Welcome to Issue No. 109 of Prime Number:

Cover.jpg

This July, Prime Number Magazine celebrates its seventh anniversary. Thank you for your support. We are looking forward to many more years of sharing what we think is exciting, engaging, and just damn-fine writing. 

The cover image above, “Wild Canada-rye Overlooking Green Bay,” is a photo I took while at Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in July of 2003. My wife Cathy was born and reared in Green Bay, and taking our young children to Bay Beach was a treat that brought back many memories for her. When Cathy was a child, rides cost .10 cents. Last month, Bay Beach celebrated its 125th anniversary, and today ride tickets cost a whopping .25 cents each, with most rides requiring only one or two tickets. What could be any better than that? Maybe a free magazine full of great reading?

In this issue, our guest poetry editor Joseph Mills selected three poems by three poets (Lori Lamothe, Lois Harrod, and D.G. Geis) from among the many submissions we received during our open submission period for Issue 109. 

Our guest short fiction editor Jen McConnell selected three stories from three authors (Siamak Vossoughi, Jacqueline Doyle, and Maria Brandt).

And we asked each of our guest editors to invite a fellow writer, whose work he or she admires, to send us something for publication. Joseph Mills reached out to Shaindel Beers and she sent us three wonderful poems, and Jen McConnell invited Lou Gaglia to send us a story. We are grateful and honored to share these works with our readers.

For the last five years, we have been offering a free monthly 53-word story contest, with the winner earning a free book from that month’s guest judge and publication in Prime Number Magazine. This has been a lot of fun and we plan to continue this fun and rewarding contest. 

Speaking of rewarding, we want to congratulate Theresa Wyatt, whose winning 53-word story from August 2016, “Gettysburg, July, 1863,” was selected for inclusion in MICROFICTION: Exceptionally Short Stories, to be published by W.W. Norton in 2018.

Flash fiction is becoming more and more popular not because we have less time to read, in my opinion, but because readers are discovering how powerful great writing can be in a short amount of space and time. In that spirit, we are introducing our new monthly Flash Fiction Contest, with a $7 reading fee (a prime number) and a $251 First Prize (a prime number) plus publication for our winner. I will be judging the inaugural contest for July 2017, and we will feature a new judge each month. Unlike the 53-Word Story Contest, the Flash Fiction Contest will have no prompt. Writers choose their own theme and topic. Send us your best unpublished work.

Finally, you’ll get a chance to meet Seth Michelson and John Matthew Fox, our guest editors for Issue 127, which will kick off the New Year on January 1. They are both accepting submissions of poetry and short fiction from now until September 30.

That’s a wrap! From everyone at Prime Number Magazine and Press 53, we wish you a safe and adventurous summer!

Kevin Morgan Watson

Publisher and Editor-in-Chief

Press 53

Prime Number Magazine


Issue 109 July – September 2017


POETRY

 Selections from  Joseph Mills   Guest Editor

Selections from Joseph Mills

Guest Editor


Plus by Invitation of the Guest Editor

  Three poems by Shaindel Beers   "The Sword Swallower and the Fire Eater Make Love"  "When I Was Bluebeard’s Wife"  "Little Red Cap Understands at Last"

Three poems by Shaindel Beers

"The Sword Swallower and the Fire Eater Make Love"

"When I Was Bluebeard’s Wife"

"Little Red Cap Understands at Last"


Remembering two luminaries of our writing community

Kathryn Stripling Byer.jpg
Susan Laughter Meyes.jpg

SHORT FICTION

 Selections from  Jen McConnell   Guest Editor

Selections from Jen McConnell

Guest Editor


Plus by Invitation of the Guest Editor

  A story by Lou Gaglia   "Aisle Worker of the Year"

A story by Lou Gaglia

"Aisle Worker of the Year"


Guest Editors for Issue 127, January – March 2018

Short Fiction


Lori Lamothe.jpg

Lori Lamothe

followed by Bio and Q&A

The Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle

They gallop from one side of rock to another

as if the possibility of wind and light 

is as real as the cave dwellers 

who painted them are. 

Just one more leap, 

a final plunge out of interior 

into the blinding, dazzling 

unknown and they’re free. 

See the grasslands opening before them 

as the prehistoric sun 

beats down onto their spotted backs. 

Far behind, the artists stand 

clumped in a group

at the mouth of darkness.

Their hands sign gestures  

to hold an emotion there are no words for—

the terrible, wonderful feeling 

of watching a captured thing break away from its walls 

and become something entirely 

else, an image that refuses to be tamed, 

wild as any life 

that bucks the form it’s given 

and shakes itself loose from shackles.

Bio

Lori Lamothe is the author of three poetry collections, including Kirlian Effect (FutureCycle Press, September 2017). New poems are forthcoming this year in Cider Press Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Ilanot Review, Menacing Hedge, Redux and elsewhere. 

Note

The poem is based on 25,000-year-old cave paintings discovered in southwestern France. The debate as to whether the artists based their work on actual spotted horses is ongoing, as is the dispute over the meaning of the handprints found near the paintings. Some scholars believe the prints were the cave artists’ signatures, others have different theories. Either way, I’m hopelessly drawn to the paintings.  

Q&A

What is your #1 pet peeve?

Not sure if this counts, but I’m going with scissors. As a lefty, I’ve had to contend with them for far too long. 

What is your favorite article of clothing?

Not sure if this counts either, but I’d have to say it’s my suede platform clogs. They’ve got six inches of cork and are way more comfortable than they look. 

Which book have you read from beginning to end more times than any other?

Sadly, I don’t reread books the way I did when I was a kid. There was a biography of Helen Keller I read at least 30 times when I was in second or third grade. I could practically recite this passage about the day Anne Sullivan taught Helen the word w-a-t-e-r. It was probably a little unhealthy and I still can’t explain my obsession with the book. As for the present, it’s gothic novels that draw me back. Wuthering HeightsThe Thirteenth TaleThe Forgotten GardenPossessionThe Little Stranger. Lately I’ve been rereading Alice Hoffman novels.


Lois Marie Harrod.JPG

Lois Marie Harrod

followed by Bio and Q&A

If Every Word Is an Elegy to What It Signifies

what will you do with all you have written, 

those plots of verse?

Do you think if you talk about your arthritis 

in an artful way, that diminishes pain?

Particulars erase the luminous, 

and your life has been nothing but particulars—

the way your lover’s beard feels kissing 

down your spine. You like the scratch. 

You don’t want a light touch

dissolving into a ticklish abstractions.

No ideas but in things, that doctor said,

someone who heard specific complaints.

Sometimes no idea in things either,

just a cemetery of objects bereft of meaning.

This morning you woke thinking you heard

your daughter on the phone, lost somewhere,

a train station, so distraught she couldn’t

speak. You mourn that too.

Bio

Lois Marie Harrod’s chapbooks Nightmares of the Minor Poet (Five Oaks) and And She Took the Heart  (Casa de Cinco Hermanas) appeared in 2016. Her 13th and 14th poetry collections, Fragments from the Biography of Nemesis (Cherry Grove Press) and the chapbook How Marlene Mae Longs for Truth (Dancing Girl Press) appeared in 2013. The Only Is won the 2012 Tennessee Chapbook Contest (Poems & Plays), and Brief Term, a collection of poems about teachers and teaching was published by Black Buzzard Press, 2011. She is widely published in literary journals and online ezines from American Poetry Review to Zone 3. See www.loismarieharrod.org

Note

“If Every Word Is an Elegy to What It Signifies” began in a dream in which my daughter phoned me but she couldn’t talk. I could see her in the dream and she had the phone in her hand but she couldn’t speak. However, I didn’t realize that dream until I read Robert Haas’s poem “Meditation at Lagunitas” in which he says: “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” It recalled Emerson: “Language is fossil poetry.” As I wrote the poem, I realized that silence too is loss—and the memory of the dream occurred.

Q&A

What is your #1 pet peeve?

Stupidity in High Places.

What is your favorite article of clothing?

Since I broke my toe, my Crocs, which are the only shoes that don’t hurt when I walk. However, I hope by the time this poem is published I will whisk around in sleek sandals.

What book have you read from beginning to end more times than any other?

There are several poets that I keep returning to, rereading—not just for what they say, but for how it is said, how the poem works to reveal its truths and beauty. So Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Stephen Dunn and Kay Ryan—especially Kay Ryan The Best of It: New and Selected Works.


D.G. Geis.jpg

D.G. Geis

followed by Bio and Q&A

Magic

This sleight of hand 

called life—

the wives 

we make disappear 

and children 

we pull out of hats.

The parents who, over time, 

we saw painlessly in half

and the complicated knots 

that untie themselves. 

The doves and serpents 

pulled from Jehovah’s empty sleeve

to misdirect 

the mischief of our making:

the compassion we feel 

for a rag in the road 

believing it to be 

a squashed puppy.

Or the cock killed for Asclepius

to thank Houdini God,

our Chained Magician 

drowning 

in his locked box.

Bio

D.G. Geis is the author of Fire Sale (Tupelo Press/Leapfolio) and Mockumentary (Main Street Rag). Most recently, his poetry has appeared in The Irish TimesFjordsSkylight 47 (Ireland), A New Ulster Review (N. Ireland), Crannog Magazine (Ireland), The Moth, (Ireland), Into the Void (Ireland), The Kentucky Review, The Tishman Review, and Under the Radar (Nine Arches Press UK). He was shortlisted for both the 2017 Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize (Ireland) and the 2017 Percy French Prize (Strokestown International Poetry Prize, Ireland). He divides his time between Houston and Galveston, Texas. 

Note

This is one of those rare poems that came to me whole. It doesn’t happen very often, but it occurred to me that life, like writing poetry, is very much like pulling things out of a hat. I may have an idea where I want to begin, but the poem usually works its way around me and my idea of what it should be. In that sense, poetry is more a kind of self-erasure than self-expression. I’m a big believer that poetry is a form of illumination. Like the Greeks, I believe that truth needs to be “revealed.” It’s not something we find on our own. Socrates certainly had that view. And that’s also where the reference to “the cock killed for Asclepius” comes from. If I really knew what I was doing, I’d probably stop doing it!

Q&A

What is your #1 pet peeve?

Folks who are rude to wait staff in restaurants or act boorishly towards people they think are beneath them. I think of Dr. Johnson’s observation that “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good." I think being the same person all the time (i.e. consistency of character) rates high in my hierarchy of virtues.

What is your favorite article of clothing?

A nice hat works for me. A sports cap, a beret, or a cowboy hat. I spent a good part of my life on a ranch in Texas, and a hat is essential.

What book have you read from beginning to end more times than any other?

Probably Henri Coulette’s The War of the Secret Agents and Other Poems. IMHO, Coulette and Weldon Kees are probably the two most underappreciated poets in American literature. What keeps me coming back is Coulette’s ability to turn minor detail into major feeling. He’s a formalist who chose interesting subjects. Read, for instance, the elegy for his cat titled “Petition.” A masterpiece with only eight lines and one of the very few poems I consider perfect.


by invitation of Guest Editor, Joseph Mills…

Shaindel Beers.jpg

Shaindel Beers

followed by Bio and Q&A

The Sword Swallower and the Fire Eater Make Love

The sword swallower’s survival

hinges on making room—

becoming an opening.

Drinking a large carafe

of water

before her act

so her stomach

sits lower.

Upright.

She guides the sword

down her gullet slowly.

The fire-eater’s life

is a constant slow exhale

to keep from accidentally

inhaling

the flame.

A quick clasp

of the mouth

over the torch

to close off

oxygen.

In their small trailer

after the show,

they are

puzzle pieces.

Lock and key.

Everything

a consummation.

A devouring. 

When I Was Bluebeard’s Wife 

I didn’t fear the murder room, didn’t loathe the bristle 

of blue whiskers on my neck, my breasts. I didn’t even 

flinch at the knife. I feared his finding a wife who 

would be his equal. Her azure hair, her lily skin.

The love they would make. I practiced first cutting

on myself—my white thighs. Willed the servant girl

to hold the mirror so I could draw a knife across

my buttock. The blood was quite beautiful;

it looked like berry-stain I remembered from when

I was a girl. But when I held kittens, rabbits, piglets,

I knew I could never make the cut on someone other

than myself. He would find a girl to marry who was

not quite human. A selkie, a changeling. He would

make her a gold key to wear on a chain hidden

between her breasts. She would be able to slice

anyone’s throat while still smiling, looking them

in the eyes. She would be the one to put my head

on the wall.  

Little Red Cap Understands At Last

       “So here I find you, you old sinner,” he said. 

       “I have been hunting you for a long time.”

                   —from “Little Red Cap” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

The wolf’s stomach is a gentle cocoon. 

Never since you were born have you felt 

so safe. So cradled. Here is Grandmother.

Here is the cake and the wine. You eat a piece.

Take a sip. You are a stomach within a stomach

within the womb of the world. All the earth

dependent on a cabin in the woods. Suddenly,

voices booming. A cry. Bright slice of light.

You realize it was the hunter, not the wolf

you needed to fear.

Bio

Shaindel Beers is the author of two full-length poetry collections, A Brief History of Time (2009) and The Children's War and Other Poems (2013), both from Salt Publishing. She is the Poetry Editor of Contrary Magazine and teaches at Blue Mountain Community College in the desert town of Pendleton, Oregon. Find more online at shaindelbeers.com

Note

Sometimes I’m inspired to write poems on the same subject. Here are two fairy tale inspired poems, and a circus poem. You can find some other circus-inspired poems here and here.

Q&A

What is your #1 pet peeve? 

I’m going to have to go with bad grammar. Some errors just make me wince. One of the worst is when people use “that” instead of “who” to refer to a person. It’s “The girl WHO lives next door,” not “The girl THAT lives next door.” Let’s stop dehumanizing people through grammar, okay? 

What is your favorite article of clothing?

Boots. All superheroes wear boots.

What book have you read from beginning to end more times than any other?

Other than Danny and the Dinosaur, which I read over and over for obvious reasons, I’m going to go with Dracula. I read it several times for my Master’s thesis, and I’m currently listening to it while running because the Alan Cumming/Tim Curry version on Audible.com is delicious.


Remembering

Susan Laughter Meyers.jpg

Susan Laughter Meyers

Kathryn Stripling Byer.jpg

Kathryn Stripling Byer

During the month of June 2017, we lost two luminaries of our writing community: Kathryn Stripling Byer, who was the first woman poet laureate of North Carolina, and Susan Laughter Meyers, a widely published, award-winning poet with deep roots in both North and South Carolina.

Kathryn, or Kay as her friends called her, lost her battle with lymphoma on June 5, which surprised many of us. I last spoke with Kay in April of this year and she sounded a bit tired by positive that the battle would be won, but the cancer came back fiercely. Kay supported writers of all ages and always made herself available to anyone seeking her advice or opinion. You can visit her "My Laureate's Lasso" blog, which is still up and is loaded with great writing and also fun conversation. Kay appeared in Issue 53, April - June 2014, sharing four poems that are a good representation of her values, family, and the land she called home in Cullowhee, NC. Her first poetry collection was The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, which won the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) Award Series in Poetry, judged by John Nims. It was published by Texas Tech University Press in 1986, and Press 53 reprinted the collection in 2013. Kay served as Poet Laureate of North Carolina from 2005 until 2009.

Susan passed on June 25 after suffering a stroke. She was a regular at our annual Press 53 Gathering of Poets in Winston-Salem, NC, and made her third appearance as a faculty member just this past March. Susan was an early supporter of Prime Number Magazine, having four poems in Issue 3 (our second issue), October – December 2010, and three poems in Issue 37, April – June 2013. Susan was born and reared in Albemarle, NC, and lived just outside of Charleston, SC, with her husband of 41 years, Blue. Susan served as leadership over the years with the North Carolina Poetry Society and the Poetry Society of South Carolina. One of my fondest memories with Susan was a couple of years ago this September at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in Burnsville, NC, when I joined Pat Riviere-Seel and Susan in their motel room, along with a couple of their friends, where we share some good wine and read poetry to one another. I'm going to miss my birthday buddy.

I hope you will visit these back issues (highlighted with links above) and let Kay and Susan tell you a bit more about themselves. I am going to miss their friendship and especially their voices.

Kevin Morgan Watson

Publisher and Editor-in-Chief

Press 53

Prime Number Magazine


Siamak Vossoughi.jpg

Siamak Vossoughi

followed by Bio and Q&A

The Home Thing

The problem was that Mani had gotten used to a world where Iran was the home thing and America was everywhere else, the place he was part of as soon as he walked out his door, even though the boys he played with when he walked out the door were Mexican and Chinese, so when Mrs. Pardo had said that studying history in fifth grade was going to include learning about everybody's personal histories, it had been too much for him to think of having Iran out in the open like that in the classroom, like everybody would be looking inside his house, and so on the day that Mrs. Pardo was going to teach them about Iran, he woke up with a headache and a stomachache.

He told his mother that he couldn't go to school.

He liked the idea of them learning about Iran as long as he wasn't there. He even saw himself coming to school a little proudly after they did.

His mother looked at him and said he didn't have a fever and he wasn't sneezing.

"Did those older boys take your ball again?" she said.

"No."

"Then you have to go to school," his mother said.

She didn't understand, nobody understood, and his mother and father didn't care because nobody was going to talk about Iran at the hair salon or at his father's office, and even if they did, his mother and father didn't act different when Americans asked them about Iran, they just listened and smiled and acted like it was very natural to have a home thing and everywhere else.

And Mani felt bad when he thought it because sometimes it was very natural to have a home thing and everywhere else, like when they were playing in the street and Carlos's grandfather or Dustin's mother came out and yelled in Spanish or Chinese for them to come inside. That felt good to hear.

On the school bus he tried not to think about it. Maybe it would just be very general. Maybe she would just say that the capital of Iran is Tehran. That would be all right. That was the kind of thing that anybody could find in a book. Maybe she would just stick to the facts. Every place had a lot of facts. That would be okay. He wouldn't feel so much like they were seeing inside him then.

But when he got to school, he felt even worse, because he saw his classmates and they all looked like they'd woken up in the morning with so many other things on their mind, and what if they thought that learning about Iran just got in the way of those things? What if they didn't like it? What if Nelson tried to pass a note while Mrs. Pardo was turned around? What if Jessica rolled her eyes? He didn't know what was worse, the feeling that they would all be looking inside his house, or the feeling that they would be doing that and still be bored.

He had never felt so nervous at school. He didn't know if he could make it up the stairs. He wondered if he should just go to the front desk and tell Mrs. Kanter that he was sick. She would probably be annoyed that he was sick before the school day had even begun.

He looked at all the American kids going up the stairs and he couldn't imagine how this was something they never had to worry about. They never had to worry about a home thing that was different from school and everywhere else, and it almost seemed ridiculous to him, because how would you ever have anything that was secret if your home life was the same as your school life? But it didn't help to think it was ridiculous, because he knew the American kids all thought it was perfectly natural for those two to be the same, and he felt bad to think it, but he wished that Mrs. Pardo would just stick to Christopher Columbus and how many original colonies there had been, because he was fine with all that stuff, he was fine with learning that stuff at school and with learning about Iran at home when he listened to his mother and father talking with the rest of his family, and anyway they talked about Iran in Farsi, which was the way you were supposed to do it, and it brought a whole new wave of nervousness over him to think of Iran being talked about in English, because that was the school language, and he just didn't know what would happen if the school language and the home thing got mixed up together like that, and in some distant part of himself he felt how he'd actually worked to build the wall between home things and school things, because it just made everything clearer that way, and even though it gave him a thrill to think of not having that wall, there was something that overwhelmed the thrill, which was that he hadn't had the realization that it was work until just now.

He slowly walked to his classroom and Mrs. Pardo saw the way he tiredly put his books down on his desk.

"Mani," she said. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

The American kids in his class were talking and laughing and remembering each other, the way they always did in the mornings, the way he usually joined in with them to do, but he didn't feel like doing it today. He looked at the board and saw that Social Studies was at its usual time, right after first recess. He didn't think he 'd be able to play basketball or soccer or anything at recess today.

He didn't think about it in the morning when they had math, but at the end of math, it all came back to him again, only now it felt even worse, because he'd had a chance to see just how American his school life was. He couldn't imagine how the kids in his class could go from the way they'd been talking in the morning to something as distant as his home thing. It was too much to ask of them, he thought.

Mrs. Pardo saw his face look the way it had when he'd first come in and she asked him to stay in when the class went out to recess.

"Mani," she said. "Are you worried about Social Studies today?"

"Yes."

"Tell me what you're worried about."

"Everybody is still learning about America," he said. "Maybe they'll think it's too much to have to learn about Iran too."

Mrs. Pardo, whose first name was Jean, had been a teacher for six years. When she listened to Mani, she remembered graduate school and a professor she'd had named Ann Ruthstein. She remembered her saying how children from immigrant families can have all sorts of reactions to having their histories integrated into the curriculum. Even parents from immigrant families could have all sorts of reactions to that. Ann Ruthstein had said that some immigrant parents even thought that it was putting their children behind to learn about their home countries, and they should be learning about America as much as possible. Jean Pardo had felt broken-hearted to hear that. She remembered how she'd gone home and told her boyfriend about that and he hadn't shown much reaction to it one way or another, and that had been the first thing that had gotten her thinking about their eventual breakup.

"Well," she said. "Social Studies is about learning about the world. America and Iran are both part of the world."

Mani nodded. He knew that America and Iran were both part of the world, but it just made everything easier if America could be the school thing and Iran could be the home thing, and he felt sad and angry that he didn't know why.

"What do you think would help you feel more comfortable?" Mrs. Pardo said.

"I want to listen," Mani said. "But I don't want anybody to see me."

"Do you want to put your chair outside the room?" Mrs. Pardo said. "I'll leave the door open."

Mani nodded.

"Okay," Mrs. Pardo said.

Mani felt better. He went outside to the schoolyard and when a ball rolled over to him from the basketball court, he picked it up and took a shot that almost went in.

After recess, Mani took his chair and sat outside the classroom. Mrs. Pardo propped the door halfway open. She wondered how it would look if Mr. Willits, the principal, walked by, but she felt like she had a good explanation. She told the class that Mani needed a little space.

Mrs. Pardo showed the class where Iran was on the map. Mani looked through the doorway and felt very excited. There it was all right. How about that? His whole class was looking at it. He almost couldn't believe it.

Mrs. Pardo talked about how it used to be Persia and she showed pictures of the ruins. Mani had never seen them before. He felt just as proud of them as if he had known about them for a long time.

Inside the classroom Nelson raised his hand and asked to go to the bathroom. He saw Mani in the hallway.

"Hi, Mani," he said.

"Hi."

"We're learning about Iran."

"I know."

"Were you born there?"

"Yes."

"Have you seen those statues?"

"No."

"Do you want to play pickle after lunch?"

"Sure."

After talking with Nelson, Mani moved his chair closer to the doorway. He looked inside. They were all listening. Jessica didn't look like she was going to roll her eyes. Mrs. Pardo was talking about Iran like it was somewhere close, not far away. Mani wondered how she knew that it was close. It was very close. It was even closer than he had realized.

"Are you in trouble, Mani?"

He turned around and saw Angela Rubey, coming out of Mr. Harkness's room next door.

"No," he said.

"What are you doing out here?"

"I just felt like being outside for a while."

"Mrs. Pardo lets you do that?"

"Sometimes."

"Mr. Harkness would never let us do that."

Nelson came back from the bathroom just then.

"Kids in your class can sit outside the classroom?" Angela Rubey asked Nelson.

"Only on the days that Mrs. Pardo is teaching about where you were born."

"I was born in Sacramento," Angela Rubey said.

"I was born here, at Children's Hospital," Nelson said.

Mani looked at them.

"I guess everybody was born somewhere," Nelson said.

He went inside the classroom and Angela Rubey went to get a book from her bag.

Mani looked in and saw that Mrs. Pardo was showing pictures of the haft seen. It sure was nice. He couldn't imagine how it must be for the kids whose home thing was always the same as the school thing. Life must be wonderful. They had this every day.

But somehow he thought that if they had this every day, they wouldn't really be seeing inside him as much as he thought. He hadn't been seeing inside them on all the other days, or if he had, it hadn't been in a rude way. Everybody's inside and outside were a lot closer than he had thought, and they were mixed up together. He had been seeing their inside by way of their outside. If anybody wanted to do that with him, that would be all right. Maybe he could have his inside and outside be mixed up together too.

He moved his chair right to the edge of the classroom.

Mrs. Pardo began to read The Little Black Fish. It was a book his parents had at home. At home his father was teaching him to read in Farsi, but Mani couldn't read it yet. Mrs. Pardo had an English version.

As the little black fish was deciding to set out to discover the end of the river, Mani picked up his chair and went back to his desk and sat down. Mrs. Pardo didn't look up or pause or anything, and he knew that she wouldn't look up or pause or anything, and she knew that he knew it, and that was a kind of love. Everybody saw him come in and sit down, but that was all right. They ought to know that he was nervous, because his home thing was special and important. His home thing happened to also be a world thing, but he didn't know how. He didn't remember, because it had just been a home thing for a long time now. But he felt how it was bigger than that, because it had a place in school, and he had always been told that school was the most important place for him to be concerned about. What all of them had—his mother and father and sister and himself—was a place in his school. He didn't know if they knew that. He felt very excited to go home and tell them.

Bio

Siamak Vossoughi was born in Tehran, grew up in Seattle, and lives in San Francisco, where he writes and works at an elementary/middle school. He has had some stories published in Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review Online, Chattahoochee Review, and Raleigh Review. His collection, Better Than War, received a 2014 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction.

Note

The inspiration for this story came from thinking about the very particular and personal relationship an immigrant child can have with their home culture, and how that relationship can feel like a very fragile thing out in the world.

Q&A 

What is your #1 pet peeve?

Overuse of exclamation points!!!

What is your favorite article of clothing? 

Blue tennis shoes. I like them because they are right at my upper limit for being flashy.

What book have you read from beginning to end more times than any other?

Love, Here Is My Hat, by William Saroyan. I have read it countless times. It is the book that showed me that it is not only acceptable, but also quite appropriate for a short story writer to sing on the page. I very often need reminders of this.


Jacqueline Doyle.jpg

Jacqueline Doyle

followed by Bio and Q&A

Just Between Us

1.

“You don’t know this,” Evelyn says, “but Crissy’s pregnant.”

That would be my husband John’s sixteen-year-old niece in Ohio, his sister Jeannette’s daughter. 

His other sister Evelyn seems to relish passing on the news, though she adds, “Poor Jeannette. It’s just a shame what those kids put her through.” 

“You’re kidding. Is she going to have the baby?”

“No one knows. We’re not supposed to know about this at all, but Crissy told Emma, who told Ginny, who told me. Don’t tell anyone, or let on if you talk to Crissy or Jeannette.”

“So what about the boyfriend? They’re not getting married, are they?”

“Who knows? He’s a born-again, that’s what I hear.”

2.

I’ve barely spoken to Crissy, but I’ve seen her a number of times at family gatherings. Sullen, resentful, with a stocky build and an unfortunate case of teenage acne, she doesn’t impress me as mature mother material. I’m afraid I can picture the kid already. A fussy baby, who puts on too many pounds too fast. “He’s already out of his weight class. Can you believe it?” Jeannette’s going to boast. A fat little boy who eats everything in sight and whines when there’s no candy. “Isn’t he just the cutest? What a sweet tooth!” Evelyn’s going to agree with Jeannette. Then she’ll be on the phone with John’s mom talking about some article she read in a women’s magazine about Type 2 Diabetes and how Crissy should really be controlling the kid’s weight. Next thing you know everyone’s going to be talking about his supposed diabetes in hushed voices. “Isn’t it a shame?”

3.

I’m a corporate communications manager with an MBA and a Masters in Social Psychology. Recently I’ve been putting together a presentation on the role that office gossip plays in companies that are downsizing, and I found this great article in The Journal of Social Psychology. “Research points out that gossip serves to enforce group norms,” they write, “allows for indirect social comparisons, increases intimacy of social bonds, communicates information, clarifies group membership, and enhances perceptions of power, status, or esteem.” 

Gossiping, according to one of their sources, is “the core of human social relationships, indeed of society itself.” 

I play along with John’s sister Evelyn and his mother, whose gossip definitely enforces group norms, is filled with information and social comparisons, and functions as a form of social bonding. I ask questions, I express surprise, I bond. I’m genuinely interested, even though I never generate new information myself. What these conversations say to me about group membership, though, and maybe to them too, is that I’m not really one of them.

I’m skeptical. They can probably hear it in my tone. 

I don’t talk about the same things. 

Some of them have pretty good jobs, but the women in John’s family define themselves differently than I do. They have kids, or they’re planning to have kids. They think of their husbands’ careers as primary, their own as secondary, even temporary. They don’t talk about their work. They’re not ambitious. They don’t read. Not even the newspaper, as far as I can see. Correction: they read women’s magazines and parenting blogs.

4. 

John’s enormous extended family is mostly Catholic, much larger than mine, which is sort of Catholic too, but not exactly devout. An only child who grew up with no relatives in the vicinity, I’m amazed by his family, which is constantly exchanging confidences, and constantly reproducing. 

There’s John’s mother, two sisters and their families, cousins and their families, ex-spouses with more children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, some great aunts, godparents, all in close touch. More children on the way. It’s taken ten years for me just to get all the names and nicknames straight. Even though I do flow charts mapping lines of interdepartmental communication for my job, John’s family is a challenge. I keep a box of index cards by the kitchen phone, with a separate list of birthdays so we remember to send cards—to his mom and sisters and their kids at least. I’ll have to add Crissy’s baby when it arrives.

5. 

Have I mentioned that I’m not particularly fond of children? I’m not particularly fond of children. They drool. They’re sticky. They’re noisy. They tend to be demanding. They tend to multiply. 

Even intelligent women when they have children start to talk baby talk. 

“I just had to tell baby, ‘I’m going bye bye now. Time for worky work,’” one of my colleagues said recently. We were at a meeting, sitting at a conference table with about six men. As a feminist I support maternity leave and child care benefits, but really it’s no wonder that some men doubt whether mothers are suited for the professional world. 

I travel a lot for my job. Children and babies on planes are one of my pet peeves. They even show up in business class these days.

One time I was flying from New York to Tucson with a screaming baby in the row of seats behind me. Four hours and forty-four minutes! When the flight attendant finally asked the mother whether walking in the aisle might help, the mother said, “It’s too late for that.”

Can’t they give Valium or Ambien to babies? Something? If not, they should stay home.

A shrieking baby or noisy child should be treated the same as any serious disturbance on a plane. An obstreperous drunk. A suspected terrorist. The plane should land and the mother and child should be escorted off (maybe not in handcuffs). Failing that, the flight attendants should open the back hatch and toss the mother and infant out with a parachute.

John understands my feelings completely, but I’m careful not to make comments like that to his sisters, or to my coworkers. Why start people talking?

6.

The article points out that “negative gossip, not positive gossip, is the more effective ‘social glue’ for the creation of intimate social bonds.” Of course that’s why negative rumors spread like wildfire in an office. Some of our best middle managers jumped ship before the last round of layoffs because of rumors. You want to keep your best employees when you downsize, and stay aware of what information is circulating. Establishing some kind of inner circle in advance can be a useful strategy for what the industry calls “change management.” Be prepared for leaks. Members of your inner circle are going to share information with their inner circles. And so on.

7. 

The annual meeting at corporate headquarters is in two weeks. I was working on my gossip powerpoint when John’s mom called. We missed the family Christmas party, as we usually do, because it’s such a long trip and we can’t get away from work. There’s always a round of phone calls the next day, though, starting with John’s mother, who’s right at the center of the family’s web of intrigue.  

“So how was it?” I asked her. I saved the powerpoint and closed the file, knowing it would be at least an hour before I could get back to it. I scribbled a note to myself: “Consider gossip and reduced productivity?”

“It was nice.” John’s mom always starts slowly. Noncommittal. She said “nice,” though, as if there were a world of unrevealed meaning behind it. Which of course there was.

“Everyone doing okay?”

“Yes, they’re all okay. Robert’s house was nice.”

“They did some work on it this year, didn’t they?”

“A lot of work. Of course they spent a fortune on that kitchen renovation, and now everything is beige, beige, beige. Trina’s not saying what it cost but, believe me, it was plenty. Pale shiny stone, granite or something, top of the line, and the appliances are stainless steel and show fingerprints. Pale tiles on the floor, real tile, not linoleum like Minna’s. All of it beigebeigebeige.”

“But it’s nice?”

“It’s nice.” Then, after a pregnant pause, “Trina looks absolutely haggard.”

“Oh, really?”

“She looks like hell. It’s probably stress from that job of hers. Not to mention all the money they’re spending. Aunt Minna told me, by the way, that Steven was unemployed for three months before he told his wife, and they are hurting, really hurting for money. He didn’t want Robert, his own brother, to know. Robert earns plenty, and there’s the money they inherited from her father. Adrienne—Minna’s daughter, the middle one—is separated from her husband, you know, but Minna didn’t say a word.”

“John mentioned that. Weren’t they in counseling?”

“I don’t know about that. I just talked to Ginny, and it’s over, papers filed and everything. That will be the second divorce in Minna’s family. It’s a shame, really, those young kids.”

“So was Adrienne there?”

“She was there. Not a word about the marriage, and we couldn’t say anything because we’re not supposed to know. Frank’s working late, she said, and Ginny and I kind of looked at each other. Ginny says Adrienne’s already meeting men on the computer, one of those dating services, can you imagine? Ginny knows it for a fact. Adrienne told Rosalind, who told Marilyn, who told Ginny. Marilyn even looked up her so-called profile online, I don’t know how. Adrienne says she likes long walks on the beach. What beach, I ask you? Of course we don’t know this.”

“I hope she meets someone.”

“I don’t know. She’s been around the block. And two kids. What man would want to take that on? Everyone was asking about you, by the way. They all hope you can make it to next year’s party. It’s supposed to be at Evelyn’s, but just between us, I don’t think she’s up to it.”

8.

I’ve got the powerpoint ready, a footnoted quote from The Journal of Social Psychology article, followed by some bulleted points: 

“Since gossip is part of every workplace environment, understanding the dynamics of gossip is important if members of an organization are going to be effective and efficient communicators.”1

•The Good Manager Understands the Dynamics of Gossip

•Know Who to Tell

•What to Tell

•When to Tell

•How to Tell

•How to Predict Who They’ll Tell Next, and What the Effect Will Be

•Manage Your Information! 

I’ve got some industry anecdotes. Also some pointers on what kinds of information it’s best to withhold, important in both corporations and families.

For example, John and I have never told his mother that I was divorced when we met. We know she’ll be on the phone within the hour saying, “Well, you wouldn’t know it. But believe me, she’s been around the block a few times.” That information will engender more phone calls, and keep circling the block. You know Milgram’s six degrees of separation theory? There are no more than five to seven intermediaries connecting everyone on the planet. Strangers will be nodding their heads. “John’s wife has been around the block. That’s what I hear anyway.”

They’ve already been gossiping for years about our not having kids. I can imagine what they’re saying about me, but I also get it from Evelyn, always happy to pass on the latest tidbit—whether to commiserate with me or upset me isn’t always clear.  

“It must be her fault, don’t you think? Maybe that endio-whatever-it-is you get from premarital sex.”

“She’s an only child. Did you know that? Who knows what kinds of problems run in a family like that. It’s just not normal.”

“Minna says it’s this new generation of girls with their college degrees and fancy-schmancy jobs. I hear she earns more than John. That must be a real slap in the face.”

Evelyn leaves plenty of space for me to respond as she repeats the latest, but I try not to take the bait. I know whatever I say goes straight to John’s mother. I’m always sorry later when I disclose information I wasn’t planning to. John says they’re all too nosy, and I have to agree.

9.

I didn’t say anything when Evelyn sent me an article from some parenting magazine about how to get pregnant when you’re over 30. Cut down on alcohol! Red wine is actually good for you! Take your temperature every day! Join a support group! Use the missionary position! 

Finally she asked me. “Did you get the article?”

“Oh, I forgot. Thank you so much,” I told her. “I should look around for a support group.” 

Support for what, I didn’t specify. John and I had a good laugh about his sister’s missionary missive for reproduction and the advice in the article about the missionary position. 

“Maybe we should start going through the Kama Sutra instead,” he suggested. “I mean if we get tired of the missionary position.”

10. 

“Shared secrets are good for a marriage.” I read that in some magazine at the hair salon. It makes sense. If sharing secrets is a potent form of bonding and group membership, then shared secrets must create an unusually strong partnership, right?  

Next year they’ll all be descending on our house for John’s fortieth birthday and the two of us are going to have to stick together. I’m planning to get the kitchen done over—white, white, white, with marble countertops and black and white tiles for the backsplash—so I’ll have something to talk about with John’s mom and the rest of his family besides my mysterious infertility.

I’ll frame all the family snapshots they’ve been sending and put them on the mantel. Babies, babies, babies. Crissy will have had hers by then, and the women will spend some time talking about whether the baby looks like Crissy or the father. I’ll take my cue from John’s mother, since babies never look like their parents to me. They look like babies, very similar to each other, though some are fatter than others, and some have more hair. 

I can predict what they’ll say about the kitchen.

“What made you choose black and white?” Evelyn will ask, wide-eyed and friendly. She’ll keep her doubts about the choice to herself until I’m not in earshot. 

“It’s nice,” John’s mother will say. “Of course it’s going to need extra cleaning.”

I’m not going to mention that we have a woman who comes in to clean every two weeks. Why court trouble?

“Aren’t contractors the worst? They never finish when they say they will.” Evelyn will launch into a series of stories about the experiences of her friends. And the plumber who kept missing appointment after appointment when she urgently needed him. 

“I’ll bet this cost a pretty penny,” John’s mother is bound to say. She disapproves of spending money on principle. “So does John like it?” Because of course I’m the spendthrift, and poor John has his hands full.

Here’s something I won’t be talking about. John had a vasectomy for our fourth anniversary, and we celebrated with a romantic trip to Hawaii. Don’t tell anyone. That’s just between us. 

  1. Sally D. Farley, Diane R. Timme, Jason W. Hart. (2010). “On Coffee Talk and Break-Room Chatter: Perceptions of 

          Women Who Gossip in the Workplace,” The Journal of Social Psychology, 150 (4), 361.

Bio

Jacqueline Doyle’s flash fiction chapbook The Missing Girl is available for pre-order at Black Lawrence Press. Her fiction and flash have appeared in Monkeybicycle, [PANK], Quarter After Eight, Confrontation, The Rumpus, The Pinch, Phoebe (where she was runner-up in their 2016 Fiction Contest), and elsewhere. This is her second appearance in Prime Number Magazine. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and son, and can be found online here: www.jacquelinedoyle.com

Note 

“Just Between Us” is not autobiographical, but I did marry into a large extended family with a formidable grapevine. The story started with the phone call from the mother-in-law after the annual Christmas party and grew from there.

Q&A 

What is your #1 pet peeve? 

Could it be crying babies on planes? I wouldn’t have thought so, but sometimes what emerges when I write fiction is telling, and not long ago I endured an entire plane ride from New York to San Francisco with a screaming baby in the row of seats behind me. I wouldn’t have suggested jettisoning the baby, however.

What is your favorite article of clothing?

A furry zippered hoodie that’s very cozy for writing when I’m home and would be embarrassing to wear outside the house.

What book have you read from beginning to end more times than any other?

Thoreau’s Walden, inspiring and infuriating by turns, an antidote to all that’s least fulfilling in the modern age.


Maria Brandt.jpg

Maria Brandt

followed by Bio and Q&A

Manhattanhenge

“Manhattanhenge comes about because the Sun’s arc has not yet reached [the Solstice’s] limits, and is on route to them, as we catch a brief glimpse of the setting Sun along the canyons of our narrow streets.”

             —Neil deGrasse Tyson, Haydon Planetarium Website

Samantha climbs up the subway stairs huddled against the cold, even in May. Crumpled papers and hard plastic crunch under her feet, and she can smell the street before she reaches it, salt and stale smoke. She buys a coffee from the guy on the corner and doesn’t say anything when he looks at her legs. The coffee is hot. She thinks she’ll save it for when she gets there.

The street rings with cars and people. Samantha lifts her head to see the sky, but even this seems hidden by the excessive clamor of the city. She wishes it all would stop, just for a moment. Don’t they know what’s coming? A cold wind blows up her skirt and makes her shiver. She keeps walking.

She remembers years ago, taking the train with her father, she asked where they were going, and he said, “I want to show you something.” She held his hand when they changed in Jamaica and when they walked through Penn Station, up the escalator, and onto the street. They inched to the corner of 7th Avenue, then turned east and didn’t stop until her feet were stiff and the sun had just about set. “Wait,” he said, then gripped her shoulders, “it’s almost time.” She remembers standing still and feeling his fingers squeeze her hand. She remembers the sweat pouring into her eyes when it happened. And afterwards, afterwards they lingered side by side while the sounds of the city faded into night.

Samantha leans against the wall of some building on 2nd Avenue and sips her coffee. So much for saving it. She watches a woman push a stroller as if the sidewalk were an obstacle course, swerving around slower pedestrians and a trash can. She wonders if her mother ever pushed her in a stroller, maybe down Main Street on her way to the beauty parlor. She’s seen pictures of the three of them before the accident and her mother’s hair always looked so perfect, so unlike her own frizzy mess, undoubtedly inherited from her father. She checks her watch, still thirty minutes before it starts, so she sips her coffee again, then drinks it all, then throws the cup in the same trash can the woman with the stroller so deftly outmaneuvered earlier. 

Years ago, she wanted to know why. Why did the train to Penn Station sometimes take one hour and sometimes almost two? Why did so many people take the train into the city? Why did some people not take the train? Why did that car stall on the tracks? Why did the conductor slam on the brakes? Why was her mother the only person on the train who got thrown from her seat? Why did her mother’s neck move the way it moved? Why did her father take her to the city the following month? Why did they walk east, all the way to 2nd Avenue? Why did her heart break when he showed her what happened to the sun, but not when the police came to their door one month earlier to tell them her mother’s neck had snapped and that the entire world would change?

The streets fill, more cars, more pedestrians. Samantha checks her watch again, she’s almost there. A boy plays his cello near the corner of 38th Street, so she stops and listens. His face is shadowed by an awning and she thinks he’s beautiful, half-revealed in the afternoon’s fading light. He can’t be older than eight, she realizes, around her age when her father showed her what happened to the sun. She remembers wanting to know more about the sun, as if some giant mystery suggested itself that day in the city, one month after the accident. That day, she imagined a little man building a city out of different-sized steel boxes. “Where to start?” she imagined him saying. “North to south? To capture the sun?” And she imagined him looking for the sun, shielding his eyes. “Yes, the sun!” he said, then wiped his brow and continued to work.

She drops some coins in the hat the boy left by his cello case and walks away. Only four more blocks. She thinks about how much fun it was when she was a child to imagine that little man working with his steel boxes, figuring out how to build a city that could capture the sun, even if only for two days a year. Even now, she can see him dancing in front of her, talking about sidewalks and the geographic north. “Two days a year, the sun!” 

But none of this helps, or at least it never answered any of Samantha’s questions. She can imagine the little man figuring out how to make the sun stop on the grid of his city, she can imagine him arranging different-sized steel boxes to capture the sun in some precise way, but none of this ever helped her understand what any of it means, the raison d’être. She waits on the corner for the walk signal and remembers the boy playing his cello. The signal changes, but Samantha doesn’t move. The boy. Had the boy stood on a steel box?

She feels her eyes water and her arms start to shake. She knows what time it is, how much time she has left, but she doesn’t care. She turns and heads back south to the corner of 38th Street. Sure enough, the boy stands on a steel box. How did she not notice this before? In fact, different-sized steel boxes are scattered along the street, as if someone busted inside her imagination and left the pieces, like clues, for her to discover. She pretends the little man spins where the boxes inexplicably lie, his eyes closed and a tape measure spilling from his left pocket. “How to choose the days?” he says. “How to measure our own bones?” She imagines him spinning until he falls to the ground, right in front of the boy playing his cello, then takes out his tape measure and determines the angle between his body and the nearest steel box.

“Are you okay?” she hears. The boy has stopped playing and is looking at her. She must have fallen and is spreading her arms as wide as she can, as if trying to touch something that lies just out of reach.

“I’m fine,” she says. “I must have tripped.”

“I don’t think so.”

“No, I just tripped, you see there’s a crack,” and Samantha points to the sidewalk before struggling to stand, pulling at her skirt so no one else can see too much of her legs. “Where did you get that box?”

The boy looks down. “Oh,” he says, “I found it.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know, maybe around 42nd Street.”

“By 2nd Avenue?”

“Yeah,” the boy says.

Again, Samantha feels her eyes water. She reaches into her pocket and, sure enough, there’s a tape measure. “Twenty-nine degrees east of the geographic north,” she whispers.

“What?”

“I don’t know.” She fingers the tape measure. “I just know we have to decide where to start.”

“Where to start what?” But Samantha doesn’t answer. She turns north and keeps walking. It’s almost time.

She has no real memories of her mother, just the pictures and stories her father told her. When she was little, she thought she could stitch together those pictures and stories and find the truth, the raison d’être of her mother’s existence, and from this her own. Kind of like the little man building clues into his city, clues for scientists from some future world who would notice that his city captured the sun in the bones of its grid two days a year, scientists who then would measure that grid and figure it out, twenty-nine degrees east of the geographic north. She stops dead in her tracks. What did she just say? Twenty-nine degrees east of the geographic north?

Samantha turns around again and walks back to 38th Street, but the boy is gone. Instead, a young man with a fancy hat stands on the steel box. “What could it mean?” he says and scratches his head.

“What could what mean?” Samantha responds.

“The math.”

“What math?”

“Twenty-nine degrees east of the geographic north, we’ve figured out the math, but we don’t know what it means.”

Samantha feels dizzy. She sits on the sidewalk, her legs hidden from view. “Where did you get that number?” she asks the young man.

He looks at her. “The boy,” he says.

“What boy?”

“The one with the cello, he told me a woman had measured the angle, she had a tape measure in her pocket. He wanted to interview her, but she ran away.” The young man with the fancy hat sits on the steel box and is quiet for a moment. Samantha thinks she can hear cars moving, but she’s not sure. Suddenly, the whole city seems as if it were made with popsicle sticks. She moves her fingers as if she were crafting the popsicle sticks into a coherent whole. The young man watches. “Who are you?” he asks.

“I’m Samantha.” 

He nods, satisfied with her answer, then stands on the steel box and points to the sky. “It’s almost time!” he says.

Samantha looks down at her fingers and the popsicle sticks disappear. She wears her mother’s wedding ring on her right hand. The ring seems dull in the fading light, the sun just about to fall. She imagines the little man singing, “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,” she imagines him singing, “Take me out to the ballgame, take me out with the crowd,” but she doesn’t know who he is. She doesn’t know who she is, either. She stands and dusts off the back of her skirt. The young man takes off his fancy hat and bows as she walks backwards, away from him, down the street, then turns on her heels and runs.

She arrives just before the sun starts to sink, hovering one moment more above the tallest building, not quite captured in the grid. Though all moves around her, Samantha stands still. She knows if she closes her eyes she’ll feel her father’s fingers squeezing her own, as if he were there. She turns to the west, and she waits. She remembers her father’s funeral, just last week, how skinny his legs looked in the casket, how sick he had been. She remembers placing white flowers in his hands and how cold his skin felt. She leaned close to his body and whispered, “I’ll go, Dad, I’ll go next week, I’ll go for you,” then kissed him gently on his forehead. She felt cold, and that her legs were too skinny too. 

She can’t remember much, but she knows her mother’s legs were beautiful. She thinks about her mother’s legs as the sun sinks into the grid, as it spreads its fire into the canyons of the city, reaching like fingers wreathed in rings, all the buildings like strange stone statues erected just for this. This wasn’t her city as a child, just like the woman in the pictures wasn’t her mother when she was a child. But her father showed her what happened to the sun, and even though she never knew what any of it meant, it was all hers then, and she let its magic wash clean her wounds, and now when a soft breeze lifts her skirt over her head, she lifts her arms and offers a small prayer to whoever might be listening.

Bio

Maria Brandt has published plays, fiction, and nonfiction in several literary magazines, including InDigest, Rock & Sling, Arts & Letters, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, VIDA, upstreet, and Mom Egg. Most recently, her collection New York Plays was produced by Out of Pocket Productions and published by Heartland Plays, and her novella All the Words won the Grassic Short Novel Prize and was published by Evening Street Press. Maria teaches Creative Writing at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, and is a founding member of Straw Mat Writers. She lives just outside Highland Park with her son William.

Note

"Manhattanhenge" was originally conceived as a short, experimental play about a Citizen trying to understand his/her history. (Production Credits: Out of Pocket Productions, Rochester, NY. Production Rights: Heartland Plays.) In the story, Samantha imagines this Citizen while putting together the pieces of her life.

Q&A 

What is your #1 pet peeve?

My #1 pet peeve is people monologuing with such insularity that they don't realize the other person's eyes are glazing over.

What is your favorite article of clothing?

My favorite article of clothing is an old ratty house sweater with plastic buttons that I bought as a costume piece for a play I directed in Boston in 2001.

What book have you read from beginning to end more times than any other?

I'll never be able to pinpoint my favorite book, but the book I've read from beginning to end more than any other is Kate Chopin's The Awakening. I can't get enough of Chopin's prose, or of the anxiety that infuses her failed attempt to give Edna a clear path to liberation within her world.


by invitation of Guest Editor, Jen McConnell…

Lou Gaglia.jpg

Lou Gaglia

followed by Bio and Q&A

Aisle Worker of the Year

At the toy store, competition for the first annual Aisle Worker of the Year Award began just before Thanksgiving. Now, the night before Christmas Eve, customers would cast their final votes and Nick was glad of it. His photo had been hanging above the electric doors for a month, and he couldn’t stand to look at it anymore because he’d only lip-smiled, and his eyes glanced a little left of the camera. When Yvonne the manager had taken his photo, he tried to think of someone he liked so that he could smile, but he couldn’t settle on a particular person. His uncertain expression beside the broad smiles of Chrystie and Lee was already a strike against him. And worse, next to their photos was Alphonse’s face, full of confidence and a warmth that seemed to say, I like you, and I’m sure you already like me.

Nick worked the games aisle. During breaks, he read what he could of his Carl Jung book for an evening college class. Sometimes before work he went to the golf course nearby where he’d found a way to play alone. The starter took his extra ten dollars the first time but waved him along after that because it was cold and the course was nearly empty.

On the course, Nick liked to make his round more interesting by thinking of people he liked and imagining a match between them. One day he held a contest between Carol and Sarah, two friends he’d known in high school. The next day Maureen and Sylvia, who worked the registers at the toy store, faced off. The winners competed on the third day, and then there was a new tournament. He’d think of the same four or sometimes conjure up other imaginary competitors, all of them people he’d known in the past or wanted to know now. The winners were gracious and the losers were a little disappointed, but none of them felt really hurt or angry. In his most recent match, Sylvia played the first hole and Maureen the second. They alternated through even and odd holes, and at the end he counted the scores to find the winner.

He missed Carol and Sarah, and this was a way of keeping them in his mind, and he liked Maureen and Sylvia at the store. Maureen was outgoing and had wavy red hair and bright brown eyes. She was easy to talk to, but there was an unfriendly, gossipy edge to her. Sylvia was more reserved and thoughtful and impossibly pretty and equally impossible for him to talk to. Once in the break room, Nick watched her smile a little sadly as she listened to Maureen and the other cashiers gossip.

After the Aisle Worker of the Year competition was announced, he’d played a match between Sylvia and Maureen, deciding that he’d ask out the winner. Sylvia trounced Maureen, who blew several short putts and lost two balls in the woods and threw a mini-tantrum. In his mind, Sylvia told him, What a baby she is. Now ask me out and get it over with.

Maybe, but you don’t even look my way, he answered her on his way back to the clubhouse for a beer.

At work, Alphonse was in charge of the infant and toddler section. He told jokes to the customers and made up nicknames for their children, and he seemed to make a lifelong friend each time he sold a stroller or a baby carrier. Meanwhile, Nick pointed out Mr. Potato Heads to confused customers who were standing right in front of the Mr. Potato Heads the whole time. He spent much of his time not on the floor but in the back room where he could think or read while organizing or stacking boxes of games. He’d been keeping his Carl Jung book stuffed between boxes of Connect Fours and Shoots n’ Ladders. He read it when he could, and during breaks he took it to the break room upstairs.

Out on the floor, he watched Alphonse tickle a baby under the chin while the child’s parents beamed. He imagined himself married to Sylvia, and when Alphonse tickled their baby under the chin, he’d knock Alphonse into one of the strollers and send him rolling wildly down the aisle.

The parents were ready to move along, but not before Alphonse pointed to the Aisle Worker of the Year voting table under the photos on the wall. He handed them a card and waved to the baby with his fingers as they placed him in the stroller.

Later in the break room, Sylvia, Maureen, and Alphonse sat together, and Nick sat on the other end of the bench pretending to read Carl Jung.

“One hundred dollars is nothing to sneeze at,” Maureen was saying.

Nick thought of faking a sneeze but reconsidered.

“I know I have no chance,” said Alphonse. “That big lug over there has it won, I hear.”

Confused, Nick looked over, then shook his head. “Not me.”

“Yes, you,” said Alphonse. “You’re like The Rock of Gibraltar over there with those games. Very reliable—he’s very reliable,” he said to Maureen and Sylvia.

Maureen laughed but Sylvia stifled a yawn and rubbed her eyes. Nick imagined her crushing Maureen in golf the next time he played.

“Nick’s a sweetheart with the customers too,” Alphonse went on to them. “Always pointing to the right games when they ask. Just. . . top notch.”

Nick smirked and looked away, and Alphonse whispered something. Maureen laughed so loudly that Nick couldn’t tell if Sylvia laughed too. His face burned and he stood and headed for the stairs.

“See ya, sir,” Alphonse called.

Out on the floor, Nick looked for Yvonne because a customer had opened a game and left it on the shelf. On the way, he passed Sylvia at the register, back from her break. He looked at her coldly and she knit her brows.

In the games aisle, an older man with a young child, maybe his grandson, wanted advice on the best games for seven-year-olds.

Nick had no idea, but he showed the man Shoots n’ Ladders and Candyland and Connect Four and a few others.

“Monopoly was around when I was a kid,” the man said, pulling one from its stack and examining the box.

“When I was younger,” said Nick, “there was an argument every time I played that game.”

“Money does that to people.”

“No one feels good playing it, and the winner feels greedy.”

The man slid the game back onto the shelf. “Not always. Sometimes the winner feels smart or lucky.”

“I guess. Maybe it’s just me who feels greedy.”

The man took his grandson’s hand. “Some people say greed is good.”

“Rich people say it’s good,” said Nick.

The man laughed to himself. “Some do, sure. Maybe it’s all right to want more but not at the expense of others. Is that what you’re thinking?”

“Maybe. . . I think so.”

“I think we’ll go with the Connect Four,” the man said, and he gave the game to his grandson. “Nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

“Nick.”

“Nick, nice to meet you. I’m Ronnie, and this is Evan.”

“Nice to meet you too—both. . . of you.”

They walked on. Soon Nick drifted to the open space between aisles and watched Alphonse talk with Ronnie, who smiled politely with his arms folded. Then Alphonse shook Ronnie’s hand, and he bent to shake Evan’s hand, and Nick growled low in his throat. He headed for the front of the store to place a broken game box in a wagon set aside for broken items. Sylvia glanced at him. Beyond her, near the electric doors, a few customers were checking off names for Aisle Worker of the Year. He approached her register, his heart hammering.

“Not so busy for Christmas,” he said.

“It was busy before, but now there aren’t so many people,” she said and bit back a smile. “So it’s not that busy anymore.”

“So you’re saying that when there are fewer people in the store, then it’s not busy, but if there are more people, that’s when it gets busy.”

“Exactly.”

“So I’m onto something here.”

“You’re brilliant.”

He smiled and walked away. He imagined three or four dates followed quickly by marriage, and then the uncertainty and the competition and the need to pose and the hope for love would end, and meanwhile she would certainly trounce Maureen the next time he played golf in the cold. And after their baby was born and Alphonse tried to tickle its chin to win a vote, Nick would toss Alphonse into a shopping cart and send him careening into the Barbies.

Back in the games aisle, he found himself more patient with some last-minute customers. One customer couldn’t find the Mr. Potato Heads, but instead of imagining telling the man he was a potato head himself for not seeing them right in front of him, Nick patiently reached onto the shelf and picked one out.

“I can’t believe I didn’t see that,” the man said.

“I’m always surprised when I find something, too,” said Nick. “Sometimes I can’t see what’s staring me right in the face.”

“Me too,” said the man.

“Me too,” Nick said.

Near closing, word passed that the Aisle Worker of the Year voting was closed and the winner would be announced at punch-out time. Nick dragged himself to Yvonne’s office and stood outside the circle of employees. Maureen talked excitedly to Sylvia, who looked on solemnly, and Nick studied the side of her cheek, her jaw, her hair, her lips, her neck, her ears, and her eyes. Yvonne called out names and votes one at a time.

“Lee. . . sixteen.” She shuffled the index cards. “Alphonse. . . twenty-eight.” She shuffled again. “Nick. . . one.” She shuffled. “And Chrystie. . . eight. Nice, Chrystie, wow. And the winner is. . . Alphonse!”

They applauded. Nick clapped once, and Alphonse very humbly collected his one hundred dollar check. Smiling sheepishly before them, he made a heart sign with his hands.

Nick drifted away and headed outside. In his cold car, he slammed the door and growled, and while idling at the first red light, he roared a stream of curses and drew looks from a family in the car beside him.

Later, in his apartment building’s parking lot, he turned off the ignition and sat in the car and took deep breaths, focusing on the vapor from his mouth. He rested his head on the steering wheel and shivered and whimpered a little. Then, numb and stinging from cold, he thought of Sylvia and Ronnie, imagining that one or the other had cast his only vote—a vote that equaled those from twenty-eight ticklees, he told himself, and made the heart sign with frozen hands.

Bio

Lou Gaglia is the author of Poor Advice and Other Stories (2015) and Sure Things & Last Chances (2016). His stories have appeared in Eclectica, Columbia Journal, Loch Raven Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, and elsewhere. He teaches in upstate New York and is a long-time Wu Style T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner. Visit him at lougaglia.com

Note

“Friendly” competition can get people stewing and make them miserable. This story was swimming in my mind for a year before I finally felt how to go about telling it.

Q&A

What is your #1 pet peeve?

The poisoning of dandelions on suburban lawns. I don’t understand the obsession to poison the ground for the sake of appearances. At home, I like to watch the few bees that are left go from dandelion to dandelion, and from clover to clover.

What is your favorite article of clothing?

My T.J.B.A. Gold Rush shirt. It’s the uniform shirt of a basketball team I coached in New York City. I keep that shirt buried in the dresser drawer and only wear shirts that I don’t like instead. I don’t know what that says about me—maybe that I’m a lousy dresser.

What book have you read from beginning to end more times than any other? 

Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al. I’ve read it at least a dozen times. I love the narrator’s voice, and it’s a very funny book, and I can see clearly Lardner’s characters in my mind, without his writing a word of description. His dialogue and his perceptions about people were spot on. I’ve also read As I Lay Dying by Faulkner several times. What a masterpiece.