Prime Decimals 23.2
by Sherrie Flick
followed by Q&A
Suzanne’s father had thick fingers and rough hands. He’d once had dark black hair like hers, but it had grayed and receded as he got older. He was thick and tubby and then he was thin. Too thin. Then he was gone from this earth, and she was left to open the cottage and find the fishing tackle. She was left to remember how to fish and how to sleep in.
With the inheritance, a surprising gift, she left her job at the bookstore. A stupid job with a power-mongering manager. She left. Poof. And came to the cottage to exist. It had been easy leaving her life in the city. Packing up the car and heading north.
Once she arrived at the cottage, she sent out invitations. Everyone wanted to leave the city in the summer, after all, so it was easy to be surrounded by groups large and small. She curated her summer, much like she had curated the children's section of the bookstore. And both were a glaring success. Ex co-workers and neighbors became both jealous of and pleased with her generosity as they sat around the fire pit, stuck smoldering sticks into the last embers.
Suzanne knew she should keep her head down or word would spread to her family--something about too much partying or too much canoeing or too much smiling in this summer of sadness. Not enough casseroles.
Suzanne determined to buy a cardigan sweater later in the day. She'd drive into town and buy a sweater. This would show her preparation for the fall, and it would show her frumpiness, which the neighbors would appreciate. She'd buy a sweater in a bad brown color that wouldn't offset her eyes. A baggy sweater with puckering buttons.
In this way, Suzanne could be left alone to read the books she'd brought with her from the store. She'd turn the pages and in that tiny moment--the fingers gripping the page, taking it from one side to the next--she'd remember snippets of her life, too. Walking on the pier at sunset; screaming at her father at the bottom of her driveway; the subway car rocking her to sleep; her father eating fried eggs for breakfast in his dark blue suit, nodding yes, yes, yes; the canoe unlocked from its shed. The world she’d known. This new world she lived in. She’d simmer herself, try to make herself into something denser, something better.
And this is why, also, she surmised, she continued to row in the rain even as the chill settled into her bones and puddles formed in the boat's bottom, even as new drops plunked in.
Sherrie Flick is the author of the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting and the novel Reconsidering Happiness, a semi-finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Her flash fiction appears in many journals and anthologies including Norton’s Flash Fiction Forward and New Sudden Fiction. Dan Chaon recently selected her story “Gravity” for Wigleaf’s 2011 50 Very Short Story List. She has received grants and fellowships from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, PA Council on the Arts, Ucross Foundation, and Atlantic Center for the Arts. She lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in Chatham University’s MFA program.
Q: What can you tell us about this piece?
A: In the fall of 2010, I attempted to draft a story a day. A shed, a lake, and a canoe kept circling into these drafts again and again. This version of the story ended up being the keeper.
Mormon Boys on Bicycles
by Bonnie ZoBell
followed by Q&A
In Which an FLDS Household Priest Sets His Newest Wife Straight
Surely you're my favorite, but as she and she have learned, you'll not call a sheriff for one nighttime scream across the compound, for this immortalizes the gentile lie that Latter Day Saints girls are forced when instead they happily surrender to assure their rightful places in the eternity of a celestial marriage.
The Statue of the Angel Moroni
His temple takes months to raise, fresh steeples darkening our freeway as we drive over to examine new carpeting before the place is consecrated. A gash of lightning cracks him loose atop his favorite spire—god tossing his gilt angel for the lie of too much gold, or because we don't see?
Mormon Boys on Bicycles
Their favorite blue ties tucked inside white, button-up shirts, short sleeves, they glide streets side-by-side, searching homes for those who crave the good news and wish to know how to become immortal, remain with family through all eternity. The boys never lie, though their truth may not be found while we're alive.
Bonnie ZoBell's chapbook collection The Whack Job Girls is coming out with Monkey Puzzle Press in 2013. She has received an NEA for her fiction, the Capricorn Novel Award, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award for a story later read on NPR, and a spot on Wigleaf's Top 50 Very Short Fictions. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Night Train, The Greensboro Review, New Plains Review, PANK, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, and Cutbank. She received an MFA from Columbia on fellowship, currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College where she is the Creative Writing Coordinator, and is Associate Editor of The Northville Review. More of her work can be found at www.bonniezobell.com.
Q: What can you tell us about this work?
A: This was a delight to write, something so short after finishing a book. The Mormon faith has always fascinated me—the utter devotion and ritual in a world so "advanced."
At the Graveyard of the Atlantic
by Craig Fishbane
followed by Q&A
I had almost given up on Cape Hatteras. For three days, I loafed on the beach, leafing through a souvenir booklet purchased at the drug store—a glossy history of local shipwrecks. When I went looking for the ruins of masts and hulls that had washed up onshore, all I found were a few wooden planks rotting on yellow sand. It had been that kind of summer: budget motel, empty bottles of beer in the sink, and a postcard of a lighthouse I sent to my mother.
By the final night of that long weekend, I was ready to concede that I had nothing to show for this vacation except a cluster of mosquito bites and a bad sunburn. I packed early and then stayed up to watch the Cardinals beat the Dodgers on ESPN. Pujols sent everyone home with a shot deep to left. And it was nearly time for me to go home, to drive in a rented car from one rented room to the next.
The only reason I went to the parking lot at midnight was to fetch bottles of aloe and caladryl from the trunk. Walking across the gravel, I glanced at the empty shoreline on the other side of the road. It had been years since I last went to the beach after sunset. Something about an unlit ocean always made me nervous. I didn’t want to know what was waiting for me beneath the surface. I would have been content to ignore the Atlantic that evening—settling for pharmaceuticals to soothe inflamed skin—if I had not glimpsed a pattern emerging on the water. A narrow ribbon of light, painted by a crescent moon, stretched across the tides: a golden band extending from horizon to shore.
When I first made my way toward the barren dunes, my sole intention was to stand on that radiant strip. At least then I could tell myself that I did something on this vacation, something that was more notable than swimming in a chlorinated pool or eating three meals a day at Burger King. As I padded through the sand, a vague fantasy came to mind: if I stepped onto the light, it would become a luminous trail, a path that would allow me to walk across the ocean. I saw myself wading through the last hours of the evening until finally arriving at the place where sea met sky. I would have been satisfied just to place my feet at the edge of that moonbeam—to pretend I could go further if I wanted.
It seemed like it would be an easy trick. All I needed to do was stumble through the tide, working my way though a gauntlet of cracked shells and crushed soda cans. But with each step I took, the light retreated an equal distance. At first I enjoyed the way the moon toyed with me. I could almost see an eye winking from a cratered face. The moon was enticing me like a parent crouched on a soft carpet, inviting a toddler to take his first tentative steps.
There was no one to catch me when the floor gave way. All at once I was kicking and thrashing, reaching for a bottom. The breakers rushed past me from three directions. A barrage of salt, spray, and seaweed pummeled my squinting eyes. I turned left and right, searching for the fading embers of the last bonfire on the beach, the red bulbs of a vacancy sign blinking in the motel parking lot. I had gone too far. The shore had been swept away by darkness. Even the moon, muting its own silent laughter, had retreated behind a blanket of clouds.
Now I understood the ease with which the Cape had trapped its victims. I could see four centuries of terrified sailors abandoning their posts in a flood of Gulf Stream water, the gashes in wooden hulls foundering on hidden shoals. I was lost in the same dismal currents that had sent defeated captains—along with cargo, crew and gold coins—down to contemplate the depths in which they hovered.
That was when I heard it—a sound so distant it may have been an echo, a reverberation from the invisible shore. Someone was calling to me—a voice untethered by logic or language. I could hear it growing louder as dim patches of moonlight emerged from the haze. I could not remember the last time I’d heard myself scream. The cry was of such volume it seemed to give shape to the air, a presence I could almost touch.
I extended my arms to reach into the wind and found myself paddling beyond the breakers, rising and falling in the smooth swells of the sea. I understood then that I would not be adding a page to the lurid history of the Graveyard of the Atlantic: the tourist who drowned in the moonlight. With the ruined bodies of sunken vessels decaying beneath my feet, I practiced the art of swimming at night.
Before returning to shore at dawn, I would learn to dive.
Craig Fishbane’s work has been featured in the New York Quarterly, the Boston Literary Magazine, Opium, Flashquake and The Nervous Breakdown.
Q: What can you tell us about this piece?
A: When you swim alone, late at night in rough waters, it occasionally inspires a good piece of writing.
Modern Hypothesis on the 1901 21-Grams Theory
by Terri McCord
followed by Q&A
Bearing his quest for soul,
perhaps Dr. MacDougall overlooked
the obvious. More a magician raising
each of his six near-death patients
on specially-made Fairbanks scales, he waited
for the beam end to drop the instant
one crossed, and MacDougall equated
the ¾ ounce loss
with soul—“How other shall we explain it?”
With lack of heart, he found none
in the fifteen dogs he balanced next,
each passing induced,
but the scales held steady.
He missed the science.
Refused rebuttals that a weight decrease
could come from lungs no longer
air-cooling the blood,
body temperature amped,
and set to sweat.
Refused the rebuttal that dogs cool
by panting, so their weight would
remain unchanged, soul or no soul proven.
He missed, perhaps, that what
he really measured
was the weight of the world
each person carries—
an even allotment meted out for all
Missed somehow the slackening
of the neck at the Atlas vertebra.
And when he thought he failed
to photograph the soul as it left
the human body, like capturing a ghost,
he missed the eyes spilling over into black,
the shoulders shrugging off the load.
Terri McCord is a former South Carolina Arts Commission Fellowship recipient. She has received awards from the Kennesaw Review, Southeast Review, and the South Carolina Review as well. Her recent publications include Potomac Review, Nassau Review, Comstock Review, and the Jacar Press anthology, And Love. The South Carolina Poetry Initiative (Stepping Stones Press) published her book In the Company of Animals, and Finishing Line Press published The Art and the Wait. She received her MFA from Queens University in Charlotte.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: I became fascinated with the notion that a person in the 1900s thought that the soul was a tangible thing and actually experimented to measure it. I merged this idea with the thought that everyone carries a weight of the world on their shoulders, and that only when we pass from this earth do we lose that load. We are all Atlas, so to speak.
Everything I Know I Learned from Survivor
by Anthony Frame
followed by Q&A
There’s an error in natural selection,
in the potency of fitness. My cousin points
at my glasses and says I’d never survive
in the African bush, which is fine
since I live in suburban Ohio where television
proves a smiling lie is better than
hunting skills and the biggest muscles must
be the first removed from society. At some point
the brain started to reign, but some instincts
haven’t figured it out, which explains why
Stephen Hawking ranks high on Google
but never shows up on magazine covers. It’s natural
to shun the ones who look like they’re dying,
to exile them to dusty libraries and museums.
At least we’ve evolved enough to create tears
when we bury them. Which is why
I want to be cremated. Forgive me for
not wanting a stone, a bust of angels
I don’t believe in. No, forget your forgiveness.
Cry for me the way you cry when the television shows
a fox finding a nest full of baby rabbits.
Write lyrics describing the color of
my magnified eyes. Words, like ashes,
might drift through the strings of
our genetic history. When I die, prove
once and for all the primacy of metaphors.
Anthony Frame is an exterminator who lives in Toledo, Ohio, with his wife. His first chapbook, Paper Guillotines, was published by Imaginary Friend Press and recent poems have been published in or are forthcoming from Harpur Palate, Blood Orange Review, Third Coast, The Meadowland Review, The Oklahoma Review, Northwind Magazine and Bigger Than They Appear: An Anthology of Very Short Poems (Accents Publishing 2011), among others. He is also the co-founder and co-editor of Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Learn more at http://www.anthony-frame.com/.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: I’ve long thought about humanity and the concept of evolution/adaptation, specifically the way certain humans have survived thanks to technology who “naturally” wouldn’t survive. Is this evolutionarily good or bad? Think Stephen Hawking. Then think of Stephen Hawking’s DNA surviving or not surviving. Add in to this obsession the fact that I watch Survivor pretty religiously and the idea of this poem came pretty easy. But I didn’t know how to write it until one day when I was working with my cousin, who had just returned to the States from a Peace Corps mission in Africa, and he told me, essentially, that I was watering down the gene pool because of my horribly terrible eyesight (I like to think he was kidding). After he said that, the poem just needed images and tone and structure and rhythm.
My Life Story Involves Spit
by Ron Yates
followed by Q&A
The old concrete bridge that carries Second Avenue over Cottage Grove Avenue still stands in the southeast Atlanta neighborhood where I grew up. As a kid, I walked under it each day on my way home from East Lake Elementary school. An ordinary bridge, but the space underneath was different, darker and dirtier than the avenue beyond. My friends and I, seventh graders, were attracted to this spot with its garish spray-painted vulgarities on the supporting walls. The sidewalk that carried us under gave way to grassless, litter-strewn dirt containing, along with ground up cigarette butts and empty packs, the broken fragments of countless glass bottles that had been hurled against the concrete by passing motorists. We often lingered under the bridge, breaking glass ourselves, scuffling in the dirt, or adding to the graffiti whenever one of us could come up with a can of paint.
The topside provided different opportunities. We would sit on the squatty concrete guard wall and watch the cars as they approached then disappeared beneath us. My best friend David sometimes wondered aloud about dropping large, disgusting bombs—overripe watermelons, rotten pot roasts, bags of shit—down on the cars. I laughed along with him and my other friends at these fantasies but became the voice of reason whenever a plan began to develop. “Naa,” I’d say. “We might cause a wreck or damage a car. Then we’d be in big trouble. Let’s go down to the park and play tetherball.”
David was always difficult to keep on a sensible path, and the other boys, Tim and Mike, were followers, willing to do whatever we decided. David said, “Tetherball’s boring. We need to do something fun for a change.”
Tim, short and chunky, shook his head to toss his bangs out of his eyes. “Yeah, tetherball’s boring. We play every day. Let’s do something different.”
Mike, a skinny, curly-haired kid with an overbite and pinched face, said. “Yeah, I’m bored.”
David grinned, and then his eyes moved to something in the distance. He elbowed me in the ribs, dipped his head toward a vehicle we all recognized coming our way. “Look,” he said. “I’d love to drop a dead cat on this guy.”
A primer-painted 1950 Ford coupe with glasspack mufflers and chrome wheels was approaching and would soon be passing under our bridge. The driver was a teenager we recognized—Todd Latham. We often saw him cruising through East Lake Park, the side streets of the neighborhood, or the Burger Chef parking lot with a cigarette stuck to his lip and his arm out the window. David had had an incident with him at the park during an impromptu football game between kids our age. Todd and two of his buddies thought it would be funny to run onto the field in the middle of a play to crash the game and knock kids down. Todd, with a cigarette in his mouth, intercepted David’s pass, then shot a hard spiral back to him, spearing him in the gut. David doubled over. The teenagers laughed. As they sauntered off the field, Todd called out, “You guys are pussies,” and then directly at David, “especially you—you throw like a girl.”
Now, he was headed under our bridge, and David had a malicious look in his eyes. His runny nose crinkled as he pulled in a big gurgling breath through his nostrils. He gathered the mucus at the back of his throat, and then hocked it forward to mix with the spit of his mouth. I watched in disbelief as he leaned over and released the gob with perfect timing, making a direct hit with the driver’s side of Todd’s windshield just before the Ford passed underneath.
An echo of loud mufflers rumbled from beneath as Todd floor-boarded his souped-up engine. David laughed hysterically with a look of wild excitement in his eyes. Tim said, “Holy shit!” We watched the back of the car as it accelerated toward the next block and the left turn that would bring it around to Second Avenue and the top of our bridge.
Todd was coming, and, by his engine’s snarl, he was mad as hell. Tires squealed as he turned onto First.
Still laughing, David tugged at my sleeve. “Come on. We’d better get outta here.” Tim and Mike had already started scampering toward the maze of small neighborhood backyards, hedges, and alleyways that would provide sanctuary. I pulled my arm away and shook my head. “I ain’t going nowhere. I ain’t running from that jerk.”
There had been similar episodes, times when I, through misplaced convictions and my perceived rectitude of conduct, refused to budge, even when facing much stronger adversaries—parents, teachers, principals. I watched my friends scurrying behind a short retaining wall, bushes, and a rickety picket fence between unkempt yards. I sat as if nothing had happened, comfortable in the knowledge that I’d done nothing wrong.
Then Todd was there. He slammed on his brakes and jumped out before the car stopped rocking. I saw the mucus sliding down the windshield, and I saw his contorted face. “You little shit!” he yelled. Only a few steps separated us and he moved with purpose.
His hands hit me in the chest with such force that my upper body was knocked backwards past the point of balance on the concrete wall. Had his fingers not found the thin fabric of my shirt, I would have fallen to the street below. There was a moment of helpless terror as I, suspended, looked into his angry green eyes. Then he jerked me up, off the wall, and completely off the ground. Holding me by my shirt, he dragged me toward his car, my feet barely touching pavement. “You’re gonna wipe that shit off, you little punk!”
He was strong enough to use my head and face as the spit sponge, but I was resisting with all I had, my hands pressing against the windshield as he pushed me down closer to it. “I’m gonna wipe that shit up with your face! Teach you to spit on my car.”
Just before my cheek made contact with the mucus, I heard a familiar voice: “Hey, jerk! Don’t you know who his brother is? You’d better let him go unless you want your ass stomped.” Todd turned to see who was calling him out. When he eased off on me, I was able to cock my head and see David at the end of the bridge a few feet away, Tim and Mike behind him.
“This kid’s name is spit-wipe,” Todd said. “That’s all I know. And yours is pussy. When I get done with him, you’re gonna lick up the rest.”
“No. You don’t get it,” David said. “That kid’s name is Yates. Brother named Tommy. You might have heard of him. Most people call him Big Moose. And the Moose is gonna trample your ass if you don’t let his little brother go.”
The pressure against my head and neck immediately slackened. I twisted away from his grip and stood upright. “That right, punk?” Todd said. “Your brother Tommy Yates?"
“Big deal. That don’t mean nothing to me. You spit on my car again and I’m gonna whip your ass worse than I did today.”
He turned abruptly, got in his coupe, revved the engine and peeled out, leaving us standing in a cloud of exhaust fumes and rubber smoke.
My brother’s reputation as All-State, All-Southern linebacker for Murphy High School had saved me, and I grinned to think of Todd driving away, squinting through the gob of mucus that was still sliding down his windshield. I didn’t tell Tommy what happened, as he was away at Florida State on a full-ride scholarship. As time passed, the episode faded, and he never knew about this particular incident and how he had saved his stubborn little brother from unthinkable humiliation.
Tommy didn’t move with the family when we left the city the next year. My parents bought a few acres out in the country, and we got away from what they considered an unwholesome environment. As I became a teenager I forgot about many things and lost track of David, Tim, and Mike. East Lake Elementary School, the old neighborhood, and even the bridge became dim memories.
My brother would drop out of college and become a Dekalb County policeman, building on his tough-guy reputation. He would be the Moose for another twenty years, cuffing thugs, busting heads, and breaking cases . . . until the day he killed himself with his service revolver. After an extended fifteen minutes of fame, he fell victim to alcoholism and the demons of his profession.
My fifteen minutes never came, but thanks to the Moose, I didn’t wipe the spit that day on the bridge, and in all the years since, even though I’ve made concessions, I’ve always stopped short of wiping the spit. I’ve always had the feeling that my stubbornness was justified, and that somebody—big brother, friend, sympathetic authority figure—would be there to back me up. Thankfully, that has been the case more often than not.
Ron Yates holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. His work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Clapboard House, Rose & Thorn Journal, and Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. He has completed a novel titled Ben Stempton's Boy, set in the rural South of the tumultuous early 1970s. Yates lives on Lake Wedowee in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Alabama. He has taught high school English, journalism, and creative writing for many years. When not teaching or writing, he tinkers with old cars and motorcycles, spends time with his son and daughter, and tries to fish a little.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own? A: I get ideas in public places, but I compose in my writer’s cave, a room with overflowing book shelves, a cluttered Eisenhower-era wooden desk, futon, electric guitar, vintage stereo, vinyl LP’s, and a general assortment of junk.
Prime Decimals 23.3
Bars and Their People
by Jim Ruland
followed by Q&A
Men who go to bars. Men who go to bars to drink. Men who go to bars to meet women. Men who go to bars to watch sports. That’s pretty much it. That covers all the bases. There are people people and TV people and sports people and miscellaneous deviants who like sex and drugs and rock ´n´ roll. But in the end they are men.
They sit at the bar until their bellies are swollen. Sometimes they play darts. Mostly they sit and look at the women. They look at their telephones. They look at the television. They look at the pool game not in progress. These are all things to look at while not looking at the women.
Some men drink to be companionable. Some men drink to find courage. Some men drink to be more like men they would like to be. They loiter under the low wattage light of a high definition TV screen broadcasting scores they only wish they could pretend they didn’t already know.
Men who drink in bars look without searching, seek but never find.
Why is it always this way? The answers are in the past, but it’s easier to blame the women.
Women who go to bars to drink. Women who go to bars to smoke. Women who go to bars to be watched by men. Women who go to bars for a piece of ass. Women who find what they are looking for. Women who get more than they bargained for.
Like a disease.
Like an unemployable musician in between apartments.
Women who wear boots in the summer. Women who wear shorts in the winter. Women who wear whatever the fuck they want to wear and look amazing doing it.
Fat women. Skinny women.
Women who know how to work it. Women who smell nice. Women with unusual hair. Women who can say, “Here I am” without ever uttering a word. Women who are so baffling they are a mystery unto themselves.
Women who drink wine. Women who drink liqueur. Women who do shots. Women who get you shitfaced. Women who never seem to get shitfaced, no matter how much they drink. For obvious reasons, none of these women like beer.
The women are mysterious. The men mystified. Their natural state.
Women who like bars. Women who don’t. Women who like sports. Women who don't. Women who could practice shooting pool eighty hours a week and never learn how to hold a stick. Women who know all kinds of tricks with all kinds of sticks and wouldn’t you like to know.
There are plenty of women of virtue out there, but none of them are here tonight.
Women who drink too much in bars. Their complicated bra straps. Their cheap underwear. Their peculiar moles. Their irregular teeth. Their expensive makeup and painful shoes. Their frayed denim skirts. Their dirty knee socks. Their outdated cell phones. Their discomfiting laugh. Their almost-but-quite-not deal-breaking thighs. Their long line of not quite ex-boyfriends. There are never enough women who like to drink in bars in the bar.
And then there are the women who work in bars. They are pretty. They are sane. Or they were once pretty. Or they were once sane. They have problems, but they aren’t pitiful.
Like their clientele.
Like their fathers.
Like the men who purchase calendars featuring NFL cheerleaders and display them in their home.
Women who work in bars are always trying to turn men and women into couples.
It never works.
See them standing outside the sports bar. Watch them in the Irish pub’s parking lot. Observe the way they stamp out their cigarettes on the stucco wall behind the dive bar’s back door.
Study the way they speak to each other. Women talking. Men listening. She will say, “Keep your voice down.” He will say, “Don’t cry.” But it’s no use. They are drowning in a sadness that is their permanent condition.
They have nothing in common. She is short and he is tall. Or she is heavy set and he unnaturally slim. Or the other way around. Neither one has any money, though one always has more than the other. All they have is the bar and the drinks they drink there.
One of them came out here to save something. The other wants to put it out of its misery. And now they are both going down.
She was trying to tell him that her grandmother is sick and he nodded blankly. But ask him who’s the dark horse for MVP this year and he’ll talk his ding-dong off.
She is the same way with her ex-boyfriends.
Or her roommate’s.
Or her mom’s.
She is an expert at not being able to keep these men in a past in which they never belonged.
She is a proficient shit talker. An instigator of cheap drama, which he mistakes for affection.
But the sex is good. They slam into each other like trains that have been intentionally routed onto the same track. Not a mistake, but pointless entertainment with a price tag that will present itself when the carnage is over.
Now they are two people standing in the cold and sooner or later they will have to go back inside. For more drinks, more television, more cheerless cheer. The air is cold. The fog is creeping in. The beer is bladder bound. The bar beckons. They’ve resolved nothing. There is no other place to go.
Editor’s Note: an earlier version of this story appeared in the punk rock zine Razorcake.
Jim Ruland is a veteran of the Navy, the author of the short story collection Big Lonesome, and curator of the irreverent reading series Vermin on the Mount, now in its ninth year. He divides his time between San Diego and Los Angeles.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I don’t drink anymore but I often go to bars to watch sporting events. This story was inspired by a visit to an Irish pub with faux/authentic décor out the ying-yang. Most football and baseball games last about three hours, which is plenty of time to pick up on various types: the regulars, the flirts, the doomed. As I was leaving, I spotted a couple arguing quietly by the dumpsters like a scene out of the Amy LaVere song “Pointless Drinking.” It brought back memories of drunken arguments and collapsing relationships, and while I felt grateful to have pulled myself out of that kind of life, that image of that couple stayed with me.
by Alex Poppe
followed by Q&A
I have seen the face of God. And she is intoxicatingly achingly beautiful. She is not angelic pure light either. She is corporeal, carnal, and vociferous.
I was young, but I knew things. I knew Sudeepti’s time had come: her belly was swollen with ripeness. Momma had gone to another village that is poorer than this one–they don’t even have electricity or running water. Neither do we. But we have a doctor! Unless she is on loan to another place. Then we have me.
I am not afraid. I have pale skin which is lucky. The villagers rub my arms for luck or cut small curls from my golden hair when I am not looking. They think I don’t feel it, and maybe I always don’t, but I see my golden curls hanging like talismans around their necks and then I know. They know they are safe because they wear a piece of me close to their hearts.
I help her stand and prepare the ground beneath the birthing tree. I have clean hot water and strips of cloth. The village women have gathered to sing and play music. They sway to the drum beats that kiss the air and echo Sudeepti’s cries. The welcoming cacophony crescendos as her water flows and I wonder if their voices have broken it. The women cocoon her and create a human birthing chair to cradle her weight. I am right there, in the center, above, below, and within the mother to be. I smell her feral odor, hear her heart beat in time to the drums, feel the pulsating breath of the women around me, sense the willful life inside her demanding its big entrance.
The baby must have stage fright. I picture a tiny cherub with gossamer wings floating behind a velvety soft red curtain. I have to part the curtains so the tiny cherub can soar. I reach inside Sudeepti. My hands are small and she is wet and they slide in. I know I should feel gross but I don’t. I feel powerful. I feel her inside flesh quiver. Her face pinches with the pained pressure her body cannot alleviate but I only feel rapture. I have never been this close to someone. I have never been inside someone. I have never been the first to touch a life waiting to happen. I feel the top of the baby’s head and indulge one more stolen moment, for it is only the baby and me now. Even Sudeepti fades into vesselness. Then I urge her to push.
I keep both hands inside her to guide the head. I use my head to massage her stomach. Her sweat becomes my sweat and we labor together. Begrudgingly the baby disentangles itself from its warm wet home. I think Sudeepti must have gone to sleep because her body slackens with its effort. I gently pull as the pushes subside and guide the brave baby into its new world. It cries as I wipe mucous and blood and fluid from its eyes, nostrils and nose. Sudeepti’s dark eyes flash open with one mighty last push and they turn the color of water. Greedily she grabs my soiled hand, and I can feel her life force pressing through my palm, igniting electric shots into my arm. My whole being vibrates and I no longer feel the dry earth beneath my toes. Her face glows with extraordinary light, brighter than the moon, her raven hair wildly snakes around her head, her mouth erupting into a final roar that is unworldly.
Then she is quiet. There is an absolute stillness that even the birthing tree obeys, and then I feel her spirit tickling past my ear, weaving through the leaves to the sky where she explodes into a million glowing stars.
Alex Poppe is a teacher, blogger, and creative instigator. She is currently working in Kurdistan, Iraq, after a stint in the West Bank. Her fiction has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail and the anthologies The Lark and Other Short Stories and Resonance and Other Short Stories. Her nonfiction blog is www.liftingweightsiniraq.wordpress.com.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: The inspiration for this piece came from my curiosity about the developing world.
by Peter Schwartz
followed by Q&A
i love you impractically, because every night's an accident
in the wrong clothes, a blackout in a church parking lot
an empty ditch dance that's not going to last
and starting again means sitting next to the world's best thief
means nurturing death right out of its flowerbed using only
your tongue (dirt-licker, they'll call you)
which is another kind of accident, a broken leg costume party
you'll wear hard inside, imitating curtains and fishbowls that
oppose each other like thumbs, too over
and drowned to call a friend, too proud to name the unnamable
on what's now a fast-moving train following an algorithm of un-
happy lust you calculated in the dark
and prayed for in your rabbit hole with your weak palms pressed
against the glass, you just didn't know you were wishing into a
bottomless well until you had to sift
through a hundred widows' magazines to find the words
to say hello again, until you learned attainment isn't claiming
disfigurement at every corner or coughing
blood up to the sky, that's a failed sewage treatment scheme
that won't work on anyone here, your worst bottled-up animal
gene in a salmon trap, a false badge and mockery
so remember now, because every night's an accident:
starting again means sitting next to the world's best thief
means nurturing death right out of its flowerbed
using only your tongue
Peter Schwartz's words have been featured in Wigleaf, Pank, Opium, and Columbia Review. He's also an artist, comedian, and dedicated kayaker. More at: www.sitrahahra.com.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: This poem is about how hard it is to court a spirit.
At Gary's U-Pull It
by Micah Towery
followed by Q&A
Nothing’s guaranteed at Gary’s
U-Pull It: only the rust, sun,
and rubber refuse time. No metal
can last. When the snow melts
the junk sinks faster into mud.
Here miracles are brand new
tires still attached to smithereened
windshields, hoods unlatched
and twisted beyond the manufacturer’s
dimensions. Here all succumbs
to a forlorn man with a wrench
and socket set. He stands waist-deep
in the ever frozen river
of wrecked metal and roots
for a coolant reservoir to rig
his car with. At Gary’s U-Pull It,
no one laughs at “Shit happens”
on the bumper of a car
with a caved roof, and the “A+
Honors Student” is probably a prick
who gets his shit kicked
at school. Here all hungers—
here desires: here I pit an unclaimed
tire iron against a windshield
when nobody looks anymore or asks
in passing who this air-bag exploded for.
Micah Towery’s writing appears in magazines like The Writer’s Chronicle and Cimarron Review. These days he teaches at Trinity Western University, but in past lives he worked as a Coca-Cola delivery driver, baker, and church organist. He tweets @micahtowery and helps edit thethepoetry.com.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: Gary’s U-Pull It is an impressive junkyard outside Binghamton, NY, where I lived for several years. At the time I had a ’74 Nova, the kind of car which requires inexpensive but constant maintenance, so I was at Gary’s fairly often. This particular poem came from the realization that this human experience had accumulated in one place in the form of anonymous junk. Since it’s the debris of human action, it retains a kind of meaning even in spite of literally being ripped from one context and reapplied in another.
by Dinah Lenney
followed by Q&A
Object Parade: Acorn
Where could it have come from? Fred picked it up in the driveway the other day and brought it inside. A deep brown—as if roasted—with a tweedy little hat. But how did it get there? Not a California Oak in sight, just our overgrown ficus in the front yard, her white trunk jutting away from the house, and her roots bringing up the path and threatening the foundation, so we're told. "She'll have to come down one of these days," says Francisco every autumn. Francisco—gardener turned landscape designer—who's been taking care of my trees for nearly twenty years this coming fall. And how do I know that, how do I recall? I first met him when I was pregnant with Eliza—I remember my own belly, that's what; that it was an effort to rise when the bell rang; that somehow I hoisted myself up and opened the door to a boy with oiled black hair, black eyes, smooth brown skin, and a mole to rival my own—twice the size of mine, in fact, but its twin in terms of placement, above the mouth to the right of his nose as I faced him. It seems to me it was drizzling that day, overcast I’m certain, just a couple of months before my daughter, my first baby, was born. It seems to me I was wearing black (I was always wearing black) and my hair was long, twisted on top of my head, mussed in the back undoubtedly, since he had to have roused me from the couch, where I resided for a good ten months (don't let anyone tell you it's nine) from the bed with me, to the couch with me, and back to the bed. I’d never been so sick as I was that first time, lived on quesadillas and peanut butter by the wooden spoon, which tasted metallic even so, like everything else, but less offensive than things crunchy, or savory, or colorful (as in fruits and vegetables, for instance). Anyway, Francisco and I walked around the side of the house that morning. I grabbed for the rails of the bottommost deck for balance when we came around the ledge over the garden, and he took my elbow. "When are you expecting?" he asked awkwardly (his English not entirely fluent), and then he made me understand that his own wife was due any minute. November then—it must have been November since his boy is a Scorpio as am I. Francisco and I with twin preoccupations that day; therefore, how could we not have bonded? Our babies and my backyard, dense and overgrown with succulents, oleander, lantana, and, to my delight, six trees: two Eucalyptus, a couple of dancers in the Santa Ana winds (fast-growing, they need to be topped every other year, otherwise they get spindly); a Eugenia—such a sloppy specimen year round, she bombards us, according to the season, with yellow dust, or fuzzy white stuff, or big fat berries that come into the house on the bottoms of our shoes; the Chinese Elm—also messy—but imagine the kaleidoscopic shadow play of her tear-shaped leaves on the bedroom curtains first thing in the morning; the Liquid Amber, which looks like a maple and turns from green to yellow to red but on Southern California time, so that just as she loses the last of her leaves, she's budding all over again; and the Giant Palm, smack in the center of the yard (lest I forget where I live, on which coast, she’s there to remind me), home to an dynasty of squirrels, who make a racket in the fronds, bouncing up and down the length of them, jumping from tree to tree to the rails of our decks, from where they torture the dogs, and leave peanuts in our potted plants, half eaten, still in the shell—and where do they get them, that's what I want to know?
And what about this acorn: a gift from a squirrel? Remarkably unscathed if that's the case. I'd ask Francisco, except I won't see him any time soon. We email now, he and I, when something comes up. Francisco, I wrote, a few months back. Where are you? The cactus is top heavy, and the front lawn looks like crap.
Sounds dire, he countered. I'll send the paramedics. Ha-ha, but when he arrived, he looked up in all directions, shaking his head, very somber: "Each of them needs to be trimmed and shaped," he said. About the aforementioned ficus up front: "It's out of control, no wonder the lawn is suffering—an abundance of shade, it takes a toll, of course." And then, from the kitchen deck, with his hand to his brow, he squinted into the horizon: "Where is your view?" he scolded. "Why haven’t you called? We'll have to bring in a team, best to do it all at once, a better deal for you…"
A team. Francisco has four kids now; the eldest— my fellow Scorpio—a freshman at a college nearby. And I have two: Eliza, also at school but 3,000 miles away, where the leaves are changing on a schedule I can understand; and Jake, who towers over me. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. Corny, I know, but how did this happen, and when?
Francisco, meanwhile, looks almost as he did twenty years ago—lithe and brown—his hair flecked with gray at the temples, but otherwise little sign in his face or bearing of the twenty years since the day we first met. Who knows what he sees when he looks at me? Who knows what he remembers?
Object Parade: Stick Kite
Say, little girl—I dream about you. You then, you now. You, as you are, coming into my room to ask can you go through my closet, rummage in my drawers and jewelry boxes; might you borrow that sweater, can you have this ring, and the copy of Anna Karenina over there on the shelf, you want that, too—and, by the way, you ask on your way out with the sweater and the ring (not the book, you can’t have the book), is that me or you in the photo there? I look up from whatever I’m doing: Which photo do you mean? That one, you say. It’s ten by fourteen, framed on the wall, sepia-toned: an exquisite child in a wide-brimmed hat, her perfect face lit from underneath: Is it you or is it me, you ask again. Why, it’s you, darling! Of course it is. You thought so, you say. You were confused—having to do with the snapshot upstairs—the old three by five in the bookshelves; and yes, you’re right—that is I, no question—I’m the gap-toothed kid in the cowboy hat: though how do I know? It’s not as if I remember wearing it.
But this likeness? This little girl? I animate this moment—and her: you, that is—you in your life, taking on the camera, looking straight into the lens. You don’t remember? How you dressed as a witch, though you’d planned to be a cat (abandoned whiskers at the last minute for a sheet; the sheet then abandoned for conical head-gear); maybe now, now that I’ve told you, you recall something of the night; the shrieks and whoops, the jack-o-lantern whose nose you designed with a sharpie for me to carve; maybe you remember peering into a strange living-room from somebody’s stoop, while I waited on the sidewalk. I bet you do. But I remember the flash of the bulb—and the street we were on—the laughter out of nowhere, the rustle of wind in the trees, and kids running, swirling this way and that as if blown with the leaves. The last night of October it was (Which year? Were you seven? Were you eight?), and the air in Los Angeles suddenly nippy; I can hear you refusing to put on a sweater; face flushed, warm fingers wrapped around mine: I’m not cold, you said, so how to insist? And afterwards: how you sat on the floor with an old pillowcase full of candy, and how we bartered, you and I; how you couldn’t be bribed or dissuaded from keeping the Kit Kats and the plain M&M’s—but you would remember which varieties you liked best, whereas I remember you. I know the feel of your hands on my neck—sticky—the smell of sweet tarts on your breath. I’m the one who can tell you how it was, how you were. Just ask. Ask about the first time you laughed; how you looked when you didn’t want to cry; how long it took you to fall asleep; it’s I who remember the sound of you singing to yourself when you didn’t know I was listening, and I (not you I’m guessing) can summon your tiny person running far out on the flats at low tide on Thumpertown Beach with a wand in your hand, a stick kite, the streamers, all colors, rippling out behind you. Do you remember that day? That toy? Maybe you do. But that moment—that moment in your life?—I claim that one, too; as if it belonged to me.
Dinah Lenney is the author of Bigger than Life, published in the American Lives Series at the University of Nebraska Press, and co-authored Acting for Young Actors. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, AGNI, Creative Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere, and she received special mention in the 2010 Pushcart Anthology for an essay in the Water~Stone Review. Dinah serves as core faculty for the Bennington Writing Seminars, the Rainier Writing Workshop, and the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?
A: Alice Mattison, who’s one of my heroes, once told me that writing comes from the ceiling. “Figure out the spot under which it falls, and be there,” she said. I guess that translates to keeping your ass in the chair, right? I’m not as good about it as I should be—because I’m lazy, and cowardly, and easily distracted. But the other best advice? I forget who said it: David Huddle? Edna O’Brien? Write first thing in the morning. Which, sure enough, turns out to be the time when I’m least likely to lose focus or faith. It doesn’t always happen. I don’t always get there and stay there—but when I do, I’m glad.
Prime Decimals 23.5
Cry of the Loon Lodge
by Jeanne Holtzman
followed by Q&A
I stand waist deep in the warm lake, listening for loons. Tiny waves splash the shore, thump the empty canoe. The skirt of my bathing suit flaps against thighs long ago gone lumpy. I see a lone kayaker approach. A young man, dark hair, swarthy skin, naked torso, perfect muscles powering each stroke. I feel no tingles, nothing so simple as sex, but that need, that compulsion to be near him, to combine with him, to devour him, to mate. A desire both nostalgic and mocking. I hear my husband call to me from the cabin where he's icing his arthritic knee, anxious to leave before the traffic. I watch the young man paddle by, oblivious to me. I believe I feel his wake, lapping the water around my waist, hear it thrumming the canoe and tinkling the shore. Soon he will turn around the bend. I strain to hear loons, but instead the tinny jangle of "Mamma Says" erupts from the pier, the ring tone of my mother's nursing home. I don't move. A short silence, the chirp of the voice mail. I watch the kayaker slide around the point and disappear. Still I stand, waiting. For that wail, that lament. That lunatic laughter.
Jeanne Holtzman is an aging hippie, writer and health care practitioner, not necessarily in that order. Her work has appeared in Blip Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Used Furniture Review, elimae, Stripped: A Collection of Anonymous Flash and elsewhere.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: This story grew out of a moment of solitary yearning during a wonderful family vacation on Sebago Lake, Maine. I never did hear a loon, but I listened to recordings of loons as I wrote it.
by Rosalie Morales Kearns
followed by Q&A
The joke never gets old.
“I’m Bread, and this is Butter.”
“I’m Frog, and this is Toad.”
They are, in fact, Iris and Orchid. Ten and nine, which means, they’ll tell you, that collectively they are nineteen.
Thunder and Lightning.
Snow White and Rose Red.
Their sisterhood is both predestined and precarious. Fairy tales are stark alternative universes in which they are, disastrously, not sister and sister, but brother and sister.
“Mom would have chopped his head off.”
“Mom would have left us in a forest to starve to death.”
“You would have been the boy.”
Here and Now.
Curiouser and Curiouser.
The grandma reads them Shakespeare in the backyard.
“We’re the Weird Sisters,” they tell the dad.
“Shouldn’t there be three of you?”
“I’m Toil, and this is Trouble.”
“Let’s act out King Lear,” the grandma says. “We already have a dotty old man.”
“Hey,” says the grandpa.
“And I’ll be the Fool,” she says. “Which I am. Now who’ll play Goneril and Regan, the king’s wicked daughters?”
“That’s us! That’s us!”
“You’ll need another sister, so the king can cut her out of the will.”
They find a large neglected doll, start kicking her around. The dad objects.
“Cordelia’s supposed to be a good character,” he says.
“She’s kind of a sap.”
“But she loves her father.”
“Dad,” they say pityingly.
Later, when they are frighteningly well-read teenagers (combined age: thirty-three), they will be Sturm and Drang, Scylla and Charybdis, Being and Nothingness.
For their own amusement sometimes they pretend to be demure and girly: Forsythia and Honeysuckle. “Where is our embroidery, dear sister?” “Shall we play our harpsichord?”
The sisters will be old women someday, still coming up with names, still cackling.
Old and Gray.
Time and Time Again.
They’ll quarrel only once, when both want to be Hellfire and neither wants to be Brimstone, but the argument doesn’t last long. They decide to alternate:
“I’m Hellfire, and this is Damnation.”
And then it’s the other’s turn.
They will remember fondly their childhood home, the loved ones so loved, long gone. Just the other day they were jumping in the pool. Staging plays. They are running to the dad with a book on Egypt. They are no more than six and five. They love the pictures, they want names.
The dad pages through it. “Isis and Osiris,” he says, and it is the closest anyone will ever come to their own names. It holds the key, they feel, to the truth about themselves.
The dad is fuzzy on the details. “I think it means one of you tears the other to pieces.”
They run off shrieking, hand in hand.
Rosalie Morales Kearns is an Albany, NY-based writer whose short story collection Virgins and Tricksters has just been published by Aqueous Books. Her stories and poems have appeared in The Nervous Breakdown, Witness, Painted Bride Quarterly, and other journals, and she has work forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, Her Kind, and Fiction Writers Review. She is seeking representation for her novel, the story of a female Roman Catholic priest in an alternative near-future.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: Iris and Orchid first made a brief appearance in my story “The Associated Virgins,” but I wanted to give these fierce magical females a story of their own. So many authors inspire me, particularly Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, and Salman Rushdie, as well as Katherine Vaz, Kathleen Alcalá, and Kelly Link.
Making a Game of It
by Julie Brooks Barbour
followed by Q&A
My aunt faces my grandmother’s closet
and pulls a bright blue blouse from the rack.
She buttons the blouse over a tank top,
admires the fit in a mirror, turning from side
to side, a child trying on her mother’s clothes.
Whatever she likes she heaps onto an armchair
and the pile begins to tumble.
Ten minutes away in her son’s house on the river,
my grandmother has made temporary home
of a downstairs bedroom. From armchair to bed
she carries a sheet of note paper with the word
radiation written in red capital letters.
If she learns to live with it, define it,
perhaps it will become
something anyone does, part of a life.
Ten minutes away, her eldest daughter adds
to a new mound on the floor.
Dresser drawers unloaded,
coats and shoes stacked on the bed,
she has asked us to claim her belongings,
make lists of the things we like
and take something tangible for memory.
My aunt invites me to join her.
Do I like this patterned dress? This pair of shoes?
The river surged with rain on our last visit,
flooding my uncle’s yard. A boy in a yellow slicker
leaped and splashed in the rising water with his dog.
We watched them from the high windows of the house
and turned my grandmother in her chair toward the sight.
The sky held its darkness all weekend, no sun or stars.
The house held us until the river receded.
The boy and dog made a game of the storm while they could.
Julie Brooks Barbour’s chapbook, Come to Me and Drink, will be published by Finishing Line Press in June 2012. Her poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in UCity Review, Waccamaw, Kestrel, damselfly, Diode, The Rumpus, Barn Owl Review, and storySouth. She teaches at Lake Superior State University where she co-edits the journal Border Crossing.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: This poem was originally part of a longer poem in my MFA thesis that I’d abandoned. A few months ago, I came across Bob Hicok’s poem “Making the list I will never make,” which is about the speaker’s father asking him to make a list of what he wanted to take after he died, and I responded to that poem with the first stanza of “Making a Game of It,” and it went on from there.
followed by Q&A
The History Channel, midway through The War
In Color: somewhere in a puke-green South
Pacific, Higgins boats. One heads for shore
Prepared to hang its tongue out of its mouth.
Inside these landing craft (LCVPs),
The contents prime for what they’ve been designed
For, churning in the stomach of the seas.
They cannot see what lies ahead, and blind
As well—unsure of where his charges are—
Waits one who would deliver them: their coxswain.
The hull bites into sand he thinks no bar,
But beach, and, trained to take that for his tocsin,
He tells the bow ramp, “bite down hard.” The first
Few strike out, off and down, and down, and down,
Drinking twelve feet for which they have no thirst.
The packs they’re bound to carry help them drown
Quicker than we can fathom, weaker swimmers
Surrendering to kelp’s enormities.
There is no help there, where Medusa shimmers.
Men end up tangling with anemones.
Depth, where’s thy sting, since all must come to terms,
If not in beds, or borne up by the arms
That love, then borne down, falling short of berms,
And choking on a lethal sea of charms.
Len Krisak’s most recent book is Virgil’s Eclogues (UPenn Press).
With work in the Antioch, Hudson, New English, PN, and Sewanee Reviews,
he is the past recipient of the Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, and
Robert Frost Prizes, and a four-time champion on Jeopardy!
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: A fairly dedicated watcher of the cable TV military channels, I was
struck by the story of the Higgins boats, and a (perhaps fading?)
memory of one of the Pacific assaults attempted at high tide,
to of course disastrous results for those attempting the landing.
I tried to honor those men. Imagination did the rest.
by Lisa Roney
followed by Q&A
I steered my mother up and down the aisles in the chain drug store, the handles of the red plastic basket digging into my arm because we were loading up on supplies. For several weeks, my mother had been in West Tennessee, sitting by her husband’s side in the hospital after his heart attack and subsequent angioplasty. She was out of every basic thing, but she turned this way and that, forgetting and then remembering, and then forgetting again what she needed. I went through all the basic categories.
“Which brand of shampoo do you like these days?”
Sometimes she would answer, sometimes not. She sniffled now and then as she shuffled. I would pick something and put it in the basket.
“I need some pantyhose,” she said. “All the ones I have are shot, and I need some nice ones …” She trailed off, but I knew that she meant she needed her stockings to be presentable for the funeral, Owen’s funeral. Owen had survived the heart attack and the long ambulance ride from Martin to Memphis—all of us originally there for a family reunion, and then following along in a car behind the ambulance through the dark little towns of West Tennessee as though through a tunnel into another life. It had been a long, terrifying night, but the surgery had gone well. My brother and cousin and I had all gone back to Massachusetts, California, and Pennsylvania, and Owen’s children had traveled to the hospital and had left, expecting to see him back in Virginia soon.
My mother stopped between the lotion and the vitamins, her mouth slightly open, looking past the white light of the drugstore fluorescents into the humid morning outside. “This is all so sudden,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”
She had gone to get a sandwich one evening when Owen was nearly ready to be discharged, and when she got back, his bed was surrounded by gowned men and women hammering at his chest. An embolism, the doctor told her later. She had dropped the sandwich and was still having a hard time holding onto any object.
I grasped her forearm and pulled hard, as if rowing an oar through rough water, tugging her toward the prescription counter to pick up our last needed item, a pack of blood sugar strips. There had been no one around when we’d entered the store, but now four or five people stood waiting. I was afraid of being late to deliver my mother to her own husband’s funeral two hundred miles from where they lived, but it took some effort for me to flag down one of the people behind the counter.
The woman came forward reluctantly, grimacing as though she had just swallowed a spoonful of vinegar, her eyes hard as death itself. “You have to wait your turn,” she said before I could speak.
“I need to pick up my prescription,” I said. “My doctor called it in a while ago—before these people got here.”
“It’s what order the prescriptions came in,” she said, jutting her chin in a gesture of dismissal. “You’ll be called.” She started to turn away.
“Look,” I said. “We are on our way to a funeral near D.C. We need to get there.”
She jerked to a stop as though I had slapped her. “You have to manage your prescriptions in a more responsible way,” she said.
“How long a wait?”
She looked at her watch, so tight on her plump arm that her flesh bulged around it. She batted her eyelashes at me. “Probably an hour.”
I quelled the urge to shriek at her, but I’m sure my voice went up an octave. “Normally, I’m on top of things,” I tried to explain, “but I got this call yesterday that my mother’s husband had died suddenly, and I forgot to check how many strips I had with me before I left home. I have Type 1 and especially with all this stress I don’t want to be without them. You can understand that, right?” She didn’t respond, just stared at me, so I went on. “You don’t mean to tell me that you’ll fill every prescription of every person who intends to come by after work today before you’ll fill mine while I stand here in front of you waiting to take my mother to her husband’s funeral. Really?”
“That’s the rule,” she said.
By this time, my mother was sobbing behind me.
My chest felt like it would explode. “You bitch,” I said. I threw down the full basket, grabbed my mother by the arm once again, and dragged her to the car.
“Oh, no,” my mother said. “I really need that stuff. Oh, no….” She sat in the passenger seat, curling inward. She seemed so small.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s okay. Isn’t there another drugstore up the street? I remember passing it.” We drove a mile to a local pharmacy, where I called my doctor’s office once again and had a filled prescription and all the other stuff we needed in no time. Still, the day was tinged by cruelty of more than one kind as we drove up Interstate 95 to Alexandria through the summer heat, transparent clouds of fumes deforming the air, mirages stretching across the roadway.
There was no Owen to tease us out of our mood. “Annie,” he would always say to my mother when she got overly obsessed with her job or bossy at home, “don’t be an asshole.” Then they would laugh and head out together for a walk with the dog. They had made each other so happy—the retired widower who liked driving around with the dog in the backseat and the still-career-oriented divorcee who appreciated his perspective. I had finally come to peace with my parents’ divorce now that both of them were better off with their second spouses. Owen was the only person who ever called my mother “Annie.”
“We had such a short time together,” she rehearsed a time or two in the car. It was something she would say repeatedly to people at the funeral. They were married only about two years, and many of Owen’s acquaintances did not know my mother well. He’d had a life in politics, and the funeral would be huge. I knew my mother would model her grieving on that of Jackie Kennedy, though many, including Owen’s children, might think her more like Jackie Onassis, a Johnny-come-lately, an interloper. The funeral would be a command performance.
After that, my mother would have to return to Norfolk and walk the dog alone. Owen’s children would grow antagonistic, and his ten grandchildren she’d doted on would no longer call her “Gran.” We drove on in silence, aware it was our first time in a car together since we had followed Owen’s ambulance to Memphis. We wished we could go back to that dark tunnel of fearful hope that brought us out into a bright, clear spring morning, not this burning, blinding, endless glare.
Lisa Roney’s work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, Saw Palm, Willows Wept Review, Waccamaw, Sycamore Review, Harper’s, and other literary journals. She is the author of a memoir, Sweet Invisible Body (Henry Holt, 1999), and is associate professor of English at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. She lives amidst gators, armadillos, and anhingas with her husband and three cats.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: That’s a hard one. Probably the thing I remember most strikingly—from the great teacher and maximalist writer Paul West—was that our writing should work to compete with the specificity and vividness of the real world. He said this when we were meeting in a drab conference room, and all the students laughed. But then he had us start looking around at each other’s faces, at the weather out the window, even at the stains on the floor and walls—and then we understood the challenge.
I certainly do my best to live up to these words of wisdom. They are a goad when I get lazy.