Prime Decimals 29.2
by Valerie Lute
followed by Q&A
The day Maricela shaved her head was the same day Carlito had his final meeting with the recruitment officer. The hair fell in black fans across the outdated rose-tiled bathroom between their two rooms. For weeks afterward, he discovered the little feathers in the soap dish, the shower drain, the hinge of the toilet lid.
“Trying to look like a dude?” he said when he caught her in front of the mirror sweeping stray hairs from her neck. The bathroom door hung open between them.
She turned and stared into him. With her face naked, her eyes seemed larger, her gaze more pointed. “I never felt much like a girl.”
He had expected her to fight back. To tell him to fuck off. Maybe throw a hairbrush at his head. Her direct words, the honesty of her stare, forced his eyes to the carpet. “Well, try telling that to Mom.” He shuffled down the hall.
To her twin brother, it was just a joke. Once, she had overheard Carlito in the school hallway when one of his boys asked if she was a lesbo. “Probably,” he said, “but she could still kick your ass.” Though to Carlito, everything was a joke. Like when he announced he was joining the army. She said she'd never forgive him if he got killed in the desert, and he just laughed and said, “It'll take more than sand to kill a Martinez.”
Their mother had cried the night Maricela buzzed her hair, and the next day, while Maricela was at school, her mother went into her room and took every t-shirt and pair of jeans she owned. Left were years of Christmas presents—floral skirts and pink blouses, some with the tags still on. Maricela hadn't noticed until the next morning when she woke up late for school. She opened her bedroom door to find her twin brushing his teeth in the hall. “Mom took my clothes,” she said. “Can I borrow something off you?” They had the same frame, boney with spry muscle, though lately he had been growing over her.
He, too, had slept late that morning and was still in his pajamas with his eyes half open. He didn't spit out his toothpaste to question her; he just briefly disappeared into his room and returned with a ball of clothes. She unfolded the mass to find a pair of black pants and a Sixers jersey. “What will I do when you're gone?” she said, but he was already back in the bathroom, running the water. He could be an ally, so long as he didn't have to look at her too closely.
A month after graduation he'd leave for the processing station and then straight to basic training. He spent his last evenings of high school doing pull-ups on a bar across his closet door. He wouldn't stand being the skinniest guy in his unit. Outside the window, his sister shot hoops in the driveway until dusk. In a couple years, she would probably still be here, going to community college, then coming home at night and savoring their mother's famous humitas. In a couple years, he could be anywhere.
While he worked out, he kept his door locked to keep out their little brother. Otherwise he would come in, whine, and fly paper airplanes at his head. When the knocking started one night, he ignored it as another distraction until a voice said, “Carlito, it's me.”
He wasn't sure what she wanted, but Maricela held an edge in her voice. “One second,” he said. He watched himself in the cheap, plastic-framed mirror on the back of his door. His size grew and shrunk in the distorted glass as he grabbed a shirt from the floor and wiped one sweat-soaked lock of hair from his eyes.
He opened the door, and immediately caught what she threw at him. “Yo,” she said as he discovered the basketball in his hands. “You want to play, tough guy, or you too busy jerking off in here?” She tilted her head back, attempting eye contact. Already her hair had grown enough to bend under its own weight. Her features, which had never looked pretty with longer hair, were feminized by the buzz, the curve of her chin now delicate, like a child's, like the child he grew up with.
He shifted the ball from hand to hand. Outside in the driveway, he'd be forced to look at her. Forced to see what everyone else saw when they looked at his sister. “I'd whoop you 'til your ass is grass,” he said, “like last time.” But his tone came out dismissive, not challenging. Was that even true? He couldn't remember.
She could tell. She always could. Her lips bent downward as she reached for the ball. “You're busy getting ready for basic...I understand.” She eyed the graduation cap, ready on the dresser, then looked back to him.
“Look,” she said, stepping toward the door. “I want to say, good luck with that whole future thing.” As she moved, his mirror caught her. She stopped in the spot where the distortion made her wider than life. A wrinkled t-shirt he recognized as his own sagged around her shoulders. Her turning away, taking her last steps his room reflected back at him.
“Wait.” He stepped to the doorway. A dent in his mirror made his torso look concave, like everything was pulling toward a hole in his chest. She tossed the ball back to him.
Valerie Lute is an MFA student at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her work will be featured in an upcoming issue of the Rusty Nail.
Q: What can you tell us about this story?
A: This piece is part of my master's thesis examining family relationships and gender in suburban
by James Claffey
followed by Q&A
Yellow stripes. A curtain. Summer dress. Strawberry blonde. Reminds me of years ago. Thinner. Prettier. Not much older. Been there, seen that, walked the streets. Nice to put context to abstraction. Young. Not so young. A beach, sand, toes, shine of sun, the hills pretty distant, your skin quite pale.
Fill in the spaces. Once, during high school, you were depressed. It was when your mother lost her mind because her hips were so wide. She ate chocolate fiendishly, even the salty kind you thought she'd leave alone. A dog, you suggested. A Husky, or a Malamute. Force her to exercise.
In the noontime rush the barista is testy, does a little dance, gets a dollar tip. Over halfway through the book. Requirement. Split down the center. Buttons, or would you prefer half-and-half? A long time ago I had a crush on a girl just like you. Her mother didn't approve. Catholic Ireland. Parochial. Provincial. All of the above.
I wanted you not to fret, not to worry, nor cry. There's boredom in your eyes, still as standing water. In secret we'd invent sins for the priests to forgive in the confessional. We had an old parish priest, a creeping Jesus, loved to hand out decades of the Rosary as penance. Little wonder I stopped going to Mass. He had a brindled beard, salt-and-pepper they call it. Man made me nervous. I never went back.
The Czechs are marvelous. But the South Americans? Have you read them? A world of wonder awaits you. Amazing to be on that path, beginning again, the page blank, the linen soft to the touch. By the window we could talk of sins, and dust-covered books, and the open jar of honey ale we'd swig from before undressing. You know, the Marxist would be insanely jealous? Yes. He might react in a not too pleasant manner. The soft curve of bone where the clavicle dips flashes in front of my eyes, and I knock the jam jar of tea to the ground.
James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his wife, the writer and artist, Maureen Foley, their daughter, Maisie, and Australian cattle-dog, Rua. His work appears in many places, including The New Orleans Review, Elimae, Necessary Fiction, Connotation Press, and Word Riot. His website is at www.jamesclaffey.com.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: I’m getting ready to take my 9-month-old daughter home to Ireland to meet her family there, and in the process of travel arrangements I found myself recalling some moments of the year I left home to come to America.
No Easy Way
by Kimberly L. Becker
followed by Q&A
“deep is calling unto deep”
These places where decisions
lean in to see what you will do
These places where you stop to build
a cairn of what you hope is truth
There is no guardrail here
Blue on blue,
the depths call and echo
The deep pools swirl with promise and menace
You can’t cast lots
there is no easy way
You must forge through, trying this way, brambled and bracken,
and that, burdened by boulders
Far off: a green gap
Kimberly L. Becker is a member of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers and author of Words Facing East (WordTech Editions, 2011). Her poems appear widely, most recently in Drunken Boat, Future Earth Magazine, and Yellow Medicine Review. Visit her at www.kimberlylbecker.com
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: Despite the title, this is a hopeful poem for me, from the allusion to the Psalm, to the green of the last line. From my second manuscript that has a journey motif, the poem was drafted during the dissolution of my long marriage. I wrote my way through the gap of that decision.
by Anne Colwell
followed by Q&A
– for Thomas
When you were three and we lived in the basement and our lives were peeling apart like cheap shoe leather, shredding under the strain of wear, and we couldn’t see that we had no money because of the drinking and we had no time because we pissed it away and we were young and foolish and in love and we loved you like air and I was auditioning for stepmother, a part I wouldn’t know how to play until I was almost done playing it, there was one summer afternoon when the sky darkened and the wind picked up and we watched the leaves shift like the minnows you caught in the creek out back, turning all at once, their iridescent backs flashing to the black sky and the rain started in big drops and we knelt together on the upholstered stool from your grandmother’s house in front of the tiny, dirty window in the living room and we watched the lightning flash and tried to see its bright blade and tried to count how many seconds until the thunder sounded and you said you weren’t afraid and I flashed a bright smile and looked back out of the corner of my eye at your father who was sitting in the easy chair – to see how I was doing, to see if he was loving me – and what I didn’t know, what I couldn’t have known was that all these twenty years between that one and this would be just like that – a bright flash and counting the slow seconds until it comes back.
Anne Colwell, a poet and fiction writer, is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Delaware. Her first book of poems, Believing Their Shadows, was published by Word Press in 2010. Her second book will be coming out in 2013. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for poetry.
Q: What was the inspiration for this poem?
A: This poem was written for my son, Thomas, right before his wedding. It’s part of a series of poems about the joy and sorrow, the sweetness and regret that swirl around the moment when your child marries and begins his own family.
My Gray-Area Motherhood
by Dallas Woodburn
followed by Q&A
It’s a blustery day in April and I’m walking across a strip mall parking lot toward Chuck E. Cheese. I’ve got my purse over one shoulder, a diaper bag over the other, and Jude’s small hand in my own. Jude is a three-year-old boy with strawberry blond hair, his father’s round nose, and perceptive blue eyes. He is my sort-of son.
Before Jude came into my life, I didn’t think motherhood had much gray area; you either were a mother or you weren’t. I wasn’t a mother and didn’t plan on becoming one soon. I was acutely single. Accidental pregnancy isn’t an option when you aren’t having sex.
Then I met Mike. I was immediately drawn to his warmth, humor and kindness. On our first date, I learned he was a divorced father who gets custody of his son every other weekend. Mike suspects that Jude actually lives with his grandmother instead of his mother, but there is no way to prove anything to the courts. For now, the custody arrangement is fixed: Mike gets Jude every other weekend.
Before long, I was in the passenger seat whenever Mike made the two-hour drive to pick up his son, who began to feel more and more like my son, too. Lately I’ve been asking myself, when is it that you become a mother?
Was it the first time I saw Jude, when he reached out his hand to say hello to me, wrapping two of my fingers in his small fist, and I felt like I would do anything in the world to keep him safe?
Was it when I changed his diaper for the first time? Gave him a bath? Held him on my chest and rocked him to sleep?
Was it when I said milk instead of soda, sliced apples instead of potato chips, fresh air instead of TV, even though he whined? Was it when I made him apologize for saying a mean word on the playground? When I put him in time-out for misbehaving, my heart breaking as he sat sad-faced and alone on the rarely-used couch in the living room, for what felt like the longest two minutes of my life?
Was it when Mike and I kissed and hugged him goodbye and I felt my eyes brim with tears? When Jude said, “Wait!” and ran toward me, diaper bunching around his chubby toddler legs, and planted a wet kiss on my lips?
Was it when I’d been a part of his life for six months? A year? Two years?
Was it when Mike proposed to me? Or would it be when we get married?
Was it when Jude said, “I love you” and as I said, “I love you too, sweetheart” all the clichés about love burst open in my chest as truth? When he said, “Mama,” and I turned to him without thinking twice?
Maybe this is the day, Jude’s small hand in mine as he skips his way toward Chuck E. Cheese, Mike holding the door open for us. Inside, a worker stamps each of our hands with a number in invisible ink, and then unclips the velvet rope for us to enter the play area. Jude is agog at the flashing lights, squealing children, canned music leaping out at us from every direction. He grips my hand tighter. We spend most of the next hour feeding tokens into a miniature train that speeds around a small light-up town—the only game Jude seems interested in.
After cashing in Mike’s skee-ball ticket winnings for a rainbow lollypop, the three of us head for the exit. Before we can leave, the worker shines a penlight on our hands to check our numbers.
“It’s a match,” he says, unclipping the rope to let us leave. Jude reaches up his arms and I hoist him onto my hip. The three of us walk out the doors and into the windy sunshine: a father, a mother, a son, a family.
Dallas Woodburn’s fiction and essays have appeared in The Nashville Review, Monkeybicycle, flashquake, Family Circle, and The Los Angeles Times, among others. Her plays have been produced in New York City and Los Angeles. Her short story collection Woman, Running Late, in a Dress was a finalist in the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and her work has been nominated multiple times for a Pushcart Prize. She currently serves as Fiction Editor of Sycamore Review and teaches undergraduate creative writing courses at Purdue University. Learn more about her nonprofit youth literacy organization “Write On!” at www.writeonbooks.org.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I have a quote from Barbara Kingsolver taped above my writing desk: “There is no perfect time to write. There’s only now.” For me, often the first fifteen minutes of writing are the hardest. Kingsolver’s words push me forward when I am feeling sluggish or blocked. Just get some words out—any words—and see where they take you. To be a writer, you must write, even in the most imperfect times. Especially in the most imperfect times.
Actually, I think the best writing advice I’ve ever received comes from the late, great Ray Bradbury. I got to meet him a few years ago at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, where he told me: “Write with passion! Write with love!” I can think of no better way to write—or to live your life—than by those words.
Prime Decimals 29.3
by Gary V. Powell
followed by Q&A
Once a week, we dodged deer and possum, Bloomington to Nashville, left road kill on the shoulder driving home. Between the dodging and the killing, we drank beer, listened to a bluegrass band, and mingled with the locals.
The girl I lived with, Suze, held tight to an admin job at Healthcare Services, saving up for grad school. My friend Marty cut lawns and dodged the draft. I wrote stories on yellow legal pads, thinking I had a line on something no one else could see. The locals cut stone in quarries, built engines at Cummins Diesel, or brewed shine back in the hills between Bean Blossom and Gnaw Bone.
The band played the standards, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Footprints in the Snow,” and “Man of Constant Sorrow.” After the band’s first break, after the first few rounds put wind in their sails, folks took to the dance floor. They clogged and shuffled, the men straight-backed and stiff, the women loose and laughing. Marty and I took turns with Suze, spinning her out, then reeling her in.
Along about closing time, the band in its final throes, the dance floor began to clear, and the bar emptied of those who had to work for a living. Remaining were the shiners and the geezers. No women left to dance with, but with dancing left in their hearts, some swayed with a mop or broom. Others danced with chairs, pushing them across the floor, eyes closed, feet shuffling, elbows knocking.
Sometimes, late at night, I message Suze, now a Facebook mother of three living on another coast. I think of Marty, dead in a rice paddy at age twenty-one. If no one else is around, I listen to bluegrass, drink a beer, and push a chair across the room.
Gary V. Powell’s stories have appeared in many online and print literary journals including the moonShine Review, The Thomas Wolfe Review, and Fiction Southeast. In addition, several of his stories have placed or been selected as finalists in national contests. Most recently, his story "Home Free" won an Honorable Mention in the 2011 Newport Review Flash Fiction Contest, and his story "Super Nova" received an Honorable Mention in the Press 53 2012 Awards. His first novel, Lucky Bastard, is currently available through Main Street Rag Press.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: When I was in college at Indiana University, I would make the drive from Bloomington to Nashville to drink beer and listen to a bluegrass band. Late in the evening, the local men danced with chairs. I’ve always wanted to write about it.
by Jamez Chang
followed by Q&A
Inside a 180-degree sweat lodge, the Cloud Gazers watched Leader Yore stand up from his cross-legged quiet and bow to the burlap sheets behind him. The faded symbols in the back of the wickiup: painted bird, salamander, limestone—he told them to raise the stakes in their own lives, to feel as vulnerable as the common earth once did.
“We are the sons and daughters of limestone,” he said, his face smudged with ash inside the darkened dome. “And though we despise the salamander, we respect its nature, its willingness to eat its own young.”
Cloud Gazers twirled their dampened stems of sagebrush and channeled vulnerable. Glowing embers in a sacred dome.
“Now listen carefully, young Cloud Gazers: You have studied the ways and wonders of limestone, but tomorrow, you will destroy the very thing you love.”
Leader Yore signaled for the fire bearers to open the flaps, then poured one last ladleful of water upon the simmering rocks. A burst of heat and steam rushed through the air. He quickly tossed his dead sage sprig to the center pit, missing.
“Congratulations, my young Salamander,” he said. “Quarry on, quarry. Go swim through the next level and let the jizz-bird fly!”
They could have melted with joy. Instead, the newly minted quarry-folk crawled their tired bodies across cedar boughs, toward the raw-hide flap, out of the wickiup, past more blankets, and collapsed beside the medicine-wheel totem. They needed a drink. Leaning against barrier altar and skull posts, they scoured backpacks for water, tossing out manuals, twisting off caps, stripping out of their yellow boiler suits—they, gulping down to finish. And looked at each other, delirious, from thirst and through heavy armor.
It was all happening in 2009, and the place where they’d come “to happen” was part of the lower ridges of Texas hill country, where a secluded and underdeveloped terrain of parkland reserve had been rented out for the weekend by True Moon Enterprises. True Moon was a personal-development company in the Southwest, specializing in Spiritual Renewal and Wealth-Building for the Lost City Soul, for Cloud Gazers, and this Sunday was the culmination of their summer’s retreat.
All summer long, appreciation. Appreciation: gathering along the creek bottom to read the passages etched into limestone hills, some folks sitting on lawn chairs, all folks twisting binoculars, heads arching up; they pointed to rock. They noted each subtle stone crevice, and like bird-watchers, uncovered a nest of jagged culm and grooved fissure jutting. Distant rock.
These men and women loved limestone, and to read its beauty they spent $14,450 a year to learn how wind-spun southerlies deposited sediment and seedling upon granite core. Gazers had flown in from Brooklyn, Santa Fe, Vancouver, Connecticut, Menlo Park, and Kuala Lumpur to decipher the tone and timbre of wind against mineral—Limestone Level I.
“Each hill tells a different story,” their Moon Leader told them one night, “folded into the trough and bent beyond the straightened corner, the giant rock is constantly revealing itself to the watcher.”
The problem was that they were afraid to leave the birdwatchers’ perch-of-appreciation, to transition from Spirit to Wealth—what the retreat was leading up to. Simply put, not all of the Gazers wanted to become quarry-folk; they did not want to eat their young. Exploiting the earth required an appraiser’s eye—and a disposition toward destruction. Leader Yore called it craft mining.
“You’ll get to shadow these miners. See how raw material leaves the Spirit Layer and enters the flow of commerce,” he’d told them, and another time along the trail: “Harmony-with-Wealth simply means standing at the precipice of beauty, then asking God for the power drill.” It was time for them to put down their books and quarry. Quarry.
A close proximity to quarrying operations would enable a sense of detachment, and reveal the greater good: that for shale and quartz grounded, you could get limestone, get crushed marble that fueled a Da Vinci, concrete for portico slab or flue gas; you could provide jobs, build inroads, (and according to the True Moon Enterprises 2008 Annual Report), “sustain an economic stimulus on the verge of a deeper erosion.”
Still there was resistance.
For these Cloud Gazers, limestone was more literary marvel than fiscal report, cave temples still kissed by the wind. And to view these hills as mere “limestone deposit” necessitated a radical shift, and a change of heart. Though in truth, each Cloud Gazer understood that it had to be done, that chipping away at the things they loved most had become a habit; and how they, too, needed to craft a mineral more enduring: a product, a legacy—work printed onto stone.
And so they sweated it out, dressed in heavy layers of protective gear; they studied the schematics. Some wondering privately whether a propane-fuelled helical worm drive was worthy of their attention—this new world of excerpt-diagram—whether it could be fed to a jizz-bird, as Yore would say.
The forklifts were being airlifted to a narrow bedded plane of limestone hill; the Gazers’ eyes now wincing—moistened binocular. And for a tense moment, they wondered why they had signed up for Leveling II at all. True Moon Enterprises had given them life again, and hope beyond tears: the loss of a son “reconciled” through the holy purification of a sweat lodge; the triumph over fear “celebrated” by walking over coals. Confronting career sabotage, writing the perfect poem—all “readily achieved,” once internal censors and wooden boards were smashed apart.
But at this moment, the distant sight of men unloading hydraulic splitters and diamond-wire saws made them question their True Moon, and their own lives’ journey. Just a chopper-ride away from the cutting and drilling and blasting of stone. And as the helicopters came for them, as the landing skids touched down upon an open clearing, 10 Cloud Gazers, 20 feet from altar and skull posts, gasped at the sight of the whirling embers above a crushed sacred dome.
Jamez Chang is a poet, writer, lawyer, and former hip-hop artist living in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in FRiGG, Boston Literary Magazine, Subliminal Interiors, The Sim Review, and the anthology Yellow Light. After graduating from Bard College, Jamez went on to become the first Korean-American to release a hip-hop album, Z-Bonics (F.O.B. Productions, 1998), in the United States. Jamez currently works in the video game industry in New York.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: Reading limestone is reading literature, and when our inner editor forgets beauty first, we become The Hot Dog Factory Whisperer. Usurping jagged text with hydraulics. Correcting.
Whose Side You Are On?
by Patty Seyburn
followed by Q&A
A boy works his pitching
arm from a slow-moving
vehicle at dawn, when
I am arm-wrestling a
demoted angel in
a standard dream. I do
not see the throw’s arc but
know it exists as news
slaps my driveway daily.
I prefer one half of
any story, loathe that
walloping fairness down
the fairway, insisting
his minions field it.
Only select stars know
the rest and to date, they’re
not talking, dark matter
clamped over bright mouths as
they watch from the boroughs
of On High. My angel
shakes his supernal head,
gestures for the ladder.
Patty Seyburn has published three books of poems: Hilarity (New Issues Press, 2009), Mechanical Cluster (Ohio State University Press, 2002) and Diasporadic (Helicon Nine Editions, 1998). Her poems have recently been published in Boston Review, DIAGRAM and Hotel Amerika. She is an Associate Professor at California State University, Long Beach and co-editor of POOL: A Journal of Poetry (www.poolpoetry.com).
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: I have always been taken with the idea of wrestling with the angels, which I think serves as an
apt metaphor for the writing of poetry. Aside from that, what I like about this poem is its
confusing title. For the longest time, I wasn’t sure whether the words were in the right order, and
whether or not there should be a question mark. I’m still not sure.
The Painter and Fisherman
by David A. Spicer
followed by Q&A
A painter and a fisherman lived on the coast of Ireland. The painter loved the fisherman for her own reasons. She shuddered when he threw his fishnet across the boat deck. He loved her for the hue of blue across her eyes, which found itself in all of her paintings. Her seascapes with boats sold the world over, and she remained isolated while growing wealthy. She avoided interviews and photographs. Journalists and photographers coveted her, and she resisted until they tired.
When her fisherman was at sea, one day after a successful show in Dublin she received a box postmarked from a village in Peru. She opened it and found odd gifts that said, I love you. Her favorite was a jukebox the size of a cigarette pack with a thousand love songs. She swooned and then painted a seascape with a small jukebox on a boat and a pair of blue eyes lingering under clouds. When the fisherman telephoned her she thanked him for the box, and he replied, What box?She swooned again.
Each time her fisherman sailed the oceans she received a box with odd gifts inside, always postmarked Peru. She never responded, though the return address had a street number. She mentioned the boxes to her fisherman, and he replied without fail, What box? It became a running joke between them.
One week when her fisherman sailed, the boxes stopped appearing. At first she wondered why, and then forgot about it until a tall thin crate arrived. She opened it and now knew when she looked at the beautiful painting of a pair of blue eyes shuddering and tossing a net across the sea.
Author of one collection, Everybody Has a Story, four chapbooks, and six unpublished poetry manuscripts, David Spicer has work in Alcatraz, Nitty Gritty, Aura, Brown God, Hinchas de Poesia, Crack the Spine, Dirtflask, Spudgun, Mad Rush, Used Furniture Review, Fur-Lined Ghettos, Spudgun, Bop Dead City, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Resurgo, and elsewhere.
Q: What can you tell us about this piece?
A: A romantic at heart, I sometimes devise scenarios between lovers in some of my pieces. This work was inspired by two friends–one a poet and one a fisherman–who lead (to me) a very idyllic life. Combined with the fact that my wife is a painter, I devised this new third person narrative between two very romantic characters.
Prime Decimals 29.5
by Lynn Bey
followed by Q&A
It’s the second week of hols when Mom finally says Christmas isn’t going away, let’s get our shopping done. She means Sun Plaza near Albertstown. It’s an hour away but at least they decorate.
“We could do with some festive,” she says. It’s Friday, Ruthie’s day off, so breakfast is unfestive toast.
“I have to brush my teeth,” you lie. You want a look round your room, at Barry Gibb above your bed.
“Don’t dawdle. Everybody and their grandmother will be on that road.”
You grab your jacket. There’s $47.55 inside and some food. You change into socks and tackies. Mom’ll say it’s too hot for all that, then never mind, she’s tired of arguing.
She puts Kenny Rogers on and says it can be Abba coming home. You make good time and do Woolworths and two gift shops before getting a trolley for Hilda’s.
“Keep an eye out for anything half off,” she says. You fetch and carry and put back what she tells you to until you almost chicken out. But then you’re plonking Ruthie’s favorite jam next to the Vim and squeezing past the cash registers to go outside. Soon you’re across busy George Boulevard and turning right down Victoria, not looking back. At the main lights there’s the sign for Customs and Border Patrol. You pass the old Bata, a hairdresser’s, the chemist, a record shop that’s useless, the Wimpy Dad liked. Round the corner is the path you want. It’s a short-cut through the huge vlei that the nannies with gigantic bundles on their heads use to reach the road where cars queue waiting for Customs to open because that’s where they’re allowed to put down bits of plastic and spread out what they’ve made to show overseas tourists, crocheted bedspreads and dresses and doilies by the dozen.
The path’s bumpy, and you pull up your socks against ticks. If any ex-terr gets cheeky, you’ll shout at him to bugger off. It’s four months till Independence, and then they can be the ones shouting that. All the Whites, practically, are gapping it. They’re going Down South or to Aus or Kenya. The Fernleys chose Ireland. People who’re staying take turns saying, “Last one out, turn off the lights!”
The houses on this far side of the vlei have wire fences filled in with straw. Probably they’re poor Whites. You feel sorry for how they’re almost on the other side of the border and part of Down South. From half-way up a mulberry tree you see which garden doesn’t have a dog or kids in it. It’s lucky the scullery’s not locked so you can sneak inside and hide till morning. You’re so starved when you wake up you scarf all the Digestives and crunchies you brought. Then it’s back over the fence to head for the sound of cars and lorries braking.
When you’re close to the fancy arch that’s the border you hide behind gum trees and watch. The guard lifts up the boom to let in a few cars before bringing it down again. Everyone on the guard’s side hurries inside the main building with their passports. People who’re this side get out to stretch their legs. The men walk down the road and start laughing and offering each other cigarettes. The moms make the kids go with them to the loos that are opposite Customs, and you get in line too. The line takes ages but it’s perfect for no one noticing what you’re staring at. Finally a kid comes running out of Customs and you watch which caravan he goes to unlock. He jumps to get in, and when he’s out again he tries locking it but drops a baby’s bottle and starts cleaning it with his shirt. When it’s your turn to use the loo you flush and get out because otherwise the unlocked caravan could drive off.
But it’s still there, and when the car jerks it forward with you inside, it’s as rattly as your bike. The trees and sky and clouds through the tiny windows are snap to what you pictured.
Before the caravan stops you jump out. Your knees are barely skinned so it’s half a sec till you’re inside the shop that’s closest. Mom calls this kind cheapelie, but the smell makes you hungry for samoosas. In the row of chips and sweets there’re kids choosing a treat. You choose sherbet sticks, then say who here thinks Durbs is best? Whoever says Me! you follow to the counter and then outside, where suddenly you burst out crying because the bus must’ve forgotten you here. The Durban kids’ dad says, “For Pete’s sake,” but the mom hugs you and you’re allowed in their back seat so they can drop you at whatever police station is near their hotel.
Everybody’s nice and you’re nice back. You share the sherbet you stole and they give you ham sandwiches and a Fanta.
It’s rude, running away instead of going inside with the dad to talk to the police, but with tackies on you’re fast. There’re hotels everywhere. Inside a white one an old lady with lipstick on her teeth lets you phone your dad.
“What the—? You’re not serious! Here?”
You wait in the dining room, where two Indian girls, or Coloreds maybe, are setting the tables for supper. They bring you a cheese scone so you tell them the jokes Heather Fernley told. You’re starting another one about stupid van der Merwe when the back of your head stings like it’s caught fire. The girls giggle because it’s not their dad giving them a slap.
“Stop sniveling,” he says in the car. When he doesn’t say anything else you look out the window at the lagoon. The sun’s going down, which means Mom’s on the verandah having wine. She wants you both to make the best of things. She wants you to stay put even though all the lights are being turned off.
Lynn Bey has had short stories and flash fiction published in The Literarian, Birmingham Arts Journal, Two Hawks Quarterly, Rhapsodia, Conquista & Rebellion, Broken Pencil, and a few other magazines that are now, sadly, defunct.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I wrote this story for a 600-word competition I entered (and did not win) with a writer-friend (whose story was much better than mine). When I reworked this story, it kept growing longer; eventually I realized that it should have been longer from the start—the precise length it is now, amazingly! (The great thing about writing is that it lets you convince yourself of almost anything, including that you know what you’re doing.)
Ways in Which Bats Gave Me Rabies
by Patrice Hutton
followed by Q&A
Your dog licked me, and even though I know you take care to vaccinate her every year, who knows what else she’s been licking in your backyard? When bats expire from rabies, slowing from their fury, do they settle onto a branch for their last breath, toe and tail joints giving way, and drop to the ground? Your dog might have licked that.
I dreamed my way into a Faulkner mansion and woke up as a bat chased me from the basement, up staircases, and into the attic. I lay there, shaking in my crimson Jersey sheets, wondering if houses in Mississippi even have basements. I know they often keep their dead above ground, so do they bother building spaces below ground for the living?
I needed to walk one of my characters (boy/girl/didn’t matter) to the bedroom window to stare out longingly and consider how (sad/upset/hurt) (he/she/didn’t matter) was. I put a bat house outside the window and had the boy man’splain to the girl that the old woman they were staying with nurses orphaned bats back to health. People do this, and I figured that if my character did it, I would believe that people actually do it without contracting rabies. Later I drove down a road in Maine and saw a store that sold bat houses, which reminded me that people do shelter the creatures, which reminded me that they do indeed exist, which reminded me to wear my hoodie snug around my face at night, which reminded me that my legs were still exposed, which reminded me that I would get rabies any minute.
We all had coffee with a Holocaust survivor in Amsterdam, but all I could think about was the bat maybe brewed into the coffee. She talked about the Holocaust as blackness, and all I could think about was the blackness in my cup and how it was that black because it was bat-infused (this happens*). I excused myself to the bathroom and tiptoed the other way to the kitchen. I heard her say that after the Holocaust, she got a husband, but she couldn't love him. I opened up the coffee maker, lifted up the grounds. No bat. The grounds, the grounds, I thought, and she talked on, the grounds, the guards making their rounds on Auschwitz's grounds.
We needed a breather from the bachelorette night and the limo needed cups, so we left the wine bar and went to CVS. And we wanted a moment to freak out about marriage, and dogs, and that the era of dick pics was over, and really just a moment, because she'd been in Jogjakarta for a year, and now our other best friend was getting married.
“My God, my God, Dasani, calamine lotion, my God, Cheetos!”
“Watching you rediscover America is magic. Walmart's next.”
“Okay, okay, but screw you America, I smuggled over two cartons of cloves!”
“Okay, focus, Solo cups and who all can we force Red Bull on? Jesus Christ! Bats!”
“Halloween? It's August.”
In an aisle full of lookalikes, really, how can you be sure that one's not lurking and wasn't that thing that pinched your back as you stared at the Red Bulls, tallying, figuring out how to wake a group of sleepy girls at a bachelorette?
And then the time I got rabies shots, really and truly, there were five hot pink vials plus a forearm pumped full of immunoglobulin and a doctor reading from a big red book, reciting the list of animals that could have given me rabies, mongooses and slobbering cows, and saying really, you were just walking through a park at night and a bat flew into you and scratched you? What do you mean when you say it felt like it had more mass than a moth?
*After her morning cup, a woman in Iowa lifted her coffee grounds to find that a bat had fitted itself into her coffee maker in the night. It was too-brewed-through to test for rabies, so the woman, perchance having ingested rabies-brewed-into-coffee, had to get the vaccine.
Patrice Hutton graduated from Johns Hopkins University, with the distinction of the Three Arts Club of Homeland Award for excellence in fiction writing. Her fiction appears in Mount Hope Magazine. Patrice directs Writers in Baltimore Schools, a program that provides middle school students with a vibrant environment for literary development through in-school, after-school, and summer creative writing workshops. Last summer, Patrice launched the Baltimore Young Writers' Studio, a creative writing sleepaway camp for Baltimore teens.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I got rabies shots in 2008, after an encounter with a bat in a Kansas park.
by Robert West
followed by Q&A
His last night
he reread the poetry
his wife knew
he’d often wished
there had been more of
Robert West is the author of three chapbooks of poetry, the latest of which is Convalescent (Finishing Line Press, 2011). His work has appeared in Able Muse, Christian Science Monitor, Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, and other venues. He is an associate professor of English at Mississippi State University, where he also serves as associate editor of Mississippi Quarterly, The Journal of Southern Cultures.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: I like brief poems that suggest a narrative beyond their scale; “Corpus” is an epilogue to an unwritten biography. I also admire poetry that engages with the language in a way that might defy translation, and I try to do that with the conclusion of this poem.
A Charleston Unfairy Tale
by Ting Lam
followed by Q&A
The dragons, an old couple, and I live
inside a little red shack.
The dragons tease and call me shawtay.
The couple hugs and calls me ah moi.
On slow days, they all smile and call me baby.
On busy days the fleets of powerful beasts crowd in,
roaring and famished for fried wings and lo-mein,
ordering the couple around, fueling their already fiery anger.
On those days, everyone taunts and calls me little girl.
The winged folks thunder, “More ice!”
The man and wife holler, “Three cups of rice!”
Divided and frustrated, I glare at
the demanding, cold-blooded reptiles.
They stare at me from across the counter with sanguine eyes.
Their breath boils from swigging bottles of Texas Pete,
the lava rolling down their ribbon tongues
and also dripping from their webbed fingers.
I blink; they are three men carrying guns.
Three masked men and an old couple
dance across the shack with wuxia grace–
fists flying, curses rising, cries climbing,
the noise spilling onto the desolate streets of the empty night.
Three masked men carrying guns grab money and run away.
The next bright morning,
the dragons call me shawtay and the couple calls me ah moi.
We smile and nod to each other and wings beat
against the counter as I search for deception behind
the dragons’ toothy grins, stretched so far back
that on reflex, I force my own smile in return.
Ting Lam is a high school English teacher currently living in Chapel Hill. Because she was born in Hong Kong, China, and lived in Charleston, SC, for most of her childhood, her poems have a lot to do with amalgamating seemingly contradictory Chinese and American Southern identities while growing up.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: “A Charleston Unfairy Tale” is actually the first poem that I have ever written and it was
inspired by a “Where am I from” prompt by my first poetry professor. Instead of locating
it in a specific geographical place, I tried to capture the spirit of my childhood.
by Benjamin Vogt
followed by Q&A
As a hue [blue] it is powerful, but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity,
as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction
between excitement and repose….we love to contemplate blue,
not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.
— Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, “Theory of Color”
Like any family, mine has secrets that get slowly revealed to its members through the decades. It’s sort of an honor, I suppose, part of growing older and being recognized as an adult and no longer a child. It’s a mixed blessing: cursed with knowledge and blessed with next-to-impossible-to-earn respect.
Through bits and pieces, I’ve come to learn my grandfather was an alcoholic and a physical abuser. At first, some years ago, my mother hinted at such when her biological father sent her a Christmas card after decades of silence. This event brought to light that the grandfather I loved was a stand-in of sorts. My grandmother—now a staunch Christian—gave birth to my mom, her oldest child of five, at the age of seventeen. She, too, was an alcoholic and rather free-wheeling, from what I gather. But again, the pickings are slim. I don’t really know, and no one wants to talk, not even about pictures—these were burned long ago by my grandmother, so the only physical history I have to trace is on my father’s relatively normal side of the family.
When my “real” grandfather sent his card, my mother had no choice but to tell her kids phase one of many phases I doubt I’ll ever get to the end of. Years later, I heard the grandfather I knew beat his two boys, and now one has estranged himself from the family blaming his mother for not protecting them. Not too long ago, after my grandmother’s failed trip to visit her son, my mom explained again why he was so aloof. Leaning against the edge of the living room couch, half on its thick arm, my mom crosses her tan arms and goes on.
“He blames your grandma for not protecting us kids from your grandpa.” She looks toward the blank screen of the TV, and then down to her feet. “She couldn’t do anything, of course, and things change anyway. People grow up. It was a long time ago. It’s your mother, for Pete’s sake.” She says this last bit looking at me, maybe planting the seed for anything I yet don’t know about, or for something unforeseen that might happen. “It’s your mother.”
But stranger in this is, as she looks to the floor, to me, around the room, to me, the floor again—strangest of all this are the words “protecting us kids.” She said this in a different way than before. She didn’t say “boys,” and her eyes became a darker black than usual. They didn’t swell, but the pupils expanded. I can’t forget this one detail. Like a cat, or some animal backed into a corner, those eyes opened and seemed to see something I couldn’t. They were waiting, ready, simultaneously fierce and afraid. And it was brief. I imagine, as the oldest child who cooked for the family, mended clothes that were handed down from her to her younger siblings, she must have had to stand ground in that house in Racine that I drove by only once, as a small child, on the way to a family reunion.
She didn’t say what I hoped she would, but I suppose I didn’t want to hear either. But I did. I wanted to hear it. I did. I wanted to hear how Grandpa, smoking and drinking, memories of Korea playing along like the TV in the living room, all came knocking against her arms, her face, her back. How the children ran screaming through the house, huddled together in closets, Grandma sitting at the kitchen table waiting for it to end as it always did after a few moments. Just take it, she might whisper to herself. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but I can’t take it for you.
I don’t know what changed. Religion. Growing up. Working things out of yourself. Moving away. Patience. Long after whatever happened, the youngest son, retired from the army, was killed by a drunk driver. Then Grandpa got cancer after years of mourning, bearing the loss as he was chipped away by disease. Maybe my uncle, the estranged son, rejoiced. Maybe this is what made him who he was. But my mom, passing out bits of a life I can’t possibly imagine in the people I love so dearly, won’t live by the memories anymore. She moves on. She takes me out to the garden, where we silently worked together for years, and says she planted ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glories because the scent reminds her of her grandmother’s house in Racine, how much fun it was to go there as a child. And without knowing it, either of us perhaps, something else comes up from the earth and slightly opens to the light.
Draped four feet off the ground, between the clump river birch and the verbena, is a web about eighteen inches in diameter. In the middle rests a plump, female yellow garden spider. There are a few others, all nearly the same distance off the ground—one by the aster tataricus, another by the ironweed.
Her legs are like black toothpicks, and as I watch a fly land in the web, their dexterity and pinpoint accuracy are a marvel as they first hold, and then rotate, prey near the silk-spraying abdomen. I am terrified of spiders, but know she is harmless. I try to remember Charlotte’s Web, and the knowledge that these are nonpoisonous, beneficial spiders. The wolf spider I found in the lawn near my sandaled feet are also beneficial, but venomous. My garden is, perhaps, becoming more than I bargained for—it’s hard to keep up with all that’s going on, coming through.
With yet another glut of grasshoppers, perhaps holdovers from 2009, I have a great idea. I walk over to the switchgrass, sneak up on a grasshopper, and swiftly close my hand around it. It claws and tickles, and then seems to bite at my palm as I rush it over, wildly tossing it into the web. It struggles, and in so doing drops an inch or two, and almost freeing itself only becomes tangled again.
The spider stops and starts, judging who knows what from the vibration of her web—the size of prey, the distance, its orientation, if it will escape or not. Soon she rushes over and within a split second has paralyzed and encased it with silk—a substance that is far stronger than steel or even Kevlar.
In case you think me cold or unkind, I encourage you to visit my 5,000 grasshoppers and diminishing perennials. I also want you to know that I capture and release all sorts of spiders, boxelder, and lady bugs from inside my house. My wife rescues frogs who’ve fallen into her office’s egress window well.
A few times a week, as I pass the web over the early fall, I try to toss the spider a free meal. Sometimes I can’t capture a grasshopper; sometimes they wiggle free of the web. And when, one autumn day, I see the web torn and abandoned, I read up on the spider’s lifecycle, how the females die before winter. I feel a gentle loss and sadness that surprises me, as if a friend has moved away. Each day the web rips a bit more as the leaves turn color. I know that something new was spelled out for me here, this year in my garden, but I don’t yet know how to interpret it.
Twilight Geese in Autumn
A few evenings ago I made my nightly pilgrimage around the garden and yard. After inspecting and filling the dozens of holes dug by migrating robins and brown thrashers, I made my way to check on the fall foliage of the birches, maple, and willow.
Along the back fence is an opening that looks out to my neighbor's three acres, and in the distance—about 200 feet—is a thick stand of mature trees on the edge of their property. Where that stand of trees ends and meets the thin line that runs along the back of my lot, is a small pond which marks the end of a long flyway, if you will, reaching back across many acreages running parallel to my neighborhood.
An autumn dusk is always breathtaking. The air is crisper and drier, the sunlight sharper, the musk of rich decay feeding new soil sweet and thick and reminiscent of the woods I would explore growing up in Minnesota. I am always home when I smell this air, holding it as close and far inside me as possible with each deep breath.
At dusk my chilling body leans against the chain link fence, and I can hear in some great distance Canadian geese—another call home for me. The cries shout far in this air, at this time, and I know they are searching out their nightly place among the cornfields not too far away, or the many small ponds that dot a nearby park. I don't think they are coming closer, but moving south, away from me, as they do this time of year.
But their calls remain constant, neither growing fainter nor louder. It's like my heartbeat, racing north, leaning slightly into the wind and suddenly darting right or left to catch an impulse, a desire.
I can't see them. Behind the cedars and elms is where they must be, but I am so low here, between the trees, a small gap in the line, I'll never see them.
Suddenly one lone call pierces loudly, rushes forward like a warning, a groping in the dark. I hear their wings like someone slipping on a warm coat in winter. Then there they are, no more than 20 to 30 feet off the ground, mapping the earth in front me. A perfect "V" of two dozen birds, pushing and pulling air, stable in the dichotomy of their actions, pulsing from east to west. I've never been so close.
The edge of the "V" closest to me is missing a bird, and as the formation slides by so low that for a moment I childishly think I can reach up, hook on, and be carried away, I believe they have made a place for me.
And they have. The moment lasts all but two or three seconds, but I no longer exist in the same way that I did before. I am no longer the same person. As the calls slide over the horizon chasing the last faint yellow and magenta sunlight, I am here and nowhere, far away and closer to my home.
Stay still. Don't breathe. Be ready. They may come around again.
Benjamin Vogt is the author of a poetry collection, Afterimage (Stephen F. Austin State University Press), and has a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in two genres and has recently appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Diagram, Orion, Sou’wester, Subtropics, and The Sun. Benjamin writes a Plains gardening column for Houzz.com, and is also the author of a blog, The Deep Middle, where he rants about writing and his 1,500-foot native prairie garden.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: “Stop complaining, shut up, sit down, and just start writing.” On occasion. Because for some reason we don’t like to do what we most want to do. Are we lazy or filled with demons? Are we afraid of our potential? Are we afraid to be happy? The hardest things in life are the most worthwhile, so give yourself the hardest thing to do or be and embrace it even if it stabs you like a torture device.