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Crack the Spine

Literary magazine

Issue 173


Issue 173 November 25, 2015 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2015 by Crack the Spine


CONTENTS BAM

Kindness and Decency

Christopher Stolle

Jewish Tears Flood Heaven

Chris Vola

Porn With Condoms

Joel Best

Murder Mystery

Neil Tarpey

Family Reunion

Mary Jo Melone

Baby Mine


BAM

Kindness and Decency

On Saturdays I liked to play Russian roulette and listen to songs about suicide. You can Google them these days. But, I ran out of vodka. Otherwise, I’d still be at it. Now, I’m in this store. What were the odds one aisle of toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels would divide me from a different bullet and a reunion with my lost love. Six months since she died of cancer. A neighbor suggested I saw a grief counselor. He didn’t know jack. When Dad died, I saw a shrink for the grief. The young doctor gave me a bunch of “goals” to fulfill. “Bah! My woman’s worth more than some goal,” I said to my neighbor. It wouldn’t bring her back anyhow. Days ran together now. I got up, threw on my overalls and rain boots, ran errands, and came home to the house. The house we bought together, the one we raised our sons in, the place we spent almost half a century holding hands, making up, kissing, and then yelling over piss pot seats. It was the place where meat and potatoes never got old. The house where we laughed at the boob tube one moment, cried at it the next, and never got sick of reruns because we watched them together. These days, it’s the house our kids left and forgot about, or the house where I lived alone. Where I watched her die. Like I said, I came in here for vodka. No one played Russian roulette without vodka. Oh and I needed paper towels. I used to never remember the stubborn things. Then the boy in the cereal aisle just started shooting people all of a


sudden. After that customer was killed, Bahienany the sample-lady got it between the eyes. I ducked instinctively. When the wife got sick, I spent some time here and got to know all of the employees. The wife knew them already. In fact, Bahienany always paid special attention to my Janey. Those two would talk about everything. She taught Janey how to make chicken curry. Too spicy! I never complained, though. Bahienany came here from India as a single parent to raise her four children. She used to think this place was safe for her and her kids. Now look at her, dead on the floor next to the Chex Mix and the Honeycombs. She would say about every other word wrong, but the constant grin under her snout never faded. Poor woman never vexed a soul. After Bahienany, Manny, the store’s mechanical engineer took two in the chest. He stood maybe ten feet from me on the other end of this here aisle. Last week, Manny fell off the ladder. He never once complained ’bout it. When the young man fell, oh he shook it off and went back to work. Saw it with my own eyes. Fantastic customer service, too. Even if he found himself busy repairing a light bulb from the high up ladder, like he did before the bullets hit him, Manny would not have hesitated to tell someone where they “hid the jelly.” I wouldn’t be so nice. The peanut butter aisle had a huge sign. “Peanut Butter Sale,” it read. Even with my macular degenerative issues, I saw the gigantic poster of peanut butter. The jelly is next to the stuff. Nonsensical questions made my old bones ache. It’s the fact-checking astrologist in me. Manny, though, he was such a nice young fella.


Right after Manny got shot, my old friend, the Butcher Teddy, took a bullet to the shoulder. He fell hard to his knees. Teddy had weak joints. I wondered if he was okay. We had a conversation, not ten minutes ago. Teddy asked me how my hip was, and I told him better than his ancient joints. We laughed at each other’s oldness for a moment. Then when he mentioned the wife, I had to say, “goodbye” and walk away. He understood. When Janey died, I lost all my energy, hope. I did miss laughing with Teddy a little. Even that young clerk cackled with us. Now, the same clerk stood, terrified. With a gun at his face, who could blame him? Like most of the people here, my bones were not ready for this action. Come to think of it, had Janey been around today, it would be her here in this situation. I wondered if she would panic, run for it, and get herself shot. One thing I knew, no matter how fast the person—no one could out run bullets. Oh, she was fast though, a female track runner in my college fast. We met March 7, 1970. She was runnin’ round the track. I was with my buddy, Corky. He ran with the guys and knew Janey through the meets. She told him she’d bring a few friends. We were going to watch an eclipse together, and lived in the perfect little city to spot its full totality. Astrology was my major, so this was about all I would put off homework for, and Corky knew that tidbit about me. As soon as I saw Janey, my eyes were set on that smile of hers. It defined kindness. Corky though, his sights were focused on the fact that Janey’s friends were black. Corky refused to join Janey and her friends. I hadn’t thought about integration much. I just knew it was a new thing. Never was a hero. When Janey said to Corky, “We just have one planet, sir,” and she walked on with her friends, well, I had to follow her. We watched the eclipse together and


soon held hands. Didn’t matter to me which side I was on as long as I was on hers. Now here’s this boy shooting people. We shift those we hate, but we always hate. I’m guilty, too, even if ignorance was my reason for feeling that way. My wife was in my opinion a hero. Come to think of it, Janey would have done her best to see that the people survived. That’s why I got up from my hiding spot and let myself be known to the boy. After he pointed his pistol at me, he said, “Go. You aren’t one of them.” I did not know what he meant and knew he did not know what he meant either. Instead of arguing, I told him something I knew. “We have only been to the moon six times.” “What?” he asked, confused. Might as well have been speaking to one of my sons before they knew any better. “That is, twelve human beings have walked on it. Four men walked it by ’69 and that’s after two trips, then four more gentlemen walked it in ’71, there’s another two expeditions, and by ’72 another four men walked on the moon up there through another two visits. Yep, and only twelve humans to walk the moon between six manned landings, and by golly just goes to show we’re stuck here for a while. Eh?” I imagined one of his bullets ending me and hoped I would get to see Janey when I died. Instead of killing me, he asked a question, which dumbfounded me. “Do you have a point?” The poor boy, he did not know any better. He became Corky in my eyes, or anyone who did not see past their own self. I could not tell him something I did not know—so I could not quote Doctor King or J.F.K. or even Oprah.


I couldn’t even tell him some fact like your eye color’s a mutation, a mistake of nature, and how the color of your skin depends on where you’re born as well as your family’s genetic makeup; Janey knew that stuff. Oh, and she’d go on and on about it, but I’d hardly listen. All I could do was leave the boy with what she left me with. “We just have one planet, sir.” He dropped the gun and let everybody go. They called me a “hero” that afternoon. But it wasn’t enough. One thought rested in my mind. Next Saturday, I’ll load two bullets.

The sign to the place read American Grocery, but to me it meant more, which was why there was a bloodbath, in that store on that day, the day the Georgia peach vanished from my life. There I was, standing in the store’s entryway, frozen. Here’s this store: one of the largest stores in my North Carolinian town. Far from my apartment. The sixth place I tried. The one store in Greenville that sold everything from alcohol, paper towels, to fruits, and vegetables. They had to have the one thing I wanted, a perfectly ripe Georgia peach. People came and went from my life, yet the peach had been there throughout. The one thing I could always depend on for peace of mind. I remember I watched one of the people I shot later point a customer to the peanut butter aisle from his ladder. He slicked his Elvis hairdo back as though he had the right to be cocky with his finger pointed left, even though the correct aisle was to the right. Prick didn’t even say which aisle either.


Once, a customer meant something to a store. Times changed. I called the first store in advance to see if they carried my peach, and the lady on the phone said, “We have peaches.” She hung up on me. I drove all the way there to find out they didn’t carry the ones I wanted. So, I didn’t bother calling the others. The manager at the last store looked at me like an idiot. He told me, “Peach season’s in August, bro.” Yeah, peach season is in August, yet they can somehow magically have peaches from all over the world, but not peaches from my country? Sounded like bull to me. Besides, I’m eight hours from Georgia, where the real peaches grow. Just five years ago, I saw them in that very store and it was March. Yet, the thug, half my age wanted to tell me peach season mattered a few hours away from the peach capital. I knew the truth. I remember a time when no one could have imagined such a lack of customer service. A time no one could have imagined I would shoot up a store. Not even my Lucy could have seen me kill people. Yet, she used to tell me, “You’re nothing but a Negative Ned with a hot temper.” She left me, and on the week of my birthday, which is today by the way. Yeah, I was born forty-five years ago today. March 7, 1970. She couldn’t wait. Not that it would have helped the fact that she didn’t love me anymore. Lucy took everything, including, Twinkly, my dog. I raised Twinkly from a puppy. I taught her all the tricks from “sit,” to “roll over,” and “play dead.” I always walked her on time. The one thing I ever did right. Worse than that, I worked as a security guard before they replaced me with some “illegal” this past Sunday. Now, I’m unemployed. Yeah, three bucks and some change was the reason they replaced me. They didn’t have to give that, that, that… him medical. If he had kids, he could even send them to one of my


schools and I would have to foot the bill through taxes. Meanwhile he’d be taking our money back to his country and out of my economy. Meanwhile, I’m facing foreclosure on my home, because I can’t get a job anywhere without a college education. If I got sick without a place to work, I’d hear, “Tough it out.” Then, our government gave them aid for free. Gave their families everything that had been taken from me. My parents worked here and died here. Me? I served for four years as a Coast Guard and though I wanted to fly, I didn’t have the right kind of eyes. They called me “Stiff Tree Stump,” because I had sticklike posture and I didn’t talk much. Truth be told, I felt unfulfilled. I always wanted to fly planes. When the U.S. Air Force turned me down because I wore corrective lenses, I found the U.S. Coast Guard and applied. They had the same rule for their pilots, must have “20/20 or correctable vision to fly.” Without my awful round specs, I’m blind. Instead of flying planes, I listened to pilot conversations for Homeland Security for years. At first, I thought doing that would be a good choice for an alternate career. Instead, the job made me miserable. Hearing other people shout, “Woo hoo,” for their first time, over five hundred times, by the time my term ended sucked. Then, I got nothing for serving. Then, I’m told I wouldn’t want my job as a security guard because it’s something simple anyone could do. Then, I’m dumped. Then, I’m the one who sounded racist, intolerant, and negative. Now Pablo or whatever had my damn life and they wanted me to go and do what, die in a ditch? I knew this miserable life of mine would end with the gun under my pullover.


Despite my misfortune, I came with one question on my mind. “Whatever happened to the Georgia peach?” I mean this was the sixth store I went to. Nobody cared that I walked into this store. The sample-lady yelled in broken English a bunch of words she didn’t understand and incorrectly memorized. The clerk at the counter sighed into his register. The butcher cut his meat. I could have sworn the jerk gawked at me. That stuff didn’t normally piss me off so much, but today it just did. It’s like I had a target that said, “Be a jerk to me.” My gun would put him in his place. “Can I help you, man?” The sacker asked. “No. I know what I want.” I said. “And what do you want, dude?” “I said, I knew what I wanted.” “People have to walk through this entryway to come in and go out. So, are you going to come in or go out?” “If you want me to leave, say so.” “No, dude. I didn’t mean it that way.” My glare frightened him. I could tell so when he said, “I just, you just, I mean you are standing in the middle of the entranceway. People have to come in this way, man. Understand?” “So, you’re saying I’m not people?” “That’s not what I’m saying, man.” Little delinquent didn’t even call me, “sir.” I blew him off and marched over to the fruit section. At the same time, I could feel his eyes on my back, like I’m the intruder. “I’m a customer.” I’m an American. Doubt he could say the same. I didn’t care. All I cared about was the graceful Georgia peach. The most important thing in my life. I loved everything about it. From the orange and reddish hue, the scent, the way the fuzz touched my nose right before I took a


bite, the scent, the feel of its juices along the bottom of my tongue, the scent, and, and, and—it’s perfection in every bite. I walked past the soda aisle, the canned vegetable aisle, and then made my way to the produce section. “They have to have one.” But, the one special something, the one elegant item, the unadulterated flavorful necessity was unheard of in my hometown. I hoped maybe this store, this American Grocery would have the one thing I believed would make all of my problems vanish. For the sixth time today, however, there’s a batch of dusty Canadian peaches and a bunch of Japanese ones next to those. So, of course I glared at the Canadian sticker: A horrid sight, the sight of defeat. Sure, they, they, they looked a lot like Georgia peaches. Alternately, the two taste different. For one thing, a Canadian peach wasn’t savory or sweet. Dry, like a salty almond. The, the, the Canadian peach lacked the true embrace a Georgia peach supplied in scent alone. The Japanese peach tasted okay. It wasn’t a Georgia peach though. To me, my peach represented the last ounce of decency in my country. The one thing they couldn’t take away. I mean the fruit grows here. A man could sell his American peaches and with the money earned, provide for his family, and put it into the economy, and then everyone won. If someone asked me a couple of years ago, how I thought America would be by 2015, I would have said, “Things will be better.” But things aren’t better. Because of international trade, the Georgia peach was expendable, my country was expendable, and I, I, I too was expendable. There were no choices, no opportunity, nowhere to turn. An American couldn’t even go to Mexico and work as a last resort because their president made that against the law. It doesn’t even matter because I love


being an American. But, my dream, my American dream’s given away to everyone else like the Georgia peach, which was subsequently shipped to more places around the world than within its own state today. “Is there a problem? Can I help you, man?” The sacker from before asked. I didn’t even realize I had punched the peaches for the last few minutes. In one week, I had lost my job, my girlfriend and dog, and now my, “My peach!” I had every right to do what I did. “Those peaches are the problem, not me.” Here’s this kid following me around the store. “I asked if I could help you. Are you okay?” “No. No, you can’t help me. Get away from me you little twit. Before I kill you.” I watched him look at the peach juice slide from my knuckles and onto the floor. “You need to leave,” he dared to tell me. “You need to leave,” I echoed. “I’m getting the manager.” The sacker ran off. Then a customer walked into me. He turned. “Watch it, buddy.” “Who are you calling, buddy?” He pressed his cell phone against his ear and ignored me as he said a bunch of words in some Middle Eastern language I wouldn’t care to identify even if I could. So, I said to him, “You don’t call me, ‘buddy.’” He looked at his suit and then at my jeans. “Psst, whatever bye, bye buddy.” He rushed away and stampeded toward the cereal aisle. I glanced at the batches of leaky peaches. I watched the man who pushed me and insulted me walk onward. Then I thought about my gun. I went in on this day merrily and weightless of worry from life’s regrets. “It’s called American Grocery.”


They had to be the place where my one birthday wish would be fulfilled and where my dream would become an unhindered reality. It wasn’t. “Just another place where I’m let down and my dream is taken. A place where I’m disrespected.” I’m pushed to the side as though I were nothing. “Nothing but some man, some dude, some bud, bud, buddy, instead of a sir!” I marched up to the man who pushed me. I reached under my sweater and felt for the prickly grip of my gun. Then the nasty sample lady with the stubby legs and warts all over her face had the gall to ask me, ask me—ask me, “Would you like to sample the yotal rise breen sayrual today? It is so very goody, goody.” “It’s called Total Raisin Bran Cereal, you stupid hag. And, it’s good.” The maintenance man got off his ladder and touched the sample lady’s shoulder. “She said it just fine.” He gave me a nasty look. “What’s your problem?” “Like I said,” I pointed my gun, “It’s Total Raisin Bran Cereal.” I turned the gun to the man who identified me as ‘buddy.’ He dropped a box of cereal and held his hands up. When he gave me a threatening look, yet backed up, I said, “So tell me you, you, you American dream stealing scumbag, tell me, because I wondered something right before you called me ‘buddy’ a moment ago,” all eyes pointed to me, “tell me, did you ever wonder—whatever happened to the Georgia peach?” “No one gives a fuck about your stupid peach, buddy.” And, that was when I started shooting.


Christopher Stolle

Jewish Tears Flood Heaven Taut and robust, her freckle-flecked flesh stands barefoot in the trickling, tickling river; peeling her clothes onto a basin’s bank. She flows across a moon shimmering and covering dead stars, as clouds seep from a riverbed; her face glows, and a benign breeze blows her curly, melted auburn hair. She laughs at herself, trying to recall Hebrew hymns, her pale, youthfully wrinkled hands dipping into cool water, slipping fingers to her lips to taste rippling grace.


She stands—satisfied with her chance to feel at one with her flesh: a dainty body composed from water; she lets a sharp whistle fly, staring into gray sky water, dreaming about a man’s face she no longer sees. Her father smiles back at her, and her raindrops shatter this picture as she feels herself reach to touch his face; she tumbles into whirling water as unconsciousness humbles her emotions, pretending that she sleeps in his arms again. When she awakens, solemn from this trip, her sister introduces her to her mother, telling her she can sleep in tomorrow— there’s no need to go to school anymore; she pulls a wool blanket around her to fall asleep in her mother’s lap forever.


Chris Vola

Porn With Condoms

At almost three in the afternoon the subway platform beneath West 66th Street was slathered in the mid-spring drizzle that had been dumping on the city at an incessant clip for days, painting everything shades of slop-brown and gray. Marnie sat on a doodle-scarred wooden bench, waiting for the 1 train to take her home, not paying attention to the slick plastic containers leaking genetically modified dregs and mold and sliding, on an unfelt breeze, dangerously close to her quasi-military boots – this was when she was still going for an “activism with an edge” look – the vinegar-mouthed MTA employee holding a mop and not doing anything with it and staring at her, the ubiquitous tired-ass old folks milling and slouching and wondering. She re-read the text I’d sent her, tried to suppress the start of what would become a full-blown smile, dropped her phone in her tote bag and watched it land alongside her flats and the intentionally chosen manila folder that she’d brought to the interview, a receptacle as bland as the résumés and CVs contained within it, the doctored truths she hoped she would no longer have to rely on, at least for a little while. She thought about tossing the folder across the tracks, letting the papers drift, precipitate, get crushed by the trains or chewed and shaped and used for structural support in one of Manhattan’s abundant underground rat kingdoms, but she remembered the color-coded recycling bins in her building’s lobby. She pulled the hood of her raincoat over her frizz-damp hair, closed her eyes and waited for the rumble and hiss of transit that now sounded like the start of a real transition.


I wouldn’t see her in person until a month or two later at the apartment of a girl who I’d met through one of the usual convoluted conduits of school/work/bars/someone-who-knows-someone-who-said-you-weren’t-atotal-creeper and who had grown up with Marnie, who’d introduced the two of us when we’d moved to the city at around the same time. Peggy, the girl, must have figured that living alongside two million people on a grid the size of an Alaskan’s backyard, it might be hard to make friends. But Marnie seemed legit, a little hard-shelled and wary at first, but ultimately crackable if you were the right kind of person with the wrong intentions. And you liked marine mammals. I brought Frank to Peggy’s party that was starting like every apartment party since the beginning of apartment parties, isolated islands of acquaintances slouched and close-talking, boozing and blunting away awkward vibes, trying to expand territory along the walls of the tiny white-walled living room and kitchen nook. Marnie was standing well beyond the coffee table demarcation line, talking to our host and sipping a microbrew. As she talked, she unconsciously tugged on a bare lobe that had been stripped of studs since she’d accepted the office gig at the nonprofit, her secondary choice of employment. “Ayo, that hip little fee-male who keeps touching her ear and looking at us?” Frank observed, astutely, which meant they were going to fuck. This was before he moved in with me, when he was still commuting from his mom’s basement on Long Island, when he was still, even though he belonged to the same vanillainducing career diaspora as most of us, dressing like a latter-day Fred Durst – Yankees fitted cap, dual earrings, XXL tee shirts featuring obscure skater-ish logos. But it was his thing and he owned it, slept on foreign beds far more than his own seminal-crusted twin mattress. Maybe he had an overabundance of the


right pheromones, a huge schlong, or an inordinate percentage of the girls who had grown up on Total Request Live were still openly amenable to crude, pudgy appropriators of urban vernacular. “Oh shit,” he said, “here comes the baroness. You didn’t tell me she’d be here. Led me into a goddamn trap, son. I’m going to find the bathroom. Good luck.” The baroness had arms that were covered in delicate translucent fluff, not unlike a malnourished Yeti pup. Her great uncle was the CEO of a regional commuter railroad in Southeastern Pennsylvania, which I guess was cool if you were into limiting carbon footprints or the inherent fellowship of shared transport. Frank had given her the nickname because around the time of their initial penetrative liaison he’d been reading Wikipedia articles about nineteenth-century oligarchs and had convinced himself that her family’s position within their chosen industry put her on par with the white-gloved progeny of an ancient American steel magnate. This imagined nobility also functioned as justification for occasionally waking up bare-assed in her condo after an in-case-of-emergency ending to an otherwise browned-out evening. After all, one needed to keep his prospective dowry at a base level of contentment. Before speaking to someone, the baroness would do this thing where she would trace the outline of her lips with her pointer finger and thumb and pinch them together at the bottom of her chin, like an old kung fu sage contemplatively stroking an invisible beard. On this occasion, even though it was past Memorial Day, the skin encasing her fingers (and the rest of her) remained untouched by the carnage of ultraviolet radiation, a virginal shade of cream. Which Frank might have found pleasantly appropriate given his flawed understanding of modern class structure, if he hadn’t already taken up


residence across the room where he was close-talking Marnie into something that resembled consent, opening a fresh beer for her with his keychain bottle opener that looked like a silver grenade. But I don’t want this to be about that party, how the baroness went through every possible iteration of what-does-Frank-see-in-her before beginning a mostly one-sided dialogue on the need to embrace the chaos of a universe we barely know or maybe just her desire to form a credible online persona (I was too busy following the arrow formed by her partially exposed clavicle, how it pointed to the couch on which Frank was discovering Marnie’s earlobe with his tongue and she was looking into her beer and laughing shyly). How the baroness’s ivory nails fused to my wrist and would guide me, more or less unobstructed, out of the apartment, into a cab, up an elevator manned by an interactive virtual concierge, into a shower featuring a showerhead with a pulsating massage setting (never told you about that one, did I, Frank?), and, much later, onto a sofa bed in a sun-bleached home office as punishment for the apparent nasal discord caused by my deviated septum. How Marnie never looked up from her beer. What I want is to go back, for a moment, to Marnie sitting on a bench on the 1 train platform, shielded under the rain-smeared streets, smiling at the text I’d just sent her. I can’t remember the exact words I typed, something reassuring about how it wouldn’t be the end of the world if she didn’t get the grant-writing position at the ocean conservation organization, how lobbying to end dolphin hunting in Peru might be like viewing an otherwise arousing piece of obscene media where the performers were wearing protection, the fantasy irreversibly diluted by reminders of an uncomfortable truth, a shattering of ideals so to speak. The analogy’s kind of a stupid one, I know, but I like to think she got it.


Frank wouldn’t be able to tell you this, lurking squalid in the outer-borough hovel of whoever’s fucked up enough to keep listening to his resin-mouthed lamentations, but Marnie had always wanted to be a cetologist, until she accepted that her lack of proficiency in mathematics and her debilitating fear of defaulting on more student loans meant that several years in a graduate program studying whales and dolphins was an impossibility. The passion was still there, though, strong as ever. She could close her eyes, lean back in one of the patio folding chairs Frank brought with him when he moved in with me, and describe the cunning subterfuge involved in the group mating practices of porpoises or the peach-fuzzy nuzzle of a manatee calf’s flipper with the trancelike cadence of an artist or a monk, trying to reproduce the drama within herself, punctuating her verbal reveries with a guttural sigh that was far more sensual than anything I ever heard beyond the ramshackle wall that separated my room from Frank’s. She could transport you to places untouched by the shoreline’s chem-trail and fluoride-tinged sprawl, make you feel like you were totally submerged, a not-quite-initiated interloper absorbing the contours of reefs and the warm modulation of transoceanic currents rather than the corroding jigsaw of fire escapes and tobacco dregs that comprised the view beyond our apartment’s back window; the hulking shadows above us were no longer cast by a precarious water tower whose ladder Frank had often suggested climbing if we were sufficiently tripping our faces off, but by the smooth, intimidating girth of a blue whale’s underbelly as it breached the surface. I wonder, when she finally got on the train that afternoon after her failed interview, what aquatic imagery she decided to drape over the rust and plastic confines of the car. Did she see, on the seat next to her, a fortysomething snub-


nosed woman in hospital scrubs playing Candy Crush or a fixated otter floating on its back, manipulating a freshly caught sea urchin with its paws? Was the too-young mother across the aisle angrily shoving her hyper toddler back into his stroller or simply shielding her calf from famished polar bears with a pale beluga fin? Did the lock-jawed leather-skin, shoeless and snoring on the handicapped-accessible bench away from the other passengers, transform into an aged bull walrus writhing in beach-scented grime after his final defeat? I keep going back to those moments, even though I wasn’t there, even though I can’t pretend to have any true understanding of what she was seeing, even though nothing I’ve described might have actually happened. Not that it matters. Because for me, Marnie on the subway will always represent an embodiment, not of that year, but of that year’s potential, unvarnished by the summer and everything that came after. And what did come after? Humid happy hours at that one rooftop bar we liked, brain-frozen on slushy margaritas, Frank’s sexualized eye appraising the server’s floral skirt or yoga pants while Marnie would suggest that we could take the city’s money by jumping from a certain height onto (and through) the subway grates. Later, high and giggling, we would listen to the elderly clarinetist a couple floors above us and claim we could do better before jacking up the Modest Mouse and readying our addled bloodstreams for another round. Mornings, the floor jolted and the windows shook and a smell of burning would fill the air in Frank’s room until the two of them groggily emerged. Except for the time it was just her, covering her drooping mouth and bee-lining to the bathroom where she stayed for the better part of the next two days. Breakfasts were a suburban memory.


Sometimes Marnie would start shivering, even in the heat, and Frank would hold her with a metallic aftertaste on his lips. Cabs were rare and there were never stars. One night, standing on the sidewalk where the gum stains speckled the pavement like spots on a robin’s egg, she asked us to lie beside her, to watch the synthetic-orange night and the endless space behind it. Frank looked up from something on his phone, smirking, and asked if we’d known a lot of Jews in high school. There were weeks when none of us slept. When it started to get really bad, after she’d gotten fired and Frank started spending every third night at the baroness’, I began to believe that Marnie had psychic powers, that she could predict the future. She told me Frank was the worst and would remain the worst for a long time. That this world, ruled by parents who knew for sure that their God agreed with them, was not and would never be a safe place for children. She would describe apartments she hadn’t moved into yet, the progress of next year’s impending nor’easter. She took to sleeping in my bed, the window open, always smelling like salty flowers no matter how long it had been since she’d washed or eaten. When she was lucid enough, I’d read to her from the marine ecology book slash personal memoir – “The Bottlenoses of Biscayne Bay” by Dr. J.R. Mazza – that Frank had stolen from an unlocked U-Haul the morning after they’d met, until she drifted off into the wet, blue world only she could touch. Maybe she’d already been there the whole time, from that day on the subway right until the end, the brilliant mid-October afternoon when her big linebacker cousin with the sorrowful expression and neon track shoes came to carry her out to the car where her sunglassed parents were waiting and Frank tried to lash out at him, halfheartedly, and Marnie just sat there on the futon looking at us, cold and


unblinking, frozen, immersed in the facts I’d been reciting from the pages she’d already memorized, the facts she would always know better than any of us pathetic dry-landers. In captivity, dolphins have lived as long as 40 years. In the wild, though, scientists believe they only live 25 to 30 years. Some specific whistles, called signaling whistles, are used by dolphins to identify and call each other, and besides immediate family members, imitation of the signature whistle seems to occur only among befriended adult males. A bottlenose’s skin feels like rubber due to an absence of any sweat glands and an unusually thick epidermis, ten to 20 times thicker than that of other terrestrial mammals. The skin will peel and flake off in order for new skin cells to replace the older ones. This is similar to how human skin cells are replaced. The layer under the epidermis is where the nerves, connective tissues, and the blood vessels are found. If a dolphin’s tooth gets knocked out, it’s never replaced.


Joel Best

Murder Mystery

When the police investigation was officially designated as closed there remained certain unanswered questions. Exactly how had the dead man come to be dangling high atop a tulip tree in the church courtyard? Why did he wear two wristwatches? Why should one watch display Eastern Standard Time and the other Greenwich Mean Time? The fact that his trousers and shirt were on backwards. . .significant or inconsequential? One yellow sock and one green? What about the fresh red rose tucked behind each ear? Then there was the note clutched in his left hand. 425째 for 15 minutes, then 350째 for 45.


Neil Tarpey

Family Reunion

July’s reunion included hugs, laughter, blackened catfish, sweet potato pie and Odell’s best batch of moonshine. And watermelon, Uncle Joe’s favorite. Uncle’s famous banjo playing kept the party rolling past sundown. The good vibes quickly vanished after Lester saw Bobo kissing his girlfriend, Charity. Lester shoved Charity into sticker bushes and punched Bobo in the nose. Bobo grabbed a softball bat, swung it wildly and accidentally hit Uncle Joe. He dropped his banjo, fell off the stool, slipped on a big watermelon, and broke his neck. Sheriff Hackett said no charges will be filed.


Mary Jo Melone Baby Mine

I owe my life to the TV weatherman. Every morning, I rise from my bed, my feet hit the floor, and I ask whether this is the morning I kill myself. No joke. I wish it were. Then the weatherman comes on the TV and promises another beautiful day in paradise, with nothing but sunny skies ahead. After all, it’s Florida! He says this even when it rains, which makes him a strange sort of weatherman, but no stranger than me. He’s trying hard too. So I ask myself, do I want to ruin his day, a day with such sunny skies, by killing myself? This is no idle question. It has personal ramifications. The weatherman knows who I am because I once wrote him a thank you letter, commending him for his service to me. I never heard back, but I remain grateful, at least now and then. Today was one of those days. Absolutely. The Tucker Elementary principal, Mrs. Snow, warned me at the end of the interview not to be late today because she didn’t want us to get off on the wrong foot. She seemed a highly intelligent woman, so the question threw me. I wanted to say, but did not say, who in their right mind would be late the first day? Never once, at the day care, the car wash, or the supermarket have I ever been late. Never was late for class in my one semester of college either. I took a child development course. I picked up some Spanish. I told Mrs. Snow that my education made me a perfect fit for the job. She reminded me that I would just be answering phones at the front office, and she needed me to be cheerful. I knew I could fake it if necessary.


Susan is home with an upset stomach. Jonathan forgot his lunch. Carlos forgot his assignment. Marcus’ mom wants to meet with his teacher. So many crises in these sweet lives filled the hours between seven and eight-thirty that I got a little drumbeat of a headache. I am nothing if not self-sufficient. I calmed down the only way I know: I drew all over some copy paper at my desk. They say when you lose something big, the loss crushes your soul. Not me. It brought out my artistic talent. I’ve been told I’m a natural and should take lessons, but I’ve never needed any. There’s just one thing I like to draw, and I can picture her quite clearly. She’s a little too pale, like me. Her hair is blond and wavy, and she has a silvery barrette to keep it in place. If she has my crooked teeth, whoever got her better have made sure she has braces. She should get the best of everything. I always draw her teeth straight. “Would you stop doing that, Christine?” Mrs. Snow said. I wished she had a more pleasant voice, but I remembered that business about the wrong foot and dropped my pencil. “You need to take Jennifer to class. This is her first day.” I stood, I saw and I praised the weatherman. A little pale, a silvery barrette. No braces yet, and she needed them. She had dewy little hands, but strong, and she squeezed mine when I bent over and said, “This is my first day too.” My luck is rarely this good, Jennifer and I left the office. I could have waltzed her down the shiny hallway, even though it smelled of pine cleaner. Jennifer sneezed a small sneeze. I wished I had a tissue. I would have said bless you, but the precious moment wiped the words clean from my mind. God must have done it, sending me a girl who looked like the one in my picture. He helps a lot. Helped from the very start, when they said it was the best thing, the best thing to give her away. Back then she had nothing but a lot of brown hair and dark eyes, but they said their hair and eye color can change. I


learned that in my child development course. Tommy had blond hair, and he had green eyes, and a funny nose, crooked down the middle, like he had taken a punch. I have brown eyes and hair both, the color nobody remembers. We were heading to Miss Snyder’s class. As we arrived, I could see inside through the glass panes of the classroom door the bright animal shapes made out of construction paper above the blackboard, the rows of small desks, built so small feet could touch the floor. I envied Miss Snyder, all the teachers, in fact, because every day, all day, they had that crowd of sweet faces in front of them, each one somebody’s baby, who went home at the end of the day to chicken dinners and green beans, red tomatoes, hovering moms and dads. I hate to think of the others, who go home to where the parents yell, or the chicken is cold, and the clothes are on the floor. Poor things. Miss Snyder came to the door, and I let go of Jennifer’s hand. I pictured what she was going to learn that day, adding small numbers, spelling words like bird and duck, sun and moon, and drawing like me. They could have me teach the children to draw, I thought then, but I was new and had to earn my way. It seemed like that would take a long time. Because I came in so early, I took my lunch early—ham and cheese, chips and a diet Pepsi out of a paper bag—at eleven o’clock during recess. I watched the children out the window of the teachers’ lounge, and I saw Jennifer’s silvery barrette catch the light of those sunny skies as she jumped double Dutch, saw a boy in a striped red shirt reach into the ropes and give her a shove, a shove so hard she stumbled and tripped over one of the two flying ropes as it skirted the ground. I flew. The teacher’s lounge door shut loud behind me, and I raced across the lot so fast I almost fell myself.


Jennifer was on the ground, nose down, those dewy hands splayed. I picked one up, saw the scrapes of skin, the bits of blood peeking through. “Poor little thing,” I said. “Mommy,” she wailed, as bits of snot dribbled out of her scratched nose. I wiped the snot away and then wiped my hands on my big skirt. The other kids were gathering round by then. “Stupid,” the boy in the striped red shirt said. “He did it,” said a girl. I got as close to his nose as I could, so he’d get a good look as I opened my mouth wide to holler at him, so wide he could have looked down my throat and seen China. “Don’t you move.” “I didn’t do it,” the boy said, backing away. “I said, don’t you move.” “I want to go home,” Jennifer said. “Let’s get you cleaned up and then maybe some juice, okay?” “I want to go home.” I led her into the bathroom and with a paper towel washed those hands, those precious knees, and dabbed at her nose. I dusted the bits of black from the pavement off her dress. Slowly, I did these things in the stall, just the two of us, snug as a bug in a rug. I heard the door to the bathroom open, and I put my fingers to Jennifer’s lips to shush her. Whoever came in took forever to pee. I had to push my fingers hard against Jennifer’s lips because she was making some noise, I don’t know what. Only when that person left did I unlatch the stall door. As we stepped into the hall, Miss Snyder was taking hard strides in our direction and asking what was going on. Her voice, sharp and low, made me think that I was the one in trouble.


“A boy in a striped red shirt pushed her,” I said. “Some welcome on the first day of school. But she’ll live.” “Of course,” Miss Snyder said. “What you need is a little TLC, little girl.” “I’ll go get him,” I said. How nice it felt to be in charge. I marched back onto the playground where the boy in the striped red shirt was surrounded by a gaggle of other boys, and I heard them mention Jennifer’s name, laughing. The whole bunch of sorry little bastards, laughing. I marched right into the lot of them, I did, and grabbed the boy in the striped red shirt by the collar, the way you pick up a cat by the scruff of the neck. He howled in a sissy voice. What a punk, with a sissy voice like that. His collar ripped in my hands. So I got behind him and pushed him. He stumbled once, twice. “You can walk, can’t you?” I said. “Only babies can’t walk.” He did just what I said after that. We didn’t stop until we reached the end of the parking lot, where the busses were lined up, one close to the other and empty then, in the middle of the day. We were going to have ourselves a talk in that hot and narrow space. His head was down. “Look at me,” I said. “You know what?” “That’s what,” I said and slapped him, hard and crisp. The boy’s face scrunched up, like some fleshy accordion. “Oh, you hurt? It’s only fair, don’t you think?” I slapped him again. Now, you’re going to tell me I shouldn’t hit a child. I know from college that the experts think this is bad for children because it just teaches them to hit back, but I disagree. A slap can be good for you, wake you up when you’re doing


wrong. They slapped me when I told them I had a baby coming, my mother did, and then my father did, and there was a lot of hollering. “Slut,” they said. But it made it easier when the time came, because if I didn’t keep her, they wouldn’t call me names anymore, and nobody we knew would look at me funny. They would look at me funny if I was dragging a baby around, stinky and full of poop, and I couldn’t go to the mall or to the movies with the boy after Tommy, because my mother said she wouldn’t take the baby when I wasn’t around. Rather drop it down the toilet head first, she said. I gave her a name, though. Melanie Louise. Melanie Louise. Melanie Louise. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I say her name over and over and rock myself, the way I would rock her, if I had had the chance. “What’s your name?” “Terry,” he said. “I can’t believe it. Another Tommy. Good Lord.” “Terry. I’m Terry.” “Don’t you lie to me, Tommy. I’ll tell your mom. I’ll tell her you pushed Jennifer down and called her bad names.” “I didn’t call her bad names.” “I’ll say whatever I want, Tommy. Where’d you learn words like that, little bitch and slut?” A woman was shouting, and when I looked, I saw her running between the buses towards us, her hair lifting in the wind, her arms flung forward. A man in a uniform came behind her. Some security guard—where was he when Jennifer got hurt? The guard maneuvered between me and Tommy. “That his mother? You tell her,” I said. “He hurt Jennifer.”


By then, the woman had her arms wrapped around him. So it was his mother. “You did a lousy job of raising him,” I said. That guard stunk of cigarettes and was rude as hell. Didn’t say a word when he put his thick fingers on me, grabbed my arm and led me to the office, where he shoved me into my chair. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to hold back what I feel. When I struggle like this, my heart goes crazy-fluttery, like it was just then. I don’t remember to draw. Sometimes I can’t even hear. That must have been what happened with Mrs. Snow because I only noticed when she came behind my chair and dug her pointy nails into my shoulders. “You’re hurting me,” I said. “You hit him,” she said. “Kid like that will say anything. You see it all the time, I bet.” “You’re done.” I never had this happen before. I raised my voice once at another school, but that was only to a janitor when I stepped into a puddle in a hallway floor, as I peered in door after door. I bet he left that puddle there on purpose, just so I’d get my feet wet. Me, a secretary. Another time, at the day care, they caught me taking something out of petty cash. I was hungry. And looking, always looking. It’s hard when all you have to go on is dark hair and dark eyes and the crooked nose of a boy whose hands you don’t remember anymore. All you remember is that you saw her for not even ten minutes before they pulled her out of your arms, and since then you’ve lost the strength to do anything but swat a boy. I know where it comes from. I’m not stupid. Melanie Louise. Melanie Louise. Melanie Louise.


My Tommy never got into trouble. Boys will be boys. She tricked him. Slut. I was just somebody to take, like that petty cash. It’s too bad I didn’t get a chance today to find some in the front office. Bet they had some. Mrs. Snow walked me to the front door of the building. Escorted me out. That’s what they call it when they don’t want you back and they’re not sure what you’ll do. She didn’t speak, and neither did I. Why would I bother? She opened the door, and I walked straight out to the corner. I walked another block and circled back. Tucker Elementary, all yellow brick, isn’t very big, and it wasn’t but a few minutes before I was at the rear of the building. The big double doors were unlocked. Somebody should tell Mrs. Snow. I knocked lightly at Miss Snyder’s classroom. Like I said, my luck is rarely this good. Miss Snyder was gone, and in her place was a teacher’s aide with ratty hair who said, “Sure,” when I told her that Jennifer’s momma was very upset and was at the front office to take her home and I had come to fetch her. I took Jennifer by the hand, felt the palm, all scratchy from hitting the ground, but clean now, thanks to me. By nightfall, the scratches would scab over, and in a few days, the scabs would flake off, and Jennifer would be whole again. “I can teach you how to draw. Do you like to draw?” The skies were sunny, just like the weatherman said. We walked to the city bus stop, and I wrapped the folds of my big skirt around her. She made a noise—whatever it was, I couldn’t make out. “Don’t worry, little one,” I said. “I’ll still call you Jennifer. But we’re going to fix that pretty smile.” The bus pulled up. We got on board. The door made a satisfying whoosh and squeal as it closed on us, and started us on our ride to wherever I decided we would go for safekeeping. Not that I’ll tell you.


Contributors BAM BAM has a degree in English and graduated with honors. He’s been a columnist, a journalist, and ran a writer group to help aspiring authors. His stories have appeared, been awarded, and reprinted in Bartleby Snopes, Writer’s Ezine, and StoryShelter’s2015 anthology, and his unpublished novel “Diaries of Karma” won the WILDsound contest. BAM currently teaches English to kids in Japan. For more info, check out: bamwrites.com Joel Best Joel Best has published in venues such as Atticus, decomP, Carnival and Carcinogenic Poetry. He is the author of the collections “The Dogs Are Gone,” “Timeline” and “12 White Lies,” available at Smashwords. He lives in upstate New York with his wife and son. Mary Jo Melone Mary Jo Melone is currently a writer-in-residence at Rivendell Writers Colony in Sewanee, TN. Her fiction has appeared in The Iron Horse Literary Review and 2 Bridges Review. She received her MFA in 2011 from the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she now studies linguistics and tutors international students. Formerly, she was a journalist.


Christopher Stolle Christopher Stolle’s poetry has appeared in more than 100 magazines in several countries, including Labyrinth (Indiana University Honors Program), ThePlaza (Japan), ElShaddai (Singapore), Poetechniciens (England), Ultimate Ceasefire(Australia), and recently or forthcoming in the Tipton Poetry Journal, Flying Island, Writing Raw, Branches, and Snapdragon, and in three anthologies (In Our Own Words: A Generation Defining Itself [volumes 1 and 4; 1997 and 2002] and Reckless Writing[2012]). He has also published two nonfiction books with Coaches Choice: 101 Leadership Lessons From Baseball’s Greatest Managers (2013) and 101 Leadership Lessons From Basketball’s Greatest Coaches (2016). He works as a book editor and lives in Indianapolis. Neil Tarpey The North Coast Journal voted Neil Tarpey’s “Handgun Wedding” its best 99word flash fiction story in 2009. A contest judge referred to Neil’s 2014 award-winning 99-word story “The Frog Clan” as “a gem.” Twelve of Neil’s flash fiction stories have been published. Neil quit booze and drugs at age 31, and subsequently earned two master’s degrees, in Teaching Writing and in Counseling Psychology, from Humboldt State University. Neil and his wife each grew up in New York City but met in Northern California’s coastal redwood country, where they live with their two dogs.


Chris Vola Chris Vola is the author of Monkeytown, E is for Ether, and the forthcoming Only the Dead Know Brooklyn. His work appears in The Rumpus, Monkeybicycle, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Collagist, and elsewhere. A former contributing books editor atThe Brooklyn Rail, he lives in Manhattan and can be found at chrisvola.net.


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Crack the Spine - Issue 173  

Literary Magazine

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