Crack the Spine
Issue 176 December 23, 2015 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2015 by Crack the Spine
CONTENTS Margi Desmond The Burden
After the Movieâ€™s Over
J. A. Bernstein Core
A Shadow on the Summer Sun
The Fairytale That Hans Christian Anderson Never Wrote
Thom Young Them
Margi Desmond The Burden
The antique grandfather clock ticked with each movement of the second hand as it jerked around the aged dial, the only sound in the room save for the occasional moan emitted from Lucille’s husband. Suffering from a constant chill, Joseph insisted the windows stay closed. The room, previously freshened by cool mountain air flowing from open windows, turned stuffy. He complained the sunlight shined too bright. The curtains remained drawn. The former cheerful, orderly room bustling with happy grandchildren was cluttered with a wheelchair, oxygen tanks, a hulking hospital bed, and numerous medication bottles on the bedside table. Joseph’s eyes fluttered open. Lucille held his hand in both of hers. “Are you hungry, sweetheart? I made soup. I’ll heat some—” He shook his head. “No. Thanks,” Joseph whispered and closed his eyes. The morphine prescribed by the Hospice physician helped to ease Joseph’s pain, but also caused him to sleep throughout the day. Lucille sat by his bed, determined he not be alone. She gazed at their wrinkled, age-spotted hands, each wearing a wedding ring representing their marriage spanning many years. She looked at the once virile man, now broken. “I love you, sweetheart. My love…” A tear traveled down her cheek as she closed her eyes and prayed. Joseph regained consciousness. He looked at his wife and whispered, “Lucille.” She felt his hand go limp, the life leave his body. Lucille Evans was a widow.
The hospice care team prescribed medication to take the edge off Lucille’s emotional pain, and the following days proceeded in a blur. Her children, Carol and Eric, took charge of the funeral arrangements. Lucille could not comprehend that Joseph was dead. “Joseph? Joseph?” She thought she heard him puttering in the bathroom. No, it had been a dream. She had dozed off for a moment. A soft knock at the door. “Mom?” said her daughter. The door opened, and Carol walked into the room with a cup of tea and a piece of shortbread balanced on the edge of the saucer. She placed the afternoon treat on the bedside table, and sat gently on the side of the bed. Lucille remained prone, gazing at her daughter. “Mom, try to sit up. I’ve made tea.” Not wanting to sit or eat or drink the tea, but not wanting to worry her daughter either, Lucille sat up in bed. Carol propped a pillow behind Lucille’s back and handed her the steaming beverage. “Thank you, dear.” Lucille took a sip. “I thought I heard your father in the bathroom.” “Mom, he’s gone…” Carol patted Lucille’s arm. For weeks afterward, Lucille would swear she heard Joseph moving around the garage, the living room, see him momentarily in her peripheral vision, but they were phantom senses, much like an amputee still feels a non-existent arm or leg. Grief, disbelief, and sedatives combined to form a psychologically numbing fog for her to endure the condolences, reminiscence stories, the burial, and goodbyes. “I wish I’d been the one to go,” Lucille thought, unable to comprehend life without Joseph.
Hospice workers removed the hospital bed. Carol cleaned and restored order in the living room, but it seemed vacant, something was missing—Joseph. Lucille had become a tired, old widow. “I don’t want to be a burden,” she said. “You’re not living alone,” Carol said. “It’s not safe. You could fall and injure yourself and nobody would be there to help you.” “I don’t want you to worry,” Lucille persisted, but the children won the battle, determining Lucille would spend time with Eric and his family, then travel to Carol’s house for a while. An assisted living facility was out of the question; Joseph had bought nursing home insurance for himself, but neglected to purchase a policy for Lucille. What had he been thinking? Probably that coverage for both of them cost too much. Obsessed with adhering to a strict budget during their entire marriage, Joseph had controlled all the money, and gave Lucille a small monthly allowance that covered the grocery expense only if she clipped coupons, shopped on double coupon days, and took advantage of clearance specials. She had economized, squirreled away a tiny bit of change every month. A small stash—three hundred dollars—for a rainy day. A little of her own money in case of an emergency. She never shopped for herself; wearing the same wornout clothes for decades. Clothes handed down from her wealthier sisters. Pilled sweaters, stretched-out pants, scuffed shoes. She knew how to prepare and season ground meat rather than more expensive ground sirloin, to make a tasty meal. Family members frequently said, “Lucille’s such a fantastic cook, she can make shoe leather taste good!” After Joseph’s death, Lucille’s son, Eric, explained to her that she and Joseph had plenty of money. Anger soon overshadowed her grief. “How could Joseph
have forced me to sacrifice all those years?” They were not wealthy, but they had not been poor either. She thought back to the day he had gone through her purse, and found the three hundred dollars she had saved, secretly stowed in the side-zippered compartment with her lipstick and powder compact. He demanded, “Where’d this come from?” “It’s my savings,” she said. “Savings?” “Yes. From the little bit of food money you give me every month.” “I’m obviously giving you too much.” “I like to have a little on hand.” Joseph shook his head. “Those grandkids will give you the latest sob story and try to finagle it out of you.” “What’s the harm of giving them a bit of spending money?” “For cigarettes and booze? Let ’em get jobs.” Joseph shook his head in obvious disgust. “I caught the boy stealing money out of my wallet for crissakes!” “But they’ve had such a hard time—” “Everyone’s had hard times. It’s called life!” Joseph pocketed the money. “I will not allow them to take advantage of you.” From then on, Joseph accompanied Lucille to the grocery, and paid for the items himself, discontinuing her monthly allowance. Years of control, a lifetime of living like a pauper, and for what? To end up an old woman, a burden on her family? “How dare you, Joseph, for keeping me in the dark, ignorant!” Lucille knew not how to balance a checkbook, nor how to pay the monthly household bills.
Lucille stayed with her son’s family first. They lived in the same town and were able to drive her to doctor’s appointments and to check on Lucille’s house every week while they searched for renters. Eric worked long hours at the bank, but his wife, Robin, was a homemaker, and their two adult children resided in the same bedrooms in which they had gown up. Lucille was thankful to be welcomed into their home, for she loved Eric and the grandkids. She tried to see the best in her daughter-in-law, Robin, but found it difficult. An avid viewer of daytime soap operas and talk shows, Robin sat on the sofa most of the day, an unfortunate habit shared by both chronically unemployed grandkids, each in their thirties. Robin and Eric regularly fought over money and the unmotivated kids living rent-free in the house. The fights were wrought with foul language and despicable name-calling. Appalled at such conduct, Lucille would remove her hearing aid and sit in the bedroom where she would not have to listen to the ruckus. “Please God, please just take me. I’m ready,” she prayed every night before bed, alone, without Joseph’s love and protection.
“We’ll swing by the ATM so you can get cash, Mamma,” Robin said as she backed the vehicle down the driveway. “Pardon?” Lucille fumbled with the seatbelt, in an attempt to fasten it. “The ATM,” Robin yelled. “Eric explained it to you a million times. He ordered you a debit card so you can withdraw cash from your account.” She maneuvered the vehicle through the neighborhood streets and onto a busy thoroughfare. Lucille eventually managed to secure her seatbelt. She grabbed her purse sitting beside her and unzipped it. “I don’t think I need to go to the ATM. I have
cash in my wallet.” She fished around her purse and, with shaking hands, she found her wallet; however, the two twenty-dollar bills were missing. “That’s odd. They’re gone.” Robin’s cell phone rang, and she answered it, driving with one hand and holding the phone to her head with the other. “Hello?” She lowered her voice. “Taking my mother-in-law to a doctor’s appointment…I know, it feels like that’s all I do now.” Robin obviously assumed Lucille could not hear the conversation, but Lucille was wearing her hearing aid and heard every word Robin said. “If it’s not the cardiologist, then it’s the ophthalmologist or some other damn specialist.” Robin paused to listen, then nodded. “And she moves so damn slow. I want to scream, hurry the hell up!” Another pause as she pulled into the bank parking lot. “You have no idea…it’s exhausting…yes, we definitely need to have Wine Night. I’ll call you later. Bye!” She clicked the phone off and put the car in park, the engine still running. Lucille started to unfasten her seatbelt. “No,” Robin said. “Just give me the card, Mamma, and I’ll get the money.” “The code…” “I know the pin number is the year you and Daddy Joseph were married: 1946.” Robin snatched the card from Lucille’s hand, and trotted to the ATM. She returned with a stack of twenty-dollar bills. She counted out ten of them, and handed the remaining five to Lucille. “This should cover your portion of the grocery bill for this week.” Lucille nodded and felt depressed. She had loved preparing meals in her own kitchen. Now she had to sit out of the way, while Robin cooked. Oh, how Lucille would have loved to prepare one of her scrumptious pies Joseph had so enjoyed!
After the doctor’s appointment—her eyes were recovering from cataract surgery quite well—Robin insisted Lucille sit in the car while she shopped for groceries. “It’ll just be way faster if I go in there by myself, you understand?” Lucille watched the people walking in and out of the grocery store, and cursed her old, aching body. Mentally, she still felt like a young girl, and desired to participate in many activities, but her body wouldn’t cooperate. Her coordination and stamina were no longer that of a young woman. Oh, to dance again. A smile crept across her face as she thought back to dancing with Joseph. He’d loved music. Tommy Dorsey, Lawrence Welk.
In Eric’s home, filthy reality shows dominated evening television. Most of the time Lucille sat in the recliner, her feet up, and ignored the television, preferring to think back to happier times and adventures she’d had in her youth, while the rest of the family tuned into the current episode of The Spoiled Brats of Miami. “Damn, man,” Eric Jr. said. “Wish I was down in Miami hanging with them.” Lucy, named after her grandmother, nodded her head. “Hell yeah. Drinkin’ and dancin’ all day in the sun, sailing up and down the coast, hittin’ all the sandbar parties. That’s the life.” During a commercial break the two grandkids walked out the back door to smoke cigarettes. Eric Sr. and Carol remained on the couch. “It would be nice to have a boat,” Eric said. “When you finally get your inheritance, we can buy one,” Carol said out the corner of her mouth. Lucille stood, shuffled to the bedroom, and removed her hearing aid, while her heart broke into a million pieces.
Carol arrived from her home six hours away in the beautiful town of McLean, Virginia, to greet a subdued, rather depressed Lucille. She listened to the fight in the kitchen from her seat in the living room. “You have no idea how hard it is,” Robin yelled, her preferred method of communication. “It’s exhausting taking care of her. I’d like to see you do a better job!” “She looks awful, Robin,” Carol said. “Her hair’s a mess and she’s a skeleton.” “What do you expect me to do, force-feed her?” “You could at least help her dress and take her to the beauty parlor.” “She can do it herself,” Lucy said. “All she does is piddle around.” Lucille shuffled into the kitchen, determined to stop the quarrel. Her granddaughter, Lucy, joined them. Carol stared at Lucy’s neck. “Why are you wearing Mom’s necklace? That’s an anniversary present from Daddy.” Lucille’s hand searched her neck for the beloved necklace. It was missing. “She gave it to me!” Lucy yelled and stormed out to the back porch to smoke the hundredth cigarette of the day. Lucille tried to clear the fog from her old brain. She didn’t remember giving her granddaughter such a valuable item. No, never. It meant too much to Lucille. “Her grandchildren deserve something,” Robin said. “You have plenty of money. Why should you get anything? They’re the ones who need it!” “What they need is a couple of jobs!”
Carol placed her arm around Lucille. “Mom, did you give Lucy your diamond heart necklace?” Lucille shook her head. “That’s what I thought,” Carol said. “Let’s go.”
Lucille’s eyes welled with tears when she saw the lovely room in which she was to sleep. “It’s beautiful, but I don’t want to be a bother,” she said. “You’re not a bother, and I don’t want you to feel like a guest. This is your room.” Carol had decorated the room with items from Lucille’s home, including family photographs and precious knick-knacks she’d collected throughout the years. A stack of large-print library books sat on the bedside table. “How thoughtful,” Lucille said, and squeezed her daughter’s hand. “I know how much you love to read, and the large print will make it easier on your eyes,” Carol said. “I’ve put fresh towels in the bathroom for you, and there’s a hamper for your dirty clothes.” Carol kissed her mother on the cheek. “Sweet dreams, my pet,” Lucille said, giving her daughter a hug. The first evening she climbed into the plush, queen-sized bed, it didn’t feel like home, but then again, home didn’t feel like home anymore either. Lucille said her prayers and asked for God’s help as she embarked on a new phase in life. Lucille enjoyed the first peaceful night’s sleep she’d had since losing Joseph. The next morning, she donned her housecoat and slippers and shuffled into the kitchen where Carol sat drinking a cup of coffee and eating toast. Carol’s husband, Mark, sipped coffee, and read the day’s news on his tablet. “Good morning, Mom,” Carol said. “Have a seat and I’ll make you a cup of tea.” Carol stood to prepare Lucille’s preferred morning beverage. “After breakfast, we’ll get you dressed, and then we’re going on an adventure.”
Mark looked up from his tablet. “Good morning, Lucille. Did you sleep well?” Lucille smiled. “Yes, thank you, sweetheart.” As she drank her tea and nibbled on toasted raisin bread, her favorite, she wondered about the adventure to which Carol had referred. By the end of the day, Lucille walked out of a beauty salon sporting a new hairstyle, hit the mall and purchased a few new tops and pants for herself, and allowed Carol to toss out the raggedy old housecoat. After a scrumptious dinner of steaks grilled in the backyard by Mark and a delicious fresh salad and baked sweet potato, a stuffed and content Lucille relaxed while Carol gave her a manicure. “Clear polish is fine, dear,” Lucille said. “I’m too old for flashy colors. I’ll look ridiculous.” “Look at this neutral one, Mom,” Carol said, and gave Lucille a bottle of polish with the slightest tint of pink. “I think this would look nice on your nails.” Lucille bit her lip. “Do I dare?” “Sure, and if you don’t like it, I can always take it off.” Lucille did, indeed, like the polish, and was careful to sit still while her nails dried and she watched an old Bette Davis movie playing on AMC.
When Carol asked Lucille to attend a ladies’ luncheon a few weeks later, Lucille’s first reaction was to decline. “You don’t need me tagging along, sweetheart. Have fun with your friends.” Mark had taught her how to use his tablet, and she enjoyed “surfing the net.” “They want to meet you, Mom,” Carol insisted.
Lucille dressed in one of her new outfits and surveyed herself in the mirror. Who was that trendy woman with the stylish haircut staring at her in the mirror? Carol and Lucille joined ten other women for lunch at a small, quiet French restaurant. The ladies, whose ages ranged from early sixties to mid-nineties, expressed genuine delight in meeting Lucille. Many were widows who could sympathize with Lucille’s situation. The oldest, ninety-five-year-old Erna from Germany had more pep than Lucille’s grandchildren. “You’re one of ‘the girls’ now,” Erna said. “You must join us for Wine and Whine night the second Thursday of the month. Then there’s Whine and Geeze Wednesdays on the fourth week of the month.” “I don’t really drink— ” “A toot here and there is good for the digestion,” Erna said, and the entire table of ladies laughed. Over French onion soup, delicious bread served with real butter, seafood crepes, and crème brulee, “the girls” insisted Lucille join them for book club, supper club, and to at least try the Silver Sneakers workout classes at the gym. “I don’t even own a pair of sneakers,” Lucille said. “That’s what’s shopping’s for, honey!” Millie exclaimed. “You’ll need a sassy workout getup too. I’ll help you pick one out.” “There’s the Facebook for Seniors class at the community college too. It’s free and a real hoot! Once you have an account, I’ll ‘friend’ you.” “Friend me?” Millie waved her hand in the air, dismissing Lucille’s question. “Just take the class first.”
That night, rather than praying for her life to end, Lucille said thanks to God for her dear family and her new friends. She promised to savor each moment she had left on Earth, and to celebrate a life, which brings both sorrow and joy.
After the Movie’s Over
Very shortly, there will be a coming down, the kind like after making love, like having conquered all from Patras to the Ganges to see it carefully dissolved by some Pisistratus. After exiting the theater, still aglow with perfected human figures, images of grace and form unmatched since the heydays of ancient Greece, encumbered with a quiet awe at having witnessed our Heracles’ downfall or ascent, you will become shudderingly aware of a personal smallness as you gather your effects, and rise from the slabs of stone upon which you’ve just beheld something grander than you could ever fathom, greater than you could ever become, as the credits roll until the text is gobbled by oblivion, your eyes stanchions
adjusting to the sudden light that no longer seems comforting as a sort of precautionary measure, just before total dark. Said darkness is like re-entering the womb, to catch a glimpse at what millions of civilizations will stay obscured, petrified, doomed to infinite recall by what random forces demand it so. Sighing, you will exit the theater, take the candy offered by the student-attendant, as if this were a gift and not a gesture indicating that your presence, contrary to your prior belief, is not wanted here; is, in fact, an intrusion upon property you paid ten dollars for the chance to violate and steel your unwanted glance upon a screen best left reduced to black. Since the fall of that “vast, moth-eaten musical brocade,” it’s taken the place of temple. Your jaw alight with sugar, you will ease out between swinging, almost singing doors, into the dampness of the night, your face as of a carnivore’s, having just fattened up on flesh, and now starved again.
J. A. Bernstein Core
It’s a little-know fact about Minnesota that in the northwestern corner of the state, adjacent to an unoccupied ridge of white pine, there’s a small hole leading down to the center of the Earth. It opens up on the Earth’s molten core, where, most discoverers have reported, the Earth is an awful place: red, hot, and stinking; redolent of sulfur; and generally unpleasant to reside in. It forms a welcome contrast, however, to the northwestern woods in mid-March, and it was with this zestful spirit that Rebecca J. Hamilton, former arctic explorer, current university professor, set out to plumb the Earth’s depths. She rode in a small metal craft called the Troubadour, which was fashioned from a carbon fiber preform impregnated in phenolic resin. It rode on rails for the better part of its downward journey, but then, upon broaching the Earth’s lower mantle, the rail sidings branched off—melted, to be exact—and the craft entered a swampy abyss, a kind of gooey red gel that, in a better light, might have resembled Kool-Aid. Rebecca rode alone, which was how she preferred it, seeing as how she’d been divorced for twelve years—and quite happy with that, she reflected. It afforded her freedom and space, both of which were quite plentiful down here in the Earth’s hollow core. For thousands of years, planetary scientists and other luminous types had assumed that the Earth’s interior was solid. Well, if not solid, exactly, then a molten nickel plasma or colloid. And that was true for 98% of the core. Near the middle, however, the Kool-Aid gives ways to a strange form of vaporous dust—
a hyper-condensate matter, to be technical. And then there’s simply nothing at all. You might, as she’d explain to her students, describe it as the eye at the center of the storm, and the analogy was fitting, she’d chuckle, given all the unease upon Earth. Her students always watch her warily, never quite sure of whether they should laugh or sigh. Certainly, her jokes weren’t the cause of their laughter. It was her own middling, pale, puffy face. She wasn’t attractive, she knew. And that didn’t bother her. After all, she had her own Troubadour. And three decent bottles of wine. Tonight, down here in the center of the planet, beneath its gregarious roar, Dr. Henderson laid her head down on her bench-seat, a kind of padded foam berth deep in the hull of the craft. It sat beneath the cockpit, within the Troubador’s forward-most end, so that when she wiggled her toes, as she did presently, beneath the down fold of her REI, three-season sleeping bag, she knew her feet occupied the actual core of the Earth, the minutest center-point. It was the deepest the craft could go. And even with the radiant cooling, it was still a little warmer at the southernmost flanks of her berth. She could roast marshmallows down there, she thought, though the effect would be gradual, offering them a nice burn. There would be no blackened sizzle, as she’d had the last time she’d gone camping with him. The nitwit. The imbecile. Her ex-husband, the fuck. He was remarried with kids. Resting her hands behind her head, undoing the knot of her hair—she always tried to look professional going down—she had to restrain herself from taking out her smartphone again. First of all, the reception was spotty, and it was an incredible waste of time—waiting for all of her Instagram updates to load.
Second, she knew she had to stop checking out photos of babies. Celebrity babies. Ex-husband babies. The latest from the Prince and his wife. So what if they were reproducing? Copulating, frankly. It was a waste of human time. Even if our genetics required it. Even if our hormones were set. Rising from the bench-seat, Dr. Henderson snatched down her phone—she kept it in a padded foam-insulate case. She lengthened the antenna—a cumbrous device that was required for signal down here—and hastily clicked on FIND. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she muttered. Why am I doing this? If I can’t find peace at the center of the Earth, who can, she earnestly reflected. There he was, Walter, in sunny San Diego, playing catching with one of his sons. Oh, and there goes The Bitch now, eating ice cream with their youngest child, a toddler who’s barely old enough to cup the damn cone. And there it goes, running down his arm. And what’s this, a neighbor, a delectable blonde, giving looks from her perch on the lawn. Oh, it appears she’s just visiting. Yes, raking some leaves. I wonder what The Adulteress thinks. Excuse me, his wife. The new Mrs. Ah, yes, there she goes, the neighboress, disappearing back into her house, probably to bake muffins for her family, which she’ll undoubtedly, excellently, cook. And there goes the fuckaroo, Walter, grabbing his mitt from the lawn. It appears that he’s following her. How could that be? He’s bidding adieu to his wife, and now he’s approaching the garage, where it looks like he’s loading the trunk. Going to baseball practice, I’m sure. Or maybe a dicey motel. Dr. Henderson could practically taste the damn muffins burning to a crisp in their pan.
Fuck him, she figured. She put the craft in drive, reversing out slowly. When she reached the Earthâ€™s edge, she banded her hair, knotting it tightly. Then she set off for outer space.
A Shadow on the Summer Sun Shadows are so admirable in film noir less so on x-rays and mammograms What is a shadow but a white cloud in front of a yellow sun? For most people, that's all it is, but I have come to see it as an ominous dullness, a yellow smudge in front of the whitest bright disc. That is singing, not ringing, in my ears The sad song of spilt milk. The soft song of the yellow sea. The muddy song of dawn One waits for dawn: it never comes You remember You were with me on the hill This contemplation of the past is contemptible beneath cowardice The future is fearless, the present less so
The muddy song of dawn. The soft song of the yellow sea The sad song of spilt milk. That is singing, not ringing, in my ears. For most people that's all it is, but I have come to see shadow as an ominous dullness a yellow smudge in front of the whitest disc. What is a shadow but a bright cloud in front of a yellow sun? Shadows are so admirable in film noir so much less so on x-rays, scans, and mammograms
The Fairytale That Hans Christian Anderson Never Wrote Hans Christian Anderson was born in Odense, Denmark. But if you come here, you will probably die. The lovely, bicycling Danes are assassins. They have a stealth that armored tanks don’t have, but they’ll still shred the shit out of you. The Danes should have met Hitler with bicycle-kreig. But if one of these lovely, well-meaning Danes doesn’t kill you, I will. My weapon is also a bicycle. But I am not a lovely, well-meaning, Danish bicyclist. I am the only Dane you’ll find who is a malicious, son of a bitch bicyclist. How is it that I turned into your killer? For many years now, I’ve lusted for blood, even though I’m scared of everything. Of getting hurt, of getting caught, of going to prison. I’m just a scared person. I’ve never been able to reconcile my homicidal side with my fearful side, but when my grandfather was on his deathbed, he gave me some good advice. “Homicide is for fools; manslaughter is for Cunninghams,” (our last name is Cunningham). For the next few hours – as the nurses came in and out to adjust the flow of morphine through his IV – Gramps managed to explain some of the basics behind a good manslaughter. There’s a rhyme and reason to making it appear as if there’s no rhyme and reason. You have to feel genuine empathy for your victim or else your manslaughter won’t appear genuine. And finally, he urged me to face my fears and told me that, by the way, he was tired of living.
I looked back. The nurse was gone. I couldn’t see any security cameras or anything that could get me in trouble or make me go to prison. “Come on, you damn patsy. Don’t you want your inheritance?!” Gramps said. I looked around again, and then opened the clamp to increase the flow of morphine to a waterfall of rest in peace. He shut his eyes a few seconds later. Yes, manslaughter was for Cunninghams. But I couldn’t sleep that night because I couldn’t put this nagging thought to bed – killing Gramps wasn’t a genuine manslaughter. It was an assisted suicide. I felt cheated. Gramps just wanted to die. I was angry with his memory for a few hours until I realized that he probably knew I needed to take baby steps in my journey. It was the loving thing to do. Now that I had enough money (inheritance!) and some good family notes, I devoted myself to some really focused manslaughter research. I put together a spreadsheet with lots of variables and started narrowing things down to the best time, place, and means of manslaughtering. Everything seemed to be coming together. But then, a pigeon shit a gum wrapper on my plans. It turned out that, according to my spreadsheet, I was supposed to kill a pedestrian in Milwaukee by knocking a loose brick from the third floor of an old building. That sounded plausible enough. In fact, before he passed to glory, Gramps had told me: “A good manslaughter shouldn’t be glamorous, it should be somewhat pedestrian. In fact, it should involve a pedestrian!”
But I’ve had many visions for a beautiful manslaughter my whole life, and none of them involved Milwaukee or bricks. So I tossed my spreadsheets and formulas, and that night, drank some scotch and sat on Gramp’s old chair, looking for inspiration, trying to enter some of the beautiful darkness that I’d loved as a child. I reached into my bookcase, and pulled out a collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. Therein lay some of the darkest beauty that had touched me as a child and animated me as an adult. I smiled and then put on some mood music: Carl Nielsen’s fourth symphony – “The Inextinguishable.” Nielsen had moved into a progressively dark place as he aged, and near the end of his life, wished only for the comfort of his boyhood home on the Danish island of Funen. Hans Christian Andersen, interestingly enough, had also been born on the wind-touched isle. As Andersen’s tales turned my pages and Nielsen’s score noted my mind, I thought of how both artists had uncovered the deep, emotional union between beauty and tragedy, and realized that my manslaughter must somehow involve my spiritual friendship with these men. Perfect, then. Why not go to the island of Funen for my manslaughtering? Selvfolgelig! When I arrived in Funen’s largest town – Odense -- I started wandering, trying to find its heart beat, so I could stop another’s pitter-patter The Cunningham Way. One afternoon, a kind hotel maid told me that just behind Hans Christian Anderson’s childhood house is a carousal of a stage with live, daily performances of parts of his plays. “Lovely!” I said, thanking her, and strapping on my backpack so I could eat chips while watching The Little Mermaid.
But while on my short walk to the park, I was almost hit and killed, independently, by about four well-meaning, peaceful, and lovely Danish bicyclists. It was the most peaceful peril I’d ever faced. And that was my Eureka, or “Ufuvakenkriaka”, or whatever the Danes might call it. I could become a well-meaning, peaceful and lovely Dane who mows down innocent, confused tourists. The governing Danish authorities would absolve me of anything homicidal because the Danish freedom to bicycle-krieg is essentially codified in the country’s constitution. It almost seemed too easy! Nothing in my life had been easy. From the moment my father died of a heart attack while waiting in line for a roller coaster (according to Gramps), to when my dog fell down a winding staircase (according to Gramps), to when my mother mistook poison for chamomile tea (according to Gramps, who was there for all three tragedies). No, nothing in life had been easy, and manslaughtering on Funen wouldn’t be, either. But that would make the payoff extra special. So I bought a bicycle. Grey. Ages well, and most important of all, it’s inconspicuous. I immersed myself in the city. I studied the way bicyclists weaved through pedestrians like floating sentences that formed many an innocent’s obituary. I went to daily performances of Hans Christian Andersen’s plays, and, most crucially, tried to gauge how Danish families reacted to staged emotions. I couldn’t have been more excited about the smorgasbord before me when I walked into the Fotex supermarket to buy some chocolate chip cookies.
As I held the box, though, I hesitated. The cookies brought up an old pain. These chocolate chip heavens always reminded me of Gramps, because he had kept them in a yellow jar in our kitchen, and at night, Gramps always let me have one more than he said at the start of the day. I lovingly placed them in my cart and started checking out. “Sdkzuoeurkdleuesleur,” or something like that, the very blonde and pretty cashier girl said. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand you. I’m American,” I said. “I said that those are very good. My parents always got those cookies for me when I was little.” I almost told her that Gramps had also fed me cookies like these, but something stopped me. I knew that I would cry if I told her. Why? Because I loved and was lonely for Gramps, because I was in a foreign country and this lovely girl had actually tried connecting with me, and because I was still reeling from assisting in my Gramps’ suicide – even if it was a necessary step on my journey. Somehow, this girl’s blue eyes and our simple exchange produced all that pain and beauty in me. What if I had hit this girl and destroyed her power to make me smile, and then reflect, and then cry? All of those are what makes us human, and yes, I would be destroying a human life. Manslaughter wasn’t just about destroying a person, it was about destroying their smile, their compassion, their ability to help strangers feel less strange in a foreign land. A messy ambivalence walked into my brain. Had Gramps really told me the truth about manslaughter’s joys, or had this girl’s clear blue eyes?
They say that last-minute doubts and indecisive perseverating are what turn generals into court martialed cowards who never get a statue. And part of me desperately didn’t want to turn into the manslaughtering version of a Vichy general. Stay strong, I told myself! That evening, I walked up and down the deserted cobblestone streets surrounding Andersen’s yellow childhood home, and Carl Nielsen’s violins crowded my orchestral hall. Would Andersen and Nielsen applaud me for entering their darkness by manslaughtering, or shame me for refusing the joy that pushed them through that darkness? I didn’t know, but then – as the legendary evening wind from Funen picked up -- I did know. The world would have been a far worse place if someone had manslaughtered Hans Christian Andersen and Carl Nielsen. It’s now one year later, and I’ve grown to enjoy Odense. In the evening, I sit on the sloping lawns of Klosterhaven park and watch stray tourists lope down the hill from our town’s favorite church, St. Canute’s Cathedral. In the afternoon, I stroll around the eastern half of Eventyrhaven park, and watch Danish women casually take off their tops to give the sun a happy erection. And then, at night, I always drift to the stream where Andersen dreamed up The Ugly Duckling. How typical of Andersen to call a story about a swan something half-horrible. Yes, here in Odense, I almost feel as if I’m living a fairy tale. And guess what: I haven’t hit anyone with my bicycle! Wait, that’s not entirely true. I made a bad turn and rolled over a tourist last August, but that was a genuine accident, and the authorities immediately ruled it manslaughter. So, no, unfortunately, I can’t promise you’ll be safe here.
But I can promise that -- like loving but fallible parents -- we Danes will sometimes steer our bicycles in the wrong direction, and while you might judge our results, you can never impugn our intent.
Thom Young Them
I have nothing but these green things all over my body I hesitate to call them gills but they are growing underneath my skin and their black heads are starting to come out with yellow tails and they keep coming too someday this will all make sense I promise but for now you'll just have to believe me.
Contributors J. A. Bernstein J. A. Bernstein’s stories and essays have appeared in The Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Tin House, Tampa Review, and other journals. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Minnesota Duluth and the fiction editor of Tikkun. Margi Desmond Margi Desmond graduated from East Carolina University with a B.S. in Communications and an English minor. More than 100 nonfiction articles and sixteen of her short stories have been published. She also serves as a judge for the annual Colorado Book Awards and the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence. She’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. A United States Army wife, Margi and her husband are stationed in Germany. For more information visit her website, Facebook Author Page, and Twitter. Christian Heinze Christian Heinze is a writer from Baltimore, Maryland. He’s optioned two screenplays, and won or been a finalist in numerous screenwriting contests. He has a short story appearing in the forthcoming issue of The Rusty Toque.
Arthur Maurer Arthur Maurer currently lives in St. Louis and holds a B.A. in English from the University of Missouri–St. Louis, with plans to teach abroad. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Literary Magazine and Petrichor Machine. Bill Yarrow Bill Yarrow is the author of “Blasphemer,” “Pointed Sentences,” and four chapbooks. His poems have appeared in many print and online magazines including Poetry International, RHINO, FRiGG, Contrary, Altered Scale, Gargoyle and PANK. He is a Professor of English at Joliet Junior College where he teaches creative writing, Shakespeare, and film. Thom Young Thom Young is a writer from Texas. His work has been in 3am magazine, Thieves Jargon, Word Riot, The Legendary, 48th Street Press, The Zombie Logic Review, Commonline Journal, and many other places.
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