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Crack the Spine Literary magazine

Issue 106

Issue 106 March 12, 2014 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2014 by Crack the Spine


S.G. Childress Birds With Wings Like Flies

Katherine Gehan Funeral Song

Gerald Wallerstein Equations

Alexander B. Hogan The Dulcimer

Jamie Lee Knight The Liquor Larcenist

Dick Bentley Shrine

Meryl McQueen Debris

Bruce Reeves The Semi-Detached Relationship

S.G. Childress Birds With Wings Like Flies

I walked the dark empty house with a beer in one hand and Kathleen's note in the other. 'David. I'm not. Kathleen' That’s all she wrote but I knew. I was surprised she'd stayed as long as she did. But it was strange she'd left without feeding her hummingbirds. I grabbed another Pearl from the fridge and went out on the patio like we'd done so many times over fourteen years of marriage. Like we had the night before.

Kathleen had sipped tea and watched her hummingbirds at the red and yellow plastic feeder. She turned and looked at me. "Aren't they precious?" I sipped beer as the sun warmed my bare arms in spots where it made it down through the pines. "Sure are, honey. They really are." Then came one of her lingering looks. She set her glass down on the cement. "David. Do you ever wish..." She twisted her wedding ring on her finger. "I mean...are you ever sorry?" She wanted me to look at her. I wouldn't.

"David, are you sorry we didn't have kids?" "What?" I acted like I hadn't spun this out before. "No." I turned to her. "Honey, I'm perfectly happy with how things turned out. Always have been." She watched my mouth as I spoke, then picked up her sweating glass. Dark circle stain soaked down into concrete. She looked into her glass and swirled the tea and ice. "Why?" I said, already knowing. "Aren’t you?" She'd lain back in her chair, looking a little older with sun on her face. Then she'd left and gone to bed without

saying another word. I don't know why I didn't try more. Now, with her note in my lap, I drank as her hummingbirds chirped their funny little chirps at the feeder. I took it as long as I could then jumped up and grabbed my garden rake. "Go with her, you little bastards!" I scattered them with the rake then sat back down. And remembered when I was little, before my parents' divorce, when I thought hummingbirds were birds with bird bodies but with wings like flies. Behind that memory came another. Our mother holding the

screen door open with her hip, suitcases in her hands as bugs and moths burned themselves again and again on the bare light bulb over her head. "Come on boys, we're going," she'd said. "We're going now." My little brother and I had looked at our father on the couch and he'd looked back. I recalled my theory, a secret never spoken. Could I have become a better man if I'd run to my daddy right then and clamped my arms around his neck and refused to let our mother take us away? Hummingbirds returned to the feeder now, one, two, more. I stood and went to the

house as the last bit of that old memory came, and its truth. "But daddy never got up," I said to myself as I slid open the glass patio door. "He never got off the couch. Just let us go." I turned to see more hummingbirds than I'd ever seen, spinning and whirling around that empty feeder. I slid the door shut and clicked the lock, so I wouldn't have to hear them out there, crying and crying after their sugar water.

Katherine Gehan Funeral Song

The paper said Vivian Thompson had died of natural causes at the age of eighty-eight. Henry was eight months old. That seemed a nice span of time. Wisdom resonated in the numbers between lives. When overwhelmed with the new life in his possession Jack found comfort in the study of death, and so they were off, driving southwest on route 93 to attend a stranger’s funeral. The foothills wore their early summertime greenish grey, and the afternoon thunderstorm had already passed over and was rumbling off in the east. Henry squealed. In the rearview mirror Jack watched his kid gum a rubber toy, his eyes the color of his mother’s. Marlee flashed through Jack’s chest. Last fall, she’d barked out the results from the pregnancy test from an outhouse. Positivity smelled like

cedar and shit. When she emerged from the little shed, she shook her head, barely made eye contact, and marched back into the small-town junky bar Jack had booked for their band. “I’ll make no kind of mother,” she’d hissed back at him. She kept her promises. Later that night Marlee had a lot to say about being pregnant. In a motel room that smelled like bleach, she’d explained herself, makeup smudged beneath her pale eyes, her dress hiked high around her waist. “When I was a kid I decided that for a whole week I’d pretend one of my dolls was a real baby: dress it, feed it, change its diapers—everything.” She took a drag off of the cigarette in her hand and looked squarely at Jack, who had watched in alarm as he considered

her vices in light of the new information. He’d always wanted kids. “Within two days my baby doll was laying half-under the rusty old radiator in my bedroom.” Jack opened his arms. “That was decades ago. You’re not the same kid.” “But I am,” she said. “I am.”


he pulled into the Golden Hills funeral home, Grams Parsons echoed through Jack’s head: Time can pass and time can heal/But it don’t ever pass the way I feel. When he attended funerals, Jack only wore button-down shirts with pockets that held handkerchiefs. He wiped his forehead with the crisp white cloth and then unfolded the tiny square obituary page from his pocket and studied the circle he’d made around Vivian Thompson’s listing. He’d liked the way her name rolled off his tongue when he said it aloud. He wondered what her people might be like, how many of them would attend

the service. As Jack carefully unbuckled and scooped the sleeping Henry out of his car seat, he whispered to himself as much as to his infant. “And why are we here?” As they entered the building, he fell in line behind a slow-moving woman wearing a lilac-colored dress. “Because, Henry, we are trying to remind ourselves of the larger meaning of life. You may think that because your mother has left us that we are failures. But that’s not so.” As if saying this aloud made it true. As if he had that kind of power. Jack was feeling weird, lightheaded, like he’d been drinking, though he’d quit months ago. In the guest book, beneath the loopy signatures of Vivian Thompson’s friends and family, Jack signed his name and wrote in the chorus of an Old 97s song. All he did these days was steal other’s people’s lines. Henry stirred in Jack’s arms and yelped a yawn. The lilac woman turned

around at the sound, and her watery blue eyes crinkled at the corners when she saw the baby. “Oh, what sweetness. I have a greatgrand son just about his age,” she said to Henry as she took one of his hands. “This one must be about six months old.” This type of interaction was what Jack was here for. He smiled broadly “Eight months now. Not crawling yet, but thinking about it.” “Hyacinth Vanders,” the woman said as she shook Henry’s tiny hand. “Nice to meet you.” God, the elderly had such great names. She and Jack made small talk as the line slowly moved to the casket. Hyacinth didn’t ask how he knew the deceased, or about Henry’s mother, or why Jack wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, which others had. When they reached Vivian Thompson’s family, Jack gave his standard lie about his relation to the dead—he was the son of an old friend,

attending on his ill mother’s behalf. Then he stepped aside and watched Hyacinth kneel before the casket and close her eyes. He suddenly felt foolish and guilty about this farce. A few minutes later, Hyacinth was back at his side. “That was her high school yearbook photo.” She pointed to a nearby picture of Vivian as a romantic teenager with dark lipstick and a short, neat, haircut popular with girls in the 1930s. “Vivian hated how her nose looked in that picture and fought with her mother about having it retaken. But they didn’t have the money.” Hyacinth took Jack by the hand and led him over to a small yellow couch. “Some people believe the little things we think are important and fuss over really don’t matter.” She touched Henry’s tiny fingers. “But they do. We all die, my dear. That’s what makes us all the same. The small concerns are what make us special.” Jack came back to the surface from

the murky place he’d been for months. He had been a lousy partner when Marlee needed him most, forcing her into motherhood. Yet his love for Henry darted about, a kite of joy playing in the wind. Jack sat partially crumpled on the couch in the funeral home of a wake for a woman he’d never known, with Hyacinth Vanders’ forgiving touch on his arm, and the chorus of his own song began to take form in his head. He sat up. The words were coming to him now. “But I don’t have small concerns. My concerns are enormous!”

Hyacinth watched him, wide-eyed. “I’ve spent all this time visiting the ghosts of strangers, trying to mourn alongside the people they left behind. But I don’t belong here anymore—if I ever did.” The words to his song, to this ballad he’d been living were forming in his head, something about ceremony and the gorgeous unraveling of love. And that was it. “Thank you,” Jack said, as he nodded to Hyacinth on his way out.

Gerald Wallerstein Equations

“Easier to wrest each day from the finite life if you think mathematically”, Hart said. He spoke that way, and I would not describe him , I have no right, but that we agreed on the point. “Every sentence has the same weight on earth as every other”, he added, and with that I also agreed. Two men not so young any more, building a bulwark against pain. The last time I saw him he was sitting on a worn-out sofa, while his lover waited outside for a taxi. She had found a sentence that weighed more than any other: “We’re through!” I sat with him while he pondered. “Sontag”, he said, “says all philosophy dissolves into mathematics. But how long”, he wondered. “How long will it take?”

Alexander B. Hogan The Dulcimer


never thought of him, even though he was, as my grandfather. Maybe because I never met him. Maybe because in all of the photos my grandma kept he was a young man, younger than the other boys' fathers. Or maybe it was the knowledge, I sensed even as a child, that I would never, even as a man, matter as much as him. Like the messiah, my grandma's husband transcended death, living on in photos that covered the walls of our home, long after the others who died, my

mother, my father, disappeared into drawers and closets. While they lost their faces and eventually their names, he became omnipresent, watching over us from the walls as we ate dinner, watched television, and prayed before bed. When I was eight my grandma gave me her husband's army blanket and eight hardback books, all written in Finnish. The books, though useless to us both in any practical way, I for my monolingualism and she for her illiteracy, became

the foundation of my fortress. In the front room, between the piano and the sofa, I built my first tent with his books and blanket. There in my secret place, hidden from his gaze for the first time in my life, I received visits from an imaginary girl who played all the children’s games my grandma had neither the patience nor eyesight for. And when the games had been played, the imaginary girl and I would pretend to dance the way I’d seen old couples do in Edgar’s on Sunday nights.

The last Sunday of every month grandma took me to Edgar’s to have dinner and listen to the dulcimer music. It was there, by candlelight, after the warm bread had been consumed, and the music had softened her cheeks, that I asked my questions. At first just indulging me, she spoke in phrases and broken sentences, offering up pieces of stories I'd years before committed to memory. Shades of red, the shades I'd study in the faces of every girl I'd love,

warmed her cheeks. Her eyes, that seemed so weary on almost every other day of the month, rounded as she began to form rich, crisp sentences. And when she seemed young and strong like the other boys' mothers who were half her age, this is when new stories would come: his time in the South Pacific, the way he danced, the years he raised rabbits behind the house, the kind things he'd done for an ever expanding circle of family and friends,

almost all of whom had died before I was born. I searched, as I had each night, from start to finish, in every detail for his secret. The secret: how a dead man could fill a woman with life. She talked through dinner and desert and her final cup of coffee. She talked until the new stories had been told and my questions were exhausted and then, when our candle had burned down to its end, she withdrew entirely into memory. Sometimes, in the

minutes before the check would come, I'd watch her smile to herself as her eyes traced the scratches in the wood of the table. Other times I'd look out over the other tables, watching the halflit smiles on the faces of the young girls and the middle aged women. I'd wonder what kind of man I'd be and if, one day, a woman would tell stories about me.

at the table next to the fire place holding hands and studying each other through the flickering light of the candles. Shadows will dance all around us in exaggerated dimensions across the timber and stucco ceiling, coming ever closer, never quite touching us, but always there. The first notes of the dulcimer will erupt into the air and my heart will race, just a little bit. This woman with salt Years later, I’ll take my ex-wife, who’ll not yet be and pepper hair will be my wife, to Edgar’s on sitting across from us, in our second date. We’ll sit a shawl. I’ll see her face,

but only her lover’s back. The rose bloom of her cheeks, even at her age, even in the dark, will demand my attention. They’ll rise silently and place their arms in position. It won’t really be a waltz, there’s not enough room in the aisles at Edgar’s for waltzers and wait-staff. Not really a slow dance either, they’ll have too much decorum for that. Something in between. And my ex-wife, who will then only just be my date, not even my girlfriend, not yet, she’ll

turn toward the couple and her face will disappear into darkness. My heart’ll race faster, coercing my eardrums into rhythmic collaboration, squashing my lungs, robbing me of the ability to speak as I anticipate her smile and the dreams of the future we’ll share. And then she’ll turn back to me and say with contempt. “How embarrassing.” My smile, though I’ll try to stop it, will melt away.

Jamie Lee Knight The Liquor Larcenist

His father advised, You can put your broken teeth in milk to hold their life force inside just find somewhere else to dunk your cookie.

Heart beating like rhythms from a stick drawn fast across a fence, rat-atat-tat.

Later, once conscious, he remembers He likes to dip toast in yolk, someone smashed the bottom washing it down with a big glass of milk. off a glass bottle Was breakfast sufficient with his head. for an adrenaline sprint? He doesn’t know where all his teeth are. His quick wit picks out single serving Jack Hiding, the poor bastard in all the gypsy’s pockets, hears a twig break black label. under some steel toed boot and hopes silently He attempts to tease it free, that is wasn’t his tooth. but his fingers aren’t swift. His pleasure’s peculiar like a love of the lawnmower, finger amputation. Gypsies always have friends.

Dick Bentley Shrine


were going to Boyne to ski. Got lost around Indian River and the snow thickening on the road. Robbie says, “We’re not going to make it up there tonight.” He’s tired from all the beers, plus we’ve been passing a little ganja around the car, the four of us. The smoke’s quite thick and the car reeks. Then, through the windshield, the headlights pick up this sign for the world’s biggest crucifix. “Shit! Let’s check that sucker out,” Robbie says. We follow the sign. We get to the parking lot and circle around. You can barely see the thing—just a big shaft sticking up through the snow and darkness. You can see some feet on the bottom, though. That’s when Robbie dares me to climb it. There’s this maintenance ladder that goes up it. With little rungs where you can stick your feet and hold on.

I go, “No way. No way I’m getting up that thing.” But here I am, right at the top of the world’s biggest crucifix. I can almost see the face, but it’s dark and snowy. The thing is made of some kind of metal—bronze maybe. Shit, not the first time I’ve done something stupid for Robbie. I yell down, “Hey, there’s somebody already up here.” Robbie and Max, I can hear them laughing way down below, laughing through the wind. Charlotte probably stayed in the car, the little pussy. Even though Charlotte’s sort of a bitch, still, she can be pretty funny. She says all the guys that like me are total jerks. That I’m like a magnet for them because I like to do crazy stuff. It’s way cold up here. I’m not dressed warmly. Everything seems frozen. My nostrils are doing that thing where they stick together. Where they

squinch up. My boots totally suck and I’m freezing my little butt off. I can almost see the Jesus face now. It’s metallic and icy and the eyes are way blank, except when snow hisses across the metal, and it almost changes the expression. It totally creeps me out. It looks like Robbie at his creepiest. Me and Robbie have our creepy little dramas too. Pretty gloomy, I guess. Sometimes he scares me; sometimes I feel like throwing up practically; or sometimes I’m just—I don’t know…scared? I, like, don’t know what to say. He has a bad temper. Ohmigod, he goes, like, totally mental sometimes. Or else he’ll just hit me. Charlotte says, “Bad temper? Read my lips: how about asshole?” And she says the asshole thing long and loud for effect. And to think I had my tits done for him. Had my lips collagenized. Now my lips are fake, my hair color’s fake, and lots of my body parts are fake, and Robbie says a lobotomy would’ve done me

more good. I look down through a swirl of snow and—ohmigod—a cop car. I can see the flasher turning slowly, sweeping the snowy lot and making everything look blue. Robbie and Max are trying to hide the beer cans, but the inside of the car must reek of weed, plus they left all that shit in plain sight. A cop gets out and he’s talking to them. Another one is looking through the car. After a while they’re all—even Charlotte—shoved into the backseat. The cop car drives off. Thanks, everybody! What am I doing? It’s not like I even know. It’s like I know where I am, but it’s totally crazy because I feel like I totally don’t. Like I’m here but I’m not here. That sounds so stupid, right? So totally dumb? Everybody forgot I was up here. That’s how much they care. Leave me hanging up here on a ladder. And the wind blowing snow down the back of my neck and this creepy statue—this face.

Could I leer back at him? Could I make like a teenage vampire and drink his blood? My curved fangs would make a wet, slick sound as they slid down from my gums. I’d work my tongue over the fangs, then I’d push out my bristled tongue and begin to lick the statue’s neck, my rough tongue scraping over the smooth, bronze throat. I tell the statue, “I’m so hungry; I need to feed.” Finally, I pretend it’s real. I go like, “Now that we’re alone, can I tell you some stuff?” It stares back. “First of all, I’m preggers. That’s right. I think it was Robbie, but it could’ve been Max. How do you like that?” No answer—the world’s biggest crucifix has nothing to say. “Next question. How come you get credit for all the good stuff that goes on—people giving thanks and all—but when things start to go bad, it’s our

sinful nature. That gets you off the hook; am I right?” The world’s biggest crucifix looks back at me blankly, the snow brushing its cheeks. I’m like, “Shouldn’t you stand up like a man and take the blame for some of the shit? Not just me being preggers, but earthquakes and floods and starving Africans?” I’m starting to scare myself really good. Maybe I’ll be left up here forever. The snowflakes of the night continue to fall. I can’t go down the ladder backward. I’m numb with terror. Maybe I’ll see another cop car down in the parking lot to rescue me. Sometime—when? But going down is scarier than coming up. Anyway, I’m stuck here. Whatever you say, here’s a guy who doesn’t go totally mental or hit you. He has no middle finger. Maybe he’ll shake off the questions I asked him by claiming he doesn’t exist, but that’s a pretty lame

excuse, a cop-out, a typical guy thing; I can see right through it. Now, all of a sudden I’m starting to feel nice—in a dizzy way. Ohmigod! What am I saying? This is like, what? I’m such a freak! Am I? Why am I telling you all this, like blabbing my head off? Right? Ohmigod! But I think about it. I try to think about stuff. I try to think about me as a person, like me skimming over the world. And how am I doing? I’m hanging from a ladder on the world’s biggest crucifix. Days could pass and weeks and maybe years. What more could a girl possibly want?

Meryl McQueen Debris

We curdled the sky With our pressed exhalation. Blue dome drops into high Methane ridges, a stressed exaltation, Tomorrow’s sure bet. Not the best Return on investment, gray-green Gunge in a lipstick smear on the cu(s)p Of the world. Backstory sheen Bleeds through where artistry ends. Inside, the artisan lingers Beneath a culture that depends On measure, eye & fingers Stretching to the memory of a still-blue sky.

Bruce Reeves The Semi-Detached Relationship


she kill herself? Leap from Coit Tower? Vault the rust-red rail of the Golden Gate Bridge? Sidle in front of the "F" trans-bay express bus? Not that Thaddeus would care. They don't love each other: that’s understood. Their relationship avoids the mournful dependency of love, but provides few of the satisfactions. – I would've been better off taking up tennis, Paula tells Thaddeus. He raises his hairy shoulders in a lopsided shrug. – I suppose there are

more fruitful ways of occupying time than struggling through a semi-detached relationship. – Semi-detached, she repeats. It makes her sound like one of those Golden Gateway town houses posing so arrogantly on bay fill down beyond the Financial District. Of course, come the earthquake that everyone knows is lurking under the pavement, they’ll sink into the Bay. Will she sink, too? She has shared pieces of herself with Thaddeus.

Other pieces are up for grabs. Sometimes, men have grabbed. More often, they haven't. Paula writes for a house organ: stories about productivity, quality of service, how to be a team player, get promoted, make more money. She is skilled at explaining personnel procedures. Her bosses admire her profiles of hardworking employees who find joy in total dedication to an organization that has advanced from "lean and mean" to "anorexic and vicious." She is known for her light touch, for

her ability to achieve the appropriate tone between the corporate hard line and fantasy humanism, with enough unsubtle humor to make digestible whatever poisonous message senior management currently is cooking up. She knows about words, how to make them work for her client. If only she could make them work

for her own life. She has been accused of letting the house organ screw her, but this only makes her smile. She knows who's in charge in this relationship, and it’s not the house organ. Thaddeus writes ad copy. When they first met, he told Paula: – I'm in advertising. This made her

visualize somebody caught in quicksand or the hapless model she saw once in an ancient TV ad: the woman struggling on top of a gigantic roll-on deodorant bottle, arms and legs dripping sticky globules of the wrong brand. – We're both professional 'communicators,' they

agree, but their communicating stops at their respective offices. By the time they crash into each other at the end of the day, in either his apartment or hers, they usually have communicated themselves into a stupor. Mostly, they watch television and eat ethnic take-out food. (He prefers Chinese, but she

has a passion for very hot Indian curries.) Except when they slither up to each other in bed. They do have that in common, although lately even that has been disappointing. Their last avenue of communication is being closed off by an encroaching, rather thorny, thicket of indifference. The result

is that they’re developing red-rimmed eyes surrounded by a slightly blue TV pallor. – I like television, Thaddeus insists. – I like the rhythms, the pace, the dynamics of TV. I adore commercials. The visual non sequiturs. The shock of the quick cuts. The energy. This is the way Thaddeus talks: of visual

rhythms and organic pacing, of cuts and montage, and especially of dynamics. He says he likes it when images that seem to have nothing to do with each other suddenly collide into a new idea: one, of course, that compels people to reach for their wallets. But what he really wants, what he desperately desires, is to sell a script to a network show and be swept off to L.A. by a flock of admiring agents and producers, all panting to sign him to long-term contracts. He sees himself sitting beside a freeform Malibu pool, thong-adorned female assistants lurking

nearby, as he types his WordPerfected scripts that will be zapped from his laptop across the Internet to drooling directors. He wrote a script on spec for Mad Men and intends to write another for a new comedy series. The Mad Men script made the rounds of agents until it died of old age, and now he isn't sure which comedy series to focus on for his new effort. These days, everything seems to be re-runs. How can you write a script for a show that’s wallowing in eternal re-runs? Is nothing original, any more? Even the socalled new shows seem

to be re-runs. Except, of course, the so-called "reality" shows that don't need writers. Everything is being dumbed down so much that writers soon will become as extinct as the dodo. Entertainment will just be people blathering at each other over handheld devices. – It's a matter of timing, he tells Paula. – You gotta prove you know the business by picking a winner to work on. You don't want to even think about a show that's not a winner. He wishes he could be sure which shows are winners. Or even possible winners. At least, not losers.

Paula hates television, especially comedy shows. The more she watches them with Thaddeus, the more she despises them. She has never laughed, or even smiled, at a single one of those shows that Thaddeus studies with such humorless devotion. All those wisecracks, those bright grins, and the strategic pauses for the laugh track to butt in. As far as she can see, these shows all were created on other planets and shipped here by sadistic alien forces. Her fantasy is to take a bound copy of his comedy show script and ram it through his Sony screen. But if she kills

herself she'll never be able to smash his TV, mutilate his script, or drive him insane. This is why, Thaddeus agrees, she has no choice but to stay alive. Once, she dreamed of writing a vaguely profound, but definitely best-selling, novel and moving to the Cote d'Azur (where she's never been, but which she imagines as Carmel without fog and with French cooking instead of Mexican). She has tried to save money for a six-month leave of absence to write the book that will transform her life, but the money always evaporates before she can stash

away enough: car repairs, living expenses between jobs when she’s laid off because of corporate cutbacks, clothes for job interviews, her share of expenses when she goes with Thaddeus on an occasional weekend to the Napa Valley or Mendocino. Then she decides that fiction is passé and decides to focus on nonfiction, but she can’t decide on a topic. The world is so screwed up, every subject she considers throws her into a catatonic fit of depression. – Sex, Thaddeus tells her. – Or food. Or sexy food. Or sex with food.

Paula settled in Berkeley as an undergrad and has never managed to escape its pungent pull, although she has migrated from a one-room student apartment on Dwight Way to a pricey threeroom condo only a short walk to Chez Panisse and with a tree-filtered view of the Bay. Now, she doesn't fantasize about writing a blockbuster book or bother with saving money. Instead, she proves that she’s a realist by starting an affair with a married man: Fred. Fred looks just like his name sounds. – I don't know why I let myself do these

things, she tells Thaddeus. – To avoid killing yourself, says Thaddeus. – It’s obvious. Fred also commutes to an office in San Francisco, but from Marin County. (The Golden Gate Bridge is a much classier commute than the Oakland-Bay Bridge.) They meet when and where they can, usually in the neutral ground of the City, but occasionally at her place (if she can be sure Thaddeus won't be dropping by). These bridges hurled decades ago across the Bay’s troubled waters are their link, their lifeline to illicit ecstasy. If the expected

earthquake sends them tumbling into the Bay, at least she won’t have to commute any more, either to her office or to her lovers. One weekend, she goes to Fred's hillside Mill Valley place, while his wife is parked on a cliff at a Big Sur ashram, where she is restoring her precarious mental and spiritual balance. The experiment is not a success. Paula can't believe that the woman whose pale black and white face decorates the bedroom won't burst in on them, flinging hot tears like molten volcanic beads. Paula also hates the aggressively lush trees

staring at her through the naked bedroom windows. A city girl, she can’t imagine living, not to mention sleeping and screwing, in room without window coverings, the thicker the better. In his effort to prove to her, and to himself, that all is well, Fred is overly violent, propelling both of them off the slippery mattress onto the bedroom floor, where Paula bruises her back and he loses concentration. They end up in the kitchen, drinking expensive wine that his wife put away for the unlikely day that they might have guests worthy of such quality.

Nevertheless, Paula continues to see Fred. – What I like about Fred, Paula explains to Thaddeus, is that he's the opposite of you in every way. This is true. He’s tall, blond, and bland with a relentlessly toned physique that’s gold and smooth, where Thaddeus is as short and dark as he is thick and hairy. Fred is vain enough to take care of his body, a practice Thaddeus disdains. Paula is titillated by the image of Fred running around naked in the carpeted locker room of his expensive downtown health club with a lot of other naked executives,

all struggling to be as lean and hard physically as they are mentally. Senior Vice President in charge of Research and Development for a big oil company, Fred enjoys his success and is as competitive as a school boy. Paula relishes the sensation that she is being made love to by a cultural cliche. – I don't know why you're so fascinated with that self-centered prick, complains Thaddeus. – I could be that tall, too, if I had his money. Paula knows that Thaddeus is right: Fred is totally self-centered. His dark blue suits, white shirts, and red ties are always immaculate; his

gold cufflinks glitter relentlessly; his hair is always shiny and as perfectly arranged as his desk. Even naked, he seems to wear a protective veneer, as if he lacquers his body with hair spray. In a moment of passion, Paula messes up Fred’s hair. He gets up from the bed, goes into the bathroom, and meticulously combs his hair before they continue lovemaking. – How're ya doin'? he grins whenever they meet, but doesn't listen to the answer. When she asks him if he's had a hard day, he always denies it. – I'm just great! he shouts at her.

Just great! The only time in memory when he fails to exclaim about the greatness of life is the day he discovers that his new boss is younger than he is. But a few days later, after a series of meetings with the new big boss, he once again is thrilled to be alive and overjoyed to be himself. – He’s just great, Fred tells Paula. – Really great. We’re going to have a great working relationship. Great. – I’m happy for you. Increasingly, Paula finds Fred's buoyant perfection and bland cheeriness hard to take, but although she often resolves not to see him

again, when he calls she comes running. Now, she’s trapped in two relationships that drive her nuts. She doesn't feel guilty. Although she hasn't met Fred's wife, she has seen photographs of the woman and is sure she'd dislike her. Paula has always hated such glossy, well-groomed women. They never look as if they sweat, not even when they play tennis. Not even when they fuck the tennis pro who gives them weekly lessons. Riding across the Bay Bridge on the AC Transit bus at seven in the morning, Paula stares at clumsy scrap wood sculptures strewn like

the skeletons of extinct species across the Emeryville mud flats, at a white-feathered longlegged crane suddenly alighting on one balletextended toe in the reeds beyond a freeway off ramp, and thinks: nothing makes sense. The world is insane. Either that, or I'm insane. She doesn't deny this possibility, but stubbornly insists that if she’s nuts the world has made her that way. The latest evidence is the letter from her mother that she has finally read after carrying it in her purse for a week. Ellen, as her mother signs her letters to Paula, is urging her to marry before it’s

too late, although she’s proof that it’s never too late, since she has recently wed for the fourth time: on the side of a peak with a magnificent view of glacier-carved Yosemite Valley. It was a very beautiful wedding, Ellen tells Paula. They aimed their naked bodies toward the sun, raised their arms, and chanted ancient verses. Climbing down from the bus, walking six blocks to the building where she works, Paula glances at the hard hats laboring on the new steel and glass towers being jammed into place between the financial district’s older granite

and brick buildings. Muscular, moustached, their bodies sunburned with stripes that reveal their seasonal striptease, the men leer as she passes. The males in her office wouldn't dare be so openly sexist, but these long-haired, whiskered, tattooed construction workers do as they please. They make her nervous, but she’s flattered that they admire her. Still, she wonders if she does something to provoke them. Unconsciously, of course. That night, as the "F" express leaves the freeway, swinging onto University Avenue on its trip back through

Berkeley’s crowded streets, Paula discovers that she’s crying. She tries to choke off the tears, but the effort makes her sob louder, with convulsive chirping noises. Too wretched to be embarrassed, she covers her face with both hands and weeps until she arrives at her stop. Predictably, this is the day when Thaddeus is waiting in her apartment. Still halfblind, she pushes open the mahogany-veneered door and falls into the room, finding him sprawled on the sofa, much too much at home. With one hand she tries to cover her face and with the other to gesture

him away, to remove him by some inarticulate magical spell. But he doesn't vanish. He comes to her, takes her damp fingers from her face, and begins kissing her wet, swollen eyes. – Damn you, she gurgles. – What're you trying to do, make me love you? Why me? she asks herself, her wet face pressed against Thaddeus's roughtextured jacket. Why me? As if she’s threatened by cancer, instead of love. She has fantasies again of them making a life together, a single life, out of their two separate existences. Maybe, at

last, she’ll satisfy her mother’s demand for grandchildren. However, she wakes up in the night to find Thaddeus sitting bareass and hairy on her sofa watching Seinfeld reruns and knows they'll never merge into one unit, never produce short versions of their neurotic selves. She flicks off the television. He stares at her, gets up from the sofa, turns on the set, and flops again on the sofa. Still naked, she marches back to the television. – Don't touch that machine, Thaddeus snarls. – Bastard, she

counters. – It's my TV, my apartment. – Don’t let it go to your head. They edge toward the Sony, nude bodies ready for combat, imitating the positions of television wrestlers. Her arm darts forward, he catches her wrist in his bluntfingered hairy-backed hand. They fall to the carpet, rolling over until they collide with the sofa. – Jerk! she pants. – Female jerk! Of course, the war ends in a truce, which means love-making, if they really can label that contest a form of peace. After Thaddeus falls asleep, she throws his

clothes off the balcony, watching them sink like a dismembered body in the spot-light illuminated apartment building pool three floors below. After all, they don't love each other. That has long been determined and verified. – You did what? he screams when he wakes up. Naked, half-crouching in the middle of the living room, his hairy body dark against the beige carpet, he looks like a clown about to turn back flips, a fugitive from one of those counter-culture Bay Area circuses that perform in parks and then pass the hat for contributions.

That’s Thaddeus, all right, she smiles: a hatin-the-hand clown. – Don't worry about it, she says, referring to his drowned clothes. – But I'm stark, staring bare ass! – Don't take it personally, she replies, giving him a slap on his hirsute buttocks. – What about him? Is he going to take it personally? Thaddeus points to the wide window facing the open air corridor. The one time when she didn’t close the drapes! On the other side of the glass, six-feet-four of bland blue-suited perfection is gawking at them.

There’s never an earthquake when you want one. – Fred! Paula nudges open the door and draws him into the apartment. – Fred, meet Thaddeus. Thaddeus, meet Fred. The two men regard each other. – Make yourselves at home, Paula commands, snatching clothes and purse from the closet. She dresses as she makes her way to the front door. – You can't leave me like this! Thaddeus shouts. – Where are you going? demands Fred. – Oh, to start my life over, for one thing. Goodbye. And have a great day!

Contributors Dick Bentley Dick Bentley has published fiction, poetry, and memoir in over 200 publications on three continents. He served on the board of the Modern Poetry Association (now called the Poetry Foundation) and was prizewinner in the International Fiction Awards sponsored by the Paris Review and the Paris Writers' Workshop. His books, "Post-Freudian Dreaming" and "A General Theory of Desire," are available on Amazon. S.G. Childress S.G. Childress has been published in NANO Fiction. He lives in Houston, Texas. Katherine Gehan Katherine Gehan lives with her husband and two sons in the Midwest, but mourns the New York City bagels of her youth. She holds an MFA in fiction from Emerson College and, among other places, has had work published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Used Furniture Review, Muddy River Poetry Review, Literary Mama, WhiskeyPaper, MetroFiction, and Literary Orphans. Alexander B. Hogan Alexander B. Hogan, Ph.D. is an American writer and managing editor of The Flexible Persona. An avid traveller, Alexander is passionate about

experimental music and stories of people finding their place in the world. He presently resides in Houston, Texas. Jamie Lee Knight Jamie Lee Knight makes an art mess; poetry & paint, glue & tissue. Her glasses get crooked. Her socks don't always match. Neon plastic dinosaurs adorn her overflowing bookshelf. Jamie is quite sure that creativity is immortal. Meryl McQueen Meryl McQueen is an American poet, novelist, and linguist. Her poetry has been published in Town Creek Poetry, Dunes Review, Clearfield Review, Phoebe, RiverSedge,and Yellow Moon, among others. Meryl's writing reflects a close affinity with nature, and the geographical dislocation of an international childhood spent in Africa and Europe. She now makes her home in Sydney, Australia with her husband and young son. Bruce Douglas Reeves Bruce Douglas Reeves’ novella, "Delphine," published by Texas Review Press, won the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition. He also has published three novels ("The Night Action," "Man on Fire," and "Street Smarts") and recently has completed a new novel and a pair of novellas. Bruce has published short fiction in three dozen magazines and journals, both print and online, including: The High Plains Literary Review, Runner's World Annual, Hawaii Review, Eclipse, The Main Street Rag, Clapboard House, South Carolina Review, The Long Story, The Blue Lake Review, China Grove, and The New Renaissance. He's married, with a daughter, Simone Martel, who also is a

writer. He and his wife have visited more than sixty countries, some several times. His blog on Red Room has more information about him, his travels, and his writing. Gerald Wallerstein Gerald writes in Philadelphia and has previously published poems in American Poetry Review (1997) and American Writing (2001).

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Crack the Spine - Issue 106  

Literary Magazine