June 26, 2018| ISSUE no 239
crack the spine
short fiction by Kathleen Sands
Exhausted, Walter slept and dreamed of his sister. As always, she came to him smiling and singing, this time appearing as he tried to organize a chaotic pile of medical scissors. Small, medium, and large; blades angled, curved, and straight; for performing dissections and episiotomies; for snipping bandages and sutures and corneas—he’d pick up a pair, stare at it, and set it down in bewilderment. When Lyda materialized, he rested both hands in his lap and watched with relief and shame as she sorted through the scissors, arranging them in some logical and useful way he was incapable of devising. He reached for her, his dream-self calling her name, wanting her to say his, but she slipped away untouched, still singing but her voice drowned by a terrible pounding as though her child’s abdomen housed a pneumatic drill. Thud-thud-thud-thud-thud—
“Doctor.” A voice loud enough to carry only through the door of his quarters, no more, that initial D aspirated almost to T. An Apache.
Walter arose in the dark wearing the same long white shirt he’d worked in all day and most of the evening and opened the door to Fritzie, first sergeant of the Apache scouts. The man’s real name was Honzhuna, but he’d acquired a moniker memorializing some soldier’s odd perception that he looked German rather than Apache. The childish nickname did not suit the man’s seriousness of purpose or the level of responsibility he shouldered. Walter could have said the true name—the zh was pronounced like the z in azure—but his mind balked at admitting any similarity between the elegant and sophisticated language of France and the primitive jabber of the Apaches.
“Sergeant Fritzie. Medical needs are being met at the hospital. The steward is still on duty.” The hospital steward was Josiah Davis, who was handling the emergency care of the renegade Apaches who’d fallen by the wayside in yesterday’s breakout. Davis’s orders were to stanch bleeding, bandage wounds, set broken bones, and send the damaged rebels back to the reservation with warnings to stay put. He was working near the fort’s twelve-bed hospital for access to supplies—outside, not inside, because the Apaches perceived that building as a house of death. Which, of course, it usually was.
“He wants you.”
Walter’s mind resisted believing that his sleep was over. “Davis can’t handle it?”
“Bad burn.” The renegades had lit the dry grass behind their escape to hinder the soldiers’ pursuit, but the shifting wind had altered the course of the fire and caught some of the laggards—old people, cripples, pregnant women. Most of these had died; the others were being treated with painkillers and unguents and sent home in defeat.
“And?” He still didn’t understand what he could do that Davis couldn’t.
“Young girl. Maybe needs you.”
Walter stood for a moment, eyes closed. At thirteen, he’d sat day and night by Lyda’s bed, applying ice to her forehead and holding a steaming kettle near her nose and mouth to ease the jarring cough and strangled breath. He’d rolled bits of cotton around the tip of a needle to try to lift away the gluey membrane that clogged her throat like gray mold. Her care was all on him: His older brothers and father lurked helpless in the background; his mother had died of cancer the previous year. Lyda was his family’s baby and only girl.
He hadn’t saved her. She’d died a week before her sixth birthday.
“Where’s the girl? Outdoors or in?”
“In. It’s bad.”
Indoors was bad. Walter had gotten in trouble last year, was nearly court-martialed for disobeying orders. The captain didn’t like reservation Apaches being treated in the fort’s hospital. The army’s rations and supplies were already scarce enough, and the Indians had their own rationing system. But Walter had kept an old man in the hospital for two days and nights before he died. The man was in severe pain and had no family to tend him outside the hospital. His bed hadn’t been needed for a soldier, so Walter defended himself by citing an army order that privileged the judgment of the medical department over that of the field command in any case involving the health and well-being of a patient. The captain, busy with other issues, had let the matter drop. Another time, he might not.
“Will you take her back to the reservation after I treat her?”
Fritzie looked over Walter’s shoulder at nothing. These Apaches—they never said no, but you could tell when they meant it. “Family gone.”
Whoever the girl ran with had either escaped or died. “No one will care for her? Have you asked around?”
The sergeant continued looking over Walter’s shoulder but pointed his chin in the direction of the hospital. Of course. Being inside there had already polluted the child with death. If Fritzie took her back to the reservation, the remaining Apaches—those who had been too sensible, cowardly, or feeble to run—would politely ignore her until the pollution ran its course. The girl would die alone, untended.
“Tell Davis I’m on my way.”
Sergeant Honzhuna turned to go. The scouts never said “Yes, sir.” It had taken Walter some time to realize that they heard you—they heard everything—but didn’t believe that reassuring you of their attention was part of the job. Walter shook his head and picked up his trousers.
Dressed and standing outside, he looked around. Two hours past midnight, the night-blooming cereus that blossomed only once a year had exploded into a cascade of saucer-sized white stars releasing a sweet vanilla fragrance that attracted pollinators from a thousand miles away. Ghostly sphinx moths hovered over the blooms, wings vibrating like hummingbirds’, each proboscis a nectar-straw. Lesser long-nosed bats, migrants from Mexico, lapped the nectar with ridged tongues. The metallic buzzing of cicadas increased to a rattling crescendo, then dropped to a trailing pulse. Coyotes bickered and bayed. Constellations glimmered brilliantly in the black west: the Summer Triangle canting rakishly, the teapot of Sagittarius lurking near the tail of Scorpius, the queen Cassiopeia ruling over all. The day had been a scorcher, but the night air was dry and cool.
How he wished Amélie could experience this place, so foreign and mysterious. He’d assumed that his bride would want to accompany him on his first army assignment to the wilderness of the Arizona Territory, but Amélie had chosen to wait for his return in her parents’ house in South Carolina. At this moment, she was undoubtedly asleep in her girlhood bedroom, undisturbed by mystery and wilderness.
Inside the hospital, Davis had already prepared the patient for surgery. The rotting-banana odor of ether filled Walter’s nostrils as he looked at the child lying on the oilcloth-covered table, a towel wrapping her dirty hair. Her naked body was sheet-covered except for the exposed wound, a hand-sized burn on her abdomen. Less than five percent of the body’s skin area was affected, but the wound was serious. The bright light of the kerosene lamps showed that the burned skin was not red and blistered but white and dry: a grave sign. It meant that the reticular dermis—and the blood vessels, connective tissue, hair follicles, and sweat glands it contained—was gone.
“Bad,” he murmured to Davis. “Danger of sepsis.”
The man acknowledged the comment with a nod. “At least she’s got the lungs of a horse, like all Apaches.”
True. The girl’s breathing was slow, deep, and regular, but Walter still recognized the urgency. He turned to consult further with the steward, saw the purple hollows under the man’s eyes, and said, “Go home, Joe. You’ve been here too long already.” If the captain came down on Walter for treating another Apache in the hospital, the steward needed to be in the clear.
Davis closed his eyes and stretched his neck left and right, forward and back. “You sure, sir? Another pair of hands might come in handy.”
“I know where you live,” said Walter. “Get out of here.”
“Sir.” Davis glanced at the unconscious child on the table. “Hope she makes it. Good night, sir.”
“It’s morning, Joe. Go on.” Walter turned back to the girl. If she did make it, what then? Returned to the reservation not only death-polluted but disfigured by scarring, she’d be doubly ostracized. Stripped and scrubbed, she seemed about six or seven years old, but he couldn’t be sure. Most Apaches were small anyway, and this child was severely undernourished. She might be older than she looked, but she definitely wouldn’t survive on her own. Burned, scarred, and ostracized—even if he could save her life, what kind of life would that be?
This question was not his to ask. Always lodged in his mind was a sentence from the old code of medical ethics he’d memorized while studying for his exams: “Every case committed to the charge of a physician should be treated with attention, steadiness, and humanity.” So there was no choice; he had to try. He examined the child closely, registering the charcoal-like smell of burned skin. This injury was certainly a different order of business from the routine complaints about diarrhea and rheumatism he heard from soldiers during morning sick call. It required research.
He unlocked the glass-doored bookcase in which he kept his back issues of The Lancet and skimmed the comprehensive index he’d created in his small, neat handwriting to find “Reverdin, Jacques-Louis. Successful Case of Fresh Skin Allograft Using New Pinch-Graft Procedure.” As far as he knew, no American doctor had ever performed this procedure. Most had never heard of it. He stood next to the operating table, reading, the child’s brown hand resting a few inches away from his rumpled white sleeve.
The instrument he needed for the procedure was, of course, not in the standard issue army medical kit. From his monogrammed personal case (a graduation gift for which his father, a farmer, had paid far too much), he removed the grafting scissors, small and sharp-pointed with a jointed brace between the two handles. Walter had never used this instrument before, so he worked it a few times to study its motion. The brace supported pincers between the blades that would allow him to nip and cut each dot-sized graft in one motion. The tiny grafts, spaced two millimeters apart and carefully nestled in the cleaned wound, should grow together slowly enough to allow for some elasticity in the new skin. He dropped the scissors into the jar of phenol and turned to locate the donor skin, pulling the sheet away to examine the unburned part of child’s body.
His heart fell. Malnutrition, dehydration, and fatigue had sapped the girl’s health; nearly every inch of her skin was scratched, inflamed, or punctured in some way. Davis had said that she was wearing only a thin cotton shirt and skirt when she’d been brought in, nothing that gave her any protection from the long cactus thorns and rough chaparral she’d been running through. Her skin was in no condition to be harvested for grafts.
He dropped heavily into a chair, elbows on knees, head and hands down, eyes closed. Never would he be able to persuade any of the Apaches to donate skin for this purpose—they were too fearful and resentful of him, of the hospital, of the army, of their own suppression. And the girl had lost whatever family she once possessed. She was no one.
And never would he be able to persuade any Anglo soldier or Mexican civilian. The Apaches were to be contained and diminished—exterminated, most believed. Trying to save the life of one enemy child was a waste of time and money, perhaps even a betrayal of his country and his race.
Anyway, successful interracial skin grafting was virtually unknown. Experimenters had reported that the few heterografts they’d attempted were failures, the donor skin sickening and losing its original color after transplanting. Amélie would say that of course white skin would fight with colored. What did he expect? What did he think that terrible war had been about? Black on white skin (or vice versa) would not only be unnatural but wicked, a violation of God’s mandate for the separation of the races.
As Walter sat, his hands unconsciously grasped their opposite forearms. Bone, muscle, tendon, skin—the feel of his own healthy body reassured and frustrated him. His grip clutched, released. So much living skin in the world, and the girl needed only a few little bits. Her body would reject grafts from foreign skin in ten days or so, but in that time her own skin might take over the healing. Those research reports weren’t conclusive.
He stood to remove his shirt and examined his upper left arm: fine and virtually hairless. The first few incisions registered as no worse than bee stings, and the remainder he barely felt at all. His attention was front and center, joined to his eyes and hands.
Often when he was thinking deliberately, his mind blocked external distractions with music. It stayed mostly inside his brain but occasionally escaped as a quiet singing. Hymns had gotten him through medical exams; later, popular songs, comic or sentimental, had gotten him through surgical operations. Now, as he cut and placed the miniscule skin grafts, a nursery rhyme came into his head, one of Lyda’s favorites. Its emphatic six-note melody and the silly lyrics bolstered his spirits and his working rhythm, kept his hands moving at a steady pace despite his fatigue: “Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O . . . ”
He worked and sang, worked and sang. The white kerosene light yellowed as the surrounding blackness grayed. Still singing, he straightened up to ease his back and to steal a glimpse of the first seep of sunlight over the mountains. “And on this farm he had some pigs, E-I-E-I-O . . . ”
A faint, high voice joined his.
His voice stopped. The other voice stopped.
His voice started. The other voice started.
He looked at the child’s face: Yes, she was singing under the ether.
Cautiously, he resumed working, his voice quiet.
Her voice vanished. He waited through the silence, hands moving, then tentatively resumed singing.
She sang with him.
The medical literature he’d read never mentioned any such phenomenon. Was he the first to observe it?
Working and singing, he listened around his own voice to hers. She followed his melody exactly: quarter and half notes, descending major seconds and fourths. Most of her words were Apache, incomprehensible to him, but her oinks matched his perfectly.
His hands kept working; he and she kept singing. Repetition eventually impressed her words into his mind:
Hastiin MacDonald bikiiya, eí-neí-neí-yaa-ho.
Dii kiiya yee gochí naakai, eí-neí-neí-yaa-ho.
Oink-oink iltsa’ag, oink-oink iltsa’ag,
Kú a oink, nlú a oink, dáhot’éhé oink-oink.
Hastiin MacDonald bikiiya, eí-neí-neí-yaa-ho.
Thirty minutes later, he couldn’t stand one more repetition of oink-oink from the gochí, so he gently switched the girl to moo-moo and learned maghashi . . . then quack-quack from the naal’eeli, meow-meow from the gídí, and woof-woof from the góshé. If he ever wanted to deal in livestock with the Apaches, he was ready.
At the next moo-moo, his brain made the connection: Her tune was his tune. She’d learned the song in school, of course. But the Apache words must have come from her. Had to. She’d translated the English words of her teacher into her own language.
Another connection, what that translation meant: She understood concepts; she hadn’t merely parroted sounds. She observed equivalences between his world and hers. She had the social sense to submit while under the teacher’s eye but the autonomy to explore when free from scrutiny. She posed challenges to herself and met those challenges. She thought about language, which itself was audible thought. There was a mind under that dirty hair—a human mind; a good mind; a curious, funny, observant mind.
Shame heated his face as he remembered the times he’d ignored or laughed at his wife’s treatment of her forty-year-old “girl,” Venus. The name itself parodied the woman’s black skin and kinky hair, her round face and stubby fingers, her stooped posture and limping gait. Amélie amused herself by complimenting Venus on her grace, asking whether she thought Mendelssohn was a true genius or a mere historical accident, and offering to lend her Verlaine’s Poémes saturniens to read. Not until this moment had it occurred to Walter that Venus might have understood the intent behind his wife’s facetious remarks. Might have observed physical defects or eccentric habits of mind or behavioral quirks in Walter and Amélie that provided her with fodder for private denigration of them. Perhaps she mimicked their speech patterns or peculiarities of manner for appreciative audiences of other servants around the neighborhood.
He stopped humming, and the girl stopped singing. He kept working, hearing the two silences—his and hers—as a hollow in his mind.
Dawn lightened the room, showing sixty pinhead-sized grafts nestled in the cleansed wound. At the moment, he felt neither fatigue nor pain. The perforated skin inside his left upper arm had not yet begun to bother him, but that would change in a few minutes. He protected the girl’s wound and his own with lint-cloth. He transferred her, sheet-wrapped, to a clean bed and covered her with a light wool blanket. Her breathing was still good. She’d live.
The pain in his arm began, increasing swiftly from mild to intense. He dosed himself with laudanum and put on his shirt and jacket. After a wistful look at the empty bed next to the sleeping girl, he placed a chair so he could sit next to her. He hummed softly—not “Old McDonald” but a lullaby learned long ago from his mother, sung long ago to his sister. While humming, he removed the towel from the child’s head and gently picked the burrs out of the long hair.
Western Apache lyrics for “Old MacDonald” translated and sung by Bonnie Lewis, transcribed and posted by Terry Teller (“daybreakwarrior”), YouTube video, 1:57, posted November 25, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZJCJyCnQho.
Craig crumbled to the bed like a rag doll and began snoring. He looked so innocent in his sleep — vulnerable and defenseless. I gazed down at him for a moment and pushed a sweaty tangle of curls off his forehead. His skin felt clammy, almost feverish.
I traced the edges of splintered glass in my pocket. Cool to the touch, jagged teeth raking across my fingertips. It would take only a second…
I turned away.
Downstairs, my hand lingered on the lid of a forgotten mason jar, half-full of moonshine. He would notice even a drop missing.
My feet felt like lead as I dragged them up each step, clutching the neck on a bottle of whiskey filched from Sunset Tavern. It was easy to sneak a bottle or two without notice when I was in charge of stock count. A twinge of guilt flickered through me but then I thought how much worse it would be if I didn’t have the alcohol. And I couldn’t buy it, not without Craig noticing.
Her nursery lay at the end of the hall, close enough to the master bedroom so we could hear Cassandra’s cries when she woke at night. I moved inside the room and twirled the ice in my glass.
I’d designed this room, spent hours making each corner perfect. A wooden rocking chair found at a yard sale, its arms worn and chipped but well-loved, faced the window so we could watch the sunset as I rocked Cassandra to sleep. The new crib awaited assembly, its white gates leaning against the coral-painted wall. A mobile of brightly colored birds swung in the air above. They rocked as if touched by an unseen wind, swaying back and forth in the fading light.
The windows looked out on a breathtaking sunset just as I’d planned, the sun painting the Sandia Mountains a deep red. Orange and pink swirled together like a masterpiece, wisps of deep purple clouds added to the scene.
Down the slope of our backyard and in the valley, a cluster of cane cholla stood guard with stiff, spindly arms outstretched, magenta flowers budding at their fingertips. A smaller mountain range stood apart from the Sandias. This singular row resembled a line of sleeping elephants, which I fondly referred to as the “elephant mountains.” My aunt and uncle used to drive past these — they would remark how the mountains leaned against each other with long ears flapping over one another, trunks intertwined. To me it had always been remarkable that these elephants remained together, unmoving and eternally loyal.
My fingers found the shard of glass deep in my pocket. I moved to the closet and tucked it high on the shelf, hidden among untouched baby blankets. When the time was right.
I took a swig. Liquid fire burned as it went down, warming me to the bone. Tomorrow would be better. Craig would show me he loves me. He would prove it, like he always did.
My head fell back and my eyes closed. I sank down to the freshly laid carpet soft as downy feathers between my fingers. Soft as baby’s breath on my cheek.
Like this, I could imagine the crib assembled with its dangling mobile of dancing birds, the rocking chair swinging back and forth and holding my weight as I cradled Cassandra, humming a lullaby. The sun’s orange-pink radiance faded in the window.
Tomorrow would be a new day.
flash fiction by Tianna Grosch
poetry by Alyssa Hanna
there are great caves beneath this chapel.
corners untouched for years, dust thick
as an old religion, holding up the earth
like the roots of a tree. i used to come here
to pray but i don’t think the monks
would take me up if they saw me,
even though i know i exist in their last chants,
scriptures, climbing between verses like some
vines and thorns overgrowing; i used to be
worshiped, but even i know that some gods
end up dying.
when you are a house you learn to be afraid of fire.
you realize how brittle your bones are
and just the flick of a god’s finger could crumble
you, and you cannot move out of the way; you are
a stationary thing, silent and out calling.
how many years have you stood? you know that
the older you get, the shorter you live. you shiver
when your tenants touch your walls;
they are daring some god to strike you down.
A group of men and women stood around the table in the office kitchen. A painting of a bagel with lox hung in the corner, but the walls were otherwise bare. A heavy man with a thick beard was speaking. He said, “I have a sensitive nose. Women say they can go several days without washing their hair. But I can tell. It smells horrible.”
micro fiction by Joanna Arnow
Marathon has its standards. You're born, school, graduation. You marry, up if you're lucky, but that's where statistics come into play. Sometimes up is down and down is up. You stay on your side of the tracks.
The tracks groan and thunder with trains that don't stop, cargo of many kinds, toxic and benign, even the daily passenger train. The heads of people in some mundane act of relocation rock in unison to the slow rhythm of the steel. The parallel bands of iron circle the high desert like engagement ring and wedding band, eventually leaving the state for points west. An option, Jilly thinks, should she need to disappear. Hopefully, the tipping point will favor her and she'll escape in her personal iron chariot, a 2006 Toyota hatchback, high in miles but tenderly serviced by Junior. If only he treated her as well.
Jilly is familiar with the terminal jolt of endings; high school, barrel racing, wild days, her mother. All things end, bystander beware. Now it's on her to choose. And Nicky, he must be a factor in the choice. What's on her plate? Scraps, she thinks. Scraps are all I have.
Except the chest, the glowing red Cedar with thick latigo bands. Presently a coffee table, it's been storage, footstool, nightstand, a myriad of uses. She received it from her mother, though by its rustic lines and the pronounced grain of the wood she suspects it to have been selected by her father. Mom's coming-of-age award just before she passed away, it's now empty. She will try to fill the hollow space with what reminds her of home.
It's at least 5° hotter in the restaurant. Jake makes his way to his table in the back near the window. By the time he's seated the waitress is waiting with a menu in hand. Four years, six days a week, and he still doesn't remember her name. She has a pained scowl, a sense that she's paying penitence for something by walking on coals. He asks for migas, even though they're not on the menu. She almost smiles as if he punched a hole in the deep blue funk of her non-air-conditioned life. "We can do that," she says. "To drink?"
Leroy enters, ducking down to clear the doorframe. "Eggs over medium, bacon and sausage," he hollers at the waitress from across the room. She already knew, four years, the same order every day. He has a 9 mm teak-handled snake charmer tucked in his belt. Jake finally realized his friend was an activist when Texas passed open carry.
"Ain't no snakes in here, Leroy." Jake refuses to let it die. "You're going to shoot yourself in the ass one day."
Jake sips his coffee and ogles his smart phone. He follows his daughter's Facebook posts closer than he does Reverend Gibbons' Sunday sermons. Now she's called him from El Paso, finally needing his help, and the stock trailer's full of cow shit. He can't fathom how social media let him down.
"I always liked Junior," Jake says. "He seemed to take the edge off her, help her grow up a little. I worried back in the day, couldn't get a handle on her."
"My Laurie dated him in high school," Leroy says. "She ended up hiding from his skinny ass. I had to set him straight." Leroy's two fingers tap his belt next to the pistol.
"They were kids then." The migas come covered in pico de gallo and jalapenos just like he ordered, accompanied by a small plastic cup of innocuous looking salsa. He dumps it on top, smearing it over the pile. "I reckon it'll take a couple of days. First I'll need to hose out the stock trailer. Apparently she put her stuff in storage. Junior said all she left in the house was some furniture and his guitar."
"Where's he been? I thought he was working the Buckland ranch."
"Seems he'd a been home nights. It's only 50 miles."
"I don't know." Jake picks up the phone and scrolls. "All I know is Jilly's gone off half-cocked. Now I've got to clean up her shit. Like the old days."
"You gonna bring her back?" Leroy asks.
"I'm going to talk to her."
"You can save a couple of days and just call her for that."
Jake looks at Leroy as though the big man had spoken Swahili. "This is Jilly we're talking about." He shakes his head. "She's got her mama's mule-brained stubbornness."
"So what are you doing here?"
The aggressive beauty of the first bite of migas lights him up like the Fourth of July. He rips a paper towel from the depleted roll in the center of the table, wipes his eyes and blows his nose, making sure the waitress doesn't notice.
Leroy cuts his over medium eggs in the shape of a tic-tac-toe with his butter knife, expecting Jake's standard line. Four years, six mornings a week. Usually it still elicits a humorous taunt. "Leroy, don't let them eggs get away from you now. Better put them in their place." Today nothing. Jake looks out at his well-worn ranch truck hoping he won't have to drive to El Paso, knowing he will. He continues to stare at the phone beside his plate, against cowboy rules, as if he expects it to sprout a red tail and horns.
Jake glances out at the pale cerulean sky then focuses on his buddy who seems to misunderstand the crux of the problem. "What are we supposed to do, Leroy?"
"Let 'em run. Hope they'll be okay. Laurie went through a rough spot, remember? She worked it out."
"I thought Jilly had everything going for her; good, hard-working husband, fine son. She even likes cutting hair. Good at it too from what I hear." Jake can't grasp why his daughter would toss it all away. "She called yesterday. Flew the coop. Quit her job. Now she wants me to help her get settled. I reckon I don't have any choice."
Jilly sweeps up the glass, relieved that the shampoo bottle was empty. Adding suds to the mix of shards and water would have been catastrophic in bare feet. The floor relatively clean, she unwraps the towel from her body and spreads it on the tile.
She runs to the front door, sets the deadbolt, then sprints back to the bathroom hoping little Nick slept through the ruckus. That son of a bitch can sleep with the horses until I'm gone, her brain still screaming from the near-death experience. Back in the bathroom she kneels on the towel as if in prayer and unscrews the bathtub drain stopper. It'll be showers until I'm somewhere else. I may be made of water but I can't breathe it.
Water. It leaks from hoses connected to pressure washers when seals are worn and brittle. It mixes with cow shit and runs in globules from the open gate of a stock trailer; aromatic, pungent, lashing the high desert air with putrid vapor. It clings to broken glass on tile floors in rural love nests gone rancid, once a sanctuary now a hovel. It closes lungs, blinds eyes, and dampens sound. It chills skin and membranes and thoughts and reasons.
Since the water, the hands on the shoulders, then the throat, the terror in her chest. Since the door slamming, the pink clumps of his skin under her nails. History. This. This thing. It will never happen again.
"Daddy gone?" Nick toddles to the front door almost reaching the knob. Jilly picks him up, cuddles him in her terry cloth bathrobe. "Yes, honey. Daddy's gone."
Jilly waited, three weeks and two days. Finally Junior packed for roundup. Jilly packed too. It wasn't difficult to find a job in El Paso. It wasn't even difficult to avoid telling her coworkers at Hair Raising Salon when she'd be gone. She actually relished the dramatic role pretending Junior's assault was no big deal. The night before she left she gave him the ride of his life. He lasted more than eight seconds, barely, but that made him the winner.
Jake is another story. Once upon a time Jake Steagall was a pillar of the community; tall, broad shouldered, centered, a man of casual and competent control. Then came Jillian. Jake's lanky and compassionate motions became the star Jilly orbited around, an elliptical asteroid smashing orbit, almost too reckless to prevent her darting off into the ozone. Jake tried, he really did, but finally he relinquished her to her mother, a similar planetary object who'd found her way into his cosmos. Jake never recovered. He felt the eyes of his little town judging him harshly for his inability to train-up his unruly daughter.
The dog days heat sizzles the concrete, humidified by the puddled stench of soggy cow dung, the stock trailer now clean enough to haul human belongings. Six phone calls, maybe eight, all unanswered, just a text reply with an address. He couldn't stall any longer. Everything she has in storage only fills half the space in the 16 foot trailer. Reluctantly, Jake pulls onto the highway. Seems like every time he leaves the ranch these days he ends up driving into the sun.
Jake parks behind a warehouse, the stock trailer rattles with every pothole. Across the parking lot are faded lime green doors, He finds the one with a peeling gold 18 on it and pounds it with his fist. The door swings wide and a chunky blonde smiles up at him. "Hi Daddy. How was the trip."
Jake charges in. "What the hell, Jilly? What's got into you." Nick waddles in from the bathroom dragging a trail of toilet paper. "Peepaw!" Dropping the paper he wraps around Jake's boot. "Hey Buddy! Has your mom lost her marbles?"
Jilly picks up Nick. "Let me finish changing him. There's beer in the fridge. Grab one, get me one too."
"It's 4:30 in the afternoon."
"You're staying over right? It's my day off. Lighten up."
"Not until you tell me what the hell's going on."
Jilly disappears with Nick. Jake looks around the tiny bare room before reaching for the fridge.
It feels strange to be drinking a beer. Jake rarely drinks. It reminds him too much of his wife, how he'd sit on the porch while she paced and pointed and planned. After two or three bottles she'd wind down and join him in the swing, leaning in to make the final sale on whatever project fueled the day's obsession. Here he sits, this time with his daughter in the same animated pitch. Another beer or two and he'll remind her they still need to unload the trailer.
"It's Jillian now," she says, "and I'm going back to using Steagall. I'm having a lawyer here draw up the papers."
"You know this'll be hard, right? Being a single parent has its drawbacks."
"People do it all the time. You did. I came out okay."
"You were 14 when she died, all but raised, and she did most of that."
Winding down, Jillian pulls out a kitchen chair and straddles it backward. "I'll be fine. Junior wants out anyway. He has other interests."
"Not a problem. I see it as an opportunity. I always wanted to see the world."
Jake snorts. "El Paso?"
"It's not Marathon. It's a start."
Jake takes a long drink from the longneck and looks at the off-white walls, the low ceiling, the single window facing the pocked parking lot. Claustrophobia dances across his shoulders. "What about Nick?"
"What about him?"
"A boy needs a daddy."
"Yeah, well – that's up to Junior. He wants visitation, he needs to say so." Jillian hops up to grab another beer. "Ready for another one?"
"Sure." Nick climbs into Jake's lap and immediately pulls open the pearl inlaid snaps of his breast pockets. "Nothing there, Kid, but I just might have some peppermints in the truck. We can check later okay?"
Nick grins. "Peppermints?"
"If it's okay with your mama."
Jillian hands over the beer. "It's your job to spoil him. Heaven forbid I interfere."
"I thought y'all were doing okay. What happened?"
"Some girl from Comstock happened. I could've dealt with that if he hadn't tried to drown me."
"What the hell? When?"
"About a month ago, in the bathtub. I made up my mind then. It just took a bit to get my ducks in a row."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I love you, Daddy, but I didn't see how it would matter. You'd have either told me to work it out or you'd have killed him. I worked it out."
"This ain't working it out."
"It is. I don't want Nick to see a lot of fighting. That's not how it's supposed to be." Jillian walks to the window and pulls back the bed sheet that serves as a temporary curtain. "Back the trailer over here. We can unload."
Twenty minutes later only the cedar trunk is left. The other boxes line the bedroom walls. "Put this in the living room. I'll use it as a coffee table. This rents as a furnished apartment but just barely."
Jake grabs one end strap and motions to his daughter to help. "This damn thing's heavy. What do you got in here?"
"The one you won in San Antonio?"
"Why carry that around?"
"You never know."
Jake contemplates a minute. "Yeah, I guess you could sell it if you got in a bind."
Jillian frowns. "I'd never sell it. No way!"
Some things you figure out. Some you don't. Sometimes you just sleep on it and hope for the best. The empty trailer rattles behind him as he takes the first bite from the convenience store burrito. He accelerates up the I-10 entrance ramp and heads into the sun.
West of Marathon
short fiction by Tony Burnett
Not So Good
“How are you?” they ask.
And you want to say, “Frankly, not so good.” But instead you say, “Fine, thank you.” You’ve watched the news from Deir ez-Zor, heard stories about families eating leaves and grass. “We’re so lucky. Imagine being in Syria right now,” you say.
You cry yourself to sleep.
In the morning you donate a bit more to the DEC emergency fund and then you let the man outside the station sign you up to another charity, your seventh. This one provides sport for deprived children. It wouldn't have been your first choice, you say, but how lucky you are to have never wanted for anything.
“You’re helping to change lives,” Chris, the professional fundraiser, says.
You hand back his clipboard with your signature.
You think about slipping off the platform at the station, but that would hurt the driver and hold everyone up, so you wait for the train. When you get on, it doesn't leave. Delays along the line due to a ‘passenger incident’. They don't say someone jumped, but you think it. You think, how selfish, before compassion rushes in and then you think of the family and friends, the lost future. You are a horrible person. Life is wasted on you.
“You okay?” a woman on the platform asks.
You realise you are crying. You want to shake your head, “but instead you say, “I’m fine, thank you.”
“You don’t look fine,” she says. “Can I buy you a coffee?”
You can’t speak, but you nod, and follow her into the crowd.
flash fiction by Aisha Phoenix
There’s still daylight, but it’s raining death in Central Florida
& there are these old white men standing
On the front steps of schools
Holding gold-encrusted bedpans above their heads
& catching pubescent blood
Blowing in the semi-automatic wind.
Then they make speeches high up
In cities upon a hill
Where they drag God out of His grave
With republican voodoo & misspelled tweets.
Everybody’s praying, but prayer is like an obituary of birds
Building nests in burning beds.
Let them fly, let your children roam free,
& hope that your skin doesn’t burn off.
Anyway, it’s probably night time now
& outside our windows, an artillery of smooth-talking carnivores
Stomp through our neighborhoods
Telling everyone to kill themselves.
They’re cooking AR-15s on backyard grills
& we’re all breathing in the smoke,
Coughing up lungs that we feed to our children.
For the powers that be, extinction can’t come soon enough.
Meanwhile, me & my friends are building sleepless ladders
Out of vigil wax & smartphone guts, building something so high
That we can climb to the moon & wipe the shit-eating grin
Off its blood-covered face, because it’s nice to have something
That doesn’t remind us of dying & afterwards we’ll gather
Whatever stars still shining, whatever satellites still singing,
& leave them on innocent pillows like hotel chocolates
& hope that when all the boys & girls wake up,
They’ll experience a little bit of sweetness
Before their America begins all over again.
Kids Who Die
poetry by Justin Karcher
How to Write a Creative Non-Fiction Piece
Begin by sitting at your desk in your room. Open your laptop and a word document and put a heading on it. Give yourself a short pep-talk and really amp yourself up to actually sit down and finally write this thing. You will then pull out your phone to check the time and end up having a long text conversation with your mom about the cats. Twenty minutes later, you will admit to yourself that you are procrastinating and tell your mom you have to go; Turn your phone off and throw it (gently) far away, out of reach. Give yourself another small pep-talk, this time your ADHD will not stop you from getting work done! Then you will turn back to your computer and try to come up with a subject. Do this by gazing around the room aimlessly for an hour waiting for inspiration to come to you. When none comes, force it.
You will begin by writing a few sentences that you like, they are powerful and full of images and you will feel good about them. These sentences will be lengthy and long-winded, they will look something like “I see my face in an outdated calendar that must think the longest month ever is September and begin searching for meaning in the droop of my eyelids.” You will think this is the best piece you will ever write and be hella pumped, ready to write. You will passionately write 500 words and then be hit in the face with the worst realization possible; you cannot write at least 5 pages about this subject. Annoyed at yourself, try to lengthen simple sentences to increase your word count. You turn sentences like “my eyes are blue” into something along the lines of “my eyes aren’t so blue as much as they are grey now, with the faint ring of yellow sunshine in the middle.” You will further that by comparing your eyes to the vastness of life or the universe by saying “my eyes have always reminded me of life in that way, you must fight all the blue and they grey and depression and storms just to reach the tiny sliver of sunshine, of happiness, that you were promised at the beginning of your journey.” You will realize this is pointless as you are just adding fluff no one cares about, and is a little pretentious. Maybe a lot pretentious. You will whine and complain to your cat about how ridiculous your professor is for requiring SOOO much writing! Like what is this, a creative writing class? Pft. Laugh to yourself about how you are literally complaining about having to write in a writing class. And it’s not like it’s your major or anything, nahhhh. You will wonder what other students are doing, if their pieces will be better than yours, and how they manage to come up with so much original content at the drop of a hat. Your cat will meow at you and walk onto the keyboardewiwiififkdk9309r3pgajaffffffffffffffffffffffffffff. You will assume she agrees since you aren’t quite as fluent in cat as you’d like to think. In your head, you will also assume she is telling you that you shouldn’t have waited till the last possible minute to do this and you will be secretly hating her for pointing out the painful, obvious truth, even though you agree. And you are clearly the one who is pointing it out and can’t hold your cat accountable for your own short-comings.
You will decide it is just easier to start over with a completely different topic. This time try to write about something happy, like religion! Get really self-conscious about how a lot of people in the class have written about Christianity and your beliefs are far from that. Start hesitantly writing about your slightly altered version of Hellenistic Paganism. Go into detail about how you came to this belief:
I decided that I didn’t want to follow a religion run by men and the Greek gods and goddesses had always felt right so I formed a version of paganism only praising and communicating with the goddesses of the Greeks.
Decide this isn’t as happy as you wanted it to be and scrap the whole thing. Try something else, like love? Start writing about your current boyfriend. Begin by explaining that the whole nature of your relationship is a little outside of the social norm. Explain polyamory:
1. it is the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships where individuals may have more than one partner, with the knowledge and consent of all partners. Aka: ethical non-monogamy
2. it is not an excuse to be a slut, we promise.
When you feel like they get the general concept, laUNCH INTO AN UNEXPECTED RANT ABOUT THE TOXICITY IN THE POLY COMMUNITY! Try to explain what a unicorn is:
1. a, usually bisexual, person in a, usually strictly sexual, relationship with an existing, usually heterosexual, couple.
a. This person is usually referred to as a HBB; or Hot Bi Babe (babe being gender neutral here)
b. Unicorn relationships are usually looked down upon because of their perceived power imbalance: the couple has more power over the unicorn, leading the unicorn to feel taken advantage of and like they don’t have a say in the relationship.
2. a mystical creature with one horn that possesses magical powers.
3. a widely revered frappuccino made at Starbucks that caused mass hysteria among ladies who frequent Instagram
However, you will be faced with the same dilemma, not being able to come up with enough quality content. You will really invest yourself in this topic and write, and rewrite, over and over trying to meet the minimum at the very least. This will happen about three more times before you get dramatic and decide college is too difficult for you, then deciding to become a stripper… You will then try to write at least 5 pages on your new life goal of becoming a stripper; SPOILER ALERT: you will fail. At writing the paper, not being a stripper, that one is still TBD. Defeated, you will give up on that ridiculous idea and… Not now ADHD, don’t steal away what little focus I have!... take a break to make banana bread. :)
1. The single most delicious and moist loaf of heaven. Usually made when the bananas you bought, with the intention of eating healthier, inevitably go soft so you can’t possibly eat them, but throwing them out would be a waste.
2. A treat used to procrastinate or solve writers block.
1/3 cup shortening
½ cup sugar
1 ¾ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup mashed ripe banana
1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cream together shortening, sugar, and all of your self-worth; Add 2 eggs and beat like they stole your purse on the subway.
3. Add dry ingredients; wonder about what the difference is between baking soda and baking powder
4. Get distracted from your procrastination bread and google the difference between baking soda and baking powder. Find out that baking powder is baking soda combined with another acid. The more you know.
5. Fully incorporate all ingredients. Pour into a well-greased loaf pan and bake for however long until it looks done. Which is just enough time for one episode of New Girl.
6. Take it out, let it cool.
7. Cut yourself a slice or two, tell yourself you deserve it for working so hard, remember you have accomplished nothing and the deadline is nearing.
8. Panic! (At the disco).
You will then sit down at the computer again and call your boyfriend to ask his help on coming up with a topic. The conversation as follows:
You: Heyyyyy, hows it going?
Him: Stop using me to procrastinate
You: I’m not!.... okay I kind of am but I’m actually here to ask for your help! What should I write about?
Him: (long silence) hmmm… well you could just do what I do when I’m writing a show. I usually try to go as meta as I can just to fuck with people’s minds.
You: But like, how meta?
Him: Just like put this whole conversation into your piece! Write about that!
You: Okay thanks bye!
Him: Rad, bye! (hangs up)
to be totally honest, that conversation was entirely had in my head, he never actually answered.
You will decide then to just break it down into chunks, thinking you can write a page or so on each chunk and then slam it all together, who cares if it’s good you just need something on the page. Pour yourself a cup of coffee, sit down and give yourself a final pep-talk! Your cat will be staring at you probably confused as to why you’re talking to yourself so much, ignore her, she’s just a hater. Begin writing about your eyes. Go into pointless detail about how they look the same as your father’s eyes. You will realize you are going to bore and depress anyone who reads this paragraph because you decided to make it about your lack of joy and how you’re happy that your eyes don’t look like your mother’s. You will hate the paragraph, and yourself, but you will press on regardless.
Your next paragraph will not have any more luck. It will be about your lips, and how they look just like your mother’s. You will pause and think about this paragraph for a long time before you write it. You will try to make it cheerful, you will write and re-write it but it will not end up cheerful. You will feel bad about writing so cruelly about your mother; I mean, she is relatively nice, and she does her best, even if she hates the feminist movement. You, an all-powerful writer, can decide she will never read it, to put your mind at ease.
Down the rest of the coffee and snap yourself back on track. Continue onto the next paragraph. You will write about your father’s eyebrows and your mother’s nose. You will then notice that you are only at four pages. Crushed, launch into an over-dramatic soliloquy about how everything is so sad and your life is surely over simply due to the fact that you cannot write a full assignment if your life depended on it. You will once more decide college is too hard and spend the next half hour on an ADHD driven procrastination break doing research on prostitution and stripping.
Fun Fact: did you know there are legal brothels in Nevada? I just spent the better part of five minutes watching a whole video about it!
Your roommate will show up with food from late night at the student rec center. Welcoming the further distraction, she will glance at your computer and see a half-finished paper. She will then “encourage” you to finish your paper.
By “encourage” I mean “yell at.”
Sit staring at your reflection in your computer screen. She will tell you to stop admiring yourself and to get writing. You have just been handed the inspiration you needed to finish your paper! You will spend the next fifteen minutes busting out a very long, very pointless, rant about how girls are always looked down on for their vanity. You will struggle to tie this into your pre-existing writing; but eventually you blend it perfectly.
Well, perfectly enough.
You will title your piece “Vanity” and shut the laptop, never touching the piece again. You will decide you hate creative non-fiction and, if given the chance, will never write it again. You will then proceed to finish a bottle of rosé that has been open in your fridge for about a week.
Yes, it was just as gross as you’d think.
Think about how you can’t submit that piece-of-shit for all your peers to read and criticize. Open your laptop and scrap literally the entire thing.
Start from scratch; step one: word document, step two: put a heading on it, step three: title that document “How to Write a Creative Non-Fiction Piece.”
creative non-fiction by Leah Hanson
Joanna Arnow is a filmmaker and writer based in Brooklyn. Her short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train Press, Monkeybicycleand Dogzplot. She has directed several films including narrative short Bad At Dancing and personal documentary feature I Hate Myself. Her films have screened at festivals including the Berlinale, New York Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and Hong Kong International Film Festival.
Educated at University of North Texas, Tony Burnett is Managing Editor at Kallisto Gaia Press, home of The Ocotillo Review and The Texas Poetry Calendar. An award winning poet, journalist, activist and songwriter, his poetry and short fiction have been published in national literary magazines and anthologies including Sixfold, Connotation Press, Short Story America, Frontier Tales, Texas Poetry Calendar, Poetry @ Round Top anthology, Tidal Basin Review, Di-verse-city, and Toucan Literary Magazine. He served from 2013 through 2017 as Board President of the Writers’ League of Texas.
Tianna Grosch has been writing her entire life and received her MFA at Arcadia University last year. She is working on a debut novel about women who survive trauma as well as a memoir. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Ellipsis Zine, Crack the Spine, Burning House Press, Who Writes Short Shorts, New Pop Lit, Blanket Sea Magazine, Echo Lit Mag and Nabu Review (both lit mags of Paragon Press), among others. In her free time, she gardens on her family farm and dreams up dark fiction. Follow her on Twitter @tianng92 or check out her writing on CreativeTianna.com.
Leah Hanson is a Creative and Professional Writing student at Central Washington University. Crack the Spine is her first publication.
Justin Karcher is a poet and playwright born and raised in Buffalo, New York. He is the author of Tailgating at the Gates of Hell (Ghost City Press, 2015), the chapbook When Severed Ears Sing You Songs (CWP Collective Press, 2017), the micro-chapbook Just Because You’ve Been Hospitalized for Depression Doesn’t Mean You’re Kanye West (Ghost City Press, 2017), and—with Ben Brindise—Those Who Favor Fire, Those Who Pray to Fire (EMP, 2018). He is also the editor of Ghost City Review and co-editor of the anthology My Next Heart: New Buffalo Poetry (BlazeVOX [books], 2017). He tweets @Justin_Karcher
Alyssa Hanna graduated from Purchase College in May 2016 with a degree in Creative Writing and a minor in History. Her poems have appeared in Reed Magazine, The Mid-American Review, The Naugatuck River Review, and are upcoming in Cholla Needles. She has also been nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize. Alyssa is a manager at a large pet retail store and intends on pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing. She lives in Westchester with her fish and four lizards.
Aisha Phoenix writes fiction and poetry and has had work published in: Strange Horizons, Litro USA online, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Word Riot and the Bath Flash Fiction anthology. Her poetry has been published in the Oxonian Review of Books and is forthcoming in Peepal Tree Press’s Filigree poetry anthology. Aisha Phoenix is a MIROnline features writer. She works as a postdoctoral researcher and has a PhD in Sociology from Goldsmiths, University of London. She tweets as @FirebirdN4
Kathleen Sands has lived in Arizona, Scotland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Her jobs have included zookeeper, laboratory technician, government policy analyst, and university English professor. This pattern of restlessness (unsurprisingly) characterizes many of her protagonists, including Walter in Pinch Graft. Her stories have appeared in journals, anthologies, and a collection, Boy of Bone, which received an honorable mention in the 2012 New York Book Festival. Her unpublished novel In-Between People was a finalist for the 2017 Brighthorse Prize.
Jim Zola is a poet and photographer living in North Carolina.
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