Crack the Spine - Issue 119

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Issue 119 July 15, 2014 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2014 by Crack the Spine

John Sibley Williams A Kind of Gratitude

Tamara Schuyler Stuck

Marc Berman Acolyte

Kathryn Huber Curative Fiction: Cooley, Mothers, & Crises of Faith

Charles O’Hay Rooming House Redbeard

Matthew Perini The Wishing Game

John Sibley Williams A Kind of Gratitude

Thank you, says the sparrow I’ve torn from the sky and swallowed. Thank you, says the elephant whose tusks fashion keys for this melody. Thank you, the charred ant magnified by summer. Thank you, the forgotten father I’ve buried deep in my bones. Says my wife for the way time can be measured in my absence. Say my hands for the blood I wash off in the river. From the depths of me thank you, says the sky I’ve emptied of wings, the river carrying my stain, the song that emerges.

Tamara Schuyler Stuck

The problem in the festive can of olives everyone headaches. At office was the windows; they were painted shut. There was stale air everywhere. A fug filled the space from floor to ceiling, smelling dense and lazy, like a casserole. Things got particularly stagnant when the workers worked long hours, and because the workers often worked long hours the office was usually clogged with white-collar sweat. White-collar sweat has a fusty odor; it arises from a mixture of anxiety, tightly woven cotton blends, and wintery colognes. Imagine a

opened and gone bad – that is the smell. The windows were painted shut because the paint job had been done by an outfit of teenage runaways who’d been paid under the table. They had rushed through the work, slopping paint over the edges of light switch covers and drenching strands of electrical wiring that ran like spaghetti along the edges of the rooms. The paint was the color of scrambled eggs. The day it was applied, it leaked shrill fumes that gave

the end of the day, the runaways had returned light-headed to their campsites to eat potatoes for dinner. At the office the workers took turns pushing and tugging on the windows. No one could believe that paint alone could hold the windows shut against the efforts of former lacrosse players and high-school track stars. They dislocated their shoulders, herniated their spleens, and snapped off their thumbnails. Their thumbnails had been

grown long for plucking acoustic guitars but had also become brittle from eating too few cruciferous vegetables. Their impoverished diets were due to staying late at the office night after night. Those who had started guitar lessons gave them up. The company was doing well that year, making money from money. Money went out but more money came in than went out, on average, over long spans, as shown in electronic spreadsheets featuring bold lines and multiple colors. Where the sheets showed money coming in, the lines sagged, rounding like a belly full

of starchy appetizers. New workers were hired and the office became crowded. Elbows bumped. Stomachs growled in neighbors’ ears. The managers directed the workers to tear down cubicle walls and rearrange the desks according to maps showing maximized productivity per square foot of office space. The workers grunted and stacked the desks like bunk beds. Some lost their chairs and worked on their feet, their legs splayed and their necks extended and bent toward their monitors like grazing giraffes. Other workers stood on

their heads in the slots between desks. To make it to the kitchen or bathroom the workers navigated a complex maze. They crawled through tunnels. They kicked each other in the shins. They stepped on each other’s heads. On the surface, the workers were silent and polite. They continued to wear colorful shirts tucked into pants. Sometimes their pants were the same color as their shirts. Their belts were buckled low and tight. The windows remained painted shut, and the sticky air settled around them like a hot, wet tarp. They began to screw up their mouths

into pinched rings of displeasure. The managers visited the workers rarely, but when they did they noticed the sour air, and the smell clung to their clothing and caked their nostrils so that later, back in their offices, they were still thinking about the problem of the windows. They put together a committee, whose members, over the course of several months, met, investigated, brainstormed, conferred, voted, and proposed two solutions. The favored solution was thrown out as too costly, but the second-best was met with approval by the

executives. A third-party vendor equipped with flat-head screwdrivers arrived at the office and chipped away for two weeks at the paint gluing the windows to the frames. The noise was maddening, but the workers were up against a deadline and they kept themselves focused. They did take a few moments to imagine being able to breathe fresh air while they worked. The fantasy was uplifting enough that they forewent the nearby fast food and ordered kale salads from the deli eight blocks away. When the third-party vendors packed their

screwdrivers into their belts and left, the carpeting around the windows was littered with paint chips. That evening the janitors cleaned up the mess. Thirty years later they died of complications brought on by chronic lead poisoning. The teenage runaways, meanwhile, had started painting in residential neighborhoods. One by one they fell off roofs and broke their collarbones and skulls. Those who survived returned home and got their GEDs. The morning after the paint scrapers left the office, the workers were close to finishing their

big project, and they decided to wait to open the windows until the final spreadsheet had been sent to the managers. Opening the windows would be a reward for their diligence. They orchestrated the moment: a worker stood at each of the windows, ready to fling it open when the designated project lead pressed “Send.” When the time came, the stale air stood still, reeking of chewed onions and musky deodorant. The project lead blew out through his nose, checked the positioning of his colleagues, and clicked the mouse. The workers

at the windows lifted with perfect posture, but most of the windows remained stuck, and the workers groaned in pain and despair. The one window that did open slid wide with such ease that the worker operating it lost his balance, pivoted against the window frame, and tipped into the outdoors. He tumbled twelve stories and landed on the striped canvas tent of a grapefruit merchant who had set up on the street below. The worker was dazed but uninjured, and he became a fanatical grapefruit eater in the years that followed. Up above, the CEO wandered into the

workers’ space for the first time in years, overcome with curiosity by the shrieks of his employees. He was dumbfounded by the ugly noises and flailing gestures the workers were making, but he was reassured by the pleasant breeze coming in through the open window. He congratulated the managers on a job well done and then replaced them all the next day with less expensive resources holding MBAs from online universities. The new managers lacked a sense of humor and were intimidated by the workers’ physiques. They let go the lacrosse

and track stars and filled their stations with Dungeons and Dragons players in purple Tshirts. They had the windows painted shut and installed a refurbished ventilation system that broke down after two days. The air in the office was thick once again, but this time with the smell of sweaty velvet hats, tangled beards, and hotdogs. The CEO kept his job and remained generally confused. The managers worried about whether the waste was being separated correctly into landfill, recycling and compost. The workers rolled their eyes in slow motion and felt

undervalued. And the spreadsheets became pale and gummy like store-bought tapioca pudding. Only the company’s shareholders sat back and blinked twice to signal their satisfaction.

Marc Berman Acolyte I’ve stopped eating meat and like a horny jock entering the priesthood, I think constantly about what I’ve craved but have chosen to cut away. A meatball, sum of three deliciously ground species bubbling in tomato sauce. Smoked turkey leg, six-buck carnival drumstick, all washed down with an ice-cold beer. The young priest trying very, very hard not to imagine the pretty nun’s soft alabaster forehead beneath her starched white wimple.

Kathryn Huber Curative Fiction: Cooley, Mothers, & Crises of Faith

Fifty years ago, my mother sat in a small room, trembling as she held her newborn baby. Years later, after several nervous breakdowns, she would describe the moment as an overwhelming fear of losing what she dared to love. She saw me as a casualty of that fear. Ten years ago, she mistook pneumonia for a bad cold and ignored it too long. A life of chainsmoking and a weak immune system complicated her recovery, and after two months in intensive care, she let go of this world. I still suspect that she wanted to catch up with my father, who had succumbed to cancer four months earlier. No matter that they had been divorced for 20 years; their lives had been interwoven in such a way that it made an odd kind of sense that she would join him in death. They had come to peace with each other.

A teacher of mine once said that books can save your life. He also liked to say that it is often the book that finds us, not the other way around. I have, indeed, encountered books that seemed to arrive as answers to unasked questions. They sometimes provided gentle reminders of things forgotten, nudges back toward a wandering path, and sometimes they challenged, hitting deep and sudden like an unexpected blast of cold wind. One such a blast swept over me recently while reading Martha Cooley’s The Archivist. When the librarian sends his wife into virtual exile to wrestle with her demons, I felt my mother reading over my shoulder, nodding her head knowingly. Cooley’s characters found refuge in music and poetry, in diaries and dissertations. In their need to write, I recognized a

familiar need to exorcise demons by setting into a sea of paper. As we circumnavigate, we seek validation, we test ourselves and our feelings and our truths. Sometimes, we return to where we started, like Dorothy leaving Oz with new perspectives to color the world. My mother wrote letters, many of which were to my grandmother and ended up in my filing cabinet with other mementos from both their lives. Both women were central to my life, and both had serious psychiatric issues. Martha Cooley’s book took me back into a space I have not explored in a long while. Unable to put the book down, I took it to the gym with me and walked three miles more on the treadmill than I had planned, unable to stop reading. As the archivist struggled to frame the memories of his dead wife and her battles with faith and identity, I began to walk

faster. As he began to relive that relationship through the student whose issues ran close to his own, I found myself breathless, my mother fast on my heels. Though the issues of Jewish identity that Cooley explores are distant from the world that my mother inhabited, the questioning of faith and identity hit home, striking deep into the unconscious regions that my mother still inhabits. Through Cooley’s pages, I heard her voice again with a new understanding. A profound love of literature weaves through The Archivist as its characters search for answers through poetry and ideas, but an even more compelling undercurrent reaffirms the importance of human connections. Though he had failed as an ally in his wife’s troubled journey, the archivist finds redemption in being able to offer another seeker the Ariadne’s thread to return from her labyrinth of pain. He gives her the

story that will help her to heal. In The Archivist, Martha Cooley gave me the story I needed as well.

Charles O’Hay Rooming House Redbeard

The guy upstairs built a pirate ship in his living room just to make his regrets walk the plank. For weeks he came in late and each night I heard him hammering away. When he finished he filled his tub with sharks and let the water run till the waves reached the sill.

Then one by one he sent them out knees shaking lips whispering prayers of remorse, Each falling to the snapping jaws until the night and the rum had gone.

Matthew Perini The Wishing Game

Tonight, it was the stars. himself a glass instead.

words out, moving them That it was the stars, and Dante took a sip and around in his mouth like not the late news and not watched the stars another sip of wine. “The cutting out coupons in tremble in the dark stars. The stars.” The bed or making assembly- surface before way words were line lunches for the swallowing. “You know, repeating caught his children, was significant Gwenny [he used that attention for a moment; because Dante and name only when he felt inexplicably, made him Gwendolyn Mills were, loose enough, a sort of want to open his shirt. for the first time in what weekend term it had Then he remembered to her felt like years, become], it’s weird to what he was going to away from the city. No think about.” He sounded say. “The light—” he more, she told him when unsure of himself. started, but incorrectly. he offered her the wine, “Think about what?” “They say the stars are the green-glass neck she said. Both of them so far from us that it tight in his hand, and his were breathing their takes the light—I think hand swaying above his words, keeping them they say it takes a million eyes as though he were away from their throats, years to get here.” Was the conductor of some where they would be too she listening at all? he cosmic nocturne only he loud. wondered and took could hear. He stopped “Think about what,” he another sip, two sips, suddenly and poured repeated, trying the before deciding yes. “Can

you imagine it? Light taking a million years to get somewhere? Seeing something that’s from a million years ago? Doesn’t seem right, does it? Sort of defies common sense.” Another pause. Another sip. “It means that when that tiny speck of light [he pointed to the weakest one he could find, on the assumption that it was also the farthest away] started its way down to us, there was nothing. Nothing like what’s here now, that’s for sure.” Tiny houses, only a few with lighted windows, rimmed the black water. It was quiet. It would be something to yell, he thought. He took

another sip and sniffed the inside of the glass. The effect of Dante’s half-drunk astronomy lesson on Gwendolyn was not, as he intended, one of disorientation, of being awash in a world where perception and reality are at each other’s throats. Instead, more and more as he went on, she felt herself wanting to count them. There were so many more than she remembered, and she wanted to know how many more, precisely how many more there were here than in the artificial dusk she lived and slept beneath. A dull gray sky at midnight suddenly seemed one of

the great tragedies of her life. “It’s impossible,” he said when she told him what she wanted to do. “And anyway, there’s so many we can’t see. Even with a telescope, there’re…God, I don’t know exactly, but billions, trillions nobody can see.” It was very easy to discourage her and he knew it. And she resented him for knowing it, for being so willing to do it, for never devoting this same energy, just a few words after all, to encouraging her. “I mean, sure we could be stupid and give it a try, but what would be

the point?” he said. She laughed. Not heartily. Not genuinely. As a way of moving forward. “Fine,” she said. “I say we make a wish, then. We’ve been looking at them all night. It would be a terrible waste not to make at least one.” They had arrived in the late afternoon, when the sound of the children on the beach still echoed across the lake. By 7:30 it was quiet, the bats making their dizzy figures over the water. As soon as Dante looked up and saw the stars, he knew Gwendolyn would want to play the wishing game. “Whatever else is true

about them,” she said, “stars are for wishing.” “I don’t know what to wish for.” “Just be quiet and make a wish.” She smiled and waited for him to press his eyes shut. Then she shut her own and made her wish. Already, she felt better. Her feelings of resentment toward Dante rose out of her like a ghost. Though, truth be told, she did not believe him. She could not understand how the simple act of making a wish could be a problem for anyone. Especially not for a man with two children. With two children, you could make a million wishes and still

there would be more. Her own history of wishing proved it: For a full year, every single one of her wishes— birthday-cake wishes, eyelash wishes, foundpenny wishes, rainbow wishes—every possible opportunity to make a wish had been devoted to Joshua, their oldest, who was having a hard time with first grade. The teacher even went so far as to question whether he was getting enough attention at home, which made Gwendolyn angry at first, but left her embarrassed. So, not wanting Joshua to get further behind, she had been the one to make flash cards for his sight

words and to go over them again and again and again. She had been the one to give up her aerobics classes so she could practice addition and subtraction and number patterns with him night after night, despite the frustration of his slowness and worse, his apathy: “Six puppies plus three puppies equals—” “Eight puppies. No, nine, right?” “Joshua, the answer’s not in my eyes. Use your fingers if you need to. Count. Six plus three equals—” There were times she wanted to scream. At Josh. At triangles, circles, puppies. At vegetables.

At the primary-color people making their fatuous smiles, driving their simple cars, pushing twodimensional lawn mowers. At whatever they were counting or adding or subtracting. Or else at Dante, who was usually upstairs. The point was that whenever there had been an opportunity to wish, it was spent on Joshua: I wish he would catch up to the other kids… I wish it would all just suddenly click for him. I wish he would get it. I wish… I wish… I wish… Now that Joshua was doing better, her wishes tended toward Kylie, whom she felt had

been in some way neglected by all the attention she had paid to Joshua. With children, wishing was easy. A natural extension of parenting: to wish the world for your children. So, how could he not have a wish? She could not imagine the feeling, the aimlessness of having none to make. “I’m done,” he said quietly. She was not ready to hear his voice. “I like this game too much. I’m not ready for it to end.” “What do you want me to do? I’m done.” “So make another one.” “You can’t make two

wishes.” “Why not?” she asked twice. “Why not?” “I’ve never heard of it,” he said, then clarified: “We’ve never done it before.” She felt herself becoming annoyed again. “Why not? There’s so many. And if you choose another star, and if your wish is completely different from the first, then why shouldn’t you be able to? There’s no reason not to.” What she was saying seemed simple enough, and she felt that one more push would convince him. “Maybe we never make two wishes because we have so few stars. They seem

precious to us, like we need to conserve our wishes or we’ll run out. But God, there’s so many out here. You could just waste them here if you wanted to.” Dante smiled at his wife’s conviction, which, in general, he interpreted as the belief that things work out in the end. “So we make another wish?” he asked. She made his glass full of wine, and this served as her answer. He closed his eyes, signaling his willingness to continue. So what would one of his wishes sound like? How would he distill his thoughts into that one complete but unspoken sentence which is the

end product of the wishing game? Would he ask for attainable things, or would he favor the fantastic and the unreal? Would she figure into his wish? Would Josh or Kylie? How could they not? she wondered, yet the more she thought about it, the more she became certain that they did not. Probably, he just got something out quickly as a way of respecting the game’s rules but not its intent, a wish amounting to no wish at all—world peace, for example—or some overly global ideal that people remember and repeat when they don’t feel like committing to the wishing game. That

would be like him, to just get it over with without having to waste his time or energy. Yes, she was sure that was how Dante wished. But then she thought: Why all the extra silence? Dante always took a long time to make a wish. Why? Why would he need time if his wishes were simply clichés that could be discarded at will? She looked over at him, thinking there might be clues in his face. He was wishing right now, after all. Dante’s was a face easy enough to be looked upon, compact and handsome. It was the same face she had fallen

in love with and married: sharp lines of black hair jutting from above the ear almost to the lower jaw, the olivey-dark skin that never aged. If Gwendolyn’s purpose weren’t so clear to her, she might have felt a familiar stab of jealousy because of what the exact same span of years had done to her face. Gwendolyn continued to stare. She stared until the bugs went quiet, and she forgot about the thickly starred sky and the way it seemed fake to her. She stared until there was nothing left to take in but this face, the face of her husband, a motionless surface with closed eyes.

At some point, Gwendolyn gave up. Because a wish can be anything. Trying to guess a wish is like trying to guess at someone’s dream simply by watching him sleep. There is no way to— My God, a wish can be anything. She was staggered, taken over by the idea: any thing. Absolute, unconditional—words like that could be used to describe the license in wishing. Wishes were that free. Somehow, she had never fully grasped that wishes were entirely without limits, though she could not determine what unconscious constraints

she had cast for them. She took it in again, and when a ravel of breeze hit her lips, she whispered her disbelief into it: “My God.” “OK,” Dante said as if he had not heard her, “no more wishes.” But he kept his eyes closed. Overflowing, Gwendolyn wanted to ask him what seemed like a hundred questions about wishing, about whether he knew they had no limits, about why it might be that she never got that before, about the things he wished for. But then she remembered: Secrecy is built into the game’s rules. Secrecy is what makes it a game. A game

that thrives on a tension, on the disruptive power generated by not communicating with another when that other—usually the person in your life who knows everything else about you—is fully aware that you are not communicating. Because you can’t. Because the rules demand that you do not; the rules dictate that you must let the unsaid come between you and your other, a fellow wisher. One whose identity is so completely entangled with your own that you sometimes think of that identity as another side of yourself. This last idea scared

her, but she knew it was true. She could not imagine a restaurant, a movie, a Saturday morning without him. Just then, Dante opened his eyes. Oh my God, I haven’t made a wish yet. To compensate, she made five in as many seconds, undoing them as she went. Her real wish was coming to her. She stopped to reach out to it or to let it find her. It was slow and had a warmth to it, and she could feel it moving in, creeping up, coming closer. Even before it was a wish, she could tell it was unlike any she had ever made before. She waited for it, and as she waited, she

was filled with a new impression: She was not wishing at all. The wish had been here before, long before, as long as there had been resin chairs, weekends, wine; longer, as long as there had been wishes and people to make them. Somehow, she knew all of this as her wish circled around her. And still she had not wished it. She felt her heart rushing her onward, but there was nowhere to go. She waited. She waited until it struck. Sudden, predictable, it lashed at her like a predator or a cornered animal. Like that her wish came, leaving behind a rippling pleasure, as if an

unseen lover had breathed a cool stream of air into the back of her neck. And though the wish was not forgotten, its intensity, its fierceness were immediately dim and distant to her. A bit later, Dante spoke softly, asking her what she had wished for. The question caught her off guard, nearly sleeping. She glanced dreamily across the water and found an indefinable comfort in the last lighted house there. She said nothing. Again he asked it. “What did you wish for?” What he was doing was not in the rules and

he knew it. His question couldn’t be answered. It couldn’t even be asked. So why was he asking it? Did he expect her to answer? She began to worry. Was there something to worry about? “What did you wish for, Gwendolyn?” he asked a third time, pressing harder. She shivered. Lightly so he would not see. He knew nothing, nothing, and so what if he did? Weren’t wishes free? Across the water, the last house went dark, leaving them fully to their stars.

Contributors Marc Berman Marc Berman is a business executive, having owned and operated commercial radio stations for 35 years. Marc's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Alembic, Blue Lake Review, Bluestem, Concho River Review, Confrontation, Eclectica Magazine, Forge, Grey Sparrow, Lullwater Review, Paddlefish, Passager, Poetry East, Pisgah Review, The Round, Sanskrit, and Westview. Kathryn Huber Kathryn Huber obtained an M.S.W. from Columbia University where her work begged for conversion to the written word. Despite the myriad stories still waiting to be told, however, she left NYC to raise a family in Latin America with her Peruvian husband. Ten years of working to improve the lives of communities in Bolivia, Costa Rica, and Peru deepened her appreciation of the human condition and reinforced her belief that, through stories, people can connect across even the widest cultural chasms. After spending eight subsequent years in the Atlanta suburbs, Kathryn has returned to Peru and is currently Chairperson for Social Service and Education for the American Women’s Literary Club, an international women’s group in Lima. Her work has been published in various literary journals and her story, “Doppelganger Sonata,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by TheMacGuffin in 2005.

Charles O'Hay Charles O'Hay is a Philadelphia-area poet whose work has appeared in over 100 literary publications including The New York Quarterly, Cortland Review, Gargoyle, West Branch, and Mudfish. His first collection of poems and photographs, “Far from Luck,” was published in 2011 by Lucky Bat Books (Reno, NV). Matthew Perini Matthew Perini 's fiction and poetry have appeared in the journals The Tower, Logos, andThe Minetta Review. His nonfiction work has appeared in numerous books, including "The Core Six" and "Tools for Thoughtful Assessment," winner of a 2013 IPPY Award. A few years back, Matthew gave up writing fiction for all the wrong reasons: too busy, noticeably better cable-television programming, the aching self-doubt. He turned forty last year and decided to take another stab at short stories, including this one. He is thrilled to have "The Wishing Game" published by Crack the Spine. Matthew lives in New Jersey with his wife, Kristen, his daughters Ella and Alison, and whoever pops in for a glass of wine. Tamara Schuyler Tamara Schuyler grew up in Brussels, Belgium, speaking English, French, and German. Her short story “Ugly” appeared in CutBank 78 and was nominated for Puschart Prize XXXIX: Best of the Small Presses. Other stories are forthcoming in Mulberry Fork Review and The Milo Review. She lives in San Francisco with two cats and a husband.

John Sibley Williams John Sibley Williams is the author of eight collections, most recently "Controlled Hallucinations" (FutureCycle Press, 2013). He is the winner of the HEART Poetry Award and has been nominated for the Pushcart, Rumi, and The Pinch Poetry Prizes. John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and Board Member of the Friends of William Stafford. A few previous publishing credits include: American Literary Review, Third Coast, Nimrod International Journal, Rio Grande Review, Inkwell, Cider Press Review, Bryant Literary Review, Cream City Review, RHINO, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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