Prime Number Magazine, Issue 137, Jul – Sep 2018
Judged by Kevin Morgan Watson
Followed by Author Bio
First Floor Foolin'
Lenny stood at the bottom of the stairs, the wrinkles on his hand deep and twisting like the grain of the banister. Lines deepened and arched across his forehead as the crow picked up its wailing from earlier, the crow that had established residence outside the second floor landing. Something was dead or dying.
He could hardly remember getting to the second floor without feeling like both his knees had exploded on the ascent, pinhead-sized particles of bone tearing through tissue and cartilage, perhaps. He squinted at the bars of sunlight that reached the bottom of the staircase and shoo’d the bird away with a limp hand. It was more of an acknowledgment, a surrender to his new roommate. He sat down. Butt on the second step, feet on the floor.
The answering machine in the foyer—an area large enough for a welcome mat and a side table—played the message from his sister for the second time, confirming with him that they’d be leaving at three for his consultation. He’d missed what time she’d said the first time around. Needing to hear things two or three times before he had all the pieces was routine, had been for the last decade. It felt like his body was falling apart in a new way each day. Bad knees, bad ears, only a couple years left. No other knees gonna make no difference.
His sister’s message came to an end for the second time. He could pretend he hadn’t heard the message, be asleep on the window seat upstairs when she pulled up, claim he was resting for a shouting match with the crow later on. Maybe he’d get the ladder out and really get in its face. Flap his wings. Really show it something. She’d roll her eyes, biting her knuckles and tugging at the skin with indifference. She was an aging, dogged tiger with waning tolerance for her brother, who seemed to be shrinking and souring in his one pair of khakis.
She’d never buy it, he thought. He hadn’t climbed the stairs in months. He’d been using the pull-out sofa for a bed, a first-story dweller now, gravity unrelenting, his back now twisted into worse shape than his knees. He saw himself, more and more, resembling the letter C, slowly arcing toward the ground, though he was sure he’d reach zero. Turn to nothing. That much was inevitable.
The door of his sister’s Camry slammed in the driveway and she’d find him right where he was. Staring up toward the sun, elbows on his knees, hands hanging, the warm light on the window seat too far, out of reach. Concentric circles rippling over his eyes from staring too long, she’d be a silhouette. He’d be drooling, mouth open, because he didn’t have the energy to close it and the window seat looked so damn good.
Lenny played the message a third time. His mind returned to what had gone and died in the gutter. Buried among the wet leaves and debris, the crow had made its home on the roof nearby. Both Lenny and the crow knew something was rotting there, but neither knew how to get to it, and the bird squawked at the gutter in frustration and Lenny squawked at the bird because he knew the feeling. His sister’s voice continued talking from the machine, telling him she’d be over a little early to clean the porch before they leave. The crow interrupted, started squawking again, and Lenny listened for his sister’s steps, smiling to himself, thinking how annoyed she’d be to find him faking sleep.
~ ~ ~
Colin Packard grew up in New England, moved to the Midwest, grew up more in Chicago, still more in Detroit, and now lives in California where he works as a baker. Writing, drawing, and pick-up games of soccer and basketball remain constants. Doughnuts, too.
I've lived with Lenny for several years now and, as of yet, he's little known to anyone who's not me. A version of my neighbor, or a few of my neighbors from years back, Lenny's character has been a channel for meditations on loss and the things we say and don't say, share and don't share.
Judged by Steve Mitchell, author of The Naming of Ghosts
Followed by Author Bio
The pavilion is packed with chess players. Some in their eighties, a couple my age. Some are passing the time. Others are making a living.
Nearby card dealers can’t help but be impressed. Bets that cards settle in fifteen seconds can take half an hour in chess. And card games get broken up fast. Cops knock over cardboard boxes, laughing as cards fall through the grates. This month, three-card monte was the feature crime. Players got taken away in cuffs on TV, the latest evidence of the restored safety of the city.
Cops wouldn’t think to break up a chess game. They stop and watch, try to figure out the best move. They reminisce about a game they won when they were eleven, or some cousin they couldn’t beat. Either way, chess is safe.
This one chess player does his thing by the handball courts. He’s got his hair in short twists, and black frame glasses. He’s got folding chairs, a folding table, and the timers too. His opponent is white, but not Russian. Both these guys would look out of place in the pavilion.
Malik and I walk up to his table, watching the end of the game. Three pieces left, fleeing around the board; it goes on for another two minutes before the loser hands over a roll of bills and cuts out. For some reason, we feel okay talking to the chess master.
“You killed him,” I say.
The chess master answers quietly: “Thanks. No big deal. He made some mistakes, opened himself up. Any of you like to…”
Malik wants a game with no money on it.
“Business has gotten slow,” the chess master says. “Why not?”
In the next twenty minutes, he checkmates Malik and me, one after the other. Along the way he explains strategies, how he kills us off. Anytime we want to come and watch, he offers, feel free. But next game might have to cost a little. Got to make a living. Malik has another question: “Could we call you Deep Blue? You know, that computer who beat the champ?”
He smiles and stares at the ground. Above us, seagulls glide with fries hanging out of their beaks. In the distance, a carousel organ dukes it out with a Slick Rick mix. Further down, I hear cardboard slap the boardwalk. Finally, he answers: “Sure, why not?”
We watch Deep Blue pack up. I want to rehash the chess moves like a basketball game– you burst through and left him helpless—but I stay quiet. Almost. I can’t help asking the obvious: “You make a living at this?”
“Starting to look that way. If you’re looking to make money, I wouldn’t recommend it. Not unless you like chess already.”
His answer’s not complete. He folds up the table, the two chairs, and the chess set. He drops both timers into one deep pocket. Before he leaves, Deep Blue takes a moment to finish his business opinion: “It’s the overhead. Too much investment for the payback.”
~ ~ ~
Jonathan Segol's writing career began as a songwriter in New York City, as well as a journalist for Street News, a newspaper sold on the subway. Since, he has received prizes or honorable mentions from New Millennium Writings, Whispering Prairie Press, and Brooklyn’s Film and Art Festival. He has taught writing in several settings: Brooklyn’s High School for Auto Mechanics, various vocational centers in upstate New York, and currently at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.
“Deep Blue” is one of a series of shorts that grew into a developing novel about Coney Island, Y2K, automobile chop shops, and graffiti tagging. The chess hustler, Deep Blue, plays a supporting role.
Judged by Joseph Mills, author of Exit, pursued by a bear
Followed by Author Bio
We pull into the Motel 6 in Lost Hills as the sun is fading. No one puts this part of California on postcards. Grass fields burned pale by the autumn sun, endlessly nodding oil rigs. An almond grove’s trees upended for lack of water. Our pickup and U-Haul trailer seem tiny in this town of big rigs that clog the turn lane and block driveways and idle at truck stops. The whole town smells like diesel.
“A new start—sunny Los Angeles,” my dad had said, not convincing either of us.
While most people are eating turkey and pumpkin pie, we go to a Taco Bell packed with travelers whose eyes still focus on the I-5 horizon. Dad orders a dozen-taco box but tells me three is my limit. “You’re going to need a beach body now.” Crumbs of ground beef fall out of the cracked shell of his eighth. I want to pick them off the paper. Instead I check my phone. My boyfriend back home, Ben, has not texted me.
Mom had a beach body, way back when. Now, far gone on Oxy, she’s pale and puffy with her hair in oily scraggles. Child Protective Services gave me to Dad, though I hadn’t seen him in so long I didn’t recognize him behind his new beard. He acts like me sleeping on his sofa is a big favor, badgering me to put away my pillow and blankets each morning, as if that will erase my presence. With the sawmill closing, we are heading south, where Dad has a contractor buddy who will hire him. “We’ll be right next to Disneyland,” he said. He has no idea that fourteen-year-olds are past dreaming of princesses.
At the motel, the orange wall behind the beds glows radioactive. He turns on the TV and falls asleep, his mouth open, snoring like a hibernating bear. I lift five singles out of his wallet and slide the key card off the dresser. At the vending machines near the lobby, I buy long-lasting candy: M&Ms, Red Vines. I let myself into the cage that holds the pool. No one is there. The trucks rumble into the truck wash next door as I pop the M&Ms into my mouth one by one, trying to stop the hunger that’s always gnawing inside me. Though it’s cold, I unzip my hoodie and pull down my cami to text Ben a cleavage shot. I won’t lose him to this move.
Even chewing slowly, I can’t make the Red Vines last forever. I watch the truckers across the street weigh their loads and move on. I check my phone, but Ben has not responded to my picture. He’s probably still at his sister’s house, eating stuffing and thick gravy and turkey and pie with whipped cream. My stomach twists, even as I tingle thinking of Ben, his big warm hands, his dark hair that falls over his brown eyes. Because he’s always splitting wood to heat the house where he and his mom live, he smells like the pine sap that sticks to his clothes, under his nails, between his fingers. After our school gets out, we spend afternoons at his place, having sex in his bed, eating Cheetos, licking the orange powder off each other. He holds me tightly afterwards, his solid weight anchoring me.
Back in the room, I don’t bother with sneaking bills—I take the whole wallet. It’s heavy in my front pocket as I grab my backpack. Dad has turned on his side, a crease between his eyebrows as he sleeps, as if he’s stewing over how he got stuck with a daughter. I close the door carefully and cross the street to the floodlit truck stop. The trucks roar so loud I can barely think, but I don’t want to think. I wait beside a potted jade plant near the door, its soil littered with stubbed out cigarettes. Ben still has not texted me.
Truckers come out holding cups of coffee. I smile at a fat one wearing a flannel shirt and a Seahawks cap. “Going north?” I ask. “I’m trying to get home for Thanksgiving.” He has eyes like black olives pressed into his Wonder Bread face. I’ve unzipped my hoodie partway so he can see I’m not a kid. He looks me up and down, his eyes pausing at my chest. I may not have a beach body, but it’s good enough to get me where I need to go.
~ ~ ~
Ann Hillesland writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has been published in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Sou’wester, Bayou, The Laurel Review, Corium, and SmokeLong Quarterly. It has been selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and presented onstage by Stories On Stage. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte. Her website is at www.annhillesland.com
Last year, my husband and I were traveling from an event in the North Coast of California down to see his parents in Southern California for Thanksgiving, driving almost the length of the state. We decided to stop partway, in Lost Hills. The drive to the town was nightmarish: we took a scenic route that wasn’t very scenic and added more time than we expected, we hit traffic, and I was getting over a cold. We arrived late and exhausted. We checked into the highest-rated hotel in Lost Hills, a Motel 6, and with only fast food to choose from, ate at Taco Bell. By bedtime, my husband wasn’t feeling well, and in the morning he woke up sick, having caught my cold. Because he was miserable, instead of continuing, we drove home, where I cobbled together a lonely and untraditional Thanksgiving dinner. I’m often inspired to write by setting. I’m sure my experience colored my perceptions of Lost Hills, but in my memory, the town reeked of diesel, disappointment, and desperation. I wrote a story that fit that mood.