Welcome to Issue No. 103 of Prime Number:


Dear Reader,

The New Year has arrived and I will be placing a penny under my dinner plate to bring me health and prosperity. This is a variation on the old Southeast tradition of putting a shiny penny in the pot with the black-eyed peas. Whoever got the penny received good health and prosperity for the New Year. The penny probably graduated to being placed under the plate after someone swallowed the penny and became deathly ill, or because too many people walked away from dinner feeling like they were doomed. The penny under that plate leaves everyone filled with good food and hope.

Prime Number Magazine is entering the New Year with Issue 103 and by kicking of the 2017 Prime Number Magazine Awards for Poetry and Short Fiction.

The Prime Number Magazine Awards writing competition is open to writers of all levels. Our poetry judge this year is Rebecca Foust, winner of the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry for her collection Paradise Drive, which went on to win five more awards. Our judge for short fiction is master short fiction author David Jauss. In 2015, Press 53 published Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories, a collection that celebrates more than 30 years of writing, publishing, and honors that include Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, including their 25th Anniversary edition. For complete details click on the contest link in the left-hand column.

Another fun and challenging contest that we run every month is our free 53-Word Story Contest, which offers writers a chance to show off their skills, be published, and win a free book from that month’s guest judge. This month we’re staying with the earlier-mentioned New Year’s tradition and prompting writers to write a 53-word story about a penny. Click on the link above or in the left-hand column to read few of our past winners and to get the complete guidelines on how to enter.

Now, about this issue of Prime Number Magazine. We have four poems in this issue by four poets selected by Wendy Willis, author of Blood Sisters of the Republic, and three stories by three authors selected by Steve Mitchell, author of The Naming a Ghosts, a collection of stories that was seen in bed with Fred Armisen on Portlandia. We are also featuring a poem and short story from our guest judges for upcoming Issue 109 (Jul-Sep): for short fiction, Jen McConnell, author of Welcome, Anybody, and for poetry, Joseph Mills, who has made eight appearances on The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, and whose newest collection of poems, Exit, pursued by a bear, features poems inspired by Shakespeare’s stage directions. Submissions are open now, so send Jen and Joseph your best work.

Scroll down to our Table of Contents and get your reading for 2017 off to a grand beginning. I have heard through whispers and birdsong that this New Year is going to rise like a phoenix. So place a penny under your plate and raise your glass to good health, happiness, prosperity, and peace!

Kevin Morgan Watson, Publisher, Editor in Chief

Press 53

Prime Number Magazine

Issue 103 January – March 2017

Selections from Wendy Willis

Guest Editor for Poetry

Selections from Steve Mitchell

Guest Editor for Short Fiction

Guest Editors for Issue 109, July – September 2017


Short Fiction

Claudia Serea.jpg

Claudia Serea

 followed by Q&A


           There was earth inside them,

           and they dug.

                  —Paul Celan


A nation of earthworms,

we dug and we dug for years,

for decades.

We filled ourselves with earth.

We dug into each other

until we reached bottom,

first with shovels,

then with bare hands,

then with our teeth.


What does one do at 19?

My father dug and carried

wheelbarrows of earth

in forced labor camps,

each day, for years,

each night in dreams,

but not enough to get a postcard

to write home.

He wrote his mom in his mind,

poems and prayers,

and she answered him with rain.

Dust to dust, they say,

but also mud to mud.

Clay to kiss of clay.

My father still carries 

the kiss of clay on his lips,

even in his sleep.


The earth is not giving,

nor receiving life.

And it occurs to me that digging

is slow death.

What is the surest way

to kill a prisoner slowly?

Make him dig 

and carry dirt.

Turn him into an earthworm.


Dig and carry

dig and carry dig

and carry digandcarry

without knowing for how long,

or when it will stop.

Dig with your hands

and carry with your back.

Dig with your arms

and carry with your shoulders.

And, when you stumble, dig

with your teeth

and carry with your mouth.

There is earth inside you,

your own grave. 

Dig. Dig.


I think about the plain they dug,

the endless, windswept Danube plain

lined with endless bodies,

a ragged coat lined with silk:

Salcia, Periprava, Stoenesti.

Tens of thousands of men,

my father among them,

dug and buried there their youth,

their lives.

Balta Brailei looks like the Meadowlands:

water and weeds. 

Dirt and reeds.


And we still dig,

through silence,

through words.

We dig to find water,

to plant,

sow seeds.

The shovels speak a raspy tongue

and the bones listen 

for the clang

and cleave.

The past is not giving,

nor receiving.

My father and I still dig and dig.

We dig through the years

with our mouths

and carry our stories and lives

with our teeth.

Claudia Serea is a Romanian-born poet who immigrated to the U.S. in 1995. Her poems and translations have appeared in FieldNew Letters, 5 a.m., MeridianWord Riot, and Apple Valley Review, among others. Serea is the author of Angels & Beasts (Phoenicia Publishing, Canada, 2012), A Dirt Road Hangs from the Sky (8th House Publishing, Canada, 2013), To Part Is to Die a Little (Cervena Barva Press, 2015), and Nothing Important Happened Today (Broadstone Books, 2016). Serea co-hosts The Williams Readings poetry series in Rutherford, NJ. She is a founding editor of National Translation Month. More at cserea.tumblr.com

Contributor Note:

I wrote "Digging" thinking about my father who was a political prisoner in communist Romania. He was sentenced to 8 years in 1958 because of a poem he wrote protesting the Soviet Red Army occupation of Romania at the time. His 19th birthday found him in prison where he served 5 years in brutal conditions in various locations, such as the forced labor camps Salcia, Periprava, and Stoenesti from the Balta Brailei region, a large Danube swamp. The prisoners were clearing the reeds, digging, and carrying wheelbarrows of dirt to fill the swamp. They each had a quota of wheelbarrows impossible to meet—a system designed to exterminate the prisoners through hard labor. I was thinking about this on my bus commute, looking out the window at the Meadowlands area I pass by every day, at all the reeds and canals. And my muscles were sore from digging holes in my own garden to plant dahlia bulbs in the spring. That's how it all connected—and the poem emerged.


1. If you could spend a day doing anything (besides writing), what would you do?

I love working in my garden, which is very small, but it has vegetables, flowers, and greenery for all seasons. I would tend to my plants, pick a basket of salad ingredients, and listen to the birds and sounds of water. I would make a salad and have a glass of wine. And I would cut a bucketful of daisies and Black-eye-Susans and some viburnum branches to fill a couple of vases inside. These, plus poetry, are some of the things that make me happy.

2. Where is your favorite place to write?

I don't have a place. I don't sit at a desk or in a chair near the book shelves. I write, edit, and translate from the Romanian on my bus commute between New Jersey and New York. I should credit the New Jersey Transit in my books, for I always have a place to sit (in the front, by the window) and dedicate an hour to writing every day. I type up my "clean" versions on my laptop in the dining room, usually late at night.

3. You’ve been informed you will be reincarnated as an animal and you can choose which kind, so which will you choose?

When my daughter was little, I made up a story for her about a Mama Bunny and a Baby Bunny. The Mama Bunny would have very long and fluffy ears, so long and fluffy that she used them to cover her baby instead of a blanket. They lived in a house with a beautiful garden. One day, Baby Bunny was kidnapped by a hawk, but Mama Bunny roared and mobilized an army of neighborhood animals and bees. They marched to the forest and saved Baby Bunny from the hawk's nest. So, there you go: I'd be the roaring Mama Bunny (with very long and fluffy ears).

Rimas Uzgiris.JPG

Rimas Uzgiris

followed by Q&A

A Potato on a Mine

Ravens wrangle like they wrangled countless times

over space the size of a poem on a computer drive.

Lithuania is a potato sitting on a mine.

History’s heroics are an ancient account of crimes

in the pockets of peoples living where ravens connive

to wrangle like they wrangled countless times.

They must see something worthwhile that shines

within these bogs and pines, in order to deprive

Lithuania of itself: a potato sitting on a mine.

Perhaps there is a scrap in this midden of the divine

waiting for a prophet or messiah to arrive, to drive

the wrangling ravens from this land for all time.

It may suit some to see their country as a shrine, 

but whatever song, slogan or lore they may contrive, 

Lithuania is a potato sitting on a mine.

Is it any wonder that Lithuanians turned to rhyme

in order for their ancient language to survive,

when ravens wrangled (cutting, burning) countless times?

Still, we eat our potatoes while sitting on a mine.

Rimas Uzgiris is a poet, translator, editor and critic. His work has appeared in Barrow StreetAGNIAtlanta ReviewIowa ReviewQuiddityHudson Review and other journals. He is translation editor and primary translator of How the Earth Carries Us: New Lithuanian Poets, translator of Caravan Lullabies by Ilzė Butkutė, and Crystal by Judita Vaičiūnaitė (forthcoming). He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark University. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship, he teaches translation at Vilnius University.

Contributor Note:

Some years ago, I translated a poem by Arnas Ališauskas called “Lithuania Carved out of a Potato”. This was for an anthology I helped put out called How the Earth Carries Us: New Lithuanian Poets. The image of Lithuania as a potato wouldn’t leave me alone. There was something both funny and true about it. Also fragile. This country has long been the plaything of its neighbors, and with Putin’s increasing militarism the threat has taken on greater urgency. So that’s where the main image came from, and it was such an insistent image that it seemed to call for a repetitive form, hence the villanelle. 


1. If you could spend a day doing anything (besides writing), what would you do?

I would like to calmly kick back, read a book, go for a long, leisurely stroll, and then go to a nice dinner followed by the opera with my wife. Why? We have a toddler and a baby and no time, no energy, nothing but work and children, children and work. Yes, it’s wonderful, but…

2. Where is your favorite place to write?

Anyplace I find time to relax and let my thoughts roam (see above).

3. You’ve been informed you will be reincarnated as an animal and you can choose, so which animal will you choose to become? 

A dolphin. So graceful through the water… And they have more fun.

Shuly Cawood.jpg

Shuly Cawood

followed by Q&A


Your hands pop open the hood of the car,

drain the oil, twist cap shut, stop the leak. 

Your hands pump the colander and wash 

shaking leaves clean.

Your hands cut the sunflowers, brown and yellow heads 

already drooping from the long drive you must make 

to see me through this terrible heat,

the kind that causes rashes, that beats

down on back doors. Your hands

used to know how to take off things

in the late afternoons, when we shoved

our books aside and slept on deadlines,

when I thought the world was made for straps

and sundresses without destinations.

Your hands used to know how to stop me from going.

They used to tell me a story. Now, they break up

a sentence into small pieces. They clear clutter.

They’re strong enough to pull someone from a burning car,

just not your car, just not me.

Shuly Cawood has an MFA from Queens University, and her memoir, The Going and Goodbye, will be published by Platypus Press in 2017. Her creative writing has been published in places such as The RumpusZone 3Fiction SoutheastFull Grown People, and The Louisville Review. Her most recent writing award was the 2014 Betty Gabehart Prize. You can read more about her work at www.shulycawood.com

Contributor Note: 

I'm fortunate to be part of a monthly poetry prompt group. This poem came from a prompt that was to "write a poem that focuses on metonymy." I started off with that intention but clearly ended up someplace else—which is fine. The prompts are meant to just to get us moving somewhere on the page so we can go wherever we need to be. My better poems are always the ones that take me someplace surprising. 


1. If you could spend a day doing anything (besides writing), what would you do?

I would walk. One of my favorite walks is through Julian Price Park in North Carolina. It's a wonderful place of creeks, mountains, fields, and woods. Anytime I can be outside (and out of my head) and see vistas that are expansive, I am reminded there are much bigger and more important things in the world than myself. 

2. Where is your favorite place to write? 

I love writing at coffee shops because I like the noise and the company and the warmth of these kinds of places. Writing is such a solitary act, but when I can be around other people yet still focus on my work, it feels like a perfect balance.

3. You’ve been informed you will be reincarnated as an animal and you can choose, so what animal will you choose? 

A bird so I can fly as far and as high as I please, and so I don't have to carry things except the occasional twig or worm.

Domenic Scopa.jpg

Domenic Scopa

followed by Q&A

Slave Trade Bracelet 

           Newport, Rhode Island

Those mansions we drove past, turning into shimmer in December sunlight, 

those family cemeteries, snow still roosting on the tombstones—

Antique shops so small something was bound to shatter

if a boy, curious to touch the keepsakes, snatched a book out 

from the bottom of a stack. In one of them 

we noticed an old bracelet, which, although polished, 

still seemed to hold shadows, especially in one dark spot

the seller must have missed, crafted with whatever 

was available for metal in the nineteenth century,

bronze, or brass, perhaps. I’m not quite sure. 

It reminded me of a shackle. And some slave trader

whose faith in the darkness of the world was stubborn

as a figurehead bracing against white-cap spray,

as it slices to some port with a purpose no one mentions anymore. 

“Here now,” he might as well have said when trading, “take this,”

as if in response to the wind, which was merciless—

“Here now,” he seemed to say to me, as well, 

“Here’s this piece of metal, where’s the slave?” 

It made me wince to stare at it, 

something familiar that made my throat shut. 

It made me wince to see it sold there, too,

to say our trip itself, the mansions, each buff of the brush

to polish the metal under the poor light of some lamp

on a workbench, were simply treasures. I didn’t have the heart to tell you. 

Because the slave traded for this bracelet surely must be dead, by now,

and unknown, I think he had a scar, or birthmark, on his forehead—

I think he hated politics and fighting. 

And if he outlived two bright sons, I think he still sang, 

or hummed, out of hope or habit, songs in the field. 

If singing is a salve, a bandage for despair, I think he could sing all day. 

When I think of him, I think of that one small, unpolished spot, 

and traders, stubborn, believing in the darkness of the world. 

How next winter, driving past this place, 

which I’ve seen so many times, and often, in the worst weather, 

when antiquated streetlamps make the snow seem whiter,

I’ll shudder, and despite the family cemeteries, stately with their history, 

and despite the mansions abandoned to moonlight,

their glimmer scintillating solitary splendor, I won’t be convinced.

Domenic J. Scopa is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the 2014 recipient of the Robert K. Johnson Poetry Prize and Garvin Tate Merit Scholarship. He holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry and translations have been featured in Poetry QuarterlyReed MagazineBorderlandsTexas Poetry ReviewReunionThe Dallas Review, Belleville Park Pages, and many others. He is currently an adjunct professor of literature at Plymouth State University and New Hampshire Technical Institute. He also reads manuscripts for Ink Brush Publications and Hunger Mountain.  


1. If you could spend a day doing anything (besides writing), what would you do?

I would love to return to the Czech Republic and Poland. Nothing refuels my writing-battery like traveling to foreign places. 

2. Where is your favorite place to write?

My favorite place to write is in my secluded apartment. I often find that I can write rough drafts in public places, like coffee shops and bookstores, but the final drafts are always completed in the quietude of my own home. 

3. You’ve been informed you will be reincarnated as an animal and you can choose, so what animal will you choose to become? 

I would choose to be reincarnated as a great white shark. Originally, I wanted to be a marine biologist, specializing in sharks. They have also fascinated me. 

Laurie Stone.jpg

Laurie Stone

followed by author biography


The man was outside, feeding an apple to a horse. The horse’s mouth moved slowly across his palm, and he waited the way you would wait for a child to finish hot soup. He cared for rescue animals. He would have devoted his life to a woman, but there was no woman.

The night before he had said, “Come to the farm and take what you want.” We were at a restaurant with our mutual friend. His hair was short and dense as a carpet. The first time I saw him he was handsome. It was decades ago, and he had the loose-hipped swagger of a man women looked at. We were beside each other at a dinner, and I felt a gear shift. My friend and the man had been lovers when they were young, children having sex. They had moved on to other people but still lived near each other. Everyone felt the tug between them. When, toward the end of the meal, the man said, “Come to the farm,” I thought he was being kind to our friend and that I was doing the same by saying, “Okay.”

Three horses stood under a tall oak. A donkey was the companion of one horse. Their coats gleamed in the afternoon light. The man and I said hello, and then he jogged up to the donkey to steer it away from a cart of leaves. When he returned he said, “Would you like some eggs?” I said, “Yes.” I had eaten an egg from the farm on another visit, and it had spoiled me for other eggs. The yolk was orange. The white sat up high on the skillet and sizzled to a crisp along the edges. The man raised chickens. Is raised the right word?

We entered a barn. Red chickens were pecking pieces of yellow corn along the ground or fluttering up to roosts. It was quiet except for an occasional squawk, and the quiet was intense and almost sensual in the way certain absences are a presence. The man was wearing a black t-shirt. His gait was stiff. He had an old man’s thickened waist and elongated nose. He bent down to a hen whose feathers were tipped with blue and said, “Did you miss me, darling,” reaching under her belly to snatch an egg. He gathered eleven more, tan and speckled, and handed the carton to me. We did not know what to say to each other because we were not having sex.

The night before, the man had arrived at the restaurant with his shirt collar open and curly gray hair poking out at the neck. My friend had said, “Could you please button your shirt?” It was hard to be with them. You kind of disappeared. He said, “I tried to button it in the car, but it came out wrong.” He shrugged but did not close his collar. His eyes glittered. He was a little stoned. He gestured to a splash of palms and parrots on the shirt and said, “Do you like it?” There was a gap between his front teeth. My friend twisted her mouth and closed her hand. When she opened it, there was a little red mark on her palm.

I placed the eggs in my car. The farm was hot and smelled of animals, and I was reminded that every life has a crust and things to sweep up. The man asked if I would like iced tea. I said I would. We walked to the farmhouse and entered a large room with a kitchen and a wood stove. He had made an effort to straighten the place. Magazines were stacked on a rough plank table, but elsewhere kitchen implements were piled on counters, and the sink overflowed with dishes. A grayed sheet shrouded a couch that leaned to one side either because the base was broken or the floor was uneven. The man swirled his hand around and smiled as if to say, I give everything to the animals. I could not think of anything to say.

He poured a glass of tea from a pitcher in the fridge. The tea was made with honey, crushed raspberries, and basil and mint from his garden. As he poured, I imagined his hands scrubbed clean around the nails. I thought some women would not mind. The tea was sweet and pungent, and I began to feel I could exist in unplanned moments. I lived in a city that had grown crowded and loud. Sirens blared. People were falling ill at a faster rate than in the past, I supposed. I had lived in a city all my life. I had wanted to be a city, winding here and there to arrive nowhere in particular. Now the city felt like a lover that is wrong but you stay with anyway. I made documentary films that said society was becoming more fair, although I did not see this much in the world. The man offered me a piece of bread he had baked and set out a dish of butter. I tore off a hunk of crust, and I could see in his face he liked the look of pleasure.

He led me to the dusty attic where boxes from his past were stored. This was where I was supposed to take something I wanted. There was a ceramic sink in a corner and against one wall the leather couch where his father’s patients had spilled their secrets. The headrest was worn and peeling as if burned by emotions. For the past several weeks the man had been communing with his dead parents, and the scene, with its moth-eaten carpet and gilt-framed scrap of Chinese fabric, was like visiting a yard sale where the seller is not ready to part with anything. 

That morning at breakfast my friend had said, “Sex is in the past for me.” She had looked over her shoulder as if sex was falling over a cliff. I had laughed to myself, imagining animals pushing against her door, first a woodchuck with razor teeth, next a raccoon with the dark-ringed eyes of a noir stranger. She said of the man, “He’s obsessed with the animals the way he was obsessed with everything else in his life. He has to keep moving. He has the attention span of a flea.” I said, “Then he’s made a good adaptation.” A year ago my friend had handed to her protégé the architecture firm she had built. She said she did not miss it. Her husband had died some years earlier from a tumor on his brain. Her daughter was a human rights lawyer who lived in Turkey and did not visit often. My friend was busy all the time, as was the man, only she tended a large garden. I liked to watch her pick blackberries, snow peas, and tomatoes before feeding them to me. She was the most sensual person I knew. It was what had attracted me when we first met at school, a snarling energy that could sweep you up one moment and the next crash itself into a tree. She said of the man, “When I broke my wrist, he was the one I called. Of course he got lost on the way to the hospital. I was crying and laughing.” 

I could see them: animals in a field who had come to lean on each other. Her hair was tousled and streaked with gold and bronze. It was full and luxurious, and she carelessly pushed it off her forehead as if everyone had thick hair. She was lovely, and I thought she and the man could have sex if one of them made a move. After breakfast I walked along a road and came to a dirt path cut into woods. It crossed my mind I might not find my way out, but I did not want to live with full knowledge. 

In the man’s dusty attic, I walked to the window and looked out. It was stuffy. A thin layer of sweat coated my skin. He came up behind me and touched my calf. He said, “Hold still, you have a tick,” and without another word carefully twisted the tick counterclockwise again and again, as if it had bored into the core of me. What was there? Something liquid but I could not tell if it was hot or cold. I saw myself cleaning the attic, sifting through the man’s belongings and separating out beautiful things, arranging them in the center of the splintery space—a velvet chair, a side table with a marble top, a vase of lilies and lilacs that grew beside the drive to the farm. Finally the tick let go, and the man held it in the air close to my face. I watched its fat-raisin body and little legs wriggling, and then the man popped it between his fingers, and it made a sound like a tire losing air. 

The man’s fingers were stained with blood. I kept still. I thought nothing in life would happen to me if I was not sometimes still. He flicked away the tick, and I wondered how long it would take to turn to dust. I wondered if it carried disease. Mine was not the sort of life that had an arc. I had recently received an email from an old boyfriend who wrote in a friendly way, as if he had not been a bad boyfriend, as if connection when looked at from the perspective of time became good connection. The man led me to the sink, and I watched the blood swirl down the drain. When I looked at him, I saw the same blue flame I saw in my friend. He touched my calf where the tick had gone in. I heard a hum. I said, “I sometimes forget I am human.”

Laurie Stone is author of My Life as an Animal, Stories and was a longtime writer for the Village Voice. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and has published numerous stories in such publications as FenceOpen CityThe Collagist, and Threepenny Review. In 2005, she participated in "Novel: An Installation," writing a book and living in a house designed by architects Salazar/Davis at the Flux Factory. She has frequently collaborated with composer Gordon Beeferman in text/music works. Their piece “You, the Weather, a Wolf” was presented in the 2016 season of the St. Urban concerts. She is at work on The Love of Strangers. Her website is lauriestonewriter.com

The Tickle by J.L. Montavon

I met him at one of those South of Market warehouse alternative-theater spaces—Eleutheria, I think it was called. It was opening night for an experimental piece. The program called for the audience, at one point, to gather in a circle and touch fingertips à la Adam and God in the Sistine chapel. There were about twenty of us and I'd noticed Fidelio from the beginning. His long straight hair flowed from under a fedora, a loose gray suit he'd probably gotten at Goodwill drooped over his small-boned frame, and a wispy mustache polished off the intriguingly louche look. His willowy body and delicate cheekbones made me think for a moment he might be in drag.

I maneuvered my way next to him. Our fingertips touched with a ping of electric current. It's only in my head, I thought; he's not interested in the likes of me. The finger-touching became interlaced hands. His skin was smooth as kitten down. I turned to smile at him, but his eyes stayed straight ahead, intent on the task. He released my hand as soon as the audience-participation business was done.

After the performance was over and plastic-cupped wine was being served in the lobby, he caught my eye again. I turned away. When I glanced back, sure enough: contact. I went to talk to him. His whispery, breathy voice forced me to lean in close. He was friends with the performer but the piece was too touchy-feely for him. He didn't like to have to do more than just absorb the play.

I took this as a hint that the electricity I felt was fantasy. Until he added, "Except sometimes you do meet new people."

I said, "Sometimes new people go dancing at The Stud."

"I've seen some interesting people there."

And so we left for The Stud. It was a safe choice, crowded and sweaty as usual. The year was 1988 and there were lots of acid-washed jeans, Doc Martens, and leather jackets. A tangle of scuff marks inscribed the wood floor. We talked a little but mostly danced and drank beer and inhaled the humid musk of the club. Fidelio danced with a herky jerky motion that dismayed me, until I realized the angularity was intentional and his moves worked in counterpoint to the song, as if he was arguing back. We brushed up against each other now and then. The ping was still there, but his eyes had a hooded inwardness that made it hard to know if he felt it too. I said hello to a few regulars I knew at the bar, which I hoped made me more cool in his eyes. 

I didn't take him home with me, but I got his number. And kept thinking about him. His sauntering, insouciant gait. The little buzz that had traveled down my loins when we touched. I wanted to know what was underneath that droopy gray suit. In my mind's eye I saw him shambling down the foggy, moist streets of the Tenderloin like a figure out of a ’40s movie, cuffed pant legs rippled by a gust of wind, the suit clinging to his shoulders like an ineffectual guardian. 

I called him once, I called him again, I called him once more. He played hard to get, first by not returning my messages, then by calling back when I'd said I'd be out. His voice on my machine carried a soft smirk. "It's so nice of you to call, Steven. Nice of you to try to . . . reach me. We seem to be ships passing in the night. Or is it strangers in the night? I never know which."

I replied in kind, doing my best to reel him in. I sang Strangers in Paradise to his answering machine; I proposed that we go see the new Jim Jarmusch movie at the Roxie.

One night, when I had a new line prepared for his machine, he picked up the phone.

"John?" he breathed into the mouthpiece.

"It's Steven. Is that you, Fidelio?"

No response. Only exhalation.

"I'm sorry I'm not John," I said.

"No you're not."

Before I could come up with a reply, he said, "I need someone to talk to."

He spoke in a different way. The words poured out of him in a stream, with little hesitation and little space for me to insert myself. 

He talked about the SRO hotel where he lived in the Tenderloin. The odor of ancient cigarettes oozed from the carpeting. Stains on the walls and furniture recorded happy and unhappy moments in the lives of past residents. Moans and whimpers drifted down the hallways. Men in frayed robes watched from cracks in doors as you walked by. Every night Fidelio laid his head on an old pillow squashed so flat that only the quills remained, the down turned to the texture of rotten eggplant. When he closed his eyes he heard murmuring voices from nearby rooms, but when he pressed his ear to the wall, the voices dissipated. They only came with his head on the pillow. The voices were trapped inside it, he decided: voices of all who'd lived there before him.

The thing that kept him sane, Fidelio said, were his birds. He smuggled them in as pets. They perched on dowels he'd fixed to the walls. Leather thongs tethered the birds to the dowels. The owner of the corner grocery gave him stale bread to feed them. Every morning Fidelio folded up the newspapers he'd spread beneath the dowels and dropped them into a public trash bin down the street.

The hotel was home to the usual Tenderloin cast of newly arrived immigrants and day laborers, retirees and the transgendered, transients and hookers. Fidelio kept a butterfly knife for protection. Weapons were prohibited in the hotel, so he cut a niche into the wall and installed a small shelf onto which he placed the knife. A framed photograph hung on the wall to cover the niche. If one of his birds got too noisy he'd snap open the knife and threaten to slice off its legs. The photograph showed his grandmother, a woman he said was as large and persistent as a sea lion. She wore a big floral dress whose material stretched itself into weary ripples as only polyester can. How she'd met and married and lost Fidelio's grandfather, a man from the far north, was a long and tragic epic, too long to tell. I asked Fidelio to tell it anyway.

"It's not for you," he replied. 

But he did go on talking about his grandmother. Her eyes were piercing and unfathomable, her face a fleshy bronze expanse, her chin like a small round fruit attached to her jaw and decorated with wisps of gray hair. The children in her neighborhood called her a witch, which suited her fine. She let the hair grow on her chin to give pause to anyone who might cross her. She’d taught Fidelio how to use the knife. She lived in a microscopic apartment in Daly City and he took the train out to visit her once a month. She treated him to a meal in the food court of the local mall. They ordered pork sisig and Kare Kare, savoring the abundant fat as much as the marrow of the bone.

The conversation ended abruptly with Fidelio saying to me, "I have to go. Talk to you later."

I stared at my phone receiver, feeling a cyclone had passed through it. 

He called back two nights later and regularly after that. The telephone unlocked some urge in him; we talked for hours at a time. Occasionally I got in a few words about myself, but mostly I listened. Once I tried to impress him by offering sage advice from my point of view as a dramaturge (I worked in theater). 

"I am speaking about my story—my dream," he interrupted.

Often, when I picked up the phone, there was no preamble. Fidelio just started talking. One night he said he'd found a secret door to get to the roof of his building. 

The lock on the door was flimsy and his knife pried it open easily. The door gave onto a set of narrow stairs, semi-enclosed by a musty bit of housing, redolent with rat droppings and pigeon feathers. He’s made it a habit to go up to the roof to watch the sunset or escape the sobs in the room next to his. When he leaves, he closes the door and adjusts the lock to make it look intact.

He decides, one evening, to release his wood pigeon on the roof. He goes through the door and turns a corner at the top of the stairs.

A sea of tarpaper spreads before him in the gloaming. Stovepipes and vents bob on it like buoys. Fidelio squats and, holding the bird in his left hand, cuts the thong with his right. The bird remains still. He gives it a gentle shove to the freedom of the tarpaper. Fidelio crouches behind a chimney. The bird takes tentative hops across the unexpectedly open surface. It's unsure what to do with its freedom, unsure if it remembers how to use its wings; unsure, Fidelio thinks, if it wants to have so much choice of where to go and how to feed.

Feral cats prowl the roof at dusk. Fidelio sees one now, ears aprick, tail and stomach flattened on the surface. It's evaluating the wood pigeon from the near shadows. The cat is pleased to have such a confused target at close range. It watches intently, looking for the trick, the catch. The bird's head darts this way and that but does not sight its stalker. Most of its brain is occupied with reconfiguring its internal map after weeks of being fed by hand. Fidelio identifies with both the cat and the bird. The bird, in a sudden flutter, tests flight but does not take off. The cat, having risen to its feet, settles back down to consider. Fidelio considers, too: has he merely fattened the bird for the pleasure of the cat? Or does he wish the bird to fly off to devour food of its own while the cat is forced to scrounge for scraps, at best a stringy rat? Everything must feed off something else, he reflects; life has no answer, only needs needing to be fulfilled. 

Fidelio stands. The particles of night's descent accumulate in his eyes. He hears a sound from the other side of the staircase housing. He takes a step to the left to see the source. A wild-haired woman squats on the roof, eyes glinting dirty gold in the dense air. Her hands are bathed in some kind of red dye. Her head tilts up and the brows contract a fraction into something less than a squint. The evil eye. Fidelio knows it well.

He hurries down the stairs and back into his room. He quivers in his bed, the fate of the bird and cat forgotten. He has not seen the woman before. He dares not contemplate the red liquid dripping from her hands.

In the dead of the night, he is awakened by a scraping at his door. He feels for the photograph, pushes it aside, and takes the knife in hand. He creeps toward the door, bent low, gaze fixed on the doorknob bulging in the yellow light pressing through his closed blinds. 

The doorknob does not turn, but he hears a voice. It’s low and raspy like autumn leaves, but the words are distinct. 

"I see your grave, Fidelio. I see it now. Your body is cold. Your blood is clotted. Fidelio-o-o-ohhh . . . ."

Fidelio sleeps on a friend’s sofa for the next two nights. He comes back to his hotel to learn that the woman in the room next to his has died. His first reaction is relief that he will not have to listen to her sobs through the wall. He wonders if it's wrong not to experience guilt. Her possessions have been boxed. The manager auctions them that evening. Fidelio cannot help himself, he stays until every item is disposed of, the prayer cards and saintly figurines and antimacassars and teeth, until every last piece of bric-a-brac has landed in hands of her friends and enemies in the hotel.

Lying in bed that night, it comes to Fidelio, in a body-stiffening panic, that the room is cursed. By noon he has packed. By evening he has moved to another hotel, even though it means losing the remainder of his advance-paid month's rent.

In his new room he carves a niche for his knife and covers it with the picture of his grandmother. Her eyes look out at him as testing as before. The obstinate beard juts from her chin. The next time he sees her for dinner, he’ll ask how to counter the curse. But he cannot ask sooner, he must wait for the dinner. The boundaries with his grandmother are clear.

During the day he works his busboy job and meets with his budding performance group. He tries to blend in with the neighborhood, wearing cheap jeans and button shirts. He trains himself to walk in the manner of a young man fresh off the boat. He watches the immigrant teenagers on the block and gauges the authority of their street strut and in what manner and for what purpose they spit on the sidewalk.

I venture to say that I'd like to see his new look. In person. How about meeting at The Stud again?

“I’m not accepting invitations,” he says, and hangs up.

I wonder if any of his stories are true. Some may be part of a persona he's inventing for a performance. Probably he does live somewhere in the Tenderloin. Maybe he even heard a raspy voice at the door and has a bearded grandmother who taught him to use a knife. But he's enlarging it all. 

Somewhere along the way I must have told him where I live. One afternoon, Fidelio shows up at my door. Unannounced. Not wearing his hat or baggy suit, but tight-rolled jeans and a white t-shirt. The mustache is gone and his hair is short and tousled. 

We don't speak. He comes in. We tear off each other's clothes. We roll across the floor, we knock over furniture. My neighbor below shouts through the ceiling. 

We land in the bed. I'm out of breath, sweating. Fidelio gets up, he says, to use the bathroom.

The knife must have been in his pants pocket. My head was turned, I was looking out the window, thinking how wonderfully strange life is. Fidelio is more beautiful than I remembered, more sensual, yet also with more definition to his pecs and biceps.

The next thing I know he's on top, straddling me. A flick of his wrist snaps open the knife. The retort rebounds off my walls. A mysterious smile plays at the corners of his mouth. He knows exactly what his plans for me are, and I don't.

Fidelio raises the knife, not overhand like an attacker, but with the pearly handle between his thumb and two fingers, as if dangling a pendulum. A pendulum aimed straight at the center of my chest. A pendulum that is seven inches long and sharp. 

He raises his arm a little higher, increasing the distance and force with which the knife will fall, should it happen to slip from his fingers.

I freeze, my left arm caught under my back, the right still at my side. Rational observations pass like subtitles through my head while my stomach does loop-de-loops. The blade flares into a curve like a strong calf muscle, then tapers to an exquisite point. A string of puckers in Fidelio's skin runs like an archipelago above his navel—burn marks, some part of my mind says. Dragons are tattooed on his haunch, entangled and intertwined, fighting, or maybe fucking.

I count them in order to occupy my mind, but it's the knife my gaze returns to, the blade and point. Please, God, I think, whatever happens, don't let me lose control of my bowels.

I open my mouth and in an instant I see how it looks to him, the stupid O formed by my lips.

Then it comes to me. Don't look at the tip. Look into the eyes. The scalding eyes. The same ones with which his grandmother sears him.

I'm seeing him for the first time. Comprehending him. His weight on my hips. His white underwear. His buttonlike nipples, his smooth chest, the row of ribs neat like a trireme, the slender trail of black hairs running from his navel to disappear into the band of underwear. He's a young man with a life, a mind, a will. A sense of humor—I hope. 

No, I remind myself. The eyes. Black dots of infinity.

It's a challenge, the challenge of staring at death in the face of this golden-skinned boy with his plum cheeks and deft fingers. If I buck and grab for the knife, it just might slip. I flex my fingers. Fidelio is no longer a delightful, if confounding, character in my life. I'm about to be made into a minor character in his.

He remains uncannily still. The moment stretches. It's possible I'm still suspended in it. That the knife dropped and I now live in another universe. My existence was kernelled in that moment and still is.

"Fidelio," I say. My voice is clotted.

Amusement plays on his lips. He's pleased I spoke first. 

He leans in closer, his hand tightening around the handle. "How about a tickle?"

"Maybe not."

"Cut you loose then?"

His breath is warm on my face, it floods into my mouth. His arm is within reach now. I can try to grab his wrist, but I'm afraid a sudden move will trigger the wrong reaction.

He cocks his head. I say, "Have you seen your grandmother yet?"

His mouth uncoils in a smile. "I'm on my way to see her right now."

He places the knife on the bedside table, as if he's been using it to clean his nails. We go at it again. We loll in postcoital bliss until he makes a quick move to straddle me again. A sliver of fear shoots through my chest. Fidelio grabs the knife and flips it so that the handle is in my face.

“Take it.”

The handle is awkward in my hand, like when a limb is asleep and everything it touches seems unreal. 

Fidelio dismounts and flops beside me on his stomach. “What do you want to do to me?”

“Oh, I’ll think of something.”

All I want to do is fold the knife and order in some dinner.

“I’m waiting,” Fidelio says.

It’s theater, I think. Another test. 

I lower the knife toward his back, as if I’m going to carve him like a roast, except the blade is upside down: the spine, not the edge of the blade, will touch him. The light is fading. His skin is so smooth that, for a passing instant, I want to mark it with blood.

“What are you doing?” he demands as I’m about to give him a taste of metal.

“Just playing.”

“Playing,” he mutters into the pillow.

In a blur he rolls, grabs the knife from me and is astride me again, having turned me over onto my stomach in two moves.

I brace for it. Fidelio bends down to whisper into my ear, “Let’s play.” 

~ ~ ~

I waited for him to call that night. The next night. Nights after that. Finally I surrendered and called him. He was nonchalant. I asked if his grandmother had taught him how to beat the curse. He said, “Do you want to see me again or not?”

“I do.”

I wanted to prove to him I was willing to play and I could do better. When I was helpless on my stomach under him, he’d used the tip of the blade to tickle the hairs on my neck, then the curl of my ear, then the fold of my armpit. I couldn’t help it—I giggled. He jumped off me, snapped the knife shut, and two minutes later was out the door.

We went to dinner. Fidelio was distracted; he kept looking at the bar and other tables. He didn’t respond to questions about his grandmother. All he wanted to talk about was LA. His performance group was moving there. Maybe he could get acting work while they developed new pieces.

We went to my apartment. We had sex. It was perfunctory. No knife. No stories. He got up to dress. He shrugged on his shirt with a sigh, as if finishing a long day at work.

“Are you really moving to LA?” I said.

“I guess so.”

"Will you let me know how it goes?”

“Yeah, sure,” he mumbled. 

I was bursting. I wanted to pour out my soul. I wanted to tell him how that afternoon had changed my life. I rehearsed for next time what I’d say about how he’d transformed the way I approached theater, life, other people. Their unknowability. Character isn’t fate, it’s surprise, the puncturing of fate. Fate follows like a cat’s perturbed tail.

I wanted so badly for Fidelio to see that I got it. I understood that every date, every lover, every trick, no matter how casual, is incommensurable, a presence so powerful as to be hallucinatory.

Would he care? In a way, it didn’t matter. I wanted him to know how grateful I was. To know that whatever he was trying to do, it worked. Never again would I presume to capture a human being except in some dream, some sharded mirror, of the other. I used to feel that San Francisco was a city where people exposed themselves too much. Leave some mystery, please. Fidelio made me see I had it inside out. This is a city of secrets.

I vowed not to call. I’d wait him out. Once again, he proved the superior player. After three weeks, I dialed his number. It had been disconnected. I looked for him in theaters and on the streets of the Tenderloin. Nothing. He’d vanished like a wisp of smoke.

Ten months later I took a trip to Los Angeles. I was walking down Sunset Strip and saw a poster for a performance by Homo Sapient. That was the name of Fidelio’s group. I didn't recognize the faces in the poster. He may have been the girl with straight brown hair in a short white go-go dress.

At last, I thought, fate had brought us back together.

I noted the theater, I noted the starting time. I was scheduled to return to San Francisco the morning of the performance, but of course I’d change my ticket. In the meantime, I let fate choose if we’d run into each other at a café or club.

It didn’t. I saw friends, I saw plays, I went to museums, I went to clubs. Somehow I didn’t get around to calling the airline. I found myself driving my rental car to the airport on the morning my ticket said I must return. I’ll change it at the counter, I reasoned. But I didn’t. I went to the gate. Even as the agent called out the boarding rows, I envisioned myself turning in my ticket. Even once on the plane, settling into my seat, I told myself I could get off, stay another day.

And then it came to me: You can’t get off. Not once you’ve boarded. The cruel airline had forced me to miss Fidelio’s performance.

By the time we landed in San Francisco I knew the truth. Fidelio existed in another realm. I was afraid—afraid that the kernel of incommensurability would be popped. Afraid that if I saw him in the flesh, the spell would be broken. He was irreducible, but so was I. He had his needs and so did I. Fidelio was sealed away in amber already, a curio for my cabinet. He’d had me pegged from the start.

J.L. Montavon was born and raised in Denver and now lives in San Francisco. “Recursions,” his first published story, was chosen by Joan Wickersham as the winner of the 2016 Salamander Fiction Prize.

Contributor Note:

A few images and elements of this story, including the title, were drawn from the “Little Robber Girl” episode in H.C. Andersen's The Snow Queen. The initial idea came from the experience of a close friend of mine, though the story is entirely fictional.

The story was originally part of a novel I've just completed. One part of the novel involves Dana, the protagonist, and Steven (narrator of "The Tickle") telling each other stories about other people's relationships in order to understand their own. But Dana is clearly the novel's protagonist, so I decided Steven's story-within-the-story didn't fit.


1. If you could spend a day doing anything (besides writing), what would you do?

Walking. It’s always been the best way for me to think, meditate, or just get outside of myself. This feeling is augmented by one of my favorite books, Outside Lies Magic by John Stilgoe.

2. Where is your favorite place to write? 

In a chair on a deck. Writing seems to flow more when I’m able to get away from everyday life and spend a few days in a quiet place, especially if it’s warm enough to sit outside with my notebook or laptop.

3. You’ve been informed you will be reincarnated as an animal and you can choose, so what animal will you choose? 

My first instinct is to say a deer, because there’s something magical about locking eyes with a deer in the woods. But if I think about it more concretely, a hawk. It would be cool to soar.

Jim Brenna.JPG

Jim Brennan

followed by Q&A

Trinity House

Dawn edged toward an uneven horizon of rooftops above groggy drivers speeding down Front Street who tapped their breaks at traffic signals and then punched the gas to flee the drug-infested junkie haven justifiably known as The Badlands. Cruising with the traffic, Manny caught sight of a car closing in on him from out of the corner of his eye. He lifted himself on the left pedal of his bike, flexed his right leg and slammed the bottom of his work boot into the side of a late model BMW leaving a size nine-and-a-half imprint of white plaster dust on the door. The startled driver’s cellphone flipped into the air as he grabbed the steering wheel with both hands and jammed his foot on the gas. 

The traffic light at the next corner turned red. Manny pedaled furiously with the one-way traffic until he reached the line of stopped cars—five, four, three, two—the squeal of squeaky hand breaks slowed the bike just enough for him to lean down and see his reflection in the driver’s mirrored sunglasses. He flashed a smile, and through clinched teeth seethed, “Fuck you!” and pedaled away, cutting through a narrow alley on the next block before the light turned green.

Just another workday commute on the iron horse—a once wheelless, dented, sparsely painted Orbea that Manny found in a vacant lot. The cycle’s Spanish name pleaded for him to take her home, to care for her. He polished her sleek frame with tenderness, filed her jagged gears smooth, lubed every one of her mechanical parts, sprayed her with expensive paint, and then rode her from job to job throughout the city. He pampered her, for she treated him better than those who should have loved him, those who should have rescued him from abusive foster parents and indifferent social workers. Every day the Orbea delivered Manny to his sanctuary—labor.

The city woke like a drunk. Commuter trains rumbled above on the Ben Franklin Bridge, truck and bus engines coughed exhaust, fists pounded steering wheels keeping beat for car horns, cursing at falsetto pitch—rush hour symphony. Giant exhaust fans forced the aroma of warm yeast and dough from a bakery into the sweet scent of mash and hops that saturated the block-long brewery on Girard Avenue—urban perfume.

Manny’s backpack bulged with tools, its threads straining to keep his livelihood from spilling onto the asphalt. A sledgehammer handle stuck two-and-a-half feet out of the top flap. He steered left onto Church Street, slowed at a house with boarded windows, and coasted to the curb. An elderly woman a few doors down turned from the tulips in her window box toward the squeak of brake pads on metal. She lowered her head to see over her bifocals, adjusted her housedress. 

“Lovely day,” she said.

“Buenos dias,” said Manny, shrugging his shoulders and feigning a confused expression. He shaped a smile, a business gesture, small gratuity to keep neighbors from calling city inspectors who’d come snooping around the property for permits at rehabbed houses, break balls, leverage their position to extort a few bucks. 

General contractors and developers hired Manny for demolitions because he was fast, conscientious, and cheap. He’d gut houses, demolishing everything into tiny pieces to maximize space inside of dumpsters. "No air!" he’d say, meaning to fill every square inch of the bin, which saved his employer hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars. He’d play head games, like count how many seconds he handled material before throwing it into the dumpster, or the number of blows with the sledge it took to tear down a wall. If he exceeded his estimate he’d drop to the floor, rip off twenty pushups Marine Corps style—a habit ingrained in him at Parris Island, and sealed with the blood of his best friend who sacrificed himself by jumping on an IED in Afghanistan to save the lives of his platoon brothers.

Manny sized up the house in front of him—two-story row, two windows per floor, making scrap removal a piece of cake. He shouldered open the front door, walked to the middle of the living room, let his backpack slide from his shoulders, and pulled out the sledge. Twenty-pounds of hardened steel cradled in his palm like an infant’s delicate skull. He raised it above his head, rotated it round and round, and then unleashed its fury against the wall. Plaster flew in every direction. A large section of ceiling loosened from the impact and crashed to the wooden floor. Manny opened his hands, tightened his grip, and continued wailing until the wall was a timbered skeleton.

Bare-knuckled demolition was his therapy to ease aggression. Labor was natural and more effective than the drugs the VA doctors prescribed. Manny’s friends sought crack and alcohol to escape the ravages of blight and violence; he found solace in destroying things with brute strength. It settled him. He looked at a gutted house the way an artist would a blank canvas. Where most people saw a barren shell of brick and mortar, Manny envisioned a home for the living. 

~ ~ ~

“Who do you work for?” 

Manny turned around, annoyed at the interruption. A guy who looked to be in his mid-thirties dressed in a sweat-stained gray tee-shirt, dirty jeans, and brown leather shoes, stood a few feet inside the doorway. The laptop in his hand didn’t fit someone who looked like he spent the morning cleaning out the basement of an abandoned building.

“I work for me,” said Manny.

The guy looked around. “Where’s the rest of the crew?”

“I am the crew,” Manny said impatiently.

The guy smiled and disappeared downstairs. Manny went back to work, and after a few minutes he heard footsteps coming back up the steps. “You’re pretty fast.”

Manny stood, peeled off his gloves, opened and closed his hands a few times like a boxer. His short sleeves stretched over bulging biceps. He looked the guy in the eye, and said, “Time is money.” 

 “So I won’t take up much of yours,” the guy replied. “I just fired the crew next door. Come work for me and I’ll give you one hundred-fifty bucks a day.”

Manny looked at him suspiciously. “Why me?”

“Why not you?”

Manny’s expression resembled a chess player contemplating his next move. “I work by the job, not the day, not the hour.”

“How’s that work when you’re part of a construction crew?”

“They’ll have to keep up.”

The guy seemed to appreciate Manny’s cockiness. “Your pay will be between me and you.”

Manny waited a few seconds, and then in an even, deliberate tone said, “Deal.” 

“When can you start?”

“I’ll be done here tomorrow. How about Monday?”

The guy massaged his face in concentration. He pulled a piece of paper from his back pocket, scribbled an address and handed it to Manny. “Instead of going next door, meet me at 326 Quarry Street on Monday. Seven-thirty.” He was about to leave, but stopped. “What’s your name?”

Manny watched him closely, then smiled. “Manny. How about you?” 

“Jim,” he said. “I’ll see you Monday, Manny.” He turned and walked toward the door.

“See you Monday, boss.”

Jim hesitated, but didn’t turn around, and then continued out to his car. 

~ ~ ~

Seven o’clock Monday morning Manny pedaled up to a dumpster sitting outside a neglected house on Quarry Street. He walked up and tried the front door. It was locked. A piece of paper nailed into the wood read: 


          Gut the house. I’ll be around later. 


Manny grabbed the doorknob, lowered his shoulder and thrust his weight into the door. It didn’t budge. Under his feet was a rubber doormat that looked as if it had been glued to the wood floorboards. He stooped and put his finger under a corner that had been pried and found a key. He put on his backpack, opened the door and walked across the first floor and up the stairs. The room at the end of a short hallway couldn’t have been fifteen feet square, and at five-feet-nine he pressed his palms against the ceiling. He walked back out and ducked his head into a tiny bathroom furnished with a small cast iron tub with clawed feet, pedestal sink, and toilet. Where the wall joined the ceiling he could tell the room had been added; that the second floor had originally been one large room.

He put his backpack on the floor and walked down the stairs to a single room on the first floor. Condensation streaked the masonry walls. Wide plank floorboards creaked as he crossed the room and descended a narrow, winding staircase to a dark lower level with the stench of age and mold. His eyes adjusted to the outline of a stove, cabinets, table and chairs. A small boiler and water heater sat in the corner.

Manny walked back up to the second floor. He pulled the sledgehammer from his backpack, took a power hitter’s stance, and swung for the fences, shattering a heavy wooden bureau. A thick piece of lumber shot up and tore through the plaster ceiling that had been softened by a leaky roof. Manny looked up and laughed when he saw the blue sky. A two-foot chunk of plaster fell and hit him in the head. He rubbed his fingers against his scalp and held out his hand. “Ha! Can’t draw blood from a rock!”

The gutted second floor appeared larger with only the bed remaining in the middle of the room. He pulled off the mattress and propped it against the wall. Manny had found medieval weaponry rehabbing houses in drug-infested neighborhoods, as well as pictures of naked men wearing superhero masks, women having sex with animals, a shopping cart full of ceramic penises in every state of erection, but he’d never seen anything like the intricately designed wooden box that lay on the box spring. He admired its carved cherry wood, a sculpted crucifix intertwined with leafy vines, birds, an equine galloping across the bottom. He didn’t see it as a box, but a work of art, a woodworker's masterpiece—once a sculpture's blank canvas, no different than a gutted house was to him. Manny placed the box in his backpack, finished tearing apart the bed, and then walked downstairs just as Jim walked in the door. “How’s it look up there?” Jim asked.


“Don’t bullshit me, Manny.”

Manny flexed his arms like the muscleman who kicks sand in the wimpy-looking guy’s face on the beach in comic book advertisements.

Jim laughed.

“This place is small.”

“Trinity House,” said Jim. 


“This is what they call a Trinity House—three one-room floors—the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” He gave Manny a sarcastic look. “I thought your people were religious.”

“My people?” said Manny pretending to take offense, and then added, “I got booted out of Catholic school in sixth grade.”

“I made it to junior year in high school,” said Jim.

Manny couldn’t restrain from smiling. “I got another chance in high school. I had a cool guidance counselor named Father Brand who smoked Camels and would beat the shit out of kids who gave him a hard time. For some reason he liked me and got me into vo-tech for carpentry.”

“You were lucky,” said Jim. “I went to work when I was seventeen laboring for bricklayers. They taught me how to do masonry work and I started my own business when I was twenty-one. I always seemed to be at the right place at the right time; made a few investments that paid off. Life’s all timing, Manny.” Jim paused, and then asked, “You do anything besides demo?” 

“I got a carpentry certificate in vo-tech, and picked up other trades from guys on the job. I drywall, paint, do some masonry work.”

Jim rubbed his chin. “How about I give you a try with the structural work?”

“Sounds good,” said Manny, thinking he would finally get a chance to work a property from demo to completion. “Can you get the lumber delivered by tomorrow morning?”


“I’ll be done gutting this place today. I’ll start framing tomorrow.”

Jim waited for Manny to say he was kidding. When Manny didn’t respond, he said, “I’ll get one of my guys to drop material and equipment off in the morning.”

Manny looked hesitant for the first time. “Why are you doing this for me?”

Jim’s tone turned serious. “Let’s just say I got a feeling.”

~ ~ ~

A stream of hot water massaged Manny’s taut muscles. He raised his head to let the soothing drops splash against his face and filter through the stubble on his cheeks and chin. When the water shut off, the room hushed. He stood patting his body dry, let the towel drop to the floor as Coltrane’s saxophone playing on the stereo seeped through the walls.

The first thing Manny saw when he opened the bathroom door was the backpack leaning against the sofa. He walked across the room, sat down and unzipped it. He pulled out the box, placed it on his lap and ran his fingers over the carved wood before he opened it. Inside was a notebook with a worn, cushioned blue cover, its pages filled with elegantly penciled cursive that looked like notes floating from a concert piano in a cartoon. The words were a stream of charcoal-colored lead on white-lined pages, so captivating that he didn’t even read them. The penmanship curved and swirled, changed textures in different parts of the same line, even the same word, expressing inflection and poise in graphite, a message in itself. Words flowed from one page to the next in continuity. Who writes like this? He scanned its pages sensing a story of the life that occupied the Trinity House. 

Manny flipped to a picture placed inside the book. It was a portrait of an elderly black woman with a dignified face, attractive in her advanced age—sharp features, high cheekbones, glimmering eyes. A little girl with tight shiny black curls cascading over her shoulders sat next to the woman. Manny couldn’t help staring at the little girl’s trance-inducing blue-green eyes. 

He began to read: What will become of my home, my neighborhood, of me now that I can no longer afford food with the latest tax increase? Who will live in the home where I gave birth to my daughter, and her to my granddaughter? Will the new owners know about our heritage? Will they even care? The writing got shakier. You said, ‘My yoke is easy; my burden light.’ When does it get easier, Lord? When?

Manny wondered what type of person had faith so strong they’d petition the unknown in a journal nobody would ever see. And he thought about gentrification that descended upon the neighborhood, investors indifferent to the history and DNA of the community; callous entrepreneurs who bought properties solely for their own selfish gain and displace honest, hard working residents. Manny felt ashamed to be a party to the scheme.

~ ~ ~

The scent of pine filled Manny’s lungs when he opened the door. A note and a blueprint sat atop a waist-high stack of two-by-fours against the far wall. 


          Use this floor plan. I’ll be around later.


The gutted Trinity House became Manny's incubator for promise and hope; the construction trades were his medium. He was through destroying things and would now practice his craft—carve wood, mold plaster, splash colors—and one day make this a home. 

Manny lowered lumber down the narrow winding staircase to the kitchen, grabbed his tool bag and walked down the steps. The first thing he saw when he unfolded the blueprint were lines that represented walls. The woman’s note was still fresh in his mind, her heritage, the DNA of the community, and it inspired him to maintain the simplicity of the single-room concept. On only his second day working for an employer who gave him an opportunity most laborers in the city never got, he was conflicted. He put the plans to the side and worked as if the builders of a bygone era guided his hands to build an open pantry and a three-quarter partition with shelving on top to separate the utilities. 

He framed-out the kitchen before noon, and then moved his tools to the first floor. Again he felt the layout on the blueprint disrupted the integrity of the house, and disrespected the honor of the principled minds that designed it hundreds of years ago. He laid down the blueprint and built an entertainment center and open storage space in a far corner.

Late in the afternoon he moved to the second floor. Intent to maintain continuity, he continued constructing half-walls and partitions with openings to separate the bathroom and create closet space. He built shelving against the far wall. When he finished he walked to the corner of the room, turned around and admired his work, satisfied he’d preserved its unity. 

A car door slammed and in a few moments the front door unlocked. There was silence before footsteps disappeared down the stairs to the kitchen. After a few minutes the footsteps started again, sounding more deliberate, their measured pace getting louder, clearer, and then stopped. Jim appeared in the doorway. Manny stood and brushed sawdust off his pant legs. 

“Let me see the blueprint, Manny.” 

Manny picked up the print, walked over, and handed it to him. Jim glanced between the blueprint and the room. “Why didn’t you follow the plan?”

The veins in Manny’s neck were suddenly visible, his biceps tightened. “It didn't work with this house.” 

“What do you mean, ‘it didn’t work?’”

Manny cleared his throat. “The Trinity House; it represents unity, strength.” His voice strained. “There is a reason …”

Jim interrupted. “You know, Manny, I’ve fired guys for not following my directions.” 

Manny clasped his hands together, and his voice grew louder. “… there's a reason these houses were designed this way…" 

Jim cut him off again. “Slow down, Manny. I just asked a question.”

"So why did you mention firing guys?"

Jim smiled. "I was just pulling your chain."

"Not funny, boss." 

“Think of it as a lesson.”

“A lesson?”

“Yeah. If you have a different idea than I do, or want to change something, talk to me first.” Jim nodded, then added. “But I’m okay with what you’ve done.”

Manny finally looked at ease.

“I made settlement on the two houses next door,” said Jim, pointing his thumbs in opposite directions, “and I’d like you to work them.” He extended his hand. “You in?”

Manny reached out and shook Jim’s hand. “I’m in.”

“Good," said Jim. "We can talk specifics later.” Jim turned and walked out to his car. 

Manny walked to the door just as Jim made a U-turn in the middle of the street. He slowed to a crawl, reached his hand out of the car window and patted a dent in his door. “See you tomorrow, Manny!” he shouted, and then sped away.

~ ~ ~

A young woman called Jim shortly after he put out the sale sign and asked to see the house at six o’clock that evening. Manny was downstairs bleeding the heating system when Jim arrived. At six-thirty, Jim said, “The woman seemed in such a rush to see the house, but doesn’t have the courtesy to call to tell me she’ll be late.” He was about to leave just as a young woman pulled up on a bicycle. 

“Sorry I’m late. Everybody stops me so they can see my baby,” she said, referring to her Golden Retriever on a leash. She leaned the bike against Manny's Orbea and looped the leash around the handlebars.

Jim opened the door wider. “I put the house on the market this afternoon. How did you find out about it so quick?” 

“I’ve had my eye on this house for years. My grandmother raised her family here. She was the first black community activist in the city.”

“That’s interesting,” said Jim.

She looked around as she followed Jim into the house. “This place was vacant for a long time, maybe a year. You did a nice job.”

Jim raised his eyebrows. “You have been watching it.”

Manny heard the female voice and started inching up the stairs. He stopped before he got to the top and listened. 

“The Trinity House has always interested me,” she said, “its openness, and simplicity. Stories about this neighborhood filled my childhood, romantic stories like the ones you hear about pioneers; the simple but hard, honest life.”

Manny climbed another step.

“What do you do for a living?” Jim asked.

“I’m an artist,” she said, “I ride my bike by here all of the time, stand outside and imagine a sun-filled second floor studio where I could paint.”

A wrench slipped from Manny’s grip and bounced down the steps. He hurried down to get it and threw it in his backpack with the rest of his tools. When he walked back up into the room, his face was flush.

“Everything okay, Manny?” Jim asked.

“Everything’s good,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Hello,” the woman said to Manny.

“Hi,” said Manny, barely making eye contact as he walked by.

She shrugged her shoulders and turned her attention back to Jim. “When can I make settlement?” 

“Don’t you want to see the rest of the house?” he asked.

“No need to. It’s perfect.” 

They walked to the door together. Jim locked up, walked to his car, and drove away. 

She stood, amused watching Manny play with her dog. 

Manny felt her presence but didn’t look up. “What’s your dog’s name?”

“Cu,” she said.

“I’ve never heard that name before,” Manny said as he stood. He looked into her unmistakable blue-green eyes and smiled.

"I got him from a shelter. It's short for rescue."

Jim Brennan’s heritage as a street corner vendor, warehouseman, and shipyard welder filters into his work as author, poet, and Cityscape editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal. Jim’s work has appeared in Everyday FictionFringeSalon.comPhiladelphia PoetSchuylkill Valley JournalPoetry Inc., and other print and online media outlets. He reads his work in venues around Philadelphia including Green Line Café, Moonstone Art Center, Manayunk Roxborough Art Center, Chestnut Hill Gallery, The Rotunda and Fergie’s. Jim is author of the memoir Twenty-four Years to Boston and blogs at www.rite2run.wordpress.com

Contributor Note:

This story grew from a rehab job where I found an odd collection of objects (a photo of an elderly woman, a bible, and a 12" knife) between a mattress and box spring. I am a native Philadelphian and worked many blue-collar jobs, so the characters are real to me. I like to tell their stories.


If you could spend a day doing anything (besides writing), what would you do?

Hiking, and the more remote the location, the better. The solitude of the wilderness refreshes and invigorates me. I do my clearest thinking when I’m amongst nature; it’s where I find many of my stories and characters.

Where is your favorite place to write?

My wife and I recently rehabbed a house outside Philadelphia and I’ve become fond of a nice antique desk she bought me that I’ve situated in the corner of the basement, kind of like John Cheever (I am no John Cheever!)

You’ve been informed you will be reincarnated as an animal and you can choose which kind, so which will you choose? 

A horse. They are majestic creatures, mighty and independent.