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Crack the Spine

Literary magazine

Issue 117


Issue 117 June 18, 2014 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2014 by Crack the Spine


CONTENTS


Erin Wilcox Commando

Thomas Piekarski Anatomic

Alfredo Franco New Glasses

Joe Love Night Owl

Lillian Kerr-Haversat Three Hundred Feet of Shoreline

Brian Cooney On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Spehere of Love


Erin Wilcox Commando

A

mother and daughter walked side-by-side toward a beach off the highway. The mother was middle-aged and slight of frame, the daughter in her midtwenties, tall and broad-shouldered. The daughter shortened her stride to keep pace, tucking her forearms in her hoodie’s front pocket. Sunlight shone through ragged tufts of cloud, tempering the ocean-chilled breeze. It had been a good day, as days between them went. Neither spoke ungracefully as they picnicked in the

redwoods. They took an impromptu drive. In the daughter’s gut, the ball of nerves that accompanied her mother’s visits had uncoiled somewhat, and her thoughts drifted toward the e-mail she’d opened that morning. Nothing was the same now, yet no one knew. She looked ahead and imagined how she would frame this shot, noting how the dunes shrouded the ocean. It was poetic, she thought, all those grains of sand overpowering the body that ground them down. She might come back and take some footage before she left. If she left.

Either way, she could not keep this news from her mother. She caught the elbow of her mother’s white blouse. The wind pressed the sleeve against her slender arm. “I forgot to tell you.” The mother turned. A muscle flexed in her cheek. “You know the program I applied to?” The mother observed her daughter’s raised brow, the note of celebration in her voice, and understood. She tried to offer a smile, but could not. The fall semester started in four months, and this film


school was in Australia. Her daughter’s brow fell. “This could lead to internships,” she said. “Real film work.” A life across the world, the mother thought. Her daughter mentioned the application, but the program was competitive, her obsession with cameras fairly new. A wave boomed behind them. “Could you defer, maybe apply somewhere closer to home?” Her daughter rolled her eyes. “I shouldn’t even have told you,” she said, then marched up the dunes. The mother sighed, removed her shoes, and climbed the

rise. She cleared the dunes and the shore opened up, stretching its arms to far-off outcroppings, rocky, on either side. Her daughter stood by the water, barefoot, her hiking boots discarded farther up the beach. She was pulling off her sweatshirt. It caught and she tried to help, but her daughter nudged her off. The mother stepped back onto the wet sand. The squint of her daughter’s blue eyes, the hunch of her shoulders were all too familiar. “I just hope you’ll think it through,” she said. “You’d be a long way from home if something went wrong.”

“I got a full scholarship.” The mother’s words evaporated into the salty air. This crazy plan of her daughter’s was turning uncomfortably real. Her daughter pulled off her T-shirt and held it out with her hoodie. “What are you doing?” “I’m sweaty.” The mother took her daughter’s shirt and scanned the water. The only swimmer was a lone surfer in a wet suit. “You don’t have anything to wear.” “I’ve got pants in the car. I’ll just go commando on the ferry ride home.” The mother blinked. In her sports bra and hiking


shorts, her daughter looked like the farthest thing from a soldier she’d ever seen. “It means without underwear, Mom.” “Oh.” She shook her head, then surveyed the empty beach and lifeguard tower. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea to swim here.” “I’ll be fine. Stop worrying.” “Just be careful.” She gestured at her daughter. “You’re not a lifeguard anymore.” Nerves burled in the daughter’s stomach. Her mother ran her eyes over her bare belly, then adjusted her own posture, sucking in her trim stomach and

throwing her shoulders back as if to say, Stand this way and you won’t look so fat. It was an old trick, but she still saw red every time. “Oh, I get it.” The daughter looked down at the fold of skin poking out above her shorts. “This looks pretty terrible, huh?” Her mother cringed, wrinkling her nose in the nervous tic her sister and she called “the rabbit.” Whenever her mother was confronted, she wore that look, nose twitching and body tense, ready to hop away. “Maybe I will defer, consider my options,” the daughter said. “I hear

they have a great program in China.” She spun and waded out, ignoring the shock of cold. The water chilled her thighs and reached between her legs. She dove at the next wave and did the crawl, always her best stroke. It was true, she no longer had a lifeguard’s body. Of course, she didn’t stick her finger down her throat either. Most days, that seemed a fair trade. But there were still triggers she avoided, such as stepping on a scale and spending time with her mother. She tore past the shoals, kicking as hard as she could. Up ahead, the surfer floated on his


board. She swam past him, kicking from her glutes and drawing her arm down, pushing the water behind. The next wave thrust her back. Her mother wanted her close to home. But she also wanted to shape her life, and even her body, to her own specs. She was like a hummingbird, nervous, fragile, forever hovering. Yet she could be so forceful, so selfish. It was her life, damn it. She paused to catch her breath and look around. She was farther out than the surfer, than anyone at all. She used the eggbeater kick to tread water, one leg whipping around, then

the other. It took the most energy of any way to tread, but when she thought of what it took to stay in shape she remembered pain like this, the slow burn of exhaustion. She pulled her arms out of the water and held them up like she used to do in water polo drills, kicking harder to raise her body to the waist. The burning made it difficult to concentrate on anything else. Open water stretched out around her, and she was vaguely aware of being swept farther out.

was her daughter’s need to prove something, to her mother and the world. She’d always been this way, from the time she was four and refused to poop for days. She got herself into dangerous situations as a teenager, and now she’d turned a nice day hike into another chance to raise her mother’s blood pressure. She sighed and raised her hand to block the sun. With age she had learned the simple meanings of things. Feeling good was good. Fights with her daughter caused pain. She tried to The mother tracked the pretend her daughter little blonde dot moving had no body because toward the horizon. This there was that thing they


didn’t talk about, her eating disorder. But it was hard to pretend, having watched her grow from a suckling infant to a woman whose breasts were bigger than hers. She folded her daughter’s T-shirt and sweatshirt, laid them on a piece of driftwood. She sat in the sand and watched her daughter shrink into the horizon. She could not keep her safe. That was the truth of it. No more than her patients at the hospital, or her own mother, who died after months of suffering. She wondered, what would become of her life if these clothes were all that was left, if

her daughter drowned out there and her body were never recovered? She would still have a husband and a job and friends and even one daughter left. There might be relief, even, that the drama between them was over, like she felt when her mother passed. It was still life now, without her, but with one less reason to live. She’s a good swimmer, the mother thought. She flattened the T-shirt against the log until its edges formed a crisp line.

pushing side to side. Her breath rasped in and out. She’d overdone the treading. She could only lie back and wait for her pulse to slow, for her body to be hers again. A gull flew over, white and yellow in the clouddotted sky. She closed her eyes, felt her limbs and head tingling, lactate and oxygen mixing. It was like the moment after purging a too-large meal, when the mind quieted and listened. She looked down at her pale belly, where any weight she gained got tucked away first. She reminded herself that The daughter rested on her boyfriend loved how her back, hips and chest she looked. But the thrust to the sky, arms comfort this normally


gave her slid away when she remembered he wouldn’t move to Australia. She had a lot to leave behind here. Her mother wasn’t wrong. How like her, though, to lay her finger on the point of highest consternation in her life and press without one encouraging word. She’d talked with her boyfriend when she applied. He said they could try to make it work long distance. That try bothered her a bit, not only because it was all he could offer, but because she felt the same way. She didn’t know where their relationship or her career or her life was going.

Perhaps it wasn’t the best time to commit to three years in a foreign country. She might get lonely and depressed, maybe even stop eating. It had been two years since she escaped the cycle, depriving, giving in, and atoning again and again. She remembered thinking some of the most twisted things, like she didn’t have the will of an anorexic, and bulimia was the disorder of the weak. She felt sorry for that girl now, and she feared going back. Silence seeped into her awareness. She could only hear birds and the water around her. She rolled upright and

looked behind. She’d drifted past the rocks. The beach was farther— much farther—than it had been. Before her lay a wide expanse of water and fog. With her heartbeat rising in her ears, she swam for shore.

The

mother paced the shoreline, wringing her daughter’s T-shirt. A late-afternoon fog bank was prowling in from the water. She couldn’t see more than a few hundred feet through the glare. Down the beach, the surfer stepped out of the water and packed his board over the dunes. If there were a guard on duty, perhaps he’d be


jumping in right now. But her daughter had been a lifeguard. Surely, she could handle herself. These were the things she told herself to stay calm. They didn’t work. They never had worked. She rolled up on her toes and took a step toward the receding water. Just one sure sign of distress . . . But what could she do? She was an awful swimmer. The surfer’s car door slammed. She took a few steps toward the road to flag him down. But a little voice told her, Wait. It was the same voice that used to warn her not to call the police when her daughter was

late for curfew. The voice her husband was so much better at listening to. It was faint, barely audible in the face of this overwhelming certainty that disaster would find her. But she closed her eyes and willed it to become louder.

cruel and pushy and skinny in a way she could never be. Or perhaps she meant to punish herself, for hurting her mother. Each time her head popped up, she checked the distance to shore. It was far, so far, like she’d somehow made no The daughter breathed progress. Her muscles begged every two strokes, then every one as the fatigue for rest, but she kept on. breathing was set in. She switched to Her Her legs breast stroke—pull, labored. breathe, kick, glide. She dragged behind her. Her wondered, as she caught arms moved faster and a rhythm, Why have I pulled less water with done this incredibly each stroke. In her lifesaving stupid thing? Perhaps she’d wanted course, the instructor to leave her mother had outlined the phases alone with her worry. To of drowning. She saw punish her for being him pointing to the


whiteboard at phase one: inefficient movement. A coldness seeped into her throat. Death was not some idea she might flirt with. It was here, in this water. She could have stopped when she got to that surfer. She could have waded in the shallows, but she had to keep pushing, find the limit. It was near now. She asked her body to endure a little longer.

She kicked off her shoes, found a large piece of driftwood, and dragged it to the water. She stepped into the icy shoals. Water seeped into her jeans as she waded out. She leaned on the driftwood and kicked. The blonde speck lapsed in and out of view. For some reason, she thought of the terminally ill patient who asked her for a kiss one night when she trimmed his sutures. The mother stood in the His lips had trembled, wet sand. A wave not with passion—she crashed and foamed knew this the moment around her ankles. The their mouths touched— glare had lessened, but but fear. He was terrified the blonde speck was he wouldn’t kiss another still way out on the girl before he died. His breath had a loamy tang, horizon.

like old strawberries. A wave crashed over her head and left her coughing. Already, she was fatigued, and she could still touch sand if she reached down. She hated swimming. If her daughter survived this, she was going to kill her.

The

daughter gulped a mouthful of water. Her muscles weren’t responding. She let them relax, went under, then sputtered back to the surface. So this was phase two. Neither her instructor nor the book mentioned that it was a result of needing to rest. It was obvious, but she’d never thought of it.


She coughed the water out and looked up at the greying sky. There were ways to rest, but they wouldn’t get her back to shore. Even now, she felt herself being swept back. It was like running on a treadmill slower than the tread. She would have screamed if she had the oxygen. She swallowed more water and nearly slipped under again. She had to rest. She flipped onto her back and lay still, facing the horizon. The fog was coming closer. It was almost dusk. Something cold and solid touched her side. She flinched, reached down, and held up a piece of seaweed. She

turned her head and saw another, then another. A stream of them flowed by her, moving fast. She felt another tug at her memory. Something that pulled debris out to sea. The water around her churned with seaweed, though the surface seemed relatively calm. A rip current. She was caught in a rip current. She didn’t know much about them, but you were supposed to swim parallel to shore to get out of one. She swam to the side, and went under. Saltwater churned in her nose. She pushed her way up. When she’d spat and snorted the water

out, she forced herself to relax into dead man’s float, with her arms in front of her. She pressed down and lifted her head when she needed to breathe. She knew her body wanted to live. She remembered its adamancy after days of starvation. But it couldn’t give her any more now, not for any reason. Each beat of her heart pleaded, please rest, please rest. Her mind told her, Rest now and you’ll die. She rolled onto her back and let the current take her.

The mother flapped her legs,

her

heart


thrumming away. The jeans dragged her down. She couldn’t see the blond speck any longer. A splinter of driftwood worked its way into her thumb, leaving a red stripe. She noted its progress as she scanned the water. There was a time, when her daughter was very young, when she ate all the azalea in the garden. They had to take her in and pump her stomach. Did it start then? she wondered. She felt sure her daughter’s pain was her doing somehow. The baby she first held had been perfect, after all. If she only knew, she would talk to God, she would

ask him to undo that moment. Then maybe, she wouldn’t have to be in this one. A sob escaped her. The sea absorbed the sound. Please come back to me, she prayed, again and again.

through each capillary to every tiny cell. Her body grew calm, until at last she wasn’t afraid. The fog drew closer. She lay on her back and watched the sky. The fog rose up and overtook the sun. It formed an orange halo, molecule The daughter drifted every with the seaweed, arms refracting, reflecting. The and legs stretched out, sun played off the fog in moving only enough to a million shimmers. The chopped and stay afloat. Tears flowed water from her eyes. What frothed below. A dark would her mother do shape humped out of the when she never came water, not far from her. back? She never wanted It had whiskers, flippers. this. She only meant to A seal, a fat, beautiful seal. It dove and hurt her a little. Even as she drifted, resurfaced, then torqued her limbs and lungs on its side. She tracked the seal rejoiced, drinking in oxygen, which pumped across the smooth water.


There was no hint of selfconsciousness to its movements. It surfaced, barked, and dove again, simply itself. It was exquisite—a moment only for her. And yet, all she wanted in the world was to share it. She wanted to film it. Every angle, every nuance of light. The seal dove and did not resurface. Around her, the current slowed. The loss of momentum was gradual at first, then total as the rip spat her out. She tested her arms, then her legs, and they responded. She brought her center of gravity down and treaded with a light scissor kick. She pointed herself parallel

to the distant shore and swam. There was no resistance, and soon she could see the edge of the calm stream amid the chop. She turned back to shore and returned to breast stroke, savoring each breath and glide.

several minutes, she only breathed. The mother watched. Her daughter’s blue eyes avoided hers. “Are you okay?” she finally asked. “I’m fine.” “You’re fine.” “I had a complication. The mother saw a hint I’m fine now.” “Well then, would you of gold on the horizon. It grew bigger, until finally mind telling me what the she recognized her child. hell you were thinking?” “Sorry, Mom.” Her movements looked Something in her sluggish. The mother called out. There was no daughter’s voice caught answer. She kicked her off guard. “Well you harder, pushing the ought to be,” she said. “Help me turn this thing driftwood ahead. They were even with around.” The mother glanced at the rocks when they reached each other. The her daughter as they daughter grasped the turned. She looked a mess. Her shorts had driftwood and for


fallen off! What had When the fog reached happened out here? them, the daughter “How am I supposed stretched down with her to trust you in another toe and touched bottom. country,” she said, “when you pull stunts like this?” Through her exhaustion and elation, the daughter felt her mother’s prod. An angry retort formed in her mind, but she caught her mother’s hand, which looked terribly thin and pale, gripping the log. “Stop that, we’re veering.” “I’ll still visit,” she said. “Promise.” Her mother said nothing to this, and the daughter pulled her hand back. They kicked together, inching toward land.


Thomas Piekarski Anatomic

1. J’ accuse! Branded with the stigma that he was absolutely dogmatic, they accused him of being preposterous, irrelevant, impudent, fanatical impostor, impetuous, fatuous loose cannon, decadent pisseur chomping on a stale croissant, grossly inept lollygagger foisting crimes on an aghast society. Embarrassingly silly, his rudeness, arrogance and asinine proclamations rendered him a pariah in a parish of surly fops. And so he was admonished, summarily given his walking papers at every bend. Whatever penitence that could be dished out would have to come from a power higher than any messiah.


2. Jurisprudent Jung As ambulatory data radiates from registers-ka-ching, ka-chang, ka-chung-- jurisprudence emanates bright integers of velvet violets. It’s by statutory mandate that daylight engulfs night like a hollow saint. That abominable bacterial plot aborted, occasion to serve only savory Osso Bucco out on sunny Piazza della Masada. A misappropriated elephant lay dead in Kenya, poachers posing proudly beside it for posterity. Playing Whack-a-Mole with his flippant soul, Jung gathers Sophocles, Mandrake, Clarence Darrow, Sartre, Moses and Mao for an urgent pow-wow.


Alfredo Franco New Glasses

He

arrived at the New Haven train station almost two hours early, a man in his late forties, though he looked ten years older. He wore a dark blue business suit and trench coat and pulled a small overnight bag on wheels. He was not very tall and verged on portly. He wore goldrimmed glasses over tired, puffy eyes, and his face and bald pate were pinkish-pale. His lips were thin, tight; he had been born with a more sensual mouth, but his habit of compressing his lips had given him an anxious, even angry look. His cheeks were fleshy, as though his buttocks were gradually replacing his face. And yet he saw himself as a man of charm, of experience, compelling to women. Still, he was tired. He sat back into one of the hard wooden pews, among men and women peering into their iPhones

and iPads. A homeless black man about his own age, wearing a dirty gray Nike hoody and sweatpants, snored in the pew facing him. He was eager to leave this blighted town. Better to wait here in the station than in his generic hotel room; here at least he felt as if his journey home had already begun. The hotel didn’t even have a restaurant, just a small space where you could toast your own bagels in a toaster oven and apply cream cheese with a wobbly plastic knife. The tub of cream cheese had already been hacked into by an earlier guest and was specked with crumbs of burnt bagel. He spotted a Dunkin’ Donuts near the ticket machines and had an urge for coffee— he could smell it this far away—but a profound heaviness from his practically sleepless night kept him in


his pew. He took out a handkerchief and cleaned his glasses. He peered at the lenses. They were scratched and smeared, no matter how much he tried to clean them. He had arrived the previous morning. The drab hotel room overlooked a gray concrete parking garage. It was only for one night, he reasoned. He tried to be cheerful. His meeting at the art museum, to learn about their programs for children, kept him busy for a few hours. He took copious notes in a Moleskine, trying to maintain focus and show interest. He stood among schoolchildren from “underserved communities.” The curator droned on about lifelong learners and critical thinking skills. But children, inherently critical, always made him self-conscious. He forced a thin smile. They could sense his discomfort in their presence. A vague anxiety began to overtake him, rising slowly but

steadily. He wondered if his boss were trying to reach him, to point out something he’d done wrong. That was her obsession, to seek out every little thing her staff did wrong. His cell phone had already vibrated twice, obscenely, in his pocket. He went through the last few days in his mind but couldn’t hit upon anything he might have neglected. The children, thankfully, were leaving… At the end of the meeting, he was invited to enjoy the museum at his leisure, but once the curator went upstairs to her office, he retrieved his trench coat and left. Outside it was bitterly cold, but the air was reinvigorating after the stuffy museum. Maybe he would find a good coffee shop and spy out a nice bar for the evening, or buy a present for his secretary, Gilda, though she didn’t deserve one. He wandered the streets, ignoring his vibrating phone, glad to be liberated from art and from


children, but he found nothing particularly interesting, which surprised him, this being a university town. He bought an overpriced cobalt blue Yale coffee mug for Gilda at the Barnes and Noble and returned to his hotel room. He took out his phone and saw the repeated calls from his office. He should check in. It was always best to face things, clear up any problems. But his hand holding the phone was shaking. He hadn’t even had a drink yet! This was absurd. He was an adult man. What more could his boss do to humiliate him? He powered off after the second ring. At 5:30, he went out again and could not decide where to eat. He ended up in a chain restaurant and was done with his greasy supper in under an hour, though he’d been careful to eat slowly, enjoy dessert, nurse his glass of bad weak wine. He had even sung along to Happy Birthday for a little boy and his family

sitting nearby. When the applause was over and the candles blown out, he had no further excuse; the waitress clearly wanted the table. The best thing was to admit the evening a failure, to stop trying and go back to his room and wait out the night. It started to rain, a freezing, late February rain. By seven he was in his flannel pajamas, watching television from his bed. He wished he’d remembered to stop at a liquor store and buy one or two airline bottles of Johnnie Walker. He flipped through the channels and settled on the news. Home foreclosures continued at record highs. Companies were refusing to hire people who’d been unemployed for longer than six months. A man in a bow tie praised Creative Destruction. Three American troops were killed in Bagdad by a roadside IED. Should alkaline hydrolysis, or liquid cremation, be legal? He watched morticians


inserting a corpse into a steel cylinder‌ He rolled on his side and turned the TV off remotely and switched off the lamp on the night table. Sleep. The sooner you get to sleep, the sooner this night will be over and you can catch the train back to Washington. And for a time he did doze off and even dreamed he was making love to Gilda, who in real life teased but always refused, saying maybe, if something changes, like if my husband leaves me, but only then. He woke up with a good, hard erection. He caressed his erection, imagining Gilda giving him head. Once, over drinks, she had confided that fellatio was her favorite form of sex. She’d said this with a dirty smile, two large ruddy splotches on her cheeks. He came with a short spasm onto an outspread Kleenex. He sighed and bunched up the soppy Kleenex and tossed it under the bed. For a while he lay there, hugging one

of the pillows as if it were Gilda. We could just run away together and start life all over again, he murmured into the pillow. But it was just a pillow. He pulled up his underwear and pajama pants and turned to look at the clockradio. The digital numbers glowed green in the dark. It was only eight thirty. He was wide awake. A drink would help. Maybe he would meet someone at a bar, a woman who would save him, change his life. It would serve Gilda right for making him wait. Why should he waste his time, waiting for her husband to leave her? Besides, it would never happen. Her husband liked his regular life. Adultery, divorce, finding a new wife, it was all too much damn trouble and drama for him. Laziness kept him faithful. To hell with Gilda! He took a shower, shaved, and got back into his business suit and went out in the frigid rain. But the bars were all for


young people, loud, with booming music. No one would find him attractive here. He walked on, turning into ever darker, forlorn side streets. The university loomed like a dark fortress in the heart of the town. At its fringes men in wet army blankets huddled among trash cans, and black families waited numbly at corners for the late and infrequent buses. He ended up before a huge tower, a cement cylinder with barely any windows. It seemed to gaze down at him contemptuously through the chilling rain. It was the headquarters of a Christian charity. Who could possibly work here, in this forbidding building? He felt the dreadfulness of life and the absoluteness of his solitude. It frightened him, as if his solitude were, paradoxically, another person, someone outside of him, embodied in a criminal about to assault him. He turned, his arms shielding his face from an upraised

knife… Nothing. No-one. Rain. He trudged back to his hotel, barely able to see through his rain-blinded lenses. He dried off in his room and cleaned his glasses, which the brackish rain had smudged badly. He got back into his pajamas and into bed. He understood why people might take their lives in hotel rooms like this. It was like falling through a trapdoor and seeing the moldy plumbing of existence. If he could only call Gilda. Of course, that was impossible. She was probably watching American Idol now, snug in bed beside her husband—it was the one show they both enjoyed. She liked Disney and the Family Channel, while her husband preferred science fiction and war. He would turn on the Sci-Fi Channel after quick, perfunctory sex, leaving Gilda crying into the pillows. At least, that’s what Gilda said when she was bitter. Later she’d feel guilty about having spoken ill of her


husband and revise the story and say what a great guy he was. He took out her Yale mug from the Barnes and Noble bag. Lux et Veritas, he read on the seal. Why had he bought her anything at all? Lately, she had been giving him a hard time, treating him disrespectfully, questioning his instructions and decisions. They had worked together for ten years now. Familiarity had bred contempt. It was also something else. She believed he was giving in, cowardly, to their new boss, a harassing, micromanaging woman of almost 70 who often smelled unwashed, like dry spittle, or desiccate virginity; sad, unloved, old flesh. The old woman sometimes showed up at the office in a headscarf to hide her dirty hair or fading dye. The headscarf was satiny gold and bright green with parrots. It was always a particularly bad day for the staff when she wore the

headscarf; conscious of looking slovenly, she would lash out with greater rawness, thrusting her puffy, wrinkled face, with its jiggling pointed chin and crinkled, anus-like mouth, into people’s personal space. No one understood how this elderly person, who clearly suffered from some form of Asperger’s or dissocial personality disorder, had been selected to lead a benign institution devoted to children’s education. He concluded that it was her sheer ruthlessness, misread as leadership by a board of indolent trustees. They lauded her presentations, all smoke and mirrors, and obsessive, colorcoded charts. The suffering of the employees did not concern them. She delighted in grinding her staff down, lying to them, blaming them for her own errors; she would project her own dyslexic difficulties with writing onto them, making them revise documents, no matter how simple or


unimportant, ad nauseam; she would deprive them of their favorite projects, self-esteem, and professional growth. Once, at an office party, he was standing beside her when she spilled her glass of red wine on him, staining his jacket and pants. Instead of apologizing, she walked away, saying: “Well, I guess I’d better go refill my glass.” “Maybe, if you stood up for yourself, she wouldn’t be so mean to you,” Gilda said once, in a light tone, with a passive-aggressive smile. It was withering. Remembering it, he felt like smashing the Yale mug against the wall. Instead he put it back carefully into the bag. Gilda was right. He was scared of their boss. But he needed his job. He had no other means of support. He was a wage slave. And if he fell afoul of her, he would not be able to protect Gilda herself, who now and then attracted the boss’s condescension

and scorn—“She’s not the brightest bulb in the pack, is she, poor thing,” the vicious old lady would say. He felt paralyzed when the boss looked at him. Her eyes, although blue, looked black, flat, obsidian, without depth, connection, or compassion. They reminded him of the terrible eyes of the autistic boy at his chess club who, the rare times he lost a match, would sweep the pieces off the board and begin to hit his father. The father would sit very still, tears rolling down his cheeks, and just take his son’s blows. Somewhere around midnight, he felt an acute fear of death, certain that if he let go and fell asleep, he would indeed die. The idea of not thinking, not knowing, of not feeling his body was terrifying, despite the promise of eternal peace. He imagined his body being slid into a liquid cremation machine, the airtight door sealed behind him, the mechanisms


beginning to whir… Then he became aware of the leaking faucet in the bathroom. Drip-drop, drip-drop—he held to the sound as to a lifeline. It kept him awake. Clinging to the straining rope of consciousness, he swayed over nothingness and night… At some point, he let go, yet it seemed to happen at the exact moment when the telephone on the night table rang shrilly with his wake-up call.

The

black man in the pew across from him began to stir. He yawned hugely and stretched and looked all around him and said: “Shit. Yes, sir. Shit.” Then the black man’s gaze rested on him. “God damn. Look who’s here. God Almighty. It’s Dick Cheney!” Nobody looked up from their phones or computers. The black man leaned forward, addressing him. “’Scuse me, sir. Anybody ever told

you, you look like Dick Cheney? Serious, man.” Now one or two people looked up. He stared back at the black man blankly, pretending not to hear. “You look like Dick Cheney!” The black man raised his voice even more. “Hey everybody, Dick Cheney’s here!” A young and pretty female commuter began to laugh. People were staring at him now; the black man kept pointing. “It’s fucking Dick Cheney, man, right here!” He was frozen. Here it was. The solitude that had made him turn in panic last night. A black man wielding, not a knife, but words. In his mind, he scrambled for a good retort, something to shut the black man up. If only he had the courage to get up, go over, and punch him in the mouth. Then he thought of insults. But that was futile too. To say “And you look like Obama” would be lame, even


complimentary. He tried to think of something racist, cutting, like Sambo, or Nigger, but the white commuters, most of them probably liberal academics, would turn against him, call him the aggressor. He felt slow, impotent, and ashamed. He could no more insult the black man than call the boy at the chess club a monster or his boss a sociopath. There was nothing to do but sit there and take it and pretend not to hear. The victims had the upper hand now and victimized in their turn. “My, my. Dick Cheney! Yes, sir! Right here. Hey man, you must get this all the time, right?” There was a stray newspaper abandoned on the pew, and he picked it up, opened it, and hid behind it. “Aw, come on, man, let me see ya. Let everybody see, man. Ain’t no shame in it. Hey, everybody, look over here, don’t he look like Dick Cheney?” He was red behind the newspaper.

He should laugh it off, laugh along with the black man and the crowd, but it stung, withered him. He felt old, suddenly, overweight and unattractive, despite the charm he thought he had always exuded. How painful when that young female commuter had laughed. No wonder Gilda refused to sleep with him. His life had been nothing but a succession of mediocre office jobs, abusive bosses, meaningless tasks, disintegrating him, his youth, his manhood, as relentlessly as liquid cremation… The black man was buttonholing a white man who had sat down next to him on the pew. “Hey, man, do you know who’s sittin’ there, behind that newspaper? Dick Cheney, man, I swear. Let’s see if we can make him show his face. Hey, hey, sir, can you put that paper down and let us see you? Sir? Hey, sir!” Against his will, he lowered the


newspaper, glaring at the black man. The commuter seemed embarrassed. “Yeah, okay, maybe a little,” he said, and went back to his laptop. “Hey, I don’t mean no harm, man. But God holy shit, that could be his fucking twin brother, I swear. Even the glasses. Look! Look at his glasses! They be the same ones.” The black man laughed, then got to his feet. He reached down into his sweatpants and scratched his crotch. He yawned hugely again. “Shit. I gotta get me some coffee, man.” Finally, his track number was announced. Looking down at the floor, avoiding everyone’s gaze, he pushed himself painfully to his feet and rolled his bag behind him to the gate. He walked out onto the platform. He stood on the yellow line, right at the edge of the platform, peering over it. The wooden cross-ties were littered with cigarette butts, candy wrappers,

gobs of spit. He felt dizzy, staring into the tracks. The parallel rails seemed to bend, melt, weave like snakes. It would be very quick and probably painless—the wheels would cut through the limbs so cleanly there wouldn’t even be blood, just pink masses of flesh and shreds of clothing flapping in the wind, the recovery team gathering the bits and pieces into plastic trash bags. He took a deep breath. Looking up, he exhaled, long and slow. He blinked several times. His vision cleared, as if he had new, clean, pristine glasses. He watched a middleaged woman on the opposite platform climb the stairs mournfully to the station. He could see her bony, ringless hands, her soiled gray lunch cooler, the keratoma on her right cheekbone. She looked so tired, miserable, subjugated. Then a young man, then another woman, then another man, and then another in


what looked to him, suddenly, like a sacred procession, all struggling in the same manner, spines curved, up the steep stairwell‌ Even his boss, scarfed in parrots, must climb that way to her lonely apartment. The horn of his approaching train howled, like a wounded animal.


Joe Love Night Owl In the morning, at the break of day the birds sing so awfully loud that something in me breaks, gives way and I run to my bed to hurry to sleep before the racket rattles my brain The dark sky lightens like a ceiling at the end of a planetarium’s show indistinct stars disappear bright ones fade and worms run for dark drying holes And I bury my head beneath the pillow where the night still lingers a little still cool, still dark, still safe for now from the too heavy heat of the bastard sun calling up its tired children And I fall back into the night for a while for as long as the world will let me to dream my dreams of peace and lust in the faux dark foyer of my sleeping head even against the breaking of the dawn


Lillian Kerr-Haversat Three Hundred Feet of Shoreline

Rain.

I like rain. Fog. I like fog as well. I put on the coat my husband does not need anymore and walk down the eighteen steps to the street. I wonder what is in store for me today. Crossing the street, I see there is little traffic. “Most people do not like to be out in the rain.� A flight of stone steps leads to the water. I descend them and walk toward rocks that protect the shore. Today the smooth rocks are slippery. Carefully, I climb over them to the beach. A beach that is not popular

with families because there is little sand. A beach that is occupied by shells, rocks, and seaweed, among other things deposited by the tides. A beach that belongs to the ocean. And for a short while, it is occupied by me. I trespass. Surprised, I find I am not alone. There is one, no, two couples looking for sea glass and unusual things. They will find a few treasures, but this beach does not give much to the land. As I said, it belongs to the ocean. The open area, about

the length of a football field, has very few places to put a towel or blanket down. And in that three hundred feet of beach, there is absolutely no place to make a sand castle or even a moat. Too many rocks, too much seaweed. Mostly the alone or lonely come to this place. I have yet to discover where I fit in. The water is crystal clear but the natural debris left by the tides offers few people enjoyment. Only when the weather is unbearably hot do bathers rise up to the challenge. They almost


always leave shoes sitting at water’s edge, only to be carried off by a rising or busy tide— evidenced by the occasional sneaker or flip-flop stuck in the rocky crevices. Today there are no hearty souls. Walking parallel to the water, I stop every few feet to submerse myself in the constantly changing scene. Boats at anchor are in different positions from where I started. Their bobbing hides buoys lying in the water, also bobbing. As I walk, they all display different profiles. There is a slight breeze that causes them to move about in the water. I

wonder if they willingly do this or would they rather just sit at rest. Two fluorescent buoys defy the rest, bobbing in unison, changing positions with the wind. They stand out, flaunting their difference, making sure they are noticed. As I walk I am aware of the different direction they float and wonder if they are restless as I am. Today I decide to pick up only green glass and green-coated shells. I focus on the ground. Quickly, I am annoyed when my search reveals nothing. Nothing, that is, but a small ring. It might be a child’s ring or that of a very small person. “Who lost this tiny

treasure?” It does not look valuable, only important. Saddened by the thought that someone is missing this little bauble, I wonder, “What caused it to be lost?” I place the ring in my pocket with the keys to the apartment and a handkerchief. Continuing along the water, I stand amid a group of rather large rocks, boulders really. They impede my progress. Working around them, I pick up bits of green glass and many green-coated shells. Pleased with each, I put them in the pocket with the ring. Progress is slow. But, I have time, more time than I have


ever had. One of the couples catches up with me. Busy looking for small pieces of glass, they throw back large ones. The throw will break them into smaller pieces to be discovered on someone’s next hunt. I pick up all sizes that are green. Today they must be green. I look at the couple, but sense they do not want to talk; they want to look. Very serious pickers, I think. I am pleased that I found the ring before they came. For some reason I do not want them to have this find. We nod to each other but say nothing. We all keep our heads

down as if in competition for the best glass. I am mesmerized by the colors of the debris. Seaweed is mauvetinted, edged with an offwhite. Almost the colors of our first living room. Seashells are myriad colors, none bright, but all different. Often there are shells that have been tossed by the water and covered with small barnacles, having a rather prehistoric look. Maybe they are prehistoric. Small shards of brick-colored stones lie among the gray and black, and lichencovered rocks look like new houses built in old neighborhoods. Glass,

small pieces of plastic, and bottle tops all seem to have found space to settle in and wait for the next move. They are controlled by the water, wind, and nature. They are controlled by life. Like me. I look back across the water to check the view that, once again, has changed. All the boats are headed in the same direction. Away from me facing the open water. Tied to their anchors, they seem to be waiting for something or someone. Even the fluorescent buoys face in that same direction. As I sit on a large boulder, I sense that my pants will be dampened


by the wet surface. No matter, I like the rain and the wet rocks that come with rain. The falling drops allow one to hear and see things that are blotted on a sunny day. The water laps slowly and peacefully against the land. Not angry or busy, it is just water moving things as it has done for hundreds of thousands of years. The fog covers the world like a shroud encompassing everything in its folds. I hear planes taking off from the local airport but cannot see them as they pass overhead. I look to the sky and watch the sound. Birds send different

sounds from the bushes. Some perch on rocks or low lying branches, looking for movement in the cluttered soil. Once sighted, they pounce, pick up their prize, and leave for where I do not know. They are like Christmas company who goes home after exchanging presents. It is raining hard. I pull the hood up and gather the coat around me. Time to go. Not wanting to return the way I came, I walk along another path that leads back to the stone steps. It is a bit longer, but then I have time, plenty of time. I feel a chill coming on. My watch tells me I have been on the beach for

more than three hours. It has taken me three hours to walk three hundred feet. For warmth, I stuff my hands in the pockets of my coat and feel the ring. The lost ring. I am connected. I try the ring on my middle finger; the ring is too small. I put it on the little finger, the pinky, and it fits. There is comfort in connection. There is comfort in rain.


Brian Cooney On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Spehere of Love

Without a door, she gives up on correspondence, but translating her scars into names for captive birds, she teaches herself Farsi anyway. Observing the anniversary of her death, she bakes cookies she won’t eat and spends the morning weaving ravens out of weeds. Her imaginary friend looks like a younger Freud. He never speaks, just smokes and watches dapper as her boy throws poems behind the settee saying “live” or “die.” The air is thick with wings: the huma, tormented by absent sky, refuses to cast its shadow on a floor littered with feet. Her fingers fall one at a time. Nothing in the room is real but the view. She wonders if she’d get anywhere by lining them each to each.


Contributors Brian Cooney Brian Cooney is originally from New York but now lives in Spokane, WA, where he teaches literature at Gonzaga University. He received his Ph.D from University of South Carolina. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Pacifica, Literary Review, Floating Bridge Review, The Bicycle Review, and others. Alfredo Franco Alfredo Franco’s short stories have appeared in Blackbird, Euphony Journal (University of Chicago), Prick of the Spindle, The Tower Journal, Gulf Stream, Permafrost, Midway Journal, Pembroke Magazine, Eclectica, and other journals. He teaches creative writing at Rutgers University. Lillian Kerr-Haversat Lillian Kerr-Haversat’s writing has appeared in several regional newspapers, includingBurlington Free Press, Portland Press Herald, and The Lewiston Sun Journal. She won theNational League of American Pen Women Leadership Award and attended their workshops from 1981 to 1986, as well as many other conferences during the last 20 years. She began writing in earnest when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. She was an American Red Cross volunteer on location during three hurricane disasters. She holds a


master’s degree from the University of Southern Maine and bachelor’s degree in English from Trinity College. Joe Love Joe Love teaches writing and literature in St. Louis on both sides of the Arch. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Bangalore Review, From the Depths, Drunk Monkeys, Bellowing Ark, and other journals. Thomas Piekarski Thomas Piekarski is a former editor of the California State Poetry Quarterly. His poetry and interviews have appeared in Nimrod, Portland Review, Kestrel, Cream City Review, Poetry Salzburg, Boston Poetry Magazine, Gertrude, The Bacon Review, and many others. He has published a travel guide, Best Choices In Northern California, and Time Lines, a book of poems. He lives in Marina, California. Erin Wilcox Erin Wilcox is a writer, poet, musician, and editor. Her creative work has been recently featured or is forthcoming in Praxis: Gender and Cultural Critiques, Cirque, A Literary Field Guide to the Sonoran Desert (University of Arizona Press, 2014), Spiral Orb, Soundzine, Stoneboat, Veil: Journal of Darker Musings, Short and Twisted, Cold Flashes: Literary Snapshots of Alaska (University of Alaska Press), and in radio broadcasts in Alaska and Arizona. The nonfiction editor of Drunken Boat: An Online Journal of Art and Literature and former copyeditor for Alaska Quarterly Review, Erin maintains a vigorous freelance editorial practice and writes for various trade and


scholarly publications includingCopyediting, The Freelancer, and TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Alaska, Anchorage.


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Crack the Spine - Issue 117  

Literary Magazine