Prime Decimals 19.2
A Note from the Institute for Underground Studies
by Robert P. Kaye
followed by Q&A
If I’d had enough money to really drink, I wouldn’t have noticed the man in the tweed coat and bow tie emerge from behind the section of wainscoting that opened like an invisible door. I’d nursed my microbrew for hours in the bistro, tracking the delivery of every plate of my favorite appetizer, built with figs, pork, and goat cheese, while fending off an incipient asthma attack. The waiter had given up on me hours before.
The man who stepped from behind the wall caught my gaze and strolled across the room, a fist of keys chiming at his belt. The miasma of mold and earth that accompanied him reminded me that this subbasement constituted part of our underground past, created when slag and sawdust filled in the tide flats, submerging the old city below modern street level. “Mind if I join you?” he said.
“Please.” I motioned to the chair, desperate for human contact.
“I couldn’t help noticing.” He pointed to my beer. “No trace of carbonation. Silverware unused. You could have sat at the bar if you wanted company.”
“Too much light,” I said.
He sat back. “Walter Denton.” He extended his hand. “PhD.”
“Ellis Pine,” I said as we shook. “Former Adjunct Professor, Comparative Literature.” To distract him, I pointed to the badge clipped to his pocket emblazoned with the initials “IUS” and a logo of a manhole cover. “What’s that?”
“Institute for Underground Studies.” He chucked his head toward the wall. “Come. I’ll show you.”
I looked at the unpaid check and thought: what the hell?
By the time I reached the wall, Dr. Denton had disappeared. I clawed open a seam in the boards and stepped inside a vaulted brick passageway. The door shut, enveloping me in subterranean darkness. A click produced a small light dancing over the bricks, averting my claustrophobic panic. “Wear this.” A hard hat with a headlamp jammed onto my head. “And please, watch your step.”
Dr. Denton’s light disappeared around the end of the wall. Horrified at the prospect of being left in the dark, I followed, stumbling down flagstone steps that were once a front entryway and into a high-ceilinged sewer vault. Dripping water produced strange acoustical effects against the distant breakers of traffic rushing overhead. Sickly heat radiated from a steam pipe. Two stories up, near sidewalk level, mercury-vapor light bleeding through a grate silhouetted a nest of ferns. I swallowed fear with every step, my breathing ragged.
A wooden door opened into a room with a tarnished mirror-backed bar. The bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling failed to illuminate the corners of the room and the figures in the shadows.
I expected to be mugged, but remembered that the cash in my pocket was the last to my name. If they robbed me, the joke was on them. I clutched the inhaler in my coat pocket like a pistol.
“Who’s this, Walter?” somebody said.
“Maybe one of us,” Dr. Denton replied. “His name is Ellis Pine.”
My eyes adjusted and I saw that none of the half dozen people in the room would be out of place at a poetry reading or art house movie.
“How do you know he doesn’t have a perfectly good life?” said an older woman with grey hair and a voice like my late mother’s.
“How do you know he’s not a cop?” said a young man with a fringe of red beard that caught the light.
“Look at him,” a gruff-voiced man answered.
Titters swirled through the shadows.
“You don’t have a job,” Dr. Denton said. “Do you?”
“Not recently,” I said. Or retirement fund, or wife, or house or bank account or unemployment checks.
“It’s the desperation in the eyes,” Dr. Denton said. “Unmistakable.”
“I’m a little confused,” I said—terrified perhaps more precise.
“In this day and age, perfectly respectable people are driven underground,” Dr. Denton said.
“We’re an economic footnote,” said a man in a Greek fisherman’s cap. “Omitted in the revised edition.”
“An invisible population,” said a woman. “With keys.” Jingling echoed off the walls.
I had the bizarre notion they might burst into song like a Broadway musical—hysterically funny, were I not perched on the verge of panic. A rat squeaked somewhere close to my ankles. “Was that a rat?” I said, airways constricting as I danced to the center of the light. “I’m terrified of rats.”
“A musophobic,” Dr. Denton said. “Hum.”
“We’re not so very different from the rats,” said the woman who sounded like my mother. “They like their burrows. They’re intelligent, family oriented, and dangerous only when backed into a corner.”
I almost fled through the passageways back to the restaurant, but realized that the dregs of my beer would have been cleared, the table wiped, the check written off to petty theft. The waiter would recognize me and raise the alarm.
Terrified or not, I decided I might be safer underground. My airways relaxed. I breathed easier.
Robert P. Kaye’s stories have appeared in over thirty publications including Monkeybicycle, Per Contra, Staccato Fiction, Green Mountains Review, Forge, Denver Syntax, Cicada, The Delinquent, Snake Nation Review and others, with nominations for Pushcart, Best of the Web, and Story South prizes. His novel Taking Candy from the Devil, about coffee, Bigfoot and trebuchets, is published online. Links appear at www.RobertPKaye.com together with a blog about mankind’s bipolar relationship with technology. He writes, works, and juggles in the Emerald City.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: A release event for a local publication featuring a friend’s story took place in a wood paneled basement pub with the usual collection of misfit literary types in attendance, including a poet in a top hat and scarf straight out of the 1850s. It struck me what a struggle art is, pressed by recession and the forces or rationality, and how wonderful to be surrounded by those who trade in the currency of imagination. Wouldn’t it be cool if a man popped out from behind the wainscoting to serve as an escort into an underground society of arts and letters refugees? Writing the story became a matter of following the guide behind the wall through passageways, sewers and into a dimly lit room.
by John Duncan Talbird
followed by Q&A
You drop the needle, there’s a loud scratch, and then the guitars and drums of the Sex Pistols burst out of the speakers, Johnny Rotten sneering God save the queen! The fascist regime! The party, which has been tame, is suddenly anarchy, boys slamming into each other, tipping over tables, spilling beer, neighbors pounding on the wall to shut that noise off. When you picked up that record last month, I was like, man, don’t buy that shit, get the new Led Zep album, but you don’t listen. You also bought that Clash import, Armagideon Time, which doesn’t sound like rock or punk or anything good to me, and if you play it one more time I’ll puke.
But the girls seem to like this noise for some reason, though they won’t slam. Geena, who totally makes me want to orgasm, has put a safety pin through her ear lobe and dyed her hair pink. When you knock me on the carpet, I just lie there, staring up her Catholic schoolgirl skirt. I’ve come to this party armed with a condom and I’m ready for whatever comes my way.
Hey Geena, I say from where I am, I’ll buy you an order of fries if you give me a blowjob.
Ha ha, you’re fuckin’ crackin’ me up, she says, not bothering to step away though I can see her pink, frilly panties from here.
The girls all leave soon and, not long after, I’m vomiting in the toilet until I have nothing left to throw up. Lying on the cracked tile of your bathroom floor, I can hear Robert Plant sing Dazed and confused for so long it’s not true and, I think, Now, that’s what I’m talking about.
John Duncan Talbird’s fiction is forthcoming or has appeared in Ploughshares, South Carolina Review, Grain, and descant among others. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he has held writing residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. He is on the editorial board of Green Hills Literary Lantern and a frequent contributor to Quarterly Review of Film and Video. He lives in Brooklyn.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: I’m working on a collection of sudden fictions (stories under 2000 words), tentatively titled Fancies, Games, and Random Documents. Although my fiction is not strictly autobiographical, I would like to think that “London Calling” touches on that time in my life when I was just discovering punk rock and my hesitations about—and ultimate powerlessness against—its raucous charm.
by Brian Conlon
followed by Q&A
They started making lists of things. Not just lists, but ordered lists, lists with subsections, lists with hypothetical adjustments, lists with variables, inverted and averaged lists, abstract lists in which the items overlapped spatially and were nearly illegible, improvised lists that flowed directly from their pens but somehow bypassed their minds, three dimensional lists formed of play-doh and candy corn, frozen lists that melted into oblivion and were resurrected by memory, lists sculpted into the pavement, lists kept in separate and distinct folders on an external hard drive on the hardwood floor, lists traced into the pond up the street where the crows never swam, lists of women, lists of men, lists of wars, lists of dangerous animals, lists of friendly people, lists of teeth, lists of sandwich bread, lists of new crayon colors, lists of real colors, shaded lists impervious to the sun, sparkling lists that glowed in the dark, patriotic lists of presidents, secretaries of state, and treasury, chronological lists of stuffed animals they had owned, lists of the names of the Kings of France in order of how feminine their most famous portrait looked, lists of gymnasts by height, lists of foliage burned before it got too rotten, lists of orange trees they passed on the highway one summer, lists of jokes they once found funny, lists of dead siblings they imagined they had, lists of venereal diseases they’d heard of, lists of lists arranged by date and length and form and desirability and creativity and type of paper used, lists of gang members they had been threatened by, lists of television dramas they had been threatened by, frantic lists constructed in under a minute, methodical lists that took years to perfect and were still not right, lists of regrets, lists of achievements, lists of regretful achievements, lists of their friends’ children ordered from most to least likely to get suspended from school for biting someone, lists of cornered hats, a cornered hat that they had formed into a list through ingenuity and rare-bloodedness, frustrated lists that began and ended with one word, planned lists that would eclipse anything they had ever actually made, fermented lists that got them drunk and eased their minds, lists of designated drivers who drank anyway, lists of Christmas tree garnish they hung carefully, lists of famous salespeople from literature, lists of literature they had been given by famous salespeople, religious lists with meaning, lists of nonsense words, lists of areas where it might be painful to get a piercing, lists of post-modern architects, lists of pre-Roman civil engineers, lists of great oral surgeons, lists of poor dieticians, curved lists that started and ended at the same point, dense lists that had their own slight gravitational pull, floating lists that waded through the air in hopes of landing on a shingle, rolling lists that could sprain your ankle, cavernous lists that were never finished, lists of the one thing that meant something to them, lists of the many things that seemed to mean something to them, long lists of ways to die, short lists of ways to live, affectionate lists passed on without reciprocity, angry lists swallowed whole and regurgitated, lists of quarterbacks from most to least helmet-savvy, lists of millions and millions of irrelevant documents piled high in a law firm library, lists of corrupt village politicians arranged by facial hair and color, lists of benevolent dictators, lists of passive-aggressive cleaning ladies, lists of poorly dressed CEOs, lists of continuing education courses at the local high school, fried lists with gravy, corny lists of cartoon characters’ mothers in order of their pie-making abilities, lists of sordid scenes in PG movies, lists of innocent scenes in pornographic movies, lists of failed spokesmen, lists of successful businesswomen, lists of heart breaks, lists of types of heart attacks, lists of hybrid musical instruments, lists of portable housing units, lists of strong perfumes, lists of weak Constitutions, choreographed lists whose beauty was only surpassed by their functionality, stagnant lists that never changed, lists that constantly changed, lists of Gods, houses, sunsets, daydreams, cookies, body parts, broken bones, severed limbs, poor children starving to death, lists of great heroes, lists of innocuous people, and lists of things that might have been done if not for the fact that they had been busy making lists.
Brian Conlon is a short story writer from Rochester, NY. He holds a bachelor’s degree in History and Comparative Literature from the University of Rochester and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. His fiction has recently appeared in The Green Bag, Lowestoft Chronicles, Knee-Jerk and Precipitate. He resides in Rochester, where he is currently hitting .750 in beer league softball.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: This piece was inspired by the simple notion that it is pleasurable to make and read lists. It was written basically in one sitting and originally intended to be one single-spaced page. However, I was having too much fun making the list that is “The Lists” to stop.
by Michael Kriesel
followed by Q&A
(Must be completed prior to processing)
1.On exiting the mortal coil, what did you see?
a)White light and / or dead relatives
b)Leviathan’s 3rd testicle
2.Which ice cream were you given on arrival?
b)Peanut Butter Buddha
3.Question 2 was a trick question.
The only available flavor is worm.
4.Who did you blame for your weight problem? (Remember, ghosts are weightless)
a)Republicans b) Democrats c) Mirrors
5.What was your childhood nickname?
6.If you had to give God a nickname, what would it be?
7.On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 for love and 1 for loathe, rate the following by circling the appropriate number:
Free will 1 2 3 4 5
Aging 1 2 3 4 5
Uncertainty 1 2 3 4 5
8.Complete the following sentence: “If I had to do it all over again, I would…”
9.Complete the following sentence: “If I had to do it all over again, I would not…”
10.What makes you a candidate for reincarnation? (Limit your response to 50 words)
11.What makes you a candidate for oblivion? (Limit your reply to one haiku)
Thank you for your cooperation. Travel safely.
Michael Kriesel’s work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly, Antioch Review, Rattle, North American Review, and the Progressive. He won the 2011 Wisconsin People & Ideas Poetry Contest, the 2009 Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Muse Prize, and the 2004 Lorine Niedecker Poetry Prize from the Council for Wisconsin Writers. He was featured poet for the 2010 Great Lakes Writers Festival. Books include Chasing Saturday Night: Poems About Rural Wisconsin (Marsh River Press) and Moths Mail the House (Sunnyoutside). He was journalist in the Navy in the 1980s. He’s currently a janitor at the rural elementary school he once attended.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: I’m fifty, and at this stage (the last few years), first drafts are easy, and the majority of my time is spent playing around, revising a poem. Writing is easy and fun. Meanwhile, I’ve really come to a love / hate view of poetry…doubting its worth anymore. It’s gotten to where I try to quit writing entirely, a couple times a year. But no such luck.
Every time I try to quit, a month or so goes by, and a poem rises spontaneously, pretty much dictated full-blown by my subconscious. These are usually keepers. Part of it comes from the fact that I get so disgusted with poetry that I just don't give a shit anymore, and ironically, that often results in something fresh (for me). “Post-Mortem Survey” is one such “freebie”—two drafts and done. Such a fun idea I couldn’t just throw it away. I spent more time screwing around with the underline function on my computer than I did actually writing the poem.
Dexatrim: An Autobiography
by Ira Sukrungruang
followed by Q&A
You’re losing weight.
You’re a fox, a cheetah, a wolf, sleek and slippery; not a sloth
that clings to trees like elastic used to round
your waist. You’re looking good.
You’re cinching that belt tight, cutting off blood
to the brain, to the extremities, to the heart
—but what the fuck do you care?—
’cause have you seen yourself in the mirror? Your chin is one
chin. You’re no longer a multi-layered galaxy, a vast space
of fat and blood blister black holes.
Your eyes, red and sunken, no longer blink,
but that’s fine, and that jiggling leg of yours
has not stilled in days, but shit,
you’re a stick of handsome happiness. You’re a dehydrated dog,
lapping attention. You’re someone
you used to dream about, you’re someone
who used to dream.
But why do you look
hungry, ravenous really,
a bear about to wake?
Then explain the storm
in your mouth, the tremble,
the sleepless nights.
Explain the rattle in
the bottle of your pocket.
Explain your vanishing.
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy. His work has appeared in North American Review, Post Road, Crab Orchard Review and other literary journals. He teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida and is the founding editor of Sweet: A Literary Confection (sweetlit.com). For more information about him please visit: www.sukrungruang.com.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: Dexatrim was a difficult poem to write in that I wanted it to capture the diluted voice of the speaker a person who did not know what his obsession about his body was doing to him. It’s a poem that relies on internal rhythms and an unawareness of consequence. For many people who suffer from body image related issues this voice is the one that often echoes in the head, a voice that is terrifying to confront.
He just stands there and breathes . . .
by Alice Lowe
followed by Q&A
You’ve heard this one: A man retires, he’s underfoot and driving his wife crazy. “I married him for better or worse,” she says, “not for lunch.”
I took early retirement four years ago after working almost non-stop since I was sixteen, through my senior year in high school, through college, right up to my daughter’s birth and returning to work just weeks later. After years of being “on” all day every day for colleagues and clients, I withdrew to read, write, sketch, garden, putter, rearrange tchotchkes, stare at walls. When writing became my priority, I centered my time and space around it. Home became my haven.
I’d always lived with other people, from family to roommates to husband and child. After my first marriage ended and my daughter struck out on her own, I moved into a shared housing arrangement. Then, finally, I got—with homage and apologies to Virginia Woolf—a womb of my own: a cozy 400-square-foot apartment. Cobalt blue tiles greeted me from my tiny kitchenette when I walked in the door, an azure pool in my private paradise.
Then I met Don. He lived in another city, so we saw each other just on weekends. A friend said that I had the best of both worlds. She called Don my “Ken doll.” After we had our fun, I could put him in his shoebox and slide it under the bed until I wanted to play with him again. If that sounds sexist or a little creepy, it’s just to say that I still treasured my independence, my solitary nest, and this arrangement was ideal. But when everything’s wonderful, you want to be together, and after a four-year commuter romance, we’ve been married for fourteen.
Don is a painter and a musician, but like most artists he has to have a day job. He’s still several years from retirement, and his four-day-a-week job suited us financially and gave him time to devote to his own work. And sometimes there’s a painting commission or a playing gig—boosts to our income and recognition for his talents. Then last year when business was slow at the shop, he was cut back to three days a week. Then two. Anyone who says the economy is in recovery is rich and/or out of touch with reality. Before we had a chance for it to soak in—just a couple of days later—his boss called and said, “Sorry…” and laid Don off. We’re better off than so many in these circumstances. We’ll manage. But it means tightening our belt, even though we thought it was already on the final notch. Just punch another hole ... suck it in, just a little more, squeeze.…
A cartoon on our refrigerator shows a couple strolling on a tree-lined path, his arm around her shoulder. The caption reads: “Let’s get away from each other this weekend.” That’s us. We love our time together, and we love our time apart. I don’t want to be with him, or anyone, around the clock, every day. A couple we know seems joined at the hip; an attorney and an accountant, they share both home and office. That’s too much togetherness for us.
After breakfast and our morning walks—sometimes together, sometimes separate—he goes to work in his studio, our converted garage. I write at my desk, which faces the studio. Our house is very small. I see him moving around, coming in and out the back door. I hear the toilet flush, the fridge open and shut. He isn’t lurking; he’s just there.
He sits on the patio, just outside my window, and plays his guitar. I enjoy it, but it’s distracting. He reads in the living room, plays with the cats, just a few feet away from where I’m working. He clears his throat. He turns pages. I try to keep my focus, but I get sidetracked. It’s not his fault, but I’ve written less since he’s been home.
He just stands there and breathes.
He doesn’t stand over my shoulder and say, “Whatcha doin’?” Well, hardly ever. Some mornings he asks, “So, what are you up to today?” I sigh, make a face, a facetious remark: “Duh! What do you think?” or “Oh gee, I think I’ll write today!” He doesn’t bristle, doesn’t return my barbs; he doesn’t have my sarcastic streak, thank god. One smartass per household is enough.
But then sometimes I tell him what I’m writing, show him my work, ask for feedback, lap it up. Or look at sketches for his latest series of paintings or listen to an arrangement for a new CD. And I think how fortunate I am to have someone to share it all with. Don’t we just have it good? Until my inner Garbo nudges me and murmurs huskily: “I want to be alone.”
We’re working it out a day at a time. Don’s happy, enjoying this gift of time. He likes having me nearby doing my own thing, although my presence in the window disarms him a bit, too. He’ll go back to work one of these days, and I’ll bask in solitude, even burst with productivity. But sometimes I wonder if I’m settling into a groove. I can’t believe I’m really saying this, yet I know that there will be days when I finish a first or a final draft of a story, and I’ll wish he was here, right now, to read it. To be Leonard to my Virginia. “What do you think, huh?” Or I’ll get an acceptance from a journal, and I’ll want to pop into the studio and say “Woo-hoo!”
But I’m not ready.
And he’s still there….
Alice Lowe is a freelance writer in San Diego. Her creative nonfiction has appeared this past year in Hobart, Eclectica, Foliate Oak, r.kv.r.y and Tiny Lights, and is forthcoming in Phoebe and City Works. In addition, she was the winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. She has published essays and reviews on the life and work of Virginia Woolf, including the 2010 monograph, "Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction." She has a blog of her own: www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com, and is a regular contributor to www.bloggingwoolf.wordpress.com.
Q:Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: I was telling a friend about how difficult it was to have my husband home so much, telling her that he was very considerate & didn’t interfere with my work, but “he just stands there and breathes.” As soon as I said it, I knew I was going to write about it.