Prime Decimals 11.7
by Peter DeMarco
followed by Q&A
I unload trucks at Home Depot with Tommy, a college student who wants to make the scariest movie ever made, no haunted house bullshit or monsters, he says, just real psychological horror, like this movie he saw in film class called The Tenant.
After work, we drink in a topless bar. I ask the barmaid if she can make something pretty. Thirty seconds later a Tequila Sunrise sits in front of me. Perfect, I tell her. Outside, the winter deadness had robbed everything of any spirit. It was nice to see some color.
Tommy asks me if I want to be in his movie.
As an extra?
No, my lead.
I’m not an actor.
There’s not much dialogue, he says.
I need a Mr. Suburbia type.
The jukebox plays “Gloria.” It’s Christmas week and the bar is empty. A dancer wears a mini-skirt Santa outfit.
Everybody cuts their grass, I tell him.
What do I have to do, I ask.
Just follow my direction. I’ll talk you through it. The film is more of a mood thing, a lot of shadows, sounds.
Tommy’s film is called The Commuter. On Halloween, a man is on his way home from the train station when he hits a kid on a bike. The kid is wearing one of those skeleton costumes. The guy leaves the scene because he’s got a date with a woman he’s been pursuing for a long time. He feels guilty and imagines he hears the skeleton bones rattling around his house, kind of like a Tell-Tale Heart thing, Tommy says.
At the end of the movie he’s wandering around the city and comes across a movie being shot. There’s a crowd of extras and he walks into the middle of the crowd, and he cries, he can’t express himself to the real world, Tommy explains, so he cries in this fake world in the middle of all these strangers.
Tommy tells me he’d like to open his film in the topless bar, on a close-up of a dancer’s breasts, and then pull back slowly until the commuter is revealed drinking at the bar. I don’t think anyone’s ever opened a film with that kind of shot, he says. It could be symbolic, you know, the guy lost his mother when he was young, and it’s kind of a maternal thing.
I don’t tell Tommy that my mother died when I was 10. It would make him feel like a casting genius.
In the parking lot, I watch him pull away in a Monte Carlo, and after his tires finish threading the gravel, it’s quiet again. It’s one of those nights where everyone is somewhere and the night belongs to itself. I stop for coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. The movie theater I worked in during high school sits across the street, on the edge of a strip mall, its façade reminding me of a tired, broken down boxer, scarred and punchy.
The marquee is white and blank.
I’d been to the city once. My parents had taken me to the Empire State Building because I wanted to see where King Kong had fallen. He didn’t really die here, my father told me, it was make believe.
On the street, I almost trip over a homeless man missing half his body and living on a skateboard. He’s rattling a single coin around in a coffee mug. I stop and stare at him. He stares back, still swinging the coin in the cup around.
Don’t you know it’s not polite to stare, he snarls. The sound in his cup reminds me of something. When I walk away he calls me a fuckin’ freak.
Two nights before, Tommy told me to take the train into the city a few times, to get the feel of commuting. That morning, in the train station parking lot, I joined the commuters. They looked like an army of silhouettes, in position for the 7:17 a.m. train, the one my father took every day. I wore one of his old gray suits. At my side was his scuffed black briefcase.
On 42nd Street, black guys in fancy hats give me the eye. It’s cold, and they huddle in doorways. A row of movie marquees displays Charles Bronson, Kung Fu, and horror movie titles. I buy a hot chocolate and walk into a pornographic bookstore. I almost expect someone to tell me that I’m not allowed in there. In the bookstore in our strip mall where I used to buy my comic books, there was an adult section behind these swinging saloon-type doors in the back of the store, with a sign that said ‘You Must Be 18 to Enter.’ For a 10-year-old, the other side of those doors might as well have led to outer space.
One day I rode my bicycle behind the shopping center and over to the store’s dumpster, where stacks of magazines were piled on top. I spent an hour looking at extreme close-ups of female body parts. I rode home with an erection, and when I entered the kitchen my mother was sitting at the table, in her bathrobe, stirring an empty coffee cup, the spoon clanging against the ceramic with an empty resonance. She had just found out she had leukemia.
After she died, I thought about the sign: You Must Be 18 to Enter. When it came to sex, you had to be 18, but an experience with death had no sign, no age restriction.
A Santa shakes a bell and says help the needy. His white beard has turned gray, stained with city soot and exhaust. I try to remember my father’s office address. He worked at a life insurance company, in accounting.
The wind in the city is brutal. I don’t know how my father managed this commuter lifestyle. I stare at my reflection in a glass door and notice that the suit appears to dwarf my body.
Then I realize it was the suit my father died in.
I drink in a noisy Irish pub where everybody’s celebrating the holidays and slapping me on the back. For some reason they all want to buy me drinks. Perhaps it’s my bland appearance, which causes them to project onto me their feelings for a brother, son, nephew, or husband.
Out in the cold, my eyes water and my head spins. I lean against a brick wall and check my watch. On the way to the station, I stop by the homeless man on the skateboard. He shakes the cup and I listen to the sound of the coin, the same sound my mother’s spoon made in her empty cup as she stared out the window at her moribund garden.
I swing my briefcase and knock the cup out of his hand. It smashes on the sidewalk. He curses and rolls towards me with saliva spraying from his mouth and I run away, the briefcase tight to my chest.
On the train, I stare out the window, the same landscape my father watched, strip malls and houses, pools and fences. In the parking lot, commuters hustle off to waiting cars, while others appear languid as they make their way through dark rows of vehicles.
At home, I take a long shower and then walk into the yard and fill my lungs with cold winter air. There’s a full moon out and I think of how life is much scarier than the movies. There was the day my father stood alongside our pool, the sun reflecting off the gold locks on his briefcase. He’d taken an early train home. The lawn looks good, he told me. Then he collapsed into the pool. I was so stunned by the incongruity of what I’d just witnessed that I couldn’t move. I just stared at his gray suit jacket, splayed out like a giant bird’s wings on the water.
They told me that he was dead from a heart attack before he even hit the water, that there was nothing I could’ve done, but that didn’t make me feel any better.
A month later, a bulldozer filled in the hole that was once the pool.
I arrange snow shovels in Aisle 5. Tommy wants to start shooting the film next week. I ask him how he plans to make a film that takes place on Halloween in the winter, when there are no leaves on the trees. There are tricks, Henry, he says.
Back home, the kids play touch football in the street. I join in and hit one kid for a long touchdown. They tell me I have a good arm and want to know why I don’t answer the door on Halloween. I’m probably watching TV and can’t hear the door, I lie. One kid says his mother calls me Boo Radley and he wants to know who Boo is.
I tell him that Boo Radley was a character in a story who helped children, and liked to watch them play outside.
The kids go in for dinner and I notice that the outside of the house could use a little paint. I hadn’t done much since my father died. Just continued to cut the grass in the summer and shovel the driveway in the winter. My father died when I was a senior in high school and I was able to maintain the house with his life insurance and pension policies. But I lost the motivation to attend college and began working various construction and custodial jobs.
On Monday morning, I join the commuters on the 7:17. I open my father’s briefcase. It is the first time the case has been opened since he died. There’s an old newspaper, some pens, papers, and my mother’s autopsy report. I wonder why he kept it in here. It lists all kinds of medical jargon, and the time of death. It was spring. I’d been playing Little League when my father picked me up and told me the news. I had just struck out with the bases loaded to end the game and nobody on the team would talk to me.
In the city, I wander around. Holding the briefcase and wearing a suit makes me feel purposeful, but I’ve got nothing to do. I buy an ‘I love N.Y.’ coffee mug and locate the homeless guy. He’s holding a paper cup. I hand him the mug and smile. Fuckin’ freak, he says. It starts to snow and I take off my father’s overcoat and place it around his shoulders. How did you lose your body, I ask him. Fuckin’ Vietnam, he says. I’ve seen it in the movies, I tell him.
The movies are a fuckin’ lie, he spits.
I walk back to the station and remember what my father said about King Kong, how he was only a foot tall.
I continue to commute. I stop going to work at Home Depot and ignore Tommy’s phone calls. Sometimes I walk into random office buildings, take the elevator up, punch a button, and walk through office space as if I had a purpose. Nobody ever says anything.
On the train one morning I run into a girl from high school who worked at the candy counter of the movie theater when I was an usher. One night she’d told me that I looked sharp in my red velvet blazer. I said that I didn’t know why they called us ushers because ushers escorted people to their seats and all we did was rip their tickets. She had laughed and said that I could escort her someday, but I never did anything about it.
Now she’s married with kids and works in advertising as a traffic coordinator or something like that. I tell her that I’m an actor and I’m on my way to audition for a floor wax commercial. My character is supposed to come home from work, kiss my wife, and tell her how clean and shiny everything looks. You’ve got a believable look, she says.
We say goodbye and I tell her that I’m on my way to California to be in the movies.
The snow is light, and the city looks like it belongs in one of those snow globes. I look up to the top of the Empire State Building, the way I did when I came here for the first time. That’s where King Kong went, I’d said to my father.
Then he told me how it was all a lie.
I buy a new overcoat and get a large container of coffee. A taxi drops me off over the bridge. I look up at the green sign and begin to walk west. The snow is heavy. With my briefcase and coffee, I was ready.
I had a long commute ahead of me.
Peter DeMarco teaches high school English and film in New York City. He has been published in The New York Times, Cadillac Cicatrix, SmokeLong Quarterly, Verbsap, Pindeldyboz, Sunsets & Silencers, Hippocampus Magazine, Dogzplot, and Cinema Retro. Peter lives in New Jersey with his wife Charmaine, and two boys, Dexter and Sam.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I’ve been working on a series of suburban stories involving the Henry character. They have autobiographical roots: I lost my parents at a young age and remained in their house.
Followed by Q&A
I stole another woman’s only scarf—
No, I didn’t. I stole the line above to lead to the next
line, swiped like the challis scarf
lost in a church parking lot.
It was black with a blue-and-white geometric print
like tiny Turkish tiles.
One Sunday I looked up from prayer
and an old woman in the pew in front of me
was wearing my scarf!
Because it had been given to me
by someone I loved, I couldn’t let it pass,
so after church, I said, “You’re wearing
my scarf,” and she said, “Someone found it
and said it looked like mine,” adding insult to injury
since I didn’t think my beautiful scarf
looked like it would belong to
a woman wearing Hush Puppy shoes and a Brillo-pad
hairdo. “But it’s not yours,” I said.
“It’s mine,” so she took it off,
handing it over as if she were giving me a gift
when the scarf had been mine to begin with.
I still wear it, especially
on cold mornings when I need to wrap something warm
and familiar around my neck.
That happened many years ago
when I still went to church and still believed
I was lost and needed God to find me.
Beth Copeland grew up in Japan, India, and North Carolina. Her book Traveling Through Glass received the 1999 Bright Hill Press Poetry Book Award. Her poems have been published in various literary journals and have received awards from Atlanta Review, North American Review, The North Carolina Poetry Society, and Peregrine. Two of her poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is employed as an English instructor at Methodist University.
Q: What was the inspiration for this poem?
A: I wrote “Confession” in response to a writing prompt from Tupelo Press Poetry Project. The prompt was to use a line from Anne Marie Rooney’s poem, “Last Evening: Index of first lines.” My first line, “I stole a woman’s only scarf,” was taken from Rooney’s poem, which Rooney took from someone else’s poem.
Man Counting the Thoughts of a Cloud
followed by Q&A
There’s a rock asleep in number one,
but two embraces it, and three goes along for the ride,
and soon there’s nine of them,
all huddled together, trying not to touch,
and then one wonders about the space between,
how there’s nothing in it on one side, and on the other
a vast distance to cross to reach something
larger than oneself, so the emptiness inside
seems to multiply. It’s filling that space between.
We must try to comprehend how many of us
will be asked to give up our lives
to all those gentle stones carried one at a time
from one side of the field to the other
and back again without even waking.
I came to a hole in the ground, and I fell in
because I could not see the bottom.
It was what I wanted, and I kept falling.
My friends thought I was dead, but I was older than that—
there’s room for your death in a glass of water.
I was about to take my legs into the next room.
I had gotten too far ahead of myself.
I had been falling a long time when I heard a pin drop.
I went looking, and I found the haymow, and someone disgusting
was rolling in it with someone almost beautiful.
What I meant by “confused” was
after your bones crack and fall
to a pile of dust on the bedroom floor,
they will water your prosperous garden with you.
Above the hardware sign, several bulbs bend
down like an overbite cavity, flashing golden
in the evening’s lighted smile, a suitor
with only sincerity and an earnest flutter.
Rubber glove turned inside out, paper plate grayed
with greasy abandon, iridescent feather of a large
and arrogant bird, bubblegum stuck to the bus-stop seat—
pay attention there’s another life being decided,
and the important thing is exactly what we thought it was,
but smaller, so much smaller, and inside us all the time,
waiting to show us what it found, out there,
where we were thinking.
Rich Ives is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander. His story collection, The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking, was one of five finalists for the 2009 Starcherone Innovative Fiction Prize. In 2010 he has been a finalist in fiction at Black Warrior Review and Mississippi Review and in poetry at Cloudbank and Mississippi Review. In 2011 he is again a finalist in poetry at Mississippi Review. The Spring 2011 Bitter Oleander contains a feature including an interview and 18 of his hybrid works.
Q: What was the inspiration for this poem?
A: “Man Counting the Thoughts of a Cloud” is part of a series of point-of-view poems with sections that reconsider each premise from a different angle while the language remains straightforward, establishing a recurring character who appears to be simpler than he really is.