Prime Decimals 19.5
by Gerald Fleming
followed by Q&A
Often, the scene depicted tranquil—fait accompli, three men in their proper places, on crosses, assorted provokers and grievers below, sky leaden, sense overall not meat but vegetal, varnished, tableau.
Let’s say it did occur.
Then: cross? This planed and surfaced lumber in pictures we knew long ago—in Giotto, Raphael, even Goya?
No. Rough spar. Oak, or cedar. Maybe an adze hacked away the bark, maybe a few draw-knife marks, but it’s still tree, still round, chunks of its skin left on, bleeding sap, lots of knots—strong enough, though, to hold a man.
Each upright so tall no mother at night might take down a son, no brother a brother. And the cross-strut surely not mortised, fit tight/square to its vertical other, but cruder stuff: hemp-rope to lash the X together, coarse fiber, the cross-strut at front, main-beam behind, rope-laps raising it further so that a man’s deltoids and pectoralis majors are either racked backwards, spine arched out from the upright, or else his arms straight, pinned at wrists and elbows, thoracic vertebrae torqued inward, rolled; he’s hunchbacked.
The tying’s done on the ground, of course, crowd gathered round, a few protesting at first, most goading, quick-tempered, spinning to kick dogs fighting underfoot.
And of the three: do they accede, span themselves over each cross? Not likely.
Struggle, boots to the gut, the men blindsided, bare-knuckled, yanked down, faces struck and kicked, clothes ripped, and their cursing—all three, and all three self-mucoused and bloodied and pissed, pinned now at the wrists, ankles crossed and bound, four soldiers to a man, More rope! More rope! knives tossed to slice the hemp, and they’re stilled now, fixed, the crowd cheering Yes!—one of the men in the crowd with a hard-on.
Some few curse the soldiers, their epithets kept under breath.
Three tall crosses, one by one to be raised.
Who dug these goddamn holes? Not deep enough! One-third the length of each pole! Who trained you fools—your mothers?
And the laborers, new men, bend again, fifteen minutes’ work, their blades shear rock, much complaint, the tied men still supine, new rubble beside the post-holes, and now the call to raise: a soldier at each side of the struts, two at the vertical, they count, lift, the wet wood heavy and the bound man heavy, no balance to be had, pitching backward, swaying, Lift higher! says one with a helmet on, and the cross is lifted, lowered into its hole, voice of man on pole dolorous but lost in the crowd, but still it’s not plumb, It’s leaning, and they heave too far left, foolish workmen, compensate now too far right, finally straight, the workmen shamed, angry, There—now fill it in, shovelers packing rubble into the hole, slapping it with the back of their blades, the pole-holding soldiers still shouldering it, heroic poses in opposition to each other, more rubble, more soil. Done. Next one.
The second one plumbed, and now to the third man, still on the ground, bound, the one they were told to nail. The nails flat-shafted, pounded on an anvil, tapered, black. The man’s right wrist bound tight, one nail straight through the capitatum. That’s no pain, they say, you woman. Want nails in the tips of your fingers? Now the left.
The man’s feet, wrong in literature and tableau, here crossed at the ankles, bound in hemp, loosed briefly so that each crossed foot can find a surface for nailing. Two men on their knees—each takes a foot, jerks it downward, works it around the side of the post, nails it in. The cord tightened again.
The man himself now, as if oiled: in blood, in sweat, in piss, and the noises he makes animal noises, not human. He is raised, the skies leaden, yes, the birds already circling, the soldiers folding their arms, well pleased.
Gerald Fleming’s most recent book is Night of Pure Breathing: Prose Poems from Hanging Loose Press in New York. “Crucifixion, Kinetic” will appear in his next book, The Choreographer, due out from Sixteen Rivers Press (San Francisco) next spring.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: A few things. Astonishingly successful censorship of war by the military-industrial complex. Concomitant media sterilization of brutality. Exploitation of suffering by religions purporting to exist against such. Aesthetic “inconvenient truth” that many artists and writers have never known hard physical work, though they often exploit such as their subject matter. Finally, desire to try to get as close to fact of the thing as possible, given what I think I know.
by Mamie Potter
followed by Q&A
One: The doorbell rings. Your feet hurt a little as you walk from your bedroom to the stairwell and down the top stair. It’s Friday, it has been a busy week, and though the weekends are lonely, on Saturday you will put on your favorite gray corduroy pants and the red flannel shirt we gave you for Father’s Day, watch ball games and talk to some of us on the phone. On Sunday you’ll put on a suit, go to church and sing in the choir.
Two: The second stair, like the first, is fairly easy even though you are in a hurry to get the door, to pay the man who worked in the yard today. The money you pay him is so appreciated he always says, and though he does only a so-so job it is worth it because you are helping him. So many people you’ve helped through the years: giving donations, tutoring, baking pound cakes, sending get well cards.
Three: Three times a month you deliver meals to shut-ins. You, eighty-eight years old, get in your car and knock on the doors of those too old or too tired or too sick to fix food for themselves. You feel so fortunate as you walk down their stairs and sidewalks to drive to the house you’ve lived in for sixty years. “Three,” you think as you count your way downstairs.
Four: On the fourth stair you falter, grab the rail with a veined and arthritic hand. You re-balance and move on. Four times this month you have gone to funerals of friends; you know how fragile life is and how “like that” it can all be over.
Five: On the wall beside the steps is a picture of our mom, dead now these twenty-five years, with whom you had the five of us. Five children with children of our own, lives of our own, we don’t need you that much anymore and you try not to need us either. You keep the bad news from us: questionable doctors’ reports, high blood sugar, low energy, knees and back that ache as you move to the sixth stair.
Six: The knocking at the door has urgency now that you can detect even without your hearing aids in. We talk too loud when you wear them, too quietly when you don’t, make fun of you by saying, “Huh?” to each other when we think you can’t hear us. “One minute, I’m coming,” you call out as you move one stair closer to the bottom.
Seven: Your mother just died seven years ago. Maybe you’re only now beginning to feel free, an adult without a parent to answer to. You could live to be as old as she was—a hundred and one. You move carefully to the next stair.
Eight: Eight seconds it has taken you to get to this stair, eight seconds that your life is still productive; it’s still a time when you’ve never missed a Rotary meeting and go to work every day and sit in your chair in your house, yes, lonely but gratefully self-sufficient, so glad to be alive. And then for some reason you will never understand, you’ve miscounted the stairs—was it when you stumbled on the fourth one?—and your foot hits only air and you’re falling in a twist, landing heavily, awkwardly on the worn brown carpet. The pain is engulfing you so you can’t think and groans issue from somewhere inside you and the knocking at the door is more insistent; “Mr. Lewis? Mr. Lewis?” is muffled in your ears, but you can’t reach the doorknob or even the deadbolt key, and somewhere behind the pain, as frightening as what has happened to your body, is the certainty that you have counted your last stair.
Mamie Potter is a writer and photographer who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her stories have appeared in online literary magazines, Impact: An Anthology of Short Fiction, and the 2009 and 2011 Solstice Anthology. One of her short short stories won a contest judged by Elizabeth Berg.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: This story is a fictionalized version of the day my father missed a step and broke his hip. He died a very short two months later, two days after his 88th birthday.
by Cezarija Abartis
followed by Q&A
Caroline was having dinner at La Belle Epoque with her oldest friend, Andrea, who was in town for a conference on Building Happy Families for Our Children.
“I would never get a divorce,” Andrea said. “It’s terrible for the children.”
“The chicken isn’t terrible.” Caroline shook her head. “I’m sorry. I misunderstood. Children.” She looked around at the crowded restaurant, the white linen and white plates, the smiling people on the upholstered chairs. The light glittered down on them and rang in the air like broken glass all the way to the shadows in the corners. “What if there were no children?” Caroline cut the chicken, pushed the pieces to the opposite ends of her plate, and scraped the sauce off with her knife.
“Then why bother to get married?” Andrea put down her fork. “I’m sorry. That was tactless. We’ve been trying to have a baby. I have kids on the brain.” Andrea chewed on a spinach leaf. “You don’t like the mango sauce on the chicken?”
“It’s fine. It’s all right. Actually, I don’t like it that much. Actually, it’s repulsive.”
“My salad is good. What’s the matter?” Andrea watched the brown-haired waiter at the next table.
“I should eat more vegetables.” At the table behind Andrea, Caroline could see a couple, a thin woman in a sleeveless black sheath and a handsome man wearing a pale pink shirt. The woman sipped her white wine delicately and laughed at something the man said to her. The woman’s lipsticked mouth made a small ellipse and she tapped her waist as if his joke were too much to hold. Caroline tapped her own waist. If she didn’t do something soon, she would be wearing maternity tops. She arranged the asparagus spears in a circle, the tips overlapping. “I should be a vegetarian.”
Andrea shrugged. “There’s a lot of things I should do different.” She leaned in. “That waiter, his eyes remind me of Michael Conroy. Eyes drooping down at the corners. He died, you know.”
“I hadn’t heard.”
“A car accident. God, how I loved him in college.” Andrea closed her eyes as if to contain the memory, and her face lit up in a knowing smile like that of a painted Madonna. “I hung around outside his classroom pacing in the freezing rain, waiting for him to finish his class on James Joyce so we could walk to the cafeteria together.” Andrea’s beautiful eyes opened. “You had a sweetheart too, I remember, Jimmy—no—Danny, before you met Eric. How is Eric?”
“Eric’s fine. He’s at a conference this weekend. I’m sorry you’ll miss him.”
“We’ll get together another time.” Andrea waved the apology away. The votive candle on the table flickered and lit up Andrea’s hands. To Caroline, Andrea’s hands shone like those in a painting by Renoir. Andrea tilted her head to one side, pensive and perfect. “Michael . . . . That was so long ago.”
“Not even ten years. And look at us: you’re a hotshot in the government.”
“Ha. I’m GS-10. That’s nothing.” Andrea laughed and straightened. “You, on the other hand, are an artist.”
“I work at an ad agency, sketching cola bottles and kittens.” Caroline made a line with her finger on the tablecloth. “You know what Danny wanted to be?”
“I don’t remember.”
Caroline moved the chicken pieces to the middle of the plate, a little mountain of protein, then covered it with asparagus paths running up the mountain. “Danny wanted to start a foundation for the humane slaughter of farm animals. He was always trying to improve everything.”
“I heard a story on the radio yesterday. Humans will not evolve anymore.” Andrea picked a piece of lint off the sleeve of her jacket and flicked it away. “There are seven billion of us, and there’s no chance that a random mutation will take hold and get an advantage. We’re the pinnacle of evolution. This is as good as we get.” She raised her wineglass in a theatrical toast. “Unless a catastrophe wipes out six-and-a-half billion of us.”
Caroline ignored Andrea’s dark joke. “Danny died too. An overdose. Cocaine.”
“So Eric was a better choice.” Andrea covered her mouth. “That was tactless of me.”
“Eric is fine. He’s at a conference. He’s sorry he missed you.”
“You already said that.”
In the far corner of the room, the shadows gathered to make obvious the chiaroscuro of the scene. Caroline let out a long breath. “I worry about the pets. Who’ll take care of the cats and puppies when we’re gone?”
Andrea looked at her with sad eyes. Her fork clinked on her plate. “What’s the matter, Caroline?”
“Nothing. Everything’s fine. Really.”
“Here we are, dear, happily married and in our chosen careers. What more can we wish for?”
“Nothing. Absolutely, completely nothing.” Caroline folded her hands in her lap as if she were waiting for nothing. “But it’s still not enough.”
Cezarija Abartis's Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Prime Number Magazine, Underground Voices, Waccamaw, and New York Tyrant, among others. One of her flashes was included in Wigleaf's Top 50 list of flash fiction of 2011. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: This began, as many of my flashes do, in response to an on-line prompt. I subsequently revised, expanded, and generally messed around with the first draft.
Elegy for Myself on My 46th Birthday
by Sean Thomas Dougherty
followed by Q&A
I'll try not to blow
my brains out today
Maybe when I walk
see a bluebird
and I'll think of Marcus,
that fat twelve year old black kid
with the squinty stutter,
who spits and shits
at the halfway house
where C works as a counselor,
who blindside tackled C
for no good reason except
to see C fall, face muddied
grass grained onto his skull
one afternoon it was, Marcus, crying
CCCCC to see to be seen—I bet
he could use that bird.
use that god damned little bird
so I'll draw him a picture
like when I was Marcus’s
age when I had to fight
every black kid on my block
and my hands were fists
so often I forgot my fingers
for my knuckles
until I found something to make
I will make a blue bird
and put it in an blue envelope
and seal it with my spit
and write on it Marcus, one day C
you can give him this
no legged winged thing
when Marcus sees what's
inside maybe he will sing
which might be enough reason
to stick around
what do you think
though in the end we both know
people like us
end up snapping
our own fucking wings anyways.
Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author of 12 books including the forthcoming All I Ask For Is Longing: Poems 1994-2014 (BOA Editions), and Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line (2010 BOA Editions). His awards include two PA Fellowships in Poetry and a Fulbright. He currently works at a pool hall in Erie, PA, where he listens and witnesses, and teaches part time at Cleveland State University.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: Most of everything I write is written for actual people I know. The daily impact of writing is important to me. This poem was written for my friend Corey who told me a story about where he worked at his group home the week of my birthday, which I woke up on extremely upset, I am a very poor person and sometimes that just eats one up. So I wrote the poem as a testament for struggle, for me, for that kid Marcus, for Corey, for all of us who are just barely making it, and trying to keep our voices above the rising water.
What These Lips Have Kissed
by Lois Marie Harrod
followed by Q&A
The nickel my mother tied in a corner
of my handkerchief. I sat in Sunday
school and sucked as if it would save,
but when the plate was passed, the knot
had wadded so tight I couldn’t open it,
and I learned that though I could kiss
and make-up, it was hard to kiss and let go.
The lead pipe railing that lead up
the Sunday school steps where I
practiced skinning the cat, turning
myself over and inside out until my tooth
kissed cement and the cement
took what I offered like my father
turning his cheek. My mother wanted
to pull her front tooth and give it to me.
A tongue eventually, but not at church
camp where a preacher unlike my preacher-
father railed and rutted about necking and
petting until I asked my bunk mate what
was Frenching. She made it sound disgusting
like sharing a toothbrush with a guy in a beret.
The stiff lips of Mikey McClelland
when he kissed me in the living room
after the Christmas formal, asking first
if he might. Me wearing my green
spun sugar and he sporting a stolid tux
with black tie crossed at his neck.
I could see I’d never marry a guy
who begged for my permission.
The fat fender of that orange phantom
in which I squeaked through the slippery
tunnel in Tennessee. Without a scratch.
What got me through was kissable,
even if it left a cold metallic taste
in my mouth like the platinum
partial plate I had been kissing every
morning since I was eight.
Not my father when he lay dead,
for I had embarrassed him enough in life,
his continually prodigal daughter
planting kisses on his stern face.
Had he had a fatted calf, he would
have spared it.
But perhaps my mother when she dies.
She, the only one my father kissed shamelessly,
my mother who wanted me to kiss
my dead grandfather when I was thirteen,
and I would not, the old codger,
a thoroughly dissolute man,
or so I thought. . . then.
Lois Marie Harrod’s The Only Is won the 2012 Tennessee Chapbook Contest (Poems & Plays); her 11th book Brief Term, a collection of poems about teachers and teaching, was published by Black Buzzard Press, 2011; and her Cosmogony won the 2010 Hazel Lipa Chapbook award (Iowa State). She teaches creative writing at The College of New Jersey. www.loismarieharrod.com