Prime Number Decimals 11.2
by Theresa Williams
followed by Q&A
Melvin Hurst was unhappy. He had his reasons. He was a Sagittarius, and he was trapped. That was the worst thing that could happen to a Sagittarius, to be trapped; that’s what the magazine said. He knew it was true.
So he craved and he chased. The bedroom. The bedroom of Molly Hightower in the house owned by her husband, where Melvin was right now. Melvin. Miles and miles from his own house on Easy Street, his children who always needed something: milk, shoes, glasses, dentistry. Yes, he was a terrible father, lax and unloving, but how could it be helped? He was born to it. Some part of him had always known this. That every impulse, every feeling was foreordained. That it was stamped on the blood. He was what he was, so why struggle?
Your daily Sagittarius horoscope. Your weekly love forecast, monthly horoscope or relationship compatibility, the magazine said.
“What’s your sign?” Melvin said. “Your astrology sign?”
She sighed. “Sagittarius.”
Then it was so designed. Molly Hightower, too, was bored. For starters, she was a very clean woman, and her husband was a grease monkey. He worked seven days a week running a service station called Go-Co. It was downtown, near the courthouse and the hardware. Melvin called Molly’s husband Johnny Go-Co. Johnny Go-Co worked at the service station while Melvin serviced his wife. The thought set Melvin aflutter. A strong pulse shot through his heart. He wanted to laugh. He did laugh. Out loud. “Ha, ha, ha!”
Molly wanted to know what was so funny.
“Nothing. Can’t I just laugh?”
“Because it’s just stupid.”
Melvin liked nonsense talk as a rule. As long as it didn’t go on and on. It beat thought-provoking conversation, for sure. Heartfelt discussion. Oh, how he liked Molly. Her hair was red, long and red. Yes, naturally red. Red on every part of her body that was hairy. That was supposed to have hair. She was Irish, like his mother. Melvin thought of his mother, how she was hardy and delicate at the same time. That was how he liked his women. Sturdy when he wanted, and delicate when he wanted.
Melvin really was in his element here at Molly’s. Despite the heat and humidity, his armpits were dry. Despite the chilidog he’d eaten earlier—with onions—his breath was minty fresh. He was blessed with clear skin and eyes. How disappointed Molly would be when he broke it off. How sad for her. He ran a finger across the jagged scar on her belly. She’d never have children, poor thing. Another thrill shot through him. He was a sensitive man.
Molly Hightower’s grandfather clock struck three. It was a massive structure with a pendulum that looked like it could cut off a man’s head. Dong, dong, dong. Three, the perfect number.
Only his one arm was free; Molly lay on the other. He snuck a look at his own clean fingernails. He knew that Molly must appreciate them. He laughed again.
She slapped his chest. A titty slap, she called it.
“What?” Melvin said. “What did I say?” She was cutting off his circulation. “Hey, give me a hug. My hug tank is low.”
She rolled over and gave him a squeeze. Johnny Go-Co had recently painted the house, inside and out. Everything was glaring, a white that attracted insects. Right now, flies congregated on the ceiling, and Melvin watched them, fat, lazy flies, buzzing lazily and making him feel lazy as well. What a lazy afternoon. Johnny Go-Co, the slob, putting the old nozzle in other people’s tanks.
Melvin bent his arm. He wanted to make sure he still could. “It’s alive.” Oh, that harsh tingling from elbow to wrist. He hated that, god, he hated it. “You and me, baby. We’re alive.” He looked at the ceiling.
Funny, when his arm fell asleep like that, he got this little fear. He thought his arm might stay like that forever, like a piece of dead meat.
“My hug tank’s low. Fill up that old hug tank,” Melvin said. The ceiling, the flies.
Theresa Williams’s short fiction has appeared in Chattahoochee Review, Hunger Mountain, The Sun and other magazines. Her novel, The Secret of Hurricanes (MacAdam/Cage 2002) was a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize. She grew up in Jacksonville, North Carolina and currently lives in Ohio, where she teaches creative writing and literature at Bowling Green State University.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: “Cleanliness” is part of an idea that has become a project: a collection of stories about people living on Easy Street. The project is largely influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s concept of grotesques. Not only that, because Melvin Hurst’s self-absorption knows no bounds, he’s an awful lot of fun to write about.
by Andrew Stancek
followed by Q&A
Mirko has not eaten. He wanders by the Danube, through the park, brushes a thin layer of snow off a bench, jiggles his legs. Nose runny, mouth bile-filled, temples a party for pneumatic drills. If he goes to see Duro, some harebrained scheme will bring him another step closer to prison. One crime a month is enough. He was going to have klobasa and eggs but sex intervened.
He walks past the greengrocer—only potatoes, leeks, onions on the street display, inedible. He sees apples and pears through the window but does not dare enter. Rummaging through restaurant garbage like a mangy cur, that’s all he can think of. Mother and stepfather once took him to this one, Modry Sen, long ago, and Mirko remembers leaving the peas on his plate.
He looks both ways, darts through the alley to the back, lifts the lid of the garbage can.
A swinging door slams, a fat man, white hat, cigarette dangling, barks. “You, what’s up? Hungry?” Mirko flushes, his fingers clawing the crusty roll he grabbed off the top. He nods. “You ever wash dishes at home?” Mirko stares. “Come through the back. I need a dishwasher. You can have a slice of bread and butter, glass of milk now. Man-sized meal at the end. You work out, you can come back.”
As the man holds the door for him, Mirko peers back into the street. Still time to run, he thinks. Last time he washed dishes he broke his stepfather’s glass and took off. The kitchen door creaks behind him; the man points to the heap of dirty dishes. Mirko fills the huge sink, winces as hot water splashes off the plates onto his arms.
From the dining room he hears the thrum of conversation. A waitress drops a tray of plates next to him. Mirko inhales the smell of the half-eaten schnitzel, gobbles it in two bites.
Mirko shivers, stretches, blows on his hands. The storage room where Savel, his boss for the last three weeks, has been letting him sleep, is unheated. Better than the park or the street, even Father’s or Mother’s place, but damn in the morning his hands are blue with cold. He moves his legs off the cot, scratches, thinks some running in place would warm him up, laughs. Coffee wafts in from the restaurant. The prep boys are getting ready for the lunch rush, and they always have a big pot. He needs a piss, face washed, but his chattering teeth lead him to the stove. He pours himself a mug, sips, nods at Rasto chopping onions and peeling carrots.
“You look like shit,” Rasto tells him, “smell like it, too.” Mirko knows better than to say anything. Rasto reeks of rum and in the morning picks fights. But after lunch and three beers, he mellows and gives Mirko survival tips. He is only three years older but has been on his own since he was ten, worked in restaurants throughout Slovakia; his cheek is scarred from a beer bottle gash. Mirko yawns, gulps the coffee, burns his lips but keeps drinking. He holds the mug with both hands on the way to the can.
At the prep table in the corner a red-haired girl, dressed in clean whites, is rolling dough. She does not look up as he goes by; the rolling pin whirrs; she cuts dough, on each square drops a dollop of cottage cheese and preserves. Mirko stares, walking toward her. He grabs a knife on her table, waltzes away balancing the tip on his chin. He looks back. She is intent on her dough. He begins whistling La Cumparsita. Let the dance begin.
Monday is the slowest day at the restaurant; most staffers have the day off. Mirko has been sniffing around Zofka, the new red-haired prep cook, since her first day on the job. Her manner is gruff. In the first week she has not said anything other than “No” to him. But on Sunday, with most of the dinner crowd gone, Mirko runs to the cemetery two streets over, helps himself to a fresh bouquet left by a grieving family. Back at the restaurant he presents it to Zofka with a theatrical bow. She continues stirring a sauce. He places the flowers in front of her, turns away, swearing under his breath. He is determined to wear her down. A large party comes in, a hectic hour for everyone. When he next looks over, he sees the flowers are in a vase in the corner of her work station.
They are now walking along the Danube. She is not interested in movies, she told him, does not drink, does not want to sit in some smoke-filled dive with a coffee. “A walk,” Mirko proposed, beginning to panic, “we can walk along the Danube, look at the waves.” He saw the “No” on her lips but she relented. “It’s going to be cold,” she said. “But I like the Danube. I used to…,” she tucks a strand of hair under her cap, gives him a shrug.
Mirko takes side glances as he walks beside her. Her face is covered with freckles and her eyelashes are a movie star’s. In the restaurant she only smells of food and her hair is covered but now Mirko is smelling flowers and her radiant hair is braided. A gull flies above, cackling; they both follow its flight. “I have always wanted to fly,” Mirko says.
As Zofka clears her throat, a startled voice calls out, “Mirko? Is that you?” Mother and stepfather are walking toward them, hand in hand. Mother is smiling, looking at him, at the girl. Mirko wants to grab Zofka and run towards the screeching gulls, soar over the river. Instead the four of them stare at each other.
“This is my mother, my stepfather,” he finally croaks. “And this, this is Zofka.”
“I am so pleased to see you, see you both,” Mother says. “Let’s go somewhere, out of this cold. Let’s go have a pastry together.”
Mirko is saying “No” as Zofka is saying, “That would be lovely.” Mother puts her arm around him, beaming. Mirko looks from one to the other, reaches out for Zofka’s hand. “All right then, a pastry,” he says.
Andrew Stancek was born in Bratislava, and after living in Toronto, has moved to southwestern Ontario. Some of his recent writing has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Pure Slush, Negative Suck, Left Hand Waving, 52/250 A Flash Year, Istanbul Literary Review, Kaffe in Katmandu, The Linnet’s Wings, and THIS Literary Magazine.
Q: What was the inspiration for these stories?
A: Mirko, the protagonist of these three pieces, sprang into life in 52/250 A Flash Year. He demanded that his adventures continue. In the end nine did appear in 52/250, and some in Istanbul Literary Review, and Kaffe in Katmandu. The three here have not seen publication before. Many others are yet to come and will be collected into an e-book soon.
Followed by Q&A
They leave you, these ghosts,
and just when you think
they will never return
a single word aneurysm
pulls your grandmother
shuffling into sight,
wearing hairnet and apron,
smiling as she lifts the pot holders,
that memory more real
than the muted crackle
of dusk light on Fall’s red
leaves. The sound of seizure
and your beloved
dog of twelve years pants
forward, cocks her head,
gives out a single yip, eager
for one more walk.
Arlene’s purple-stained face
up from the whirlpool
of dish suds in the sink,
as if she’s rising
from the muddy bottom
of the lake where she took her final
sleep. Everyone is so weary.
The ghosts miss you
as much as you miss them.
Can anyone say
Michael’s choir-smooth face
no longer gunshot
as you once again sprawl
on the rug whose mold
scent makes you sneeze
even now, forty years later.
He giggles the word Gesundheit.
The dog licks your hand warm.
If you don’t look closely
at the rain drizzle which spots
the darkening windows,
you can truly see
your grandmother bending
to rattle a sheet of cookies
from her gas oven;
hear the hissing warmth.
Richard Krawiec’s first full-length collection of poetry, She Hands Me the Razor, will be published by Press 53 in September. His chapbook, Breakdown, was published in 2009. His work appears in Shenandoah, sou’wester, many mountains moving, Witness, Cream City Review, Connotation, 2 Rivers View, Gulf Stream Review, West Branch, and elsewhere. He has published two novels, a story collection, and four plays. His awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the NC Arts Council (twice), and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He teaches online Fiction Writing for UNC Chapel Hill, and won its Excellence in Teaching Award. He is founder of Jacar Press.
Q: What can you tell us about the origins of this poem?
A: In the course of one day, I heard three words – the italicized ones in the poem – which sent me spiraling into memories of my dog, my grandmother, and a friend who committed suicide. But the memories were stronger than recollections, seemed like physical manifestations. That started me thinking about reality, and I realized there’s no reason to believe the physical reality we walk through is any more ‘real’ them the images from our memories. There is no objective way to prove that, nor is there any reason to believe our thoughts are less real than our observations.
followed by Q&A
If your name is Tyrone anything,
it has been proven that you are less likely
to be hired or rented an apartment,
regardless of your crisp and impressive resume.
If your name is Tyrone and you are looking
for a one-bedroom with your partner Abdul,
give up. Move to the city. You will have to drive
because Abdul will be on the no-fly list,
although they meant to keep tabs on
his cousin, the black sheep.
I once received a storybook as a gift
from the wife of our minister, who
gave me an illustrated set of tales
about a white missionary family in Africa,
which was, to the author, a place
with no internal boundaries, full of pitch-black
children who always smiled.
To the great amusement of their saviors,
these children had jumbled sounds instead
of names. This would not do. From America,
the missionaries had toted cans of beans,
powdered milk, Bibles, and also a stack
of spare Christian names to hand out.
Here you are, Paul! When they returned
to the states, the missionary children
would go to high school Spanish class.
On the first day, Señor Miller invites
them to color their own nametags. They select
a name from a colorful chart taped to the wall,
divided into names for boys and names for girls.
If you are born the wrong color,
the world may take your name, or
perhaps you will give it up yourself,
when spelling out Narasimha becomes
much harder than saying John – is that
with an h, or not?, asks the Citibank representative.
Perhaps one day it will seem
easier to stop the algebra teacher from stumbling
over it every time by just picking John,
although Tiffany Chang sounds as though
her family would have thrown out the Chang,
too, if that had been easy.
We ask a woman at marriage if she
will take her husband’s name,
when in fact it will take hers,
or if they are progressive, they will hyphenate
and combine. Leibowitz-Anderson, Leiborson,
their first child a mash of names,
but it is fair because everyone will have
to change their drivers’ licenses
and business cards to words which are new
and reveal nothing about their great-grandfather’s residence.
This is not practical if you are a polygamist,
or just not into marriage. How about we just
shack up and swap names for while? I will
take good care of yours.
Kate Partridge lives in Fairfax, VA, where she is pursuing an M.F.A. at George Mason University. She serves as the assistant managing editor for So to Speak.
Q: What was the inspiration for this poem?
A: Recently, I was employed by a fair housing organization, where I spent a lot of time looking at data on race, religion, sexual orientation–factors that seriously affect the ability of people to obtain decent housing. This poem comes from my reflections on the information that we try to draw out of names and the act of naming, and how meaningful or frivolous that endeavor can be.
So much depends
our happiness. So much
depends upon a rural
glazed with white
So much hangs
with our laurels
So much for
balancing its red
Elizabeth Savage lives and teaches in Fairmont, West Virginia. A chapbook entitled Jane & Paige or Sister Goose, and Grammar, a full-length collection, will be published by Furniture Press Books this year. She is poetry editor for Kestrel: A Journal of Literature & Art.