Prime Decimals 13.7
by Rachel Unkefer
followed by Q&A
Each time Jessica turns her head for a breath, she sees a man above, moving along the edge in parallel with her, as if he were walking a dog on a leash, if the dog were in a swimming pool. For a few lengths he loomed at the end of the lane, but her flip turns thwarted him, so now he's following her on the side. This pool has four lap lanes; why do they always go for the one with a woman in it? She's supposed to be magnanimous, generous, happy to share, but she needs this relaxation time—a break after a stressful workday at the bank. Why can't she be a total bitch sometimes? Why can't she just say, "Ask somebody else. I need this lane to myself. Now buzz off."?
Because that's not how she grew up. Be nice. Be polite. Otherwise, men won't like you. That was guidance from her mother, who can no longer take care of herself, because, at age sixty, she's eaten her way into morbid obesity and a variety of chronic illnesses.
As Jessica gets ready to flip at the end of the lane, she sees the man's legs dangling in the water. Ignoring him isn't working. There's no way to complete her flip and push off against the wall of the pool with his legs in the way. As she gets closer, trying to figure out what to do, he reaches out and taps the top of her bathing cap. She stops and stands, startled by the touch.
"Can I share this lane with you?" he asks.
When all else fails, be crazy or a pain in the ass. She blurts, "If you want, but my eyesight's really bad, so I have a hard time swimming straight. I have a tendency to bump into the rope, and the side, and, well, whatever's around. And I do backstroke every third lap, so you definitely have to watch out for me then." She smiles and shrugs. "But, whatever." She turns away from him and swims underwater a few yards before surfacing. By the time she reaches the opposite end, the man is putting on his goggles and getting ready to slip into someone else's lane.
Was she a little passive-aggressive? Maybe. But isn't that better than plain old aggressive? What would happen if Jessica told her older sister outright that she refused to take in their mother? So what if Megan has two young children and no room in her house? Jessica's trying to have a career, a social life, keep in shape. Having her mother back in her life would ruin everything. Her therapist agrees.
Some days Jessica can't get her rhythm in the pool. Her kicking is out of sync and she forgets to keep one arm stretched out in front until the other one comes around. She's trying to learn a new crawl stroke, and today the old way's creeping back in. She's fighting the water instead of gliding through it.
Coming back toward the shallow end, she encounters turbulence. Someone has invaded her lane without even giving her the courtesy of asking. Just as the intruder kicks past on her left, she goes for a breath and gets a mouth full of water. She has to stop and stand in the lane to cough and reposition her nose plugs, while the trespasser continues, oblivious. Jessica rests a moment against the wall, and then puts her head back down and pushes off. The two swimmers each occupy half a lane now, passing at irregular intervals, since they're not keeping the same pace. Now, in addition to being thrown off her rhythm, she's struggling against the other swimmer's wake.
Yesterday, Megan called and tried to make Jessica feel guilty about wanting to put their mother in a nursing home. Megan's rewritten the past, pretending they had a normal childhood, with a mother who baked cookies and put Band-Aids on their knees. She doesn't want to remember what it was really like, fending for themselves when their mother locked them out of the house so she could entertain her boyfriends, or having to scrounge in the couch cushions for lunch money before school when she stayed out all night. Jessica wanted to remind her sister, set her straight, but she couldn't bring herself to do it.
Her right arm is outstretched, her hand straight in front as her left pulls her through the water. Then the left is straight in front before the right pulls down and back. It takes discipline to keep from windmilling her arms, which wastes power. As the other swimmer approaches, Jessica slows down and calculates the timing. At the right moment, she brings her left fist around, slightly outward, and connects. Her knuckles hurt more than she anticipated, and the jolt travels up to her elbow and shoulder. For a split second she's confused, feeling as if she is the victim of the punch. She makes it to the other end, stops, and pivots, still submerged below her chin.
The other swimmer stands a few yards away, in the middle of the lane, holding her nose. A bloody waterfall streams down her face. She waves her red hand in the direction of the lifeguard.
The whistle blows. "Everybody out. Now! Bodily fluids."
Jessica clambers over the side and lands hard on the tile. She puts on her glasses and heads toward the locker room. Halfway there she looks back and sees the lifeguard pressing a towel to the woman's upturned face.
Rachel Unkefer is president and a founding member of WriterHouse, a non-profit writing community in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her short stories have been published in Crab Orchard Review, the anthology Shaking Intensified, and elsewhere. Her unpublished novel, A Useful Life, was a 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel quarterfinalist and a semifinalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition. She was awarded residencies by VCCA and Writers in the Heartland in 2011.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: I often fantasize about engaging in socially unacceptable behaviors when I'm angry or irritated, but instead of giving my id free reign, I write about characters who are allowed to do almost anything. Even so, don't ever get into my lane at the pool.
To Dance at Tamarindo
by Craig Fishbane
followed by Q&A
We make a perfect pair: I’m an awful student and he’s a lousy teacher. His gaze is never far from a water-proof Timex as he shouts in a mango-flavored version of English—Keep your balance! You keep your balance! This is the signal that the white-capped waves of the Pacific are about to dump me off my surf board and toss me like an uncoordinated lump of driftwood in the pebbled mud of the stone-bottomed sea.
I am tattooed with salt-water scratches that decorate the length of my legs. It is easy to see how these are the same legs that carried me to last place in the rush of seventh-grade relay races. They are also the same legs that stopped a yard too short as the game-winning hit dunked in at summer camp. They are the same legs that stuttered past Lori Ciccone at Spring Prom. I remember how her eyes glistened with the same shade of green that radiates now from the forested mountains rising beyond the sand of Playa Tamarindo.
The 4PM breakers are relentless as locker-room bullies as I push my way back through the punishing tide. Although my instructor stares at his wristwatch with ostentatious hope, I insist that I’m ready for one more try. I belly-flop on my rented board with the same unbalanced body that has carried me on the thirty year journey from the school-yards of Brooklyn to the beaches of Costa Rica. I admit it is the body of a born observer—legs too long, hips too wide, feet bent at a crooked angle—the body of a pure season ticket-holder, with dreams of leaping past the railing of a field-level box.
For one last time, I hop into position—feet straight, knees bent low, weight shifted back. A sea-born swell rises and I ready myself to catch, not the wave, but the moment—the moment when I belong here, gliding with the Tamarindo surfistas—tall, lean and graceful, a harmony of body and mind. For one tick of the water-proof clock, I dance to the liquid rhythms of the universe, swaying and balancing with such verve and precision that even my instructor is reduced to helpless cheerleading. I can no longer distinguish his voice from the squawks of seagulls. Lean white wings trace a path above cresting water.
A strange new coastline surges forward to greet me and, finally, I am released to fly.
Craig Fishbane has been published in the New York Quarterly, Flashquake, Opium and Night Train. His chapbook, Dengue Fever, will soon be published by BoneWorld.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: Like much of my writing, this piece deals with personal transformations that occur in surprising contexts. For me, attempting to surf was such a (pleasant) shock to my system that I instantly knew something had changed. In some indefinable but perceptible way, I had become a new person.
by Bryan Shawn Wang
followed by Q&A
Lara and Dave must have been doing all right for themselves. A split level on the Boulevard, with the main floor dormered out, the front of the house gleaming with windows—not exactly a mansion, but no shack either. Big surprise. Even as a child, Lara had been pretty darn choosy.
The front yard looked a mess, though. The sun was slipping down behind the house, dragging everything into shadows, but that couldn’t hide the fallen branches, the leaves smothering the lawn.
They probably didn’t have the time to keep the place up and didn’t have the money to pay somebody. They’d both be working full-time just to pay the mortgage. Even with home prices down, Chesterton homes weren’t cheap. But Lara would insist on Chesterton schools.
Once upon a time Grady had cared about the Chesterton schools, too. Or at least Wanda had cared, and he’d played along. He’d played along even as he’d played around.
I was a goddamn prick, Grady said.
Lara wouldn’t have argued with that.
To his face, Lara had told him: Mom would be so much better off without you. You’re sucking her dry, she said. Selfish gets as selfish gives.
After Wanda passed away, Lara had stopped talking to Grady altogether. Grady had moved out of Chesterton, and Lara had moved back, as if to make a point. He hadn’t seen her once in the two years since. Why hadn’t he been invited out here? He guessed he didn’t deserve it. He didn’t even deserve to ask the question.
He rang the doorbell. Maybe if he’d seen a car in the driveway he would have thought twice about ringing. He wondered how he’d made it this far. No one answered. Big surprise.
The screen in the door sagged out, and he could just about picture little Asher pressing up against it. Little Asher, six years old now—a kindergartener, or a first grader. Grady could never keep the years straight.
A piece of loose weatherstripping dangled out from underneath the door. Although who was Grady to notice something like that? As if he was Mr. Fix-It-All.
I’m sorry, Grady said.
Two rakes slouched against the downspout on the porch. Beside them, a child’s rake lay sprawled across a plastic wheelbarrow.
Grady surveyed the yard, the empty driveway. He would wait for them. He’d resolved to make an effort. He would wait, and he might as well make himself useful.
Grady swept the leaves straight across the yard and down to the street, where the town would collect them. He remembered that much, although back at the house, Wanda had done all of the yard work, on account of Grady’s bad heart. He still had a bad heart, he guessed. He just wasn’t real careful with it anymore.
He raked in rows neat as noon, a quiet rhythm in his work, satisfaction in airing out strips of lawn that had already yellowed. He used to sneer at those guys who liked everything spick and span, who emptied their garages once a month, who wouldn’t know life if it bit them on the ass. They’d rub on some antiseptic, return the bottle to its shelf, and go back to oiling their hedge trimmers.
When he finished, Grady stood his rake up on the porch alongside the other and arranged the toy wheelbarrow and rake, like a display. The yard looked renewed, the bank of leaves at the curb, the branches bundled along the driveway.
He tried to straighten, to stretch out, but his back was unwilling. His wrists and arms, even his fingers, were sore. He was aware of the quick, uneven beat of his heart.
He reached as far as the sidewalk before he fell. Before he took a seat on the concrete. He was just resting. Just waiting.
Headlights appeared. The beams shot over him, past where he was sitting, and swung into the driveway. The car stopped beyond where he’d stacked the branches. He wanted to call out, but he felt tired, dead tired.
The door on the passenger side of the car opened. Lara, the birthday girl. See, Grady hadn’t forgotten this time. See, he’d tried to help out. The woman slammed the door shut.
Three silhouettes on the porch. A key, the front door opening, a light switched on. For an instant, Grady saw his daughter with her family. Then that door closed, too.
His heart was still bumping along, flip-flopping inside his chest. Maybe those fellows knew something after all, Grady thought. He closed his eyes. Those neighbors with their caulking guns and hedge trimmers and well-worn rakes, those men who could find a place for anything and everything.
Bryan Shawn Wang lives with his wife and two children in a small town outside a small city in Pennsylvania. His fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as decomP, LITnIMAGE, The Citron Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Medulla Review, Solstice, and the anthology Sudden Flash Youth (Persea Books) and has been shortlisted for the storySouth Million Writers Award.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: I’d previously written a short story from the perspective of Grady’s wife, and I felt he needed a forum for his own narrative. I’m sorry she didn’t survive to hear it.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: A Collaboration between a Foremost American Poet and the Ghost of Jelaluddin Rumi
by Carolyn Moore
followed by Q&A
Among twenty snowy mountains. Among twin teas. A Hmong.
The only moving thing was what’s-his-face who throws birds in cars
at stoplights. What popped out once was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds, each conscious of itself,
like a tree stripped to become what it truly is,
a tree in which, cawing bliss, there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled. Black bird-world. Blackened bird, whorled
in cream corn sauce. My family loves cream corn and pantomime.
A man and woman are one candle
and the moth crazy around it.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
are one small fig from a random tree.
I do not know which to prefer. Not know, witch. Not No!
Choose the beauty of inflections: kingdom of cling peaches,
fireworks, red ants? Or the beauty of innuendoes?
And can you name the four areas of surrender?
The blackbird whistling, “lights out baby,” or just after.
Icicles filled the long window—
all ice thinks only of this chance.
The shadow of the blackbird
crossed it, to and fro, like a Sufi,
all eye and spiritual breathing,
his caw muffled in the shadow,
an indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Possum Holler, O Thin Mints of Possibility,
why do you imagine self-conscious Southern poetry,
preposterous as a wedding dress? Do you not see how the blackbird
suffers from what Wittgenstein calls aspect blindness?
Are they real or virtual, those feet of the women about you?
I know noble accents and ditties
and lucid, inescapable twirlings.
But I know, too, that when he caws
“Don’t theorize about pure essence!”
the blackbird is involved in what I know.
When the blackbird flew out of sight. Wind: the black Bird Flu—outta sight!
That was a helluva note—it marked the edge. Come, my sultry refulgence:
salvation—don’t leave earth without it in one of many circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
dervishing in green-light ecstasy,
even the bawds of gloom
would cry out sharply.
He rode over Hog Waste Lagoon. He wrote over hog waste
in a glass coach. Once, a fear pierced him in a shop,
voices emanating from the shelves.
In that he mistook the shadow of Poetry. West of Rome
is Poetry. Poetry, Georgia. Wonder who lives there?
Besides Pattycake and blackbirds.
The river is moving. How it meanders in praise!
Still whooping bliss, the blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon. Even in Gaul after noon
it was snowing and it was going to snow. Onionlight.
That’s right. Vidalia onions. Onionlove.
All of it mystery, mystery, mystery as the blackbird sat,
opaque and revelatory, in his hitherworld of cedar-limbs.
Carolyn Moore’s three poetry chapbooks won their respective competitions, as has her book of poems, Instructions for Traveling Light, pending publication from Deep Bowl Press. She taught at Humboldt State University (Arcata, CA) until able to eke out a living as a freelance writer and researcher, working from the last vestige of the family farm in Tigard, OR.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: Wallace Stevens’s famous poem is often parodied, but I was aiming for an homage to Coleman Barks’s exuberant treatment of Rumi’s poetry—and especially one to C.D.Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining, which, as Emily D. might say, “took off the top of my head.”
by Penelope Scambly Schott
When the disaster landed, we had large stocks
of frozen grapefruit juice and canned yams.
None of us liked yams
and no one would confess to having bought them.
When the grapefruit concentrate started to thaw,
we thought of mixing up the juice,
but then someone said we shouldn’t waste water,
so we ate grapefruit slurry on cold yams.
For the end of the world, it tasted pretty good.
We all told each other that we loved each other,
but I don’t know whether we actually meant it
or maybe we only wished we had.
The man was a gardener
who collected ground hogs in Havahart traps
and let them loose on the far side of the river.
Whenever he happened to cross that river,
he admired his ground hogs all happy and fat,
sunning among rocks by the edge of the road.
The man happened to die too soon. His widow
took down the garden fence. Now she plants
nothing, but she drives her car over the bridge
to park near the rocks. She wonders how long
a ground hog can live. Which ground hogs
are his? Which, their plump descendants?
Penelope Scambly Schott’s most recent book is Crow Mercies, winner of the Sarah Lantz Memorial Poetry Prize. Her verse biography, A is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth, was awarded the Oregon Book Award for Poetry in 2008.