NOVEMBER 2, 2020| ISSUE no 265
crack the spine
Finley J. MacDonald
"Warmth" by Fabrice Poussin
The Observant Girl
short fiction by Alison Thompson
His first thought was, she was not at all bird-like. He watched her stride across the railway platform, the toes of her long, brown boots doing a quick flick-click forward as her heels hit the pavement first. She held his attention. He watched her progress through the slight distortion of the double-paned windows of the train. She paused before stepping across the yellow line. She was dragging a bag, a suitcase with duct tape around it.
I backed over it in my mother’s car, she would tell him later.
He had arrived at the station early, relying, as he had, on the benevolence of the friends of friends he was staying with to drop him off at the station at a time convenient to them. He’d found, over the years, that such arrangements had advantages and disadvantages—it saved him money, which was often a necessity, but it cost him time and patience, though he’d learned to be more gracious about it, had come to terms with the reality that the price he paid for a free bed or a free ride was to wait around a lot—for the right moment to ask for a favor, the right time to ask for a lift. The life of a wannabe actor is a life of constant acquiescing, he thought, something you became inured to in this business. He realized, to his surprise, that this thought provoked less bitterness in him than it would have a year ago. Not that he was a wannabe; he’d come to Sydney for an audition—this time it had paid off. They had asked him back a second time, then given him the part. A minor part, granted, but not insignificant. He only had a few lines but it was something. A small satisfaction, one to be savored.
He watched as the girl checked her watch, then walked back to the first carriage. He remembered with irritation his mother’s warning:
Don’t get in the front carriage, it’s worse if you crash.
He’d spoken to her just before coming up here, listened again to her suggestions of coming home to Perth, settling down, getting a real job.
“You can always stay with Phil and me till you get settled. First Melbourne, now Sydney? It’s just so far away.”
He’d cut the phone call short, hadn’t rung back to tell them of his success. He knew his mother’s response too well, knew her enthusiasm would be tempered with that small shade of disapproval, and he could not bear to swallow that familiar, bitter pill just yet. He shook off these thoughts and turned his attention to the view out the window again.
Sydney’s Central Station reminded him of the station in Milan and of Alana. Of how she kissed his cheek on the platform before he left for Rome, how she’d asked him not to watch her walk away. He had, of course. He shook off the memory and chided himself. Why do our minds do that, he wondered, seek to make sense of something by dredging up old memories tucked away in our brains? Are our responses all just things we’ve experienced before, rehashed and repackaged? No wonder we turn senile.He felt a pang of disappointment that the girl had not come aboard his carriage. She seemed interesting—or was that another side-step of his brain? Central, Milan, Alana, the girl—what next?
Then he laughed as the door between the carriages opened and she burst through, her chest thrust forward as she huffed the suitcase in behind her.
I’m saved, he thought with mock-irony. She paused in the aisle next to him – he noticed how the wide straps of a leather satchel divided her breasts and thought, A student. Of course, she is. He watched with a kind of bored interest as she hauled it over her head and threw it down onto the seat opposite him, the suitcase still blocking the aisle.
She glanced across at him quickly, then dropped her gaze, and sat down.
“Sorry,”she said, as if aware that the weird circumference of her bent elbows and out flung arms was taking up more than her fair share of space. She seemed to relax for a second, then stood up again and bent to lift her case at which point he stood and assisted her. She had her hair pushed back in a headband. He caught her scent as they stood in the narrow space between seats, their bodies almost touching as they heaved the case up onto the overhead rack. She smelled of incense, and yoga rooms. He stepped out of her way as she settled herself in the seat opposite his. Definitely a student, he thought as he resumed his seat.
She fumbled about in her satchel and pulled out a book, then glanced across at him, a longer and slightly slantwise look—as if sizing him up—a look sharper than he would have given her credit for. He felt his cheeks itch as if they might redden, might suddenly jump him back to adolescence, to a burning, hated time. He sniffed and stared back out the window, avoiding her gaze.
Bloodyup-themselves students, he thought.
Outside a guard dressed in blue walked past the window with quick, flapping strides—he heard a sudden clanking sound, then the train was lurching forward with a familiar mechanical grace. He shut his eyes, thought of the house he’d been staying in, its latte walls and suede sofas, and the couple, sufficiently older than him to look at him with a bemused air as he spoke of acting, of what he’d like to do next.
Yuppie wankers, he thought.
~ ~ ~
After dusk they were both drawn—she from her book, he from his reverie—to watch the fading light ripple through the streets as if pulled by the curious intimacy of the inner city, of leaving, as the train slipped past graffiti-riddled fences and old warehouses, past rusting carriages and shipping containers; on past the terraces, blue, green, and flaky red; and the unpainted, worn-out rear-ends of buildings at the very depths of their streets, where a woman would be hanging out sheets or an old man in a singlet might be smoking, a gout-swollen leg propped up in front of him.
They lost interest in the view at the same time as the old suburbs flattened out into sprawling new houses and estates, shiny and indistinguishable—the point at which the sense of closeness, of city walls, dissipated. Here and there open paddocks, a horse; then, with little warning, the city was gone—as if the train itself had shaken it off with a final whoosh and surged out into open country.
In the half-light he glanced across at the girl and saw she was almost beautiful or, more accurately, might become so in a few years, when time had worn down her youth just enough, defined her jaw, her brow, hardened her mouth a little.
He couldn’t quite place her age; clearly young, but what—nineteen? twenty-two? She was slimmer than he’d thought, slender and tall. The broadness of her shoulders and her coat had made her look statuesque on the platform. Now he saw she was narrow-waisted, her figure quite lovely.
She was reading again. He was bored; he made mention of her book.
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”He peered across as if trying to get a better look.
She flushed along one cheek and flipped the book over to flash him the cover, her fingers still deep in the spine. Her head gave a dip to the side and back again.
“A friend gave it to me.” Embarrassed again. “It’s good.”
“Yes, I know,” he said. He leaned back in his seat again. “So what are you studying?”
She closed the book, the redness in her cheek fading.
“Arts—well, not just Arts—Arts Science. At least that’s what I intend to do after I get through second year.”
“Science?” He could not keep the skepticism from his voice—it must have showed.
“Mmm…well, yes.” She looked up, met his gaze. “I like science. Especially physics. I like—” she paused,“—that way of seeing.” Her voice was almost defiant. “At least I think I do.”
He was amused at her flare-up—he grinned.
“O-kay,”he said, drawing out the vowels in an exaggerated way, his hands held out in front of him in a pretend defense.
She didn’t laugh or respond, but something changed around her eyes. He found himself leaning forward again. She placed her book face down in her lap. Maybe amusement in her eyes, or what? She waited for him to speak, as if tolerating an impatient child. He leaned in further.
“So you are on your way to…?” A deliberate prompt.
She wasn’t about to fall for it, he could tell that.
“Melbourne,” she answered sarcastically and went back to reading her book. He kept looking at her. At last she threw the book aside and looked up at him. The thought You win was written across her face; he smiled. At his smile, she smiled too and leaned back.
She examined him for a moment as if establishing something in her own mind—he couldn’t tell what. In any case she seemed satisfied. They began to talk and, in their talking, lost track of time, of the movements and sounds of other passengers, the garbled English of the intercom, the seemingly random stops on the journey. Occasionally one or other of them looked up as they pulled into a station and announced softly, “Goulburn,” or “Holbrook,” or “Junee,” but mostly the talk continued, lazy and uninterrupted. It was mainly him speaking—she asked him first what he did, and when he answered, “Acting,” she didn’t scoff. She was curious, asked him questions, showed interest. He talked a lot of himself—began to feel flattered—a little puffed up. An old unease arose as he talked; he rolled his shoulders, cracked his back, finally slowed his speech. His accomplishments fizzled out in his mind. His success in Sydney aside, his record was too slight to enthrall even himself for long.
He paused. She was still rapt but he caught something else in her expression—he was not impressing her in the usual way he hoped to impress women.
“Am I boring you?” He meant it to sound funny, but his words came out sharp.
Her eyes crinkled—and something in him twanged to see the future beauty in her rise.
“No.” (Here a quizzical look.) “I was just thinking, trying to imagine your life, how it fits, how the bits and pieces all interplay.” All this said without guile. He tightened his gaze, tried to catch her out.
“Do you see your family much?” she asked.
His shoulders dropped; he could not prevent it.
“No—they’re in Perth.”
Her quizzical look became a frown. “You keep away?”
He looked up, startled—saw that she had it. Saw she had him pinned. He felt like a moth tacked to a board. Although there was no gloating in her triumph, he noted, no malice in the question. She was still watching him with a curious yet somehow innocent gaze.
A suspicion crossed his mind.
“How old are you?”
She blushed, both cheeks this time.
“Well, nearly eighteen. I skipped a year at school.” Here a blanched, awkward face—the face of a twelve-year-old. Her voice pitched higher. “Um, two years, actually.”
Oh God. He slumped back against his seat, rubbed his hands across his eyes.
The observant girl was gone, replaced by a hopeful insect. A bug, waiting for his approval.
“When are you eighteen, exactly?” he asked.
“Oh, in a few weeks, not long.” She seemed relieved, regained her composure. Her voice deepened.
“It can be—difficult, you know. People think I’m older.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?” He figured it was a fair question, after hers.
“No…there are boys—they like, well, you know, but I’m not…” A grimace.
He mock-grimaced in return, rolled his eyes.
“You don’t need to go into details!”
She laughed—and he was touched by a small gift: a recognition of a tiny burst of admiration within himself for her, for her ability to self-observe. He wondered if it would serve her.
They talked on for a while of nothing much, then fell asleep as others were waking in the seeping, yellow-gray light of pre-dawn.
~ ~ ~
In the morning they woke as the sun broke through on the outskirts of the city. He bought her a coffee from the kiosk, no sugar, watched her wince but say nothing.
Serves you right, he thought.
When they arrived at Central, they were the last to leave. They stood facing each other on the platform, feeling the awkwardness of the unwashed morning, their crumpled clothes, flattened hair. He felt a strange longing, of not wanting to go, of wanting to preserve something. The air felt still, like they were cocooned from the morning rush of people around them. A brief suspension of time. The words in his mouth were sticky. He looked at her and did not know what to say. She was waiting but something about her eyes, the way she did not gaze directly at him, made him realize she had no real expectation of him. He said, “Would you like to get a coffee again sometime, or perhaps do something—maybe tomorrow?”
Something inside him pinged as her eyes snapped back into focus. She studied him before answering.
“Yes. I’d like that.” At that moment it seemed as if the spell was broken, and the movement and noise of the world rushed back in like a sudden gush of air that made them almost lose balance. He caught her arm—she steadied herself, then pulled away. A quick, hasty arrangement was made—to meet for breakfast the next morning.
~ ~ ~
The moment he saw her at Flinders Street Station the next day, standing among the paper-stalls and flower-stands, he knew it was a mistake, knew whatever it was that had held them together the night before was broken. She was too young. Her innocence burnt him. He saw she had gone to some effort too, makeup and lipstick. Her eyes the color of cinders.
The morning passed uneasily, blended into the afternoon. Although they could not seem to find the ease of words, neither seemed able to leave. He wished again he had a car. His brother’s ex-girlfriend gave them a lift, took them on a mini-tour of the city in her restored silver Alfa Spider, talking in her rambling way with the two of them crushed into the passenger seat. Afterward they had coffee (this time she demanded sugar) at the friend’s flat where he’d crashed on the sofa, his belongings strewn into one corner of the room.
There was a moment—he saw that she recognized it and remained aloof, perhaps waiting for him to act—a moment where, sitting together on the floor (had his friend not been silently smirking at him for being entranced by this girl and aching to give him a good ribbing afterward when they could smoke a joint and eat)—where they could have reached comfort and talked together some more, talked their way through time, past lust and longing, into the space they’d reached the night before.
Later, when he walked her back to the train, she reached out and touched him lightly on the arm. He remained stiff. She said,“Perhaps I’ll see you again sometime—I’ll look out for you, you know, in films and stuff.”
He winced—he saw that she saw it all. She kissed his cheek—the kiss of a younger sister or a cousin, then she turned on her heel—really, those boots did not belong to her yet—and left.
~ ~ ~
Soon afterward he gave up train trips altogether, quit acting, got a job, a suit—traveled by plane. He thought of her sometimes on long, overnight flights when the plane had become still and quiet, the only sounds the rhythm of the engines and the furtive murmurings of the other passengers. At these times he’d turn and gaze out the window at the dark, shapeless world. He knew he’d not see her again; wondered occasionally if she still liked physics.
Go ahead, I mutter as the truck speeds toward my turning car, hit me. Live or die, it’s the same thing. The truck honks as I make the turn. I shouldn’t be behind the wheel of a car. I’ve been given a death sentence. Being careful seems naive now. What was the point of forty years of healthy eating and regular exercise? I believed there was always a tomorrow, as if time were a loaf of bread I could cut another piece from, depending on how I sliced it. My body is turning against me and I won’t see 50. I drive faster, catching the light just as the train is about to cross the intersection.
Sandy, my five-year-old shepherd mix, struggles to stand in the swerving car. I can’t see a thing around her rump. Even in my anger I know Indigo would kill me if Sandy got hurt. Indigo still thinks I’m the funny dad with the weird job. On those “Bring Your Dad to School Day” events I sit in eight-year-old-sized chairs with policemen and lawyers and talk about paintings and galleries. Once I rambled on about “chiaroscuro” and “pentimento” to a room of baffled kids and adults. I knew I should shut up, but my mouth opened and the words kept pouring out.
Indigo smiled around the room at her friends. “Isn’t he awesome?” Polite applause when I finally finished and Indigo announced I made the world’s best spaghetti sauce.
I’ve got to get Sandy into the park before other dog walkers and the joggers who complain about dogs off leash. We both need a good romp through semi dark woods, stalked by coyotes. Go ahead. Live dangerously. Get that anger out of your body before driving Indigo to school.
No other cars in the parking lot. Sandy sniffs every inch of the curb by my parked car before I can tug her along. Once I get her to the trailhead, I unhook the leash from her collar. I’ve walked these paths hundreds, maybe thousands of times with three different dogs. I could walk here in the dark and still make my way home.
The woods are just beginning to show light through the December trees. Nose to the ground, Sandy pokes behind me. The trail follows the spine of the hill through salal and fern. At the crest it splits into narrower paths leading deeper into the forest.
I choose a winding trail down to a clearing Indigo and I call The Cathedral, an open bowl on the side of the hill, trees holding up the sky like flying buttresses. Sandy pees and stops as I start up a trail out of The Cathedral. I look back. Sandy scans the woods, on high alert. “Come on,” I call. She stops. From the top of the hill rustling, then footsteps. Damn. A short, muscular man jogs past as I pull Sandy out of his way. She grumbles a low-chested growl.
I pat Sandy’s head and keep going up. At the crest, I hear footsteps again. Another damn jogger? It’s the same man, approaching. He slows down then stops. Even though people have been mugged in these woods, I’m not afraid.
The man walks slowly toward me. He is bigger close up. More burly. I study his clothes. Dark sweats and beanie. It’s still too dark to see his face completely. Sandy growls again. I am afraid now, but wonder if this is the ultimate joke. Dying man killed by random stranger in the woods. I say, “Men in hats spook her.”
The man pulls off his beanie and asks “Can I pet her? I’m scared of dogs. When I was a boy I was bit. I need to break the fear.” His voice is young, vulnerable. “Sure,” I answer. He crouches down, and I see a small bald spot and patches where his hair is starting to thin. I want to touch him, place my hand on the crown of his head where there is nothing but scalp. Instead I tell him, “Hold your hand open under her nose, so she can get to know you.”
She sniffs his fingers while I dig around in my pocket for a treat. The wind catches the tops of the trees. I hold my breath until Sandy’s tail wags.
“Thank you,” he says, standing up. He tugs his cap over his balding head then jogs slowly down the hill. “I’m gonna go down and back up again one more time,” he calls over his shoulder. Standing in the middle of the trail, I suck in deep gulps of forest air, watch him descend into The Cathedral, swallowed by darkness.
“Come on, girl.” I nudge Sandy. “Time to get Indigo.”
flash fiction by Phebe Jewell
poetry by Morgan Stevens
Little whirlpools of red fingerprints on limp,
pale hands hanging from a ceiling.
The moment something is dissected
is when it stops looking like itself.
Pale hands hanging from a ceiling,
Not smelling, although dilapidated, gnarled.
The moment anything is dissected, their
chunks of fat reminisce Grandma’s cornflakes.
They didn’t smell, although dilapidated, gnarled.
The monster. His laugh. His god-awful laugh loved
chunks of fat reminding me of Grandma’s cornflakes,
bodies becoming only slaughter lines on a butcher chart.
The monster. His laugh. His god-awful laugh.
A thud, a clang as he lingered,desperate,
my body only slaughter lines on a butcher chart
and I’m sure your parts were up there too.
A bang, a shuttering crash as he lingered, desperate,
chuckle by chuckle down a dimmed hallway.
I’m sure your parts were up there too.
You used to hold my hand.
Cackle by cackle down a dimmed hallway,
he moved. The moment something is dissected
is when you can no longer hold my hand.
Little whirlpools of red fingerprints, limp.
His stomach recoils from the ochre smell of hours-old broccoli in the garbage disposal.
The dreaded dishes, his daily chore.
Climbing the stool, he dry-retches over the plates, tears rushing his eyes. He thinks he should be tougher. He’s eight years old.
From the pungent sponge, five billion bacteria dance a greeting. He knows them all by name.
flash fiction by Amy Ballard
A vaporlamp drifted haloed from the guardhouse. I dropped behind a hedge, one hand to the earth, the chrome knob to my throat, trembling when the bright swathe strayed close, and Fang’s or Fat-ass’s boots slid in fallen leaves. I climbed to my feet. In the cast of royal blue, Mars and Venus superintended the moon’s libation cup, while above and below, Izati had strewed frail stars. A rusted gate groaned. A milk lorry rumbled. An apparition stirred in the illuminated window of the guardhouse, and guttural voices trailed.Skirting radiant pools, I stalked the footway past Victory Hall. Pebbles and grit and grass cut my heels. I followed the line of palms like feather dusters planted along the border of Goschwinder Park. As I neared the water tower, behind which Codlove had dug the hole and Nedelcho driven the cross, the sleek object in my hand warmed to the trills of warblers, the mad cry of a cock shrike, and in the mirror of my mind, objects passed, an octagonal table with a glass top, a pram, a wreath, a spinet piano.
~ ~ ~
Along a palisade of torn beardmesh, I clamber down from the bullwagon. I set off my rattan pack basket .I pass a copper jack from my bellypurse to the relic slumping in a swarm of stable flies behind his scruffy bovine. In a hairless, predatory head, his mouth crooks into a scowl before he hands it off to the crone at his side. He cracks the reins. The wagon lurches away, easing through a break in fencing, winding among hillocks of shattered masonry. It dissolves in mist cloaking tanks and corroded skeletons that have slept in kudzu and umbelliferous spurge since the pipe burst, emptying this worktown. Again, I hear a sniggering. I do an about-face. The road, barred with shadows of cooling towers, lies pale and bare. Cay rooks slide over the sign that reads Danger! Chemical Spill, wingtips caressing haematic clouds, some settling among the skeins of cable entangling hoists, ladders, shafts and gantries of a dredging affair collapsing along the edge of a dry canal. My ankles are burning. I look down at my shoes. I stamp, squat to brush off red needle ants. Another thing: never did Saint Anthony of the Cave take a step in vain, finding every stray dung beetle less contemptible and more deserving of God’s mercy than himself.
Cracked heart-chant. Reflex hammers.
With the basket lacerating my shoulders, I pursue a webbed carriageway. A pool of radiance oozes through clouds, staving light over chemical tanks, stained warehouses, networks of pipe, administrative buildings, dead palms, a statue of Old Blood Oak, General Weöres—about whom I have authored whitewashed accounts. Wizz. Breathburn. Did I mention contempt? But who am I to stand in judgement of that cockswain’s libidinous constitution? Truth be told, I have my own ways and means. And to be fair, a fractured braincase is not without advantages—including a kind of quasi-divinatory perception. A gift for reading the tenor of a mig’s laughter, the finger aimed at her goods. I turn toward a stone clock house and distant islets aglitter with traffic and towers, one of which I shall return to next week to interview that famous mustachioed fast-boat gunner, Vonk J. Hecktoro, for a Defense Monthly panegyric.
Off the opposite shoulder of the carriageway, oscines dart over bare selvage. Rustics have hewn cabbage-and-mustard plots into stands of burr reed and papyrus, weaving fences of fallen limbs of river tamarind. Scrub palms cast fronds over contemptible artifacts. Transformer panels. Hederated drums. Weedlife. Creeping oxeyes. Beach morning glory. Shoo-shoo bush. Cupid’s shaving brush. Spiked aralea. Plumed cockscomb. Stinkwort. Karisalankanni. The terrain tinted a ghastly sallow (like all the earth). In a weave of road creeper, a metal cranium sputters in an occult tongue.
An omerous aphid loofah!
Laoyack suckowind beefstand!
Belf, legaturaea reedblube!
An architecture of window glass captures dregs of Warbuck Reservoir. The carriageway lowers me in damp breeze awhirl with gnats, scented of rock loach, drowned pony, devil’s trumpet, basket fungus. Pilings tilt over lanky reflections in green basins, and yellow reeds line channels and pools. Lapwings flash over mudflats, tilting boats, wheels, net stakes. I follow a path under a lamp-bearing archway. I take a plank road over a field of swamp weeds and bird-tracked hummocks. I set down my basket, pull on side-button galoshes.
I tramp among pools, pads, undines. I place my basket upon a wheel rim, draw the stub shovel. I prop my sifter. My shovel hisses through a crust of yellow sand. Pits fill with black water. The breeze fluctuates noisomely. Coots cluck in reeds. Egrets stand over shortened reflections or face off and leap. I find a spanner. I draw my wire brush from the basket, scour the glistening, pitted shaft. Overhead’s a whirring dynamo.Bells. Clinking tools. The consolationist will sit, legs folded, one large hand over his hairy wrist, Froid over his shoulder, Vygotsky in lamp glow. Father, Son, and Spirit—or Fraud, Absence, Futility. Anticipating the moment when I come clean, but there are consequences to that. Dignitas is a willed virtue—a truth every yeg of the Number Two Bershey/Nikon Military Institute for Boys comes to understand. I will allege—allow me some small pride—that no confederate, lover, or helpmate has ever exposed my hand, though Eve had her suspicions, and the chorus certainly holds Devina in enmity.
I should be clear. It is not mere matter of mindstatic. Yet, I don’t wish to be accused of hyperbole. Of bawling like a whelp. Of comparing myself to Christ. Though it’s said that, when Anthony entered the cave, the daughters of Uranus tugged his beard and jammed twigs up his urethra. They drove river stones into his asshole. Cack, they said. Coffin-dodger. Piss artist. Dirty boner. Botched miscarriage. Mother’s Obloquy. Dreck. Lapgutter. Suckpuss. Do thou expiatory charity. Lick our dead cunts. Come now, it is time to take out the refuse. All the half-made scum God will never countenance. Drive a stave into your heart. Fling yourself from a cliff. But why, Anthony would say, do you harry me? Is there no aegis for me from the beyond? Which never failed to evoke rancorous jeering. Still, the daughters of Uranus would sometimes run out of insults—during which time Anthony would squat by his fire and listen to sapwood popping. He’d pick mushrooms in the forest and hear only birds.
But they do return.
I dip my tin bailing cup, slosh pondwater, scratch gravel with a spring-toothed rake. What I find, I set behind rowboat boom jaws. Once it lies in my hand, I will know my true ark. My quarterage for a spirit mother. I adorn a thwart on tiled clay. Using a sharp carpenter’s pencil, I record items in my small notebook. A fragment of a head gasket. Rusted bolt. A can. A rifle foregrip. A variety of brass shells: .50 BMG, 9x19mm Parabellum, 5.56x30mm MINSAS. (What we have here, friends, is an archeology of bloodlust, a genealogy of industrial malignancy). A porcelain fitting. A clover-shaped object with a hole in each part. Iron washers. The lower jaw of a tusker. The hoof of a sheep.While cloud towers flatten and spread, I dig pits all round and dip the pail. I shake the mud and gravel from the pail into the sifter.
I have ransacked this earth for your shoe buckle, your silver teardrop locket. For your Byzantine-weave penannular. Your hair stick pin. Loop earring. Circular barbell labial ring. Porcelain safety razor. Chubby, silver lipstick applicator. Mesh watch band. Haunted skeleton of a matinee purse. O, Loving signora. Young Mrs. Varis, tending basil on your balcony. Holding up mint to your nostrils. Filing your fingernails. Painting your toenails. Among vesperian echoes, come with your heart’s cup brimming.
One long, crushing squeeze, and I lost you. Cambered metal gone cold.
Wherefore, loathe to square away the parade ground with my student brigade, I’d slipped out under the fencing back of the Commander Nur P. Ghulam Mess Hall, pushing through the witch hazel and blooming lantana. At the center of the derelict tree plantation, I made out a chrome-plated protuberance. I pulled the gimcrack from foxglove roots and hefted it, mud-caked, smooth, throbbing with domestic passion. I washed it over the iron trough beside the mess hall. Engraved in the shaft, one finger from the ball, ran the words: Wow Factor. That night, I placed it among the objects with which I slept, the steel dog whistle, the stamped escutcheon plate, the agatized nautilus (Oh, Ungar, my elder brother, Venus in your left eye, Mars in your right, your gray lips parted, speak). With the knob to my cheek, I awaited the nightly trickle of conspiratorial echoes, revilement, snarls, footsteps, clicks. Yet, under the arched ceiling,uniforms hung in silence, and dark corners deferred to the drumming wind: punctuated by the occasional, somnolent utterance, a cough, a clearing throat.
Between my bed and Bogdick’s, a mig was incarnating, taking on faint coloration. She sat up straight, her back to the window, the rail of the chair visible through her midsection, a multiply stranded necklace spilling over the yoke of a rumpled blouse, her angular hands in the hollow of her skirt, rings shining upon fingers with scarlet, oval nails. The oblong face, dark as cherrywood, narrowed toward the chin, and straight, black hair followed each cheek, revealing a glimmer of an earring. The nose was long, the mouth plump between marionette lines. The eyebrows were feeble, the eyes, large, frank, and otherworldly. A margin of brilliance emanated from her, a wavering teal-and-fallow band, soothing as nepenthe, enchanting as sirenic harps, dissolving the longing and terror of a smallyeg torn from his cay, bereft of brother and kin. A consolatory hum, like the reverberation of an organic chord, bore me out beyond the shallows of fitful slumber.
I named her Mrs. Varis after the loveliest of the mothers (Lovro Varis’s). Not that she ever spoke to me—or even looked in my direction. She’d sit still, hands folded, blinking, smiling, gazing up and down the row of beds. Finger to her lips, she’d enjoin the silence of any whispering incubus. She’d draw me into her stream of telesthesthetic imagery. Pastel butterflies, a red, mended fender, a panel of robin’s-egg siding, a concave-sided mirror, a clutter of framed, gaudy scribblings, a lamp spicated with flame-shaped bulbs, a monumental stone fireplace, a decorative broom, grape-tinted crystal swans, a wooden giraffe, a sparkle-glazed porcelain fox, Ethiopian cats of black stone, an oak bowl like the head of an owl. Mrs. Varis was a supper call on a summer’s eve, a giggle of liquor and clatter of cubes of ice, a sizzle of frying greens. She was balm on a cat scratch, a scent of oranges, a knock, a chirping parrot, the plubgubble of a filling pail, a sigh beyond muted wallpaper, a clacking of pumps, a honk off the drive, the creaking of a rocking chair. The fur unexpectedly soft. One, long, violent squeeze.
~ ~ ~
On the night of the Sanitatem, (commemorating Izati’s cleansing the fever town of Slate) I melted over the edge of the mattress and lay fumbling along the bed rail. In the next bed, Bogdick groaned.I picked the knots, unfolded the ragged cover.My shield. My bulwark. Thus, under the protection of the Wow Factor, or rather, of the spirit of Mrs. Varis, I crept between the two long rows of beds, made up neatly for the holiday, mostly, except for those occupied by parentless removal yegs, such as Bogdick and myself.
Under a window showing guardhouse and grillwork, Nedelcho lay with just his red hair showing over top of his blanket, a little blaze on the dutchwife. My whistle and the stamped escutcheon plate lay in the crook of one pale, muscular arm. I lost the dog whistle on a wager over whether Abboran would eat a noodle off a dead quail. The escutcheon plate over how many times Penka’s father would strike him on his bimonthly inspection. It was Penka who caught the doe, dragging it out from under the cookhouse with a bent coat hanger, it’s belly tight from feasting, its face long and sharp, its eyes black as cow peas, its teeth the color of butter.
I held the Wow Factor to my chest. In the narrow lane between the two rows of beds, I slid my feet in darkness until I reached the plank & strap door, and I laid hold of the iron ring. Within the main corridor, I stood listening, clutching the ark of curving steel in both hands, the floor greasy under my heels. Two small windows and two white reflections marked the gloom beyond the diminishing lane of tile. I passed a reel of firehose, the reading room, janitor’s closet, the door to the lavatory. Behind other, closed doors, conspirators were mum. Tentacles slept. I clutched the Wow Factor as I entered the darkness of the lavatory. I did not look for eyes in the bank of shadow. I set Wow Factor on the sill, found the window latch by feel, and I struggled with the frame until it squeaked upward and stayed. O, Mrs. Varis. Let it be cold and stiff. I care not to feel the heartbeat under my thumb.
~ ~ ~
After we’d crucified the rat, I stood guard on the landing of the stairway, looking out for a brown uniform, a Fang, Fat-ass, or Mr. Duck, to emerge from behind the chaplain’s quarters or infirmary. A sea wind brought the ringing and dimming of the chapel bell along with scents of mustard, boiled amaranth, cooking grease, and iodine. A glirine reek on my hands. A few rustics from the village were weeding the infirmary lawn. Dish yegs smoked outside the mess hall. When I climbed back up the stairs again, Penka was following Codlove up the metal ladder to the water tank. Behind the rail, Codlove spat as far as he could. Penka sat dropping pebbles over Nedelcho, who was using the concrete pad for a boxing ring. Ducking blows, firing straights and hooks, he shuffled round the rat pail, my whistle swinging around his pale, muscular bosom.I hooked my arm over the water pipe, out of range of Codlove’s arc of urine, coming now off the shelf above. The rat blinked half-closed eyes, as if listening to Bogdick, who sat on the prie dieu from the Creed H. Nopali Chapel, reading aloud from a volume of jokes that he had glued into the cover of a book called Diary of a Reinventor. Heard about the winner of the beauty contest for the outer islands? Me neither. Why wasn’t Izati born in Hoggormurin? God couldn’t find any virgins. Bogdick shook his ammunition bag of tobacco over the bowl his pipe.
“That has got to be the biggest rat I have seen.”
“He is big.”
“Hutias get a lot bigger,” I said.
Nedelcho fired a pair of crosses.
“Grundle, I ordered you to stand watch below.”
“Nothing moving down there.”
Nedelcho flexed his bicep. He pulled his shirt on. While seated on the prie dieu, he’d trimmed two branches of an iron tree. He sharpened one end of the longer limb and wound the shoelace to form a cross. Codlove was ripping pages from an Army Gazette and dropping them in the hole. Penka had brought the rat up from the pail, pinching it behind the neck while the rodent bared gleaming, butter-yellow teeth—its eyes, tiny pits of doom. With two lengths cut from the shoelace, Nedelcho tied rat’s arms to the patibulum, and I steadied the cross, and Nedelcho drove it into the center of the hole. Codlove put his nose close to the rat’s, accusing it of shitting in our biscuits. He lit the paper.Tongues of flame had grown and wobbled, and the rat had made a high, repeated shriek, and its tail coiled round the upright.
Bogdick held the flame over the bowl of the pipe, which looked like a fifty-caliber shell with a bowl screwed on.
“Poison the cats, this is what you get.”
“Heard one in the wall all night.”
“Probably that one gave Rangvaldr a haircut.”
“Look at the big bloody bastard.”
“It’s a female,” I said.
“What the fuck do you know, Grundle?”
Dropped by Penka or Codlove, pebbles clicked and bounced on the concrete. Nedelcho picked up the butcher knife and stepped from the concrete pad. He squatted near the hole and crucified rat, and he cut a wand from a camphor bush. Nedelcho sharpened the twig. He poked the rat’s narrow chest. The singed whiskers moved. The forelegs twitched.
“It will croak by morning,” I said.
“I say it won’t.”
“Will,” I said. “It most surely will.”
The Wow Factor
short fiction by Finley MacDonald
Fi ey MacDonal
The Hungry Mouth of One Small Bullet
Jo-Jo’s future is here, now. Not the future he had been promised with flying cars and Jane Jetson waiting at the Electro-matic door with a hot dinner. No, not even the future his parents had promised Jo-Jo if he worked hard and kept his nose clean.
Instead of a flying car, Jo-Jo has an old Toyota with smoke pouring out from the hood. His future now includes coasting to a stop on the freeway with drivers in shiny new BMWs shaking their fists at him as they fly by.
Later, in the future, he will be late for work again, and fired, just like in the past, and then face a future of going home to tell Sherry, like before. The same old fight, Sherry and the kids screaming at him as they go out the door, maybe for the last time, this time.
Now, the smoke pours out like a fat greasy snake and he prays: Give me just one good hour of time. I won’t ask for no flying car or easy time. Just ten good minutes now, a present better than any future I’ve ever had in the past.
~ ~ ~
Jo-Jo’s past comes back for him, now.
Not a sepia-colored past he was sold of warm puppy television memories, Andy and Opie walking down to the fishing hole, smiling and whistling. Not even the glorious and horrible past of the history he was taught, cities on fire, Grant ordering men to their death, grim-faced. No, even that kind of noble past is now far away, the pain as smooth and cool as pages of books.
Jo-Jo’s past is here with him, now, screaming in his head as the car aches to a stop. The paychecks that wouldn’t cash, even after he did the work, are here in his empty pockets. Gordo sneering when Jo-Jo asked for a title for the Toyota, something to prove the car itself had a past and to prove the money he gave Gordo bought him something that would be real tomorrow.
Gordo’s answer was not some far-away memory, but here, now, choking Jo-Jo’s mind: “You can’t afford no title. Damned car ain’t got no past. You want it or not?”
Of course, he had to have a car to get to a job, any job that would keep Sherry and the kids with him another day. Now that future was all blowing away like the smoke pouring out. And the shame he had felt when he was bullied into buying the car he knew couldn’t possibly last—that pain reached out from the past and sank its fangs into his soul right now.
~ ~ ~
This is Jo-Jo’s present. Not a green yuppie place lived in a blissful moment stretching forever forward and backward. No, Jo-Jo’s present is filled with the pain in his foot as he kicks the dying Toyota over and over, as if that changes the future but of course nothing in any of his presents has ever stopped his futures. All the angry faces come forward and back on their own now, demanding payment now, now, now.
“No more,” he screams at them all but of course they don’t answer.
It all feels like the paychecks that won’t cash and someone, anyone, has to pay. Something, somehow, has to end his past and give him one moment of power to change his future, anyway, anyhow.
One small item makes this present moment of Jo-Jo’s different from every moment he has ever known. Some time ago, in a past that was not his, someone placed a rusty Colt Equalizer under the seat of the car, a prop in this sad play. He reaches and, for once, has the power in his hand. Someone, anyone needs to pay today so that tomorrow will be different and all the yesterdays will be silenced forever. He stands by the expressway waving down his future.
~ ~ ~
You pull your car over to stop in front of the smoking car, smiling at your future which will now include a gauzy pride in yourself for recognizing that now is your time to help. But as JoJo’s gun rises and points at your face through the windshield, Jo-Jo’s face and yours twist together into a shared scream. His finger twitches one last time, and spider webs bloom on your windshield.In that instant, all the futures and all the pasts, for you and Jo-Jo alike, are swallowed, forever, by the hungry mouth of one small bullet.
flash fiction by Michael Guillebeau
poetry by Betsy Martin
A body, a borrowed one,
its flesh and skin spreading
into Great-Aunt May’s antique Sarouk,
into the garden
of creeping tendrils, tulips,
petals and welcoming pineapples,
the rug receiving,
the body ripening, lightening,
as ruminating sounds from the dishwasher
swirl and purge
watery reflections from frothy
and the tick of the clock in the dining room,
tock of the other clock, in the living room,
march not in step
but on their own terms.
On the Rug
Amy Ballard writes and teaches in southern Idaho, where her husband, three kids, a naughty corgi puppy, and too many cats keep her company. Find her online atwww.amyballard.com.
Michael Guillebeau’s book “MAD Librarian” (Madison Press, 2017) won the Foreword Review’s Gold Medal for Humor Book of the Year. Guillebeau has published five novels and over twenty-five short stories, including three in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
Phebe Jewell’s recent work appears or is forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, Spelk, Ellipsis Zine,Maudlin House, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, and Sky Island Journal. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for women in prison.
Finley J. MacDonald
Finley J. MacDonald grew up in Sun River, Montana. For the last decade, he has lived in China, currently in Zhuhai with his partner Yang Meiting and his daughter, Molly, where he teaches English writing and contemporary issues at Sun Yat-sen University. He is founding editor of Imagazine, for university students. He is the author of a self-published collection of poems entitled “House of Violence” and a novella entitled “Angels, Delirium, Liberty.” His fiction and nonfiction have been published by Anomaly, Menacing Hedge, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Nude Bruce Review, Hungry Chimera, Slippage Lit, Near to the Knuckle, Embodied Effigies, and Shanghai Literary Review.
Betsy Martin’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Atlanta Review, The Briar Cliff Review, Cloudbank, Delmarva Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly (Best of the Net nomination), Green Hills Literary Lantern, Juked, Litbreak Magazine, Louisville Review, The Penmen Review, Pennsylvania English, Pisgah Review, Slab, Straight Forward, Weber—The Contemporary West, and many others. Her chapbook, “Whale’s Eye,” was published by Presa Press in June 2019. Martin worked for many years at Skinner House Books in Boston. She has advanced degrees in Russian language and literature and lived in Moscow studying at the Pushkin Institute during the exciting transitional period of glasnost. She enjoys birdwatching and is learning to sing.
Fabrice Poussin teaches French and English at Shorter University. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in Kestrel, Symposium, The Chimes, and many other magazines. His photography has been published in The Front Porch Review, the San Pedro River Review, as well as otherHypertext Magazine publications.
Morgan Stevens is currently working on her Bachelors of Biology at Regis University. Creative writing has always been her first love. She has been published in the literary magazine Loophole in 2018 as well as her university’s yearbook in 2019.
Alison Thompson is an Australian poet and story writer whose stories and poems have been published internationally. She won the Verandah Literary Prize in 2010, was a runner up in the WOW! Women on Writing Spring Flash Fiction competition 2017(US) and was a finalist in the First Annual Short Story Contest in 2019. Most recently she was selected for an Art Omi for a Writers Residency which she attended in May 2019. Alison is currently working on her first full-length story collection. She is a longstanding member of the Kitchen Table Poets, based in the Shoalhaven region of NSW. Examples of her work may be found at her website –https://alisonthompsonpoetry.wordpress.com.
Creative Non-Fiction Editor
Kerri Farrell Foley
Short Fiction Editors
Crack the Spine Staff