Prime Decimals 2.2
by Valerie Fioravanti
followed by Q&A
The music crests, and the audience surges from the park’s great lawn to the rhythm of the final notes. You resist checking your watch by eating the last two dolmas from the Armenian deli he loves so much. The musicians return to the stage in small groups, performing for themselves and the remnants of the crowd littering the grass, all couples, except for you. This spontaneous performance under a low yellow moon, fanned by an easy May breeze should be savored, but you’ve eaten your way through a picnic packed for two.
It’s probably your fidgeting that attracts the donuts, although Dan believes you exude blue fever’s opposite—men in uniform can’t resist you. You flash the friends-and -family shield before they can begin the it’s not safe alone speech, and the two officers take a synchronized step back. “Any news from the 30?”
The older one, his shirt overstretched across the chest, nods. “Five-alarmer at an SRO uptown.”
The younger one leans down and swats the leaves and picnic crumbs from the edge of your blanket. “Unit’s flooded with event OT, we can get you home in a car.”
You stand because there’s no refusing, but Dan’s long stride finally cuts across the path. His stench outpaces him, filling your nostrils with sulfur and heartbreak. His voice, when he’s near enough, is an adolescent quiver. “I was first at the scene, but she just dropped him. I’m the quick one. That’s my job. To react.”
His eyes are empty spaces, and the two other officers immediately turn their backs. A soldier down needs alcohol and a woman—only the order and proportion of this cure is debated. Dan, the child of alcoholics, favors a return to prohibition. You lead him past the crosstown traffic to the lake, his hands clutching yours like a lost child. He holds on to the fleece wrapped around your waist as you pick the boathouse lock with the pin of his police badge. The rowboat you heave into the lake is painted the blue of his uniform shirt, the blue of the stripe on his squad car, the blue of a terrified toddler’s eyes, now young forever.
You strip Dan from the top layers of his singed, sooty clothes and guide him into the boat. His eyes still reflect flame and you cannot swim, but you can hold on, and you can rock with him until the damp breeze blows the smoke from his nostrils.
“I need to look up more,” he says. “Be alert across all sightlines. Assess all evolving possibilities.”
“You will.” You press your forehead to his, as if to transmit your faith telepathically. “You do.” Above all else you admire Dan’s stubborn heart, still so soft despite the hard neighborhood you were raised in and fled together. His fingers reach for your buttons, and you help him. You do your best to steady the boat as he rocks it, and the cold, clear water laps over you as he creates his own wave.
After, Dan strokes you drowsily. His body’s so transformed it’s hard not to snicker. Such an easy fix. “You know Delilah? From the bible?”
You grab the curls that have grown past his nape. He was ordered to the clippers twice last month. “I just stole your strength?”
“No!” His brows form a deep, earnest V. Even in kindergarten he was impossible to tease. “You’re her opposite. Hal-i-led. You make me stronger.”
Haliled. The hair on your arms rises, as if the chill of the evening has finally taken hold. Only you’re suffused with warmth. You have never been like him. Resolute, imbued with such clear purpose. This is your life with him. This is your life.
With him, this will always be your life.
Valerie Fioravanti’s work has appeared in many literary journals, including North American Review, Night Train, and Cimarron Review. She currently teaches flash fiction and other workshops online for the UCLA Writers’ Extension and runs the reading series Stories on Stage in Sacramento. While she is—like many of her ilk—abysmal at math, she values stubborn indivisibility, in numbers and otherwise.
Q: What was your inspiration for the story?
A: “Haliled” originated as a prose poem and workshop meme after a friend jotted Note to self: write erotica in her notebook during class. While my erotic poem took a sex-free detour into charred flesh and despair, I decided to honor the original intention when I transformed it into flash fiction.
The Father of Modern Chemistry
by Stefanie Freele
followed by Q&A
We only keep Vidor around for his announcements. I mean, we don’t really need him. It’s not like he pays rent or anything. Basically, he sits in his couch-dent and proclaims things.
Like for instance, when we pack for our hiking-honeymoon mumbling, “Let’s see I’ve got extra socks, extra rain pants, what else?” Vidor says, pack an extra head? Or, when Jay comes out of the shower, “geez my hands are pruny,” Vidor declares, That’s nothing. Yesterday I had a pruny peepee.
“Goodnight Vidor” we say and he waves a hand, Night Raisins.
In our bedroom we try to remember when Vidor arrived, how he got to our couch. Neither of us recall. He’s always been here with his four day-old beard growth, his green moose pajamas, his sherling-slippered feet up on the coffee table.
He must have come from somewhere. We resolve to ask in the morning.
We enter the room together but try to ask offhand as if we’re just curious, not interrogating.“Vidor? Where were you before our cabin?”
Pre-couch? He ponders. Yes.
There is a part of me that thinks I should be concerned. Should a grown out-of-work man be living with newlyweds?
“Vi? Are you happy here? I mean, is it better than where you lived before?”
He stirs his hot chocolate. That’s all we’ve ever seen him drink, hot chocolate. I’ve been wondering if happiness is a chemical reaction. For some people, it’s great big rain boots and a waterproof hat.
Retreating to our room to debrief, Jay recalls Vidor interested in a pizza, olives, so much better than that red wheelbarrow, but, did anyone ever see him chew? I think I saw Vidor come out of the bathroom once, but then again I’m not positive. Perhaps he showers and toilets while we’re at work? Has he ever been out to play in the snow?
Jay shrugs and tells me to let it go. “Vidor’s dependable and keeps the cats company.”
I’m really not uneasy about Vidor, just curious. I mean, but don’t want to say out loud: What if he wants to move on? How do we make him stay?
Out in the living room, I interrupt Vidor engrossed in a Scientific American with a calculator on his lap and binoculars around his neck. “Vi? What is it about you?”
He puts down the magazine and looks at me over his glasses. We’re out of laundry detergent and you worry too much. Both sides of an equation are equal. He resumes reading.
Flakes flurry behind him in the woods and I notice that both birdfeeders are full and the chickadees are fluttering the ground to peck. The picture is winter-perfect.
“Equal.” Breathless, I run down the hallway in my long underwear and jump into bed. Equal is the word I needed to hear. “We’re all good Jay.”
Jay cozies up to my neck, “I’ve been telling you we’re all good.”
I rest my heavy leg on his. “Guess I had to hear it from someone else.”
We whisper about big future plans, sledding, white chickens and wheelbarrows, all at the same time.
Stefanie Freele’s short story collection Feeding Strays was a finalist for both the Book of the Year and the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. She is the Fiction Editor of the Los Angeles Review. Recent work can be found in Glimmer Train, American Literary Review, Night Train, Vestal, and Word Riot. Stefanie has an MFA from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts: Whidbey Writers Workshop.
Q: What’s the inspiration for this story?
A: This story was inspired by several events including: a Flash Factory prompt, a William Carlos Williams Poem, and the couch-dent left on my brothers’ 1970s brown velvet couch by a roommate.
by Scott Owens
followed by Q&A
He wanted to understand
absolute value, thought
that might mean the redemption
of everything, hookers and addicts,
his own life, thought
that might be what Jesus
meant, enemy as brother,
each other as I you,
judge not that you be
not judged, but no matter how
he tried, understanding,
forgiveness, silver linings,
things kept coming up the same,
always less than zero.
Author of six collections of poetry and over 600 poems published in journals and anthologies, Scott Owens is editor of Wild Goose Poetry Review, vice president of the Poetry Council of North Carolina, and recipient of awards from the Pushcart Prize Anthology, the Academy of American Poets, the NC Writers’ Network, the NC Poetry Society, and the Poetry Society of SC. He holds an MFA from UNC Greensboro and currently teaches at Catawba Valley Community College
Q: What was the inspiration or genesis for your poem, "Absolute Value"?
A: I’ve always struggled with the idea of absolute value. In fact, I remember arguing with my seventh grade math teacher about the illogic of the concept. To me, the direction of something’s value, i.e. positive or negative, is much more vital than the distance of that thing from some medium or point of origin.
by Michael Bazzett
followed by Q&A
Pascal might be correct about the agony of human history
resulting from our inability to sit contented in a room alone.
If so, the urge to demolish will strike and when it does
fire is acceptable, and even transfixing, though also strangely
passive when compared to swinging a wrench
in a room full of bones still sheathed and tensing
in the limbs of those dead-set on avoidance.
One can sit on a hill, arms clasped about the knees,
and watch a barn pulse and roar in seizures of heat.
The smell of gasoline might lift from one cuff as the cinders curl.
Or one can heft oiled steel by the haft and go to swinging work
like a grim berserker in a muddy field, the weight of the axe
straining the ligature, broadening the arc of your reach in the world.
Michael Bazzett’s work has appeared in journals such as Green Mountains Review, Best New Poets, The MacGuffin, The National Poetry Review, and Rattle. He was the winner of the 2008 Bechtel Prize from Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and his novel for young readers, Marley Barbeau, was recently excerpted at Hunger Mountain. New poems are forthcoming in The Literary Review, Bateau, and Sentence. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two children.
Q: What was the inspiration genesis for your poem, "The Choice"?
The genesis was simple: Pascal’s quote, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” It doesn’t seem to present a lot of options.
Prime Number Decimals 2.3
by Paul Griner
Shauna texts me from work: 2 gt bk @ H trmd bsh w/ brd trmr. A hard-on at the morgue is weird, but I can’t stop thinking about her message as I clean up the examining table. Rags first, so nothing splatters, then bleach, then the hose. Done, I stand a crate next to the chute window and tilt my head up, breathe deeply, forcing the rank chemical scent from my nostrils. Ankles, one bedraggled dandelion, a dog lifting its leg.
H is Shauna’s boss, Mr. Heinsohn. He writes weekly Supervisor Efficiency Charts (SECs) and dings the intercom twice at the end of Friday’s shift. In his office, he looks up from the combined SECs to give Shauna’s breasts his analysis.
Before she blushed; now she gets angry and has taken to small acts of vandalism. Last month she pin-holed a plastic-wrapped tampon carton, submerged the box in water, then returned it to the shelf. Evidently this time she’s used a beard trimmer and restored it to its bubble wrap. How? Her hope is that unhappy pharmacy customers will harass him about defective products and he’ll start to feel helpless too.
I asked her once why she didn’t quit; she said she needed the discount on her mother’s blood-pressure meds.
From the open chute window an ambulance beeps as it slips into reverse, meaning another body is on its way, and I make sure nothing is obstructing the slide. Sometimes the maintenance engineers lean giant rolls of paper against it, or pile up saw-horses, thinking it funny to make a mess for us. Like most old morgues, we’re in a subbasement, so bodies wouldn’t putrefy before the advent of air conditioning. With the elevator out, ambulance drivers use the coal chute to save their backs. If people only knew.
While I’m waiting Shauna sends her second text, Chair, and I’m stiff all over again. It’s her favorite position. At Blades, a former saw factory turned bar, she said, One sexual position for life. Choose now. I’d gone up to order a beer. Truth is, I wasn’t any better than Heinsohn. She has amazing breasts, shaped to fit inside ice cream float glasses, displayed that hot night under an electric-blue Danskin. She says she doesn’t mind that I was staring; at work it’s different. She wears baggy blouses and an oversized white smock, and he’s old and married and creepy. I wish I felt different.
The body slithers down in its black bag and as I’m wrestling it to the dolly Frank comes down the long hallway from Maintenance, bouncing his tennis ball way too fast. That means he’s angry, making me clumsy, and I nearly drop the bag. Just before the door swings open I wedge my shoulder under it and flip it back onto the chute.
Wait, Frank says.
It’s all right, I say, sweating, my rubber gloves slippery. I got it.
I want to show I’m trying. I’m lucky to have this job since the only course I got an A in during my one year of college was Anatomy and Physiology.
A real cluster fuck, Frank had said, looking at my transcript. Then he covered up the other grades and said, But I guess if we only mark down this one, you’ll pass muster.
No, he says now, bouncing the ball faster. We’ve got something else.
He slaps a file down on his desk and I realize he’s not angry with me, breathe out.
Ovaltine, he says.
What about her? I ask.
Oh really? His eyebrow rises. Why?
Because she. I stammer, stop, blush. You know.
He just bounces the ball.
She was a Jane Doe, pitched in a drainage ditch off Route 71, the back of her head crushed. No sexual assault but all her clothes gone, and we had no way to identify her other than a tattoo, Ovaltine, entirely covering her left breast. Twenty, he said. Dental records drew a blank. She had a perfectly manicured landing strip, immaculate fingernails, no bruises or needle tracks, was tanned and ridiculously fit; no one took that kind of care of her vessel only to commit suicide.
He stops bouncing the ball and I realize what he’s thinking: No way he can use that as scientific evidence.
But why? I ask.
Harold’s term is up. If she’s a homicide, the murder rate rose on his watch.
He’s gone in a week. Why do you care? Let the new mayor deal with it.
Harold writes letters to his successor, with recommendations whether or not we should be retained.
I ignore my buzzing phone, Shauna’s third text. Damn, I say.
Exactly. And Ovaltine’s is the only case that can be reclassified.
What about this one? I rest my hand on the cool plastic zipper.
Car accident. Only question is whether he had a heart attack first.
I’m thinking, If Ovaltine turns suicide, cops won’t search out her family. A murder, even a distant one, they want to solve. It’s like killing her twice.
All day, I go about my chores quietly. Frank works on the new guy without whistling, a bad sign, and leaving off Vivaldi, a worse one. Late in the afternoon he turns on music—rap, which makes him angry, so I know he’s mad at having caved.
On the two-hour drive to Shauna’s I punish myself by leaving the Ipod off, but really, it doesn’t matter. Each passing mile I’m thinking less of Ovaltine, how we combed the report to make it fit. A chunk of old paving nearby, she tripped and fell backward; the lack of clothes we simply glossed over. Not mentioned, the detail doesn’t exist. Type the new report into the computer and murder disappears.
Instead, I’m wondering about Shauna’s sudden smoothness, how she got the beard trimmer back in its package, what some guy will think when he opens his new product in a week or two, fresh from the factory, only to find it’s already spoiled.
Paul Griner has published three books, Follow Me (stories) and Collectors (novel) with Random House, and most recently The German Woman (novel) with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His stories have appeared in print and online in Story, Tin House, Bomb, Narrative, Playboy, Ploughshares, and Prairie Schooner, among other places. He is the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Louisville.
by Rebecca K. O’Connor
followed by Q&A
“There was a hierarchy of the sport [of falconry] at the head of which was the sovereign; it was as distinctly aristocratic as heraldry.” — Arnold Fleming, Falconry and Falcons (1934)
From the Boke of St. Albans, the falconry hierarchy:
King… Gerfalcon and its tercel
Prince … Falcon gentel and its tercel
Duke… Rock falcon
Knight… Sacre or sacret
Squire… Lanare or Lanret
Lady… Mezlyon (Merlin)
Young Man… Hobby
When I asked if I could come with him inside the house to meet his parents, Prince Charming smiled. He touched my hair, fingering the crimped waves of a bleached-blonde strand. Then he admired me from the neckline of my little black dress to the spikes of my heels.
“I don’t think so,” he said, an obvious answer. “I’ll be right back.”
The other vehicles parked in the driveway were sleek carriages. The hedge that marked the border of his family’s domain looked as if it had been mined from a quarry and carved into curves. Everything was classy except for me. I tucked myself tighter, made myself small in the leather seat. I had thought being twenty, beautiful and a good time gave me status, but I was still a peasant.
I looked out the windshield and up, taking my solace from the sky. A red-tailed hawk rose unsteadily, riding the warm elevator of a thermal toward the clouds. I focused on her, imagined her folding her wings, plummeting from the sky to light on my gloved fist. Falconers were aristocrats.
The first bird I lured into a trap and lifted on my glove was a red-tailed hawk. I released her because she tore open my scalp, punctured my hand and left me aching. She was the first, the beginning of the pursuit.
“The Goshawk was for a yeoman.”
The Greek Landowner said he hated my goshawk, but what he really hated was that I was free to escape him.
“You will be back from hunting with that bird in two hours,” he said, not asking.
My goshawk with her tense takeoffs and fierce wing-beat led me deep into the bush, taking me to places I needed to go, to places that I might never want to leave. She was a fickle guide. She distrusted The Greek with his fast hands and simmering temper. Sometimes I saw him through the goshawk’s acetylene eyes and distrusted him too.
The Greek loved that I whispered obscenities in his ear, adored me untamed. Then he raged for me to stop mucking about in the woods, to be a lady and do as I was told. Sometimes I wanted to do as he asked, but when the barbarian bird was erect on my glove, I knew I couldn’t.
The goshawk was a siren, always on the verge of abandoning me and ghosting into the eucalypts, a flash of wings and wild. When she tried to lose me, I scrambled after her, felt the earth beneath my boots and owned it.
The goshawk was too temperamental to trust and when I cut her loose from leather anklets and leash, she never looked back and neither did The Greek.
“The perky Merlin was for Milady.”
Hunting with a merlin is civilized. No bigger than a blue jay, my tiny falcon sat atop my fist like a fashion accessory with lethal intent. We hunted in clean and open alfalfa fields, stalking sparrows and finches, inoffensive prey. I imagined I was no longer feral, that my hands were clean. The Millionaire’s Son examined my cuticles and called my ruse.
“Dear, God,” he said. “Is that blood? Don’t you bathe?”
He made me use a scrub brush on my nails, but took me to expensive restaurants and to meet his parents. I would rush back to him after runs with the merlin. The pulse of the hunt still in my blood, I would press The Millionaire’s Son to the mattress. I loved to hear him growl my name. In return, he bought me gold bracelets and glass pens.
Then scrubbed nails weren’t enough. The Millionaire’s Son insisted on manicures with matching pedicures and wanted my hunting garb abandoned for clothes that artfully covered matching bra and panty sets. He felt a woman of my status should wear Bulgari sunglasses, things too expensive to lose in the field. The merlin, never lost, was perfect in her autumn couture. When I released the falcon back to her sky, I let the The Millionaire’s Son go too.
I left the merlin perched in an oak, azure feathers dribbling from the summer-colored bluebird in her talons, both of us lusting for more, neither of us ladies.
“The Peregrine was for an Earl.”
I was in love with The Photographer, but the peregrine falcon was impossible. With his long wings and searching stare, the peregrine owned the horizon and therefore had little use for me. I was desperate to change his mind. I bought him a truck to ride in, a flock of pigeons to chase, a dog to help with the hunt and then a house. I gave the peregrine a kingdom. I went wherever he needed me to go, swam in murky ponds and crashed through skin searing brambles. I forgot The Photographer.
“It’s important to you,” he said. “I understand.” But I didn’t think he did.
The Photographer was beautiful, his family well positioned. He was easy with his laughter and patient, but when I pained him, he never looked into the sky. He was beholden to no wilderness and managed no menagerie. He paced without the poise of someone balancing a raptor. I tried to talk him into picking up a goshawk and finding his way, but he stumbled. He left without me telling him to go.
I missed The Photographer, but was soon day-dreaming about the heft of an eagle. American class crumbles under the hierarchy of falconry. I chose.
Rebecca K. O’Connor (“American Falconry”) is the author of the award winning memoir Lift published by Red Hen Press in 2009. She has published essays in South Dakota Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Los Angeles Times Magazine, West and divide. Her novel, Falcon’s Return was a Holt Medallion Finalist for best first novel and she has published numerous reference books on the natural world.
Q: What was your inspiration for “American Falconry?”
A: I was watching the peregrine bathe, daydreaming about the coming season instead of writing and it occurred to me that perhaps you should be careful what you wish for…
Dionysious Shows How He Makes Moonshine
by Anne Babson
followed by comments
Shine steeps easier when you fill your grandma’s tea
Kettles with all the spilled milk your family’s
Done cried over. Add the sugar that wastes from the
Torn sacks, then the flour the bugs have half-eaten.
Then, and this is the real kicker, boy, you take some
Of that sweet deferred dream juice that old African
Outlaw man Langston Hughes sells up the river, and
You let it sit in the heat of the back porch for
A week. Cover it with a cheese cloth you’ve soaked in
Virgin tears – That’s harder to get nowadays – and
Smoke the still with peat moss from your granddaddy’s heath.
On festival days, I add a pinch of regret.
After slow steaming, it’s ready for the jugs I
Cork, and I invite those good ol’ girls gone wild, the
Manead clan, to come on over and kick us
A dance with the Satyr boys from over the hill.
What they don’t drink while they tear up the whole landscape,
I sell to the local population at large.
I’m the richest man in these hills except for the
Undertaker, and we work together on most
Saturdays, especially in the summer time.
The mosquitoes leap when they see me come out the
Shack, and the flies, they know, like Scarlett O’Hara,
That they’ll never go hungry again. Don’t you dare
Leave my property, boy, without a free sample.
Sip this. You’ll see the banks tearing up mortgages,
The oil company cleaning up without a fight,
The June sun diminishing to a bearable
Glare, your momma loving you just for who you are,
Your daddy clearing his throat, slapping your back, and
Coughing out, “I’m proud of you, son,” your woman
Watching only you in the room packed full of my
Brother gods. You’ll see the face of babies you made
As they gurgle a full-on college fund out their
mouths, drooling dollars; you’ll never have to
Worry how to pay the teacher or the doctor,
And you’ll see the face of God – not my face, not the
Face of the other guests who come to my moonshine
Parties – this other one, the one they built the altar for
And dedicated it to the unknown One,
the One whose face hovers between constellations
Hidden in the folds of the night. Just sip and see.
Anne Babson, a Coney Island poet recently transplanted to Mississippi, has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. She has won awards from Columbia, Atlanta Review, Grasslands Review, and other reviews. Her work has been published in eight countries, included in a British anthology of American poets entitled Seeds of Fire (Smokestack Books, 2008) and will be featured in another British Anthology forthcoming from Caparison E-Books entitled Emergency Verse. Her opera Lotus Lives debuted this year. She has four chapbooks and over a hundred journal publications. Catch her blog about North-South culture shock at www.carpetbaggersjournal.wordpress.com.
My poem here is part of a collection entitled The White Trash Pantheon, where I set the ancient Greek myths in the American heartland. The Greek Gods always behaved like Jerry Springer guests, and these works are at once neo-classical and pop-cultural.
Jennifer Hollie Bowles
followed by comments
waiting for you to
pull the hair back from my eyes, I
don't understand why you pet me and bite the tears off
my face, peel your wounds just to give them to me. I know the dank horror of living in-
out, but don't put your
lid on me because I'll lick your fingers until the
skin comes off. Your mother was cold, so what, I'll crawl back to my house and wait for you with
glass of milk.
Jennifer Hollie Bowles lives in Knoxville, TN, with two powerful muses: Trauma and Bliss. She is the editor of The Medulla Review (www.themedullareview.com) and Medulla Publishing. Her writing has been accepted for publication in over forty literary journals, including The New York Quarterly, Word Riot, Thieves Jargon, Echo Ink Review, and The Ampersand Review, and her first poetry chapbook, Fire and Honey, was published by Flutter Press in July, 2010. Jennifer doesn't own a cell-phone or TV.
“Freud's Sill” emerged when I injected the vibrations of male-dominated psychology into the rawness of my female voice, added the synergism of a contorted relationship, and experimented with Fibonacci.
Prime Decimals 2.5
by Susan Tepper
followed by Q&A
In the spacious mirrored café adjacent to the music hall, Kryštof operated the cake cart. Three tiers of cakes. Up top were the little cakes (called petit fours), then the larger cakes on the center shelf, and on bottom the highest triple-layer cakes. When customers signaled Kryštof, he wheeled the cart over to their table, sliced whatever cake they wanted and collected their money. Only the Czech people understood to pay him. The Europeans and Americans balked at a separate cake transaction. Why should they have to part with their korunas to pay for cake, when the rest of their meal went on the credit card?
Taught to say, “It’s the system,” Kryštof would shrug and move along with his cart, laughing to himself as they panicked over getting no cake and calling after him to come back.
And so it went for a couple of years, until his mother killed herself. But not for that incident, Kryštof may have gone on with the cart indefinitely: slicing the cakes, handing them over on a white silver-edged plate, collecting korunas, placing orders for espresso and cappuccino in the kitchen.
Shortly before the Communist takeover, his father had left them to earn money in Spain. It was as if he’d gotten some secret communist message that read Get Out Now. His wife and baby son remained behind in the countryside and he was not heard from again. Kryštof had just begun to walk. He had no memory of the man known as Otec. His mother went to work at the bone museum in Kutna Hora. She sat behind a table with another woman collecting admissions.
From the time he was very small the bone museum had fascinated Kryštof, filled as it was with the bleached bones of over 40,000 plague victims. Monks had made a shrine out of the bones from all the rotting corpses. He pictured them piled as ladders in the yellow canola fields. He could see the ancient monks clambering about heaving bones into rucksacks. Bones that decorated the chapel in every possible manner: bone chains looping across the ceiling, bone alcoves lit by flickering candles, a chandelier with its strung bones like delicate lace. He went often with his mother, when there was no one to watch him.
During the Communist regime there wasn’t much in the way of food or much money to buy food. Meat was scarce. After they finally cleared out, he could never get enough meat in his body. Capitalism had come in like a racing floodwater that threatened to drown every person, house, even the great cathedrals of Prague were at high risk—the kiosks of postcards, T-shirts, glass-beads springing up everywhere.
It was May—Prague Music Month. His girlfriend Saskie worked the ticket booths around the city moving from location to location. She got very good at knowing how much to charge each customer. When the month ended, she opened a little glass-bead kiosk on the Charles Bridge. As the temperatures rose so did her prices for the cheap colored glass necklaces and bracelets the tourists scooped up like hungry fish.
Saskie was joyous. At last she felt warm and she was making money. The winter had been bitter, the springtime damp and chilly. Saskie complained all the time about her hands and feet and nose being ice cold. She had to sleep with her head under the blankets. That wasn’t so bad. Often she reached for him during the night, stroking and making him moan. The days, however, were not so good. To warm her nose Saskie taped a menstrual pad to her face.
It nauseated Kryštof seeing her going about like this. He worried that people would think her insane, report her, and she would become incarcerated. He discussed this possibility with his friend, Čeněk, a waiter from the café. It was their break and they were smoking out back.
“A useless worry,” Čeněk had assured him. “Nobody will touch her. Nobody cares about anything these days, now that the communists have left and taken with them the country’s spirit.”
A sobering idea—the country’s spirit leaving the way the spirits of the plague victims had lifted like smoke. His friend had many opinions. Kryštof found himself listening, absorbing. Čeněk was also quite the ladies’ man. Tall and lean with his handsome blond Czech looks, the French girls in particular sought him out. While he was taking their order, they’d engage Čeněk in small talk about food and wine, where to go for fun, how to find drugs. From the cake cart, the French girls always chose the little cakes iced like miniature packages with sugared ribbon-bows.
After work, Čeněk often met with those girls. The next day he would tell Kryštof tales of his love adventures at the hands of a French or Swedish girl, sometimes two. Or that exotic tall one from Marrakesh whose dark neck was wrapped in so many thin strands of gold metal that Čeněk claimed she left on during sex.
And, slowly, Kryštof began to see Saskie in a different light. She was still pretty (without the menstrual pad covering her nose) but she wasn’t beautiful or glamorous like those foreign girls his friend took to bed. Saskie was a simple country girl infatuated by the city and what it could offer in the way of a better life. In his opinion she spent far too many hours working.
One night he suggested she put on a black leather g-string (lent by Čeněk to improve his sex life). Saskie flatly refused, calling Kryštof sicko. When he asked where she’d gotten such a word, she said she knew a lot of words. In English and other languages. And swear words, too, she said, shouting some he’d never heard in languages he couldn’t identify. Then she pushed up the window of their small one room flat and flung the g-string into the night.
The beginning of what Kryštof saw as the beginning of something unexplainable. His mother took the poison. The bone museum superintendent inquiring by phone: was she ill all the missing days? Not that he was aware of Kryštof said hanging up quickly. Without knowing anything specific his palms had begun to sweat.
He left his job at the café and returned to Kutna Hora. Saskie didn’t mind or try and stop him. Čeněk, his only real friend in Prague, had a similar reaction. Nobody tried stopping him. By then he felt his spirit gone. The way Čeněk claimed the communists had taken it when they fled the country.
Susan Tepper is the author of Deer & Other Stories (Wilderness House Press, 2009) and the forthcoming epistolary novel What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G (co-written with Gary Percesepe) to be released this September by Cervena Barva Press. Tepper hosts the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in NYC, and is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review (online journal based in Turkey). She has been nominated five times for the Pushcart Prize.
Q: What was the inspiration for “Bones?”
A: Prague is a magical city. I have great respect for the resiliency and industriousness of the Czech people.
Hubris, Halcyon, Guacamole
by Cezarija Abartis
followed by Q&A
In the backseat, Andrea practiced her words for the spelling bee: “aberrant,” “bungalow,” “empress,” “gallivant.” Only the second word in that group didn’t have double letters. Her mother and father were driving her to the city-wide spelling bee at Central Catholic in their old Edsel. She had won at her school, beating out Judy, Geraldine, and Richard; and, aware of her hubris (“hu-bris”; two syllables; Greek, meaning “pride”), she hoped eventually to win the city and state awards, perhaps even the national.
Her father wore a short-sleeved shirt with tiny sailboats. Mom had told him to wear a white shirt, so he would look more dignified. But the day was hot, and he didn’t want to tuck in his shirt.
“How are we going to lend money to your brother? How? How?” Her mother’s voice became screechy.
Her father sighed. “He just needs it to get on his feet. I’m putting in overtime. It’ll work out.”
“We shouldn’t be arguing in front of Andrea.” Her mother turned around to look with soft eyes at Andrea. “Honey, we’re not really fighting. Grown-ups can get crazy. Life is full of surprises.” Her mother shook her head and sighed. “But your life will be happy. You should just ignore us.”
Andrea tried to be oblivious: o-b-l-i-v-i-o-u-s. She wanted to be a poet or an artist, someone who could paint pretty gardens in lush colors and, beyond them, sailboats hoisting angelic, fluttering sails, traveling to Samarkand.
They drove past the Orpheum theater. Last year it showed From Russia with Love, which had a condemned rating from the Legion of Decency, so she could not see it. They drove past Bach’s Flowers, Isaly’s Deli, and Hershmann’s Furniture Store with its giant, almost dangerous, sofas in the windows. A person could sink and suffocate in one of those quicksand sofas. The sidewalk was littered with newspaper and brown bags and a wine bottle. A scurfy man led a scurfy dog. Andrea was not allowed to have a pet: “Our house is too small.” She looked across the street, where the pavement in front of Mancini’s Funeral Home sparkled with embedded glass bits. Jimmy Mancini was in her seventh-grade class; he was a year older because he had polio and wore leg braces. But she thought he had a cute face.
“On our way home, let’s remember to buy some kielbasa,” her mother said. “I’ve got sauerkraut and potatoes at home.” Her mother turned and reached to pat her hand. Her mother’s forehead gleamed with perspiration. “My honey likes kielbasa.”
Andrea used to like kielbasa, but now she wanted to try chow mein and egg rolls, which Geraldine told her she had eaten at a cousin’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Judy said egg foo yung was like scrambled eggs.
They stopped in front of the hot train rushing past and whistling. The smell of the oil and dust enclosed them. Her spelling book lay in her lap. On the “H” page, she smiled at “halcyon”—it was her favorite word: “halcyon times of peace,” “halcyon days of youth.”
The light was glossy; the train blared as if unhappy, rolled dark and hot, speeding toward Samarkand or New York City. The words on the side did not spell the destination.
On the radio, the announcer gave news about a war in a country beyond Russia. She had shed tears about brave soldiers dying in poems.
She turned the page to “G” words: “guacamole.” She thought it was some kind of animal, a mole. She was surprised to read it was food, made from avocado. Guacamole. G-u-a-c-a-m-o-l-e.
Cezarija Abartis’s Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Grey Sparrow Review, Underground Voices, Slushpile Magazine, Manoa, Story Quarterly, and New York Tyrant. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: On Zoetrope in the Flash Factory forum, which has weekly prompts for flash fiction, we were invited to write a story using “aberrant,” “bungalow,” “empress,” “gallivant,” and ending with “guacamole.” The title was supposed to be “Back in the Argument.” I kept that title until the penultimate draft. P-E-N-U-L-T-I-M-A-T-E.
by Glenn Cassidy
followed by Q&A
The guy beside me on the bus
wages a bidding war over the phone
with his girlfriend. They try to out I love you
each other and I wonder, is this what goes on
with the phoned-in bids at Sotheby’s?
I love The Execution of St. John the Divine
a thousand infinities, a million infinities,
a million billion infinities. How many times
have this bozo and his girlfriend tried this exercise
without learning all their infinities
are equal in size, infinitely countable,
each mappable into the restricted domains
of each other’s limited awareness
of the world around them?
O innumerate bidder, I hate the both of you
with real number infinity, with uncountable infinity.
Pray we reach your stop in finite time
or my infinity will crush your infinity.
Glenn Cassidy is a consultant and educator based in Carrboro, NC. He has a Ph.D. in public policy analysis and has taught public finance at several universities including UNC Chapel Hill and Georgia Tech. In addition to his research, he has published poetry and short fiction, often drawing on math and science as well as public policy issues. He maintains a blog at www.anglesandrhymes.blogspot.com.
Q: What was your inspiration for this poem?
A: Infinity comes in different sizes, or orders. The smallest is countable infinity, such as the set of all rational numbers (numbers that can be represented by a ratio of two integers). The real number line contains all the rational and irrational numbers (e.g., pi, square root of 2). It has more elements and represents a higher order of infinity – an uncountable infinity.
The Divorce Prägnanz
by Lauren Reed
followed by Q&A
Everything is as you perceive it, even if it isn’t.
We’ll start with Law of Closure:
Your side of the bed is empty,
but I tuck the corners tight to keep
the weight of you there, keep
the sheets pulled away from me
enough that, half awake, I can pretend
we’re still at struggle.
There is always a bit of Lauren here, both
women, artists, a damaged interior
worth loving. This is the Law of Similarity:
every woman here, in this moment,
is falling asleep in an attempt
to forget what we’ve been through.
Once you’d entered you were always
on my skin, your hands
a tangled weight on me, your breath
my breath and then some. Law of Proximity knew
I’d be light-headed, intoxicated by a possibility in us.
I traced you: one side, the other;
Law of Symmetry. Each curve the other side
mimics, each freckle, crease – a comrade.
I even saw myself in you. When quiet
I could tell you knew we were the same
basic things: all atoms and wanting.
When everything has changed, we stay
the same in different moods.
We both know I’m just as broken
as you found me, again some paste and hope;
some Law of Continuity.
And now, our Law of Common Fate.
We turn from here and know we knew
from the beginning you would leave me.
Should I apologize for ever acting
as if we were moving in the same direction?
Lauren McKenzie Reed lives most of the year in Morgantown, WV, where she completed her MFA at West Virginia University as a Stephen Crocker Scholarship awardee and has been an instructor of Creative Writing and Composition & Rhetoric. She’s been to Mali, France, the U.K., and Ireland, but is currently living in Berlin, Germany.
Q: What was your inspiration for this poem?
A: Gesalt psychology is about the self-organizing tendencies of the mind, specifically spatial and visual groupings. I thought it’d be interesting to misuse the theory to better understand the ways in which we see the world in order to make sense of a relationship, or relationship ending.
Prime Decimals 2.7
Small But Plentiful
by Tiff Holland
followed by Q&A
The first time she told me the story, he was a pimp. I remember the word “pimp.” How could someone forget that? If my entire slate had been wiped clean, I would remember the word “pimp” the way I remember the word “orgasm,” the way she first said it to me, on the phone—probably so she wouldn’t have to look at me—the way she lowered her voice. “Tony” was his name, and I remember that, too. She and my father were separated, but it still felt like cheating to me, my father’s daughter, dark like him and book-smart the way Mom never was. She said she should have stayed with this Tony, although then I would never have been born. She said she thought he may have been her one true love.
But now, when I ask her about the other things she has said that she will not, should not tell me, I ask about Tony. We are driving down 620 to Walgreen’s. I am driving. Six months ago it was the other way around. I was sicker. She drove while I gave directions. Today, she is coughing in the passenger seat, occasionally spitting into a tissue she has pulled from inside her bra. Once again, she has refused to bring her portable oxygen.
“So, you said you didn’t want to tell me any more. That some of it is just too bad, and I’m wondering: what, what could be that bad?” I ask. Remembering the last bit, about my Aunt Leone, because I took notes, because I found the words: lesbian, tittie, and dentures on a receipt that I almost threw away. “I mean, you said Leone was a lesbian, big deal, and I know about Michael Todd and…” There was something else. That I forgot.
“Your father was mean to me. He was so mean.”
“Even his own mother said I should leave him.”
The floors of my childhood were covered in the ceramic shards of broken nick-nacks. Once, we crawled through a window to escape him pounding on a bedroom door. We shared secrets before she started telling me. I look out the window at a group of buzzards feasting on a small deer by the side of the road. In this part of Texas the deer are small but plentiful. I put on my turn signal.
“So,” I say, “Tony.”
“Oh, he was good to me. So, good to me. He was I-talian.” She always stretches out that word, elongates the vowel. I envision a dark skinned man dressed like the narc from Starsky and Hutch, chicken or rooster something. I wonder if this Tony wore a hat.
“He took me nice places. He gave me things.”
He didn’t break them, I think.
“Anyway, your father and I made up.”
I pull up near the door. Mom still hasn’t completed the paperwork for her handicapped placard, although I can see the top of it sticking out of her purse. Maybe, like me, she thinks if she holds out she’ll get better. I did.
“He was a pimp?”
“Oh, I don’t know. He always had lots of pretty girls around him. But then…Okay, I think he was Mafia.”
She pushes used tissues into the trash bag that hangs from the lighter nub, then grabs fresh tissues from a box on the floor and shoves them into her bra. I know for a fact that at any given moment the bra is home to several tissues, her asthma inhaler, roughly thirty dollars in cash and one or two hard candies. I imagine her loading it up in the mornings the way my husband loads his pockets.
“Mafia? Barberton Mafia? There’s Mafia in Barberton?”
My mother’s hometown is tiny, with a small, perfectly round man-made lake in the center of town. That’s really about it.
“I don’t know. Maybe Cleveland.”
She arranges her purse on her elbow, reaches for the door handle. I get out and walk around in case she needs help, but she’s good. Inside she makes sure I get a cart, so I can lean on it if I have to. She leans on hers. I abandon mine as soon as she’s out of sight. No one in Cleveland goes to Barberton, not for anything. I shove my hands in my pockets. I’m careful not to look at anything too carefully. The aisles, the rows of products and fluorescent lights are overwhelming. I get tired quickly and look for her in the candy aisle. She has a box of Russel Stover’s and sixteen candy bars. She frowns when she notices I’m cart-less.
“I didn’t want to buy anything,” I say.
She looks at the medic-alert bracelet on my wrist but keeps quiet.
“You done?” I ask.
“Yes. It’s time for my treatment.”
We stop at McDonald’s on the way back. Every day at three she has a cup of McDonald’s coffee.
“So, did he have a gun?” I ask, waiting as the minivan moms in the vans ahead of us pass happy meal after happy meal back to children watching cartoons on built-in DVD players.
“Tony? I don’t know. I suppose.”
But that doesn’t tell me anything. Mafia, pimp—both would do well to have a gun.
“And you just went back to Dad?”
She is peering inside her bag, checking to make sure she has the requested four creams. She gives a nod, and I pull away from the window.
“I went back. He promised to be better, to stop drinking, and he did.”
“But you still wish you’d stayed with this Tony”
“I didn’t say that.”
It’s amazing how much progress the buzzards have made in such a short time. The deer’s ribs are clean and crows sit on the barbed wire, waiting for the big birds to finish, so they can have their turn.
Tiff Holland’s fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in over one hundred lit-mags, ezines and anthologies and has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She teaches at Austin Community College.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: I had a stroke two years ago and as a result have spent more time with my mother, who is also in poor health. This piece reflects the changing dynamic between us due to our individual illnesses. Also, during the worst of my illness, I spent a lot of time watching the buzzards which nest in a tree one hundred yards past my back fence. They became an inspiration in my work as well. For a while, they were the only company I had.
Don't You Want Some Sun?
by Meg Pokrass
followed by Q&A
When I asked Mike why he was always walking around the house naked, he told me he had too much to hide. That was the year his mother sat on the train tracks, and the same year his brother fell in love with small two-seater planes. The kind that break when they hit birds.
Also, Mike had lost his job and refused to send out resumes. He said there was only so much anyone could do, he was sick of worrying, and when someone wanted him—they would holler.
I’d gotten so used to Mike’s nudity that I’d stopped noticing his penis crouched like a worried squirrel. I’d started feeling nauseous about meat, and could no longer eat chicken. There was something about all of his skin, all at once—blending with the smell of olive oil on salad. Also, the scent of dope made it hard to notice anything good or warm about the house anymore. Always, there was a drawn shade.
“Don’t you want some sun?” I’d ask.
“No, goof,” he’d say. “I want some privacy, can’t you tell?”
“Sure,” I’d say.
Once, I said, “I bet if you wore clothes—sometimes you would be able to have really good privacy.”
A day later, he left. When I got back from the vegetable market, His note said, “Jim and I are testing his plane and I’ll be gone a few weeks. Take care.”
One of our dogs was blind, but very affectionate. She slept in the bed with me, right where Mike had. Moon was nicer than Mike had become, and she had silky hair. She’d gaze into my eyes and steal my resolve to keep things clean, hairless. I held her, imagining Mike and Jim skimming over the edges or else the tips of buildings, trying not to die. Laughing, and almost letting themselves crash. Looking into each others bursting, purple eyes.
I was not the kind of person who liked to go out—but now, all I wanted was to be free of the house. I drove from coffee house to coffee house. I tried out every customer bathroom. I learned the name of the guy who made the best lattes in town. Jerome. Girls lined up waiting for their lattes, and stuck their tits up. I had never seen so much tit thrusting, or hair swooshing. Jerome was sweet looking, with a curled upper lip and stubble. Dark curls, like a Caravaggio. Cute as a colt, young and easy going. The kind of guy you’d like to bring to a restaurant—and have people wonder if he is your young lover, your toy boy.
And yet, Jerome seemed to enjoy eye contact with me. Sometimes I thought it was my imagination. Other times I felt like his girl. I would stand in line and not stick my tits out. I left my tits just as they were. I would, however, apply cruelty-free lipstick before entering the coffee place. I was shy like a teenager again, with Mike gone, I felt like a kid. I blushed when he called my name.
“Latte for Jean Veevee!” I would not correct him. I couldn’t.
And then, one day, I did.
“Genevieve,” I said.
“Oh fuck,” he said. His face pinked like a cooked shrimp.
“No, no! It’s fine. I just, well, I come in here, a lot, and I thought I should tell you.”
“I am a clod,” he said. “That is such a rockin’ name!”
I smiled at him, and he smiled back. Maybe he liked older women. Cougars. Perhaps I met cougar standards. I did have nice hair, and my skin was nearly unwrinkled due to a lifelong struggle with agoraphobia. When one never goes anywhere, the sun can do little damage.
Mike called from Nevada. My guess was, Las Vegas. He said he was in a tiny town called Primm. I pictured his worried squirrel. I imagined he was finally warm.
“Oh, wow. So how is the plane doing?” I asked.
“Oh, good, really good. We are really really really doing good.”
“No plane crashes?”
“Nope, I’m good! I’m in one solid piece!”
Then I heard a sound which grew to fill up the holes inside the phone. Heated up metal. A woman’s laugh. A giggle, to be specific. “Piece?” the voice said, tittering.
My lips made sounds, while my body caved in like a paper airplane stabbing the wall, the floor.
Meg Pokrass is the author DAMN SURE RIGHT available Feb. 2011 by Press 53. Meg currently serves as Editor-at-Larger for the new Blip Magazine (formerly MississippiReview.com). She directs the Fictionaut Five interview series for Fictionaut. Meg's flash fiction was Selected for Wigleaf’s Top 50 2009. She has published over 100 stories and poems, as well as original content animations.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: This piece was inspired by my friend Len Kuntz, who gave me as a prompt, the idea to write a piece with the beginning of the first sentence being, "When I asked him why...". Often, when a writing friend (like Len) offers me an idea, it has a strength that my own prompts don't. I like being given an assignment. This piece just flew out. I wrote this piece fast, thinking about how relationships can so suddenly change.
Intersection (Dimension 2)
by Donna Hunt
followed by Q&A
We are a geometric theory. Theological
calculus. Holy Arithmetic.
We are katy-korner, kitty corner, cats calling
the point where lines meet.
A dot. Two lines. A point.
Two paths converge. Converse.
In plain sight. Slight. The point.
My head rests. Turned.
My fingers trace. Caress the edge, the line where we meet.
The Point. You lean. Inches.
Two directions. We are the illusion
we are angles we angle.
We elude, collude, collide. The point.
This point. Ours. We are
lines. We continue infinitely.
Our lives are boxes. Boxed.
Boxed in, ing, out.
We meet at the corner. Outside.
We cross lines but
not too much. We lean, learn,
yearn, long along but do
not bend do not break I smudge
the line. We do not cross.
We leave the box.
You enter. Another box. An illusion.
Yours. It is yours.
(I am parallel. I never touch.
I continue on. Indefinitely. Infinitesimal.)
Not a box. A circle.
we are angles, lines, points,
When we meet (a point) it seems
there are no edges (the point).
No one on edge
or at the edge. Two lines
meet. Two eyes. A point.
you also have a circle.
In the box, I can pretend you
are a line only, an angle an angel
when we meet. An edge.
Outside our point, line, angle, box is
your circle. There, you curve.
a circle is infinite.
Donna Hunt’s poems have appeared in Diagram as well as Caesura and Children, Churches, and Daddies. Her poems are under consideration for the Yale Younger Poets Anthology, and she was recently awarded a four-week full fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center. She received her MFA at Queens University of Charlotte, and is currently teaching at CUNY. You can listen to a podcast of her reading on itunes, or download from http://oak.cats.ohiou.edu/~huntd/feed.xml
Q: What’s the inspiration for this poem?
A: “Dimension 2: Intersection” is one part of a long sequence of poems inspired by string theory. As string theory begins to prove that everything we perceive as impossibly small is actually impossibly huge, how/where do people maneuver in such a universe?
by Harry Calhoun
followed by Q&A
The journey of time off is never traversed
without peril. Assemble the canoe, remembering
the purpose of the outrigger: to add stability
to the canoe as you steer the rough waters
To collect taro. Then navigate the Archipelago
of Twelve Days Off, sailing now into the Strait
of Nine Days Left, as your drowsy wife
no more a navigator than you reminds you
in the dark on this sleepy Saturday. Your dog
can’t tell time but his wet nose has tapped you
awake at 4 a.m. Outside it is the same temperature
as that nose, warm yet cool and somehow toasty,
not a bad combination if you have to be awake
at this time of night.
You, writing this in the predawn darkness,
dot the eyes and cross your heart and then the tees.
And you sail off sleepily into what’s left
of that vacation,
navigating away from work
as long as you can, but relentlessly
sailing into the next day.
Harry Calhoun is a widely published poet, article and essay writer. Check out his trade paperback, I knew Bukowski like you knew a rare leaf, the recently published The Black Dog and the Road and his chapbook, Something Real. He’s had recent publications in Chiron Review, Chiaroscuro, Orange Room Review, The Centrifugal Eye, Monongahela Review and many others. He is the editor of Pig in a Poke magazine. Find out more at http://harrycalhoun.net. This just in: Harry’s new chapbook, Near daybreak, with a nod to Frost, is now available from Propaganda Press!
Q: What was your inspiration for this poem?
A: I like my day job well enough, but I went to part time this year because I needed more time for my passion, my poetry. I love long stretches of time off, and this poem was written over Christmas vacation. I think you can feel the growing apprehension, almost a sense of dread, as the poet approaches his destination — that day job which is both sustenance and curse.
by Donna Vorreyer
followed by Q&A
your hip like
child, all needy
at your sweater
so hard that a
a hole that can’t
be fixed since
you can never
match a dye lot
exactly, no matter
what the tiny
codes on the
skeins of yarn
a math test
that the answer
is that there is
no answer, no
calls it, some
alone in the thick
woods of doubt
where it’s damn
cold and you with
a giant hole in
Donna Vorreyer’s poetry has appeared in many print and online journals including qarrtsiluni, Cider Press Review, New York Quarterly, Apt, Ghoti, DMQ Review, Apparatus, and The Mom Egg. Her chapbook Womb/Seed/Fruit debuted this year from Finishing Line Press, and her photography has also been published, most recently in The Furnace Review. She lives in the Chicago area where she teaches middle school; you can visit her on the Web at http://www.donnavorreyer.com
Q: What was your inspiration for this poem?
A: The poem started with a free write about futility, a word that implies endless unraveling, a journey with no fruition. The image of the sweater came quickly, but didn’t capture the emotion for me - that’s where the math came in.
Besame, Besame Mucho
by Donna Steiner
followed by Q&A
First grade. I’m on a seesaw with a boy named Irwin. He likes me but I don’t like him. Well, I
like him but I don’t like like him. We stop seesawing, he surprises me: kiss on the cheek. He
runs away. I wipe it off, but am secretly pleased.
In some regions of the American South,
a person who has never been kissed is referred
to as a fish.
Fourth grade. Joe Little, who plays the guitar and loves the Beatles, holds my hand as we walk
up Tallen Drive Hill. My father drives up behind us, slows the car to a near stop. “Get home,” he
hisses. “Right now.” The farthest we get after that is dancing to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and
“Can’t Buy Me Love” on a record player in Joe’s basement. We never kiss.
Arguably, the kiss is the smallest discrete unit of
romance. A potential contender: holding hands. But there’s
something about the intimacy of a kiss that intertwined fingers
My brother has a friend named Mike. I’m in sixth grade, he’s in fifth. He’s shorter than I am,
and we’re both skinny as twigs. We kiss leaning up against the garage door. His lips are thin and
tight. Our heads move self-consciously, steady and chaste as metronomes. When we’re done, he
says “don’t you ever use your tongue?” This is a revelation; no idea tongues were involved. “Um, sometimes,” I reply.
The French kiss has been succinctly described
as a “liaison between tongues.”
Dean, beautiful blonde Dean. I’m 14. He’s 17. He smells like beer and cigarettes, wears a
leather jacket. He calls me “babe.” We kiss—hours and hours of kissing—I want to be in his
skin. I buy see-through blouses for him. I push his hands to my waist, giving him permission to
roam. He roams. Decades later I still love the smell of cigarettes and beer, the creak of leather.
S.W.A.K. Sealed with a kiss. Does anybody lick
envelopes any more? Will kissing meet the same fate
as sending hand-written love letters?
Back seat of a car. Jimmy something. He’s my crush. There are three couples in the car. This
becomes an emblematic scenario of high school: multiple couples, a locale. Making out.
Hickeys. It keeps us off the streets.
Spin the Bottle. Truth or Dare. The great kissing games
of youth. Hickey: a kiss that evolves into a suck.
College. I kissed a girl. I liked it. Vowed to kiss more girls. Started smoking pot. Kissed girls
while loopily high. Good combination.
One can throw a kiss, blow a kiss, give a
kiss, steal a kiss.
Camping with a lover in Canada. Lover’s best friend is with us. Friend says “will you walk to
the bathroom with me?” In the woods, in the dark darkness, she says “where are you going to
kiss me?” I am shy and high and lustful. “Where on your body,” I begin, kicking at a stick,
“or where in the woods?” Probably the only time I’ve ever successfully flirted.
The symbol x denotes a kiss. But ii also means
“unknown quantity” in algebra, and can allude to an
unknown person in, for example, a police report. A
rated X movie is obscene. It is the most simple of
symbols, but its meanings are not simple.
I’m a grown-up. Meet the love of my life. Doomed, of course. We break other hearts, leave
other lovers. We steal an afternoon. Kissing on a futon. Clapton, guitar solo, wailing. The futon
tips. We roll onto the floor, still kissing. Bewildered, flustered, disoriented, destabilized, giddy.
“Wow.” A decade-defining kiss.
The Inuit “kuni,”— what many refer to as an
“Eskimo kiss”—is more like a simultaneous rub and
sniff than a kiss. It’s a sign of affection—a grandmother
might press her nose and upper lip to a child’s cheek—
rub, breathe in.
She’s having an affair. I tell my best friend. We linger over lunch, laughing, rueful, oddly happy.
“I just want someone to kiss,” I say. We’re in Arizona. The sun is shining. My friend’s wearing
a dress and carrying a bicycle helmet. “Really?” she says, smiling. “Really,” I say. We kiss. We decide to have a kissing affair. Probably not my best idea.
You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
I have a lover who has survived serious trauma. Romance, sex, all of it is difficult. We discover
that she likes when I whisper filthy phrases in her ear. We kiss, I whisper, we kiss, I whisper. I
become a virtuoso at this. I will do anything, say anything for her.
Beso: Spanish for kiss. Kysse is Dutch and kyss
Swedish. It’s bacio in Italian; beijo in Portugese. In
England they might slangily call it snogging, in
Scotland pulling or nipping, in Ireland shifting. If
you’re over 50 in the U.S., you might ask for a smooch.
In the south, you’d want some sugar. Be careful… like a
kiss, words are interpretive.
I’m a teacher. A student joins the class late. No, it’s not that story. The student is older than I
am. She’s 50-something, I’m 40-something. My best friend dares me to ask her out. I do. She
touches my thigh under the table; I levitate. The woman is straight. Her orientation doesn’t
appear to be an impediment. Sometimes when I think about her, I realize I’m gently touching my
A woman with a honey-sweet accent and a nice house in the woods writes to me. Flatters me.
Makes me laugh. Says she’s a fan. I look her up—she’s famous. I fly east to meet her. We kiss
in the garage. It’s like starting over, from when I was a kid—the kissing, the garage, the slender
eager body. I know how to use my tongue now. I know how to laugh when the kiss is finished.
Besame, besame mucho. Kiss me, kiss me a lot…
Donna Steiner’s work has appeared in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, South Loop Review, and Center. She teaches at the State University of New York in Oswego.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: I’ve been trying to write short, lyrical pieces that incorporate small clips of research – so this was, in effect, an experiment. The writing process consisted of revisiting fond memories and working on form.