Prime Decimals 17.2
by Miriam Kotzin
followed by Q&A
I was too bad to clap the chalk free from the gray felt erasers. Instead, I watched the good ones go out onto the fire escape and return smiling. I envied their whitened hands and looked down at my own hateful palms. I made tight fists to make half-moon marks with my nails. I sat on my wooden chair at the too-small table with the groove at the edge where I was supposed to put my pencil. The ghosts of other names haunted the surface, but I did not dare add mine.
Sometimes I still dream of standing in a white cloud, embracing a heaven of chalk dust in afternoon sun.
One day a few of us had to stay in at recess while the teacher, Miss Franklin, went outside with the class. She told us to sit quietly and stay at our desks until they all came back.
I traced the ghost names with my pencil. I imagined constellations of invisible stars swirling in the blue sky.
One of the boys, the adenoidal boy, his eyelids pink and crusty, went up to the front of the room to Miss Franklin's desk. Hey, hey, hey, you'll get us in trouble. We were never allowed to go to that desk, to touch her things, a row of books, a red glass apple, a green blotter with brown leather at the corners. Hey, hey, hey. His back was to us. Hey, hey.
I never told who peed under the teacher’s desk. The puddle stayed on the floor all afternoon until we left to go home. Miss Franklin pretended she didn't see it, but I know she did. I could tell by the way she sat stiff at her desk while we did the times tables.
If I could talk to him now, I’d whisper his name, say, “Don’t worry, friend. Your secret’s safe with me.”
Miriam N. Kotzin teaches Drexel University where she co-directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing. She is a contributing editor of Boulevard and a co-founding editor of Per Contra. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Shenandoah, Eclectica, Frigg, The Flea, The Tower, and Boulevard. She has published three collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Taking Stock (Star Cloud 2011). A fourth collection of poems, The Body's Bride, will be published by David Robert Books early in 1213. Her collection of flash, Just Desserts, was published by Star Cloud Press in 2010.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: When I picked up a pristine chalkboard eraser, I remembered how being given the task of clapping the erasers clean used to be a reward in grade school.
by Alex McElroy
followed by Q&A
Driving home from an electrical job in Mid-Jersey, my father and I passed a chalky hardware supply store. The building was worn and forgettable, the lot out front nearly deserted, but as we sped beneath an overpass Dad asked if I noticed the place. I did then.
He silenced the radio and spoke: he and his brother lived nearby in a trailer with their father until the man died of liver failure soon after my father’s tenth birthday. He nodded behind him, at the store. “Brian and me used to play hooky and sneak onto the roof, sit at the edge throwing junk on the train tracks.”
Then the Jets game crackled from the speakers, flooding the cab. Behind me, the store was swallowed whole by the highway. Seconds later it was miles away. Years away. “Was that it?” I wanted to ask, but I knew, by now, that it was.
My father’s childhood sits hidden behind a cedar fence too tall to see over, a fence I circle, searching for knots worn into holes. As we drove on I saw my father crouching on the edge of the hot-mopped roof. The metal snout of an Amtrak slicing the fog. His palms scraped and stained auburn from climbing the rusted fire escape, gravel rattles in his pocket, and, aware that something is wrong with his father, the same something that took his mother, Dad accepts busted bottles’ necks from his brother and chucks them at the tracks, at the train that simply, abstractly, leads elsewhere.
Alex McElroy is from a small farm town in New Jersey and he currently waits tables in Oregon. “Remembering Elsewhere” is his first published piece.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: This piece was inspired by countless winter afternoons spent replacing ceiling fans and rewiring basements with my father.
On Mott Street II
by Pete Simonelli
followed by Q&A
She calls her mother quite a bit lately. Her mother’s been suffering from various little ailments—dizziness, a bad knee, insomnia—and she’s determined to sit down a few nights a week, when it’s not too late, and call. She’s such a minder. I wonder if her mother might tire of it soon, if she might consider the calls to be too doting and concerned. The mother’s an active, vibrant person who knows how to take care of herself. It’s just that a body, by natural design, breaks down. Its parts begin to fail. I believe that her mother knows this. The rub is finding a way to live with it as comfortably and as patiently as one can. Of course this takes a strong will and an ability to roll with punches, which I think her mother has in spades. But if you—in this case her mother—find you have to take a phone call every few days it might have contradictory effects. The mother could retaliate out of pride, and the minder’s feelings get hurt because she doesn’t want to believe that one’s actions, no matter how much they’re based in good will or even love, could be considered acts of pity or, worse, fear.
The light goes green. Horns blare behind me. I’ve been sitting at the light for more than a couple seconds and traffic’s starting to pile up. No one can wait. This is the tiny vacuum period right now, when you still have a chance to get to where you need to be within a reasonable amount of time. But once the traffic jams up, you better find a good station with good music and turn it up. The cross section of impatience and boredom of sitting in heavy, New York City traffic is almost too much to bear. In the summer, you watch Delancey Street go by from an air-conditioned nightmare. In the winter you laugh at or pity the sorry mothers who negotiate the cold winds, the stupid drivers and the ice on the streets. It’s almost too easy to read their minds.
Pete Simonelli lives and works as a bartender, driver, and writer in Brooklyn, New York. He is the co-founder and vocalist for the band, Enablers (enablers.bandcamp.com). No pets.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: “On Mott St. II” is part of an ongoing series of vignettes whose primary aim is to capture points of personal and associative interest. Driving has always been a kind of expansive practice for me, and this particular piece illustrates how movement—even a lack of movement—allows the mind to wander.
by Cindy Hunter Morgan
followed by Q&A
It snowed all day,
the air so thick with flakes
it was difficult to breathe,
impossible to see the candle
in the kitchen window, even
when he stood underneath the clothesline,
only 20 paces from the house.
His wife used the line all year,
adding salt to the rinse water
so the towels would not freeze.
On Saturdays, when he dipped
his washcloth in the bath water
and scrubbed his cheeks,
he could taste salt on his lips.
He liked to pretend he was soaking
in the ocean, liked to listen to the
thrip, thrip of water dripping
from the cloth and imagine
those were the last sounds
of a summer rain –
water dripping from the eaves
into the rain barrel.
Now he looked straight up
into the evening snow and
let the flakes melt on his cheeks,
savoring moisture, remembering
what sweat felt like.
Tonight they would have suet dumplings
boiled in water that would be saved
for the horses,
beans canned from last summer’s garden
and cooked with the neighbor’s salt pork
for which they had traded soap
made from kitchen grease and potash.
Later, because it was his birthday,
they would make winter ice cream,
mixing sweet cream and eggs
with sugar and vanilla,
stirring in scoopfuls of fluffy, dry snow,
wasting nothing, not even
the downy flakes of this day.
Cindy Hunter Morgan lives in East Lansing, Michigan. Her poems have appeared in West Branch, Tar River Poetry, Bateau, Sugar House Review, Weave, The Christian Science Monitor, A cappella Zoo, and elsewhere.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: This poem is about a world my grandparents knew and loved and shared with me. It’s really about a world that existed before my time, but I feel I know it because of my grandparents’ stories, and because of their farm, where I grew up working and playing. The idea of saving dumpling water for horses is entirely imagined, but certainly connected to memories of my grandfather’s horses, and connected to memories of the green liquid my grandmother saved after steaming asparagus. She doled this out in juice glasses, and we drank it dutifully. I don’t recall that she added salt to her laundry water, but I found a suggestion about that in one of her old notebooks. As for the homemade soap, that’s imagined too, though I do have, in my grandmother’s handwriting, instructions for how to make it. Of course, this poem is about more than frugality. It’s about gratitude, and about welcoming the offerings of our natural world.
by Tim Peeler
followed by Q&A
They left the drive-in after watching Bullitt,
Cruised north across the southwestern end
Of the county, black tongue highway
Descending to one lane river bridges
Where drivers approached, estimating
Each other; they smoked reefer rolled
In strawberry papers, sneaking through town,
Taking the quick left by Rose’s out near the lake.
He steered the car slowly, then suddenly
Veered right and floored his father’s
Ugly Plymouth Valiant, lifting it into the night air
As the road dropped from under them,
And they all cried, “Shit, shit” although
They’d done this countless times
On other Friday nights, and they felt
The car touch down on rattled shocks
Like a plane landing in God’s black maw
And he broke hard before the lake below
Could come up to swallow them.
He saw people in rings of fire,
Every time he looked at one,
Giggly teenage girls with pert breasts
He saw in bluish-green glows,
The jackleg preacher that stood
On the courthouse corner, warning
The hell-bound world was circled
By scarlet lightning forks of flame,
His momma with whom he rarely
Argued, moved in a soft white
Blaze of constant love for her family,
And he knew that a fire circled him
As well, for he could feel it singeing
The hairs on his hand when it trembled
Over his girl’s blouse buttons in
The back seat of Daddy’s Fairlane
And he watched how her lightly
Freckled face was lifted back into
Its very own flaxen inferno.
Tim Peeler is an educator and writer from Hickory, NC. He has published six books of poetry and three books that document regional or local baseball history. His most recent books are Checking Out from Hub City Press and Waiting for Charlie Brown, a collaboration with poet and film maker Ted Pope from Rank Stranger Press.
Q: What can you tell us about these poems?
A: These poems are part of a manuscript that combines real and fictional events and people at a small town Western North Carolina drive-in theater from the ’50s to the late ’70s.
by Jason Lee Brown
followed by Q&A
I was nude on a small stool in a public bath, my heart pounding with a great fear that I was one cultural mistake away from being disowned by my father-in-law, one faux pas from shaming my wife and her family in their home country. I was washing my hands when my father-in-law stood up, and, without warning, started scrubbing my back with his soapy towel. The sixty-two-year-old dug his cloth into my reddened skin without missing a spot, as if working hard for a job well done. My first thought was, What the fuck! I had no idea what had brought this on and wondered if somehow, unknowingly, I had asked for it. Was this how he showed dominance? Or kindness? Maybe my wife had told him to do it. I couldn’t figure it out so the safest response was to act as if I had expected it. I bowed my head. “Arigato.”
Before Haruka and I left for Japan, this was how she described it: “It’s a public bath. You will have to get completely naked. With my father.” I wanted her father to accept me as something more than the man who’d married his youngest daughter. I was a Midwesterner who’d rarely traveled beyond a one-state radius of Illinois, who’d never even thought about a passport before I dated a girl from Kawasaki. We’d dated for five years and been married for nearly one, and I was ashamed for not learning more about her home country, for not trying to meet her halfway through our cultural gap. I gave her no choice but to assimilate. In Sullivan, the small town we lived in, there was no sushi, no Asian store, nothing that made her feel at home.
“I think you’re more worried about it than I am,” I said. We stood next to the bed packing for the flight. “I played three sports in high school. I’ve showered with plenty of men.”
“Impressive,” she said. She refolded a long-sleeved shirt I had just folded.
“If I have to strip down naked for your father to like me, I’m doing it.”
I looked forward to the hot springs. I often made myself ill by sitting in hot tubs until my skin turned red and my muscles were too relaxed to move. To keep in good graces with her father, I planned on sticking with what worked when I met him in the States: be polite and respectful in everything I did. The first time we met, he didn’t know I was her boyfriend or why she’d driven him three hours from St. Louis to this small town in central Illinois. I met her family in the parking lot at my workplace, a county newspaper and printing press, and I hugged her in front of her father, mother, and sister. When I pulled away, I saw the utter surprise on her father’s face. I couldn’t understand what he said to her but I knew it was about me. I thought her family knew, but, apparently, she decided to tell them right then that we’d been dating for a few years. I wasn’t sure I could turn around that bad first impression.
The following year, her family again visited the States, this time for the wedding. After the ceremony, the toasting, the cake cutting, and the eating, her father warmed up to me when the drinking started. We stood at the reception bar and drank beer and congratulatory shots, and late in the night, during a small lull, he knew exactly when to break out an expensive bottle of sake and pour shots for friends and family. When he’d asked earlier, via Haruka’s translation, which Japanese beer I liked the best, I’d told him the answer he wanted to hear. We liked the same two, Sapporo and Kirin, a huge coincidence considering the large selection. Though I didn’t venture into Japanese cuisine that often, I had no problem sampling different brands of beer in the Japanese restaurant up in Champaign, where Haruka would eat worse-than-average sushi while she talked about visiting Mitsuwa, the Asian grocery store three hours away in Arlington Heights.
We did not travel to Japan until a year later. Her parents picked us up at Narita Airport and drove us to the Dai-Ichi Hotel in Kawasaki. The next day, Haruka and I took the trains to Shibuya, the fashion center of Japan, so she could go shopping. At the Shibuya Station, three JumboTrons and even larger building advertisements overlooked the intersection inundated with pedestrians scrambling curb to curb from all directions, the most chaotic crossing I’d ever seen. That night, we met her friends at the Hachiko Exit, named for the bronzed statue of Hachiko, a legendary Akita celebrated for his loyalty. When the dog’s master died and never showed up at the train station where they’d met every day after work, Hachiko held a vigil at the exit for nearly ten years, until he died in that very spot. Haruka’s friends and I posed for photographs in front of the statue, and I wondered if a bond like that was even possible between humans.
Sunday afternoon, her father drove us to the hotel in Hakone. The room was larger than most American hotels, and four times as big as the Dai-Ichi. It had a bed, a couch, a long coffee table, and a large-screened television. The corner of the room was a tatami room with a two-foot-tall table and two chairs with no legs. A gray pillow rested on top of each chair.
Haruka and I weren’t even unpacked when her father knocked on the door. He wanted to visit the hot springs before dinner. I wasn’t sure what to wear or what the hot springs even looked like. I’d imagined everything from a luxurious Roman-style pool to a hole in the ground filled with warm water. Her father was wearing his yukata, a white robe supplied by the hotel. It was what I’d seen everyone in the lobby wearing. While he waited in the hall, Haruka properly closed my starchy robe, left over right, before she tied the blue belt around my waist. “You’ll need this, too,” she said. She handed me a folded yellow towel, and then wrapped a large white hand towel around my neck like a scarf. It was like wearing a uniform.
I could barely walk down the hall in the small slippers I’d jammed my feet into, but Haruka had told me not to take them off until her father did. We took the elevator down to the public baths, and all I wanted to do was soak in the water and relax. I followed him through a curtain and entered a room as humid as a sauna. His silver-rimmed glasses fogged up, but I could still feel him looking at me. Two tall fans at the entrance oscillated as if scanning the room for potential problems. In the middle, a wooden rack held wicker baskets in each of its slots.
Her father couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Japanese. We both knew about fifty words in each other’s language, but we couldn’t string them together for a sentence. We relied on exaggerated hand gestures and simple one-word directions, like, “Towel,” which her father said over the humming fans. He motioned for me to lose the robe and place everything in the wicker basket next to his. I took off my robe and underwear and stood there naked, vulnerable, hoping I was properly following orders. He held up his hand towel, which told me to pick up mine, and before he could cover himself with it, I couldn’t help but sneaked a peek. I’m sure he did the same.
He waved me toward the frosted doors he slid open to reveal the hot springs. It was definitely on the upper end of what I’d imagined. The room was large with an auburn-tiled floor. In the middle, steam rose from the clear pool that separated into two sections, a smaller oval pool bumped into the larger squared pool. On the right side of the room, spring water fell from the concrete ledge near the ceiling. I wanted to cannonball right in, but he pointed at the white plastic stools lined along the wall. In front of the stools were faucets with hoses and showerheads, along with huge bottles of shampoo, conditioner, liquid soap, and large bowls.
We sat next to each other on the plastic stools. I had no idea what to do but follow his every move. He turned on the shoulder-high faucet and adjusted the temperature. He filled the bowl, then dropped his hand towel into the water and soaked it. He squirted a light pink liquid, what I assumed to be soap, out of one of the bottles. The other two bottles held white liquid, and I couldn’t tell which was conditioner and which was shampoo. Every move I made had a ritual I didn’t understand.
He washed his body with the towel balled up in his hand. I mirrored each ceremonial motion, wondering about the one spot we eventually would have to clean. I wasn’t sure if I should use the hand towel or my hand, so I watched him out of the corner of my eye, trying not to ogle him. He scrubbed the towel everywhere, so I did the same. He moved fast, as if he wanted to get into the water as badly as I did. We rinsed our towels under the faucets, and the water ran into bowls. We picked up and dumped the bowls over our heads. We hit a lever and water spit out of the movable showerheads. We rinsed.
He squirted shampoo into his hand then scrubbed it into his thin black hair. I couldn’t tell which of my bottles was which. The Japanese characters might as well have been chicken scratches. I looked closer at the bottles for the English word or two that many product labels had. The wet air was hard to breathe. He smiled at my hesitation, gave a slight laugh, though not a disrespectful one, and he pointed at one of the bottles. “Shampoo,” he said, adding a heavy rolling R after the P. I bowed and we were back in rhythm.
After we’d rinsed the conditioner from our hair, he stood up and waved me toward the pool. We set our hand towels on the pool’s edge, eased our bodies into the water without a splash or many ripples, and, in unison, released a universal sigh. I wanted to massage the back of my neck under the five-foot-wide waterfall that fell from the marble ledge in the ceiling, but I wasn’t sure if it was proper. I wasn’t even sure if I could duck my head under until I saw him do it. I held my breath and sank into the humming reverberation of water. Of all the places I had been in Japan—restaurants, shopping malls, Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Dome, Chinatown, shrines—this was my favorite. It soothed my muscles that ached from all the walking, all those hours on the plane, all the worries of making a fool of myself in front of her father.
We soaked for about ten minutes with the waterline just below our smiles. He could tell I was enjoying it, and I could tell he was enjoying me enjoying it. When he got out of the pool, I didn’t move. He sat on a stool and again washed himself off. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if he left, so I reluctantly got out and sat on the stool next to him. I washed my hands and that was when he stood up and, without warning, started scrubbing my back with his soapy towel. After thanking him, I nodded. I must’ve had a suspicious look on my face because his expression changed from pleased to confused. I vowed then to learn more about the Japanese culture, the language. I’d been memorizing five words a week leading up to the trip, but without application and practice, I wasn’t able to retain much.
A few nights later, Haruka and I met her family in Kawasaki, not far from the Mizonokuchi Train Station, at a tiny restaurant called Forest of Mimosa, or at least that was how Haruka translated it. The restaurant seated twelve people, but we were the only customers there. She’d told me that her father liked to impress clients and friends with expensive dinners and rounds of alcohol, so I thought maybe he’d reserved the entire restaurant for the family. The tables were actually cylindrical tree trunks that had been split in half. The inside was folded out and glazed for a smooth tabletop. The forest motif continued with netting and fake vines clinging to the ceiling.
“Master!” her father said before he gave his order to the owner, who wore a white chef’s outfit with a blue bandana on his head. Haruka said the restaurant had been popular a long time ago, but now the owner’s only customers were old friends like her father. The owner had been in a car accident years ago and couldn’t remember as well as he used to, and a new development next to the train station had rerouted the pedestrian pathway around his building. Both events had a negative impact on the business. He couldn’t take many orders at once or he would forget one. Her father would have to go back to the counter and politely remind him. “Master!” he would say before anything else. I admired the respect and loyalty he showed for the owner.
The owner brought out two pizzas that tasted like the homemade crust my mother used to make. Her father and I shared a large bottle of Sapporo. I filled his glass full whenever possible, a courtesy Haruka had taught me years ago, along with the first Japanese word I learned.
“Kampai,” I said. I held up my drink.
After we toasted, he talked at length to Haruka. She seemed confused at first but eventually smiled. She had lived in the States for so long she now dreamed in English, and I couldn’t even bother to learn more than fifty words of her language.
“Yudedako,” her father said.
Haruka giggled. “He said you looked like a boiled octopus.”
“Red as a lobster,” she said. “From the hot springs.”
Her father talked again, his hands patting different parts on his body. He made the same scrubbing motion as he did on my back, and I wondered which cultural blunder I’d committed. I’d probably done something he and his friends would joke about for years. He finished speaking and I waited for her to translate, frustrated that she even had to.
“He said he washed your back,” she said.
One of the few sliver linings in our language barrier was that I could talk freely in front of her parents. “Yeah,” I said. “What the hell was that all about?”
“You only do that for family members or really close friends,” she said. “He even said you’re like the son he never had.”
I nodded at him and smiled. I had no way to repay his compliment or tell him the same in his language, and it was too late to scrub his back. I held up my drink and stuck with what I knew.
Jason Lee Brown is Series Editor of New Stories from The Midwest (Indiana University Press) and a contributing editor for River Styx. He teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University, and earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: Every time I told friends about my father-in-law scrubbing my back, they would say the same thing: You should write that into a story. This is the final piece. Also, as a lifetime dog lover, it was only a matter of time before Hachiko found his way into my writing.
Prime Decimals 17.3
by Carla Pierce
followed by Q&A
Driving fast down Highway 8. Same car, different life. Same road, different people. Her cell phone rang, and she lifted it close to her ear. "What?"
"I've been waiting an hour already. Where are you?"
"I'm rethinking this whole thing."
Her husband sighed. "Today's the day you get over your past. People do get over things." She knew what he'd say next, and he did. "You have to do this for the kids."
"Five minutes," she said, hanging up. Her foot pushed down on the gas pedal. A red truck was behind her. A blue Toyota at her side. Streaming by, out the window: a shopping mall, a green golf course, a multiplex theater, a Lexus lot. A police car appeared in her rearview mirror, flashing its lights, humiliating her to the edge of the asphalt. "Damn."
"Oh, my God! Mom!" cried her daughter Sheilah from the back of the car. "We’re getting pulled over!"
"It’s a police car!" yelled her son Jackson. "What’s wrong?"
"I was driving too fast," she said, feeling her shoulders drop and her head loll back. She waited for the ticket.
The cop was all right angle and no smile. "Ninety miles per hour," he said. His back was to the sun, yet he was squinting. "Someone should just throw the book at you, lady, driving like that with kids in the car. Do you know how many kids die like that every year?" He grimaced at the children with his small white teeth, and turned to her. "Driver’s license, please."
What an asshole, talking like that in front of her kids.
She turned to Jackson and explained, "I wasn’t going ninety. Those radar guns are always wrong." And to eleven-year-old Sheilah: "Sometimes you have to submit to an authority that you know is full of shit." She handed the officer her paperwork without establishing eye contact.
Her children were quiet as she merged back onto the highway. What were they thinking? What should she say? How would a good mother handle this? She smelled sea air approaching and rolled up her window. The ocean was not romantic anymore. Salt and decay, petroleum slicks festering beneath a hot sun.
The sun, the ocean, motherhood, the freeway. Why did it all happen? What purpose did the cop fulfill? What was his fucking cosmic job? To remind her of what? The car could crash. The kids could die. The sun could wane. The universe could snap. She could wake up in a hospital room again, not remembering the accident that had happened the night before.
She had made it. Gary had not.
She felt like she was brushing her hand through a web, driving through fog.
"Don’t feel bad," Sheilah said.
She smiled. Thank God for her children. "I’m sorry I was going so fast," she said. "I shouldn’t take chances."
"And you said a cuss word," said Jackson. He grinned toothlessly. "But I won’t tell Dad."
"Thanks, you two."
Did people get over things, really? Their past loves? Their aching sadness? Accidents? On the beach, would she see a remnant of leather from Gary's wallet, or bleached threads from his Levis somewhere in the sand? Her heart beat loudly in her ears. Would she feel an overwhelming urge to drown and join him?
Her kids wouldn't mind making one more stop. One more stop before they reached the beach. She pulled into the parking lot of some random bar, one with a nautical theme, with fishermen's nets hanging above the door and various invertebrate skeletons nailed to the weathered wood siding. “I have to use the restroom,” she said. “I can’t hold it anymore. You guys just stay here for one minute."
"Why here?" asked Sheilah suspiciously, looking out the window.
"Because I'm human. I really have to go."
"I'll go in with you," Sheilah said, unclicking her seatbelt.
"No, stay here with your brother."
"We'll both go. Mom, this place is bad."
"Just wait in the damn car! I don't need a chaperone!"
Jackson began to cry. "Mom? Where are we?"
"We're at Barnacle Bill's or whatever. Fisherman Fred's. Gilligan's Island." It's a bar. When you're thirty you'll understand.
She slammed the car door shut and spoke to her kids through the windows. "C'mon you guys. Nothing bad will happen."
Inside, a bearded bartender looked up from his iPhone and glanced at her darkly. "It's ten o’clock," he said.
She laughed, looking around. "Yes it is. Can I get a single Stoli straight up, quick?"
The bartender closed his eyes as if this very situation was the one part of the job he hated. "If you say so." He wore a green hoodie. There were silver rings on his fingers, and a small octopus tattooed on the underside of his wrist.
She hadn't had a drink in years. Now, she held the glass up in front of her and smiled. "You? Me?"
"Don't be talking to your drink, lady," the bartender said. "That's not good."
"Did I just talk to my drink?" She laughed. "No, I didn't really."
She tipped her head back, felt the vodka burn down her throat. Instantly she felt warmed, calmed from within. "One more," she said, tapping her finger on the edge of the glass. "Actually, a double, and that will do the trick."
The bartender pressed his lips together. He refilled her glass and added a second shot glass to the lineup. He picked up his phone. "How about I call you a taxi?"
She knocked back one drink, then the next. Instantly she wanted five more. Ten. The whole bottle. A familiar numbness spread through her, to her fingertips. Her thoughts softened. "Yeah, a taxi. Would you? My kids are out in the car." How long had they been there? How much time had gone by? Another minute and they'd come walking in. "Actually, my kids are waiting. And my husband. He's waiting for me at the beach. Never thought I'd go back there. Did I just say that? Am I talking to my drink again?" She fished her wallet out of her purse and left a twenty on the counter. The bartender looked at her, his face resting in his hand. The octopus tattoo on his wrist was old and faded. Why had he chosen that one, years ago? Why not a shark or a barracuda?
"Never mind the taxi," she said, feeling just a little wobbly. She wanted to get back on the road. Get the day over with. Superimpose the new life over the old one, though she doubted that would ever be possible. There was no way she'd let her kids near the waves. She kept picturing them playing in the water one minute, then suddenly gone, pulled backwards and under, out to sea, taken away. People you love vanish just like that.
Carla Pierce has an MFA in Fiction Writing from San Diego State University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Fiction International, Redivider Journal, Metazen, Boston Literary Magazine, and Eclectic Flash. She is currently finishing up a novel. You can visit her at carlapierce.com.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: It started with the line, "Same car, different life. Same road, different people," and the characters kind of took it from there.
by Arthur Powers
followed by Q&A
I’ve always made lists. Even when Therese was alive.
“Sometimes,” I told her once, “if I do something that’s not on my list, I write it down just so I can cross it out.”
“I do too,” she laughed. “Isn’t it fun!”
Curly gray hair, gray-green eyes, smiling up at me. Alive.
Lists were less serious then. Therese kept me in order. “George, you have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. Remember to pick up your prescription. Did you take your heart pill?—don’t want you popping off on me.”
But she was the one who popped off. Suddenly. No warning.
I often lost my lists back then. It didn’t matter much, because she kept track of things, reminded me. But now I never lose them. Maybe because I have to have them. Maybe because my life has fewer disruptions.
Because, though she kept my life in order, she also disrupted it. She’d walk into my home office and say “Let’s hike around Shelly Lake,” or “I called Fran and we’re meeting them at Irregardless in half an hour,” or “Here’s your jacket, George—you’re taking me to the art museum.” Always, always I would think—I don’t want to do this, this isn’t something I planned to do today. Then, after about five seconds, I’d haul myself out of my chair and go with her. And, almost always, I’d be glad later that I did. Almost all those times made me feel more alive. Some were fun, some memorable.
There is an art to lists. One has to know what to put down. To be specific enough, but not too specific.
Big tasks, for instance, can be broken down into sub-tasks. That really helps. It makes them more manageable. For instance—“Buy Christmas presents” may be too broad. My list last Christmas read:
•Buy Christmas presents
oPaul & Angie
Dorothy Day bio
Earrings? (ask Miriam)
•Wrap Christmas presents (P&A, Mir, Mad, Tim, Therese 1 2 3 4)
•Mail Christmas presents (P&A, Mir, Mad, Tim)
And so on. Of course one can get ridiculous. “Wrap Christmas presents” could be broken down to a dozen discrete tasks (measure wrapping paper, cut wrapping paper, take Scotch tape out of drawer, etc.), but that would be silly.
Fran left a message on the voice mail, asking me over to dinner tomorrow. I’ll have to call her back. I’ll put it on my list.
I never know what to say to her and John. We sit there in their welcoming, attractive living room, or—later—around their mahogany dinner table, and I find myself wanting to talk, to be communicative, but searching for things to say.
Therese never had that problem. I remember one Saturday morning saying to her, “If there weren’t people around, you’d talk to the trees.” That afternoon, we went to Shelly Lake and the first thing out of the car, starting down the path, she goes up to a tree, and says,
“Good afternoon, Mr. Pine. I trust all is well with you, and with all the little Pines. You’re right to wave your arms—it is a beautiful afternoon. Do you know what George said to me this morning—why you’ll hardly believe it…”
Two couples heading up the path paused, looking at a petite, curly headed, sixty-year-old woman gracefully motioning with her arms, deep in conversation with a tree. They smiled, moving slowly by.
“Therese,” I said.
“Just a minute, George. I’m talking with Mr. Pine.”
“I believe that’s a spruce,” I said.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Spruce. I’m just terrible with names…”
I called Fran. I timed the call so that they’d probably be out, so that I could leave a voice message. I thanked her and told her that I wouldn’t be able to make it tomorrow. She won’t believe me probably—that I couldn’t make it. But she’ll accept the excuse for the time being.
That was the last thing on my list. My list today was:
•Write birthday card and check for Timmy
•Pick up heart pills
•Mail birthday card
•Pick up half & half, peanut butter, fruit.
•Call Fran & John
I’ve done all that. There’s nothing left.
I could put on my list to find a book to read. To read the book. But there’s nothing I feel like reading.
I could put on my list to call Miriam. But Miriam would want to talk, to tell me about Madison, to ask about Paul and Angie and Timmy. I don’t feel like talking.
I could put on my list
But that would be ridiculous.
Did I put that on the list? It’s there—just below “Call Fran & John.” Did I write it down? It may be my handwriting.
When we were in graduate school—the first year we were married—I read a book by a guy who had lived through the Holocaust. I don’t remember his name now, but the book was famous at the time. I think it was called Man’s Search for Meaning. I think the guy’s name was Frankl. Yes, I think that’s it.
Anyhow, he was a psychologist, and he told the story of a widower who came to him sad and angry and blaming God because his wife had died and left him alone. Frankl asked him if he felt lonely and abandoned, and he said he did. Then Frankl asked him if he realized that, if he had died first, his wife would be here, alone, feeling lonely and abandoned. The man had never thought of that. He squared his shoulders and went off feeling proud, feeling that he was bearing a burden to protect his wife.
I think about that story a lot.
The phone is ringing. I should go pick it up, but don’t really feel like it. The machine will take a message.
Of course that’s a pretty big item for a single entry. I could break it up a bit—
•Put papers together
But that seems a lot of work. Too many details. Too long a list.
Of course I cou
Arthur Powers lives in Raleigh NC with his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. He received a Fellowship in Fiction from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, three annual awards for short fiction from the Catholic Press Association, and 2nd place in the 2008 Tom Howard Fiction Contest. Two of his short stories have been nominated for the 2011 Pushcart Prize. In addition to Prime Number, his writing has appeared in America, Christianity & Literature, Dappled Things, Heartlands Today, Hiram Poetry Review, Kansas Quarterly, Papyrus, Rattapallax, Roanoke Review, South Carolina Review, Southern Poetry Review, Texas Quarterly, Windhover, Worcester Review, and many others.
Q: What was the Inspiration for this piece?
A: Several months ago, a North Carolina literary magazine put out a call for stories based on lists. I saw it and thought: Who would want to write a story based on lists? But the thought lodged in my mind and secretly grew. One morning (long after the NC magazine’s deadline has passed) I woke up with this story crying out in my mind to be born.
First Love, Then Tympani
by Russell Bittner
followed by Q&A
True confession: I absolutely adore the music of Beethoven, Shostakovich, Bartok, Mahler, Orff, Holst, Martinu, Penderecki, Nielsen, Hovhaness, Christopher Rouse, Peter Sculthorpe, Iannis Xenakis, Per Nørgård and—above all—Elgar. Sir Edward William, to be precise. Sure, I know about “Pomp and Circumstance.” Who doesn’t? After all, we hear it at least once every three years when we all march pompously and circumstantially down the aisle to snatch a diploma out of some poor schmuck of a principal’s hand.
That’s a rather impressive list for such a young lady, you may be thinking. Second true confession: I know only some of the music of those composers—namely, the compositions calling for tympani. In Elgar’s case, the “Enigma Variations.”
Third and last confession: my dad’s a tympanist. He, of course, writes ‘timpanist’ with an ‘i.’ But I’m his daughter—and am egregiously independent. I think ‘tympho’ with a ‘y’ whenever my friends ask me why and what my dad does for a living. Till now, nobody’s ever asked me how I spell it.
That’s a joke, by the way. My father’s only daughter—she being I—writes ‘tympanist’ with a ‘y.’ Okay? Pretty dumb, I guess.
Anyways, I’ve just celebrated my sixteenth birthday. And how did I celebrate? Your traditional slumber party or some old ‘Sweet Sixteen?’ Uh-uh. Right!
No, I went out to dinner with daddy-o. Not out for just any dinner, mind you, but out for a bit o’ fancy. To a French restaurant. Midtown—which, in late spring, is frankly more fancifully French than American. However, I rather think most of the folks hanging out in midtown are just French-Canadians—which is okay. I like Canadians. They could teach us a thing or two about manners, modesty and moose. Or is it ‘meese?’ I dunno.
Dinner was early because—second surprise—my father was playing that night at Lincoln Center, where he works pretty much year-round when he’s not touring with the NY Phil. And whaddya s’pose the Philharmonic was playing? Well, Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” to be sure. Dad—doncha know—had bought me a seat directly in front of the orchestra, in the rear of which he, egregiously, stood.
Anyways, over dinner—during which he and our kindly French waiter had both allowed me my first glass of wine while Dad explained to him that he, Dad, was also a waiter—we made small-talk. Until, that is, he dropped the bomb. “We know about you and Eli,” he said. “And it’s okay,” he quickly added. “Your mother and I—well, we waited, of course, until we were a few years older, when we, uh—.”
I quickly glanced down at my watch. “Dad, it’s time to go! You don’t wanna be late!”
And no, of course he didn’t. One thing you’ve got to understand about my dad: he can’t be late—or early, for that matter. He’s a tympanist.
As I sat for the next thirty minutes listening to Sir Edward William’s “Enigma Variations,” I couldn’t help but think about what Dad had said to me just before we’d rushed out of the restaurant. And so, I watched him wait—and wait and wait. Until, when he finally had his epiphany with the kettledrums, I watched as he appeared to lift up—slowly at first, then faster … faster, faster, then to absolutely soar out of the auditorium, up through this post-winter, deliriously bleu midtown Manhattan sky, out into a private orbit of such precision, I could only bow my head in thanks for this man, my father, this tympanist with a ‘y,’ who from here on out would necessarily have to play second fiddle in my life—
—to just ahead of Elgar, by the way.
And yes, I must confess, my Playbill now took a splitter-splatter of tears just as the roof of our brownstone had taken a disinterested splitter-splatter of raindrops the first time Eli and I had—.
Russell Bittner recently re-located to Ellicott City, Maryland, from Brooklyn, New York, via one long winter-from-hell at Donner Summit, California. His work has been widely published in print and on the WorldWideWeb. His first novel, Trompe-l’œil, which is now represented by the Netherlands-based Vilain-Innovations Literary Agency, appeared via Amazon-Kindle this past March 2011, and again in April of the same year at Smashwords. He believes, with Hobbes, that “life is short, brutish and nasty.” He also believes, with Donne, however, that art is long; and that no man is one, entire of itself—either an island or a work of art.
Q: What was the inspiration/genesis for this story?
A: The “inspiration” for this Flash was last year’s (2011) NPR-sponsored writing contest called ‘Three-Minute Fiction,’ the rules for which were: (1) no longer than 600 words (the version published here contains a few additional words); (2) someone has to tell a joke; and (3) someone has to cry. Needless to say, the piece didn’t win; it didn’t even place.
The “genesis” of it, however was and is—to me at least—of somewhat greater interest. I knew (because her brother had secretly revealed it to me) that my daughter had “given up the prize”—as we of an older generation might’ve once conceived it—to her then-boyfriend the day after she turned sixteen. She didn’t, and still doesn’t, know that I know—and won’t find out until her eighteenth birthday this coming June. Shortly before that, however, she’ll learn the results of her college applications. She’s already batting 3 for 3, but her hold-out—something we discuss, if at all, only sub rosa because she’s understandably quite skeptical about her chances—is Julliard. (She’s a dancer, but also a virtual straight-A student, at the LaGuardia School of Performing Arts in NYC.)
One of the earliest short stories I wrote many years ago, “In the Animal Kingdom,” was very much about her older brother. It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Per Contra, but didn’t win. I thought it was about time I wrote a story about and for my daughter. “First Love, Then Tympani” is that story.
Cleaning Out the Car
by James Keegan
followed by Q&A
When the police cruiser came to rest before the red Subaru wagon
(as I now imagine it, seated here behind the wheel) where you had backed it
into the tall marsh grass (some is still sheafed, brown and dry,
above the exhaust pipe from when the cop gunned the rear wheels free),
you were already gone, lying not too far off (not to inconvenience
anyone overmuch), the gun somewhere near or still held (I don’t know
how that works). Here is the gray empty case, a box of rounds, stowed
neatly beneath the seat. I’m here to empty out the residue
of you, looking for that clue to what I didn’t do for you.
No, I don’t suppose I really buy that either. I know people
had stopped you before, mostly by mistake, by requiring you enough
in a moment for you to make another stab at it, a forced smile and “Glad to.”
Here in the passenger seat is the green knapsack that was the last I saw of you,
dodging out the door after we’d talked the last time, saying all the daily nothings
people say, neither one of us believing there was something we could do.
I don’t open it because I know what’s there: all the useless medications
and the day before’s mail from AmeriHealth canceling coverage.
I open the doors and pop the hatch to make a clean sweep of it all,
dividing piles like done laundry into plastic bags. A rifle,
seven knives of various sizes, eight road flares, a tent, twelve shirts
of different styles and warmths, nine pairs of running shoes and hiking boots,
packages of (I have to laugh) survival rations, toilet paper rolls
sealed tight in Ziploc bags, aspirin, keys, empty CD cases, three compasses
and a tape still in the deck on Buddhism, stopped at a discussion of one Zen koan,
one unanswerable question the master tasks the student to answer every day:
“When you can do nothing,” the voice like dry grass asks me, “what can you do?”
I wonder as I pop the tape if that was the last question caroming in your skull
before the bullet fired it back at me staring out from behind the wheel
at the nothing I have managed to do here today, at the nothing you are,
at the nothing you or I could do. I wonder if you answered your koan.
I wonder what I would say to the master if he asked me again,
“When you can do nothing, what can you do?” I toss the tape into a bag,
and check under the seats for anything I missed, the hatch clicks shut
and I say out loud, “Like the sound of one hand clapping.” I lock all doors and leave
the keys for the Subaru guy who’s coming later to wipe it clean for auction.
James Keegan has published poems in Southern Poetry Review and Poet Lore, and his chapbook Of Fathers and Sons. He is an associate professor of English at The University of Delaware (Georgetown). He is also an actor and has been a member of the resident acting troupe of The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. He lives in Milton, Delaware, with his wife, the writer Anne Colwell.
Q: What was the inspiration for this poem?
A: “Cleaning Out the Car” is a poem based on an actual task that a friend asked me to perform following the suicide of her boyfriend, one of my best friends. He took his life after a long battle with mental illness—severe depression and panic attacks. Ironically, he was (among his various pursuits) a survivalist, as well as an outdoorsman and a spiritual searcher, and the contents of his vehicle seemed to me to speak to and of these various facets of his personality and his humanity. Also, of course, it is impossible to be the friend of someone who decides to take his life without being left with questions regarding what more one might have done. The poem arises not least out of that questioning.
What Did Not Happen Out West
by Christina Rau
followed by Q&A
In a different time zone,
clocks move differently,
less steadily; they get you
all fuzzy on the situation—
or maybe that’s the gin that
gets you all fuzzy about
the situation with the clocks,
the situation with the shuttle
bus between the hotel and
the bar and the cabs that stop
in between and the cab drivers
that yell at you when you don’t
answer their questions, but
it’s not because you’re not
listening; it’s because they have
an accent and it got cold out
and all you can think to do is
shiver, let your teeth chatter,
and think of how great it will be
when the shower beats down
and creates a sauna for two
in the cramped bathroom
that has thin walls that don’t
keep in the sounds of whispers
over the phone or whimpering
in the corners or in closets.
In the mountains,
reception goes out more
often than not, or at least
that’s a good excuse for not
calling, for ending the call
mid-conversation, for not
answering the messages
that may or may not have
gone through in a timely fashion.
The dirt is cleaner there,
expecting company up into
the high trees, where the soil
actually lives instead of
simply existing. It likes
to be tread on. It likes
when two people laugh on it.
It likes when they hike up and
down and zig and zag through
the switchbacks and sagebrush,
or perhaps that isn’t sagebrush,
perhaps it’s just weeds, unless
sagebrush is a weed, in which case,
maybe it’s all sagebrush and cacti,
small cacti, small trees, small
mountainside flora that grows
between cracks in the rock,
in the crags, if that’s the right
technical term, and it seems that it
The desert is dry. The city is wet.
The air remains balanced between.
Two breaths are hotter than one
in a shared room, in a shared bed,
in a shared memory
created out of old movies
seen late at night in half-sleep;
they, too, get you fuzzy,
like the clocks and the gin,
like the crags and the brush,
like the mountains and dusklight
and like the plane ride back home.
Christina M. Rau is the founder and director of Poets In Nassau, a reading circuit on Long Island, New York. She teaches English at Nassau Community College, where she also serves as editor of Nassau Review. When she’s not writing or teaching, she’s watching bad reality TV, of which she is only somewhat ashamed.
Q: What was the inspiration for this poem?
A: While inspiring, one particular trip out to the West remains haunting, looming in the background of an otherwise wonderfully happy life. These words are meant to put to rest the aftermath that has lingered.
Prime Decimals 17.5
by Lydia Fazio Theys
followed by Q&A
It happened the year no birds came to Marcia's feeder.
"It’s odd, Leo," she said. "Just odd."
"They're only birds, Marcia," Leo said, not looking up from his bottle cap collection. "No telling what they're thinking."
Marcia continued emptying, cleaning, and refilling the feeder, as if sufficient bustle and efficiency might right the situation.
"They don't need me anymore, Leo," Marcia said, sitting up in bed, back straight as a flagpole. "I'm not needed."
There was no perceptible change in Leo's snoring.
Marcia first noticed the diminutive creature flitting around the feeder on a Wednesday morning in June. Wondering what sort of bird it might be, she squinted through binoculars from the kitchen window. Her mouth formed a taut O and her eyebrows danced upward when she realized it was no bird at all, but a miniature girl in a sparkling blue leotard.
Marcia watched the girl twirl and spin around the horizontal bar that held the feeder, lifting her tiny body into handstands, swooping down and around the bar, over and over and over.
Marcia ran to the living room to find Leo with his head under the sink, searching for something. "There's a tiny girl on the bird feeder, Leo," she said. "A tiny girl."
"That's nice, Marcia," Leo's voice echoed from the cabinet belly. "Are we out of big trash bags? Gotta get over to the high school dumpster. There'll be lots of bottle caps after a big game like yesterday."
Marcia opened her mouth to speak but changed her mind.
For two weeks, Marcia watched the girl get better and better, twirlier and twirlier. When she tired, the tiny girl would help herself to sunflower seeds from the feeder.
One morning, Marcia placed a fragile porcelain saucer edged in baby blue filigree on the feeder. It held smidgens of foods that Marcia thought healthy for a pocket-sized athlete—bananas, cheese, carrots, nuts, even a chocolate chip. Drinking coffee at the kitchen table from a matching cup, Marcia watched as the tiny girl jumped down from a branch and helped herself from the buffet. Marcia thought she saw a smile when the tiny girl looked toward the window. With that look, for the first time, Marcia realized that the tiny girl was growing.
Marcia went into the living room to find Leo watching a baseball game. "I'm calling her Lena, Leo. I'm calling the tiny girl Lena."
"That's nice, Marcia." Leo turned his head toward her, but his eyes remained on the screen. "Tell me the bird names later, okay?"
Marcia began, "She's not a…" But she turned away.
Weeks passed and the tiny girl continued to grow. When Marcia placed her laundry rack near the feeder, Lena flew to it and began to twirl on its smooth rounded bars. It wasn't long before Lena outgrew the rack and Lena fashioned a bigger bar from a broomstick.
One night, Marcia lay awake thinking about the bars the Olympic gymnasts used on TV. The next day, she phoned and phoned while Lena twirled and twirled, until she found and bought a set of uneven bars.
She went into the living room. "I spent a lot of money on some gym equipment for Lena, Leo," Marcia said. "It's for Lena." Leo wasn't even in the room. Marcia smiled.
Marcia assembled the bars in the yard, next to the snack table she now used to serve Lena's meals. Lena was eating more each day, but with all that twirling and leaping, Marcia knew she needed her energy.
When Lena saw the bars, she sprung to them with a squeal, twirling, flipping and doing handstands in new ways, but several times, she slipped and fell. Marcia thought and thought and remembered the TV gymnasts at a big bowl on a pedestal, clapping and poufing special powder onto their hands. She went to town to buy some.
Marcia came home to find Lena sitting on the ground, the corners of her pixie lips downturned, no hint of the usual sparkle in her eyes. When she saw the rosin, she lit up and covered her palms and the bar with the powder. Now Lena began spinning in earnest, but she winced each time she jumped down. That's when Marcia remembered the bouncy mats and she bought one the very next day. Now, there was nothing to stop Lena from soaring.
It was a Thursday in August when Lena did not come back. Marcia waited four more days, hoping, but she knew.
She walked into the living room. "She's gone, Leo," Marcia said. "Lena's gone."
Leo did not reply.
Marcia stepped up onto the coffee table. "Answer me, Leo. Answer me right now."
"Can't it wait, Marcia?" Leo said. "I'm watching the Olympics. Look at that ad, Marcia. Now that would be a great bottle cap to get."
Marcia took a deep breath. She jumped down from the table, landing solidly on two feet, threw her arms up and back, and thrust her hips forward with a small leap. She turned her body and hopped to the left, then to the right, before she straightened her skirt and walked out of the room. She picked up a small suitcase and walked to her car. Marcia rosined her hands and the steering wheel, held her head high, popped a bright smile at the windshield, and drove away.
Lydia Fazio Theys studied to be an astronomer, co-founded a software company in 1976 that was “a player” and now writes for a living. Among the places her work has appeared, online and in print: Cezanne's Carrot, flashquake, Opium, Yankee Pot Roast, Mad Hatter's Review and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Her work has been selected for several anthologies, read on KRCB public radio in California, and used as inspiration for a dance by the Junction Dance Theater in Pittsburgh. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, two possibly-human cats and a toothless, hairless, epileptic Italian Greyhound.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I have been interested in exploring what happens when ordinarily passive people reach a point at which passivity stops working for them. I’m also attracted to the idea of writing what are essentially children’s stories for adults.
Belly of the Whale
by Ashley Inguanta
followed by Q&A
I am in your hometown singing all the songs you used to love, all electric and big, big hair. I hitched a ride here with a man. I’m in the back of his pickup, leaning into the driver’s seat. He smells like wheat, metal.
He says, Why you singing that?
I say, Because I miss her.
He says, You miss her. Why.
I say, What’s it to you.
I press my lips to his neck. I shake, but I keep my mouth soft, loose, so still I can sing. This man, he’s so gold he’s California, vast, sided by ocean and pulled by moon.
He taps the steering wheel while I make music. He says, I wonder what it takes to write a song. I want to ask the man questions. I want him to say, I know you love her, it will be okay, it will. Instead I keep singing, electric—my lips on this man’s neck, my hand on his shoulder. The air’s so thick it’s like I’m being cradled in the belly of the whale. The moon’s all neon, booming. The man keeps quiet now, like God. I slide my hand down, slipping my fingernail into his forearm, into his skin. The world outside’s all field and water.
Ashley Inguanta is a Florida-based writer, photographer, and editor. Keep up to date with her publications and travels at ashleyinguanta.com
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: We are wilting, warping wood. We ache, a plum bruise. We hurt like Earth hurt when she caught orbit. We love like the moon loved when she held on.
Frog Chartreuse, Toad Wart Brown, Fern Frond Emerald
by Lisa Cihlar
followed by Q&A
Moss woman rolled in her burrow under the cedars. A wet day, a fog day, a green and gray day. The rain tempered through the boughs to a drip and drizzen. There was a yawn. She pinned up the hair on the back of her neck and tasted the bark tea. Tannin bitter and tongue curling perfect. The titmice were fledging, fluttering down to take seeds from her lips. Her lover left before dawn. He drove his pickup to the quarry. Blasted gravel shards for yards. His face his hands all scarred and sacred to her all night long. She could find him wounded in the dark. She murmured words of damp things and ferny. The sodden sheets cooled. He poured his boots outside her stoop where she walked barefoot and memory cut her feet to frays.
Lisa J. Cihlar’s poems have been published in The South Dakota Review, Green Mountains Review, In Posse Review, Bluestem, and The Prose-Poem Project. One of her poems was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook, “The Insomniac’s House,” is available from Dancing Girl Press, and a second chapbook “This is How She Fails,” will be published by Crisis Chronicles Press in 2012. She lives in rural southern Wisconsin.
Q: What can you tell us about the inspiration for this piece?
A: I love writing prose poems because I can get very surreal yet the reader, hopefully, buys into the images. In this piece all the wet and green contrasts with the scarred lover, cut up by flying quarry rock. That duet is going on in the outside world of the poem and in the bed of the characters.
by Maya Stein
followed by Q&A
The billboard on the highway said it would be
Judgment Day, so I suppose I should have thought twice
about taking the subway, lest the power fail
and humanity begin its terrible unraveling underground.
But not a hitch delayed the departure
or arrival of the J Church, and I rise out of the
Van Ness steps buffeted by a strong bay wind.
Two miles away, a baseball game
is in its first optimistic innings, but here the streets
are almost deserted, the parking lot of the conservatory
a skeleton of its weekday twin.
If this turns out to be my last evening on earth,
I muse, at least there will be music.
And soon, a young man takes the stage, suit-
and-tied 17-year-old, and begins, by heart,
Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor. I wish my father
was sitting next to me – I can already imagine the
glee in his face, the way his own fingers would begin
their pantomime on his lap, remembering. At intermission,
we would reminisce about the duets we played,
and there would be a moment I’d admit regretting stopping altogether,
watching this boy-man coax stories out of the keys, and wonder
if perhaps I took a wrong turn somewhere, or left prematurely,
fearing the discipline or disappointment, whichever came first.
And then I would remember, no, this is exactly where I needed to be,
listening, listening, leaning back into my squeaky seat and simply
The concert continues, unapocalyptic. The building doesn’t fall.
Night slides by like it always does, one hour, then another.
There is still time enough for everything,
and I know this because when the boy-man takes his bow
it’s clear the story hasn’t ended, all that is yet to be written
and played, waiting waiting waiting, on the tip of his fingers,
at the doorway, on the stairs, in the empty parking lot,
on the rustling tracks and on early summer bleachers,
under this dark and possible sky.
Maya Stein is a poet and writer currently living in Amherst, Massachusetts. She facilitates writing workshops live and online at www.feralwriting.com, plays pickup basketball every Tuesday, and runs a crepe stand at the local farmers’ market.
Q: What was the inspiration for this poem?
A: It was May 21, 2011, and I remember this strange state of suspension in San Francisco, where I was living at the time, all this hubbub around the end of the earth. But walking into that conservatory concert, it all fell away, and I sank into the music and the boy’s hands dancing on those piano keys and I felt so incredibly lucky, and that even if the world as I know it was coming to a close, I could at least know I was witness to something beautiful before I had to go.