Crack the Spine
Issue 160 August 12, 2015 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2015 by Crack the Spine
Cover Art by A.J. Huffman A.J. Huffmanâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s poetry, fiction, haiku, and photography have appeared in hundreds of national and international journals, includingLabletter, The James Dickey Review, and Offerta Speciale, in which her work appeared in both English and Italian translation. She is also the founding editor of Kind of a Hurricane Press.
CONTENTS Molly Giordano
Robert A. Kaufman A White Speck
Horse Carriage and Bed Bugs
Michael Sean Ezekial Wilson Some Animals Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ve Come to Know
Vivian Witkind Davis Modern Grandmother
Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas Being Nostalgic
Molly Giordano The Incident
PART I The Incident, as it came to be known throughout the school and town, occurred during our seventh grade end-of-year field trip to a shabby park on the outskirts of town. The park had a small pool surrounded by cracked concrete slabs and a chain-link fence, a basketball court with naked hoops, and a long row of wooden cafeteria-style picnic tables. The morning started out like all our other end-of-year field trips at Cheat Lake Middle School. The girls, pale from a long West Virginia winter and short spring, boarded the bus in clumps and chatted nervously about the day. They were insecure to reveal the two-piece bathing suits worn under jean capris and spaghetti strap tank tops. The boys in their mesh basketball or cargo khaki shorts sat in the back of the bus, speculating about which girl filled out her swimsuit best. Mr. Mahew, Cheat Lake’s beloved seventh grade math teacher, sat in the back with the boys to, as he said to one of the other teachers with an eye roll, “keep the peace.” When the boys began talking about the girls’ breasts, he admonished them loudly. But Jamie Sayers, who was sitting in front of the boys, reported that she heard Mr. Mahew whisper to the group that he thought Lauren Jackson, who began developing in fourth grade, had “the most spectacular pair of tits in the county.” Mr. Mahew would later deny this comment and the boys either couldn’t or wouldn’t remember it when Principal Wethers asked for confirmation that afternoon.
But Mr. Mahew’s comment about Lauren’s breasts wasn’t really the point of The Incident anyway. And, besides, all of us knew that Jamie Sayers would do anything for attention. When the bus arrived at the park we rushed in different directions. The girls headed to the pool to prance in their swimsuits, the boys to the basketball court, and the assorted awkward kids milled about the grassy area with books or Frisbees. Mr. Mahew volunteered to supervise the basketball court and the other two teachers split up. Mrs. Lumpkin settled under a pool umbrella to watch the girls through dark shades while Mrs. Hennessey sat at a picnic table reading summer salad recipes in Family Circle. The first part of the morning was mostly uneventful. We had no broken bones or fights, as there had been during past field trips. But something was off. Mrs. Lumpkin and Mrs. Hennessey both later said that, despite the initial calm, an unusual feeling colored the morning. They said we all seemed edgy, nervous. Mrs. Lumpkin attributed this “aura,” as she called it, to the cicadas. It was the spring of the once-in-every-17-years cicada infestation. The picnic coincided with the rare week that millions of glossy, red-eyed little beasts burrowed up from the earth to mate and lay eggs in the trees. The cicadas were everywhere at the park. They floated in the pool, shrieked in the overhead branches, and their discarded shells crunched underfoot like bubble wrap. The ground was also covered with small holes and matching cylindrical pellets of earth where the bugs had burst from the surface several days earlier. When Mrs. Lumpkin spoke to Principal Wethers that afternoon, still shaky and teary-eyed, the cicadas were all she could talk about.
“The noise,” she said quietly, dabbing her cheeks with a balled up tissue. “It just wouldn’t stop. And every surface you looked at was moving with thousands of little red eyes.” Mrs. Hennessey also mentioned the cicadas during her debriefing with Principal Wethers. “They were everywhere. One fell in my hair while I was reading. And I had to give Ethan Addalson a timeout for throwing cicada shells at Amy Tessler. It was disgusting, really. Just gross. Anytime you moved you stepped on one.” PART II Mr. Mahew didn’t mention the cicadas during his meeting. He didn’t say much of anything, really. He just sat in Principal Wethers’ office, sweaty and disheveled, only half-hearing what Principal Wethers was saying. “Why…don’t understand…the student’s father…leave of absence.” Mr. Mahew watched Principal Wethers’ mouth form tight O’s and sharp triangles. He tried ordering the shapes in his mind to make sounds. But he couldn’t. All he could hear was the buzzing. The ceaseless buzzing. *** Joshua Mahew, or Mr. M, as he was known to some of his students, was the “cool” teacher at Cheat Lake Middle School. Not only was he one of the only male teachers, but he was also at least a decade younger than his tired-looking forty-something colleagues, who always seemed bogged down by their own children, their bills, their boring daily struggles. Mr. Mahew was single and new enough at teaching that he still thought he could make math fun with his funny ties and endless jokes. He also sincerely believed that the students liked him. The boys teased him like he were one of their own and the girls either ignored
or openly tolerated him (both, he sensed, were high compliments from 13-yearold girls). Every Friday, Mr. Mahew brought treats for the class and played mathrelated card games with his students. The talk always turned to weekend plans and sometimes the boys would beg him to join them at the Friday night football game or at the movies. Mr. Mahew always declined with a laugh and wave of his hand, saying that he had better things to do than hang out with a bunch of kids. But in reality, he didn’t. He was single in a small, rural town four states away from his family. When he first moved to Cheat Lake three years earlier to take the teaching position, he tried in earnest to date. But most of the women his age were already married, and he didn’t find the leftover women very appealing. So Mr. Mahew went to the football games alone and sat with the other teachers and their disinterested husbands. Sometimes he looked down from the bleachers at the boys clustered against the chain link fence, shoving each other in jest and occasionally disappearing behind the snack shed to sip beer swiped from someone’s basement fridge. On Mondays, before class began, he would walk over to the boys, hands on hips, and dramatically ask, “now, boys. Tell me exactly what was so interesting behind the snack shed at the football game?” The boys would snicker, Mr. Mahew would pretend to be stern, and then all would erupt in laughter. Alex Messner was the ringleader of the seventh grade boys. He was medium height and lean with olive skin, green slanted eyes, and a mature voice. He was the kind of boy that dated eighth grade girls and went to high school parties. He was quick-witted and friendly to just about anyone, including Mr. Mahew. He was always the first to laugh when Mr. Mahew made a joke, which signaled to the class that it was okay to join in.
The other teachers also liked Alex. But not for the reasons Mr. Mahew did. The women felt sorry for Alex because his mother died of a blood clot one year earlier. She was in the kitchen one afternoon making a chicken potpie when she collapsed. Alex was the one who found her on the floor when he got home from school three hours later. Her hands were cold and still covered with flour. Mr. Mahew looked forward to the last day of school each year. It was his chance to spend quality time with his students without worrying about papers and tests and fairness. But it was bittersweet. The students heâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d worked so hard to get to know were moving on. They would say hi to him in the halls the following year, or occasionally stop by his classroom, mostly to show off to the younger students. But it was never the same. On the day of the field trip, Mr. Mahew woke earlier than usual and had his coffee on the narrow balcony of the townhome he rented alone. It was grey and still in the early-morning light, but by quarter to seven, the air was already pulsing with the sound of cicadas. After a few minutes on the balcony, he felt overwhelmed by the their mating call chatter. The constant noise was disorienting, like waking up to the hiss of television static. Mr. Mahew went inside and left his half-finished coffee on the laminate kitchen countertop. He dressed in a more casual outfit than usual; blue-grey khaki pants with faded patches around the pockets and belt-loops from too many washings, a white polo t-shirt, and sneakers. He wondered if the students would notice that he wasnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t wearing his trademark funny tie. Using a barberstyle comb, he wet his thick dark hair and parted it to the side, then frowned at his reflection in the mirror. He was paler and pudgier than he had been the last time he wore this tight-fitting polo shirt. Mr. Mahew also noticed for the first time the gray hairs that had crept up around his ears.
The school bus was scheduled to leave for the park at 8:00 a.m. So instead of going to his classroom to get settled for the day, Mr. Mahew waited in front of the school in a light jacket and sunglasses, holding his red Velcro lunch bag. Mrs. Lumpkin and Mrs. Hennessey stood on either side of him. Their arms were crossed and they looked tired. “Another last day of school,” sighed Mrs. Lumpkin. “God, this class was a handful. I hope the kids are better next year.” “Really?” said Mr. Mahew. “I think the kids this year were pretty good.” Mrs. Lumpkin snorted and shook her head. “You haven’t been doing this long enough to see it, I suppose.” “See what?” “How difficult this age is. The social cliques, the emotional crap, the issues at home. All these problems come out full force in seventh grade. It’s like, when they turn 13, these kids wake up and everything hits them at once. Sixth graders are still oblivious, eighth graders are already hardening into little cynics. But seventh graders--they don’t know which is up.” Mr. Mahew nodded and said nothing. He felt sorry for Mrs. Lumpkin. He thought to himself that she was the cynic. She never took the time to get to know the students the way he did. “Hey Mr. M., you sittin’ with us on the bus today?” Alex Messner was standing on the other end of the parking lot, thumbs hooked on the pockets of his cargo shorts. He had a way of leaning back and tiling his chin up when he spoke. This made him look taller, almost eye-level to Mr. Mahew. “Course, Alex. Someone’s gotta keep an eye on you troublemakers.” Mr. Mahew turned to Mrs. Lumpkin and rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry, I’ll sit with
them to keep the peace.” Mrs. Lumpkin laughed and patted Mr. Mahew on the shoulder. “Bless you, Josh.” Mr. Mahew thought the bus ride went well. The students behaved, even the boys. He only had to scold them once, when they were giggling about Lauren Jackson’s breasts. He would have let it go, because, well, boys will be boys, but Brad Shortman’s comment was loud enough for Mrs. Hennessey to hear. So what choice did he have? When they pulled into the parking lot, Alex asked Mr. Mahew to play basketball with them. Mr. Mahew wished he’d worn shorts instead of his bluegrey khaki pants, which were too snug in the waist for athletic maneuvering. But he said yes because Alex kept slapping him on the back and saying things like: “C’mon Mr. M! Show us what you’re made of. I bet you can really kick ass on the court.” Mr. Mahew noticed that Mrs. Lumpkin was standing behind them. “Language,” he said to Alex in a firm tone. “Sorry, Mr. M. I didn’t mean to say ass.” Alex said, the corners of his mouth turned up in a half smile. Alex and Brad selected each other as team captains before the group arrived at the dilapidated basketball court. The other boys lined up on the edge of the asphalt obediently, without being asked. Mr. Mahew stood at the end of the line with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders thrust back in a subconscious effort to flatten his stomach. Alex selected Mr. Mahew and three other boys to join his team. Mr. Mahew watched the remaining boys slink off to the splintered wooden bleachers to watch.
“Alex, make sure to switch the players out next game so everyone has a chance to play,” he said. “Sure thing, Mr. M,” Alex said as he dribbled the ball back and forth between his legs. “You wanna do tip-off, Mr. M.? You’re tallest on our team.” Mr. Mahew walked up to the faded white line and leaned in, ready to jump. His heart was racing and his palms felt itchy with anticipation. “Ready…go!” shouted Alex, tossing the ball in the air between Brad and Mr. Mahew. Mr. Mahew was a head taller than Brad so he easily tipped the ball toward Alex, who dribbled down the court and made a graceful layup. The ball dropped through the net-less hoop and rolled into a muddy puddle. Alex picked it up and kept dribbling. Each time the ball hit the asphalt, flecks of mud splattered on his nearly hairless legs. “Great tipoff! You do kick ass, Mr. M.!” Alex shouted as he pumped his fist in the air. Mr. Mahew smiled and looked over his shoulder to make sure the other teachers weren’t within earshot. Mr. Mahew played well for the next 10 minutes. He missed the only shot he tried, but he stole the ball three times and made two more assists to Alex. But after that, the game started to move too quickly. Mr. Mahew’s heavy cotton pants rubbed between his inner thighs and his face got so hot that it felt like his eyes were filled with boiling water. The students were moving so fast that by the time Mr. Mahew made it to one side of the court, his agile teammates were already returning to the other end. As Mr. Mahew ran back and forth, uselessly swatting at the boy on the opposing team that he was supposed to guard, Alex shouted encouragement over his shoulder: “C’mon, Mr. M.! Keep up!”
Halfway into the game, Mr. Mahew tried to call a timeout. “Time!” he shouted, making a T symbol with his hands. But the cloud of skinny legs and arms ahead of him kept churning. Alex stopped dribbling and held the bright orange ball over his head; the other boys orbited around him trying to grab it. “Let’s go, old man!” he yelled. Mr. Mahew shook his head and leaned between his knees. He exhaled hard and licked his lips. The thump, thump of his heart in his ears and the siren of the cicadas overhead was deafening. He felt dizzy and disoriented, but he didn’t want to quit in front of his students. So he righted himself and returned to the black asphalt, which seemed hot enough to melt his Kmart sneakers. “Think fast, Mr. M.!” shouted Alex, as he hurled a hard pass to Mr. Mahew. Mr. Mahew turned just in time for the muddy ball to hit him square in the chest. He made an “umph” sound and fell backward. For a moment, Mr. Mahew lay still on the ground. He listened to his heart pounding in his throat and held onto his chest, where the ball had left a crescent-shaped stain. In the dim distance he could hear Alex and a few of the other boys laughing. “Nice catch, Mr. M.!” Alex said. And then, quieter, “what a loser.” Then the sound of the boys and the cicadas and the smell of toasted asphalt disintegrated. For several seconds, all was silent. But soon a vaguely familiar feeling overtook Mr. Mahew. Something he hadn’t felt in a long time. Since college maybe, or high school. It felt like soda fizz. It started in his chest and rapidly expanded outward, down his veins and toward his fingertips, which suddenly clenched into fists. And then it happened. Mr. Mahew sprung to his feet like a prizefighter back from the ropes. He lunged at Alex, grabbing him by the collar of his grey t-shirt. “You little shit!” he
screamed, flinging him to the ground. He slammed Alex into the pavement and then crouched over him like a cat on a rodent. Everything around Mr. Mahew melted into a blur. He couldn’t hear anything. Even his own mouth had no sound. Mr. Mahew felt words forming on his tongue and lips, but once in the air they disappeared. But he could still hear the cicadas. They were muted, like the whine of a distant boat engine. But they were still there. Always there. It wasn’t until later, when Principal Wethers, flanked by two serious-faced police officers, was interviewing him, that Mr. Mahew learned what he’d said to Alex. As he crouched over the boy, watching blood drip over his lips and chin, multiple witnesses reported that Mr. Mahew screamed: “Go home and cry to your mommy, why don’t you. Oh, that’s right. You don’t have one anymore. Because she’s dead. And now you’ll always be alone.”
Robert A. Kaufman A White Speck
I paint kisses up and down your white neck In your white bed that, at one time, was made Like it’s fashion, like the Burberry check. You say, “Boy, I’m an emotional wreck.” “Don’t beat your diamond-heart with clubs or spades,” I paint kisses down and down your white neck. You ask, “been to Prague?” I white-lie I’m Czech And sing a Bohemian serenade Like it’s fashion, like the Burberry check. While you are at-bat, my eyes are on deck At she, whose curves my lines will next invade, On whom I’ll paint kisses up her white neck. But when you do your impression of Shrek, I wish you were the hand I’d not yet played. Fashions die, even the Burberry check.
To this pointillist, you’re just a white speck Whose color is small, but won’t ever fade. I paint kisses down and up your white neck Like it’s fashion, like the Burberry check.
Horse Carriage and Bed Bugs “I’m the man now,” her husband told me at Marie’s wedding. During the first few minutes I met him, an intellectual from Florence who behaved like a kid, I realized they shouldn’t have children. Marie, on the other hand, ignited a room. She loved the golden silk shirt I wore to their wedding. “You look delightful,” she whispered when he was not nearby. Marie was my employer, on a part-time basis, and I told her, when she hired a former coworker, “You should not hire Sam Jann, the graphic designer.” He was hired the day before Tuesday, when Marie and her colleagues decided I should be let go. I said mean things about her, throughout the office. I pointed at her long nails and noted how unappealing they were—so unlike the Philadelphia suburb she grew up in. She also had tyrannical mood swings that impeded small talk, particularly after she had endured a temper tantrum from her groom. Probably the most disrespectful thing I said was, “your breasts are flat.” This did not sit well with people in the lingerie marketing department who reported to her. Marie was better than most humans: no judgement—just hugs and euphoric remarks when I said something funny or perceptive.
She was my editor, because my grammar was terrible, and she often made corrections. A friend said she wanted me, no doubt. Everyone knew this, he said. It’s true; we held hands on the subway, long before the bed bugs arrived. I figured we were lovers in an intrepid state where the winds passed and we masked our truer intentions. The only time Marie was unfaithful was in our poetry class and she sided with those who felt my words were slightly inferior to those of William Butler Yeats. It became a slippery slope when Marie informed my coworkers she’d banish me. They were eating curry chicken and Pentimento cheese sandwiches with Vichyssoise. Banish me from the workplace. “You’re going to hire Sam Jann?” I asked. “Everyone loves him.” He was tall, brown-haired and had dimples. Sam, whose dimples I had known since pre-nursery school, was likeable and more female than me. He and his wife were my friends. I occasionally had coffee with them, though they were possessive and resented my visiting the Empire State Building and not them. At work, just after one day, Sam’s popularity escalated.
I traveled with Marie to the office comfort zones, telling her I meant well, but she kept crying. She didn’t want to say goodbye, but it was like in poetry class, where the opinion was against me. “You need to hire Sam Jann and fire me?” “There’s a new trend in industry,” she replied, which meant that everyone was cutting employees and expanding companies. I thought I could preclude termination by advising Marie about her niece, who was now in “recovery.” It’s good to have a conversation that you have not yet had and have it while you can or at least let it linger in the back of your mind so that others sense there are things you have not yet discussed but will be of importance to them when you do. Marie’s niece was a heroin addict whom I befriended before Marie married the Florentine who declared at his wedding, “I am the man.” We were in the final moments of my employment. We were riding on a horse-driven carriage near Central Park, trying to avoid the subway bed bugs, which might have also been on the buses. “There she is!” Marie screamed. It was her niece, the heroin addict, in heels and walking toward us. This was disheartening because I had wanted to tell her about the young girl’s recovery. It was my last attempt to secure a position in the office; that we, the heroin addict and me, knew each other from meetings. We exemplified the lost kids— the girls who don’t make it to the alter to say “I do” or “I will”; the ones who are marked in poetry class as “The non-NY Times Best-Seller List”; the chicks who
are going to be passed over for the agreeable graphic designers/editors wearing a suit and tie with mighty connections, which means they can sit in their cubicles and read the great stock options they’ve received from their new company. “Are you sure you don’t want to join us?” Marie asked. I nodded. My plot to renew her sympathies was foiled as she and her niece went for lunch. I was alone, on the street, while they rode in a brougham, the horse treated to a carrot, and Marie, with sorrowful eyes, tears that didn’t abate, waved goodbye.
Michael Sean Ezekial Wilson Some Animals I’ve Come to Know
1. The Birdsharks Dangerous I’m usually afraid of birds. Anything that can enter the third dimension at will, anything that reminds the open sky to immensity. There’s so much. They would always find me while I was mixing potions on the school tarmac, inspecting gravel for ore and Indian Beads, a metamorphic elixir. I would tell myself as eyes fixed and shrieks territorial that they were just lost, their wings cutting through space like sharkfins, bladed pinions— how aerodynamic. I would tell myself that they must get lonely at higher altitudes and remember in Colorado how my lungs would hurt at the driveway’s summit, how the mountains made everything smaller except stars. I remember finding the word empathy in an airport magazine and knowing exactly what it meant as we boarded our 5:30 flight: so much. There’s so much.
2. The Rabbit With Stranger Ears Aglow If the world were to be decomposed into its simplest magical elements rabbits would cover a wide base. I encounter them at night in my Father’s backyard, for he refuses to shoot city rabbits and red squirrels. They remain stone as I circle around them, weathervane ears swiveling to catch my wind. I do not speak or move suddenly—why disturb the divine. There’s a calculable glow in their ancient reckonings. There’s meaning in this roar. I would sometimes set out to jog in the fogged mornings, head ticking to April’s scent, the radius of a streetlamp’s reach. I’d pass by my Mother’s limestone rabbit holding a basket of eternal flowers— our neighbors had one almost identical, but crouching. They changed positions at least once a week. Nobody else seemed to notice. 3. The Deer Whose Face I Cannot Know He pads out there in the between-light, dawn matters, dusk things. His points I do not count. His face I cannot know. To assign value on a system is like building a cage out of sharp memorabilia: nothing escapes without damaging all parties involved. To solve an equation before the values of x and y have given
consent is to assume, making poachers out of everyone. His neck is always turned and beautiful. His feet are always covered in water or moss or sand, reaching below our contact with earth. For him to turn and look at me, for me to circle and look at him is to undeerâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; it could be elk or caribou or stag or reindeer or antelope or moose or chital. To unobstruct our faces is to welcome danger at its most primal. We state axioms. We quest no further. To know the face is to kill. 4. Coyote Winterâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s scrapyard harbor, he tiptoes around the perfect snow. He refuses to hunt, eating what is found. The taxological distance between canis latrans and canis lupis is equal to the distance between two people at night standing on opposite ends of a small green lake toggling flashlights, neither knowing Morse. He does not fit into shells or golden ratios. His bones cannot contort into symmetry. Instead he rattles them like hymnals sung out of tune, off-key, bursting. Instead he tiptoes through bluffs, the prints left behind, the undisturbed white.
Thereâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s a welcoming thought to perfect oblivion: warm static echoless tones knots untying with gravity. He lets these feelings come and go with seasons. He enjoys the change. The distance between canis latrans and canis lupis is equal to the distance between two people sitting across from each other at a coffee shop with irises open and lungs unfettered.
Vivian Witkind Davis Modern Grandmother
Vincent was born over a quarter of a century after I last dandled a baby on my knee and wiggled its toes while warbling, â&#x20AC;&#x153;This little piggy went to market.â&#x20AC;? The protocols were simple: feed it, change it, cuddle it, and shake a bright object in front of it every once in a while to get a giggle. The wetware arrives the same as always, mewling and puking. The operational support, however, both hardware and software, have been upgraded as much as rotary telephones. My son Josh and daughter-in-law Lorraine are modern parents. Vincent is a modern baby. I need an upgrade. The cuddling is the same. I love to hold Vincent, to pass a hand over his soft skin, and to kiss him randomly on his cheeks and chubby arms. The guidelines for diapering are the same, since output arrives as always in two forms and two aromas. Input is a different story. The modern baby is a human subject in an experimental design. He samples mashed carrots for a few days, then quinoa, then peas, each slipped spoon-by-spoon into the eager little mouth, half of it dripping out again, scraped off the chin and stuffed between the little lips as the feeder waits for the first signs of hives, blisters, or indigestion. I raised my kids with no thought of allergies until we moved to Delray Beach, Florida, and Josh and his younger sisters got sneezles and wheezles and rashes that blossomed like bougainvillea, and I found myself buying out the Kleenex and ointment aisle at the Piggly Wiggly. Dr. Friedman (Bruce) diagnosed reactions to dust, mold, and plant life. The kids were allergic to the state of Florida. When we
moved to Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Friedman (Roger) took over as my kids detoxed and replaced southern with northern allergies. I understand how debilitating allergies can be. But I am bemused that modern parents of modern babies view the whole panoply of fruits of the earth as potential pathogens. Peanut butter is the ultimate menace. Peanut butter—that smooth or chunky staple I could turn to anytime to nourish hungry kids fast and with minimal mess. Josh and Lorraine plan to camp outside Riverside Hospital as they offer him his first taste of peanut butter. If he goes into anaphylactic shock, the emergency room will be right there. They haven’t done this yet, but I think they are serious. It’s not only food that has to be extra secure. Vincent’s surroundings are designed to be as safe as mother’s milk. This is a challenge because the current parenting generation also wants a baby to be free to explore without that atrocity of the past—the playpen. The modern baby is supposed to be freerange, like the modern chicken. So the entire house has been hardened. Instead of a six-foot square playpen, some 1,500 square feet lives up to its location on Stoneygate Lane and has become a risk-free zone of gates, fences, locks, protective covers, and bumpers. It certainly keeps me in my place, since I’m not much for climbing fences, exerting adequate hand-strength on an industrialsize clamp, or figuring out that to escape to the next gate you must push a button at the same time as you slide a lever. When I got down on the floor and played with little Josh, it was silent except for us. We piled up blocks, nested barrels, and induced conversations among plastic farm animals. The modern baby is gifted with educational noise. Every toy has a chip so it can light up in bright, primary colors and emit a cacophony of ABCs, one-two-threes, nursery rhymes, and introductions to the French horn.
Each animal sends forth its special sound. The cooing, baaing, oinking, cheeping, braying, neighing, ribbiting, clucking, quacking, and awking would make Old McDonald turn in his pitchfork and head for the city to get a job with a cubicle. Some of the toys blink and beep without being touched, like arcade games, to remind you they are available. Take Vincent’s multi-hued stuffed caterpillar with the unrelenting grin. Press a button labeled “one” on its belly and hear a chirpy voice introducing a chirpy selection from “Vivaldi.” Press “two” for “Beethoven,” and “three” for “Johann Sebastian Bach.” (Try saying that chirpily.) It’s apparently important for Vincent to distinguish among the Bach boys. Josh is the stay-at-home parent, an innovation of which I approve and am proud. On Fridays, while he goes to the gym, we enable the grandmothergrandson function, and I interface with Vincent in his playpen, otherwise known as home. When Vincent and I are done reading board books and piling up non-jingling blocks within his gated community, I carry him to his high chair for a spot of lunch. Josh had a wooden one with a tray attached to a single strap to go between the baby’s legs. Click and you were done. Vincent’s high chair was designed with cockpit ejection seats in mind. Babies still wiggle when you try to tie them in place, especially if they are hungry. Vincent gyrates as I click the waist cinch shut and throws his arms up as I go for the shoulder straps, but I am bigger, and I win. It’s on to the tray, which is about the size of our old kitchen table. To lock it in place, you hold both sides and, at the same time, ease your thumb over to locate a release button under the middle of the tray. This takes over an octave of hand spread, or more than I can accomplish easily. I would like to toss a few Cheerios on Vincent’s tray to occupy him while I
microwave his lunch. None are available. Cheerios have multiple ingredients, any of which could be dangerous. I warm up the blue-plate special. Asparagus. Mmm. The spoon goes into the happy little face. The asparagus comes out. All of it. Down the cheek. Down the bib. Onto the chair. Onto the floor. Repeat. Vincent wants to be allergic to asparagus. Lunch over and washed off the victim, with special attention to the hair, I pick up Vincent and prepare to take him on a walk, which first requires navigating the protective barriers between us and the front door. It’s like storming Omaha Beach on D-Day, minus the shelling. Remember the buried explosives, the barbed wire, and Goebbels’s “asparagus” stakes planted in the sand pointing out to sea? I climb over a two-and-a-half-foot fence, fourteenpound baby in my arms, while watching out not to push the fence against the lock that holds the toybox lid on the other side safely open. The hyper-alert toys on the beach are waiting for me. Clutching the baby, I wade through, hoping to avoid an attack by “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “Ode to Joy.” My little boy had an umbrella stroller with teething ring sized back wheels that got caught on cracks in the sidewalk. The modern baby doesn’t have a stroller. Vincent has two “travel systems,” one large and one a little smaller. It’s like having an Odyssey and an Accord in the garage. Both systems sport multiple-position, reclining seats and expandable canopies with peek-a-boo windows on top. Both are pasted with dire warnings with exclamation marks. “When seat is fully reclined, backward tip-over is more likely, and may result in an accident or injury, as seat and/or passenger may contact ground before handlebar.” I get it: “Stroller goes plonk; baby goes donk.” Do I need that spelled out in English and French? The smaller stroller announces that it meets California
standards for fire resistance, with a full citation of the applicable law in English and Spanish. All this information could be my own Rosetta Stone when I have the time to compare, which I don’t because I am trying to click Vincent into all the points of a five-point harness while he looks at me as if I am developmentally delayed. The three wheels on the larger travel system are as big as family-size apple pies, and unequivocally remove the shock from the ride over the sidewalks of one of the flatter and more well-tended suburbs in Ohio. Airline travelers should be jealous— and I don’t mean only the suffering souls in coach. The modern baby cruises the neighborhood in more comfort than a business class passenger on Emirates Airline. Vincent falls asleep on his ride, the aim of babysitters everywhere, so I quietly bring him into the house, turn on CNN, and lie on the couch on my back while maneuvering him onto my torso. I watch the news about African famine, storms of the century, and heads lopped off in the Middle East—the big dangers out there lying in wait. By the time Josh comes home, fitter and sweatier, Vincent is sleeping like the small, vulnerable person he is. I am asleep dreaming about monsters. Vincent’s parents are trying to do what parents always have: use the knowledge of their times to make their children as safe as possible as long as possible, and to teach them the skills and information they need to survive as adults. Today’s generation has more tools to apply than I did, such as knowledge of the origins of allergies. On the other hand, I can look back to times when “easy does it” and “let them make mistakes” were the programming language. Perhaps it got out of hand. Now we appear to be at the apex of a culture of discipline and control. The world is full of danger, but how much can
and should you protect a child as he grows? Where do I come in? Maybe I’m the one who remembers the peaks and valleys of the past, all of which now look like overreaction. Maybe I am an escape button to be clicked when a program is stuck in a loop. In a few years, on a starry night, I will take Vincent into the woods and build a campfire with flames that flicker and dance like fauns silently tootling wooden pipes. I will cut him a stick from a nearby tree and carefully wipe off the bugs. I will pare the stick’s point needle-sharp and show him how to impale a marshmallow. I will watch while he holds it over the flame. He’ll tilt it too far down, and I will not say anything. The marshmallow will burn, and he will realize he needs to yank it out of the fire to savor, first, the fragile, papery, black, carcinogenic skin and then the goopy, pure sugar inside, scooping it out with his fingers and licking the last bit off the stick.
Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas Being Nostalgic
Through a keyhole youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ll find her room quieted by a bed covered in silvered blue lace, and a headboard carved with shells; an arc of cherry wood that faces the northern lights at night when the shade is drawn up high enough to see the stars. Thereâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s an old box housing a pair of palest pink toe-shoes her mother once wore, frayed at the point from a thousand pirouettes a lifetime ago. In the mirror, over the door a small heart with ribbons hangs above the frame, the same one she used to wear in her hair thirty years before. On the wall are paintings of ballerinas, shadowed in black and white, each one beneath glass where the morning sun reflects its glare as they stand in position, forever unaware of the goings-on beyond a world of crinoline
and melodramatic art when no one could tell the difference. A dairy of her fatherâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s rests atop the nightstand drawer yellowed and torn from untold readings long after his death. A favorite Winchester rifle from his glory days of hunting leans kiddy corner in the closet like an unseen belonging as nothing feels as loved as it once was in this room of forgotten things There are teacups, rings, snow globes, crocheted blankets and autograph books all from an era when signatures were written from an ink jar, when nothing was as hurried as it is now and she could still dial a phone on the white wicker table and say, this is your daughter calling, and someone on the other end would whisper back, love you my darling girl, only the way a mother or father is able.
Laurie Jacobs Breathe Deep
When I drove up to the small two-dormered Cape my father had bought for me before he died, my heart sank. Mildew stained the clapboards. Paint peeled from the trim. Enormous conifers loomed over the house. In their shadows green pelts of moss clung to the roof. My mother had warned me that my father’s gift was a scam, that I’d fly all the way to Boston to discover I owned “a pile of crap.” I imagined her orange-slicked lips twisting into a triumphant smile. I clutched the steering wheel. Remember why you’ve come, Cheryl. Taking the deep breaths my therapist had prescribed I eased my grip. At that moment, a middle-aged woman in a navy pantsuit and short blonde hair emerged from the front door and waved me in. Phyllis Burke, my father’s attorney, was as kind in person as she’d been on the phone, but her responses to my questions offered little additional information. She’d met my father briefly to prepare his final legal documents. She had no idea why he’d bought this house for me. As far as she knew, he’d never lived in the town. He’d lived in an apartment in Somerville, about an hour west. The kitchen was vintage 1960’s with avocado-colored appliances. The living room was similar in size to the one in my apartment, but the conifers obscured the side windows. Upstairs, the dormers let some light into the bedrooms, one of which had one window looking onto a dull yard; the other had one window looking into a mass of pine needles. Though this was the gloomiest room, it had
the only furniture—an old brass bed draped with a dusty floral quilt. “Was this his bed?” I asked. “No, dear. He left all his belongings to charity. He told me he didn’t want to burden you with his things.” “Then why not leave me money? Why this house?” Ms. Burke shrugged. “I suggested he write to you. He knew he was dying. He said this way was easier.” Our footsteps echoed as we returned downstairs. I told Ms. Burke I planned to sell the house and buy a condominium near the school where I taught. She said she could recommend a realtor and then handed me the keys. “Even though your father was ill, he was always polite.” “Not a total scoundrel?” She smiled. “He did say he hoped to do better in his next life.” Outside there was an unfamiliar tang to the air. Between the houses across the street I glimpsed the harbor. I walked down Prospect. The road turned, revealing an expanse of dull pewter under a sky thick with clouds. The thrum I’d thought was traffic was the sound of the waves. As I neared the water, the breeze ruffled my hair. I’d seen the ocean only once before when I took a trip to California in college. My mother preferred pools to beaches. But in the one photograph I had of my father, he knelt beside me on the sand—handsome, grinning—grasping my tiny hands to hold me upright while waves foamed around my feet. Maybe that was the gift he’d meant to give me—not the house so much as it’s
proximity to the sea. I sat on a bench, my hands jammed into my pockets against the late spring chill, watching the waves. The sky darkened. Lights were reflected on the water in shimmering silver ribbons. I could guess at his intentions, but I could no more know his thoughts than I could hold that shimmer in my hands. Still, I lingered by the water until the smell of food from a nearby restaurant made my stomach rumble. The restaurant was crowded. I sat at the bar and ordered chowder. The couple next to me was staying nearby. Like me, both were teachers. They ordered a bottle of wine and insisted I have a glass. More bottles followed. The conversation turned to their children and their dogs and their travels. Lacking any of these, I smiled and listened. “This is a sweet little town,” the woman said. “Wouldn’t you love to live here?” “Actually,” I said, “I just inherited an old house here.” I gestured. “Up that hill.” “Wow!” she exclaimed. The man said, “Lucky you!” We made our farewells. I wobbled unsteadily back to my rental car. I was in no shape to drive. But you own a house. Raindrops pelted me as I fumbled with the lock. In the upstairs bathroom, lurid pink tiles whirled around me. I staggered to the bedroom and collapsed on the bed. Strobe-like flashes of lightning and percussive thunder woke me. I’d dreamt some wild thing was chasing me, threatening me. That dream panic merged into heart pounding wakefulness until I remembered where I was and that the
noises I heard—branches clawing the window and thrashing the walls—were the sounds of a storm. The wind made a tremendous noise like the trumpeting of angry elephants, and then came a titanic crash. I pulled the quilt over my head and, shivering, waited for the roof to collapse. When I woke again, my mouth was parched. My head ached. The room was blindingly bright. Through streaked glass I saw a placid blue sky and gray rooftops and jadecolored water. Wrapping a quilt around me I stumbled to the window. Below were huge upturned root balls. The conifers lay across the yard, their branches reaching for the sun. Farther on, past neighboring rooftops, was the vast glittering green sea. On the horizon white caps appeared like drops of cream and then were gone. Near the shore, wave after glassy wave swelled and struck, splattering white foam on strand and rock. I pressed my forehead to the glass. My father must have gambled that I, like he, would see beyond what was to what might yet be. I hadn’t. But I could begin. I pried up the sash. Then breathed deep.
Vivian Witkind Davis Vivian Witkind Davis, Ph. D., retired in 2007 from The Ohio State University, where she had a productive career as a public policy analyst and researcher. Before working at Ohio State, she was a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, a weekly magazine in Washington, D.C. As a sideline from her day job at Ohio State, she reviewed restaurants for Columbus Monthly magazine for ten years and contributed several in-depth articles. Witkind Davis’ writing has been published or is forthcoming in Defenestration, The Citron Review, Concho River Review, and Forge. She self-published a memoir, “Paper Heirloom,” in 2014. Molly Giordano Molly Giordano has a BA in political science and journalism from the University of Delaware and a Masters in Public and Non-Profit Administration from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the Director of Development and Marketing at the Delaware Art Museum. She lives with her husband and cat in Wilmington, Delaware. Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas is a seven-time Pushcart nominee and four-time Best of the Net nominee. She has authored several chapbooks along with her
latest full-length collection of poems: “Hasty Notes in No Particular Order” newly released from Aldrich Press. She is the 2012 winner of the Red Ochre Press Chapbook competition for her manuscript “Before I Go to Sleep” and according to family lore she is a direct descendent of Robert Louis Stevenson. Visit her at her website. A.J. Huffman A.J. Huffman’s poetry, fiction, haiku, and photography have appeared in hundreds of national and international journals, includingLabletter, The James Dickey Review, and Offerta Speciale, in which her work appeared in both English and Italian translation. She is also the founding editor of Kind of a Hurricane Press. Laurie Jacobs Laurie lives on Boston’s north shore. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. Her work has appeared inBartleby Snopes, The Drum and Foliate Oak among other publications. She also has published several books for children. Robert A. Kaufman Robert A. Kaufman graduated from Brown and served as a Fulbright Scholar in Oslo. His writing has been featured in Blaire magazine, Extract(s), FD magazine, and Fjords Review. Robert is currently a MALS student at Dartmouth studying poetry.
Eleanor Levine Eleanor Levine’s writing has appeared in Hobart, Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Monkeybicycle, The Denver Quarterly, Pank, The Toronto Quarterly, Gertrude, Dos Passos Review, Barrelhouse, Intima, IthacaLit, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Roadside Fiction (Ireland), S/tick (Canada), Literateur (UK), Litro (UK), Barely South Review, Kentucky Review, Juked, Menacing Hedge, and Artemis. More work is forthcoming in Split Lip Magazine‘s new book series, “Utter Foolery: The Best Global Literary Humor, 2015;” and Gone Lawn. Her poetry collection, “Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria,” was recently accepted for publication. Michael Sean Ezekial Wilson Michael Sean Ezekial Wilson is a sophomore studying English and Creative Writing at Indiana University in Bloomington. Referred to by many of his friends as Zeke, a self-bestowed title referencing the catholic upbringing he no longer adheres to, Michael chooses to focus on the “divine” things in life as subjects for writing, ranging from common suburban animals to pavement salt He currently holds a position as a YMCA summer camp counselor in Michigan and intends on pursuing a PHD after his undergraduate studies.
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