Prime Decimals 53.2
We Don't Stop at Balderplatz
by Christopher Allen
Followed by Q&A
We don’t stop at Balderplatz. Brakes squeal and the noble shops roll to a stop, their entranceways dark as caves. Another blackout. It doesn’t matter much. The rich have run off to Switzerland, America, or God. Mother and I remain on the streetcar three more stops where the people are many and gray, heads down—worker ants—where mother has heard there’ll be fresh vegetables today.
At the market a man in a dark brown suit touches my arm, says “Excuse me.” His smell of soap draws me closer. An accordion is slung round him. I touch the keys as he haggles for cabbage. He pays with a large, clean bill. He must be at least twenty. When I smile at him, he smiles too, and it’s the sort of tragic, yet honest, mien that reveals desperation. It apologizes for all the years he will steal from your life. All in advance.
When the sudden fortuity of potatoes distracts Mother, I pretend to be a rich lady browsing. The man stalks me. “You have beautiful eyes,” he says, behind me. “But your shoes”—he points to my feet; I stop—“are quite old.” I blush, walk away quickly. But he follows, mumbles an apology. He says he’ll buy me new ones if I’ll marry him. I laugh; he doesn’t. I look around for my mother, but the swelling crowd has swallowed her. I ask the man if he’ll buy the shoes on Balderplatz.
The lights are back on. The empty shop shines slick like licked peppermint candy, clean oils and leather. I choose shoes a size too small because I’ve heard women are supposed to covet the petite. I tremble. I’ve never figured out how to keep myself small. I wonder if I’ll ever see my mother again. I wonder if she took me to the market to lose me.
“They’re perfect for you,” says the man.
“What is your name?” I ask.
“Accordion,” he says, or that’s what I hear. I never call him anything else.
We don’t stop at Balderplatz. The bombs destroyed it a year later in ’45. Looters took the shoes. The evening gowns. The caviar. The square’s weighty elegance. But we survived, Accordion and I. We survive. And survive. Sixty years later, the square’s been reconstructed as if we could go back, do it all differently. But we never stop.
Accordion hunches, asleep. Between his legs his hands hang limp, two graceless crags, age-splotched, clinging to a cliff. He snores loudly, melodically. He is a ruin impending, breakers—all thunder and madness—below. I won’t wake him. If he expires here, I’ll change trains. I’ll walk away.
But he snores. He persists, inhaling and exhaling as the train pulls in and out of stations. He will not die. I flex my arches, curl my toes. I press the balls of my feet against the leather. I want to rip it. I try, but the noble, well-made seams are as stubborn as a just consequence. My feet swell when we sit so long, like on the train now. We ride the train all day most days. Accordion plays and sometimes I dance or sing. We look sufficiently ancient and ridiculous to loosen a few coins from passengers’ purses. It’s enough for food. It’s sometimes enough for shoes, but I don’t tell Accordion this.
“Your shoes”—he’s awake now, head bent toward my feet—“are old.” He says he’ll buy me new ones if I’ll marry him. I say I don’t need new shoes as the train strobes along. It’s a mistake I made once but never again, I don’t say. He’s already snoring when the doors close at Balderplatz.
Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's fiction, non-fiction, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Indiana Review, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, PANK, Word Riot, Bootsnall Travel, Connotation Press, and many others. A former finalist at Glimmer Train, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He lives in Germany and blogs at http://www.imustbeoff.com.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I ride the train every morning in Munich. Trains are like sudden fiction collections. Stories enter and leave the carriage every few seconds. I’m sure I started “reading” train passengers when I moved to Germany 20 years ago. Now, it’s just something natural. I try not to stare (also natural but creepy). The inspiration for “We Don’t Stop at Balderplatz” was an elderly woman leaning her head on her sleeping partner—both apparently homeless—and the way her old ragged shoes seemed much too small for her swollen feet. Her story was about survival but also the “just consequence” of her choices.
by Phyllis A. Duncan
ollowed by Q&A
Every night I dreamt of tracer rounds lighting the sky, of mortars pounding in time with my heartbeat, and the dragon who breathed no fire.
One Christmas, my first wife gave me a pair of black, silk pajamas. She didn’t know men in black pajamas and sampan hats stalked my dreams. She didn’t understand that I had to keep her and the baby safe in the house, that in the dark the policemen who responded to her 911 calls looked like Charlie, creeping from the jungle to cut our throats.
In country, we took solace from whatever we could find—homemade hooch, boom-boom girls, the occasional hallucinogen. The first time I dropped acid was on the shore of Halong Bay before a patrol deep inside enemy territory. The islands rose from the water and became fiery dragons, except one—the dragon who breathed no fire.
“Fly!” I screamed. “Breathe fire! Destroy the destroyers!”
But it sat mute; then, as the jungle erupted with bullets, the island-dragons settled back into the water. My buddies told me later I fought like a man on fire. Somewhere, there are pictures of me, proud white hunter posing with my trophies.
My second wife couldn’t understand why loud noises disturbed me, why I couldn’t eat in a Chinese restaurant under the scrutiny of all those almond-shaped eyes, why I couldn’t keep a job. She didn’t understand the nightmares had become day-mares, and I saw island-dragons rising from Halong Bay all the time.
By the time I went back to ‘Nam as a tourist, there had been multiple stints in rehab, a third wife, a fourth, and a long line of girlfriends and one-night stands, none of whom could understand anything about me. If only the dragon had breathed fire.
Halong Bay looked much the same. The island-dragons slept. The jungle was thicker. I stood on the shore, and ghosts in black pajamas and sampan hats rose from the water. I recognized every one of them. They grinned as I uncapped the can of gasoline and baptized myself. The island-dragons trembled when I held the lighter. The ghosts dipped their heads and pressed their palms together.
The dragon breathed fire at last.
Phyllis A. Duncan’s work has appeared in the Blue Ridge, Skyline, and 1 Photo, 50 Authors, 100 Words anthologies, as well as in eFiction Magazine. The story appearing here was a finalist in Press 53’s recent Flash Fiction Contest, and her one-act play, “Yo’ Momma,” was selected by Ampersand Arts for production in its “Bar Hopping” contest. She has degrees in history and political science and, after a career as an aviation safety official, now writes fiction in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: In the Federal Aviation Administration, I worked with many Vietnam veterans and saw bizarre behaviors resulting from what we then called “combat fatigue.” Through this story I hope people will understand PTSD is not a new phenomenon and that we do all we can to heal those suffering from it.
Survivor's Manual to Love and War
by Martin Ott
Followed by Q&A
Death is a loving dog
with no children or chew toys
to occupy its attention.
It will lick you into submission,
this inevitable pack instinct,
to join the vast departed.
The standard autopsy needle
which has a straight shank
but a slightly curved tip
is good for survival sewing.
Love is a dying battery
in your favorite appliance
you cannot live without.
It is impossible to conserve
this indeterminable reservoir,
your capacity to burn through.
Don’t throw any clothes away.
Pull up your socks. Close your collar.
Be prepared to jump overboard.
Avoid attracting or annoying sharks.
Desire is a prisoner’s final meal
with access to the greatest chefs
cooking for furlough in adjacent cells.
You are at its delicious mercy
in a buffet, bubble or bunker,
waiting to sit, to find the price.
Place your traps where the trail
is narrow. Use entrails as bait
and the skin as a sled to drag
the meat. Home is on your back.
Belief is the best-dressed bully
unwilling to let you cross a chasm
in those comfortable clothes.
There is little hope of moving
past the cul-de-sacs and suits,
the curvy hips and winding way.
Conserve sweat by soaking clothes
in the sea. Desert trails resemble
interlacing cow paths. Sleep out
the storm with your back to the wind.
Survival is a submerged mossy beast
hungrier than any living thing,
a mass that roils the earth in mounds.
You cannot see the holes and hills
beyond the horizon, the tilled fields,
the uneven terrain you’ll need to surf.
Take care of the injured. Provide
temporary shelter. Stay at the scene
of the crash unless you see land.
Try to establish contact with rescuers.
It will lick you into submissions.
It is impossible to conserve.
You are at its delicious mercy.
There is little hope of moving.
You cannot see the holes and hills.
Do not get separated from your party.
Italic text from Survival Training Edition, Department of the Air Force, AF Manual 64-3.
A former U.S. Army interrogator, Martin Ott lives in Los Angeles where he writes, often about his misunderstood city. He is the author of four books of poetry: Underdays, Notre Dame University Press (2015), Captive, De Novo Prize winner, C&R Press, and Poets’ Guide to America and Yankee Broadcast Network (2014), co-written with John F. Buckley, Brooklyn Arts Press. In 2013, he published his debut novel The Interrogator’s Notebook, Story Merchant Books. His Writeliving blog - writeliving.wordpress.com - has thousands of readers in more than 100 countries. www.martinottwriter.com.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: “Survivor’s Manual to Love and War” is from Underdays, coming out in 2015 on Notre Dame University Press. The collection includes multiple voices throughout, collages of poems I wrote from different time periods, and the inclusion of lines from songs and books. Besides inserting lines from one of my old military manuals into the poem, I also have created a form that intentionally repeats one line from each previous stanza to create the final stanza.
Piece Went Down
ollowed by Q&A
It’s been said I have drowned,
that I became entangled in rigging and drowned.
But I am here to say it isn’t so.
I am here to bear witness on my own behalf:
I found myself in the palm of a dispersing
five fingered hand, five scrabbling
screaming survival suits swimming away.
Then, under the unusual circumstance
of being tossed by a wave, I came upon
the main topmast which I knew quite well.
I observed with critical eye the odd
angle of the yards and set about
determining what must be done if we
were ever to set things right again.
During my inspection I came upon a backstay
which bore the familiar mark of my own work.
Though it had lost its tune, grown
loose in the lanyard you might say,
the stay remained unmistakable.
We greeted each other like long lost friends
meeting inexplicably on the other side of the earth
embracing with uncanny expressions of wonder
in that dark and shimmering place.
Trevor Tingle lives with his wife and son in New Orleans and works on the Mississippi River. He has work published or pending in Jersey Devil Press, New Laurel Review, Maple Leaf Rag 5, and Dead Flowers: a poetry rag.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: For two and a half years, I lived, worked and played aboard the Tallship Bounty. I met my wife there. We were settled in New Orleans when she sank in 2012, and had to face the dichotomy of feeling very close to yet completely unable to affect the situation as it unfolded. This poem was part of trying to deal with that tragedy.
English History I
followed by Q&A
He was a famous scholar with three names, slightly greasy, but transporting in his lectures. He was full of anecdotes—Elinor of Aquitaine riding bare-breasted through the Crusader ranks, Prince Hal trying on his father’s crown, Henry the Eighth wrestling history into knots to get his tubercular son while his brilliant red-haired girl waited in the wings. Maybe history is another ironic narrative, I thought. I was an English major.
In May the frozen waves on the lake had finally dissolved and the famous wind confessed its tender moments. When the kids were shot at Kent State and campuses everywhere went on strike, a barricade made of campus detritus went up on Sheridan Road at the sharp northward curve, just where traffic fleeing Chicago for the lush northern suburbs would have to slow. Some of us ditched our books and attended serious daily meetings to discuss strategy and publicity. Some of us skirted the barricade, crumpled the flyers, and headed on to classes or sorority meetings. Some of us declared Woodstock Midwest and lay out in cutoffs and tie-dye in Deering Meadow, the expanse of grass rolling away in front of the library, Music from Big Pink blaring. I wandered through it all in my usual anxious limbo, scanning the flyers and worrying over the strafed kids in Vietnam and dead ones in Ohio and Mississippi, pondering what I owed to history.
He told us just one thing about the final exam: it would require “knowledge of dynastic succession.” On my way to my dorm, past the barricade, I chewed on this phrase. There was only one way to be safe. I had to memorize the English monarchs in order, Conquest through Glorious Revolution, all the Henrys and Edwards and the sporadic Mary. As May turned to June, while the battle against Tricky Dick and his legions raged two blocks away, I spent the hot, sweet nights on my bed with the chart I’d made, eyes closed, repeating over and over, like a Hari Krishna chant, William the Conqueror, William Second, Henry First, Stephen, Henry Second, Richard the Lionheart . . . ,” all those fathers giving way to sons who became fathers seeking sons who would usurp them, on and on toward a three-hour exam where I would write their names in order, flawlessly.
Gail Griffin’s third book of nonfiction, The Events of October: Murder-Suicide on a Small Campus, anatomizes a crime on the campus of Kalamazoo College, where she taught writing, literature, and women’s studies for 35 years. Her poetry, essays, and flash nonfiction have appeared in venues such as Hotel Amerika, Fourth Genre, Folio, Calyx, and Passages North, and in anthologies including Southern Sin: True Stories of the Sultry South & Women Behaving Badly and Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes. She is at work on a memoir collection about widowhood. She was born in Detroit and lives in southwestern Michigan.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: This piece is one of a series focused on memorable undergraduate courses at Northwestern. I began the piece with no intention beyond delving into my powerful memories of the spring of Kent State, 1970, a turning point in my life. What surprised me was that the two threads in the story—the English History course and the Vietnam War politics—came so naturally together around questions of patriarchy, of the sins of the fathers repeated by the sons, of the past visited upon the present, and of my marginal and ambivalent relation to all of it as a young woman. Writing this piece was a classic experience of discovering/unearthing meaning as I wrote and rewrote.
followed by Q&A
I felt my mother’s hard grip pulling me to our red Kia Sedona. It must have been five in the morning, and my seven-year-old body was not prepared to go anywhere that early.
“We’re going to the Marriot, honey,” she said.
“I want to sleep.”
“You can sleep when we get there.”
“Why are we leaving?”
She paused and rubbed her already red eyes. “We’re going to take a little vacation.”
I didn’t object to the impromptu holiday. She buckled me into the back seat and I curled up trying to get warm. My Snow White nightgown had worn thin from continuous wear, and was no better than a second skin. My sister scampered out of the house to the car fully dressed with snow boots and gloves. She was holding two bags, one for me, one for her. She hopped in the back seat, took a blanket out, and tucked me in.
When I close my eyes to recall a memory or miscellaneous information, I envision a place, or headquarters of operation. I go to a specific venue where all consciousness and thought is stored. It looks like a waiting room. Not a hospital waiting room, eerie and stark in its whiteness. It’s more of an office or hotel foyer. There’s no carpet or pictures, just muted grey walls and four doors. Each door looks different, its appearance pertaining to its function. In the left corner of the room is a Ficus plant and on the opposite side a lush green tree. The roots sprout out through the dark linoleum and twist around the legs of a wooden park bench stationed between doors two and three. The room is relatively simple and small, but it is all mine. The image is so vivid and clear, yet I don’t remember the architect or the date of its creation. It has always existed
The door to my far left looks like it opens to a seedy 70s motel room. The wood is faded black and there’s a little white number 8 above a peephole. It’s my entrance to the past. It holds all long-term memories, however important or random. It’s not a place I permanently dwell but somewhere I constantly visit. When I open the door I fall into a dark abyss filled with tiny lights. They float around like little lightning bugs, each wink of light flashing a bit of memory.
Music filled my ears. ‘N Sync? Maybe it was Backstreet Boys. I was in the sunflower bordered room I shared with my sister and she had just turned on the ice blue boom box to drown out the noise. She shuffled over and perched next to me on the bottom bunk. I had my Polly Pocket out and we were accessorizing. My sister smiled and kept me distracted, but every time the voices escalated downstairs she twitched. One foot coiled beneath me, the other touching the ground, I could feel the vibrations of the yelling through the floorboards. My sister and I didn’t talk, we just sat there bobbing along to the music, pretending the vibrations were from the bass.
The door adjacent is one of those wooden office doors. It leads to a brightly lit cubicle stocked with metal filing cabinets full of everyday information. The files are organized in order of importance and relevance. Materials range from academic information to recent memories to Snapple facts. On the left wall of the cubicle is a door adjoining rooms one and two. Sometimes some fireflies escape the darkness and fly around the cubicle, distracting me from finding the proper information. Sometimes the darkness seeps under the door, clouding the room, making me temporarily blind and incapacitated.
I can’t go to IHOP anymore. I didn’t get sick or find a thumb mixed in with my home fries or any other horrific chain restaurant experience. It actually has nothing to do with the establishment. It has everything to do with the parking lot. I can’t remember what the argument was about, but I remember that there was one. I remember my parents getting out of the car and back in the car. Out. In. Out. In. Out. I remember the parking lot being full, and full-bellied-people staring as they walked to their vehicle. I remember tears. I remember being hungry. I remember being silent.
I always make excuses like, “oh, I’m not a breakfast person” or, “I have a coupon to Denny’s?” But, sometimes there’s no way around going to IHOP on a Sunday morning. I sit there trying not to throw up my eggs, focus on the carefree voices around me, trying to match their tone.
When the past starts making a mess of the present, I find myself escaping to door number three. The entrance is cozily hidden under the shade of the tree in the corner. The door is made of a deep mahogany with rounded edges and has a big brass knocker. This is my escape hatch, my yellow ring, room of requirement. Every time I pull back the sweet smelling wood I enter a new scene or new world. It is the room used most frequently. In fact, it usually stays propped open. It is the one room that doesn’t require plundering through papers or searching impenetrable darkness. I control the light and information. The foundation is not built on fact or truth, it’s built on dirt and earth and other malleable materials. It’s a place of endless felicity and possibility and a place only I can understand.
The door to my far right remains permanently locked. The key is under the Ficus plant, slowly rusting. The door looks like your middle school principal’s office door. The bottom half is made of that hideous metal taupe and the top box is slated with frosted glass that shows blurry shadows instead of concrete images. Sometimes the clouded outlines resemble my father, sometimes my sister. However, when the images become too clarified and concrete I flee to the solace behind door three. Just below the glass is a small sign taped written in pink lipstick. I don’t know what it says, I’m usually too far to read the smeared writing. Maybe, WARNING: HOARDING MAY RESULT IN ASPHYXIATION.
Sometimes I get the key from under the Ficus. Sometimes I find the courage. I ignore the sign and jimmy the rusty handle. The room is full, ceiling to floor, of chaotically organized objects. It feels hot and sticky and I start to sweat. I see a blue shirt with a black dog, a pink and brown paisley blouse, a hospital gown. There are two doors with fist holes, a portrait of three storm trooper heads and one broken green eye shadow case. Each item bombards me with snippets of memory. I feel nauseous, like I’m on uneven ground. Everything tilts and sways inward. The hoard looms, threatening consumption.
My sister was at a basketball game three towns over. I stood alone in the center of our U-shaped driveway, mom on one side, dad on the other. I could hear their voices and see their red faces but could not understand the meaning of their words. In that moment everything melded together into one harsh pounding that beat against my eardrums.
“Patti, it’s my damn day to have the girls. Carly come on, get in the car,” said my dad. He has that dark caramel Turkish skin which hid his flushed face, but his hands gave his anger away. His gestures became more flamboyant, more savage, more Queens.
“You don’t have to get in the car with him when he’s like this,” my mom said, quietly. She squared her shoulders toward me. She was done talking to him. “You can stay.”
Between my dad’s chatter and mom’s buzzing, the only word I heard was choose. I wanted to run away and evaporate at the same time. I couldn’t move an inch in either direction lest one think I was deciding. My feet felt glued to the ground like I was standing in molasses. I closed my eyes. Maybe if I don’t see them they won’t see me. The voices continued to grumble, like thunder before the lightning.
I can never find the memory of my parents explaining they were calling it quits. No matter how hard I search through that dark abyss of fireflies I can never find it. Whenever someone asks me I usually give some vague story of how they sat us down at the kitchen table one day after school. But honestly, I don’t know if that’s true. That memory feels different from all the others, less internally bright, more manufactured. It’s like the difference between leather and pleather. Only the organic odor reveals the imitation. I have many pleather memories, but somehow I trick myself into believing they are genuine. Maybe it’s because they’re the only memories I can find. Even though my mind is precisely ordered and organized, everything seems to seep. Everything leaks and oozes into each other. Past into present. Real into imaginary. Everything is fragmented and slippery, I can never get a firm grasp on a whole moment. It’s as though the doors are only there for show. Only there to calm my mind, rather than facilitate it.
Sometimes I welcome the seeping. Sometimes I lay on the park bench separating doors two and three and let myself be enveloped by the ooze. I let the real and imaginary wash over me and picture a moment I know I have, but can’t find. For some reason, the tender memories attach and tangle with the sharp. Maybe both are afraid to be alone in the dark. I shut my eyes and absorb flecks and flashes of moments until a delicate dim moment forms.
We are all sitting at the dinner table. It’s not a holiday or birthday or any type of occasion of forced togetherness, just a Thursday. We talk school, work, my sister’s upcoming voice recital, and my soccer tournament. My dad says he’ll get me new shin guards, and my sister a new dress if we finish our spinach. The slimy green mass glares at me from my plate, my sister will be the only one getting a present. Maybe we play twenty questions or have a competition of who can fit the most green beans in their mouth and still say “sally sells seashells at the seashore.” There’s never a winner of that game, just a lot of half chewed vegetable covering the table. Throughout the meal, my parents sit with interlaced fingers. They don’t kiss or profess their love, just hold hands. It’s effortless, involuntary, like breathing.
Carly Youssouf is an undergraduate student at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL, and working on a double major in Creative Writing and Literature and minors in Journalism and Italian. While she currently resides in Summerfield FL, she is a New Jersey native and damn proud of it.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised by the evolution of this essay. My initial focus was on a specific moment, but somewhere during revisions, it developed into a commentary on my mind and memory. It’s been just under ten years since my parents divorced, and I always assumed I adapted rather well to the situation. I never noticed how much I internalized. Writing this essay was surprisingly liberating.
Prime Decimals 53.3
If You Had Stopped
by Tara L. Masih
Followed by Q&A
Maybe you saw me as you left the beach, as you passed by on the highway? I was the woman holding up the fresh pargo by the side of the road. Maybe you saw how hot I was, standing in the sun, trying to sell the red snapper from my cramped hands, fish caught by my husband at the mouth of the Parrita River you just rafted down. You see, his family got swallowed by the river too many times. His land is now as barren as a dried-up, dusty river bed. Nothing grows there, just tumbled rocks.
If you had stopped, I would have given you the best fish you ever tasted. I would have told you how to build a fire pit on the next beach you travel to, how to line it with banana leaves, how to roast the pargo on a stone. You would have agreed, as you picked around the thorny skeleton, that it was worth the stop.
But you did not stop. Maybe you read my hand-lettered cardboard sign as a warning, or maybe you didn’t want fish bought on the street, handled and held up by my hands. Maybe you don’t even like fish. Maybe you don’t know this is all we can do for ourselves, since our river takes everything away.
If you had stopped, I might have told you about Silver, my husband of ten years, who bottom fishes over reefs and wrecks. He looks for clean water where the pargo lives. His farmer hands are looking like skin from the mangrove crocodiles, scarred from the hard fishing lines that cut like the razor teeth of the pargo he hunts. He has no gloves, the river took them.
If you had paid for our fish, you might have noticed my wrist as it wrapped newsprint, carefully avoiding the spiny fin, around the fish body. The petaled bruise tattooing the soft underbelly of my skin, impressed by the desperate Silver trying to pull me into submission.
This road I stand by can look like a river in the pressing heat. As I wait and sweat, no water to drink, the asphalt shimmers with airy waves of heat. They mimic the sun’s patterns where it sends itself through water waves down to the bottom of the sea, which I have swum to in better times.
The road keeps us safe and dry, for el Parrita crests its banks now almost yearly. We have nowhere else to run to, the mountains far away, so when we hear the alert we flee to the highway and camp there with the few things we save, watch everything else flow back in the clutch of the sea’s gluttonous river arms. Imagine there are whole villages somewhere out there, down where the sunlight ripples, maybe even our people. Some of us get washed away, swept off our feet or still in rusty cars. Your grandfather is driving eternally, my grandmother told me as one of my bedtime stories, in his old battered Land Rover, trying to find us. Can you hear his horn in your sleep?
If you had put this fish meat in your mouth, maybe you would have tasted it all—the broiling river, the metal of pots and pans and foundations, the wet woven clothing, the sewage. The rainbow oil and gasoline might have left a film on your tongue and the bodies of our lost ones might have satisfied your hunger. It is what we taste every evening, when we roast and eat what you passed by.
Tara L. Masih is editor of two ForeWord Books of the Year, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays, and author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows (a National Best Books Award finalist). Her flash has been anthologized in Word of Mouth, Brevity & Echo, BITE, and Flash Fiction Funny, and was featured in Fiction Writer’s Review for National Short Story Month 2011. Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine’s fiction contest and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations. "If You Had Stopped" was a finalist in the 2014 Reynolds Price Prize in Fiction. www.taramasih.com.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: When my family traveled to Costa Rica, we passed a woman and her husband by the side of the highway. Just standing there, each holding up one fish. Who were they? Who stopped? Who didn’t?
From My Suitcase of Dalliances
by Patricia Colleen Murphy
Followed by Q&A
It was at a garden party where we
were asked to lie about our regrets.
Evil was drunk and blamed misery
for drawing the outline of a dinosaur
on a small boy’s palm. In response,
misery claimed that the dog
doesn’t want a bone, it wants boniness.
We were all getting very tired.
There was a thunderstorm that
agreed to wait until we finished.
That’s when evil accused misery
of killing a man who was really a statue.
I’ll let you guess who got the worst of it.
One of them fell down. A lot.
I ended up sleeping with one of the planets,
or perhaps it was only an ocean. Either way,
it provided a small amount of comfort.
And it taught me about the fountain’s job
to be a perpetual blossom.
Patricia Colleen Murphy teaches creative writing at Arizona State University where she is the founding editor of Superstition Review. Her writing has appeared in many magazines including Calyx, The Massachusetts Review, New Orleans Review, Seattle Review, Cimarron Review, Kalliope, Quarterly West, American Poetry Review, Green Mountains Review, Indiana Review, and The Iowa Review. Her poems have received awards from The Madison Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Gulf Coast and others. She runs LitMagLunch.com where she writes reviews of lunches and literary magazines.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: The poem “From My Suitcase of Dalliances” was composed in fall of 2011—I had just done a residency at Vermont Studio Center where I really pushed my writing away from narrative and towards surrealism, which is where my real interest is. I was reading some fun stuff like Franz Wright’s Wheeling Motel and Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song and Bob Hicok’s Words for Empty Words for Full. I might have been trying to channel one of my favorite Hicok lines: “Here you might recognize language/ as one of the ways to end a poem.” Thank you, Hicok, for showing the rest of the world how to have a little fun! So yeah I wanted to have a little fun in the poem. There was a rare storm in Phoenix while I was writing this, and I wanted to go out for a run, so I thought, oh I hope it will just wait an hour and it did! Such a polite storm. You’ll also see the obvious echoes of one of my favorite poets, James Wright, both in the lines about the dinosaur in the palm (skin over a girl’s wrist) and the fountain’s job to be a perpetual blossom (if I stepped out of my body it would break into blossom). I imagine I am trying to respect my roots while adding levity and delight. I am not sure how I thought about a fountain as perpetual blossom. Probably saw a fountain and stared at it so long that I started to hear Breton in my ear.
The Virgin Mary & Matthew Brady
ollowed by Q&A
It’s one of those end of the world
sunsets that does not look good for us,
and Mary is uneasy looking past
her hunched photographer
buried in his apparatus,
And thinking Ansel Adams
with his sense of light and landscape;
Then quickly, because all her moves
are sudden and impulsive, she chooses
Diane, she knows is dark and not
Mary will need to explain
the change, say that Mr. Brady
in his post-traumatic way
had shown the way
away from war
and bad endings;
But that was history.
She’d explain that this orange
sky was grunge
at the bottom
of the earth’s
And the clouds
are not atmosphere
And the particles…
just splitting splitting…
Dicko King lives in Phoenix, AZ. He has done graduate studies with the poets at ASU. His forthcoming book Doggerland was a finalist for the Blue Lynx Prize, a finalist for the Louise Bogan Award, and is a prize winner with Off the Grid Press. He is working on a novel, Feral Child, and has poems forthcoming in the Portland Review and Cactus Heart.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: This poem is part of Nihilism Means Nothing to Me, a manuscript in revision, and is, as is the book, a bleak and sardonic look at a relentless quietude and resignation which often has us with a blind spot keeping the darker realities far from the ever-fading light. The poem colors a dark, benighted world with a bit of red, a last sunset of a dying sun – a religious icon fussing about insouciantly as it happens.
Shots on Goal
followed by Q&A
Finding the Goal:
My earliest imaginings of sex involved protection. Sure, these imaginings may have taken place in a post-zombie wasteland, so that crowbar was necessary, but these imaginings also involved a more specific protection, condoms. Which, given my generation, I don’t think is all that odd.
I was a child of the eighties; born in the seventies, but raised amid the Michael J Fox, day-glo wonderland of Reganomics, cocaine, and Huey Lewis singles. Not that I knew about any of that jazz at the time, but they were formative in my rearing, not unlike the AIDS scare. I don’t know when the public advocacy peaked in my hometown, but I do know that by the time I was in fifth grade, all the D.A.R.E. offices (a middle school program aimed at keeping kids off pot with hysteria delivered by scary, dad-type cops) were telling us that needle drugs gave you the HIV. And discarded beer cans. Not that any of us knew about heroin, beer, or the bug. We were suburban children, locked away at night behind guard booths and high fences, the special kind with shadowboxed panes. What the hell did we know about the far off world of adult consequences? Only enough to know that they told us condoms and sex went hand in glove.
I remember scenes from movies I watched as a kid that dealt with condoms and safe sex. When my dad took me to see The Naked Gun, that scene where the inimitable Leslie Nielsen and doe-eyed Priscilla Presley don full-body condoms and hop into bed, I didn’t understand what dad was laughing at, and my comedy sensibility wasn’t placated with his promises to explain the joke to me when I was older. I only know that it seemed normal. When I saw a full body condom for sale years later at a Spencers Gifts, it and I shared a knowing wink.
The same happened again during the second act of The Highlander, possibly the most perfect movie ever made. In it the villainous Kurgan, played by Clancy Brown, possibly the most underrated actor in Hollywood, purchased the hourly affections of a woman, but while getting into the hump of things, he was told by her that he would get no love if he didn’t wear no glove. I was about the same age then as when I saw The Naked Gun 1, and again, nothing about the scene made sense. Did she want the Kurgan to wear more gloves, another pair? He already had one pair on, this bitching, fingerless set with steel nubs over the back. Was that what she was talking about?
So, condoms, they flummoxed me for years, even into my sex-having years.
Shots on Goal:
We are on the floor, naked, risking carpet burns and stray fibers clung with tacky glue to our knees and asses, but we do not care.
“I still want you,” she says, pulling me to the floor, on top of her, knees clenching my hips. She isn’t done with me. She wants me to cum.
We are making love for the first time since she’s started taking her new birth control. A hormone taken once monthly. It liberates me from the tyranny of condoms. Springs the lock on the cell, and sets me free from the Bastille of latex I’ve been screaming for delivery from.
But in the moment, when she is willing, wanting me, craving, I am scared. She wants me to cum but I am scared to. She is my woman, I call her the woman, the only woman, but I am scared that if I cum, she’ll be more than the woman. She’ll be a mother.
Finding the Goal:
Like most kids of the eighties, MTV and nongovernmental organizations did a number on me, sexually speaking. They told us for the better part of a decade that sex without protection would have negative consequences. Not babies, they never told us that. They told us that if we had sex then we would die, and the dying would be immediate.
Not that they were wrong to think so. Like so many kids from conservative families, I knew the square root of nothing about safe sex. With funding roll-backs and cuts, sex ed classes, by the time I was ready to enroll in them, were perfunctory affairs, featuring only the cheapest glossy pictures of gonorrhea infection sites and the shoddiest stats for pregnancy rates in the rural South. They contained nothing of the real details guys like me wanted to know.
I was twelve the first time I sat for a sex ed class. I wasn't sexually active then, abundant internet porn was five years out for me, and my family was Mormon, so the sex talk was mediated by a book that Far Side author Gary Larson could have drawn. In addition, none of my friends could take a break from Nintendo long enough to have sex and then tell me what it was all about. So the things I didn’t know about sex, specifically those things related to condoms were great in number.
When do you put the condom on?
Who puts the condom on?
Where do you get condoms?
How may do you need to have sex?
Is having the condom ring on your wallet cool or not cool?
Are colored condoms a turn on?
What are the perils and perks to flavored condoms?
What’s the deal with these sheep-skin variants?
Should I buy Magnums, just as a precaution?
In all honesty, the first time I had occasion to use one, the girl was lucky I didn’t lube up my thumbs and slide a condom over them.
Searching for Another Goal:
The Todd Couples’ Superstore in Tampa, Florida, features a tasting bar for all their flavored lubricants, but would you really want to sample them? I would recommend the more adventurous to, but first, swab the applicator tip with the Purell provided by the management.
Located against one back wall, much the same as how supermarkets keep the milk and the other “I just need this one thing” supplies at the back of the store, The Todd (as it’s known by the locals) knows you only came in for that tube of Astroglide, but they make you walk past the videos and the costumes to get to the lubes, all in the hope that you’ll impulse buy a corset or a strap-on, because who hasn’t. They’re right there!
The Todd also stocks an Olympic Village’s supply of condoms. They vary in texture, pre-applied lube, composition, color, and flavor as wildly as rain forest insects, so if you can imagine the kind of condom you want, The Todd likely has it.
When the woman and I were getting heavy, when we were in the early porn-star sex days, when all we wanted was the taste of each other on our tongues, I stopped by one afternoon for some rubbers. I grabbed half a doxen boxes at random, careful to follow her ingredient restrictions. I left sixty dollars lighter in the wallet, and almost a pound of latex and non-latex prophylactics heavier. I did not impulse buy a corset.
Several months later, me and the woman were vacationing for the weekend with her parents in St. Pete Beach. The four of us had rented rooms, theirs in a hotel a block further along the beach than ours. Me and the woman, we stayed in this single story joint run by a Polish family. The woman and her family had stayed there several summers in a row when she was a child. Being there made her nostalgic and horny. When I forgot the rubbers and lube, we had to make a late night stop at the local Wal-Greens.
It was after ten at night. I was buzzing like a punted wasp nest. The woman was sloshed on half a bottle of table red more than me. This may explain why our condom buying excursion took a necessary detour to the Ben and Jerry’s cooler along the wall.
Half an hour later, we reached the front of the cue, stood before the clerk, money in hand and sinning in mind. The clerk looked like my grandmother. Thin, papery pale skin that wrinkled under her eyes like old laundry. Wavy, matronly underarm fat folds. Piercing eyes that told me she knew what me and the woman had planned for the box of Durex (no parabins, of course), the organic lube (duh, as the woman would have said), and that pint of Cherry Garcia.
The woman giggled while we made our purchase, and she may have offered several indecorous comments about the prudish scowls given to us by the other shoppers waiting behind us in line. I hauled her out of the store, her greedy giggles the only reminder of our visit.
Measuring an Early Shot:
The girlfriend told me about this day months before. Told me that one day we would be using family prevention other than condoms. Honestly, I was weirded out.
“You know, someday I’ll let you take a few shots on goal, but not yet?”
“I don’t have the insurance yet to cover the cost of the birth control I like, so you have to wait a while yet, stud.”
“And there’s the whole intimacy part of it.”
Aren’t we intimate enough now?
“No. We’re still in the stuffy, formal stage. Condoms are the hankie you use to cover a sneeze in polite company. They are a courtesy we all use when we’d really rather blow it all over the place because, gosh, that way feels better.”
“C’mon, you know it’s true. Would you rather sneeze into your hand or would you rather turn your head and let it rip? Honestly.”
She was right, but hearing her talk in such frank language about the one thing, unprotected sex, that all guys want more than water in the desert was unexpected, unusual for my frame of reference, and almost scary.
Sex without condoms meant sex without a net. It meant more pleasure, but at a penalty of becoming a Kanye West song if life took a turn for the palimonial. But more than that it was sex outside the boundaries of the familiar and the safe. And those boundaries were built by castled walls with crenellations, at least in my mind.
Shots on Goal:
We are on the floor, and she wants me. I am inside her, and she wants me. She wants me to cum, to finish, inside, and I am afraid.
I am afraid that this isn’t what she wants.
I am afraid that when we started to make love she thought I was wearing a condom.
I am afraid that she believes I’ve been wearing one this whole time.
I am afraid that she thinks when I finish it will be behind a wall of baby-denying latex.
I am afraid that she knew I wasn't wearing one but thought I put one on later.
I am afraid that she knows the score, but not the birth control’s success rate.
I am afraid that the birth control will fail during this first live-fire exercise.
I am afraid that when the birth control fails she will get pregnant.
I am afraid that we will be pregnant.
I am afraid that we will take care of the pregnancy.
I am afraid that we will visit a clinic.
I am afraid that we will visit the clinic and we will be OK afterwards.
I am afraid that after we visit the clinic and are OK that things between us will change.
I am afraid that while we visit the clinic one of us will change our mind.
I am afraid we will get pregnant and keep the baby.
I am afraid that if we keep the baby I will fuck the kid’s life up.
I am afraid that I will be a bad father.
I am afraid that I will be a good father, and she a good mother, but our careers will stagnate, she won’t complete her medical degree, I won’t complete my MFA, she won’t become a doctor, I won’t become a teacher or writer, both of us will work thankless and loveless jobs, and though our marriage will survive (because why wouldn’t it), and thrive even, and though we will raise that kid, and maybe another, very ably, very lovingly, diligently and fairly, and the kids will grow up healthy, having been created with her excellent genes and raised with my sharp comedic wit, that somehow we will look back on this moment and wonder if we should have done things differently, wonder if we would have been happier if we’d stuck with the plan and finished our degrees, started our careers, begun family practice with small dogs, and not had kids until we were both pushing very late thirties.
I take the shot on goal. I collapse. We become dough, wrapping and kneading ourselves around the sweating, panting, gasping, cooing, smiling, glowing mass of the other. I am not afraid anymore because I know. What, I cannot say, but I know something now.
Alan Shaw is a graduate of the Creative Writing MFA program at The University of South Florida. His memoir, Ex-Mormon/Ex-Con, about being raised in the Mormon Church and the years he later spent in a Florida state prison, he is currently lobbing at every agent in every town. He currently teaches for USF’s Honors College, where he also coaches the university’s debate teams. Most days he makes excuses for the behavior of his ridiculously small dog. His work has appeared online in the journals Sweet: a Literary Confection, Scissors and Spackle, Spry Literary Journal, in the blog Tampa Bay Scene, and in the anthology Going Om.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: This piece, like many on this subject, came in one spurt. I had the title and the opening line and the rest flowed from that. I sat down and 20 minutes later was finished, in much the format this published version is. What I learned is to write, furiously, any time I had those pieces. If I had the opening line, or even its sentiment, I had the rest of the essay. The title definitely helped too, but it’s the posture of the essay suggested in the opening line that’s crucial.
followed by Q&A
We returned home from the hospital that night at seven. I had taken Mom to check her stitches from the tumor removal, and she had spent the entire time complaining to the doctors about the incision sight. The complaints were not new to me, and I was just glad to have someone else answer her for once. It had been two weeks since the discovery of the cancer and she had only been home for seven days, but it somehow felt longer. Our yearly Ramadan invasion was not helping her mood.
Ramadan had started Wednesday, and the mosque had been blaring their songs over a loud speaker for four hours every evening. The holiday would begin at sundown and surly enough the prayers would commence around nine. Had we not lived in close proximity of the Islamic Center, we would’ve had no issues with their celebration. We were not intolerant people. Being Jews, we understood repression better than most. However, we were in New York City, and everyone lived on top of each other. One avenue was not enough to block out the noise emanating from across the street, especially if it was being broadcasted. We could never understand why religions had to force their views on others, Judaism not being one to proselytize, and after ten years of living in the Yorkville neighborhood the songs had officially become invasive. My mother was always the first to complain.
“Honey, I need you to get me the washcloth again. I’m going to get in bed,” Mom announced as she tentatively made her way across the hall and into her room. The washcloth was an ordeal. If it was too cold, it did nothing for her discomfort. If it was too hot, she screamed. I had managed to create a system where I would first test it on my own stomach and then either run it under the faucet for longer or ring it out over the sink. I had burned myself a few times during the process, but better me than her.
“Are you coming?” she called from her bed. The washcloth was soaking and not ready. I hurried my work. “Sarah?”
“One second!” I hit the linen against the sink and brought it underneath my shirt. For a second it stung and then cooled.
I entered Mom’s room and folded the cloth, placing it delicately on top of her vertical stitches. She cringed for a moment and then relaxed into her pillows.
“That’s better,” she cooed. “Can you get me some of the vegetable broth? I’m starving.” I nodded and left for the kitchen.
The cats followed me in howling. It had been hours since I’d fed them in the morning and they needed their next meal. I threw their bowls in the sink, ran them under the tap, and dashed around the cabinets getting their cans and a fork. One of the cabinets slammed shut and the youngest cat went running.
“What was that?” Mom shouted.
“Nothing! Just the cabinet.” I raced after the little one and brought him back to the counter. “It’s okay, Angel, it’s okay. One second, here comes your food,” I reassured as I set down their dinner. They gobbled it up so quickly I was surprised they didn’t vomit.
“Sarah, are you coming?” my mother called again.
“Yes Mom, just a minute!”
I turned the burner on high and heated the broth that was left over from that morning. As I stirred I remembered the turtle. “Fuck,” I breathed. I kept the stove on and grabbed out the turtle’s food. Her water also needed changing. “Shit.”
With a can and fork in one hand and a pitcher in the other I sprinted to my sister’s room. She was at school in Philadelphia and hadn’t been allowed to take Bobo with her. That left me to caring for the amphibian. I took the screen off her cage and quickly went about fixing it. A thump came from the apartment above and the turtle retreated into her shell. I didn’t stop though. I had to finish.
I didn’t respond. I ran back into the kitchen, scooped the broth into a bowl, ignored the burn it shot through my hand and found a clean spoon in the drying wrack.
“Here you go,” I said as I handed her the bowl.
“It’s too hot right now, put it on the table.” I walked over and put it down. “And take this will you? It’s cold now,” she added as she handed me the cloth. I left and threw it in the bathroom sink.
“Come sit with me,” she said. I stopped in the kitchen to make sure the bigger cat wasn’t eating Angel’s food and went back to my mother. I fell down on the bed next to her and clicked on the television. Criminal Minds was on and I stayed on the station.
When she first arrived home from the hospital, my mother wanted to speak to me. She would ask me to sit with her and tell her about anything, everything. She would ask me what I thought about this or that, the funny thing the cat had done, what book I next wanted to read. It didn’t take her long to realize that I wasn’t currently reading any books and had no intention of picking one up. After a while, she stopped asking.
We sat there in silence, with just the TV to stare at, and soon enough Mom was sleeping. She hadn’t touched her broth. That wasn’t unusual. The sky had gone dark, but the streets were still lit. The best part about the city was that no matter how dark it was outside, beneath the cloudy haze of sky something was still alive and moving. I half listened to the episode and looked at a family in the building diagonal watch Finding Nemo on their TV. For a moment it was calm.
Then it turned nine. The loudspeaker was turned on and the singers began to wail. Mom would say that it was bad enough that they had to force it on everyone in the neighborhood, but the fact that she couldn’t understand the language they were yelling in made it more hostile. The neighbors tended to agree. The family across the way paused their movie, closed their windows, and shut their blinds. It was a routine they had obviously devised as a defense.
“Not a-fucking-gain!” my mother cried. She rolled over and glared out the window in the direction of the mosque. “How is this even possible? Are there no laws? No police to stop these people? This is unbelievable!”
I sat up and joined her in looking at the illuminated triangular building. No one was outside of it, but through a window you could see an entire line of shoes by the entrance.
“Want me to call again?” I asked. I had called 311, the information line, five times that week. Each time the city worker on the other end told me that they would make a note of it. Obviously, the note had been repeatedly lost.
“No,” Mom said. “Don’t call them. I spoke with Marcia and she said that everyone on the block has been calling all week. She even stuck the phone out the window one time to show them this nonsense. You know what they said?” She paused and I shook my head. “She asked them, ‘Can you hear that?’ And the guy said, ‘Yeah, I hear it.’ She said ‘You sure? I can stick it out there again.’ The guy goes, ‘No, once was enough.’ Once was enough! Can you believe it? Try hearing it for four hours straight buddy! Once was enough–” she trailed off.
We sat there for a bit trying to focus on the new Criminal Minds episode. It was a marathon. I even turned the volume up so much that the cats went and hid in the living room. There was no escaping it. It was like having the service in your own home.
“I’m going to put the earplugs in and try to pass out,” Mom finally announced. I helped her take all five of her pills and put the blankets comfortably on top of her. She asked for a hug and I gave her one. Then I left and retreated into my room, keeping the door cracked just in case she called.
It took me about an hour to get ready for bed, and then I couldn’t sleep. I sat at my desk searching Hulu for something I hadn’t already seen. I would have gone onto Facebook, but since I left school I had started to find it upsetting. I didn’t want to know what my friends were doing. I wasn’t trying to be mean. It just wasn’t relevant anymore. Finally I found a French film I hadn’t heard of and stuck in my headphones to watch it.
At around two in the morning the singing stopped. The doors to the mosque opened and people began pouring out. They were young students, old men, singles, families, children, and some women in wheelchairs. They all stopped and spoke with each other in the yard outside. They embraced and shook hands and laughed and gossiped. Then I noticed their faces. For the most part, they were all smiling. Not just cordial smiles, like the fake ones that you can see through and wish you could smack, but genuine, broad smiles. All of them had that one thing in common. And immediately I shut the blinds on seeing it.
Sarah Francis will be graduating from Eckerd College in the Spring of 2014 with a BA in Literature and minors in Creative Writing and French. Originally from New York City, she was first encouraged to write by her mother, a lifelong English professor and author of fiction. Sarah primarily writes within the genre of nonfiction.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: What surprised me, and what always surprises me when writing about trauma, is the ease with which I wrote the first draft of this essay. Typically one expects that writing about traumatic experiences should be difficult, yet for this piece the words came to me quickly. I suppose it felt like a story that I needed to write.