Prime Number Decimals 3.7
The House on Eastern Avenue
by Darrin Doyle
followed by Q&A
Jack arrived with a seven-inch Bowie knife and offered it to his mother. “There,” he said. “Now you have protection.” His mother didn’t answer, but she put the knife in the drawer beside the silverware. Her husband, Jack’s father, had died. Only yesterday they had watched him being lowered into the ground.
Later, she told Jack, “I don’t need protection. I’ve got Dilbert.”
Dilbert was a basset hound with a skin disorder. “Dilbert can barely stand, he’s so fat,” Jack said.
“Still.” His mother turned to her computer to search for electronic thank-you cards.
“You don’t thank people for coming to funerals,” Jack said. “It’s not a birthday party.”
Jack began doing repairs at the house. His father hadn’t been handy. His father had no vision in the ways of interior design or craftsmanship and had spent his life accounting for mid-sized paper companies. His father had lived 516,840 hours. Jack paid to have this figure engraved on the tombstone, a tribute to the numbers his father loved.
Using his own tools, Jack fixed the baseboards, the ceiling fan, and the bathroom faucet. He decided to build the buffet his mother always wanted. He bought wood, drew up plans, and worked in the attached garage.
“Sometimes I hear that hammer in my sleep,” his mother said one morning.
“Phantom hammer,” joked Jack, but he got no reaction.
His mother’s friends came every afternoon to play bridge. The four women drank Limoncellos and drowned out Jack’s noise with their laughter. Regina leaned on Jack as he searched the kitchen drawer for a bottle opener. Her face was drawn, the skin tight around her lips and eyes. Her hair was crimson. She squeezed Jack’s bicep. “Poor baby. No boy ever gets over the loss of his daddy.”
The Bowie knife was gone from the drawer the next day. Jack heard commotion in the backyard. His mother and her friends were playing mumblety-peg on the lawn.
“You ladies ought to be careful,” he said from the door.
“And I swear, right hand raised, Frank could go all night,” Regina said. The others tittered. Regina turned and flashed her teeth. “Oh, sweetie, does it embarrass you to think of a mature woman having sex?”
Jack left the women to their game. Dilbert snored on the sofa. He stunk like wet leaves. The upholstery was dusted with dog skin. Jack gagged.
He fell asleep in his childhood bed that night after getting drunk on Light beer. He hadn’t eaten dinner. His mother wasn’t thinking about food these days. He didn’t want to pressure her.
At 3 a.m., he awoke in darkness. His past loomed on each side: mounted metal shelves with books like A Spell for Chameleon and In Conquest Born; on his dresser, a stack of 1976 Olympics puzzles and the miniature flag collection; the Detroit Lions wastebasket.
On the door, a life-sized Jim Morrison in leather pants gripped a microphone as if he planned to break things with it. Above the dresser, Jimi Hendrix knelt beside a flaming guitar. The rock stars looked like kids. Why the hell had he ever admired them? And how had the posters held on for thirty years?
Jack finished the buffet a few days later. He covered it with a top sheet he found in the linen closet. He brought his mother into the garage to see. It was Sunday, and she’d been watching Dilbert roll on the grass.
“Keep them closed,” he said, leading her by the hand. Her bones were prominent—phalanges, metacarpals. “Are you ready? Open!”
“Is that one of my good sheets?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
Her hand petted the sheet. Tears shimmered in her eyes. “One set is all I need now. I was planning to give this set to a young family.” She left in a hurry through the door to the kitchen.
Jack called after her: “It can be washed.” He thought of his father—a healthy guy, attacked by his own heart while watering a plant. Jake wondered if his father had suspected his death before it happened. A premonition? A vision? Even a hankering. But then again, it wouldn’t have mattered if he did. Unless it would have.
His mother returned to the garage with the Bowie knife. The blade glinted. She bunched the sheet in her fist and stabbed the tent of fabric. She sawed. Her tongue peeked from between her lips. Her movements were awkward. She frowned. She dropped the knife with a clatter and began ripping.
“Let me,” Jack said.
They tore strips that were neither pretty nor symmetrical. Gleeful shredding noises echoed in the empty garage. Within seconds, their fingers were rosy and puffed. The sheet lay in streamers on the cement.
Jack and his mother, seated on the concrete and staring in opposite directions, breathed as if they had just escaped something.
Darrin Doyle is the author of the novels Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet: A Love Story and The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo. His short fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Cottonwood, Night Train, Puerto del Sol, Harpur Palate, The Long Story, and other journals. He has received fellowships and scholarships from the Sewanee Writers Conference and the NY Summer Writers Institute. He teaches at Central Michigan University.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: This story was inspired by Donald Barthelme’s “110 West Sixty-First Street.” Like Barthelme’s, my story uses a nondescript residence as a title and opens with the recent death of a loved one and an unusual gift being bestowed upon one of the mourners. With these elements in place, my story took on a life of its own and became, I hope, a comic meditation on identity, grief, and adulthood.
by Timothy Raymond
followed by Q&A
We have wounds. Jesse’s is on his shin. It’s a big gash, stitched up now, but still oozing from time to time, that he got while walking in the river near my house.
Frank’s wound is on his arm, up near his shoulder. This one is black, a bruise that his sister gave him when she threw a small dollhouse in his direction. The wound is a problem, because one thing we do around here is greet each other in a friendly way. For many of us boys, this means grabbing a friend’s shoulder as we shake hands. Frank, now, can no longer greet like this. The bruise hurts simply too much.
But Sean’s wound is a little different, because it no longer hurts him. The scar is still there, though, right on his chest, right there in the middle, between his heart and whatever is on the other side of his chest, where his heart would be if it were on the other side. This wound Sean got from a bike accident. He was riding in the field next to Frank’s house, up and down the trail that was once flat, but now has, thanks to us, a big dirt hill where kids can jump their bikes. What happened was, Sean rode too fast, on a bike not quite strong enough. And when he came down from the jump, he leaned too far forward, and the handlebars gave way, so that he flipped over and landed on his back. It was a surprise, having the wound show up on his chest, since he landed on his back. But apparently he landed so hard that something ruptured, just a tiny bit, inside of his body. The chest was the place to operate.
There are different wounds too. The wound that Frank got from his sister was brought about by another kind of wound, one experienced by the sister, when Frank told her that she was ugly. This wound is not so very different from the wound that Sean and Jesse, and also Frank, had. It’s just that the pain is felt in a different place.
I have both kinds of wounds, so that the pain, when it comes, comes all around my body. I can never plan ahead with where the pain will be.
For instance, last year, I fell down the stairs in my house. I just rolled backward, all the way down eight steps, and hurt my neck. When it happened, my parents came running.
How? How? they kept saying.
For a month, I wore a brace around my neck, to heal the wound, and also to hide it.
Another: on a car trip to Arizona, years ago, with my parents driving, I had to use the bathroom. It was dark, though, and we were nowhere near a place to stop. There wasn’t a town for miles.
I have to pee, I kept telling my parents.
Hold it, said my father.
But I have to go, I said.
Hold it, please, said my mother.
I was lying in the van, on the middle seat folded out like a bed. I began to get nervous about having to go. And, for a little while, I wasn’t sure that I’d ever get to use the bathroom.
So to relieve my mind, more than my body, I just let myself use the bathroom, right there, on the seat, in the van.
What’s that noise? asked my father.
There are, of course, other wounds too.
But I was the one to go with Jesse when he visited the clinic to get cheap stitches on his leg. I remember that he asked the doctor whether he was in trouble because it happened in a river.
I don’t want it to get infected, he said.
Oh, said the doctor.
He looked at the wound.
You’re fine, said the doctor.
Good, said Jesse.
Actually, said the doctor. You’re lucky, because injuries like these are the most likely to get infected.
What’s the least likely? I asked.
Head injuries, he said.
No, I said.
Head wounds just never, ever get infected, he said.
That’s a surprise, I said.
I remember best the way that Roger complained about his own wound, a lost finger, right after getting it. He’d lost the finger at school, in shop class, while he was making a gumball machine out of little blocks of wood. The teacher was supposed to do all the cutting, but was busy when Roger needed his cut, so Roger did it himself.
The cut was immediate.
But he complained differently after the finger was gone, and healed over, right at the knuckle farthest from the palm. He no longer just screamed. Instead he would say things like, I can’t open this soda bottle. Or, I need help tying my shoe.
God, he said once, I can’t believe I’m out a damn finger.
I don’t know, though. You ask me, there’s always something that sets us apart from everyone else. Maybe a finger isn’t so bad. Roger can’t shake hands like he used to, but he’s always got a story to tell, right away, right up front, right when he meets someone for the first time.
When I rolled down the stairs that time, I remember lying there, right there at the bottom of the steps, looking up at the ceiling. The whole house went a little lighter then, like in summer, and everything began to quiver.
For weeks after, the neighbors brought dinners to my family. Some brought meals every day. Others just stopped by to see how our family was.
But mine is not the only one. There are always other wounds around here. This is what I’m saying.
My grandfather, for instance, died last year, from cancer. My mother now has cancer herself, though a different kind.
And George, his wound’s a broken ankle.
Jeff, a torn ACL.
Mary, a cold.
Lucy, a bad haircut.
Ada, a lost child.
Timothy Raymond is a first-year MFA student at the University of Wyoming, where he helps edit The Owen Wister Review. His fiction appears or will appear at FRiGG, BLIP Magazine, JMWW, and others. He is at work on a novel.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: This story came from a few places. There was a teacher’s joke about head injuries. I hurt myself in a river once. And so on. Really, I was reading a lot of Lydia Davis when I wrote this, and became interested in list-making. This story is a list, in my mind. It’s simply about what people do, which to me is more interesting than studying why people do what they do. It’s about how what people do affects what other people do.
by Ray Scanlon
followed by Q&A
In the road near my house lie the bloated, stinking corpses of two possums who failed to comprehend the danger behind bright headlights. With no obvious warning the big pignut tree has died and shed a major limb into my yard. Old friend Cav brings his chainsaw over to dismember it. He cuts faster than I can heave pieces off into the edge of the woods, and angina does not speed me up. It grips my shoulder, hard bony fingers probing for my lungs. It's a stone's throw until September, and mortality is in the air.
But mortality is always in the air. We just pay no attention, defy it, or deny it: all viable options. As a teenager I knew we all die, but despite obvious evidence to the contrary, I also knew I would never become flabby, get a second chin, turn grey. I still do not grasp exactly how distorted our time sense is. If it's in the future, it's for all practical purposes infinitely far away. Expected or not, death is always a surprise.
We are victims, as it were, of a natural world in which the functions describing much of what we see or sense are sinusoidal. The length-of-daylight curve has intervals over which its rate of change is negligible. We are seduced into believing that summer is endless. Then, as day nearly equals night, the rate of change becomes so gross that even the oblivious notice how early the sun sets.
The rump of August deserves better than unremitting mortality-gloom, but there's nothing wrong with being a little low-key as we rebalance and acclimate to change. It's a good time for a cemetery walk. Summer is even sweeter, now that its stifling heat is largely broken. Green still predominates, though a nearby bellwether maple is already starting to turn. Hay's been mowed. Morning glories flourish. Goldenrods and asters are ubiquitous, no longer novel.
At the ball field where I walk the dogs, sun-blasted grass around its unirrigated periphery crunches underfoot. Panicky-sounding killdeer have superseded assertive barn swallows. Cicadas stridulate in the treetops, their high buzzing drone attracting mates or dooming them to be the paralyzed breakfast of digger wasp larvae. Handfuls of friable earth, its beachy color contrasting with the darker ground upon which it lies, mark the digger wasp tunnels, well-worn runways leading to the holes down which they drag their prey.
As August wanes, the accelerated shortening of days and early hints of autumnal decay inevitably heighten awareness of mortality. Once again I'm feeling betrayed as summer proves to be finite. But solace is at hand: one of the beauties of the sine function is that it's periodic. I'll get to redo all of this next year—God willing.
Ray Scanlon lives in Massachusetts. He's paid attention for about fifteen minutes during the last 60 years. His web site is http://read.oldmanscanlon.com/.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: I was just whistling in the dark here, trying to psych myself for the slide into winter.
followed by Q&A
In Austin I went to the garden. Not my garden, my tenant’s garden, so yes my garden.
But before I knelt in the dirt of the garden I watered the lawn. Not the lawn, I sprayed upwards first to trace designs and watch the shimmer of sunlit drops make treble clefs that flashed in the sky and dissolved into silvery glitter onto the lawn, so yes the lawn.
Then came the birds: oily, ebony grackles. At least twenty landed to spear the grubs wriggling up from water-logged soil. We do this a lot: I soak the ground, grackles blacken the yard, worms speckle the grass to draw their final lungless breaths. I don’t call the grackles tame. They don’t mind me at distance, but flap and caw if I get too close. I don’t mind them either, unlike my father, who’s dead by the way, and was no grackle fan in his time.
As grackles pecked their vermicular bits I gave them my back. Time to kneel in the dirt of the garden. Then—it was like one of those things you read about—I suddenly felt my father at hand. Now some of my siblings and I believe he came to us during those first fatherless months. He settled upon us as we, forlorn adult children of Phil, convened to sing and stomp to his favorite music and toast him with copious fruit of the vine and recount the lore of the paterfamilias and do impersonations of him-who-begat-us which tended to get louder and more hyperbolic as the evening unrolled. Of course volume is to be expected; he was no milquetoast our father. One of a kind, a real piece of work, larger than life. So big in fact that we wonder if he could take all of himself with him at death. Not likely, but then who can doubt the finality of fire, so yes unfortunately likely.
I sensed him behind me off to the left. I’ll turn and see him, dressed in—what? In my first postmortem dream of him he stood quite pleased with himself in black Speedo racing briefs, bronzed, chiseled, one muscled mass, a lifeguard at the edge of the pool. I gasped. Awe. Relief. He never looked that good when he was healthy, much less in his sickness, grayish white, sagging skin on the crumbling bones, cancer hole in the face.
Before I turned I called out, “Dad?” The sensation of my father surged. I jolted and whirled. Grackle, it was a damn grackle. Five feet away and peering at me with head atilt. “Dad?” I felt like an idiot. My father hated grackles. He would never make his visual metaphysical debut as a grackle. He would materialize as an eagle or peacock, macaw or heron the size of a pterodactyl. But all I saw was a grackle. A grackle far from birds of a feather and close to me and continuing to stare. Carbon bird of paradox, what are you gawking at? Not your nestling, unless you have something to say, then yes your nestling.
Joanna Robinson, a musician, seeks sound as well as meaning in text. Thus she finds a home in lyric essay and prose poetry. Her work has appeared in Acorn, Voices in Italian Americana, River Teeth, The Southern Review, and Tampa Review. Joanna used to practice law and still enjoys analytical writing, which she teaches part-time at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: “Grackle” belongs to a series of creative nonfiction pieces exploring the theme of dissolving borders—borders geographical, psychological, linguistic, physiological, metaphysical, etc. Quotidian events supply the subject and zest for words does the rest.
My old hammer didn’t fit
my hand anymore. A new
hammer costs $5.37. I paid
with a ten. The computerized
cash register was on the fritz;
the clerk didn’t have the foggiest
about making change.
Trying to figure it out, she
scribbled numbers on a scrap
of paper. I hooted when she
said that I had $17.95 coming
back. This higher math was
obviously beyond her.
She worked the figures again,
coming up with $2.17. I shook
my head; she tried it again.
She tried a dozen more times.
It took Einstein less time to
develop his famous equation.
In utter desperation, she
handed me a fiver. We both
agreed fair was fair. Now if
a hardware store loses $.37
on every sale, that isn’t much,
and they can make it up in volume.
Mike Berger is a PhD, MFA. He is bright, articulate, handsome, and humble.
One Plus One
followed by Q&A
Why did 1 + 1 fail to compute?
I think we were speaking different languages,
She asked if I C,
I learned it academically, but prefer my Python
when I want to get things done
No polymorphism intended.
And I’m not sure it really was C, sometimes seemed sharp to me.
I don’t think she knew what it was.
We tried going back to basic, but still got
Divide by zero errors.
I think we are both using modern programming languages
We’re both object oriented,
Believe in inheritance, type-safety,
When to use next statements and
If to use goto (never, I bet that threw you for a loop)
I also know women in engineering are distinct,
and her parent was in the second wave
and spun off this single child thread
But in her API
Although 1 is equal(1) should evaluate to true
the result is always negative.
Her argument, though undeclared
Is that what she expects is really not a programming language,
Where you do it yourself, you build a solution from scratch
She wants simplified mark-up
or at least <normal>
Someone who will be able to resume after each break.
Now maybe you think this little program clever
But I’m sad to tell you the end is near.
No looping structure or while
to rescue the inevitable termination
in the final line, I simply
Dedicated to Stanislaw Lem
A former programmer and sometimes poet, Jason Teeple received a B.A. in English Literature and two master’s degrees in Information Science and Computer Science. His programming career was cut short because of brain and spinal tumors. He is now federally disabled, and has time and opportunity to write again.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: In college I first read the work of Stanislaw Lem. Fifteen years later when my fiancée and I separated, the poem I was writing about the experience took on a similarity to Lem’s poem “Love and Tensor Algebra,” combining technical concepts with matters of the heart.