estate agent. Sitting in the patients’ lounge, he admitted that he had known about his wife’s affairs for years but had hoped that by ignoring them his could hold onto a life he had truly loved.
The fattened puppies, now strutting about the living room happily when not engaging in mock fights during which they pounced on each other and bit each other’s tails, were given away one by one. Roseann started to use laxatives to purge herself after their nightly food binges. She told Bob, who didn’t seem to mind, that she wanted to look nice for the wedding. Her father was flying up from St. Louis and his mother, now steady on her cane, would be attending the small ceremony at the church. Each morning Roseann tested her ring, but despite her efforts at reduction, it had settled in on her finger as if it were meant to stay.
Bob was preparing his classroom. He put a picture of Roseann on his desk and wrote his name with a flourish on the front board. He met the class mother who was quite taken with him and offered to bring cupcakes to the first day of class.
By late August, only one puppy remained, the runt. Deciding to keep it, they named it Amor. Bob set out to be sure that the newest member of their household was housebroken before the wedding guests arrived. It was a challenging task but, in his joyful anticipation, he felt he was up to it.
The wedding ceremony was held in the Fellowship Hall. Roseann’s father sat in the front right pew and never smiled; Bob’s mother beamed from the left, resting on her cane and looking proud and flustered, a large corsage pinned to the front of her orchid-colored dress. The ladies’ auxiliary arranged the flowers and made an elaborate cake with large frosting flowers in celebratory pastels. The scratchy wedding march was pre-recorded. Even as he concentrated on Roseann’s self-conscious walk down the aisle, Bob missed the heavenly swelling pipes of the organ.
The newlyweds stayed up late drinking champagne as they demolished the wedding cake, relishing the stiff Crisco-laden frosting and stuffing the moist sweet crumbs into their mouths. They couldn’t eat enough. The dogs contentedly circled them, trolling for crumbs.
Roseann had agreed to testify the next day, to attest to Doug’s character. Before custody could be awarded, the charges against his wife needed to be heard by the grand jury. Roseann wore scrubs, as always, to the County courthouse. She perched nervously on a dirt-colored plastic chair in a corner of the cavernous waiting room for most of the morning, sitting self-consciously on her swollen ring finger, feeling as if her life was spinning out of control. She was a “married lady,” a “wife.” Her stomach gurgled with last night’s laxatives. Her hunger was insatiable; the need to purge relentless.
Doug emerged from the closed door of a conference room. His wife, surprisingly pallid, pushed his wheel chair past Roseann without acknowledgment.
Their lawyer, a short man whose white shirt stretched across his swollen belly, followed a few steps behind them. With a labored sigh, he explained to Roseann that her testimony would no longer be needed. The criminal case against Doug’s wife had been thrown out for lack of evidence. Doug had refused to testify and the visiting nurse had chosen not to be involved.
The couple had agreed to reconcile.
That evening, Roseann lost her appetite. The smell of dog shit in their apartment made her gag. Despite Bob’s good intentions, Amor’s accidents had become a regular event; the carpet now had a wedding-ring pattern of stains that remained despite Roseann’s attempts to wash out the mess.
On her hands and knees blotting up the most recent puddle, she asked her husband “What would it take for you to stop loving me?”
“I will always love you,” he said, not looking up from the newspaper he was reading.
“If I was unfaithful?”
“I trust you, Babe.”
“If I tried to kill you?”
Bob nudged the puppy away from his feet. “Stop fretting. We can always get a new carpet.”
The next day, Roseann was assigned another case, a paraplegic who had broken his back in a tractor accident. After her divorce, she would continue to care for this taciturn farmer with a tenderness that she never chose to name.
microfiction by A. J. Atwater
The tiny steel tips on her red stiletto heels skreek on cement when I nudge her up the subway stairs in a lightening second, my pants zipped but it jumping into her backside while I grope her ass with my hands before I disappear into a swarm of New Yorkers. Turn into a bar, whistling “Mr Mistoffelees” and order a stiff drink, then she is beside me with a red stiletto in her hand and when its heel goes into the back of my neck and I hear the vertebra break from the force, I know I’ve whistled my last.
Take It To the Next Level
Last interviews have value. And I know this man’s work. Every word. I peer around the door. His body is folded into the chair, a green stone ring hangs loosely on his knuckle.
“Come in, kid,” he says.
I breathe freshly shaved wood and tobacco. There’s a routine: compliment the writing.
“I’m a woman,” I say.
He is looking at a glass of water on a table. His arm twitches, brushing a white cane by the chair.
“There’s not much time.” He licks his dry, whiskered lip. “What do you want?”
I’ve prepared questions and I can’t remember any of them. Should I pass him the water?
I twist my sole on the floor. “I wanted to see how heavy you were.”
Laughter comes, a slow rattle in his mouth. He holds out his wizened arm, palm flat, shaking. Coughing hacks his body, pain pinches his cheek, shit escapes his breath. I rush to pass him the water glass. He manages to drink.
“That’s not what y’all usually want.”
I take back the glass, hurt: to me, he’s the only one and for him, I’m one of many.
“Well, kid.” His eyes spark under his frown. “Why aren’t you asking what the damned hell it all meant?”
And I’m mad. He should know better. “Because I’ll be carrying you around after you’re gone.”
His head straightens, his eyes wild, catching mine. Then he snorts, horse-like.
“Don’t try too hard.” His hands push into the chair and he tries to shift. “No man wants to be a burden.” He curls his fingers, beckoning for more water. “Didn’t you write down the damn questions?”
flash fiction by Gillian Walker
The Last Interview
poetry by Mick Ó Seasnáin
It’s easy to play the game.
The little white chips are a dime a dozen,
The black and brown chips are money,
If they’re multi-colored, that’s big bucks.
Lay ‘em down, blow those dice,
And test ‘em.
Roll wild and free, don’t hold back.
If it’s aces, place your bets.
Bet the flop. Bet the turn. Bet the river.
Raise the blinds and own that pot.
Remember, once you’re all in,
There’s no turning back.
Buy your bluffs - make everyone fold,
Otherwise, you’ll be kettled.
And if you don’t win, it’s just chips.
Problem? You don’t have a problem
if you’re a gambler - you run the house.
creative non-fiction by Andrew Walker
My mother’s clematis winds its way up the trellis that covers half of our front porch--the white ladder never empty. Either blooming or dying, the clematis is always clung to the side of the wall, greeting all who enter the house or pass on the road.
“I don’t know what I did, but it must be working!” my mother tells her friends as she sips grape juice from a wineglass, the smell of yeast strong on everyone’s breath but hers.
It’s been almost thirty years since her last drink. Long before I was born my mother and father sobered together, meeting every Monday night at an old church a thirty minute drive from my childhood home. Every now and then, if there wasn’t a sitter available, they would take my brother and I, promising a dipped cone from Dairy Queen on the way back. It smelled like dust and cigarettes, but downstairs, there was a game room filled with plenty of things to keep a seven and four year old occupied. And as we played, the adults prayed above us.
Like ghosts we heard them through the walls, every Monday, the last light leaking through the windows as they recited in unison: “God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I didn’t know the words until later, when they were stained to glass and hung up, framed, at the bottom of the stairs next to the door, on a wall separating it and the clematis. It was my mother’s birthday gift for my father. The frame came crashing down once, the words shattering with it after I came bounding down the stairs too quickly. My mother helped me pick up the pieces and replace it before my father even noticed it was gone.
“We can fix this,” she would say. “There’s always a way around.”
Every fall the clematis begins to dry. The thick petals, once purple and white turn brown and old, falling to the ground where they’re swept up by the wind. The achene-filled center a waterless husk that remains—never naturally pruned from its stem, the remnants stay, like a label picked and torn from a wet bottle.
During the Colorado winters that last from mid-October until late April, the pods collect snow, the stems bending—but never breaking—under the weight of the white.
When the snow melts and the rain stops, it blooms. Colors spring from what once was dead, almost immediately; the flower’s progression through rebirth nearly impossible to track. It sprouts at night, when no one is watching: quietly, like clinking of bottles in an opening fridge. It grows suddenly—faster than all-at-once.
"Sometimes I just want to be able to enjoy a glass of wine,” my mother tells me one night, the smell of night and cold still emanating from her jacket. “Just a nice glass of chardonnay instead of a Fresca and grenadine, you know?”
I nod and give her a shy smile.
It’s been years since I’ve moved out, but I still return for the holidays. Most nights during my visits, I’ll exit through the front door once my parents are asleep, making the mile trek to a dive bar to visit with old friends--back from where they went or never having left --and drink shit beer for cheap. After last call and lights up, I say goodbye and shuffle home, cutting behind the Wendy’s and used car lots, hands gloved and shoved deep into jacket pockets. The walk is cold, but the well whiskey warms my stomach and my drunken thoughts keep my mind occupied.
When I arrive home, the front porch lights are on but the house is quiet. The wind breathes the yard to life and the clematis sways, snow dusted vines proving their strength. It appears dead, but the neighbors know--as do I--that it is only a matter of time before the purple bursts through again, a simple brushstroke against a dirty canvas.
As I go drunkenly through the door, past the prayer, up the stairs and into my bed, my mind wanders from place to place, stopping every so often on the clematis that sits on the other side of that wall, reveling in its persistence to remain for another year.
Atwater is a Minnesota/Manhattan abstract painter and literary fiction writer with stories forthcoming in Barely South Review, Jellyfish Review, Heavy Feather Review, Flash Fiction Magazine and published in PANK, Vestal Review, Star 82 Review and others.
Annie Frazier is from North Carolina but currently lives in Florida and is pursuing an MFA in Fiction from Spalding University. Her fiction appears in apt magazine and The North Carolina Literary Review and has been Pushcart Prize-nominated. Her poetry, also in NCLR, received second place in the 2015 James Applewhite Poetry Prize. Read her book reviews at Paste Magazine and NCLR Online 2015. Connect with Annie on Twitter @anniefrazzr.
Barry Fentiman Hall
Barry Fentiman Hall (BFH) is a poet/writer based in Medway UK who specializes in site specific poetry. He has been published in City Without A Head, Anti-Heroin Chic, I Am Not A Silent Poet, and The Irish Times. He is the editor of Confluence Magazine. He is a confirmed pedestrian.
Kathryn Holzman attended Stanford and NYU. While in NYC,she co-ran Backroom Readings and had poetry published in the US&Hong Kong before pursuing a career in Healthcare Administration. Now residing in New England with her husband, a digital artist, she has recently had short stories published in The Adirondack Review, Atticus Review and the Fictional Cafe.
Mick Ó Seasnáin
Mick Ó Seasnáin is a Teaching Consultant for The National Writing Project at Kent State University and an English Language Arts and Composition Teacher for the University of Akron Wayne College and Wooster High School; he holds a B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University and an M.A.T. from Miami University. His works have been featured in the Ohio Journal of English Language Arts (OJELA), Ohio Teachers Write (OTW), Literary Orphans Journal, The Legendary Literary Magazine, Up the River: A Journal of Poetry, Art, & Photography, Teachers of Vision, and MidAmerican Fiction & Photography.
Andrew Walker has been published in the Yellow Chair Review and is upcoming in the Two Cities Review. After earning his English bachelor’s from Colorado State University in 2016, he moved to Austin, Texas, where he currently resides.
Gillian Walker is a fiction writer based in the UK. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Vestal Review, Blue Fifth Review, Bath Flash Fiction Award Anthology 2016, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine and shortlisted for the Fish flash fiction competition. She is a fiction reader for Vestal Review.
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