Welcome to Issue No. 107 of Prime Number:
This unique work of art for the cover of Issue 107 was found on the sidewalk one sunny afternoon a few steps away from our office in the Arts District in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. We love, love, love it and wanted to share it with you.
Issue 107 of Prime Number Magazine spans the months of April (National Poetry Month), May (National Short Story Month), and June (National Accordion Awareness Month), and we’ve got all of the bases covered.
First up, we have three new poems selected by guest poetry editor Robert Lee Brewer, author of Solving the World’s Problems, who took some time away from his busy schedule at Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Market to read submissions and select three poems. You'll enjoy these poems by Liz N. Clift, Jen Karetnick, and Tania Pryputniewicz.
Next up we have three new short stories by Marlene Olin, Michael Kaplan, and Matthew Fiander, selected by guest short fiction editor Elizabeth Gonzalez, whose own collection of stories, The Universal Physics of Escape, won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction.
We do have a suggestion for National Accordion Awareness Month: An Unreasonable Woman, In Search of Meaning Around the Globe, a memoir by Shirley Deane, published by Press 53 in 2010 (back when we published memoirs). Ms. Deane was a popular jazz accordionist (never polkas!) in the 1950s, who turned her back on a recording contract and an appearance on The Jackie Gleason Show in 1956 to travel the world. Her journeys took her to 67 countries, including a trek in a specially built Land Rover from England to Kathmandu, making her the first woman to make such a journey by land in a vehicle. If you are looking for an adventurous and crazy read, pick up a copy of this fascinating book. Shirley is one of a kind and an inspiration to women of all ages.
Also in this issue we introduce our guest editors for Issue 113: for poetry, Gabrielle Brant Freeman, author of When She Was Bad, and for short fiction, Chauna Craig, author of The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms. Visit their pages to enjoy an poem and short story. We will be publishing their selections in poetry and short fiction on October 1.
The 2017 Prime Number Magazine Awards for Poetry and Short Fiction will close for entries on April 15. The winners in each category will receive $1,000 plus publication in Issue 113 this coming October. We’re looking, as always, for distinctive poetry and short fiction. Our judge for poetry is Rebecca Foust, author of Paradise Drive, winner of the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry, which went on to win five more awards! Our judge for short fiction is the legendary Daivd Jauss, author of Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories, published by Press 53. David’s body of work spans more than thirty years and includes appearances in Best America Short Stories, The O.Henry Awards: Prize Stories, and two in The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, including The Pushcart Book of Short Stories: The Best Stories from a Quarter-Century of the Pushcart Prize.
Don’t forget to also check out the winners of our free, monthly 53-Word Story Contest. It’s amazing what can be packed into 53 words.
Lastly, I have included a personal remembrance of Okla Elliott, who I was fortunate enough to work with in 2011 when Press 53 published his debut short fiction collection, From the Crooked Timber.
Enjoy Issue 107 of Prime Number Magazine and don't forget to share the love.
Kevin Morgan Watson
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief
Prime Number Magazine
Prime Number Magazine
April – June 2017
Selections from Robert Lee Brewer
Selections from Elizabeth Gonzalez
a note from Kevin Morgan Watson
Meet Our Editors for Issue 113, October – December 2017
Gabrielle Brant Freeman, Guest Editor for Poetry
Chauna Craig, Guest Editor for Short Fiction
Liz N. Clift
followed by Q&A
My father used to duck-and-cover
under desks, small protection against
a Cuban missile launched for San Antonio.
He still has nightmares. As a kid
I dreamed of a silver football
dropping on a parched field—
the world turned loud and white.
I’d wake crying. This is how I died,
I told my mom. She taught me
though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death I will fear
no evil. Maybe that’s when I stopped
believing in God. A few years ago,
I read about people living
in decommissioned missile silos
and I wondered what it would be like.
Last year, I saw one for sale. I couldn’t
afford it. Today, I walked down the street
looking at the gold dome of the state capitol,
at a mural painted by a graffiti artist,
at the trees in the park that was once
a cemetery. This is all so tenuous.
A musician friend and I exchanged
muddled words about a world cold
with the promise of a new war. If movies
are right, fallout can look like snow, which
today is still melting from shadows.
Silver-spooned mouths never
seem to know what they start, or
maybe don’t care. The wind rustled
what few leaves never left the trees.
The sun was weak and low. Each day
seems more numbered.
Liz N. Clift holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Iowa State University. Her poetry has appeared in Rattle, Hobart, Passages North, The National Poetry Review, and elsewhere.
I was speaking with my father about politics, when he shared that he’d been having the nightmares he had as a child during the Cuban missile crisis, and afterward abruptly changed the subject.
Where have you lived—states, countries, etc.?
Texas, North Carolina, New Zealand (however briefly), Iowa, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado.
What is your favorite flavor of ice cream? Any toppings?
Chocolate chile sorbet, with no toppings.
With whom, living or dead, would like to share dinner and why?
I’d love to have dinner with my paternal grandfather, who died when my father was an infant. He was a conscientious objector in World War II, and I would love to talk with him more about his experiences in Africa, working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration during this time.
followed by Q&A
after James Wright
I could not sting like a bee or float like a butterfly
though I did learn to throw a punch from my trunk,
not my wrist, after our father taught my sister. A shadow
boxer, a flyweight, I followed her from the split-level house
to the Little League where she was the first girl to play, another
way for the other gender to spend a lengthening spring afternoon.
Formed from former gravel pits, the fields were shielded to the right
by hills of shale and river rocks rising over the stand of pin-boned pines
we generously called “the woods.” We were warned away from here; horses
wouldn’t be able to drag us out were we to fall under an avalanche of these stones.
But no one advised a boy not to toss them as flirtations, which is how one landed on
my lip. Struck dumb, it spurted into a bucket, empty of baseballs, that I brought home.
Even after surgery, I swallowed his name like blood to wear the fist he made me for life.
Based in Miami, Jen Karetnick is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently American Sentencing (Winter Goose Publishing, 2016), which was long-listed for the Julie Suk Award, and The Treasures That Prevail (Whitepoint Press, 2016). Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in TheAtlantic.com, Guernica, Negative Capability, One, Painted Bride Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Verse Daily and Waxwing. In 2016, her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and two “Best of the Net”” awards. She works as an educator, dining critic, freelance journalist and cookbook author.
This piece is a golden shovel, using the James Wright poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” The setting is the Little League baseball fields near the house that I grew up in; they had been built in old gravel pits and were surrounded by jagged hills of sliding rocks.
Where have you lived—states, countries, etc.?
I have lived in New Jersey, where I grew up; Boston and Southern California, where I went to undergraduate and graduate school; and Miami, where I’ve been for the last 25 years.
What is your favorite flavor of ice cream? Any toppings?
My favorite flavor of ice cream is mint chocolate chip, and you can never go wrong with colored sprinkles.
With whom, living or dead, would like to share dinner and why?
I’d love to share dinner with M.F.K. Fisher and trade some tales about dining and food writing.
We were all Eurydices back then
in love with one another’s brothers.
Before boys, the plastic Palomino
on windowsill, seam line sharp down gut,
sentry of the dewed indigo panes,
curtains parted. Before horse, Paint By
Number with contour map of blue ovals,
linked plastic pots propped open like the keys
on a sax. Before art, the brandy glass
of Easter candy high on pantry shelf,
felt ears and tail glued fast by Grandma.
Before Grandma, the goldfish gorging self
on pastel flakes we pinched over bowl’s rim
’til his mouth ceased trailing beads of air.
Before death, silver balls of mercury—
free of thermometer we broke—keeping
shape down sidewalk, lodging in the cracks.
Before mistakes, first carrot—root in dirt!
we hosed clean to taste, so sweet.
Before garden, pink hippopotamus—
a pillowcase—and brother’s, blue walrus
at bedtime, falling asleep to father’s piano,
unaware we’d have to play all parts:
viper, boy, girl, even lover’s harp,
cold as metal gate on horse ranch, headlights
of my brother’s truck, my girlfriend
choosing him, her hands in back pockets.
I walked gravel lane to main road alone,
sound of ocean to the left, stable half
doors closed, all the horses in.
Tania Pryputniewicz, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is a co-founding blogger for Tarot for Two and the author of November Butterfly (Saddle Road Press, 2014). Tania’s poems are forthcoming in A Year In Ink, Chiron Review, Nimrod International Journal, and Whale Road Review. She teaches a monthly poetry workshop for San Diego Writers, Ink, and lives in Coronado, California with her husband, three children, blue-eyed Husky, and a portly housecat named Luna. She can be found online at www.taniapryputniewicz.com.
I once knew of a girl named Eurydice; the repetition of “befores” in the poem pulled me from the sound of her name back into the near twin peace I shared with my brother as a girl (we are 10 and ½ months apart) and on into the subsequent universal angst of adolescent separation, Hades tinged and lit with rivaling temptations.
Where have you lived—states, countries, etc.?
I have lived in upstate New York, San Francisco (Haight-Ashbury), on a commune in Illinois, in the tiny town of Villa Grande under the redwoods in Northern California, in Denmark as an AFS exchange student, in the heartland of Iowa, and Southern California.
What is your favorite flavor of ice cream? Any toppings?
I’ve recently defected from my childhood love for mint chip to coffee ice cream. No toppings.
With whom, living or dead, would like to share dinner and why?
I’d love nothing more than to pack a picnic basket and stroll with the late sculptor, painter, filmmaker Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) through the grounds of Il Giardiano Dei Tarocchi, her Tarot Sculpture Garden in Tuscany, Italy. I’d love to write poetry in response to her sculptures.
followed by Q&A
On November 9th, 1987, a student at the University of Santa Barbara walks into Storke Plaza and draws a circle around his feet in chalk. The white cylinder snaps in two against the pavement due to the force with which he draws his circle. Without hesitation he continues with the bigger piece. Like writhing ends of a severed worm, both broken pieces function on their own. The circle is about five feet in diameter when finished, slightly smaller than his wingspan.
Storke Plaza is much larger.
He tells everyone passing that they cannot enter his circle. They should not even think about it. His extended arms make this demand as clear as his constant chatter. At first the sparse pedestrians do not seem to notice. One male pedestrian feels the need and privilege to pull his female companion closer. His fingers grip her outside hip. She turns her head.
“I am the Master of this Circle, not you!” he shouts, pointing.
From Storke Tower, the center of campus, a camcorder watches the scene from above. There are no zooms, no cuts, no tracks or dollies. Not a jib arm nor a rail. The camera stands alone.
“Hey you two!” he calls out to another couple walking arm in arm. His pointer finger suddenly looks autonomous, as if wriggling out of its socket. Plotting. “You better not enter this circle here.” He sounds mad. “This is my circle, understand?”
On November 3rd, 2016, Margalit texted me about the donuts. A week ago, or maybe two, the two of us made a film about a boy who is suddenly attacked by two gallons of white milk and glue. It fell from above the frame—in other words, from no one and nowhere. In the frame the boy was screaming in pure terror.
Now she wanted a bathtub full of donuts. I was her producer. I got to work.
People begin to linger in the square, about 10 now, watching him only from a distance.
“You better not even try to come into my circle!” he shouts. He stomps. He seems to be getting more desperate, his voice hoarse, though no one, not even the camera, can exactly read his tone. His arms are waving now like an infant mid-fit, fingers forming private governments. “Don’t you even dare!” he shouts.
A student about his age approaches with caution. There is no guarantee the Master of the Circle will stay inside his circle—only that you are not allowed to enter it. There is no telling what he might do.
A donut is a circle. Or rather, two circles, unless it is filled with cream.
According to Wikipedia, chalk is a soft, white, porous sedimentary carbonate rock, a form of limestone composed of the mineral calcite. I like the word porous there. I’d like to rub it into my temples in a circular motion. Soothing. The chalk the student used that day was white, a common color for the mineral calcite. Donut cream is also white.
I emailed Voodoo Donuts, the most popular donut establishment in Portland, asking for One Free Bathtub of their product. They are known to donate, but for worthy causes. I produce films, I told them. I sent them the milk video. I did not think they would respond, but a day later, they emailed back enthusiastically. That was easy, I thought. Almost too easy, I thought. I figured they would only donate a dozen or so.
“Do you want all the leftovers?” the employee at the counter asked me. On Sundays Voodoo Donuts has the longest line in the city. Dozens of people watched me talking to her at the special side counter. “Sure,” I nodded.
After she lifted the seventh heavy bucket over the counter, I realized this is no joke. All their strange modern flavors crammed into the donation bucket—Oreo’s and Peanut Butter, Peach Fritters, Fruit Loops and Captain Crunch and even Maple Bacon. In line the other customers shoved and jostled, elbowing each other to ask the obvious: why does he get so many donuts? Why doesn’t he have to pay?
“Get away from my circle! I see you there. I see you all there eyeing my circle, wishing you could get inside!”
Three students stand right at the edge of the circle now. Their toes inch closer, approaching but not touching the line. “I see you there trying to get into my circle, I know you want to but oh boy you better not even touch that line!” the Master of the Circle screams, arms completely stretched, shaking at the fingertips. The shaking causes one of the three boys to wonder if the Master’s face—the scrunched eyebrows, the clenched teeth—is an omen. Is he going to cry? he wonders, pushing down the thought.
About twenty students form an outer circle around the inner three students who dare to toe the line. The three are all smiling now as the screams continue, two of them openly laughing. The twenty are not. They, if a verb must be applied, could be described as studying.
Important to note is the size of the Master versus the three standing around. Their collective weight: about 670 pounds. His: about 150.
You have no idea what a car smells like with three hundred free donuts in the trunk. All I can tell you is that it smells a hell of a lot better than a car with three hundred not-free donuts in the trunk. Glory be.
A donut or doughnut, according to Wikipedia, is a type of fried dough confectionery or dessert food. A powdered donut looks from a distance as if it has been covered in chalk. The Master of the Circle is a white man. The three who taunt him are as well.
A female student seems to know one of the three male students standing against the Circle. He is not the male who briefly wondered if the Master would cry and pushed down the thought. She places a firm hand on this other boy’s shoulder, pulling him back. “Why can’t we come into your circle?” she asks the Master.
I wonder if that girl was trained to see the world in the same way this story was. I am not that girl and will never be. In geometry, two or more objects are said to be concentric when they share the same center or axis. Concentric circles, in colloquial terms, comprise a target, the bull’s-eye being its center or axis.
“Why?! What do you mean ‘Why?’ You just can’t!” the Master responds. “You can’t enter my circle and I don’t even want you to think about entering my circle. Got it?!”
“But why?” she says softer.
“Because you can’t!”
“Can’t I?” the boy she holds asks as he reaches into the circle and pushes the Master’s chest, his fingers surprised to feel the hard bone of the Master’s chest. There is no muscle there, no fat. The Master almost loses his balance. He stomps his feet in a wild fit now and twists his body round and round screaming, “I said you couldn’t enter the circle! I said you couldn’t enter the circle!” His tone changes from infantile to an ominous sort of calm confidence. The students take note. “Ooo just try to enter my circle again! I dare you! Come on now! Really! Just TRY ME!” he threatens, his voice lifting for the words TRY ME into a high squeal, a pitch that would’ve sent the three boys into fits of laughter if the Master’s eyes hadn’t grown so eerily wide. Two of them suppress smiles. The word faggot pops into their minds for a moment, but they know not to speak.
The girl pulls the boy who breached the circle back with more force than she’d expected, as if feeding off the Master, almost throwing him to the ground. She is stronger than he is. They are both aware of this. I do not know her name and I am sure it would be hard for me to spot her on the street so many years later now, but I know what she is feeling in this moment because all 37 bodies in the frame are feeling the same feeling. Fear. Thirty-seven abdomens feel something stirring around the Circle. The soft tissue shivers for what is to come, their eyes watching. “Lay off him, ok? It’s not funny,” she screams, landing a heavy fist on the boy who breached the circle. He does not want to admit she is stronger than him and tries not to wince. The boy who breached the circle is not smiling anymore. The boy who pushed down the thought is not smiling and never wanted to be smiling. He wonders if he can leave without humiliation and knows he can’t.
“What if he’s—?” She froze there.
According to Wikipedia, a people is a plurality of persons considered as a whole, as is the case with an ethnic group or nation.
Sunday was the big bathtub shoot. On Monday I was already thrilled, smelling the sweet smell with every commute, every outing.
But on Tuesday, November 8th, 2016, Donald J. _______ became the next __________ of the ________ States. I lied in bed as the map turned red and didn’t know what or who or where or when. In other words, donuts not funny anymore. Nothing funny anymore. Not donuts nothing anymore. Anymore donuts funny nothing. Funnymore donuts no not anything. Do. Nothing. Funny. Got it?! Understand?
I wanted to wear them like flotation devices. I wanted to arrange them in a circle (I did not want them to break) and sit in the middle. I wanted everyone to enter my circle, but I didn’t know what would happen if they did.
My car is a circle. My trunk, a circle within a circle. The buckets, another.
“Come on,” the boy who breached the Circle says to the girl.
“You come on,” she says.
Two friends have joined the other two boys and the outer circle of 37 now approaches 50. The camera does not fully encapsulate the crowd. In that sense, this story is a mystery.
Little pokes and touches have been peppered in with relative frequency since the Circle was first broken by the boy with the fingertips digging into his shoulder. The boys are all on a team now, stepping blatantly into the Circle when the Master is focused on another member of the squad.
“I TOLD YOU NOT TO COME INTO MY CIRCLE! I TOLD YOU TO STAY OUT!”
“This isn’t funny anymore,” she says to the team around the Circle, whose collective weight has surpassed the 1000-pound mark.
“You’re not funny anymore!” the Master screams at her.
“Me? What? I’m trying to help you.”
“You need to get away from my circle!” he screams at her.
“What the fuck is wrong with you!” she screams and quickly cups her mouth. Why did she say that?
“You’re what’s wrong with me. You’re not getting away from my circle. You can help by getting the hell away! Got it? This is my circle and you can’t enter!”
Wikipedia, according to Wikipedia, is a free online encyclopedia that, by default, allows its users to edit any article. The word, encyclopedia, according to Wikipedia, comes from the Greek enkyklios, which means “circular” or “recurrent,” and paideia, which means “education.” Together, the phrase insinuates the idea of “complete knowledge,” or a circle around all that is known.
What Wikipedia doesn’t know is how the Master has been trained to see the world. Only how he acts. What Wikipedia doesn’t know is how the girl, who does not see the world in the same way as this story, sees the world.
Wednesday morning, referred to by some as 11/9, was quiet. In class I didn’t say anything but hugged my friend Naima with all the strength I could muster. Her arms shook around my shoulders. I tightened my grip and shook with her.
Laughing out loud at the Master’s shrill screams, two of the boys enter the circle from opposite sides, grabbing the Master’s four limbs. Their big fingers reach around his wrists and ankles like children holding chalk. They lift him high, his body flailing, his larynx tearing, and drop him to the ground. No one was ready for the way his head whipped back and clapped against the bricks. Even the old camera picked up a wicked echo. Everyone is still, many with hands over their mouths. He does not move for six full seconds and then began to flail again. His screams of pain and propriety come as relief to those who heard his skull slap against Storke Plaza.
“My Circle! Get! Get!” he shouts, the sharp edges of his voice slurred. “Circle is not yours!”
One of the new boys around the Circle rears back his leg and swings a Timberland boot into the Master’s ribs. The girl holding the boy who first breached the Circle hears a loud crack and then a horrible series of coughs. She expects blood but there is none. The other four boys look to the boy who breached the circle like a leader. He shakes off her hand and she turns her head to the crowd. After the coughing fit, the screaming Master’s tone shifts again. “Wait, just stop! Stop!!” he screams in an entirely different voice. It could be said that he “broke character” in this moment, though neither ever felt like a character to me. Each is too human to have been a character, if that makes any sense. That hint you get from time to time on prank videos or webcam rants that the whole thing is a hoax, an act—no, that feeling is absent watching the Master of the Circle as he begs for mercy.
Another boy lands the toe of his boot just above the eye, splitting the skin like a boxer. The blood seems to pop rather than run from the gash. The boy who wondered if the Master would cry suddenly vomits his breakfast onto three pairs of shoes and sprints away through the crowd before the boys can turn on him. Splattered bits hit the Master, who lies flat now, fingers spread and vulnerable. One boy thinks about stomping on them. Stomping and twisting.
The girl knows she cannot take all four of them at once, though she considered it. She knows that they could literally tear her limb from limb. They would do more than that. What she doesn’t know about is the camera in Storke Tower. The only person who knows about the camera is, of course, the Master of the Circle. It’s not funny anymore, he thinks. But was it ever?
Just try to enter my circle now. I dare you. See what happens when you try.
I sat in my room for hours looking at the walls, then at books, at pages, then at loose change and bills, then a computer screen. I looked at articles and videos and Facebook, but only when I dug deeper did I find something that made sense to me. I saw a low quality video at a high angle with small people fighting in concentric circles. It felt right. Or maybe true is a better word.
I wanted to make something that made sense like that. That’s what I needed to do: make a donut film that made sense.
I opened the legs of a tripod and centered it behind my dining room table. I positioned three clamp lights adjacent to each other at high angles on the pipe running along the ceiling’s edge. There would be a slight shadow under my nose. I could already see it.
I pressed record.
I dumped all seven buckets over the table, one at a time. The table, coincidentally, was a perfect circle. I’m not making that part up.
The donuts fell off the edge and out of frame in abundance. It was lovelier than lovely. They fell into nothing. Frosting and fruit loops and high fructose corn syrup spread across the wood, falling, falling.
I ate the first donut very fast. Peanut Butter and Chocolate frosting caked the corners of my mouth. Heavy, rich. Just the way I like it. The next was cream-filled. I could feel it caught in my mustache hairs and wondered if it looked silly in the frame. I ate the third, a Maple Bacon Bar. The fourth, Captain Crunch-covered. The fifth, Grape Dust and Lavender Sprinkles.
I felt a deep calm eating the sixth. It was a more subdued version of the feeling one gets when descending in a plane or rollercoaster. I ate another and began to slow down. My body listed its complaints on the inside of my torso. It knocked and whined. It feared. It didn’t understand. That was the point. I felt my body bulge and swirl down in distant places I hadn’t felt in a while.
Sugar clotted under my tongue and deep into my gums. My mustache and beard dripped bits and pieces from up to three or four donuts ago. My sight was dimming.
I thought of the film as I ate. The richness of the picture in the frame must have been the feeling of it, I thought, as opposed to the content. There was a violence and a luxury to it. Or no, maybe a nausea. I wasn’t sure. I ate another. And then another.
My stomach hurt immensely by the fourteenth donut. This was only a fraction of those covering the table. And I wouldn’t be done at the end of the table. I would be done when I was done.
Michael Kaplan is a filmmaker and student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. His stories can be found on the walls in select subways and malls. His films are on Vimeo under the name Michael Kaplan.
This story is as close to non-fiction as I've ever come. The video described at the end does not exist, but also does, and is on my Vimeo under the title Squeeze with Ease. In dire times, the sick and nauseous seem to vomit their thoughts like never before. My vomit is Squeeze with Ease; my vomit is “The Master.”
Where have you lived—states, countries, etc.?
I've lived in California, Oregon, The Federal District of Mexico (DF), and Havana, which is more of a province or a city than a state.
What is your favorite flavor of ice cream? Any toppings?
My favorite ice cream flavor is Chocolate Therapy by Ben and Jerry's.
With whom, living or dead, would like to share dinner and why?
I'd love to have an extended conversation with Edgar Mitchell, the former US astronaut hoping to release top secret files on our communication with extraterrestrials. Maybe the answer to why is that I'd like to know what he knows, or maybe I just want to see whether or not he's lost his mind. In any case I think I could count on him to talk my ear off, which is my preferred mode of dinner conversation.
followed by Q&A
He stands under the patio umbrella, hiding in a penumbra of darkness. Beyond the dock, jet skis and motor boats zoom across the bay. Clifford's wife, as usual, has dressed him. Bermuda shorts. A Life is Good T-shirt. He looks at his white legs and knobby knees then glances once more at his brother-in-law standing over the grill. Meat on the barbecue hisses and crackles. A hand the size of a baseball mitt grabs his wrist.
"Beautiful day, Cliffy. Don't ya think?"
For thirty years, the two of them have pilgrimaged back to Miami. Though his wife looks forward to the visits, Clifford dreads them. Along with colonoscopies and prostate exams, these trips are categorized and shelved. The list is long.
Things he hates. Things he must endure. Things he must suffer through.
"You mind running in for another platter, Cliffy?"
The house is as large as a hotel, the pool Olympic-sized. A blue stripe painted on the bottom proceeds endlessly. Though Clifford is shrinking by the minute, the world around him grows at exponential speed.
"And while you're at it, grab a few more brewskis, will ya?"
For thirty years the same conversation and the same menu. The only variation is his brother-in-law's date. This year's girlfriend seems incapable of sitting still. A brunette. Fortyish. Even as she speaks, she's straightening the outdoor furniture, tucking in chairs, smoothing cushions. Her tongue smacks the roof of her mouth while the brother-in-law preens. He's yakking nonstop, lassoing the air with the tongs, his sneakered toe tap tapping the floor. A heron dips into the bay, its beak probing, its wings flapping. Smack. Tap. Flap.
They're talking jobs. Movies. The weather. To his right and his left, other families are out on their lawns. Clifford notices their facial expressions, their hand gestures, the way they touch and interact. It must be eighty degrees in the shade, the heat undulating in waves, the air hazy. It's like he's gazing through a frameless window with slightly imperfect glass. Everything's mildly distorted. A crooked smile. A too-loud laugh.
Then someone somewhere calls his name. He ricochets from room to room and finds his wife in the kitchen. She's tossing the salads, putting the finishing touches on the cupcakes. Her blonde hair is perfectly swept in a tasteful chignon. Her lipstick is drawn a perfect pink. Even the swirls of icing on her apron look deliberate, like a Jackson Pollack pastiche.
"Did you meet the new girlfriend?" she asks.
He scurries for a witty reply, some clever banter. Clifford's a Professor of Modern Poetry at a small but distinguished college. Words have always been his default mode, his stronghold against the storm. Instead his thoughts fly like birds. An idea takes hold only to disappear moments later. One minute he is watching his wife's hand attack a cantaloupe, her elbow rigid, her mouth set. The next minute he's inside the melon, hollow-boned and scooped.
"I have no idea what my mother's doing," she says. His wife swipes a drop of perspiration from her forehead. " I'm juggling knives here. Mother's supposed to be helping. Why isn't she helping?"
The sudden ringing of the doorbell makes them both cringe. While his wife's mother has yet to make an appearance, Clifford's mother, as usual, has arrived early.
His wife shoots him a look. "You know who it is. I'm up to my elbows in coleslaw and Jell-O molds. You know how the door works. Just twist the knob and pull."
Bracing himself with the china platter, Clifford walks slowly to the foyer. In the distance, his father-in-law shouts Homerun! All at once he's twelve years old and back in grade school. He looks through the peephole first.
And there she is. Old age has been kind to Eunice. It's a gift, he imagines, that balances out the shortcomings. Even when she was young, his mother's face was cross-hatched like a waffle iron, her body a solid lump. Her hair, as long as he could remember, was a nest of curls, pinned and skewered into submission. In the last few years, a corona of white has circled the gray. As always, she bends forward and offers him her cheek.
Things that embarrass him. Things he's ashamed for finding embarrassing.
"Nu? How's by you?" A casserole the size of a barge is in her hands. Turning sideways, she negotiates the door. "As you can see, I brought a noodle pudding."
"Mother," says Clifford. "You shouldn't have bothered."
"This year I don't have to bother?" she always replies.
He closes his eyes and feels the air being vacuumed out of the room. Then elbowing her way past him, his mother plods down the hall in her support hose and orthopedic shoes. A minute later he hears her voice boom from the kitchen. He winces as cabinets door are thrown open and slammed shut.
His wife, her voice a little higher pitched now, a touch of frenzy piercing the calm, calls out once more. "Honey, can you please look in on Mother? She was changing her clothes an hour ago. Can you check on her, please?"
All these years and he still gets lost. Navigating the mansion is like solving an Escher maze. He creeps through the corridors following the volume of the TV until he finds the den. Front and center is the world's largest flat screen. His father-in-law is watching a baseball game. His huge blocky head pivots left and right just to take it all in. Clifford can see the acne on the pitcher's face.
"Who's winning?" he asks.
"Not us," says his father-in-law.
Clifford has published in well-respected journals and earned tenure. His father-in-law has made a fortune buying car dealerships. He parses RBIs and ERAs.
"Any chance of a pennant this year?"
Clifford gets shot another look. His eyes on the screen, he retreats once again. Soon he is negotiating a staircase, a landing, and the second floor. He trots past the guest wing, a laundry and three consecutive bathrooms. Finally, he arrives at the master bedroom. He knocks three times and waits. Then he knocks three times again. Slowly—after clearing his throat and making as much noise as he can muster—Clifford opens the door.
His mother-in-law Berta is sitting on the edge of her bed. For an instant, it dawns on him how much his wife resembles her. The perfectly upturned nose. A rope of pearls. Her platinum hair tastefully coiffed in a chignon. Only instead of a cotton sweater and slacks, Berta wears a cherry red suit. A large gilt mirror hangs over the bureau. She is looking straight at it, her mouth gaping like a trout's, her hands twisting in her lap.
Clifford's heart lurches. He inches closer, repeating her name to the rhythm of his pulse. Berta. Berta. Berta. When he reaches the bed, he sits down next to her. Then for a full minute, elbow to elbow, they stare at their reflections. A loose thread dangles from her skirt. Two three buttons are undone.
"Is that my grandmother?" she asks. Berta points to the mirror. "The woman in the mirror looks just like her." Then she turns to him without a hint of recognition. "Why on earth is my grandmother wearing red?" she asks. "My grandmother never wore red."
Things that terrify him. Things that leave him sweaty and chilled at the same time.
A vein in his forehead throbs. His pulse somersaults then throws in a backflip and a cartwheel for good measure. Clifford observes life from the cheap seats. A chuck of distance buffers the here and now, provides respite from chaos. But something is happening. There is no doubt in his mind that this moment is pivotal, that he's thrust right in the middle of the stage, that the rest of their lives will somehow hinge on what takes place in that room.
Then all at once his mother-in-law's face transforms. Her eyes light up. Her knees bounce as she claps her hands. "Sometimes I'm the silliest goose," she says. "For goodness sake, it must be Christmas!"
Clifford never knows what triggers the memory. Sometimes it's the smell of sea salt. Sometimes it's the sight of a full moon hovering on the horizon. Sometimes it's nothing more than the pop of an opened beer. But once again it returns like an uninvited guest. Like a tinge of heartburn or a cramp in his foot, the memory haunts him.
He was six years old. His mother disappeared for hours each day to sew draperies in a Hialeah warehouse. Years later, news of her tailoring skills would bring customers to their home. But back in 1964, his mother was just a steaming cup of coffee left on the counter, a neat and folded sandwich bag for lunch.
His father was a writer. Brooding. Whiskery. Thin. And his main job, as far as Clifford could tell, was whisking him off to school and picking him up hours later. While his mother cooked and cleaned, his father holed up in their bedroom, boring through bluebooks, trying to write The Great American Novel. Each day he filled the wastebasket with scrunched sheets and each evening his mother emptied it. His father wasn't much of a talker. He wrote. He listened to the radio. He took long walks every night while Eunice finished her sewing and the boy was supposedly asleep.
Then one morning, he cornered Clifford with a surprise. Instead of heading to Miss Kelly's first grade classroom, his father pointed the car in another direction. Even at six years old, he could tell they were driving the wrong way. Neighborhoods with houses became strip shopping centers. The highway was soon dotted with fast food restaurants and pawnshops. Then there wasn't much of anything at all.
"We're going to Key West," said his father. "Your old man's planning a surprise."
Clifford didn't like surprises. He tasted his breakfast cereal a second time.
"There's a lunar eclipse," said his father. "Let me tell you, they don't happen every day of the week. Yes siree, Bob! No big city pollution. Only the stars."
The remembrance, like most, is hazy fifty years later. Telescopes lining up and down a beach. The moon a golden ring in the sky. And afterwards, the two of them sitting on stools. Over their heads, a net with starfish billowed in the breeze. A singer twanged a guitar. On the rim of his ginger ale was a tiny Chinese umbrella that opened and closed when he pushed the stick.
And his father—a taciturn man, a man who didn't speak when a shrug would suffice—was the life of the party. He'd never seen him so relaxed! Clapping strangers on the back. Making up the words to songs he didn't know and twirling waitresses around the floor.
He had no idea what time they got home. The roads were empty. The street lights dim. He remembered falling asleep in the back seat and waking up to the sounds of his parents arguing. The next day his mother drove him to school, and he never saw his father again.
It takes him a minute to figure out who he is. Where he is. Miami. A chaise lounge. The patio. The brunette is leaning over him with a can of Coors in her hand.
"The coast is clear," she says. "Your mother's in the kitchen."
To his shock, the brunette has made a second appearance. Instead of wearing jeans and a golf shirt, his brother-in-law wears chinos and a tie. In his hand, a pair of tongs abuses a chicken cutlet. His brother-in-law is watching his cholesterol. A year ago, he had no idea what cholesterol was.
Clifford looks at them and blinks. Then he grabs the arms of the lounge chair and slowly pulls himself up.
Inside the house, the world is slightly askew, familiar yet somehow different. Every square inch is covered with yellow post-its. Above the faucets, one says hot and one said cold. Another says This is the toilet. Flush the toilet. Like a Hansel and Gretel trail, they mark the walkways. Turn off the light. Turn here to find the kitchen. This is the way to the stairs. This is the laundry. DO NOT GO INTO THE LAUNDRY.
In the den, his father-in-law is watching TV. The score is tied and bases are loaded. Clifford sits down on the couch, drums his fingers, and pretends to watch.
Over the course of twelve months, his father-in-law seems to have shrunk. He sits curled in his armchair like a parenthesis. The hand holding a potato chip aims for his mouth and misses. Though Clifford knows that his mother-in-law Berta has had a rough year, he has no idea the toll it has taken on others.
More peculiar still are the strangers slinking up and down the halls. Avoiding the kitchen, he loops the house. He overhears whispers of Spanish conversation. Sees bits of sleeves and parts of pant cuffs. He knows that the in-laws have hired help. An aide to watch Berta. A full-time housekeeper. A driver. But it's as if a household of ghosts has taken over the residence, sliding through the corridors with barely a sound.
A woman in some sort of uniform suddenly appears. White polyester pants and shirt. Sneakers. A pitcher of iced tea in her hand. "Quiere algo de tomar?" she asks. "You want?"
He waves his hand and like a car in reverse backs up once more. He wanders from room to room lost but not lost, hoping and not hoping to find his way. The living room, like most living rooms in grand homes, is seldom used. He feels his feet sink into the plush carpeting. Then he gazes through the large glass windows. A line of cars is parked in the driveway. Beyond the driveway is a pair of black iron gates. He looks up. Speakers puncture the ceiling. Like a clarion from the clouds, his wife's voice booms. "I can use some help," she yells. "Can someone give me some help?"
Things he avoids. Things he has no intention of doing.
The couch, when he sits down, cocoons him. He wonders how long he can get away sitting on the couch. Closing his eyes, he feels his lids quiver. Sights and sounds grow fuzzy as his pulse slows. He barely hears the audible swish of another body. He knows who it is instantly.
"In a certain light you look just like your father," says Eunice. She takes his hand.
No matter how hard he tries to bury the past, it keeps surfacing. Once he thought aging meant decrepit knees and balding scalps. But now that he's approaching the finish line, all he can think about is the starting block. A tropical night. A door slamming. An empty chair at the dinette table. He glances at his mother.
"I picture him living in another city," he says. "With a different wife and a different family. A well-respected press has published his book. His social circle is small but selective. He fancies himself a connoisseur of fine wine."
He looks off into the distance as if the image were just beyond his reach. His father's fingertips are stained with ink. His wispy hair is white.
Eunice pats him on the knee. "That's your dream, boychik. Never his."
The three of them are sitting in the rental car driving from the airport. Clifford's son is cursed with his father's pallor but blessed with the in-laws' height.
"The key," says Clifford, "is to keep moving."
Turning in the front seat, his wife shoots him a look.
Their son is taking a year off before applying to grad school. The boy calls it his growth year. He needs to tap his inner resources, he tells his parents. To wait for inspiration to take hold. In one poorly conceived gesture, Clifford's son has made himself a sitting duck. Now he's just as obligated to go to Miami as the rest of his family.
Clifford presses the buzzer to the iron gate. "Your mother commandeers the kitchen," he explains. "Your uncle and your aunt hang out on the patio. Your Grandpa sits in front of the TV." He makes lazy circles with his finger. "Just keep moving."
Each time Clifford glances into the rearview mirror, the boy is fidgeting and squirming. The kid's a nonstop whirl of body parts, a mystery, a puzzle missing a piece. There is no doubt in Clifford's mind that his son takes drugs. A child can drain your wallet and your heart.
Things that stupefy him. Things that leave him addled and confused.
"How's Grandma Berta?"
"Happy," says Clifford. "It's like the nursing home is a cruise ship and she's the entertainment director. Wearing diapers. Talking to a list of imaginary friends."
His wife theatrically wipes an eye. "That's so unfair. Mother was perfection. Our rock.... our glue. The holiday won't be the same."
They turn into an empty driveway. The large house on the bay seems sepulchral as they enter the great hall. Clifford listens for the TV blaring but instead there's silence. The staff, he is told, has been pared down. There is no whispering, no pattering of slippered feet. Clifford feels blind as he gropes his way toward the TV room. The post-its, he notices, are gone from the walls.
To his surprise, he finds his father-in-law and mother Eunice sitting on the couch. A Scrabble board and tiles are spread on the coffee table. They are wearing matching sweat pants and sweat shirts. Designer no less. The words Fila Fila Fila run across their chests and up and down their legs.
"We've just come back from our constitutional," says Eunice. Like a gigantic dandelion, his mother's helmet of frizzy hair is now entirely white. "First we exercise our bodies," she says. Then she points to the game. "Then we exercise our minds."
His father-in-laws' cheeks are ruddy, his hair tousled. Though disheveled, he looks healthy and vigorous. There's a grass stain on a knee.
"Eunice lets me win," he says, grinning from ear to ear.
On his mother's wrist a pseudo watch is blinking. "We're neck and neck on our steps," says Eunice. "I figure that cleaning up dinner will get me to 10,000."
It's his wife's turn to hover in the shadows. It is as if someone has punctured a vein and drawn the lifeblood out. Clifford spins in circles, glancing in turn at his wife, his mother, his father-in-law, his son. It's left to Eunice, as usual, to take over. She springs up from the couch and covers her grandson with kisses. Before the boy can utter a word of protest, she grabs his elbows and positions him next to the old man.
"I'd be careful if I were you," says Eunice. "Your grandfather has a cheat sheet. Knows all those tricky two letter words."
While the women head to the kitchen, Clifford wanders to the patio. The sun is directly overhead. Diamonds dance on the limestone floor while the waters of the pool shimmer. He covers his eyes. It hurts to look.
"We were wondering when you'd show up," says his brother-in-law.
The newlyweds have wasted no time getting pregnant. While the brunette is wielding an enormous stomach, the brother-in-law looks concave. It's as if they've transferred their prospective weights. As usual they are standing over the grill.
"I need a beer," says Clifford. "You got a beer? On second thought, leave me a six-pack with a hemlock chaser."
He walks over to the water's edge. It's eight maybe ten feet deep. A few yards away sits a pair of propane tanks. Why, he wonders, does nothing stand still? He searches his pockets for a match.
"I guess things look a bit topsy turvy from your perspective," says the brother-in-law. Next to the grill is a large carton filled with papers. One by one he grabs a bunch and tosses them into the fire.
"My mother?" says Clifford. "Your father?"
Things that make his skin crawl. Things that make him want to jump into a vat of hydrogen peroxide until he's bleached clean.
The brunette steps forward. "You know those imaginary friends Berta's been talking about at the home? Well it seems that they're not so imaginary."
All three watch the papers curl and crisp. The ashes toss and turn with the breeze, slowly making their way upward.
"The two of us cleared out Mom's stuff so Dad didn't have to," says the brother-in-law. "Turns out she's had quite the social life all these years. All that time Dad was selling cars, Mom was greasing someone else's dipstick."
Clifford points at the grill. "Is this the evidence?"
It's the brunette's turn to throw in a handful. "Love letters," she says. "Hotel room receipts. You name it."
By now the grill's a fucking bonfire. Flames are leaping, cinders are sparking, a red hot heat blasts their faces.
"Dad hasn't a clue," says the brother-in-law." And if you're smart, you won't tell your wife. Some things should stay secret, you know? My sister put Berta on a pedestal. What good is the truth gonna do?"
Clifford walks back inside the house. Buttery smells and women's voices waft from the kitchen. Once more he peeks inside the den. The Scrabble game is abandoned while the TV blares. Both his son and his father-in-law are laughing, gesturing, finishing each other sentences with an ease that Clifford both envies and disdains. He opens and closes one door after another until he reaches his destination. Again the couch envelopes him. His mind slows as his thoughts drift. Before long he hears a second audible swish.
"He was an alcoholic, wasn't he?" says Clifford.
His mother's fingers, when they hold his, are gnarled and arthritic. He wonders if she is still able to sew.
"An alcoholic who suffered a horrible death," he throws out like a bad card.
Once he gets going, it's hard to stop.
"Was it AIDS?" he asks? "Or pneumonia? A car accident if he were lucky and it was quick."
The fissures in his mother's face deepen. They're like crevasses on a mountain or a freshly raked field. "I had no idea where you were that day," says Eunice. "Your father never bothered to call. It was the longest day of my life."
He pictures those papers burning on the patio, an ashen phoenix spiraling toward the sky.
"All these years I thought he abandoned us," says Clifford. "Picked a smarter family. A better-looking family. A more interesting family. But that never happened, did it?" He stops to catch his breath then sputters forward. "You threw him out, didn't you? You protected me by throwing him out."
"The door was always open," says Eunice." I told him that if he sobered up he'd be welcomed home."
After all the food is boxed and the proffered cheeks are pecked, Clifford returns to the chaise lounge. The patio is empty. A faint cloud of smoke lingers. As the sun sets, the moon sits plump. The blue line in the pool is barely visible, stretching like a runway to the stars.
Over and over the conversation with his mother loops. The scene is wooly, dreamlike, life seen through a cataract-clouded lens. Closing his eyes, he replays the words. Were they real, he wonders? Did his mother actually sit by his side and clutch his hand?
Then suddenly he realizes that it doesn't make a difference. He glances at the brown spots spattering his arms, his knobby knuckles, the mooned crescents of his ridged nails. Then shrugging his shoulders, he sighs.
Things he can live with. Things he can get used to. Things he can learn to accept.
Maybe, he decides, growing old isn't so bad after all. Maybe aging merges disparate times and places. Maybe memories shift and sway as the Earth moves. For even though the world is slightly atilt, we cling to constants. Pain fades. Hope sticks. Mothers endure.
Marlene Olin's short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, The Water~Stone Review, Upstreet Magazine, Steam Ticket, The American Literary Review, and Poetica. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award and is both a Pushcart and a Best of the Net nominee.
I'm interested in the fluidity of time. As an older writer, I find that memories of the past are increasingly subjective.
Where have you lived—states, countries, etc.?
Three states. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, raised in Miami, Florida, and educated at the University of Michigan. For the past twenty-five years, I've headed to Jackson, Wyoming every summer. It's the yin to Miami's yang.
What is your favorite flavor of ice cream? Any toppings?
I'm an equal opportunity eater.
With whom, living or dead, would like to share dinner and why?
My Dad. It's been over thirty-five years since my father died. We have a lot to catch up on.
followed by Q&A
Paul Kingman's Goal-line Stand
When the sirens first sounded, most of us were already in bed. We were supposed to be asleep. Our parents didn't want us to hear the sirens getting closer, or the moment when they become so loud and close it's like they're inside your ears and you know they're not heading anywhere else but right toward you. We weren't supposed to see the flashing lights smeared on our window panes from the fire truck and the ambulance and the police cars.
Most of all, our parents didn't want us to see that something had happened at the Kingman's house. But we did, and we knew the same thing they did. It had to be about Paul.
As the emergency vehicles gathered around the Kingmans' front yard, located between the McCuskers and the Heelys, directly across the street from the Carters, some of our parents stepped outside to see the commotion. Maybe they wondered if the annual neighborhood cookout, just a few days away, would have to be cancelled. Maybe they gathered and talked about how that would be a shame instead of talking about all the stories we knew they had, stories we weren't supposed to know, ones they wouldn't be talking about down on the street, ones told in whispered half-sentences when our parents didn't think we were listening.
Dr. Heely, a dermatologist who gave Brian Carter the pills for his poison oak that made him pee orange, stood on his front lawn in flannel pajamas, his long thinning hair blowing away from his scalp like a flag in the wind. There used to be a Mrs. Heely, but she lives in another state now with a new last name. Mr. and Mrs. McCusker held hands at the end of their driveway, their free hands idly clutching empty wine glasses. Maybe they were thinking about when Mr. McCusker had that tumor on the side of his head and about the meshed mask they used to bolt him to the radiation machine. Nearby, Mr. Vaughn might have been thinking about his wife who died of mad-cow-of-all-things, which was what our parents called it, and Mrs. Green might have thought about her son who fought in Iraq and now he jumped out of planes to fight fires out in Arizona. Jan Freeney was probably remembering when the police cars were circled around her house, when her husband barricaded himself in the attic with a hunting rifle and threatened to shoot her until the cops talked him down and how now she visits him at some hospital for other people whose minds aren't right. Then there was whoever else was stirred from sleep or the Late Late Show and came out to see, standing hands on hips or hands buried deep in pockets, jaws shifted just to the left or the right, their own stories rolling through their heads. No one could see the Kingmans, but everyone knew they were there in the middle of whatever was happening on their front lawn as paramedics scrambled around and policemen secured perimeters and firemen realized there was no fire and did whatever else it is they do.
Most of us kids looked down from upstairs windows, high enough we could see those medics circling around someone on the front lawn. Not high enough, though, to see fully over the ambulance and the fire engine, not high enough to keep the flashing lights from getting in our eyes. Those lights kept us from seeing into second floor windows of the Kingmans' house to find out if Richie Kingman, Paul's younger brother who was our age, was looking out too. Richie had seen cops at his door before, for his other brother Greg, Paul's twin. But that was a few years before and Greg was gone, another piece of history people must have been mumbling about down on the street.
Whatever had happened to Paul ended eventually. By that time most of us had crawled back into bed and drifted into sleep deep enough to melt the edges of the night, to forget how it had all ended, except to remember that no one got any answers. If our parents knew anything, they didn't say over breakfast and, as it was summer, they sent us out to play as soon as they heard the clink of a spoon in an empty cereal bowl or the thud of an empty juice glass on the table top.
When we all gathered that morning in the Heelys' back yard—Scott Heely, Liz Rash from down the street, Brian Carter, Matt McCusker, Doug and Missy Gould from the next street over, Joe Ryan from the top of the street, and Garrett Bradley from the last house on the right—everyone asked Richie what happened.
"Nothing," he said. "Scott, go get the wiffle ball stuff. Let's play already."
"There wasn't a fire," Liz said. "We would have seen that."
"Nope," Richie replied.
"Maybe he doesn't want to talk about it," Matt said.
"But what's the big deal?" Doug asked, and Mark shrugged and repeated, "Yeah, what's the big deal?"
"Was it your parents or something?" Joe asked. "Or did someone crash a car?"
"I didn't see any car," Liz said. "Was it Paul? It was Paul, wasn't it?"
Richie shot her a look. "Shut it, Liz."
"What happened to him?" Brian asked.
"Nothing," he said again, and then, finally, "he hurt his back, that's all."
Richie looked off at the Heelys' shed until Scott told us all to drop it and got the bat and ball. The routine of summer, beautiful for its utter lack of routine, took over and we forgot all about Richie and Paul Kingman and the sirens and lights.
At home that night over dinner tables or with plates on our laps in front of the television, our parents had not forgotten. They too had learned that Paul had been hurt. But they knew more.
It wasn't the first time Paul's name buzzed around the neighborhood. When he was in high school, neighbors spoke of him all the time. Us kids had our own myths about him. Since he was nineteen he seemed both older than we'd ever be and timelessly young. He was also huge, built like one of our old action figures with a thick, clean-cut jawline and arms three-times wider than any of our scrawny legs.
Scott had an old wooden baseball bat in his shed with a bite-shaped semi-circle missing from the barrel of it. The story was that Paul had bit the hunk out on a dare. There's another story where Paul climbed up a ladder after a particularly bad snowstorm and built a huge snowman on his parents' roof only to shoot it down with a homemade potato gun. He broke two windows. Another had Paul and his twin brother Greg beating the crap out of the Dougherty twins from two streets over at some high school party—rumor was it was over a girl—and the Doughertys were so embarrassed they moved to a new town.
There were other stories about Paul and Greg. The twins were linebackers on the high school's football team, an unstoppable pair. Their junior year, Paul would have broken the single-season sack and tackles-for-loss records if Greg hadn't edged him out in both categories. The point of any story about them playing football was how good they were, how they were the best. But there was something that wasn't just a story. That was the night Paul and Greg had been drinking with friends down at the quarry, like they always did, and Paul dared his brother to dive thirty feet down into the water. The quarry was one of those places our parents warned us about because it was dangerous, because under the water were jagged rocks and shallow spots, places you could break a leg or your neck. When Greg leapt from the rock wall, he didn't get far enough out. His friends heard something under the splash when he hit whatever was in the water to hit. There were stories about how loud Paul screamed, about how he dove in after his brother, how his own broken collarbone healed in plenty of time for the next football season. There were babysitters hired all over the street when our parents went to Greg's wake.
So after the sirens and lights, our parents shook their heads or dropped them and mumbled over their dinner plates about poor Paul. Paul who, his senior year, had done so well. Paul who had that Thanksgiving game against Brocton. He had laid low in school, calmed his drinking, but on the field he was a machine. He set the single-season tackle record, but fell just short of the sack and tackles-for-loss marks. Some say his numbers were down late in the season to keep his brother's record intact. Then there was the big Thanksgiving game. Weymouth had never beat Brocton in our short lifetimes. In a defensive struggle, Brocton was down 6-3, but had the ball on the one-yard line, first and goal. Even we remember, since we were in the stands that morning with our parents, paying attention as much as eight- or nine-year-olds could to high school football, how three times Brocton's full back—Sam Rathbone, a name we all knew—tried to get through and Paul crushed him to the ground. Brocton went for it on fourth down and Rathbone, athletic for his size, tried to leap over the pile. Paul met him in midair and you could hear their helmets clash all the way in the bleachers. Their bodies landed and it was Paul standing up first, lip split and bleeding from the collision, celebrating with his team.
You couldn't talk about Paul without talking about the goal-line stand. And so it came up over dinner the night after the sirens, and we remembered, and the memories made us feel better. But then talk turned to Paul's life after graduation, to how he blew his ride at Plymouth State, got kicked off the team a month in for fighting, got booted from school for drinking too much and going to class too little. He'd been home since October, working the counter at Butts ’n Bets II in the town square. People knew he went down to the quarry still, that he went alone, that other teenagers saw him there but he wouldn't talk with them. That was how it had been since last October up through the start of summer.
And now, our parents said, this: the Kingmans' house, the sirens, the commotion. They said words like fell and in traction and his poor parents and since Greg, but before they said too much they sent us away from the table or upstairs to wash up or to play with our sister. What we also heard, among all that, was so much for the cookout.
As if we all silently knew we had been gathering information, everyone but Richie met up a few minutes earlier than we usually did the next morning.
"I guess he fell out of his window," Missy said. "I heard they found a bunch of beer cans in the bushes out front. On the roof too."
"Sounded like he was trying another stunt up there and fell," Doug said.
"Do you think they'll really cancel the cookout?" Scott asked. The McCuskers held the cookout every year. It was adults only, no kids, but we loved it because we all got together and played Kick The Can until dusk and then our parents called us in and we got to eat take-out pizza or Burger King and then we'd always sneak out and try to spy on our parents, see if we could overhear any dirty jokes or see anyone act like a fool. We wanted to see our parents when they weren't seeing us. The babysitters never minded as long as we came home soon enough, and in the end we always got found out anyway, sent home before we could learn anything.
"My folks didn't say anything about cancelling," Matt said. "And no one called to say they weren't coming."
"Maybe they should cancel," Liz said.
"Why?" Missy asked.
"Because I heard he jumped," she said. Somehow Liz always knew so we had to admit it was true. And something in the silence around what she said let us know that Richie had shown up and stood just a few feet away, that he heard what Liz had said.
"I'm not supposed to talk about it," he said before we could ask again. He turned and pointed to his house behind him, to a window on the second floor. "He's been in bed since it happened. There's a big plastic brace around his back. He hurt it pretty bad."
We all just kind of looked at him, not knowing what to say, until Scott finally said, "Should we start planning for tomorrow night? It'd be nice to not get caught spying for once." Scott got a stick and drew diagrams in the dirt of what we would do, as if any of it made any sense, as if any of us were really paying attention.
On the day before the big cookout, we planned but mostly we played wiffle ball or rundown and watched our parents criss-cross the street, delivering casseroles to the Kingmans. Mrs. Green brought tuna and noodles, while Mrs. Carter dropped off baked macaroni and cheese with the stewed tomatoes Brian always picked out. Panel vans showed up delivering flowers from people who only lived a few houses away. Inside our homes, our parents would grab us and hug us too long or say things like How are you doing? with some tense quiet in their voice, like the answer was important. They opened the newspaper in front of them at the table but their eyes didn't scan the page or they skipped the sports section. They spaced out in front of the television and didn't notice when we changed it away from the nightly news. Our parents called one another on the phone and talked quietly, too quiet to hear. And though we knew they were talking about Paul, we couldn't figure out what they were still talking about. If they knew, like we did, what happened, then what else was there to know? And yet they still talked, still worried, still wondered, still filled their hands with Pyrex dishes and mugs or the curve of the chair's arm or the soft cloth of our shirts around our small frames.
Despite all their quiet talk, the cookout happened like always. We played Kick The Can, the rattle of the aluminum an electric crackle rippling over the concrete every time it was struck, freeing the kids caught in jail, while inside parents got ready. When we were called in we watched our mothers search for the right earrings and our fathers catch the first few innings of the Red Sox game, and we watched them leave.
Since we couldn't meet at the Heelys, Richie said we should meet in his backyard. It was a big yard, a wide-open space where we threw Nerf footballs around in the fall and built snow forts in winter. His parents went to the party like everyone else's, and none of us asked how they were or how Richie was and if they were okay. Instead we launched right into our plan, which wasn't a plan so much as exactly what we'd done every year before. At the far edge of Richie's yard, as far from the house as we could get, we entered the woods. They ran between our street and the next one over and so they came right up behind the McCuskers. We walked quietly, slowly, trying to avoid the snap of a branch underfoot.
We always hid behind a stand of high bushes that ran between the woods and the McCuskers' yard. The gaps between the branches opened just wide enough that we could see what they were up to. Picnic tables lined one side of the yard across from the fenced-in pool, with a long table full of food and drinks on the end. Everyone had showed, but as we watched we noticed something different from past cookouts. It was quiet. Everyone was talking, but people had their shoulders hunched over like they were bracing for something about to happen. No music drifted from a boombox propped in one of the back windows of the house. We always felt a strange tension on these nights, the strain of trying not to get caught, but now it had bled into the party somehow. We heard one hearty laugh from Mr. Vaughn at something Mr. McCusker had said, but it rang out too loud in the soft hum of the party.
Then we heard Oh no, and for a second we thought it was someone at the party, that we were caught already. That was until we looked around and saw Richie's face inching closer to the bushes trying to see something. We followed his gaze to find his father sitting by the beer cooler taking a long drink from a bottle, not really talking to anyone. Two empty bottles lay on the ground at his feet.
"What?" Liz asked Richie, which Missy shushed.
"My dad shouldn't drink," he said. "He changes when he does."
As if his father had heard Richie, he walked up to the biggest group of people at the party. "Hey," he said to whoever would hear. "Thanks for all the casseroles and flowers and stuff. My wife and I, where's my wife?" He looked around and found Mrs. Kingman on the other side of the yard. Even in the fading light, you could see the red bloom on her face. "There she is, my beautiful wife. We want to thank you for all your well wishes. Paul's going to be just fine. Just an accident, nothing more. Nothing to be worried about."
There was a long silence before Mr. McCusker spoke up. "Great news, Don, great to hear. You think you could help me fire up the grill? If I don't get dogs and burgers going, we'll have a mutiny on our hands." The crowd offered a quiet laugh.
"Sure thing," Mr. Kingman said. He kept talking as he walked over, like he couldn't keep the words in. "You remember that Brocton game, Hank?"
"Who could forget?" Mr. McCusker said back. "Paul's great leap over the top."
We saw Mrs. McCusker shoot him a look. We all braced inside when he said leap. But Mr. Kingman didn't seem like he had noticed. When he reached Mr. McCusker at the grill, though, he just kept walking past, not even stopping to acknowledge Mr. McCusker at all. "I'm sorry, Don, I wasn't thinking," he said as Richie's dad passed, but Mr. Kingman paid him no attention. Instead, he headed toward the chain-link gate around the pool. He walked through it, and everyone turned to watch him. "What are you up to, Don?" Jan Freeney asked. Mrs. Kingman said, "Don, honey, why don't you come back into the yard."
"You know the funny thing, Hank?" Mr. Kingman said, like no one else was around. "I don't remember it. That game. Not even a little. I remember numbers. 13 tackles. 6 to 3. First win against Brocton in 10 years. But I can't remember the game." He gazed down at the water. "Funny, isn't it? For all the good memory does, it won't let you hold onto the stuff you really want to hold onto, the best stuff."
Maybe we would have watched those adults stand there, silent and motionless, all night. But instead we heard branches snap nearby and saw Richie walking away. "Richie," someone hissed and he stopped, turned around, and in a clear voice, said "I remember. Come on." We knew two things: that our parents had heard us, and that we would follow him anyway.
By the time we got out of the woods and back into Richie's yard he was already standing in the middle of it with the Nerf football in hand. There was a long line behind him scratched into the dirt. He put Scott and Liz and Brian and Joe on one side with him and Doug and Missy and Matt and Garrett on the other.
"You guys will be Brocton," he said and handed Doug the ball. Normally, the four would have been insulted, but not now. Not with the look on Richie's face and with the sound of our parents' footsteps on the driveway. They were coming to collect us. We knew what we had to do.
It was getting dark, but we could all see each other. Richie and his side lined up, the three in front of him, him the linebacker, and Doug lined up like he was Rathbone behind the players on his side. Doug looked at Richie, and Richie nodded and then turned to his house and offered a wave.
"Set! Hike!" Doug yelled and the two front lines pushed into each other and Doug ran around them into the arms of Richie, who charged at him and took him down hard enough that Doug grunted out a pocket of air.
"Sophomore year, Paul broke thirteen players' fingers in piles. He kept count," Richie said as he stood up.
"What?" Doug asked as he brushed himself off.
"Second down!" Richie yelled. Meanwhile, our parents and all the other adults from our street gathering on the edge of the yard just like the night with the lights and sirens, and in the growing dark we could not make out the expressions on their faces.
We lined up again. "Set!" Doug yelled. "Hike!" This time he went the other way, but Richie met him there like he was supposed to and took him down.
"He put one of those Doughertys in the hospital," he said. "There was no girl. He bet someone he could break the guy's jaw. He laughed when he showed me the money."
Third down came and Doug tried the middle where Richie was waiting to tackle him. As Richie stood up for fourth down, he punched himself in the mouth, trying to make it bleed without success.
"It wasn't Greg dying that made him jump," he said. "That's just a story. Paul's always been like this. He didn't jump to fall. He jumped to land. Because he thought he could."
"Then why are we here?" Liz asked.
Richie turned to face the silhouettes of our parents framing the edge of the yard, all of them waiting for what was next. "This is a better story," he said.
Doug walked up to him then and punched him in the mouth. "Yes, it is," he said, and now when Richie turned to the rest of us we could see the blood spreading through the seams between his teeth.
It was fourth down and we didn't say a word as we lined up. When Doug yelled "Hike!" Scott locked arms with Joe, Missy tackled Liz to the ground, and Brian and Garrett fell over each other while Doug and Richie jumped on top. When they met in the air, hugging as they fell to the ground, we all imagined the crack of helmets clashing. We imagined the glory of the win, of the best stuff remembered. "Weymouth wins!" we shouted. "Weymouth wins!" Richie stood up the way Paul had, but instead of waving at the crowd he waved at the house and to our parents standing twenty feet away.
None of the parents said anything, and since it was full night now we didn't know if all of them were there, if Richie's parents were watching, if any of them still remembered Paul this way. We laid there on the ground cheering, celebrating. The look on Richie's face was wild and bright, lost in the moment. We held onto the feeling we created. Then our parents began walking forward, not to join in on our cheers, but to gather us up and put us to bed. As they approached, their bodies were dark and unidentifiable. All you could hear was the sound of the things in their hands. The clinking of ice in a glass. The crumpling of a paper plate in a clenching fist. Nothing.
Matthew Fiander received his MFA from UNC-Greensboro. His work has appeared in the Yalobusha Review, Waccamaw Journal, Exposition Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Our State Magazine, and elsewhere. He currently teaches English at High Point University in High Point, North Carolina.
When I was a kid, a group of us snuck out once or twice to see if we could spy on our parents at a neighborhood cookout. I don't know what we hoped to find, or if we ever pulled it off without getting caught, but at least I got the beginnings of this story out of it.
Where have you lived—states, counties, etc.?
Three: Massachusetts, Nevada, North Carolina.
What is your favorite flavor of ice cream? Any toppings?
With whom, living or dead, would like to share dinner and why?
Jim Harrison. He seemed like a man who relished a good meal, and no one talks like him in this neighborhood.
Remembering Okla Elliott
May 1, 1977 – March 19, 2017
In November 2011, Press 53 published From the Crooked Timber, the debut short story collection by Okla Elliott. At the time, Okla was thirty-four years old and was the Illinois Distinguished Fellow at University of Illinois where he was working toward his PhD while studying comparative literature and trauma studies, which included extensive research into the Holocaust. His stories were profoundly insightful and touching, and never hinted at any academic advantage the author might have had over most of us. These were blue-collar stories that spoke to everyman.
Those who admired Okla’s drive, his mind, and his passion for learning and sharing, expected him to someday leave a lengthy and impressive body of work. But sometime during his sleep on March 19, 2017, at the age of 39, he left us. We were told it was from an apparent heart attack.
By the time Press 53 published From the Crooked Timber, Okla had already published stories, poems, and essays in numerous literary magazines and journals, and had published three poetry chapbooks; he had also co-edited, with Kyle Minor, The Other Chekhov: A Biography of Michael Chekhov, the Legendary Actor, Director, and Theorist. He would go on to publish more books, including in February 2016, Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide, and at the time of his death he was working on Pope Francis: The Essential Guide.
In the short years following the publication of From the Crooked Timber, Okla had earned his PhD and found employment as an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania, which he claimed on Facebook to love. He also began experiencing some health issues, finding himself hospitalized in 2016 for diabetic acidosis, a serious diabetes complication where the body produces excess blood acids, which brought Okla to near death. And then one evening, while walking home from the grocery store, he was mugged and severely beaten, causing him more problems. But Okla was tough, having grown up in poverty in Argyle, Kentucky, until he was adopted by his sisters and moved to a more stable environment. Hard knocks were nothing new to this guy.
The last time I saw Okla was at the AWP Conference in Chicago in 2012. Okla and couple of his buddies visited me in my hotel room, where he showed me how to open a beer with a Bic lighter. Before we’d even finished our beers, the visit was interrupted by a call from the front desk saying someone had complained about the noise in my room. Okla had a strong, booming voice that I am sure served him well during his time as a professor.
There is so much more to say, but you should read Okla’s take on his life’s journey in his interview at Pif Magazine with Derek Alger from Issue 188, January 2013.
I also encourage you to check out Okla’s debut collection of short fiction, From the Crooked Timber, which is a title inspired by the philosopher Immanuel Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Below, I am sharing one of my favorite Okla stories that I think exhibits his ability to draw the reader in, create mystery and tension, and then deliver a satisfying conclusion.
Okla came from crooked timber, as we all did, and he walked a crooked path, always with his eyes open and his mind set to “absorb.” If you knew Okla, you knew he cared about people being treated fairly and people doing the right thing, whether it was expected of them or not. He was always looking for balance, as most of us are, but Okla wanted the world to be balanced so everyone could pursue their own dreams and desires without someone, be it the individual, group, or government, throwing a sucker punch. He was one of the good guys.
Perhaps Joyce Carol Oates summed it up best when she tweeted a tribute quoting Okla: “ ‘Death…a strangeness we have all been born into.’ (In memoriam to Okla Elliott, “The Cartographers Ink.”) Such a premature tragic loss!”
Kevin Morgan Watson
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief
Prime Number Magazine
The Queen of Limbo
by Okla Elliott
(from From the Crooked Timber)
When I first saw Sylvie, she was standing on the island of an eight-lane road, no place for a girl of ten maybe twelve to be standing. She was wearing a blue sundress. Cornflower blue, like the crayon from when I was a kid. Traffic flow was heavy, so I had to cross a few lanes and missed the chance to pull a u-turn. I ended up whipping around in a Hardee’s parking lot and getting back on the road. I was worried she’d be gone, or worse, in the time it took. But there she stood, blue sundress on a concrete island. I pulled up beside her and put on my hazard lights. Keri, my ex, would have told me I was crazy to do such a thing.
“You okay? Did you get lost?” She looked at me like I was the weirdest thing she’d ever seen. “Are you scared? Trying to get home?” Still no response. “Why don’t you let me give you a ride?”
“I’m not s’posed to talk to strangers. Mom tells me that.”
“You shouldn’t. Your mom’s right. But not this time,” I said.
She looked me over, considering.
“I’m a school teacher,” I lied. “I’ll give you a lift home.”
By this time, cars were waiting behind me, drivers looking over their shoulders to switch lanes, then turning back to lay on their horns. I know how it must have looked to the other drivers, but I didn’t give a damn about them. Sylvie looked at the cars. She looked at my face. I reached back and unlocked the door just behind me, so she wouldn’t have to walk around the car in traffic. She glanced at the honking cars and jumped in fast and slammed the door.
I started driving but left my hazards on until I got up enough speed to be part of the normal flow of traffic. In the drink holder, a waxed fast food cup had little beads of condensation streaking down its slick surface. I took a gulp of Sunkist and Aristocrat gin through the straw and nearly gagged on the waxy flavor the drink had absorbed from the cup. In the rearview mirror I could see the girl squirming, trying to latch her seatbelt.
“Where do you live?”
“I’m not going there,” she announced, as though talking to a dimwitted younger brother. “I’m going to the Pink’s Skate Rink. Tonight’s the limbo contest and whoever wins gets to skate for free all night.” Then, awed at the prospect, “Even the late skate is free for who wins the limbo contest.”
She fidgeted with the latch of the seatbelt.
“It’s broken,” I said.
The girl tossed the seatbelt away from her and climbed into the front passenger seat. Her sundress rubbed against my face as she passed by. Once settled, she clicked her seatbelt into place. I took in her satisfied look and felt calmer for it.
“You know where the rink is?”
“Yeah. It’s only a couple of miles. A long way to walk though.”
“Not so long,” she said and turned to look out the window. “My name’s Sylvie.”
“My real name’s Sylvia, but I like Sylvie better. My mom hates it,” she said. “Now we’re not strangers anymore.”
“Are you hungry, Sylvie? I saw a Hardee’s back there a bit.” I drank more of my Sunkist and gin. No urge to gag this time.
In the Hardee’s drive-thru, I bought us spicy chicken sandwiches and french fries. Sylvie ate noisily beside me as I drove. We threw the wrappers away in the trash can in front of Pink’s Skate Rink. Sylvie marched straight to the counter and blurted out her skate size. She’d already slipped her shoes off, stepping on each heel with her last two steps to the counter.
“I need a five dollar deposit,” a woman with nicotine-stained fingers and dyed-red hair said.
“But I don’t have five dollars.”
“You got to have money for a deposit, and skating ain’t free.”
“I don’t need money. I’m going to win the limbo contest.”
“I’m sure you will, honey,” the woman said as she lit a cigarette.
Keri would be at home surfing the internet, searching for Soviet-era army medals or propaganda posters. That’s all she really ever did anymore—look for more of her Soviet stuff on the internet—except when she was teaching intro to Russian at the university. You could say she was obsessed. She told me once that a woman in the Ukraine was selling her placenta for a thousand American dollars over the internet. “What sort of international mailing restrictions does that violate?” I joked, but she didn’t laugh, just kept clicking thumbnails of Siberian art and pocket watches engraved with the cityscape of Moscow.
“I’ll pay the deposit.” I peeled a five free from the money clip Keri had given me last Christmas, a nice metal job with engraved Cyrillic letters, another one of her internet finds. Sylvie sat in a hard plastic seat and laced her skates.
“I’ve got to get warmed up.”
She skated round the rink and I went to the snack bar to order a fresh Sunkist. I figured I could slip out to the car for a minute and load it up with gin.
“Don’t have Sunkist, man. Is Slice okay?”
“Same thing. Give me a large.”
On the way to the car, I saw a cigarette machine, and though I’d quit smoking back when Keri was pregnant for a few months, I fed the four dollars in and got a pack of Camel filters. In the parking lot, my legs hanging out of the opened car door, I squeezed the plastic half-gallon jug of gin and hotboxed a Camel. I remembered Keri, the way she’d moped around the house for weeks, and me not knowing what to say or do. My drink tasted different, and I thought maybe Sunkist and Slice aren’t the same after all until I remembered that this was a fresh cup and there hadn’t been time yet for the waxy flavor to seep in.
Back inside the rink I sat in an uncomfortable seat and drank. I was getting drunk. The skin on the back of my hands was warm, and the swoosh of skaters going by and that rattle-whir from the ball bearings in the wheels made me lightheaded. I couldn’t think straight. I wondered if I should call Keri, tell her what I was doing. She’d get a kick out of a skate rink. She’d changed her number again, but through the coming gin fog I could remember most of it. It had fives, nines, and zeros. I’d gotten it from her friend Leigh. I told her that Keri still had my DVDs and I needed to get in touch with her to get them back.
“Ain’t you gonna skate, Jasper?” Sylvie was beside me. I hadn’t roller-skated since I was fourteen.
“You know what? I just remembered. I won the limbo contest the last time I was in a roller rink.”
“You won’t win this time.” She sized up her competition. “You’re too big.”
“Oh, I’m not even going to try. I just remembered. That’s all.” I didn’t mention I might vomit orange if I bent over to go under the limbo stick.
I tied the skates too tight but didn’t bother to fix them. Sylvie grabbed my hand and set our pace. The weightless glide around the rink cleared my head, and I knew nothing good could come of me calling Keri. It was just that every time I saw or did something I thought she might enjoy, I wanted to call her and share it. Like telling her made it better, or that if it was good enough what I told her, she’d love me more for it.
“What do you teach?”
“I said, What do you teach?”
“Oh, that. Math. Middle school. Algebra mostly.” It was a reasonable lie. I was working as an actuary at the time. (Actually, I’m an actuary, shot through my head, and I wanted to laugh at how funny it sounded.)
“I hate math.”
“Me too,” I said.
Back in line at the snack bar I asked for a refill, but the cashier told me there were no free refills, so I paid full price. I unlaced my skates and went to the car in sock feet. The asphalt’s warmth was relaxing, a sort of heat massage for my feet. I gave the gin bottle a couple of hearty squeezes and lit a Camel. I stood beside the car, letting my feet absorb the asphalt’s warmth. I hadn’t felt anything so soothing in a long time. I lay down on my back and dragged on my Camel and watched as I puffed the stars in and out of existence. I found the Big Dipper, or Ursa Major as the astronomy textbooks would have it. Who in hell saw those seven stars and thought of a big bear? I wiggled my toes and knew I’d better get back inside. The limbo contest was about to start, and I wanted to watch Sylvie win it. I’d scoped out the other kids and no one looked like they were better on skates than she was. And no one wanted it as badly.
Two employees—a fat teenage girl and an athletic woman of maybe thirty—held the limbo stick on either end as the kids lined up. The first go everyone made it with room to spare. Then the fat girl and the athletic woman lowered it a few inches. All but one made it that time. And so forth. It came down to Sylvie and a young boy with disheveled clothes and hair, like he hadn’t had a bath for a while and was accustomed to it. Sylvie made it under again, and the limbo stick was lowered. The cashier at the snack bar watched, chewing on a Snickers. The dirty boy went under, but on his way up lost his balance and fell with a bony thud. He kicked the floor with his heels and began to cry. Sylvie skated straight to me and threw her arms around my waist, screeching her joy into my chest. I put my hands on her back and felt her ribs through the cornflower blue sundress. The fabric was nice to rub and I felt each rib and the soft space between each rib as my hands rubbed up and down her back. The athletic woman was helping the crying boy get up. He jerked free from her and began skating around the rink, picking up as much speed as he could manage. He just kept pumping his legs, picking up speed, going in circles. Sylvie was dubbed The Queen of Limbo over the loudspeaker. There was much cheering and flashing of lights.
“My mom picks me up when she gets off work.” Sylvie was worrying a loose thread in the hem of her dress between her thumb and forefinger. “I won’t get to stay for the late skate, but maybe I can tell the lady that I want you to be able to skate it in my place. I might not’ve made it on time, if you hadn’t given me a ride here.” People were crowding back into the rink, and Sylvie went in with them. I looked at my feet and saw I was still in sock feet and decided I should go out and have another cigarette and drink to celebrate Sylvie’s win.
Soon as I crossed the threshold of Pink’s Skate Rink and felt the humid summer air on my arms and face, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed. 5-0-8-4-0…; her number came flooding back to me. It went straight to voice mail, as I had expected. Keri had rarely answered her phone in all the years I knew her. She would go through phases where she would answer “just to prove I’m not crazy,” though I never saw why answering a phone or not answering it was such a big deal. Me, I always answer.
Hello, this is Keri. Leave a message. That voice. I hung up without leaving a message but found her number in my call history and hit the little green button again. Hello, this is Keri. Leave a message. “Hey, I know I probably shouldn’t be calling. Definitely shouldn’t be, I mean, but I wanted to tell you about this little girl I met, named Sylvie, Sylvia really, but Sylvie is much better, don’t you think? Anyway, she just won the limbo contest down here at Pink’s Skate Rink. Bet you’d never think to see me at a skate rink. But, anyway, call me. We could get a beer and talk. I’d really like that, and…” I was cut off by that beep which meant she hadn’t erased any messages for a month or more and there was no space left for me.
Back inside, the rink was thick with skaters, and I couldn’t find Sylvie at first. Then I saw her with the dirty boy who’d come in second. They’d suspended the limbo stick on the backs of two chairs and were practicing. Sylvie took sips from his Coke like it was hers. The boy had a skittish way about him that made me sad, but it looked like Sylvie’s attentions were cheering him up. In front of me in line, a boy ordered a suicide in a thick drawl. He was acting tough like a movie saloon cowboy. “Give me another suicide, light on the ice,” he said, and looked over his shoulder at a group of older kids who stared at him menacingly. I sat there sucking down my own drink and watching Sylvie, thinking how if things had gone different with Keri, we could have had a daughter named Sylvie. She was such a beautiful little girl, the way only smart girls in cornflower blue sundresses can be.
Sylvie rolled over to me and said her mom would be there soon and that she was supposed to wait outside for her. She returned her skates and collected her pass for the late skate. “Can I give it to Jasper to skate?” she asked the smoking woman.
“Sweetie, you can do anything you want to. You’re The Queen of Limbo,” she said and laughed.
Sylvie handed me the pass and we went outside. I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I figured I could just walk away when her mother showed up. Just before we got to the door, I lifted her up and sat her on my shoulder. “All make way for The Queen of Limbo,” I said, and Sylvie giggled as I kicked the door open with great flourish and walked us into the parking lot. Her skinny legs batted against my chest and the rustle of her dress was in my right ear louder than the rest of the world. The weight of her on my shoulder was pleasant.
“Look up there.” I pointed out the Big Dipper. “That’s not its real name. Ursa Major, which means ‘big bear’ in Greek or maybe Latin, is its real name.”
Sylvie began squirming, trying to get down off my shoulder. A woman dressed in turquoise scrubs was walking toward us. The skin under her eyes was a reddish gray I’d seen in my face the day after a long drunk, or when I’d stay up all night working at the computer. I would probably look like that tomorrow morning. The only thing animating her face was surprise and something else I couldn’t place.
“What the hell is going on here? Sylvia, who is this man?” I sat Sylvie down, and her mother motioned her away from me and under her protective arm. The loose fabric of her shirt half-covered Sylvie’s face, a sight I’ll never forget.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I picked her up. She was stranded on the island and I thought that was unsafe.”
“Stranded on an island?” she said. “Sylvia, did he hurt you?”
“I was worried she’d get run over,” I said, trying to get the conversation under control. I almost ran to my car and drove off. Then I thought to step closer and try to explain, but I was worried she might smell the gin on my breath, so I backed away, holding my hands palm up, showing her I held no violence in them.
“Hey, Mom, did you know that the Big Dipper isn’t its real name?” Sylvie asked.
“Shut up, Sylvia,” she said. “Now, tell me who you are or I’m calling the cops.”
“God, Mom, he’s my math teacher, Mr. Powell,” she said. “You talked to him last month on the phone about my stupid C-minus in pre-algebra.”
A spark of recognition came across the woman’s face. She really had talked to a Mr. Powell about Sylvie’s grade, I thought. I was proud of Sylvie. The ability to tell a good lie is the sign of true intelligence. I should know; I was married to a woman who graduated cum laude from Duke. Keri used to say how our kid was going to be some kind of genius, and I never doubted it. Sylvie’s mother looked at me, and I smiled, trying to hide my surprise—and trying to look like a math teacher. I smiled the nervous smile I figured a math teacher would have. I shrugged my shoulders, but I still didn’t say anything. My hands were sweaty, and I was worried I’d slur, though Keri used to tell me I didn’t slur, no matter how drunk I got. “Maybe boozing is my calling in life,” I told her, grinning a big dopey grin. “I’m just so damned good at it.”
The woman looked at Sylvie’s face. I figured Sylvie was a handful, always getting into trouble and always finding a slick way out. And that’s when it hit me that I’d probably never see Sylvie again. Her mother would take her home and their lives would continue and so would mine. It wasn’t even that I wanted to see her again. It just seemed sad that I wouldn’t.
“Yeah, I saw Sylvia walking to the roller rink and recognized her from class, so I stopped and gave her a lift,” I said. “And then I thought I should stay around until you got here.”
Sylvie looked up at me, smiling.
“I guess I’ll be seeing you on Monday, Sylvia,” I said.
“I’m . . . sorry,” her mother said, and I felt bad for her. It seemed wrong that she should feel embarrassed.
“You have a wonderful daughter,” I said. “It’s obvious how much she’s loved. I wish all my students were as fortunate as Sylvia.”
“Thank you, Mr. Powell,” her mother said.
I watched them drive off. I stood there as the little sedan shrank into the distance and finally took a left turn out of my view. There were voices behind me in the parking lot, a man and a woman arguing on their way out of the roller rink.
The pass for the late skate was still in my hand. On the way back in I threw what was left of the Camels in the trash. The rink was dull with Sylvie gone. The boy who ordered suicides like a cowboy sat with a pretty, redheaded girl, their hands underneath the table. One of the older kids who were staring at him earlier was fuming. The dirty boy was skating backwards and doing a good job of it. I tapped the pass for the late skate against the palm of my hand and sat down to tie my skates back on.
I floated drunk, the whir and clack of the skates’ wheels rolling the world beneath me, and I didn’t let myself call Keri. I wanted to talk to her so bad the weight of the cell phone in my pocket made my leg tingle, but I knew I would never speak to her again. It had all happened, and there was no reversing it with words. But if things had been different, I would have called her and talked in a voice so stripped down and bare no one could refuse it. “I’m in no condition to drive, baby,” I’d say. “Come down here and get me out of this place.”
"The Queen of Limbo" first appeared in Another Chicago Magazine