Crack the Spine
Crack The Spine Issue Thirty-Eight August 20, 2012 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2012 by Crack the Spine
Contents Aaron Saylor The Sweet Smell of Pine Needles C.T. Schram The Addict S.R. Buckley Separation or Death Tayler Heuston Love Like Light James P. Reynolds The New Guy Gregory Zorko Iberian Yemen Dave Elensohn Theologicoustics
Cover Art “My Geisha” by Carolyn Adams Carolyn Adams has been active in the art and literary communities of Houston, Austin, and other parts of Texas since the 1980’s. Her poetry, collage art and photography have appeared in Caveat Lector, The Alembic, Clare Literary Journal, The Weight of Addition: An Anthology of Texas Poetry, and Common Ground Review, among others. She has authored the chapbooks “Beautiful Strangers” (Lily Press, 2006), “What Do You See?” (Right Hand Pointing, 2007), and “An Ocean of Names” (Red Shoe Press, 2011).
Aaron Saylor The Sweet Smell of Pine Needles
The bar’s closing. Is it really that late? Damn. Elizabeth won’t like this. She sends me to the bar so she can have some time to herself, but the bar sends me right back to her. Third night this week I’ve been here. It’s not my favorite place in the world but I seem to end up here a lot. This time, I’ve only been here for seven hours; when she kicked me out today, I got the impression that this time, she was thinking more in terms of years. Elizabeth, Elizabeth, my Elizabeth The clean smell of gin rises from underneath my collar, a pleasant smell, like pine needles -- so sweet, now, in the summertime! Gin smells like pine needles, that’s what Dad used to say and the older I get and the more gin I drink and the more I realize Dad was so right. I only drink the good stuff, the Bombay Sapphire. That bottle looks so pretty and bright blue up there on the shelf, beaming at you, waiting for you, saying kiss me kiss me kiss me. Some people say it’s all the same going down -- poison is poison, no matter how pretty it is or how sweet it smells like pine needles -- but let me tell you, no. Bombay Sapphire smells like the very best pine needles, what a good blue gin and tonight I have drunk quite a lot of good blue gin that smells like the best pine needles and so now I smell like pine needles, too. But Elizabeth does not like pine needles. I can’t tell you why, but she doesn’t. I would think she would enjoy a good whiff of pine needles better than anybody. She’s gotten her share over the years, God knows. On my collar, on my breath, on my coat, in the carpet where I puked and she had to clean up after me. I want another drink. Is it really too much to ask for just one more drink before this shitty bar closes? What a dump. Dark. Unclean. I hear water dripping behind the walls no really I swear I do. Why the hell do I hang out here? The glasses on the bar look like they need to be washed again. These old wooden stools look like dangerous rickety. I remember when they were new. They felt almost comfortable back
in those days. A man could sit on one and not feel like he’d get thrown in the floor if he leaned too far in one direction. Now they need some paint. Maybe some fresh leather padding. Maybe just a new cushion, something in a happier color, purple maybe. Royal Purple like a king’s crown, not purplish black like a bruise. I raise my hand to get the bartender’s attention, and notice he’s already staring at me. I know what that stare means, don’t think I don’t know what that stare means. He thinks I’m drunk. Of course, I am drunk. But he thinks I’m too drunk, that I’m one of those guys that gets his tab and then wads it up and throws it back and maybe takes a haymaker swing at the bartender for good measure. But, the thing is, I’m clearly not one of those guys. Those guys don’t wear thousand-dollar suits or diamond-studded Rolexes and don’t have laminated business cards that say Northeastern Bank Vice President, Mortgage Division, either. No, I’m one of the good guys in this world. And frankly, I don’t need those looks from that bartender. What an asshole. Who does he think he is? I come in here a lot; he doesn’t need to look at me that way. There’s nothing wrong with me. I may be drunk but I’m not an idiot. That bartender wishes he could find something wrong with me. He wants to cut me off. He wants a reason to get tough with me, to raise his voice and show the bar who’s boss. Fuck him. I got money. I pay my tab in town. I pay a lot of tabs in this town. What’s he worried about? Fuck him. He’s a bartender, not a babysitter. I’m not a baby here. Asshole. I raise my hand again, stretch a little higher. I’m a polite drunk. “Hey, man,” I say to the asshole. “Can I have another drink, please?” So polite, so civilized, so in control of myself. People ought to be more civilized in this world. I bet none of the other jerks in here are civilized as me. “Sorry, Gary, you just had last call,” says the asshole. “Ready for your tab?” “Just one more, please,” I say. I wonder why I come here. This clown at the bar doesn’t even know who I am he must be new. I should find a new bar. A new bar that appreciates its paying customers. Fuck him. Fuck this bar. I wonder why I come here.
Pine needles. Elizabeth. I met Elizabeth in a Lexington bookstore, a gigantic two-story place called Russo’s that had thick maroon carpeting and more books in it than the public libraries of most small American cities. We were both seniors in college. Elizabeth worked at Russo’s as a cashier, with a deep love for 18th and 19th century Gothic literature. She was fascinated by novels and poems that I never knew existed, written by authors whose names I’d never heard before she whispered them to me. My literary tastes, on the other hand, tended to fall into a more contemporary vein: I didn’t really like books. People like me, we don’t have time for books. But, the hot word around campus held that beautiful and wanting young women wandered the aisles of Russo’s in search of all the goods that frathouse guys like me offered in abundance. Sounds dumb now, but I believed it then. And because I believed it, I kept going back there and hanging around in sections where I thought the prettiest girls would be . Poetry, philosophy, self-improvement, art. Don’t know why I believed girls were so attracted to poetry, philosophy, self-improvement, or art, but when I first saw Elizabeth she was reading from a thin little book of Spanish poems. So there. That day, I knew. As the old song says, sometimes a man just knows. I knew this was My Elizabeth. My Elizabeth was tall and thin and blonde, warm and graceful as a spring breeze, and I knew. She had on sandals, loose jeans, and a pink blouse with the ugliest floral pattern I’d ever seen in my life, and she read poetry in a foreign language, and she loved things that I never cared about or knew existed, and still, I knew. My Elizabeth. I ask again, “Can I have just one more?” but the bartender says, “Gotta close up, Gary. I’ll get your tab,” and then he looks at me like my nose has just fell off. I don’t say anything to him, though I do imagine picking up my glass and throwing it through his forehead. That would be fun. But instead, I shrug my shoulders, pick the glass up from the bar, and finish off my last gulp of gin and tonic. Gary. He called me Gary. My name is not Gary. He knows my name is Vincent, has known that for Godknows how many years. Normally, I couldn’t care less if he remembers my name or not, but now he
wants to be all buddy-buddy with me and he can’t remember my name and I hate that. He doesn’t want to be my friend. I don’t want him to be my friend. I’m just an unpaid tab to this guy, and he’ll say whatever he thinks he needs to say to get that tab covered and me out the door without incident. No doubt, he’s afraid I’ll try and skip out the door or take a swing at him when that check comes. Tonight, I drank twenty-six gin and tonics -- I know because whenever I drink, I place each little black stirrer under my leg, to keep track, to keep from getting screwed -- and maybe if another man drinks twenty-six gin and tonics he might be a load to handle. But I am not like another man. I am me, there’s only one of me, I am polite and I am civilized and I’ve got this under control. I pay my tab, I pay a lot of tabs. Just bring me the bill so I can get out of here. I reach for my wallet. It’s thick with cash, more cash than this bartender makes in two months. And he thinks I won’t pay my bill. Right. The asshole brings the bill back to my end of the bar. “How much?” I say, taking the little white slip of paper from his hand before he can lay it down on the bar in front of me. I hate when they lay the tab face-down on the bar. It’s like they’re ashamed of the dollar amount. So rude -- do they think I don’t know exactly how much I drank? Guys like me, we always know the bill, not that it really matters, not that there’s ever a danger we can’t cover it. “Thanks, Gary,” he says. “I’ll take it when you’re ready. We close in ten minutes, okay?” Then he walks away again. I start to yell after him, start to inform him that I’m not Gary, I’m Vincent, I don’t know Gary, shut up about Gary. But instead, I just check the tab, pull a hundred and twenty-five bucks out of my wallet, then throw in an extra fifty just to show the asshole that I can. Then I leave. The day before our tenth wedding anniversary, Northeastern promoted me to Vice President, Mortgage Division. I’d worked a lot of long nights, made a lot of sacrifices -- seventy hour weeks, no vacation in five years, things like that -- and I deserved the recognition. The same night I got the news, I took Elizabeth to a restaurant downtown that we’d had our eye on for years, but never been able to afford, a strictly jacket-and-tie place on Broadway that was a little fancier than the one we’d planned for our anniversary dinner the next night, but which I thought was more than justified considering the special occasion.
This restaurant was the real deal. The kind of place where a tablecloth might cost more than an average man’s suit, where a set of silverware was worth more than all the dishes we had in our house, and where reservations were most definitely required at least two weeks in advance. “But don’t worry about that,” I said to Elizabeth. “We’ll get in.” I promised that I would slip the guy in front a hundred dollar bill, get us in that way. We could afford to do things like that now. We could afford to pay what it took to get what we wanted. “Order whatever the hell you want, too. Anything,” I said. When we sat down at our table, I told the waiter to bring the most expensive bottle of cabernet sauvignon in the building. He looked at me funny (I guess people only order that way in movies) but he did as requested. To be honest, I never would have guessed that a single bottle of cabernet sauvignon, even one with such an unpronounceable name on the label, could cost that much. But it was worth it. While we waited for our meal, I noticed that Elizabeth’s gaze kept moving away from me and settling on whoever sat behind me. Finally, I asked, “What are you looking at?” “What? I’m not looking at anything,” she said. ”Are you sure?” “I’m sure.” “Okay, then,” I said. It was such a celebration; I didn’t want a fight. I finished my glass of expensive cabernet, and then excused myself to the men’s room. As I walked, though, I made a special effort to notice exactly who was seated behind me. I saw only a man in a dark brown suit, silver hair, maybe sixty years old. He sat by himself, reading the business pages, circling a few words here and there. The food on his plate was practically untouched. When I got back to the table, I tried again. “You’re sure you don’t know that guy?” I asked Elizabeth. “Which guy?” she said.
“The guy with the newspaper.” I motioned towards him. She looked behind me and shrugged. “Sorry, I don’t know him. Why? You think he knows me?” She laughed. I picked up the wine, filled my glass again. I asked Elizabeth if she wanted any more, but she said she’d had enough. Which was fine -- that just left more for me. That night, we took a cab home because two glasses of wine was too much for Elizabeth, and also because I drank my share of that expensive cabernet sauvignon, then ordered another bottle and drank it all myself. The cab driver was a big fat guy who smelled like a rotten cigar and wore a Green Bay Packers t-shirt that was way too tight around the armpits. When we got to the driveway, Elizabeth asked the cabby if he could help carry me up the steps and into the house. On the way in, I rolled my head over onto his shoulder and puked expensive red wine all over that Packers shirt and also all over the side of the cabby’s face, too. He didn’t care much for that. Fortunately, though, we were already in the house at that point, and when he dropped me, I landed on the living room couch, which was soft black leather, brand new. Elizabeth gave the man fifty dollars on top of the fare for his troubles and said she was sorry I puked on him, that I got that way sometimes but that was pretty bad even for me. Then she helped me upstairs, undressed me and put me to bed and even kissed me on the forehead. I remember that kiss. So soft, so warm, so perfect. The world spun and my brain sloshed inside my head like a rubber duck in a bathtub, but I remember that kiss. “Goodnight, Vincent,” I heard Elizabeth say, and then the world went dark. Sometime in the night, my dreams floated in on an ocean of red wine, dreams I didn’t understand, dreams that maybe I didn’t want to understand, and yet dreams that, somehow, I never forgot.. I saw so many things in my sleep that night. Business cards, stacked to the stars. A thousand empty houses, begging me to mortgage them to happy young couples. A solid oak desk, bought just for me, sitting in the middle of an office that was so big I had to take a taxi to get from one side to the other. I saw a fat cab driver in a Green Bay Packers shirt. I saw a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, tall as me, taller than me, the tallest and most expensive bottle of cabernet sauvignon in the whole world. I saw a silver-haired old man in a brown suit, sitting all alone in a restaurant, reading the business pages and circling things that interested him while his food rotted on the plate before him.
And I saw a girl. A girl, a beautiful girl, tall and thin and blonde, warm and graceful as a spring breeze, wearing sandals, loose jeans, and a pink blouse with the prettiest floral pattern I could ever imagine. She stood in a bookstore. She asked if I liked poetry, and I said no, not really, and then she smiled and said that’s fine, poetry isn’t really all that important, anyway. It’s a nice night to stagger home drunk. The warm wind keeps me from passing out on the sidewalk. I welcome the help. Since I walked out of the bar I’ve ascended three levels of drunkenness. Pine needles sneak up on you. My house waits ahead. Our house. Her house. I wonder, is Elizabeth still awake? The lights are all turned off. I hope she’s still awake. I feel the last seven hours rise out of my stomach, into my throat. Please be awake, Elizabeth. Please God, let her be awake. I drop to my knees and throw up beside our mailbox. Ten minutes later, I make it up the steps. I reach for the doorknob and find she’s locked the door, but that doesn’t make me mad. When you’ve got as much expensive stuff as we do, you keep the doors locked and the alarm system activated or else you’ll wake up one morning and find you made a good Christmas for some sixteen year old shitass thief. I knock on the door, quiet as I can. Don’t want to be too loud, don’t want to awaken the neighbors and damn sure don’t want to set their damn dogs barking. The neighbors really hate that. I’ve awakened the neighbors and their damn dogs way too many times before, and the last time I did it they brought up the homeowner’s association bylaws and threatened to toss us out of the neighborhood. I don’t want to get tossed out of the neighborhood. It’s such an expensive neighborhood. I wait for a light to come on in the window, but no light comes on. I wait for Elizabeth to come and let me in. I wait. I wait. A long time I wait, half an hour, then a whole hour, but she doesn’t come and she
doesn’t let me in. I stand on the porch until two-thirty in the morning, let the warm wind blow in my face, and enjoy the smell that rises from underneath my collar, the wonderful smell to which I have grown so accustomed: the sweet smell of pine needles. Finally, sometime later but I’m not really sure what time, I hear footsteps inside the house. Coming down the stairs, into the living room. A light switches on, the door clicks open, and Elizabeth stands there in front of me. Her eyes are red, swollen, watery. She looks like she hasn’t slept in a week. Maybe she hasn’t. I think hard, hard as twenty-six gin and tonics will allow me. It’s been a few hours since I left the bar but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that those pine needles stick to you for a while. I want to say the right thing. I’m not sure there is a right thing. “Hello, Elizabeth,” I say. “I thought we agreed,” says Elizabeth She thinks we agreed? Agreed on what? “You know exactly what, Vincent,” Elizabeth says. I realize that I was thinking out loud again. Damn. But the thing is, I don’t know what. I never know what. And Elizabeth, she knows that I never know what. She thinks I don’t know what because I just don’t want to know what. Maybe there is some truth to that. I start to apologize, start to say I’m sorry, I don’t know what, What? But Elizabeth holds up her hand and stops me. She wipes her puffy red eyes and stares at me for a long time. I don’t know how long exactly, just that it’s a long time, maybe the longest time we have ever gone like this, staring at each other, silent, unsure. Then, her gaze jumps and settles on something or someone over my shoulder. I whip my head around, who’s she looking at? Then I see him, for a shadowy moment. I see him. The man in the brown suit, the man with the silver hair, the man from our big expensive dinner all these years ago. The man in the brown suit with the newspaper spread out before him, the man who sits alone and quietly circles the interesting parts of the business section. I see him. I see him! What is he doing here now? Here with me,
me and Elizabeth, my Elizabeth. I reach for him. I want to know. I am drunk, too drunk. Still I turn from my beautiful Elizabeth, and reach for the man behind me, and open my mouth to ask what he’s doing in the darkness, just beyond us. But by then, he’s gone.
Aaron Saylor lives with his wife Leslie in Mt. Washington, KY, a suburb of Louisville. He spends way too much money on movies and Marvel Comics hardcover editions. His first novel, “Sewerville,” is an Appalachian crime drama, set in a violent world of methamphetamine and prescription-drug abuse, and will be released in in Fall 2012.
C.T. Schram The Addict
He bites my lip like tree bark against flesh Sap pouring out of him and sticking to every surface, disgusting. Blue curacao and grenadine, sickeningly sweet and the color of a bruise And I almost wish I could love him like that. Absolut with some crushed and snorted Addy and Ambien in a train station. And that’s just the A’s. Attempting to anesthetize my chest where the broken shard of stained glass is, Reflecting every sheen and shine since that special someone sliced me into halves. He leans on it craving some big reveal where I finally bleed for him. It’s his addiction, his fixation. Calls me the magician. He thinks I keep the world in my hat, hidden away from him, my little secret Eden. He thinks he should trust me when I cut him in half. He says “That’s what you do. It’s what you’re good at.” and it cuts me in half. He looks pained when I laugh. He hopes my affection will last This time. Never does. False affection is like barbed wire. No matter how much you cling to it, you’re not getting over that fence. He cuts himself on my spikes to impress me creates analogies and equivalences like he’s comparing dick size in the locker room. Like he has what was fucked out of me on a bedroom floor, too drugged to stand. I resent that he bleeds himself like he’s been abused. Desperate for me to bleed with him.
Reading into the heavy breathing, Feigned passion lost in translation-- interpreted as love made possible He knows I’ll never love anyone the way I love Euphoria, The way I love my private pain. I sent a message that said I’m sorry I’m bad company, that I can’t give you what I need, (slip of the tongue but said with urgency, lost upon the static sea.) He was crying in the stairwell, begging for what I wouldn’t give: Safe passage, soft kisses, or just leaving the porch light on. He says “They’re shaking again.” He sobs “Your hands.” White as cocaine, soft as Codeine.
C.T. Schram is a writer from the suburbs of Washington, DC. She is currently studying and travelling as much as she can. The next time you hear from her, her bio may or may not have more details than this one, but that's part of her charm.
S.R. Buckley Separation or Death The wheel of the car scuffed a broken cinderblock on the final approach, but other than that the journey in had been an entirely smooth one. One barely heard or felt anything on the backseat anyway: the seats were molasses-thick with leather and foam and the eight cylinders made an unbroken hum. The driver had been doing this for so long that the engine never strained or chugged, as far as Edwin (Ed to friends, Mr. Forester to associates) could tell. If not for slightest grind of rubber on broken concrete, Edwin might never have discerned his own arrival; the glass in the windows was so tinted as to only allow the thinnest image through, and he was fixated upon filing through restaurant reviews on the glowing touch-screen in his hands. Deciding that they had stopped, he set the screen in its sleeve and left it on the seat next to him, before giving his jacket a little tug to smooth out the most obvious kinks. Then, the driver disembarked, strolled back down the side of the car, and opened the door for Edwin. Edwin’s shoes fell on the familiar, uneven mix of hardened mud and broken stone. The ground here was like frozen soup, carrying around twisted metal, brown with rust, bricks, crushed pipes, cans and cookers. The almost-flattened area extended around half a mile in every direction, forming a kind of rectangular break in the piled rows of terraced streets. At intervals here a section of wall still stood, plaster pared back between the smoothed red bricks, or the grey cinderblock fragments of dead factories, with twisted, blackened metal remnants of machines or corrugated roofs. Edwin cast only the briefest glance around, and noticed nothing of interest, bar a few yellow-green shoots poking through the dry earth. The metal fence, topped with curls of razor wire, was going brown with rust. ‘We’ll have to be nice and steady on coming out again,’ Edwin remarked to the driver. ‘Plenty of fragments and protrusions around here. Don’t want to catch the car.’
Edwin looked around at the car: the huge bonnet protruding forwards, with a smiling bared-teeth chrome grille, chrome finishings on door-handles, etcetera, still immaculate, metallic blue paintwork. Good gleam to it, still. But, yes, he was getting rather bored of it already. He’d always thought of there being a kind of spirituality to cars; perhaps one felt it more readily with cheaper cars, or things not run with computers. Perhaps one needed to feel control slipping away at speed—perhaps the spirituality was there. Edwin strolled across the desert, glancing over at the glittering glass towers in one direction and the emerging truss and steel towers in the other, sprouting up around the scuffed brick streets, hemming them in, eating them up. As he wandered over to the little cabin-box onsite to talk through the dropping of the foundations with the manager, he remembered Catherine. There was a slight chill in him; he was feeling his heart again, behind his breastplate. Calm down. Slow down. What was he afraid of now? Why was the heart going so fast? It was always fast. That couldn’t be good. * Where was he meeting Catherine again? Oh yes. One of the chain coffee bars in the nicer quarter. Conservation area: the only low-rise section left before the suburbs. How long had it been? ‘Careful now, on the way out,’ Edwin said to the driver. ‘Careful. See. Lots of broken glass.’ Mr. White, his driver since June of two years ago, obliged: there was nothing to signify the leaving of the wasteland bar a transition from mild rocking to smoothness. One could not even hear the wire gates trundling shut behind them; they were already down the road, silent, past dead houses, dead shops, falling in rooftops, bricks and glass gathered at the pavements. On one corner was a dead church of corrugated iron, the roof fallen inwards in sheets and rafters onto the pews. It was just visible through the black window, and Edwin constructed the rest of the image from memory. Catherine. Why on earth had she suggested this meeting? How long, after all, had it been? A year? A year and a half? He’d always thought of people as lost after over a year without contact. Lost
perhaps gladly. Surely there was no use in stretching things like this, of propping up faded signs. Edwin thought of the streetlamps that still came on in the empty parts of town: how when the streetlamps began to die, they’d cycle: flicker on, die, then flicker on again—and again, and again, and again. Who’d call that forever? Catherine would. As town drew into view, he checked his heart again. It was still fast. He knew Catherine would mock him about the car—the suit was bad enough—so he had Mr. White drop the car a street or two up. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a ring when I need you again.’ He looked down, straightened his jacket again. We thought of loosening his tie. Amazing: the paving slabs were now completely even, and in places they looked as if they had been sanded. Placed at prime intervals were trees sitting in cast-iron grating circles. God, it was perfect. Perhaps he’d have to update the plans. But was it too late? Why did it have to be too late? The planners wouldn’t allow it—they’d scupper him. They’d scupper themselves. They’d go off the cliff, lemmings driving Rolls-Royces, with him in the backseat giving screaming directions. Why? Why? It was paving, paving. But it was essential. They’d have to listen to him. Thud-thud-thud. He had to calm down. Thud-thud-thud. Too fast. Calm down. Slow down. He shook it off, checking his pulse with a palm on his breastplate, and strolled into the coffee shop. Oh God; people everywhere. Disgusting: young couples hunched over laptops, tinny grate screaming from headphones and ear-buds, awful quasi-murals on the walls suggesting a parody of individuality. ‘Ed,’ Catherine said. Table alone, desultorily stirring a foam-crowned coffee. ‘Cat,’ Edwin said, shuffling down. ‘Gosh, it’s been a long time, hasn’t it?’ ‘It has,’ Catherine smiled. ‘That’s quite a suit...’
‘Oh, heh, this? It’s, uh, work. You know.’ ‘You love wearing suits. Don’t deny it.’ ‘Well, I...why not?’ Catherine shrugged, arranging her oversized jumper around her. ‘Are you going to have anything?’ Catherine said. ‘It’s hideously overpriced, but I think you can get a sprinkling of marshmallows with one of the five-quid shots.’ ‘Oh, huh, well. I’ll head up in a moment. My heart’s going as it is.’ ‘It always was fast.’ ‘Yes. Maybe it’s the work.’ ‘Or you think too much. What work are you doing at the moment any way?’ ‘Oh, well, uh, the Paradise Avenue development.’ ‘Oh dear, that hideous monstrosity?’ ‘Well,’ Edwin said. ‘I wouldn’t...well...’ ‘Relax,’ Catherine smiled. ‘I don’t even know what that is.’ ‘It’s a hideous monstrosity,’ Edwin smiled, and Catherine politely laughed. ‘Don’t tell me it’s another high-rise,’ Catherine said. ‘It feels like the entire city is going upwards.’ ‘I’m afraid so. “City in the sky”—that was the vision.’ ‘Whose vision?’ ‘I don’t know. Somebody’s vision.’ Catherine arches an eyebrow. ‘Do order something, Ed. You’re making me feel guilty.’ ‘Oh, uh, yes. Yes, okay. Of course...’ Thud thud thud thud thud It took minutes to get a drink. ‘Oh good,’ Catherine said. ‘You got marshmallows.’ She promptly plucks a few from his cup, offering him a smile before dropping them in her own drink.
‘So,’ Catherine said. ‘How have you been keeping?’ How had he been keeping? What a question. Oh dear. Oh deary, dreary dear, what a question. How did she think? Strapped to a treadmill, fixed as a piece of fabric passing through a sewing machine: thud, thud, thud. Up at six, when the world is as icy cold as a dead world. How had he been keeping? Into the dead world where street upon street lies dark, where the frost lies thick on the dead earth, where the men are twisted outcroppings of metal and rock. How had he been keeping? A twitching armoured leg, hacked from a dying centipede, going and going with diminishing pulses: thud thud thud. Setting out blue lined plans, ploughing down homes, tearing up yellowed grass...how had he been? ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Certainly can’t complain. How about you? Did you get that teaching job in London in the end?’ Her eyes dropped. ‘No, not in the end.’ ‘That’s a terrible shame. You deserved it. Well, maybe next time.’ ‘Next time,’ Catherine said. ‘Well, that’s one way of looking at it. You know recruitment’s frozen, Ed. You know how it is. But then, well...you’re private sector. You’re one of the ones doing well out of this, aren’t you?’ ‘How’d you mean, doing well out of this?’ Catherine arched an eyebrow. The gesture was less friendly this time, he thought. ‘Well,’ Edwin said. ‘Alright. But then, I suppose...’ ‘You didn’t follow your dreams,’ Catherine said. ‘Did you...? I don’t remember. Didn’t you want to be a poet?’ ‘A poet? I’ve not the foggiest.’ ‘Yes you have. It wasn’t even that long ago. I remember. You wanted to be a poet. Like, a great poet...yeah, and be the voice of the world...’ ‘It was a long time ago.’
‘I think you also wanted to be an actor...but yeah, the poet thing! You weren’t even bad. I liked some of your stuff.’ ‘Really? God. I think I might even have the manuscripts somewhere.’ ‘They were good.’ ‘Well, thank you. I kind of left all that behind, though. I mean, I’m just so busy, these days.’ ‘Do you actually enjoy it, Ed, really?’ ‘Well, uh, I suppose. It’s...well...seeing your visions go up...’ ‘You wanted to be an artist! And an actor, and...oh yeah, a volcanologist! You could have been a travelling acting volcanologist poet! I mean, you can’t really support all this...can you...? Ed...?’ ‘I’m still a poet,’ Edwin smiled. ‘What...? Oh, you still write...?’ ‘Well, no. But it’s...well. I’m working on a big project. With some big messages behind it. it’s not conventional, really. It’s quite experimental.’ ‘What, like, free verse?’ ‘Free verse isn’t even experimental anymore...’ ‘Oh God, sorry...’ ‘No, I didn’t mean it like that. But free verse...has been done. My work is, well, wordless. It’s like an art installation.’ ‘What do you mean, Ed? You planning on putting a big sculpture in the middle of that new estate?’ ‘No, Cat...you see, the estate...well, the site...is the installation. That’s my poem.’ ‘What...? Ed. Oh come on.’ ‘But really,’ Edwin said, the drum beating behind his eyes, ‘isn’t it the greatest poem of all? I mean, what an epic. What did Burke say about the sublime...?’ ‘I...I don’t remember, Ed...’
‘Well,’ Edwin said, half-laughing. ‘Seeing row after row of those pretty red houses go down, gone to dust...fear in a handful of dust, haha! That’s something, isn’t it? Horrible, but sort of seductive. Like tornadoes, or volcanoes, or burning forests all aglow, or...or landmarks getting zapped by alien spaceships.’ ‘Erm. Well. Okay...’ ‘There’s even a message behind it all. Heck, there are loads of messages behind it. The falling away of the old, a parody of infinity, or something...the dying of tradition, the death of beauty. I saw a bulldozer crushing a garden gnome—pop! A pond filled in with rubble and dead weeds, the flora in it gone mad because of some chemical run off. Dead churches, blank streets...the dead desert. That, Cat, that’s poetry. And I’m the poet.’ He caught his breath. Thud, thud, thud, thud... For a long time, Catherine was staring at him; a couple of others were glancing over at him. ‘God,’ she said. ‘You’re like a dog with a bone, aren’t you? And...oh come on. This is biggest load of bollocks...’ ‘All poetry’s bollocks! All art’s bollocks. And this is my little masterpiece. That site. The whole dead quarter. It doesn’t even need a name...and it isn’t even static. It’ll carry on being art...the towers are just another stage, like another movement in the symphony, and then...haha...one day, it’ll go back to being the desert again. I have a name, now! “Infinity”. Yeah. Call it irony.’ Catherine shook her head, and there was a long pause. ‘“Infinity,”’ Catherine said. ‘That’s a bit old hat, isn’t it?’ ‘Well...’ ‘A bit namby-pamby. Come on, Ed. You’ve blown up half the town, and you’re gonna give it a fluffy title like “Infinity”? Really?’ ‘Well, I think it’s a suitable title...’
‘Yes, but it isn’t a good title. And you don’t know irony from a hole in the ground. What about, I don’t know. “Urban Renewal”?’ ‘But it’s about more than that. It’s about...’ ‘Yes, I know. You did say. You really did. Okay.’ ‘Alright, then, fine. “The Possibility of New Life”.’ A pause, then Catherine couldn’t contain her laughter. ‘Oh, Ed. Oh dear. You should start freezing sharks in tanks, or something. This is fabulous.’ Thud thud thud ‘Well then fine! I won’t give it a title.’ ‘That’s just a cop-out.’ ‘Whu—no. No, it isn’t. It’s bold.’ ‘It’s a cop-out. A total, unforgivable cop out. Come on. How many streets did you demolish? How many homes?’ ‘Twenty streets...about three hundred terraced homes.’ ‘Wow. You definitely can’t leave it untitled, then. Not after all that. Wait, what’s the name of the main road there, again?’ ‘Paradise Avenue.’ ‘Well, there you go...that sounds great.’ ‘Really...?’ ‘Yes. It’s the name linking old and new. Plus the name becomes ironic. And it’s the only stable element.’ There was a pause, and then Catherine sipped her coffee. ‘It’s a perfect title,’ Catherine said. ‘You can’t deny it.’ ‘Fine. “Paradise Avenue” it is, then.’ ‘Oh, Ed. I missed our discussions about art.’
In the street something was dropped and a crash echoed through the air like a gunshot, or the charges they used to blow apart the bricks of those pretty old houses. Edwin started, glanced over at the street-facing window. (Thud thud thud thud) Were people looking at him? He suddenly felt ridiculous. ‘We had a lot of protest groups, you know. A lot. There were whole citizen’s associations standing up.’ ‘Well, I suppose there were bound to be.’ ‘Mmm. There were. But it always does come as something of a shock to the system. I never thought I’d be the baddie in the end.’ ‘Well, you chose it, Ed...I’m not judging you, but you did choose it. And sometimes stuff just...well, happens.’ ‘It does.’ Time had slipped past. At half-past they’d want him back onsite, in the office. What was it now? Thirteen-past. ‘Oh dear,’ he said, but Catherine didn’t seem to have heard him. She was on her smartphone. ‘Well,’ Edwin said. ‘I thought you hated flashy phones.’ ‘I do. David bought it for me...he’s just texting me now...’ She was smiling at whatever David had sent. Who the hell was David? There was a chill feeling in his chest. Something was deflated. Thud thud thud thud thud...Ed nodded. ‘Oh,’ Catherine said. ‘He’s such a fool. Makes me laugh.’ ‘Does he.’ ‘Oh, Ed, you’d love him. Really.’ Who was David? Had she mentioned him before, ever? Oh, maybe. When did they last meet? ‘I’m afraid I’ve got to be getting back to the office, Cat,’ Edwin said. Catherine’s eyes flicked to him from the phone, and the pupil’s widened a tad, expanding into striking blue.
‘Of course, yes,’ Catherine said. ‘You have. Okay, darling...’ Edwin finished his coffee and she stood up to hug him before he went, before sitting down and carrying on texting. Edwin gave her a final look—talking on the phone, now—and then was out. It was an odd feeling: the street looked dowdier and somehow more threatening. The whole city seemed unfamiliar. He was seeing the faces of the old residents’ association, all contorted and deformed with righteous fury, waving things at him, throwing him gestures. He kept going with the thudding waiting and following. Even here the old bricks were cracked and worn, the plaster receding like unhealthy gums, the manicured pavements offset by townhouses that had never meant to stand for so long. The international corporations were beginning to muscle their way in now: how the younger him would have gasped and yelled! The stench of burnt petrol still hummed through the air here, rolling from district to district like gathered foam: you really didn’t escape it, he surmised, whether it was corporations or chemicals or modernity. It was just the way of things: war, deconstruction, reconstruction, re-deconstruction. When the archaeologists looked at the post-industrial soil layer, national decline would be measured by an inching-in of old natural life, perhaps, and his own masterwork as a cold grey cement-stripe. Once back into the back of his car the sound, sight, smell of the place all stopped—but the odd feeling did not. He ordered Mr. White to take him back to the wasteland. Sinking into a flat-smelling white leather pillow, he found a little plastic bottle of red wine in the mini bar and poured himself out a measure. The ride was too smooth for any to spill, which was good: even though the trousers and the jacket (Dior) were black, it wouldn’t do. The stain would still be there, even if it didn’t stand out against the black. And if a spot hit the shirt (Vuitton)...well, a minor apocalypse. Glancing to the window, he found that the tinted glass only let in scant images: a family with young kids, headed for the nicer part of town or a car or an ice cream van (who knew?), then street after street of dead, grille-eyed houses, and great leering towers rising out against the sky. Then the wasteland drew in again.
The wheel of the car scuffed a broken cinderblock on the final approach, but other than that the journey in had been an entirely smooth one. It was amazing how little one heard in this seat. The driver made certain of utter smoothness, either way. Always had done, and likely would continue as per. Now here was something: he had never finishing a bottle of wine, even a tiny glass-and-a-half bottle like this, so quickly. The depressant fell upon the caffeine like water upon molten rock, and the thudding could be discerned tolling at a slower pace, perhaps. He waited, as per, for Mr. White to open the door and let him out. He spent the rest of the day hunched over his desk, listening to the unfiltered wind whistle and rattle around the little building. Cold jets found their ways into the room through breaks and gaps. It should have made him feel like a prospector or and frontiersman; it didn’t. What was it he’d thought of adding to the plans? He couldn’t remember for the life of him. And as he finished working the sun cast a descending golden glare across the faces of new looming towers, and blinked out in dying embers across the waiting car. Mr. White stood aside, cigarette smoke glinting in the light, breath defined in silver against the cold. Funny, Edwin thought: these jackets didn’t keep out the cold. Mr. White panicked and made to throw his cigarette away as Edwin approached. ‘Don’t worry,’ Edwin said. ‘Don’t worry at all. I’ll just wait in the car.’ ‘Sir? No, it’s not a problem...’ ‘No, please, Mr. White, not on my account. I might look up what films are on.’ ‘Sir...thank you, sir...’ Mr. White carried on with his cigarette, eliminated by the tinted glass. Not a curl of cigarette smell made its way in: the air in here was utterly deadened. The tablet computer lay still sheathed; he left it where it lay. After a short while he dimly heard Mr. White embark and the car went off with a tiny hum. *
Out late; full dark. The rain seethed down and brought up great clouds of spray. The drainage systems couldn’t handle it, and little fountains formed around the submerged gratings. Through the tinted glass, nothing could be seen but isolated spheres and shears of light. Multiplying towers stood in states of undress, straddling the streets. The lights changed and they slowed up into a long queue; Edwin turned up the air-conditioning. Then, blasted out against the dark glass, was light. A little fast-food place sat on the corner now, neatly and easily at home where the dead church had sat before, all aglow and— Catherine was there. It was uncanny: the lights were projecting the image straight into the car. She was laughing with a friend—David, maybe—sat perched upon a stool, leaning across the table. It had to have been months, perhaps a year. She’d never got back to him. She looked different.
S.R. Buckley divides his time between Liverpool and Leicester, England. In between studying and working he writes, sketches and acquires hordes of books and music. He has had work published in several magazines, and expects work to be published in the Eunoia Review and Smashed Cat Magazine this autumn.
Tayler Heuston Love Like Light
They were gone for a while – out by the lake, watching children chase each other across the grass and around the crowds of geese who pressed against couples on blankets until flustered young men tossed half-eaten sandwiches their way. Sarah stood apart, laughing, slapping her hands against her thighs through the thin material of a pale blue cotton dress spangled with jasmine. Her laugh was a booming thing, which people thought was strange because she was so small – maybe no more than five feet and three inches, weighing about a hundred pounds. Ethan, who was tall with thick, tan limbs, wrapped his arms around her sun-warmed shoulders and kissed her. His dark head pressed next to her blond one, both crowned with a ring of light from the sun. If you ask people, they would say the grass was green that day. A vivid sort of green in the afternoon sun—a color you don’t forget. The ducks preened themselves in the shade stretching over the muddy banks where the clear water was murky. A brown mallard waddled through the bright grass near the ankles of two lovers who held each other recklessly. When Sarah and Ethan walked into the house, kissing firmly as the door closed, they only had eyes for each other. Maybe that’s what really made John do it. Sarah was a woman made of light. And when the couple walked through the door Sarah’s light was shining for Ethan – unmistakably, unapologetically. Ethan was not expecting John to be there waiting. “A man has pride,” he’d said to us over dinner at a small tapas restaurant with poor lighting and ironically large portions, “a man knows when to move on.” His lack of concern seemed reasonable. Months had passed, locks changed once and then again when the cat went missing, a new kitten adopted, boxes moved in to replace the boxes moved out.
Sarah was surprised to see John and maybe even a little relieved. “I’ve been expecting you,” she said. She was always so cool. She might have smoothed her dress and offered him a drink, then poured two fingers of scotch and handed it over in her imperious manner – California’s answer to Katherine Hepburn, a woman who could also spread her thin-bodied presence through a room. But John had already disengaged the safety. He had waited there all afternoon, considering his purpose; wiping sweaty palms over his buttoned denim shirt with the loose tail that always seemed to come un-tucked even when he held still. Sarah took four shots; one to the face – her strong-boned, open face – then bled a mess onto the carpet. Ethan was hit in the chest, the bullet nicked his lung and he drowned in his own blood, which then spilled out onto the carpet and spread towards Sarah’s puddle. They left deep stains in a wheatcolored carpet that couldn’t be lifted. John only needed the one bullet, though he had brought extra – left them stacked neatly on the kitchen table surrounded by the smell of ashes – the pictures and the his and hers bathroom towels he set on fire and dropped in the kitchen sink to burn while he waited. The kitchen will be aired out then repainted, but people will always wonder if someone was careless and left the oven running. The relator will also have hardwood floors installed before selling the house to a young couple. The wife will take coats and usher her friends across that floor. The husband will clap shoulders, spill drinks, and make bad jokes about lawyers over that floor. Their first baby will play there, then the second and third. And when the kids are at his mother’s house, they will make love there. She’ll cry loudly in his ears. They will come together, naked on that floor. The house is only a box for the small lives it contains. Seasons change. Light moves through the windows. The walls are repainted. The floors are redone. The newspaper didn’t say where Sarah, Ethan, and John were in the house or how they looked when they were found. The article was a collage of useless words: history of violence, homicide, suicide.
The sum of a lifetime of being loved and loving others can be found in three columns of black letters, and then the most important things get left out. But I know Sarah would have reached for Ethan – she would have died with her hand in his. I put the paper down and wait for Peter to come home. The funeral is tomorrow. We will sit in a sea of stiff and dark people. We will wait for the service to end before hugging her parents who will be as thin and drawn as they have ever been in their lives. And I will wait on the church steps while Peter brings the car around. I will feel the warmth of the sun on my shoulders. Children will run around the sidewalks, chasing each other and picking daisies from planter boxes; their parents too tired to scold. Sour cherries will swell on the branches of the trees that line the sidewalk. The sun will be in the middle of the sky. A vivid, blue burning sky. It will be the early afternoon – everything will be bright.
Tayler Heuston, California native, lives in Santa Barbara where she spends much of her time reading The Habit of Being and falling in love with Flannery O’Connor. Her favorite activities include drinking cucumber gin rickeys, spending too much money on Anthropologie dresses, and studying Literature at UCSB in the College of Creative Studies. After graduation Tayler hopes to live in Savannah and raise a whimsically named small (but sturdy) dog. Her work has appeared on the RiverLit Literary Journal website.
James P. Reynolds The New Guy
The tired-eyed group home manager snapped at me: "Here's a list. Take them grocery shopping. And whatever you do, keep them apart." Then he passed me a handwritten loose-leaf sheet with the heading Grocery Shopping Task Analysis. Eyes firmly on the floor, he rattled off a bunch more information before disappearing into a back bedroom and swinging the door shut.
It was one of my early days as a community support worker and I was working my first shift with two guys who had quickly earned themselves a reputation for churning through staff. Any doubts I had about the validity of the horror stories evaporated when I was told that there was no time for my orientation, because the person who was supposed to train me left without notice over a week ago.
I heard on the way to the group home that Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini had just sentenced Salman Rushdie to death, and it was beginning to feel like this was my sentence; for what though, I didnâ€™t know.
Following the deceptively basic instructions on the Task Analysis, I wrestled the two men into their coats and backpacks. I made sure they had their wallets, empty but for laminated emergency information cards. I grabbed the van keys, sighed, and off to Safeway we went.
I had to stop the 10 passenger handyVan after a few blocks to move Thelonious from the front to the very back seat, because he kept pulling the shift lever into neutral as I was trying to maneuver through
lunch hour traffic. He wore oversized headphones attached to an old-fashioned cassette player. If anything, the headphones made the angry web of scars around each ear even more disconcerting.
I could still hear the tinny, discordant jazz all the way from the back seat.
We started on the far side of the store in the fruits and vegetables aisle. It took a while, but I finally convinced Johnny that it might be a hoot to fill a bag with oranges, as long as I held the bag open and encouraged him wholeheartedly for each and every orange. According to the Task Analysis this is called partial participation. Johnny could only manage one orange at a time, however, because in his left hand he carried a mesh onion bag with a golf ball, a few crumpled pages of a department store catalogue and part of a toque in it - an abused pom-pom attached to an unraveling scrap of wool. I learned while struggling with his coat that there was hell to pay if I tried to make him let go of his odd assortment of treasures for more than about five seconds.
That level of encouragement took all the energy and attention I could muster, and Thelonious took the opportunity to vanish. He reappeared soon enough, all the way at the back of the store by the dairy case. I watched him (in what seemed like slow motion) as he crept up behind a lady wearing a walkman, who was bent over at a ninety degree angle, popping open one egg carton after another along the bottom row.
Thelonious crept up, swung his arm back like a master bowler, and then goosed her as I am sure she has never been goosed before. She let out a sustained shriek and I panicked. I left Johnny alone holding the bag of oranges and ran back to unfasten Thelonious' fingers from the crotch of the stricken egg lady. For a small guy with tiny hands, though, it proved impossible to detach him from her nether region. For one thing, as I would pry one of his surprisingly powerful fingers free and move on to the next, the first
finger found its way back, deep into the folds of her, well, you know. For another, I really did not want to touch her there myself. After a few tries, my frustration grew crippling. The crazy jazz sizzling through Thelonious' headphones was not helping the situation at all, but even with my limited experience I knew better than to start another battle with him while the first one was still raging.
I finally managed to set the egg lady free. I had to give up on being gentle, because I heard an unsettling cry from up near the check-outs, a cry that ended almost as soon as it began, and Johnny was no longer in sight. So, apologizing profusely, I wrenched Thelonious' hand free and dragged him with me back down the vegetable aisle.
Of course, Johnny had dropped the bag of oranges, and he stomped on at least one of them before moving on.
We followed pulpy orange juice footprints for a few steps. I could now see that up near the front of the store, a white haired old lady lay unconscious. Yikes! She was stretched out cold on the polished linoleum in an expanding pool of what could only be urine, and Johnny was sitting up near her head pinching her left earlobe so tightly that his nail beds where glowing white. He may never have had so much fun in his entire life - and having just come out of thirty years in the Institution, that probably was the sad truth.
Somewhere between the abandoned oranges and the place where Johnny was sitting on the floor, laughing maniacally, I stood holding Thelonious by the wrist. With his free hand, Thelonious began punching himself in the throat, hard. That’s the first time I noticed the thick red callous on his neck. I started wondering how I could possibly keep ahold of both of Thelonious’ hands while simultaneously loosening Johnny's death-grip on the prostrate old woman’s ear. And then a thought crossed my mind.
The thought turned into a mission. I mean, come on, what else could I do, given the circumstances?
I looked back. Although I could hear her raging voice coming from somewhere, the egg lady was thankfully nowhere to be seen. The people I could see were, no surprise, focused on Johnny.
So I let Thelonious go. I just let him go. He stopped hitting himself immediately, and then he started to laugh, too. But his was such a hollow and sorrowful laugh that it triggered a wave of heat behind my eyes. I had to keep blinking to be able to see clearly.
I left Thelonious where he was and cut back and across to another aisle, and then another and another. I felt sad and guilty as I moved forward and through an unmanned checkout, well away from the fracas, just as the store manager speed-walked past. I stepped on the rubber mat and the double doors shushed open. The group home van was right there front and centre in the lone handicapped spot, the parking pass dangling from the rear-view mirror. I realized I still had the keys in my pocket, but there was no way I was going back in, so I sauntered past the van as nonchalantly as I could and tossed the keys through the open vent window onto the dashboard.
As you can well imagine, I never went back to that job, and although I had taken two semesters in a Resident Care Aide program at community college, I never took another job in the field. I actually ended up working, of all places, at Safeway, as a cashier. Of course not that Safeway.
James P. Reynolds lives in Vancouver, British Columbia with his partner and a couple of bossy cats. He has written two works of disability rights literature, both published by Spectrum Press. James loves to read and collect modern literary fiction, and he hosts a book collecting website at www.jamespreynolds.com. He has been writing fiction for many years now, but only recently started sharing it with the outside world. The New Guy is James' second work of fiction to be published in Crack the Spine.
Gregory Zorko Iberian
Come and see these Iberian women with their two hearts. They grow like twin mum flowers, their feet are lightly raised, their steps soft and permanent. These dark haired impossible women, twisting their necks like burnt canaries. In Badajoz they march through the streets in hundreds, as if they do not even exist.
Gregory Zorko Yemen
The succulent elbow of Yemen is somehow mispronouncing my name. My gourd shaped name, which is made from snow and the breath of all-white cows. She has raised syllables from lightning-shaped sand, and thrown her voice with dead misplaced gulls.
Gregory Zorko is a poet and history student. He recently graduated from Plattsburgh State University. He likes to travel when he can and enjoys studying foreign languages. He loves Lorca, Joyce, The Quran, and Khlebnikov.
Dave Elsensohn Theologicoustics
I discovered a religion. It involves headphones, especially puffy ones that cover the ear. People don't realize that the air circulating inside headphones, between ear and cartilage and plastic, through tiny holes meant to guide sound, contains messages from Heaven. People play loud sounds in their headphones, slouching in cubicles, lurching on buses, and the messages are lost. You must sit and absorb what the headphones have to say, like a conch shell, except that conch echoes are so booming that they drown out Truth. This is why mollusks are not enlightened. Just headphones, and air.
Dave Elsensohn has been a sales representative for a toy store, a plumber's apprentice, a web designer, a Flash engineer, a spotlight operator, a pizza maker, and a student, but enjoys coaxing language into pleasing arrangements more than any of these. He does make fairly good sandwiches, however, and his chili recipe gets appreciative nods from his friends. He lives with an astoundingly inspirational wife and a curmudgeonly black cat.
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