Prime Decimals 5.3
The Crow That Is Still Eating Chicago
by Alexander Lumans
followed by Q&A
They first hear him tapping on the thirteen gold domes of St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Church. He uncrooks his bent beak when the wind’s down. He tries better angles of eating through stone when there are none. Inside, the congregation waits for messages to appear along the vaulted ceiling. They are sure that the scrabbling up there is God hopping around on hooks for feet, excited about something. Within hours the crow tunnels through the iconostasis and nibbles on the pastor’s detachable collar and Swiss-cheeses the Byzantine frescoes. He finds the bells not filled with coins and caws at the boys’ choir. The congregation shakes its collective skull. Some of them say the city’s going to the birds, others that it’s going to pieces, but it cannot be both, or else what would be left to save, save us?
A Ukrainian boy used to keep the crow in a townhouse. He once brought it to St. Joseph’s for the Blessing of the Animals and never again because when the service bells rang, his crow snatched the collection plate and dumped the money on the ground.
At home, he taught his crow to pick up pennies and drop them in a bowl but not to eat them, and when the crow ate them the boy threw pennies at the crow and locked him in the basement with the fresco-painted windows. It taught the crow that what was worth protecting was also worth taking. The boy put on a clown mask with a big red nose and played circus with a leash and threw pennies in the cage for the crow to catch, but the boy put on no grand finale, no last tethered swoop about the room for applause. The boy played circus, then forgot about the crow for days. And for days the crow went hungry, for days the crow had no food no water in his dish, only old change to pick up. Things were dark. Then the boy would return and flip on the light and say, “There you are.”
The boy came and went came and went and then did not come again. The crow paced. The crow was too hungry. The crow called for him: Boy! Then the crow picked up pennies and threw them at the painted basement windows until one shattered. And when the crow was skinny enough he slipped through the cage bars, slipped out the broken window, and the city was his.
He hunts for pennies—that’s how it starts. He finds pennies and drops them into the homeless’ bowls. Mistakenly, he drops copper bolts into boys’ pockets. But he learns fast. People throw him arcade tokens and he throws them back. He nips ticks from children’s necks and gorges on rotten grapes at the zoo market and ties the shoestrings of petty thieves on their way out the jewelry store door.
After all this, he waits for food and applause that do not come. So the crow eats. Eats elevator buttons and bottle caps. Headphones and life-rings. The O in Hard Rock. And when he is full, he rests, and then eats some more because no one invites a crow to dinner. Left off the songbird clock for his quirky obsessions—for being black and rawfooted and silkish—he’d file for loneliness if the office had a trapdoor his shape.
When the El derails it’s the crow’s fault. He’s pecked for weeks at the tracks’ undercarriage that resembles cage bars. Seven die in the crash and no one has answers because everyone has theories. They call the bird Voodoo, Crowbot, Angel D. Someone made this bird out of magic mud and cursed this place we live in.
The tourists pelt him with cough lozenges and disposable razors. Some he catches mid-air, others knock him into twelve-story hotels. You do it, too. You levy your throwing arm against his dive and he remembers you.
There are plans of poisoning the bird. Vigilantes take to the streets with spyglasses and slingshots but it’s cold so you and they and everyone go home to your leftovers. Talk dies down until another train derails or the aquarium’s dolphins have new cracks in their tank. And still the Bears lose, the snow comes, street repairs fall behind and one hotel collapses into a towering ashen drift. Chicago crumbles.
To stave off the winter wind one night, the crow huddles on a high ledge. He is full, but he says, Things are still dark. Why? When he looks at his reflection in the office window, it’s not him there in the glass but a janitor who stares out while eating an orange. The crow caws Boy! There you are! but there’s no answer. The janitor’s nose is big and flat and red, and he looks very alone in that room. He looks like the boy but isn’t. The janitor offers an orange slice. He tries to open the window but it won’t. He picks up several pennies from the floor, pockets them, then looks again at the crow. What is worth saving, the janitor’s face seems to say, is worth pennies. Bells ring somewhere in the city. The crow turns toward the noise, fights the wind, is hungry again.
Now, when he finds pennies, he doesn’t eat them. He carries them by the beakfull back to St. Joseph’s. He slips in through his tunnel and makes deposits in the collection plate. The congregation goes wild. The choir sings. The pastor claps. And still the crow eats the city piecemeal. Slowly this place pits and scores much like it would without him or us. So go ahead, admire him. Say thank you. Thank you, Crow, who has the power to carve and shape and hollow out the lit city. If wind can, if rain can. He is no angel nor thunderbird but is hungry and a hunter and the wind itself is now in terror of him and the world cannot lose him.
Alexander Lumans graduated from the MFA Fiction Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from Story Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, Cincinnati Review, Greensboro Review, Brain Harvest, The Versus Anthology, and Surreal South ‘09, among other magazines and anthologies. He was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the 2010 Sewanee Writers’ Conference and he recently won the 2011 Barry Hannah Fiction Prize from Yalobusha Review. He now lives, teaches, and eats in Boulder, CO.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I kept hearing how intelligent crows were. They get cars to crush nuts for them, they can be taught to pick up loose change, and they even remember facial features. For a bird that has this negative image as some harbinger of doom, one that highly intelligent is even more frightening.
Searching for Nopales
by Kristine Crandall
followed by Q&A
I’m slow. It’s not always a good thing, as my older cousin found out—the one who knew Ed Abbey, the one who got squished into a crunchy pulp by bulldozers ripping and stripping the saguaros, palo verdes, and cholla near Wickenburg. There’s a whole moral to that story but I’m not going to delve into it here, except to say that a certain group of Eco-bangers managed to place themselves in the path of the bulldozers (whose drivers were happy about this development and went for a beer), but only for like ten hours (it was hot), then one of them secretly dialed 911 and the Federales came and chopped the padlocks chaining these peoples’ tattooed arms to mesquite trunks. I’m watching all this, shaking my little scaly head in disbelief as I actually thought the desert was gonna be saved. The Federales gave the activists water, put them in vans, and drove them away from the pastel sunset over the Rancho de los Caballeros and all the other hokey dude ranches along the Arizona-California highway, toward some fate that might have included the freakin’ chilly climate-controlled Florence penitentiary for all I know.
What I really want to tell you about are the goddamned Lepus californicuses. They’re ridiculous with those gangly legs and airplane ears. Jeeesus, you’d think they got caught in one of those elongation machines, you know, the ones they promote in the 30-minute television advertisements—the shining abdominal muscles ripped tight from all that stretching and torquing. My buddy Ernesto Tortuga tells me about these advertisements sometimes when I meet him along the fence line of the compound he lives on together with the man with the ZZ Top beard and Clyde, the stupid cat that thinks he can catch roadrunners.
I’m an effective forager, although it can be tricky, especially in the subdivision when I get on a road and feel tremors. Then I have to move right along. You know I can get going surprisingly fast if necessary. Once during the day I ambled through the state park and onto the scenic byway, and the blacktop was so nice and warm I took a snooze. All of a sudden I hear this “eeeeerch,” followed by “Honey, look!” and my eyelids slam open and this guy and woman are running at me in their black and purple flip flops, camera banging against the woman’s protruding chest, and before I know it I’m airborne. The man is firmly gripping me with his fingers, taking me in the direction I was facing, not touching more of me than necessary—the woman shadowing us the whole time, making a video, and before I know it I’m in the desert sand. Holy Frijole! They must have read the “how to move tortoises from the roadside” sign at the park entrance.
Crap, I lost my train of thought again. It must be all the prickly pear cactus pads I’ve been eating. Ernesto calls them “nopales.” The ZZ Top guy actually makes nopales and lettuce salads for Ernesto and that greedy rabbit that goes under the fence.
I had a dream the other night where the jackrabbit floated for the longest time (most of the night). He would touch down, forelegs first then the monster rear legs overtaking them, ears poised like satellite dishes, moist nose quivering, and the next leap would begin. I thought he was going for the moon—pretty damned exciting and all the while I was tucked inside my low-riding carapace.
Kristine Crandall resides within the red rock desert landscape of southwest Utah, where she ponders local details like the most recent piece of cholla cactus the packrat placed on its midden. She writes freelance articles on environmental topics and is a student in Naropa University’s MFA Creative Writing program.
Q: What was your inspiration for this story?
A: “Searching for Nopales” emerged from an idea to introduce characters of fable upon a landscape infused with a dose of modern-day environmentalism.
by Hobie Anthony
followed by Q&A
Marlene looked over the crowd. Casting agents, producers, writers, hangers on. Actresses like herself, eager and naïve, played coy in loose-fitting dresses. They were all showing more cleavage; their giggles lingered longer. That was how you got into the high rise party; that's how you made it out of Chicago in 1995.
"It looks like a surgeon cut out part of the city with a scalpel." Marlene pointed out the window, north on Chicago's grid, a swath of squares missing. She took a sip of her wine, balanced a plate of hors d'oeuvres. "Those ancient transformers couldn't handle the heat wave."
"Do you live in the blacked out part?" Alan was a casting agent. He had one blue eye and one so brown Marlene thought it was black. The music shifted, uptempo.
"Yeah, I guess we were the cancer." She set her glass down and took a bite of caviar. Cool, salty, nice.
"Thank God the power stayed on here," Alan said. "LA gets hot, but this heat is unbearable. I always think of Chicago as cold and snowy."
"It's tough all the time."
"You a dramatic actress?"
"Comedy, too," she said. "I like your eyes." Marlene cocked her head and looked at his forehead; she hated bi-colored eyes. She never knew which one was looking at her and they made her feel uneasy; she focused on the blue one.
The window was sweating at the edges. It was one hundred degrees at eleven o'clock at night. Marlene thought of the nights she'd spent tossing and turning, hoping her box fan would reanimate and cool the room by a single degree. Her brow would be soaked in sweat, her chest sticky with humidity. Tonight, like last night, the fan would be dead; the radio would be silent. It would just be her and the heat.
Alan cupped her elbow with his hand and whispered into her ear. She wanted to escape. She giggled.
She saw lights on the street below. She saw her home, where there were no lights. Here was cold caviar, ice, air conditioning. Hamburger rotted in her freezer. The transformers will always work here, she thought, there will always be power and things will keep getting better.
Hobie Anthony writes prose and poetry in Portland, OR. A native of the South, adopted son of Chicago, and new NorthWesterner, he seeks to understand this America. He can be found or is forthcoming in such journals as The Los Angeles Review, Jersey Devil Press, R.kv.r.y., Wigleaf, Gloom Cupboard, and Prime Mincer, among others. He is now focused on putting together a new book.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story.
A: “High Rise” was inspired by characters and events from other parts of my linked-short novel. The book concerns the 1995 heat wave which ravaged Chicago. The book is currently seeking representation.
Never Let Them Think You Don't
followed by Q&A
Teddy stands behind and to the right of her father, eyeing the assortment of brightly colored candy bars. Mentally arranging them in order of preference, she’s at number five when she senses trouble. She eases closer to the moving belt and looks up. The toothpick in the corner of her father’s mouth jerks up and down in quick bursts while he fumbles with the bills again.
He stops, directs his attention to the lady in line behind Teddy and says, “What are you looking at? You never seen a guy forget his money at home?”
Teddy turns her back to the candy. She feels heat creep up her neck.
“I got plenty of money. Plenty.” Her father’s voice trails away as he turns to the cart at his side. “Here,” he says, thrusting a bottle of dish soap into the cashier’s hand. “Didn’t want this anyway.” He reaches in again and produces a box of Frosted Flakes.
Teddy’s heart sinks; Frosted Flakes are her favorite.
“And this,” he continues, dropping the cereal in front of the clerk. “That should be enough.”
The cashier completes the transaction and holds the receipt out. But her father is already gone. Teddy hesitates, her arms stiff at her sides. The space around her seems to simultaneously shrink and expand, and the sensation makes her grit her teeth. After half a beat, she extends her hand and takes the strip of paper, refusing to let her eyes travel beyond the cashier’s shoulder. The paper, slick and shiny, feels obvious in her hand, as though neon-colored and blinking, and she wishes her jumper had pockets. As she turns away Teddy thinks about Bess, her favorite Nancy-Drew-books character, thinks about how Bess would push through and then later laugh at the whole thing over a double scoop of mocha mint.
Eyes downcast, she walks past the other checkout lanes and through the soft swish of the automatic doors. She pauses inside the vestibule, searching for a garbage can. In the corner is a stack of hand-held baskets with a chipped metal sign posted on the wall above that says PLEASE TAKE ONE. On the wall to the right is a corkboard with flyers and business cards tacked to it. But no spot for trash. She opens her hand, eyes the crinkled paper, and sighs. She knows better than to litter.
She hurries to the car where she finds her father transferring the last bag from the cart.
“I’ll tell you what, Teddy,” he says, slamming the trunk shut, “money makes the world go ’round. The sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be.”
Inside the car, Teddy buckles herself in and inches close to the door. She knows the routine, knows it’s best to steer clear. She uncurls her fingers and sees some of the register ink has transferred onto her palm. Some of the numbers are clear, but most are fuzzy. They’re all backward, which makes them look foreign, and Teddy thinks this must be what hieroglyphics look like. She lets her eyes drift to the window, watches as other shoppers come and go, and imagines she’s been transported to a bright, sunny, exotic land, that she’s with Bess and they’re solving a great mystery.
“You’re nothing without it, you know.”
Her father’s voice intrudes and Teddy’s vision dissolves. She eases her hand to the edge of her lap, lets her arm dangle, and slips the receipt into the door’s molded pocket at her side.
Her father is quiet for a few blocks and then suddenly pounds the steering wheel with his fist. “Gotta have money,” he says. Jaw set, teeth clenched, he stares straight ahead. “Never let them think you don’t.”
When the traffic light turns green, her father swings the car into the shopping mall. He finds a parking spot near the Sears’ entrance, shoves the car into park, and gets out. Teddy scrambles out her side and follows.
Fifty minutes later, they are on their way home again, her father still muttering “no money, my ass” under his breath. Delivery of the new TV, stereo system, and recliner is scheduled for the following Thursday.
Teddy sits, hands folded in her lap, leaning against the door. She focuses on the bubblegum-pink laces of her tennis shoes, tracing the loops with her eyes. When they turn onto Spring Street, she looks up and sees the Home Depot sign looming. She remembers the orange truck backing into their driveway, remembers the two men who wore dirty blue jeans, remembers watching as they rolled first the riding mower and then the gas grill up into the truck. She’d told her friends that her family was getting back to nature: charcoal instead of gas; walking behind a push mower instead of riding one.
Her eyes drift to the receipt in the door. Its white edge is stark against the black plastic. She leans back against the seat, closes her eyes, and casts around for inspiration. She thinks about Bess, thinks about how she always preaches simplicity. Teddy sits with this for a minute and then dips her head in acknowledgement and opens her eyes. This time she’ll say the TV and stereo need fixing, and the recliner needs cleaning.
Mitzi McMahon lives in Racine, WI, a city famous for its Danish kringle. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Evansville Review, The Bitter Oleander, Night Train, Staccato Fiction, and elsewhere. She blogs at mitzimcmahon-lifeinwisconsin.blogspot.com.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece.
A: This story was originally part of a longer work first written back in 2004. I’ve since broken that story up into 3 separate pieces, all connected via Teddy. When I began revising this one, I added the Nancy Drew reference. I loved Nancy Drew as a young girl… didn’t everyone? In fact, when I was eight, I was given the privilege of naming our first family pet: a white-haired cat. I named her Nancy.
How to Ride a Tiger
Followed by Q&A
—Ho Chi Minh City, 2007
Never look one in the eye. Do not expose
your intentions. Go about it in secret:
conceal your approach in camouflage—
dry leaves, broken sticks,
the shards of a blown-up building. A mask
of newspaper clippings and video tape.
Track the tiger with such skill
that, in the end, it will not be clear
who is stalking who. Make it seem inevitable
when you drop from a tree
or parachute out of a phantom jet
and lower yourself, gently, onto a heaving back.
Caress black stripes with confident fingers,
fingers that can disarm a landmine or detonate
a booby trap with the same swift motion.
Dig your nails beneath orange fur:
know the ways of its flesh. Learn to never be denied
a target of opportunity. Maneuver
through the wreckage of crashed helicopters,
overturned jeeps and abandoned foxholes.
Put yourself in position to admire
long, sloping necks bowing in the reeds
at the edge of the watering hole. Fix your eyes
on the soldier with the dry canteen
who shudders at the sight of you.
Craig Fishbane has been published in the New York Quarterly, Night Train, Flashquake, the Barbaric Yawp and Opium. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2008. His chapbook, Dengue Fever, is scheduled for publication by BoneWorld Press in 2011.
Q: What was the genesis of this poem?
A: The genesis of this poem is the famous (and sadly unheeded) warning by George Ball, a key U.S. foreign policy advisor during the Vietnam War: “Once on the tiger’s back we cannot be sure of picking the place to dismount.” Although the tiger in this poem took on a life of his own, he was born out my reflections on the Vietnam War as I was preparing for a trip to Southeast Asia.
followed by Q&A
Beads slowly roll, fall
from the tumbler, the cracked cubes
prismatic in the afternoon sun.
And I’m motionless,
the glass to my lips,
Minnows waltz about my feet
in careful choreography
and I wait.
Waiting is what I’m good at.
I imagine myself the mink,
or that I’m Great and Blue,
and patient and true and you
will come to me.
Come to me.
Let me show you all I know:
how the skin shines with a touch
and spittle glistens on a lip,
how fingers form a perfect fit
in the hollow of a back,
when night eclipses noon.
Come to me.
Make me believe
the loon has cried
for me, at night,
forlorn, dark form.
I’m undone by the sun.
Cynthia Neely’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review (Honorable Mention for the Marica and Jan Vilcek Poetry Prize for 2011), Floating Bridge Review, Raven Chronicles, Quiddity, San Pedro River Review, Autumn Sky, Loch Raven Review and New Millennium Writings. Her work was included in the anthologies, Poetry for the Mind’s Joy, from the US Library of Congress, compiled by Kay Ryan, and Filled with Breath from EXOT Books. Cynthia was a textile artist before turning to painting and poetry. The natural world, and her place in it, has always been an important subject in her work.
Q: What was the inspiration for this poem?
A: “Undone” was written in the heat of a summer day while watching a great blue heron fishing for minnows.
followed by Q&A
These words have changed so often
there is no telling
what was said or how it came to this
I remember mentioning bees
the efficiencies of lightning language trying
to say what the brain looked like
convoluted with a sunset at one end
I remember time passing and hearing
little ticks of it all over the house
occasionally a faint bell
the touch of a brushstroke to transfix the hills
hints of a small hoof on flagstone
Allan Peterson’s Omnivore won the 2009 chapbook prize from Bateau Press. All the Lavish in Common, his last full-length collection, won the 2005 Juniper Prize, and Salmon Poetry, Ireland, will publish his next, As Much As, in 2011. Recent print and online appearances include Gulf Coast, Northwest Review, Blue Fifth, Oranges & Sardines, The Harvard Advocate. Work is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Denver Quarterly, Paris Review. His website is www.allanpeterson.net
Q: What was the inspiration for this poem?
A: I found telling in the face of “no telling” a satisfying paradox and revealing of the nature of process.
Susanne von Rennenkampff
followed by Q&A
Last week, pulling weeds
and wilting plants, attempting
to clean up the garden
before winter, I hesitated:
bumble bees were embracing
the pale blue stars of borage blossoms,
feeding from their white center,
their beautiful black pelts shiny
in the early autumn sun.
Knowing that there was not much left
for them to eat, how could I close my hands around the hairy stem
and pull, no matter
how unsightly it had become?
Today, the first hard frost looming,
three green grasshoppers, black eyes
like polished slate, move on ahead of me
to the stringy green stem
of the next potato plant.
Should I not do for them
what I did for the bumble bees?
Yet I have fed them all summer,
those grasshoppers, standing by,
unable to quench their voracious appetite,
watching lettuce and radishes, spinach
and fuchsias reduced to shreds.
I cannot be their keeper.
By what right, then
am I the keeper
of the bumble bees?
Born and raised in Germany, Susanne von Rennenkampff has lived on a farm in Alberta,
Canada, since the early eighties. Her writing—poetry and creative nonfiction—often deals with the interaction between humans and nature. Two of her poems recently appeared in Blue Skies Magazine.
Q: What was the inspiration for this poem?
A: Many of my poems originate in my surroundings, the quiet, peaceful atmosphere of my
garden and country life in general. It gives much opportunity for close observation and
contemplation—even of the big questions in life.
Perfect: A Baseball Story
followed by Q&A
Stace Budzko is published or forthcoming in Versal, Hint Fiction: Norton Anthology of Stories, Press 53, PANK, Hobart, elimae, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, The Collagist, Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward, Brevity & Echo, Quick Fiction, Southeast Review and elsewhere. The screen adaptation of his story, "How to Set a House on Fire," was recently awarded Best in Show/Best Overall/Best Drama at Spotlight Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, Westport Film Festival, respectively. At present, he is a writing instructor at Emmanuel College as well as writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: “Perfect: A Baseball Story” was inspired by the individuals who make up the game’s mythology, as well as the role of chance, luck, and fate in telling any complete story.