Welcome to Issue No. 97 of Prime Number:

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A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose

Dear Reader,

Happy Birthday to us! We begin our sixth year of publication with our first issue containing poems and stories selected by guest editors. I thank you for being patient while we made the adjustment to our new format.

This is an exciting issue. We have new poetry, new short fiction, winners of our free monthly 53-Word Story Contest, and the announcement of winners for the 2016 Prime Number Magazine Awards for Poetry and Short Fiction, who will be published in Issue 101 on October 1, 2016.

For this issue, guest editors, Stacy R. Nigliazzo (poetry) and Liz Prato (short fiction), read submissions that came in from January 1 until March 31. The short fiction entries were so numerous that Liz called in fellow Press 53 author Wendy J. Fox, winner of the 2014 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, to help her get through them all before her May 31 deadline. As a team, they selected short stories by Karen Karlitz, Ron MacLean, and Sam Richardson, who told us that this is her first fiction publication. Congratulations, Sam! Stacy selected poems from Maria Terrone, Mimi Herman (who made an appearance in Issue 67), and Ty Stumpf (winner of our October 2015 53-Word Story Contest).

Speaking of which, You can read all the winners of our 53-Word Story Contest, dating back to September 2015, on the 53-Word Story page. We publish the winning story in Prime Number Magazine and send the winner a free copy of the judge’s latest book. The winner of our June contest (write a 53-word story about a bug) will be named by our judge, Jodi Paloni, by July 7, and will be published at that time, along with the winner’s 53-word bio. Visit the 53-Word Story page, and while you are there, check out the prompt for July and send us your story. It’s free and it’s a lot of fun.

If you are a poet and have a manuscript, consider entering the 2017 Press 53 Award for Poetry, which will remain open until July 31. Our judge is Tom Lombardo, Press 53 Poetry Series Editor, who personally reads every manuscript without the help of preliminary judges. Our winner receives publication, a $1,000 advance, and a quarter-page color ad in Poets & Writers magazine.

If you are a writer of poetry or short fiction, Prime Number Magazine is now accepting submissions for Issue 103, which will be published on January 1, 2017, with guest editors Wendy Willis (poetry) and Steve Mitchell (short fiction). Submissions are only accepted through Submittable, the best online submission manager on the planet, which makes your job and ours easier and more rewarding. If you are not familiar with our guest editors, we have their bios along with a poem from Wendy and a short story from Steve, in this issue.

Enjoy Issue 97 of Prime Number Magazine, and thank you for your support and for sharing us with your friends.

Best regards,

Kevin Morgan Watson, Publisher, Editor-in-Chief

Press 53

Prime Number Magazine


Issue 97, July – September 2016


POETRY

  Guest editor:    Stacy R. Nigliazzo

Guest editor: Stacy R. Nigliazzo

   Maria Terrone    Isadora's Lament

Maria Terrone

Isadora's Lament

   Mimi Herman    How I Wait

Mimi Herman

How I Wait

   Ty Stumpf    First Allowance

Ty Stumpf

First Allowance


SHORT FICTION

  Guest editor:    Liz Prato

Guest editor: Liz Prato

   Karen Karlitz    Catching Fleas

Karen Karlitz

Catching Fleas

   Ron MacLean    I Could Fill a Biscuit Bowl

Ron MacLean

I Could Fill a Biscuit Bowl

   Sam Richardson    You're Little More than an Apple Core

Sam Richardson

You're Little More than an Apple Core


Guest Editors for Issue 103

Poetry

Short Fiction


Maria Terrone.jpg

Maria Terrone

Followed by Q&A

Isadora’s Lament

September 14, 1927, Nice, France

Too late to retrace the long trail of silk

that led me to my death,

the ultimate unraveling,

to alter course, to leave behind

that hand-painted scarf,

a gift from my dear friend Mary.

She waved me off, proffering a cape

for my drive by the cold sea,

which I rebuffed—I who lived

to fly barefoot across a stage,

to defy the rigid rules

and confining costumes of dance.

Too late to stop my neck

from tilting back to feel the wind

full face, to stop the wind itself,

to still the wheel’s spinning spokes

that snagged the wayward silk.

Too late to refuse the work of art

that partnered with air and whipped

against my skin—a gift

I wore proudly, like wings.



Maria Terrone is the author of the poetry collections Eye to Eye (Bordighera Press, 2014); A Secret Room in Fall (McGovern Prize, Ashland Poetry Press); The Bodies We Were Loaned (The Word Works), and a chapbook, American Gothic, Take 2. Her work, which has been published in French and Farsi and nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize, has appeared in such magazines as Poetry, Ploughshares, and The Hudson Review and in more than 25 anthologies. Her creative nonfiction credits include Witness, Briar Cliff Review, The Common, Litro (U.K.) and other journals. www.mariaterrone.com

A note on "Isadora's Lament"

I was writing a series of poems related to clothing and realized that I’d always been fascinated by the tragic and very dramatic death-by-scarf of the modern dancer Isadora Duncan. Through research, I learned some of the details about her last car ride that I incorporated into my poem.

Guest editor Stacy R. Nigliazzo asks three questions:

Keyboard or #2 pencil?

I write with a pen on a lined pad with lots of cross-outs and changes. When the material has gone beyond the initial, rough stage, I type the poem into my computer files and edit from there. 

Imagine your favorite poets as your family. Who is your poetry father? Mother? Bratty sibling?

I have two poetry mothers: Enid Shomer, my friend and mentor, and Linda Pastan, another writer I greatly admire but whom I never met. My poetry father is the Irish poet Eamon Grennan, with whom I studied when I was just beginning to get serious about writing; he has been a friend and supporter of my work ever since. My poetry sibling would be Nicole Cooley. She’s not bratty though, but a poet with a huge heart who writes original, moving poetry that speaks to us all. 

Think of your “poems I wish I’d written” file. What’s at the top of the list?

In college, I thought modern poetry began and ended with T.S. Eliot, especially his powerful “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I still consider it a masterpiece, but now I have a folder bulging with contemporary poems I wish I’d written! At the top is Mark Strand’s “A.M.” and Pastan’s “At Gettysburg.”


Mimi Herman.jpg

Mimi Herman

Followed by Q&A

How I Wait

If you hold an empty bottle upside down

for long enough, the last drops of wine

clinging to the inside of the glass

will coalesce,

sliding to wet your dry

and barely patient mouth.

This is how I wait for you.

Side by side, we stare into the bonfire

our faces sheet metal hot

backs chilled by the late October damp.

Behind us, the party swirls and sparks.

Sometimes your hip nudges mine.

As we speak to other people,

our bodies drift together

touching and retreating in private conversation

drunk on single drops of wine.

This is how I wait.

Mimi Herman is the author of Logophilia and The Art of Learning. Her writing has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Crab Orchard Review, Prime Number Magazine, The Hollins Critic and other journals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. With John Yewell, Mimi offers Writeaways retreats for writers in France and Italy, and on the North Carolina coast. She has been a writer-in-residence at the Hermitage Artist Retreat and the Vermont Studio Center. Since 1990, Mimi has engaged over 25,000 students and teachers in writing workshops. You can find her at www.mimiherman.com and at www.writeaways.com

A note from Mimi on "How I Wait"

A late night bonfire, a private moment in a crowd.

Stacy R. Nigliazzo asks Mimi three questions:

Keyboard or #2 pencil?

I use a fine Uniball Vision Pen in black for early drafts before a poem makes its way to the keyboard.

Imagine your favorite poets as your family. Who is your poetry father? Mother? Bratty sibling?

My poetry father W.B. Yeats. My poetry mother is Heather McHugh. Kay Ryan is my poetry auntie, and Billy Collins and Tom Lux are my poetry uncles. 

Think of your “poems I wish I’d written” file. What’s at the top of the list?

“Altruism,” by Molly Peacock


Ty Stumpf.jpg

Ty Stumpf

Followed by Q&A

First Allowance

Her four-year-old palms cupped

the two golden dollars I gave her.

I told her how Sacagawea, the Indian woman on the coins,

shepherded Lewis and Clark west and back,

while pregnant or carrying her infant son.

I didn’t tell her that Sacagawea gave that child up to Clark,

or how, years later, Lewis killed himself when he discovered 

a world too full of darkness.

Between the kitchen and her bedroom,

she slipped the coins in her mouth like communion wafers.

She sounded like an animal as the coins dammed her throat.

She curled on the carpet, 

struggling for air. 

Her blue-tinted lips.  

I snatched her up 

by the ankles,

hanging her 

with my left hand, 

clubbing her back

with my right.

The coins tumbled into the carpet’s silence.

She wailed as when the doctor raised her 

into the light for the first time.  

We sank to the floor.

For a moment, I became Lewis,

and the world tunneled to the size of a gun’s barrel.

Sacagawea looking over her shoulder.

The baby on her back already disappearing.

Ty Stumpf lives in Sanford, North Carolina and is the Chair of the Humanities Department at Central Carolina Community College. He received his BA in English from Catawba College and his MA in English and creative writing from North Carolina State University. His poetry has appeared in Passages North, Nashville Review, Harpur Palate, and other journals. Ty and his wife, Bianka, have a son named Jude and a daughter named Cora.

A note from Ty on "First Allowance"

This poem marks the most frightening moment in my life. I have never felt so terrified, helpless, nor thankful, and trying to understand these feelings led me to write "First Allowance."

Stacy R. Nigliazzo asks Ty three questions:

Keyboard or #2 pencil?

Keyboard. 

Imagine your favorite poets as your family. Who is your poetry father? Mother? Bratty sibling?

My poetry family looks like this—My father is Yusef Komunyakaa, who tells war stories at dinner. My mother is Anne Sexton, a bit tipsy on wine and blurting out too many secrets. My bratty older brother is T.S. Eliot, who is always showing off and pointing out that he's better than I am. 

Think of your “poems I wish I’d written” file. What’s at the top of the list?

I wish I had written "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." I cannot think of a more perfect poem. 


Karen Karlitz.JPG

Karen Karlitz

Followed by Q&A

Catching Fleas

It’s an old-fashioned bar, the kind with thickly varnished gleaming wood, big rounded edges to run your hands over, and a mirrored back wall obscured by rows of liquor bottles; long like a bowling alley, it runs the entire length of the restaurant. At one time Chez Tony had been the place to go in Pompano Beach. Snow birds flocked there announcing their winter’s arrival, and locals clung to its barstools all through the endless rain-drenched, hot and humid hurricane season. Tony, like his father before him, served the best steaks and lobsters around. When business started falling off, he changed the menu to chicken wings, burgers and fries. Fickle Floridians had moved on to greener northern pastures in Boca Raton and Del Rey. Today the only thing left gleaming about Tony’s is the bar. Tony’s still around, but along with the ribeye and escargot, the well-heeled are long gone. It’s locals now, locals and budget-conscious tourists who frequent this small strip of seedy beach. The tables aren’t filled anymore, but every evening there’s not a stool to be had, and the sound level is as high as a rock concert. Cocktail glasses and bottled beers clink, people talk loud and fast as if they haven’t spoken to anyone all day, and a vintage jukebox blasts rock and roll from the sixties and seventies. Around five o’clock the feeling that anything is possible filters through the cigarette-choked air; by eight, it evaporates as the forlorn stand, drop some cash down on the bar, say their good-byes (or not), and head back to tight, depressing apartments or motel rooms, completely airless aside from the A/C.

Shortly after five, a pretty woman with long dark hair strolls over to a bald man with a beer belly parked at one end of the bar. She’s thirty-five, give or take, with a great smile, the type that can take a lot of men on a trip. It’s too noisy to hear what she’s saying, but the old man turns away from her, and she quickly moves on, past a pair of tourists throwing back tequila shots and eating peanuts from a communal dish. She stops behind a younger man wearing a baseball cap turned backwards over dirty, dirty-blonde hair. He looks like a guy who’s ready for anything except, apparently, her. She continues down the bar, biding her time, knowing her man is there somewhere if she keeps moving, talking, smiling. 

Barry, a regular at Tony’s, just came from work. He’s been in sales for years, sold almost everything, but business is bad. Barry’s a terrific salesman, a natural, but you can’t get blood from a stone. The economy’s been in the toilet, especially around here. He nurses a glass of red house wine. He’s an alcoholic and shouldn’t be drinking at all, but denial and no longer attending meetings has given him permission to drink wine. As long as he steers clear of vodka he’s okay, that’s his new mantra. He holds the glass in his hand, loves the feel of it. He’d gone four years without a drink, every day a struggle. His most recent girlfriend was a wine drinker. Barry promised himself a drink with her last New Year’s Eve. One glass of wine. One glass to last him until the next New Year. But within a week he was back to drinking every day. Just wine. No vodka. 

The woman sees Barry as soon as he sits down. He looks a lot better than the other men. Must have been handsome when he was younger, she thinks. Could even have a few bucks. Anyway, she’s done worse, a lot worse. She checks herself in an opening in the mirror, fluffs her hair, throws on a smile. Walking with purpose, she goes straight for him, as he raises the glass to his lips. He doesn’t know what’s about to hit him. Helpless prey. She knows she looks good, that makes it easy even after being blown off by the other two. She squeezes in between Barry and an obese woman with white hair. 

“Hey,” she says.

Holding fast to the stem of his glass, he says, “Hey, you.” He smiles. No doubt about it, this guy was and still is handsome. Tall, dark, and handsome with the kind of deep tan no longer in style, and lots of thick gold jewelry around his neck and wrists.

“I’m going home with you tonight,” she says.

Bingo. He was having a rotten day, but he’s hit the jackpot. This one is a looker, and it beats another late night playing online poker. 

He takes a sip, a longer one this time. “Buy me one of those?” she says.

“You mean what you said?”

“About going home with you?”

“Yeah, that.”

“I never say anything I don’t mean.” She smiles slyly. “I’m not like the other girls.”

“What’s your name?” He finishes his wine, and motions the bartender to bring them two more.

“Candy,” she whispers, smiling like she’s the one who hit the jackpot.

“Unbelievable,” he says.

  * * *

Barry rents a one-bedroom in a high-rise condo a block from the beach. His old girlfriend would have done anything to move into it with him, but he was adamant in his refusals. “I need my space,” he’d say again and again. “You can stay over two nights a week. That’s my limit.” Then he’d tell her she wasn’t his type, the long-legged, gorgeous, blonde-hair type, but she was so crazy in love with him she held on thinking that in time he’d change his mind.

Back at his apartment with Candy, he doesn’t tell her about Jennifer. They don’t have much time to talk about anything because after excusing herself to go to the bathroom, Candy comes out wearing a screaming red Victoria’s Secret bra and matching thong. She’s the first woman he’s been with since Jen. 

The next morning Candy’s up before he is. Coffee’s on and pancake batter fills a chipped yellow bowl on the gray Formica countertop she scrubbed clean. Barry walks into the kitchen. She’s nothing like Jen, but he knows what it means when a woman makes breakfast in your apartment.

“Don’t get any of those funny domestic ideas,” he says, motioning to the batter. “I’m just out of a three-year relationship.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. I’m hungry, that’s all.”

Several weeks go by. Barry sees Candy almost every night. They meet at Tony’s or sometimes he picks her up after work. She lives with a friend of hers, a rough-looking guy everyone calls Schemer. It’s a while before Barry discovers that Schemer got his name in jail. Selling drugs, assaults, home invasion robberies, mom-and-pop store hold-ups. Schemer doesn’t like nine-to-five jobs; he’d rather make one dollar illegally than two legal, and he always has a plan, an angle. He’d rob his own grandmother. Candy lives in a small bedroom in the small one-story house he bought years before for a song. She earns her keep by cleaning his house and doing his laundry. She doesn’t like work either, but doesn’t mind cleaning. She picks up spending money by cleaning a few apartments nearby. She tells Barry she’s an administrative assistant, that she lost her job and is looking for another.

Candy starts leaving things at Barry’s, small things. A pair of jeans, makeup, moisturizer, underwear, an old robe. What Barry doesn’t know is that she doesn’t have much more than that. No furniture, no dishes, no photos, no books, no past. After thirty-nine years, all she owns can fit into two suitcases. She moved in on Barry without him even knowing. His two-day limit stretched to three, then four, then five. She goes back to Schemer’s only to appease Barry and to clean.

One afternoon Barry and Candy sit on his terrace sweltering in the hot ocean breeze. He’s on his fourth glass of red. Candy’s wasted on Bloody Marys.

“When are you going to Schemer’s?”

“No plans.”

“Does that mean we’re living together?”

Candy smiles, reaches over and rubs the inside of his thigh. Barry leans back in the cheap white plastic chair, closes his eyes, and sighs. What Jen couldn’t accomplish in three years, Candy accomplished in under a month, and she’s not even his type.

Like every couple, they get into a routine. Candy cleans the apartment and does the laundry; Barry goes to work. Business is still bad, and his job hangs by a thread. If he doesn’t get home by five, Candy calls him continuously. She calls him all day long. He stops hanging out at the pool downstairs (she says she hates sun and hates the people in his building), stops seeing his old friends (she doesn’t like them, they’re not to be trusted), stops flying to New Jersey to see his kids and grandchildren (she accuses Barry of loving them more than her), or driving to Daytona to see his sister (ditto about love). He spends all his spare time with Candy. Once a week Schemer comes over. Candy goes downstairs and buys a pepperoni/sausage pizza and a few six-packs from the Italian place around the corner with money Barry gives her. They drink late into the night, until Schemer drags himself off the shabby gray couch, stumbles out to find his car, and drives home. Two nights a week Barry runs a poker game at a bar a few miles inland, supplementing his dwindling income with cash. Candy calls him every ten or fifteen minutes while he’s there. She accuses him of liking the women card players, of screwing them. She rages on like a lunatic when he gets home. She won’t let up.

Their fights escalate. Her life’s indignities swirl round her brain like an Alaskan blizzard; once she gets going she can’t calm down. Barry doesn’t know how to handle it. It lasts until she passes out from exhaustion and booze. After they’ve been together a few months, she starts punching him. Hard. He’s known a lot of women, but no one like this. She seems to be capable of anything. He doesn’t know what to do. Then she starts using household items as weapons: candlesticks, pots and pans, shoes. Sometimes it leaves marks on him. When anyone asks how it happened he makes up stories. A favorite is that he lost his balance and fell down. He’s had equilibrium problems in the past, especially when he was drinking a bottle of vodka a day. After a while he hits back. Not always, just sometimes. In the morning she acts like nothing happened. She makes him eat a big breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast before he leaves for work. If the fight was particularly bad, she has dinner waiting for him when he gets home, something she picks up at a local restaurant or supermarket. She doesn’t own a car, and lost her license the year before; it wasn’t her first DUI. Sometimes she cries like she’ll never stop. Her face turns red, and mascara, if she’s wearing any, drips down her cheeks. She tells him how she was put up for adoption with her twin sister, how her sister got adopted, how she never did. She tells him about the foster homes, the foster parents who beat her, what she remembers about the rapes. Tears mix with anger, and Barry tries to understand. He has a loving family; she’s been through hell. He stops hitting back. Her attacks get worse. Barry’s fading.

One night he gets home from his poker game and the apartment is oddly dark and still. His heart beats so fast he thinks surely he will die of a heart attack. He walks through the living room. She’s not there, and he can see she’s not on the terrace. He enters the bedroom with caution; she’s snuck up on him before, leaping out from the closet or behind the door, smacking him with whatever’s handy. He’s shaking now exactly like he does when he needs a drink. Only it’s not a drink he needs. Then he sees her lying on the bed, on top of the gray and white comforter his sister bought him. She’s wearing the same shorts and T-shirt she wore that morning. She’s fast asleep. He gets closer and watches her face in the moonlight shining through the window. She looks beautiful, such a pretty face at peace. Barry gently covers her with his robe, then goes to change out of his clothes in the bathroom. Life is perfect for now. 

The next morning Candy’s in the kitchen making breakfast. After showering, Barry goes to his closet to get dressed. He does a double take. There are no clothes in his closet. He races into the kitchen, a beach towel wrapped around his waist.

“Where the hell are my clothes?”

She doesn’t answer, doesn’t look at him. She continues frying the eggs. 

He grabs her by her shoulders. “What the hell have you done?”

She motions toward the terrace. 

“What the f…” He hurries through the living room and out the sliding glass door. He looks twelve stories down. In the scraggly bushes below are blotches of color. Sometime the night before, after repeated phone accusations that he’s been having sex with other women, she threw all his clothes and shoes over the terrace railing. Nothing had been perfect at all.

On his way to work later that morning, Barry promises himself that it’s over for him and Candy. He’s had enough, more than enough. He makes plans in his head to go right home after his last appointment in West Palm and have her pack her stuff. Then he’ll drive her to Schemer’s. He promises himself this all day long. By the time he parks his car in the stifling underground garage he’s nervous as a cornered cat. Going up in the elevator he taps his foot without let up on the marble floor. The noise echoes in the small space. He chews his finger as he walks down the hall, then stands in his doorway, keys in hand, paralyzed, afraid to go inside. A neighbor walks by. “Barry, where you been? The guys all ask for you at the pool.” 

Barry turns, forces a smile. “Bob, good to see you. I’ll be there this weekend.” Barry had been the life of the party, at the pool, at work, wherever he happened to be. 

Bob continues down the hallway just as the apartment door swings open. Candy’s wearing a short pink apron with nothing underneath.

“Hurry,” she says laughing. “Someone will see me.”

Barry quickly slams the door behind him. He doesn’t say anything, he’s too angry.

“You’re still mad at me,” she says, pouting. “How can you stay mad at your very best girl?” She hands him a tall glass of vodka on the rocks she’s been hiding behind her back. It has a piece of lime on the rim and condensation coats the outside of the glass. Barry holds it at arm’s length. It’s an apparition, a welcome, old, gorgeous apparition. He hasn’t had a vodka in four and a half years. He thinks about going in the kitchen and dumping it down the sink. Candy smiles, takes hold of his free hand. He doesn’t smile as he raises the glass to his mouth, presses it against his lips. He closes his eyes. One vodka. What harm can it do?  

* * *

“I’m really sorry, Barry,” his boss says. “There’s no business out there. I’ve got to let a couple of you go.”

Barry had a few at lunch so the impact of losing his job doesn’t hit right away. He clears some things from his desk, hurries outside, puts the top of his convertible down, and takes off onto Federal Highway. By the time he gets home, reality surfaces. He goes straight to the kitchen, chucks a few ice cubes into a glass, then fills it with Gordon’s. He’s sweating badly. The A/C must be on the brink again. Candy walks over to him. Her words are slurred. “Hey, baby, what are you doing home so early?”

“Better get used to it. I lost my job.”

“Who needs money?”

He gulps his drink. “I still have two poker nights. I’ll get more. And in a couple of months Social Security kicks in. I guess it’ll be okay.” He tops off his drink with more vodka.

* * *

Barry can’t remember exactly what happened the first time Candy used a knife on him. He never told anyone about it, and even while it was happening, it was a blur to him. They’d been drinking all day. It had been a while since he’d lost his job, but the Social Security checks were auto-deposited every month in his B of A account, and he was making a nice piece of change with the poker nights; he had three now. He allowed himself two vodkas while he worked during the games, but held back letting loose until he got home. The nights Schemer came over they did pills too. Schemer and Candy liked anything tranquilizing: Oxycontin, Ativan, Vicodin, Xanax, whatever Schemer could buy or steal. Barry’d never done drugs, but he was a quick study. So that night after Schemer left, they were both loaded and got into a big argument. It was the usual stuff, about Barry screwing other women, not loving her. At some point Candy must have gone into the kitchen because Barry was sitting on the couch and when he looked up she was standing in front of him holding a knife. That was when things really became blurry. Maybe he tried to grab her wrist to get the knife, maybe she lunged forward too fast for him to react, maybe it was all a terrible accident. Whatever it was, his leg was sliced open. There was a lot of blood. He remembered driving to Holy Cross Emergency, his leg wrapped in a towel, and getting twenty-plus stitches. Candy stood by, concerned, as a young woman holding a clipboard asked him how it happened. Apparently they had to determine if there’d been domestic abuse. Barry said he walked into the jagged, broken edge of his glass cocktail table. He laughed and called himself clumsy. The woman looked skeptical, but took her notes and walked out. Candy looked relieved, and gave him a big kiss. She didn’t want trouble.

* * *

Hurricane season rolls around again. The screaming and banging coming from unit 1214 is driving the neighbors nuts. A few times each week someone calls the police. Several of the owners set up an emergency board meeting. Leo Weinstein, president of the condo association, chairs the gathering in the meeting room adjacent to the lobby.

“This morning I spoke to Rochelle Brown, owner of 1214, and she tells me that woman is not on the lease. She has no business being here, and we are well within our rights to bar her from our building. And if Rochelle doesn’t comply and inform Barry, her sole legal tenant, we’re going to fine her until she does and seek other legal recourse.”

A short stocky woman with a face like a bulldog stands. “The police came to their apartment three times last week alone. I live across the hall, and I can tell you that it’s a crime, what’s going on in there. And a disgrace. My nerves are so bad I had to go to my doctor. We owners have rights!”

A thin, gray-haired man rises. “I spoke to the cops. They know the woman. Candy. They told me they’ve been through this same scenario with her at other condos. And last Monday they had to escort her out of Chez Tony. Yelling, fighting, drunk as a skunk. They call her a stray dog. She’s giving our condo a bad name. Could even lower property values if enough people get wind of it. She has to go.” 

Late in the day, Barry gets a call from his landlord, Rochelle. She tells him Candy is banned from the building, and that if he doesn’t get her out within twenty-four hours she’ll sue him personally and throw them both out of her condo.

From the side of the conversation she hears, Candy knows what’s going on; she’s been through this before. She sits on the floor, arms wrapped around her legs, big blue eyes looking up at Barry.

“It’s over, babe,” he says. “Go pack. I’ll drive you to Schemer’s first thing in the morning. You can’t come back here, not even for a visit.”

She stares straight ahead. Barry goes into the kitchen for another drink.

That night Barry passes out on the couch after swallowing two of Schemer’s Vicodins and chasing them with a quart of Gordon’s. When he wakes near noon Candy is gone.

“Saves me a trip,” he says aloud. But he looks sad as he walks around the silent apartment. He dresses quickly, and heads to Tony’s.

Sitting at the bar, he orders a Bud. The bartender looks at him funny, like he’s got something on his mind.

“Anything you want to tell me, Mike?” Barry says.

“It’s Candy.”

“What about her?”

“Eric was here early this morning.”

“Eric?”

“The guy who works at the pizza place.”

“Oh, yeah. I know him. That shit is barely edible.”

“He was with Candy. She had a couple of shopping bags with her. They went to his place in Deerfield.”

“No kidding.”

“There’s something else.” Mike hesitates. “Eric said if you try to get in touch with Candy you’ll be in big trouble. He said to stay away from her.”

“She ran off with the pizza man.”

“You got that right. Sorry, buddy.”

“Maybe it’s for the best,” Barry says, but doesn’t sound like he means it. 

Before the week is out, Barry’s cell rings while he’s lying on a lounge at the pool working on his tan.

“It’s me.”

He sits up and instantly knows he is screwed.

“Barry, can you hear me? It’s Candy. I’m in trouble. You’ve got to come get me.”

It doesn’t take much convincing. He picks Candy up at a Deerfield strip mall to start over again. 

Back at his building, Barry parks in the garage. He turns to Candy. “Don’t say a word. Not one word or you’re out of here.” 

Things ended real bad with the pizza man. Candy has bruises on her arms and left leg, a black eyes brews on her unwashed face, and her long thick hair is knotted and disheveled. Barry walks to her side of the car. “Hurry,” he hisses, grabbing her arm and leading her to a back staircase no one usually uses. They climb thirteen flights. When they’re inside the apartment he says, “No screaming, no yelling, no throwing things, and don’t even think of leaving this apartment without me. I’m taking your key.” He goes to her purse, takes it out, and slips it in the pocket of his bathing trunks. 

For a short time everything’s cool. Barry has the upper hand, though he’s crazy nervous his neighbors will find out she’s back and he’ll be out on the street with everything he owns. A couple of weeks later, Barry meets with an acquaintance of his at a downtown Fort Lauderdale Starbucks to talk about running another poker night in a bar in Hollywood. They sit at an outside table. Barry scours the bushes thinking Candy is hiding behind them. He looks into every car that passes, and scrutinizes nearby store entrances and windows. He checks his watch repeatedly. Dave offers him the job on a trial basis. Barry thinks about it a minute, then turns him down. One of his credit cards is maxed, he still hasn’t figured out how. He can really use the cash, but Hollywood’s far away. He can’t leave Candy for that long.

Barry’s family is worried. It’s been more than two months since he’s spoken to any of them. His daughters in New Jersey call his sister in Daytona. Carol agrees to drive down to Pompano to see what’s going on. She arrives late in the afternoon, and takes the elevator up. She rings the doorbell a long time but no one answers. She’s getting ready to leave when, for the hell of it, she tries the doorknob. It opens. Clothes, bottles, papers, and takeout boxes of crusted, stale food are strewn all over; the smell is overwhelming. The blinds are drawn, the room is dim even as sun blasts the west-facing windows. Carol turns on the light. She sees a man and a dark-haired woman sitting on the couch at the far end of the room. There’s a bottle on the cocktail table, and they both have glasses in their hands. They appear dazed at seeing her. Not alarmed, just puzzled about how she got in.

“Where’s Barry?”

“Who are you?” the man asks.

“His sister. Where is he?”

“In there,” the woman says with a wave of her hand. “He’s all fucked up. Can’t walk. Can’t get out of bed. I’ve been taking care of him and believe me, it’s not easy.”

Carol rushes into the bedroom. Barry is sprawled on top of the comforter she bought for him last Christmas. It’s stained brown in large patches, and reeks of feces and urine. He’s naked, stick thin, and a white plaster cast covers his arm from the elbow to the wrist. In the middle of the cast there’s an imprint of slightly parted lips made with Revlon’s Red Hot Mama. Beneath it the words “I love you” are written in script.

“Oh, my God,” Carol says. She shakes him but he doesn’t respond. She thinks he may be dead. She continues shaking, calling his name, and finally he moans, opens his eyes. “Carol,” he says, then closes them again.

She runs into the living room. Candy kneels on the floor near where Carol dropped her handbag. Schemer stands in the foyer ready to take off. 

“What have you done to Barry?”

“Nothing that he hasn’t done to himself,” Candy slurs. She tries to stand, has to hold onto a chair to get up. “I’ve been taking care of him.”

“You’re Candy?”

She nods.

“Both of you get the hell out of here. Now!” 

“Don’t push, we’re going,” Candy says, weaving to the door, then crashing it behind them.

Carol dials for the police and an ambulance.

A short time later, a police officer stands with Carol in the foyer as emergency workers wheel Barry out of the apartment on a stretcher, eyes closed, face drawn, a slight figure under the white blanket. When Carol saw him last Christmas he’d been thirty pounds overweight.

“I can’t believe this happened to him.”

“Happens more often than you think,” the officer says. “Fleas, that’s what the Mexicans call them. Women who go from man to man, take what they can, then move on. Usually when the guy’s flat broke. Trust me, there's nothing of value left around here."

“Barry wasn’t wearing his jewelry,” Carol says, “and he never takes it off.”

He looks at her handbag on the floor. “Better check that.”

She pulls out her wallet. All her money is gone.

“Sorry. Nothing we can do if your brother doesn't press charges. And my guess is he won't. Men have trouble admitting they're abuse victims, even to themselves. Your brother got caught by one hell of a flea.”

* * *

Following six months of physical therapy and alcohol/drug rehab, Barry’s recovering. He walks with a cane now, but for months had to get around in a wheelchair. He hasn’t had a drink or drug since the day his sister came to his apartment. It’s tough, he tells anyone who’ll listen, much tougher than anyone aside from another alcoholic could ever understand, but his family is counting on him to stay sober, and how hard he hit bottom this time sometimes scares him. The doctors think he may have had a stroke, and there’s a possibility of brain damage from injuries or a fall. He’s been beaten, that much is certain, and not all of the drugs he took were because he wanted them. Barry won’t tell anyone anything. And he’s good at pushing what happened out of his mind when it begins to haunt him, a master of denial.  

One afternoon he’s sitting around a table at the pool with a few friends when his phone rings. He’s not wearing his reading glasses so he can’t see who’s calling. It crosses his mind to let it go to voicemail, but he clicks on. 

“Barry?”

“You’re not supposed to call me. I’m just out of rehab. I can’t speak to you.”

“I know all about it. I wanted to tell you how proud I am of you. And I want us to be friends.”

His heart beats so loudly he’s afraid his friends can hear. “Sure,” he says.

“I love you, Barry. I’ll always love you. I’m your very best girl.”

“Yeah,” he whispers, “I know you are,” ending the call, though he’d much rather stay on and listen to the sound of her voice. 

His neighbor Bob looks concerned. “If that’s who I think it was, you know you shouldn’t be talking to her. Your sponsor says you can’t have any contact at—” 

Barry cuts him off. “I have to talk to her. Don’t you understand? She’s the one who kept me alive.”

#  #  #

Karen Karlitz's fiction and nonfiction has appeared in many publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Broad River Review, Loch Raven Review, Iguana Review, Ranfurly Review (Scotland), Short Fiction Break, American Diversity Report, Scribblers on the Roof, Miranda Literary Journal, Long Story Short, Clever Magazine, and Twisted Endings Magazine. One story won the Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction award, another was included in The Best of The Foliate Oak, and her e-book, “Baggage,” is available on Amazon Kindle.

A note from Karen about "Catching Fleas"

The man is the victim of domestic abuse in "Catching Fleas." Barry gets picked up by a pretty woman at a South Florida bar. Their relationship soon turns incendiary, but Barry has trouble breaking away.

Three questions from guest short fiction editors Liz Prato and Wendy J. Fox

What writers (living or not) would you invite to your literary dinner party? What would you serve?

Lena Dunham, Larry David, Henry Miller, Theodore Dreiser, Alice Munro, Janet Fitch, William Saroyan, John Irving, Stephen King, John Steinbeck, Aldous Huxley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jay McInerney and T.C. Boyle are among the guests I would invite to a dinner party. I do not cook, however, so I would serve two great cheeses, excellent crackers, raw vegetables, humus, olives, mixed nuts, cooked brussel sprouts, and an awesome choice of sushi rolls and poke. Dessert would be assorted mini cupcakes and an interesting selection of cookies and cut fruit. Drinks would include beers from around the world, good white and red wines, champagne, and sparkling water.

When you're writing and editing, what food or drink are you most likely to smear/spill on your pages?

I never eat or drink while I'm writing or editing. Sometimes I do step away from my computer for a water break.

What time period & place do you wish you'd lived in?

I came of age in the 1960s and '70s. I believe that was the best time to experience life, love, travel and, of course, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.


Ron MacLean.jpg

Ron MacLean

Followed by Q&A

I Could Fill a Biscuit Bowl

There is a party. At the party, there are cocktails. The occasion is a birthday, and I don’t like the birthday person as much as I feel I should. Talk pings off walls. Bodies cluster. It’s a big, open room and for the moment I stand alone, cocktail in hand. Transparent liquid, vaguely pink. Whoever got it for me called it El Diablo something. My friend Shelley says I tend toward pink cocktails. She says this like I might want to consider what it says about my manhood. Shelley is here now too, though not with me. She smirks at my drink from across the room. I think she’s on a date. Dangly earrings. Moon eyes.

The woman I came here with is friends with Anneke, the birthday person, and her man, Javier. I am, too, but I can never get enthusiastic about seeing them. I don’t know why. They’re nice. Interesting. Anneke is from Sweden, Javier from Mexico. They know how to sparkle in conversation, have a good time, etc. Right now, for instance, Javier is wearing red pants and dancing to salsa music. He dances with his whole body, uninhibited or seemingly so. But it’s not him I don’t like enough. It’s her.

*

Anneke the birthday Swede doesn't dance. She's a Virgo. Right now she's in a corner of the room paying a delivery guy for two bags of food. It's a milestone birthday and she wanted a party. The friend who’s hosting has this giant space. Few interior walls. Massive cement columns painted white support the ceiling.

The reason I don't like Anneke enough is not her embrace of an open relationship. After all, Javier’s part of that, too. I'm not supposed to know this, but the woman I came here with let it slip one night while rejecting my overtures. I’ve been outside of relationship for so long I can’t remember what it’s like to walk a room with that assurance inside.

On one wall of this room are enormous black-and-white photographs. Portraits blown-up until pixilated. The faces in them are beautiful: here’s one of that actor who emerged from rehab with goatee and gravitas. I avoid his gaze. We studied together, he and I. Actor’s Studio. Drinks. Drugs. No one thought he’d make it.

Five years ago, none of us would have come to this neighborhood. These buildings—blocks of them—stood abandoned forever.

Anneke takes the bags of food into what might be a kitchen. At any rate, she disappears behind a wall. She's not a bad person. She's a medical researcher working to cure a chronic lung disease in children. She likes ice creams that crunch.

I stroke my chin. (A strong chin. It’s been called sculpted.) I look for Shelley. I don’t think I’ve hit on her for a couple years now. I fight off the fear that the salsa will segue to Dixieland jazz.

What if I were the sort of person who knew why I didn't like someone enough? What I don’t know about me could fill a biscuit bowl.

Cement columns throb to the beat. The room abuzz with conversation; the occasional crumb lands, welcome, on my shoulder: I love basketball, but I can't watch the NBA anymore.

Shelley floats by.

I flick her dangly earring. Say, “Your nose is like the Tower of Lebanon overlooking Damascus.”

“You’re a child,” she says.

“It’s part of my charm,” I tell her. But she’s gone.

I have recently lost my context. The ground slips out from under me at odd and unpredictable moments.

* * *

I'm in a yard that is allegedly mine. A back yard, cyclone-fenced and city-sized, houses on each side. Tending the lawn with a goat I've adopted. The goat's name is Uncle Willy. Right now he’s eating the garbage tossed in the yard by people walking by. My stated reason for adopting him is that he keeps the lawn trim, but the truth of it is I like his company. I know what this says about me. The lawn is not large but I don’t know how not large. I'm no judge of open spaces.

*

Anneke the birthday Swede likes Dixieland jazz. She—or someone who knows her taste—has changed the music. A peppy clarinet insinuates itself throughout the room. Javier has stopped dancing, as have the others. A new round of drinks appears. A large bowl of biscuits, smaller bowls of gravy and honey now decorate an otherwise spartan table punctuated by bursts of severe vegetables. Hummus. I spot the woman I came with. She's in animated conversation with two men. One of them wears a black silk suit jacket that I own in a smaller size. The woman I came with is smiling. Laughing. Touching the elbow of the suit jacket. She’s always touching someone. She has the sexiest clavicle I’ve ever seen. I once had designs on her, but she operates in a realm above. 

Some days I’ve got four stomachs. I can’t even bring myself to go to auditions. A voice behind me: I make paintings. I cut them up and collage them, and then I pee on them. This is a person with a context.

My phone sings a song: a text message from my friend Dahlia who's somewhere south, caring for her failing father. A once-renowned geologist now in his nineties. He's been asleep on the toilet for four hours, she writes. He got sad about Mom and took too many pills. I can't move him.

I put the phone away. Feel my face flush. I see Dahlia, off-balance, arms under her father’s, pulling. The toll it takes on her to see him reduced, the inevitable end state. For decades, he hiked the Ozarks, mapping minerals. If I were there now, I could help hoist him, pour her a glass of wine, say something stupid to make her laugh. But she's 600 miles away (give or take). My cheeks burn. Laughter behind me. Tuck it in, I tell myself.

My eyes find those of the woman I came with. She’s touching someone’s face. She catches my gaze and moves her head behind that head ‘til our eyes don’t meet.

About the goat: He’s a story I tell at parties. I like to maintain an air of mystery. To spice up conversation. An escape from I do this, I make that. Blah blah blah. I choose not to map the distance between these two statements: I’m doing voiceovers until I get enough theater work; I do voiceovers. Sip of pink cocktail.

Shelley’s ear walks by, minus the guy.

“Date?” I ask.

“Just met,” she says.

I find a napkin and a corner to regroup.

I think about hounding Shelley into going home with me. Sexy or sick dog, I don’t care.

There’s almost no chance that will happen.

The Mexican Swedes have a kid named Jack who always seems to be away—camp, school, who knows. I've met him twice. He's twelve-ish. He plays soccer and doesn't say much. But that’s not the reason I don’t like Anneke enough.

The spirit of the night is mezcal. It’s that kind of party.

* * *

I am walking along a sunny, quiet sidewalk in the outskirts of the French Quarter in New Orleans. I've got my sunglasses on and I'm feeling good about myself, soaking in that sun and heading to meet my friend Oyster Rodriguez for a delicious late-afternoon beer when I become aware of something lurking behind me. A truck. Moving slow. Trolling for parking. But there's lots of spaces, and still it creeps along in my shadow. I turn left. So does the truck. White. Flatbed. Finally it rolls up alongside. There's a mobile billboard on the bed, and on the billboard are giant letters that say, "Of course there are miraculous events every day. But we are also mortal every day." In the lower right corner, a pint of European lager. The driver makes eye contact. I want to shout, What does this mean? And, why do you taunt me with your beer truths? Behind his shades he gives me this meaningful nod and a finger wave. Like we’re in on some secret together.

*

Anneke is not a bad person. Many people like Dixieland jazz.

A man approaches me as I lean against a white column. "I hear you have a pet goat," he says.

"Apocryphal," I bleat. I wonder how he knows. Music wraps itself around the columns. Licks them. The man doesn't notice.

Voices ping and pong. A sexy clavicle appears and disappears.

“You have that look,” the man says. His shirt has been professionally ironed. “Like someone we think we should recognize, but we shouldn’t.”

Flick. I flash my professional smile. If there’s blood, I don’t feel it. “What’s your position on mobile billboards?”

He nods. The shirt—a subtle teal stripe—doesn’t move. “Can I call you Frank?” he says. “It’s just easier.”

I take it in stride. In character. "Who are you?" I ask him.

"Host."

The woman I came with drinks gin. I smell it close by. Shards of conversation fly at us. A female voice: I hate South Beach. It's all boobs and G-strings. I duck to avoid them.

"Nice place," I offer. "Severe. Warehouse?"

He shakes his head. "Toilet paper factory."

I catch a glimpse of a familiar face carrying a glass. A waft of juniper. There’s an implicit agreement in going to a party with someone. That you will be each other’s ballast. That you will not, in any superficial sense, be left alone. I may yet give her the opportunity to take me home tonight. I haven’t spoken to her since she handed off her coat. As if that’s not enough, one of the portraits on the wall is her and her too-sexy clavicle. I eyeball my drink. This life is a puzzle.

"Is that how you made your money?" I ask the host.

I'm no prize. I get that. 

He considers whether to answer. "This and that," he says. I decide I like him. "Started a restaurant chain—BiscuitTown. My current partners and I have built a better septic tank."

A woman who is neither the birthday Swede nor Shelley nor the woman I came with, but who knows how to wear a black dress, flashes a smile (possibly in my direction) and disappears behind a wall. Her hair blunt cut. Somewhere there is a room with coats piled on a bed and the lingering smell of illicit activity. 

I have no interest in community theater. Dinner circuits in small resort towns. I am trained for better things.

The music—Memphis soul—reminds me of Dahlia. I picture her father, asleep on his toilet seat. I text: status? I text: should I have been a plumber?

Just once I'd like to leave a party with the woman I came with. I’m pretty sure she’s avoiding me.

* * *

I’m with Dahlia and her father in the living room of the ranch house he retired to. We’ve just come from his garden. He wanted to show off his peppers—hot ones—cherry, habanero. Tiny, intricate fruits with a potent impact. Had me pick some to take home. He can’t eat them anymore. Made sure I could before he offered them. He got winded, so we came in. Cleared places for ourselves to sit, positioned so we could see each other’s faces around stacks of magazines, files, clothing. He wears a tunic—white—not unlike a hospital gown. His breathing is an untuned clarinet. I’ve known him forever.

*

By the biscuits, Anneke chats with the host, an ease that makes my neck hairs sting. Javier swings by, asks me if I want to dance. I do. We take the floor and gyrate. I am—we are—in sync. We are legs and hips and fluid purpose. In no time a knot of others surrounds us. The woman in the black dress among them. And the guy who’d been talking about basketball. I want to touch her hair. Some nights everyone looks sexy to me. Well, almost everyone. We all need to believe this. Warmth in our bellies. Sustenance. We are shirts that belong in the room. That pinned to the toilet is someone else’s nightmare. There’s water in my eyes and I wonder if anyone will see. If I could convince them I haven’t been the same since Michael Jackson died.

It’s not that I love my work so much as it is having a craft to hone. A sense of effort rewarded. I have pride beyond my abilities.

I'm done dancing before Javier is. I make my way to the bar for another El Diablo Something and end up next to the basketball guy.

Shelley has left via a side door. When I say side door, I employ a euphemism.

"I appreciate what you were saying about the college game," I tell the guy. He's tall and has a wispy mustache. I suspect civil engineering.

He looks at me with the mustache. He’s not really dressed for a party (no collar), but who am I to say. I press on. “College. It’s all I have patience for.”

He nods. The mustache goes along for the ride. "You know how I judge a good game?" he says. He doesn't seem to mind my eavesdropping on his earlier conversation. "Rebounds."

"We are of one mind," I say. “Sympatico.” I add a conspiratorial lilt to my voice and wag two fingers back and forth between us. Behind us, the door buzzer buzzes.

His eyes squint a little. "Rebounding," he says, "is not about talent. You need to want the ball."

"Amen," I say. As if on cue, Michael Jackson sings from the house speakers—“Don’t Stop 'Til You Get Enough.”

I have expectations I can’t escape. I want to eat my own flesh. I want to shout, “Run!”

Anneke eats baby carrots from a small plate. Watches her man wow them on the dance floor. The reason I don’t like Anneke enough is not that she’s willingly ordinary. Well, maybe a little. She has no need to shine. The door buzzes again. I answer it.

Two guys stand there, burly types in forest-green polo shirts. "We're here to move the cat," one says. I let them in.

* * *

I'm in a car. It's a 1966 Ford Falcon, the first car I ever owned (ancient even when I owned it), and the car is rolling backward although it is in drive and my foot is on the accelerator. I'm not as frightened by this as I would expect. I'm puzzled. I can't figure out how or why this is happening. I'm noticing how differently the landscape (open field, hay rolls) passes by the window now than when the car is moving forward. The road, a country road, is long and straight, and I'm moving steady but not fast enough to cause panic, convinced that any second now the transmission will engage and the car will lurch forward. I know this field, though I can't place it. I have chased frisbees in it, tossed baseballs. Slept in it, walked it.

*

Do I want the ball? The woman who knows how to wear a black dress moves back toward the dance floor. She's definitely smiling, and it's definitely at me. Something in me deflates—all I want is to lay my head in her lap. I'm pretty sure that's not what she has in mind. Who needs another project?

The host stands beside me, holding a glass. “We brought biscuits to the northeast,” he says. “My partners identify market gaps. I fill them. This is the nature of partnership.”

Javier waves to me from across the room. Javier is a professor of journalism. His work on climate change has won awards.

He (host) nods at my empty glass. "I'll refill you. What are you drinking?"

I hand him the glass. "El Diablo Something."

He lingers, deciding whether to say something. Doesn’t. Then, eyes on my face, "Have you been crying?"

I consider the Michael Jackson line. Opt instead for, “Who trains to be a failed professional?”

“Almost everyone,” he says. It’s late enough his shirt is letting down its guard. We’re in an MJ mini-set. Billie Jean is not my lover. “The entire life points toward it. The trajectory obvious to everyone but the person involved.”

I’m not sure what’s going on here, but I blame the shirt. “I have recently recognized I’m a failed actor,” I say. “Futureless.” A faux pas. 

He gestures toward the table as he takes my glass to the bar. “Have a biscuit.”

On the wall behind Javier, a portrait: Dahlia’s father, on the toilet, in his blue denim hiking shirt, pixilated arms folded across his belly, once-elegant Russian face turned to the wall.

There are nights a punch knocks the starch off the blouse. Boom. Nothing you can do. On those nights it's good to have a Javier to dance with.

*

I need another project. But that’s not the sort of thing you can acknowledge, except a) to someone you know very well in an intimate moment or b) to a stranger at the end of a party with the cloak of banter firmly established. 

Another thing that is not a reason I don’t like Anneke enough: she is not too busy to listen.

There is almost no chance the host will actually bring me a drink.

Doot-doo-doot. Three musical notes. A message from Dahlia.

Everybody is off the toilet. I consider that a success. Am going to sleep.

Dahlia. I’ve considered becoming a woman in order to have a chance with her.

On the speakers, MJ segues into “Wanna Be Starting Something,” which makes me smile, and then Anneke appears beside me, which in that moment is exactly right. This song is one of the reasons I like Anneke, even if I don’t like her enough. MJ is a bond we share. When he died, she sent me a link to a YouTube clip, MJ at Neverland talking wistfully about saving lost boys while this song—this very song!—played in the background. Sweet and horrifying in equal measure. Now she’s smiling beside me as the floor fills around us. “Dance with me,” she says. “It’s my birthday.”

I kiss her cheek. Return the mischievous grin. Javier sees this from the dance floor and beckons. His joy irresistible.

Anneke pulls my arm and I follow. Michael sings at the height of his powers. Anneke and I dance as only self-conscious white people can. I weep and don’t try to hide it. The woman in the black dress seems amused by my gyrations, in a good way. I say in her ear, "MJ always makes me cry." She touches my forearm. A head in a sympathetic lap for an hour would not be a bad thing. Soon the song will be over, but for now, the whole party is on the dance floor, a hive of bodies pulsing in joyous rhythm. 

Across the room, the host circulates among his guests, distributing flaky, steaming goodness from a paper bag labeled BiscuitTown, offering grace to any who will receive it.

# # #

Ron MacLean’s short fiction has appeared in GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, Best Online Fiction, and elsewhere. He is the author of Headlong, winner of the 2013 Indie Book Award for Best Mystery, and two previous books: Blue Winnetka Skies, and Why the Long Face? He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He teaches at Grub Street in Boston and wishes he was from Finland.

A note from Ron on "I Could Fill a Biscuit Bowl"

We all have that person in our life (don’t we? please say it’s not just me) who is perfectly nice, and our friends rave about them, but we just don’t like them as much as we feel we should. I was (am) fascinated by the idea of how we respond to that person, and what better way to engage that than a birthday party. Then, as it happens, to make the story worthwhile, I had to write into my own vulnerability.

Three questions from guest editors Liz Prato and Wendy J. Fox

What writers (living or not) would you invite to your literary dinner party? What would you serve?

Gertrude Stein, for sure. And Flannery O’Connor. I’d love to hear the two of them talk. And Italo Calvino and Jeanette Winterson. And Kelly Link and Robert Lopez. I’d serve chili and cornbread. I make a really good chili.

When you're writing and editing, what food or drink are you most likely to smear/spill on your pages?

Coffee, invariably. And if it’s mid-afternoon and I’m on the struggle bus, chocolate chip cookie crumbs and smears.

What time period & place do you wish you'd lived in?

Two words: Jet packs.


Sam Richardson.JPG

Sam Richardson

Followed by Q&A

You’re Little More than an Apple Core

Eyes closed, you press your palms against the road and breathe calmly. Around you, the black asphalt is nearly white in the sunlight, interrupted only by the car's shadows flickering past your own. Each vehicle barrels down the highway, leaving a signature of toxins and the grinding of wind. As they pass, your hair tosses around in the shrapnel-like gust.

You envision the confused drivers staring. Their thoughts probably swarm with questions about the twenty-something they see swarming like the bugs they assume are in that wild head of hair. What else will they think when they see someone sitting cross-legged on the side of the highway? They'll continue driving and eventually their minds will shift from you to their next list of tasks. You pity them. Errand after errand, assignment after assignment, they are unraveling. 

You quietly giggle at their foolishness and continue to revel in the midday sun.

The heat enters your skin and permeates every inch of your muscle.

Here, sitting on the edge where grass meets concrete, you feel complete. It's why you return day after day, sometimes even sleeping on the hard ground. It's why walking miles to make it to one spot on the interstate has become as necessary as breathing. Your way to make sense of the world, your faith, your church, all resonate here, not far from an apple core. Though it looks to be carelessly discarded, you know the truth about that piece of fruit and why it’s really on the ground. You smile, remembering your mischievous grin when you realized there could be no clearer epitaph than a rotting piece of fruit on the very spot where your head had hit.

***

You remember so little about the accident—the single most pivotal moment in your life. You tell yourself the lack of memories is not from the supposed "brain damage" the doctors keep trying to shove down your throat. Their fancy degrees mean nothing. If someone wanted a signifier of intelligence, they could just stare at your forehead! Instead of being smudged with ash by a priest, you have an intricate scar given to you by the road. No one can tell the difference! 

See, unlike all the quacks and oglers, you understand the blankness is from looking at memories through the eyes of another person. That person, with the well-matched clothes and the slick hair, is not you. That person leaving the club, the one who put the keys in the ignition and tried to drive home in the rain, that person was no longer with us the moment the car hit the barrier.  

When your head hit the pavement you were already someone new.

After you stopped tumbling and sliding across the ice-black ground, your eyes remained shut for a moment; as they opened the scene flickered into a convoluted view. The rain pelted down and left you with a spine-chilling cold that permeated your skin, determined to rip you to pieces. Each violent droplet of rain pounded on your back and caused all the broken bones, bruises, and gashes to scream. You felt the rain beating down on your mangled body, but you smiled. The blood did not last long. It mixed with the rain and left a friendly pink color swirling away. The shards of glass hit the ground crisply. They floated down from the sky like confetti. You noted how affirming the concrete felt beneath your mangled face. How affirming it was beneath your mangled body. How affirming it was beneath your mangled mind.

Your consciousness ebbed as you lay there. Minutes or months later the police showed up. Their rhythmic lights were beautiful. They flashed red then blue, transforming you into a child staring at a mobile above. 

Red. The hard pavement was your favorite blanket.  

Blue. The police put up festive yellow banners. 

Red. More people stopped to join the party. 

Blue. "The paramedics will arrive soon!"  

Red. Your smile grew. 

Blue. The rain pelted your broken ribs.

Red. A white vehicle arrived. 

Blue. You became their antique doll.

You resented them for taking you away. Nobody asked if you wanted to move. You supposed it didn't really matter—you probably wouldn't have been able to speak anyway. (The quacks said it was due to shock but you know it was really enlightenment.) 

For years to come, people close to the old you asked how intense the pain was. 

"Far away and mind clearing," you would reply. 

Most would look uncomfortable and stare with concern.

The same supposed friends came to see you in the hospital. They looked at you sympathetically, only noticing the bandages circling your head, the IV needle sticking into your arm. They didn't know they were staring directly at a stranger. You gave them credit for trying, but as you slowly healed in that hospital bed, all you could think of was the road. All those bright flowers, the quirky cards, the little "Get Well" trinkets, they meant absolutely nothing. All you wanted was to return to the scene of the accident. You wanted peace with the pavement once again.

So you allowed the doctors and nurses to do whatever they needed to heal your broken bones and ease the throbbing. They constantly asked questions about how you were feeling and your thoughts on treatments. Usually you didn't respond. Sometimes you lied.

Finally, once released, you had a mind full of new thoughts and a body full of pins and stitches. You also had a plan. You would wait for the family to leave so you could take the car. (Supposedly the pain medications you'd been prescribed prevented you from being behind the wheel. You didn't care.) The moment you had an opportunity you took it and drove hastily to the scene of the accident. You parked, heaved yourself out of the car, and stood looking at the beautiful blacktop beneath your feet. Your eyes welled with tears as you sat down, placing both hands on the road beneath you. You closed your eyes and your face broke into a wide smile. You sat there for hours with your eyes closed, feeling the temperature drop as the late summer sun set. The feeling of contentedness from your accident returned. Your mood changed only when a horrified family showed up. Apparently they had been searching frantically. They had no idea where else to look and decided to try the scene of the accident out of desperation. Their terrified faces shifted to looks of unease as they observed your calm unchanging face. They bombarded you with questions about why you ran away.

“I like it here," you said.

They forced you to return home. You complied. Just as you had allowed the doctors to prod you with needles and cover you with bandages, you allowed the family to drive you home. You allowed them to think you were trying to sleep as you stared up at the unchanging ceiling. 

You rose and walked out of the house. Limping down the road, pushing against the immense soreness, you stumbled towards your heaven. It wasn't until a random driver pulled over and offered a ride that you broke your glassy stare. 

By the time you made it to your coveted spot, your feet were aching and your head was throbbing once again. The first morning rays were beginning to show themselves as if welcoming you back home. You did the same thing; you simply sat on the ground with your eyes closed and felt the ground beneath you. That deep-seated feeling of calmness returned. To everyone's dismay, the cycle repeated itself. The family located you much more quickly the second time. Again, you obliged and quietly found your place in the car. That night your father stayed in your room while you slept. Once he dozed off, you quietly snuck out and began your journey all over again.

Again, you arrived at the highway knowing your time would be cut short by the nosy family who claimed to love you. On the night of your accident only the pavement was present—there was no one who had made empty promises. The road was no longer something beneath you that you drove on carelessly. It was sacred. When you came back it welcomed you in its silent, unmoving way. Your family did not feel as welcomed. This time when they found you, they forced you into the car despite your compliance. Before you knew it, you were in the emergency room—then the loony bin.

While institutionalized, you were surrounded by people who seemed eternally beaten. You met one woman with sizable bald spots littering her dirty blond hair. Despite being dressed in comfortable sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt, the woman's clothes seemed vastly out of place. Somehow her frail body begged for something more formal, as if she was constantly on her way to a meeting. In group, she explained to everyone how she had managed to fix her hair in a way that covered her hairless spots for the days she appeared in court. Stress would cause her to pull out her hair, strand after strand. She mentioned her name, but you made no effort to remember. In fact, you instantly discarded any names you heard. You didn't know what to call the man who saw strange apparitions at night; or the college girl with the cuts scattered on her arms who'd been beaten by her boyfriend; or the soldier who stopped making eye contact after Afghanistan and cried after hearing loud sounds. You felt a deep sense of sadness for those people who would probably never find their sense of freeness like you. They would become casualties of condescension being shot down by confused looks. Hopefully Sisyphus' boulder would slip off the mountain and roll over them. You could only hope.

Your time to speak in groups afforded the sessions with a dose of awkwardness.

"Do you have anything the share with us today?" the staff probed.

Your only reply was silence.

More questions would follow. More silence would permeate the room. Then the casualties would take their turn, questioning everything from your unkempt hair to your dirty face.

Your reply was always silence.

They dismissed you for "refusing" treatment. The cycle continued. You would sneak out, be found, and then forced home. Your family did not know how to handle the situation. You didn't care. Whenever they spoke you saw their mouths moving and observed their desperation. You could see it, nothing more. In your mind you thought of only the highway. For months the same pattern played out.

Eventually, as you hoped, the family stopped trying to find you. They allowed you to stay at your sanctuary since all their efforts were exhausted. Sometimes they'd show up to check on you and leave with an untraceable look plastered on their faces. You stayed at your spot all day and sometimes all night, watching drivers go by—knowing they were clueless.

Clueless. The word sat like a razor blade against the tongue. Not the kind of pain that feels like joy. More like the kind that feels like collapse.

Before the accident you'd seen homeless people in the city and always been harsh towards them—internally of course. People from different planets don't speak. Some would be lying down drunk, high, and unaware. Others would be holding ominous signs attempting to enlighten the public. Back then you'd laugh at their ridiculous messages. What could they know that you didn't? Those people, you'd say, had no idea. Those people were the clueless ones.

***

Occasionally cars pull over and hand you various items: some food, a pair of gloves, even a used jacket. The highway is giving these things to you, using travelers as a tool. You're sure of it.

One day you decide to join the ranks of the other enlightened. For the first time since the accident, you willingly leave your spot. You're not a man, you're Buddha leaving the shade of the bodhi tree. You dumpster dive to find a large piece of cardboard. You stand outside a grocery store and ask uncomfortable patrons for something to write with. Most shake their heads or walk past without acknowledgement. Some even plug their noses and sneer. Eventually, a man offers you a pen like a cashier desperately shoving money towards an armed robber.

You scrawl large letters on the cardboard.

"Respect What Is Beneath You," your sign reads.

You return to the spot and hold the sign as you reflect. You know most will see you as a crazy homeless person and immediately discard your message. You don't care. They are traveling too. You just sit on the comfortable pavement and watch the leaves change color with the seasons.

# # #

Sam Richardson is a student at Roger Williams University. Her work has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People. This is her first published work of fiction.

A note from Sam about "You're Little More than an Apple Core"

This story was written in response to my creative writing professor's challenge to experiment with the second person narrative. I used the opportunity to touch on the subject of trauma and healing. I wanted to show that inner peace looks different for everyone.

Three questions from guest short fiction editors Liz Prato and Wendy J. Fox

What writers (living or not) would you invite to your literary dinner party? What would you serve?

Kurt Vonnegut, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Etgar Keret, and Charles Bukowski come to mind immediately. I'd probably keep it simple and serve burgers and fries . . . plus beer and wine.

When you're writing and editing, what food or drink are you most likely to smear/spill on your pages?

I hate to say it but energy drinks. Cherry Nos will be the death of me.

What time period & place do you wish you'd lived in?

I wish I could relive the 90's as a twenty-something. I only experienced that time as a child.


Winners and Finalists for the 2016 Prime Number Magazine Awards

Our winners in each category will be published in Issue 101 on October 1, 2016. At that time our winners will each receive their prize of $1,000, plus a certificate. Certificates will also be mailed to our finalists.

We thank everyone who entered our competition and we hope to read your work again next year.

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SHORT FICTION WINNER

Jocelyn Johnson of Charlottesville, VA, was named winner of the 2016 Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction by Taylor Brown for her story "The King of Xandria." 

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POETRY WINNER

Faith Shearin of Gerrardstown, WV, was named winner of the 2016 Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry by Kelly Cherry for her poem "Liminal States." 

2016 Prime Number Magazine Awards for Poetry

Judged by Kelly Cherry

WINNER (to be published in Issue 101 on October 1)

“Liminal States” by Faith Shearin of Gerrardstown, West Virginia

Judge’s Note: This poem is both light and dark, clear and mysterious, familiar and startling. A liminal state is a state of being in-between. What has gone is what is gone. What is before us is the uncertain new. There is something of the quality of seasickness in a liminal state. As in the poem, "it is dawn or dusk" and the poet speaks "of the edges / between water and land, the place where / the forest gives way to a meadow. . . ." To be between is to be haunted and anxious, unknowing but about to know, fearful and waiting. The poet has succeeded in conveying this condition without analyzing it; rather, he or she has saturated the poem with the feeling of the feeling, so that the reader actually experiences the sensation. The reader does not merely think about the feeling. The poem's diction is adequate but appropriately quiet, the better to enter the poem and stay within it for the duration. The pacing is not slow—we go from one liminal state to another—but it, too, is quiet. The reader holds his/her breath. The poem's final line underscores its function: "how it would feel." 

RUNNER UP (to be published in Issue 101, on October 1)

“Among the Things You Deserve” by Emily Ransdell of Camas, Washington

Judge’s Note: Here we have a poem that is cheerful, generous, funny, sweet, loving. In short, it is irresistible. I am reminded of "This Is Just to Say," the William Carlos Williams poem in which he admits that he has "eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox. . ." The list of things the "you" deserves is both short and commodious. It amuses and reminds, while it also delineates the woman who is "you" and the good and noticing friend who wants her to have everything she deserves. The precision of the list ensures our attention and respect for the friend. The final line tells us that the woman deserves "[a]n apology from god," and upon reading that, we grasp the depth of the poem, the friend's ferocity, and the seriousness of the situation.

HONORABLE MENTION (to be published in Issue 101 on October 1)

“On the North Saskatchewan River” by Alycia Pirmohamed of Calgary, Alberta, Canada

“10 Years Later, the Cowardly Lion Surveys His Territory,” by Emily Rose Cole of Carbondale, Illinois

Judge’s Note: "10 Years Later, the Cowardly Lion Surveys His Territory," is a poem that thoroughly and in interesting diction deconstructs the L. Frank Baum book The Wizard of Oz, and "On the North Saskatchewan River," in which the speaker elides or erases himself or herself from the page. Both poems are striking in their own ways and I was reluctant to choose between them.

FINALISTS

“Buildup of Salt” by Sam Gilpin of Portland, Oregon  

“Dwarf Planet” by Jessica Towns of Seattle, Washington

“Noise Pattern on a Last Day” by Kathleen Jones of Wilmington, North Carolina

“Nomenomancy” by Mark Wagenaar of Denton, Texas

“Pulverized Apology” by Jed Myers of Seattle, Washington

“Reveille” by M. C. Neuda of Bronx, New York 

2016 Prime Number Magazine Awards for Short Fiction

Judged by Taylor Brown

WINNER (to be published in Issue 101 on October 1)

“The King of Xandria” by Jocelyn Johnson of Charlottesville, Virginia

Judge’s note: “There are some damn fine stories here, but I keep coming back to ‘The King of Xandria.’ It's beautifully written, propelled by such a visceral sense of desperation, of having no place to be, and some of the images have really stuck with me: ‘the hummingbird in Mr. Attah's throat,’ ‘the lost brood of tundra swans.’ And I love the title and the use of ‘Xandria.’ It's my pick for winner!”

FINALISTS

“Benedictions” by Rolf Yngve of Coronado, California 

“Burned” by Rebecca Timson of Seattle, Washington 

“Choices” by Steven Ostrowski of Niantic, Connecticut

“Clean Burn” by Jane Shlensky of Bahama, North Carolina 

“Confirmation” by Kathleen Ford of Charlottesville, Virginia

“Fall Line” by Alexander Weinstein of Ann Arbor, Michigan 

“The Proxy” by Rose Hamilton-Gottlieb of Ames, Iowa

“Reservations” by Cody Luff of Cornelius, Oregon

“Xuefei and his Heart” by Rebecca Wurtz of St. Paul, Minnesota

Meet Our Judges

POETRY: Kelly Cherry

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Kelly Cherry’s new book of poems, The Life and Death of Poetry, was published by LSU Press in 2013 and her new poetry chapbook, Vectors, by Parallel Press in December 2012. She was the first recipient of the Hanes Poetry Prize given by the Fellowship of Southern Writers for a body of work. Other awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bradley Major Achievement (Lifetime) Award, a USIS Speaker Award (The Philippines), a Distinguished Alumnus Award, three Wisconsin Arts Board fellowships, two WAB New Work awards, the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook Award for Distinguished Book of Stories in 1999 (2000), and selection as a Wisconsin Notable Author. In 2010, she was a Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In 2012, she received both the Taramuto Prize for a story and the Carole Weinstein Prize for Poetry, and in 2013 the L.E. Phillabaum Award for Poetry. Former Poet Laureate of Virginia, she is Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She and her husband live in Virginia. Further details appear on her Wikipedia page.

Short Fiction: Taylor Brown

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Taylor Brown's novel, Fallen Land, was signed to St. Martin's Press and is due out January 12, 2016. His short fiction collection, In the Season of Blood & Gold, was published by Press 53 in May 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The New Guard, The Baltimore Review, CutBank, The Coachella Review, storySouth, CrimeSpree Magazine, the 2010 Press 53 Open Awards Anthology, and many others. He received the Montana Prize in Fiction for his story “Rider,” and he was a finalist for the 2012 Machigonne Fiction Prize. His work has been recognized as one of the “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” in Best American Mystery Stories, and his story “Kingdom Come” won second prize in the 2010 Press 53 Open Awards for Short Story. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, and his website is www.taylorbrownfiction.com.